“First Read” is a daily memo prepared by NBC News’ political unit, for NBC News, analyzing the morning’s political news. Please let us know what you think. Drop us a note at FirstRead@MSNBC.com.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004| 9:30 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (34 days until Election Day)
As the two debaters make their way to Florida, you can bank on the following:

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A detailed Bush campaign response to Kerry's GMA interview is coming, and it will include a response to Kerry's protracted answer to whether or not the war has been worth it.  For now, they note that although Kerry seemed to attribute his unfortunate remark about voting for/against the $87 billion to being tired late in the evening, Kerry made the comment in a noontime speech.  In fact, the email they sent us is entitled "Perhaps His Watch Was On Paris Time?"

The Kerry campaign is figuring out how to work the price of oil into the dialogue tomorrow night.

Both Bush and Kerry have changed positions on some foreign policy and homeland security issues, and each will do his best to make the other wear it, although the groundwork for flip-flopping charges against Kerry has been far better laid.

Both President Bush and Kerry are strong debaters in their respective ways. 

Both Bush and Kerry are ready to talk about how Kerry served heroically in Vietnam.  (Which candidate will say it first?)

The media will walk away from the debate having formed a range of impressions, and the viewing public will walk away from the debate having formed a range of impressions, and there will be only partial overlap.

The race in soggy Florida is probably about tied, and both campaigns feel good about their chances there. 

While Nader may now be off the ballot in Ohio, Oregon and Wisconsin, he's on it in Florida -- and will be around tomorrow night.

And, new NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling data on the candidates and the debates is due out at 6:30 pm tonight.

What we'll see of Bush and Kerry today: The President will stop in Lake Wales, FL around 3:15 pm to view damage from Hurricane Ivan en route to Miami.  And MSNBC's Felix Schein says we'll get two shots at Kerry footage with his departure from Madison, currently scheduled for around 4:00 pm, and his arrival in Miami.  Schein notes that nothing new is expected prior to Kerry's departure from Wisconsin, which seems a little odd since a large part of his reason for prepping in the state was to get local media coverage.

Also today, further building up to the debate, Edwards holds a national security-themed town hall in Weirton, WV.  The Kerry campaign holds its debate preview press conference call at 12:30 pm.  The Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee seem to have new TV ads.  The DNC's airs in Florida and focuses on Iraq.

The families of three US soldiers killed in Iraq will hold a news conference at 12 noon at the National Press Club to roll out some new TV ads and offer "questions they want the media to ask of President Bush concerning his decisions around the war," per the release.

And Vice President Cheney does a roundtable in Lake Elmo, MN at 9:00 am and a town hall in Duluth at 11:40 am. 

Today's stops
The Ledger previews Bush's stop in Lake Wales today.  Yet with the candidates prepping for most of today, it's up to the running-mates to do the campaigning.  Cheney spends the day in Minnesota with stops in Lake Elmo and Duluth.  The North Star State's unemployment rose to 4.8% in August, up from July's 4.4%.  Al Gore won Minnesota's 10 electoral votes 48% to 45.5% in 2000.  The Duluth Superior says that while Cheney will stop there today, they haven't seen or heard from Kerry in 89 days.

Edwards spends time in West Virginia before heading back to DC.  Bush won the state 52% to 45.5% four years ago.  West
Virginia's unemployment rose from 5.2% in July, to 5.5% in August.

And Nader gives a speech and does a book-signing in Tampa tonight.  Florida's unemployment remained steady through July and August at 4.5%.

A note on campaign stops in general: USA Today reports, "Cleveland plans to bill the campaigns... this week more than $270,000 for security and other costs from nine campaign visits in six months.  The city doesn't expect to get paid but wants to make a point...  At least eight cities have billed the campaigns for security and other costs.  Only one has gotten paid."  And the paper, clearly making a cause of this storyline today, also focuses on residents of tiny Cloquet, MN now wondering whether that Kerry stop was worth it:.

Build-up to Miami: National and Homeland Security
Just in time for the debate, the Washington Post front-pages: "A growing number of career professionals within national security agencies believe that the situation in Iraq is much worse, and the path to success much more tenuous, than is being expressed in public by top Bush administration officials, according to former and current government officials and assessments over the past year by intelligence officials..."

On Iraq, the Los Angeles Times notes the candidates' "parallel offensives have created an unusual situation in which both candidates appear on the defensive over the same issue as they prepare for their first debate."

"So far, the doubts about Kerry are trumping the doubts about Bush.  Despite the growing anxiety about events in Iraq, Bush holds a solid lead over Kerry in almost all recent surveys when voters are asked which candidate they trust to handle the conflict from here on...  That dynamic suggests that a critical question in Thursday's debate will be whether Kerry can restore enough confidence in his leadership ability on Iraq to benefit from the lingering doubt over Bush's policies there."

"Many analysts think few voters outside of Bush's base will respond to charges that Kerry's criticism is undermining the war effort...  More damaging for Kerry, analysts on both sides agree, has been the impression that he has shifted positions on Iraq."

On that note, the Washington Post offers this: "Kerry and his supporters are adopting President Bush's strategy of playing on the public's security fears and sometimes using incendiary charges to stoke them.  The Post says the charges have come "sometimes without evidence" and that two top Kerry advisors concede the strategy is "high risk."  "Some Democrats worry that Kerry could inadvertently help Bush by spooking voters about dangers ahead...  Recent public polls suggest Kerry's strategy so far has not changed the dynamics of the race."

"A senior Kerry adviser said the only way Bush can be defeated is if Democrats win, or neutralize, the debate on Iraq by playing up chaos and casualties there and convince voters the war undermined the hunt for bin Laden and other terrorists.  The adviser said Kerry will make the argument the central theme of tomorrow's debate..."

"To be sure, Bush has spent more time and money trying to convince voters his opponent cannot be trusted to keep the country safe in troubled times, sometimes slicing and dicing the Democratic nominee's words to create a false impression of Kerry's positions, analysts say."

The Washington Times says that "although public concerns about the United States getting bogged down in Iraq might be on the rise, the Bush campaign is convinced that Mr. Kerry's shifting positions on the war will neutralize the issue.  Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said yesterday the president will pound that message home at tomorrow night's presidential debate...  Both campaigns find support in the polls."

The paper also says that on the Bush campaign's debate preview call yesterday, Ken Mehlman "accused Sen. John Kerry's campaign of parroting the rhetoric of terrorists, signaling a new level of aggressiveness...  In particular, Mr. Mehlman said terrorists listened when Mr. Kerry disparaged Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi...  Mr. Mehlman yesterday was unapologetic about rhetorically linking the Kerry campaign with terrorists who have killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq.  It was not clear whether Mr. Bush planned to go that far in the debate."

The Washington Post also lays out where the presidential candidates agree on Iraq: "for all their squabbling..., both... actually share a common commitment to Iraq -- and have many of the same long-term goals.  They have both pledged to keep U.S. troops in Iraq for years, acknowledging that a modicum of stability is a prerequisite for leaving.  They have both identified rebuilding the Iraqi army as the key to an eventual exit strategy.  And they both accept U.S. responsibility in helping reconstruct the strategic oil-rich country."

"The main differences... are how they would achieve those goals and where Iraq fits into broader U.S. foreign policy.  The most fundamental difference, which in turn shapes all other aspects of their policies, is the context of the Iraq war...  The second major difference between the two candidates' proposals is in the role of the international community."

MSNBC's Priya David notes Cheney came out with slightly new attacks on Kerry yesterday, plus a defense of the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan: "Now, wars always carry a cost, and the highest cost of all is born by our servicemen and women and by their families...  Nearly 1,200 men and women on duty in Afghanistan and Iraq have made the ultimate sacrifice.  We grieve at the loss of every single life, and we will never forget these brave men and women.  We will honor them, and honor their memory by completing the mission...  As high as the cost of the war is now, it will be much higher if we do not confront this danger now.  And as high as the cost of this war is, it is the price we must pay if we want a safer and a more secure world for our children and grandchildren."

Of Kerry, Cheney said he "has given every indication that he lacks the conviction necessary to prevail in the war on terror...  In the present conflict, he has shown endless vacillation and indecision.  He makes repeated changes in direction, which seem to be in response to his own standing in the polls or his most recent campaign advisors.  His endless back and forth on Iraq sends a message of confusion and shows that he is not ready for the responsibilities of Commander-in-Chief."

Democrats countered Cheney with a Terry McAuliffe-led rally invoking Halliburton. -- AP

The Boston Globe recaps the second installment of Bush's O'Reilly interview in which Bush he was not "aware" of receiving any preferential treatment in the National Guard.

More Miami build-up
On Imus this morning, Edwards said tomorrow's debate is "important" but not "huge."  Edwards added the American public will be able to see for themselves what Bush has to say about the war in Iraq, and that the American people are not as "dumb and naive" as Bush thinks they are.  Also, perhaps previewing his own debate against Cheney, Edwards tried to paint the Vice President as a flip-flopper: He argued that in 1992, when Cheney was asked why the first Bush Administration didn't finish the job in Iraq, Cheney said that there was too much danger and risk in getting bogged down in Iraq.  Cheney, Edwards says, was "against getting bogged down in Iraq before he was for it."

Knight Ridder on how the debate could prove decisive: "If Bush reinforces his standing on the key issue of security, he could solidify or extend the slight lead he enjoys in several recent polls.  However, if Kerry convinces voters he has the better plan and steadier hands to safeguard the country, he could pull ahead."

"Bush and Kerry approach the debates mindful that they represent the last major chance to dramatically change the contours of the long campaign.  Four years ago, Bush entered the debates eight percentage points behind Gore.  When they were finished, Bush had an 11-point lead."

That said: "More than 9 out of 10 voters have made up their minds this year, so that makes that kind of large swing unlikely, unless either candidate does so poorly that he turns off his supporters.  Also, some voters in 26 states will have started voting before either man speaks Thursday evening, thanks to early voting or absentee ballots."

Howard Kurtz on the role of the post-debate debate: "Tens of millions of Americans will watch... and draw their own tentative conclusions as to who got the best of it.  But perceptions can shift as commentators, analysts and spinners chew things over and selected sound bites are endlessly replayed on television, creating 'moments' that may not have seemed particularly dramatic at the time."

"Voters tuning in... Thursday may be expecting a freewheeling give-and-take between the candidates, but the occasion will actually be one of the most carefully structured events of the campaign," the Los Angeles Times says of the 32-page agreement between the campaigns.

The Wall Street Journal points out that neither Bush nor Kerry "has lost a debate when it really counted."

The New York Times revisits Kerry's race against Bill Weld in 1996, when he used the debates to come back from behind to win.  "As Mr. Kerry approaches this campaign's home stretch, with the first debate tomorrow night, there is much in his past to suggest that he believes elections are won in the endgame, that he holds back on purpose...  It remains to be seen whether an approach that has worked in Mr. Kerry's liberal home state or with Democratic primary voters eager to anoint a consensus candidate will be effective in a national election, but Mr. Kerry has little choice but to perform at his peak now."

In a New York Times op-ed, Al Gore gives Kerry some advice: "be prepared for the toughest debates of your career.  While George Bush's campaign has made 'lowering expectations' into a high art form, the record is clear - he's a skilled debater who uses the format to his advantage...  And if anyone truly has 'low expectations' for an incumbent president, that in itself is an issue."

The New York Daily News: "Bush's aides believe he can win the 90-minute high-stakes Florida encounter simply by projecting a steady, calm demeanor and sticking to his script... 

Democratic strategists also say Kerry must capitalize on growing voter unrest over Iraq..."

MSNBC's Felix Schein observes that the Kerry campaign seems to be doing relatively little on their end to manage expectations.  Aides seem to accept the notion that Kerry needs to score tomorrow night, at least noticeably if not majorly. Where exactly that line is drawn hasn't been defined, but obviously they'd like to emerge having dinged the President's record on Iraq and the WOT while clarifying their own.

MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports that in an interview with the Pittsburgh ABC affiliate, Edwards said the following about Kerry and the debate: "I think John just needs to be himself.  When he's himself, people respond well to him."  Edwards also said the President got everything he wanted for the debates: "George Bush comes into this with a lot of built-in advantages, but I have a lot of confidence in John Kerry."

The Washington Post, in its debate set-up piece, reports, "One debate official said jokingly that the Bush campaign was so insistent about keeping the candidates in their designated spaces that organizers were 'thinking of using flares or building a campfire' to satisfy the GOP handlers.  Instead, the organizers will settle for strips of tape that are likely to be visible to television viewers, officials said."

The New York Post runs 400 words on Kerry's new bronze tan, and interviews a New York dermatologist who concludes that Kerry must have gotten a fake bake.

The Miami Herald on why the media will bother to descend on Miami for a debate they can't even get into watch: Spin Alley.

The politics of oil
The Wall Street Journal says of rising oil prices, "in the U.S., even if current prices don't trigger a full-fledged recession, there are signs that further energy price strain could convince companies to hold back on hiring, force municipal governments to raise commuter fees or cut back services, and lead consumers to pull back on discretionary spending.  Before the latest run-up in oil, U.S. economic growth had already slowed..."

"Worries about rising oil prices are also mounting elsewhere, especially in Asia's industrialized economies, which depend on fuel to increase output and rely on exports to the U.S."

Nader
Democrats just got a boost in the hard fights for Ohio and Wisconsin.  The (Republican) Ohio secretary of state finds that Nader did not meet the required number of signatures to get on the ballot there and has ordered him off it.  And in Wisconsin, a county judge ordered Nader off the state ballot yesterday.  Nader has appealed to the state supreme court, which as of this writing has not indicated whether it would hear the case.  The AP notes that this could "disrupt the process of printing and mailing ballots, especially those that go to absentee voters.  County clerks face a deadline this weekend to print ballots and mail them to those planning to vote absentee."

Nader is also off the ballot in Oregon; the US Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal to get onto that ballot. 

But he's on the ballot in Maine and New Mexico. – USA Today

Speaking at the University of Miami yesterday, Nader "showed more than a passing familiarity with Florida politics, criticizing Kerry for not more enthusiastically embracing a proposed Florida constitutional amendment to boost the minimum wage -- and slamming Democrats for not bashing Bush more forcefully on new travel restrictions to Cuba that limit family trips to once every three years," reports the Miami Herald

The battleground
The AP writes up the new Pew poll showing Bush leads "among key groups such as Catholics and those with a high school education - largely because of voter doubts about Kerry."

On Kerry's GMA interview, the Boston Globe reports that "Kerry campaign aides said the interview was aimed in part at shoring up Kerry's support among the predominantly female viewers of the morning show, given that he is struggling to maintain an edge among likely women voters."

The Chicago Tribune writes that Bush outspent Kerry in TV ads last week, although Democratic 527 groups helped make up the difference.

Edwards made the first campaign stop to New Jersey yesterday -- a sign, the New York Times says, that the race here might be tightening:.  And another Times story adds that New Jersey isn't the only state that's looking better than expected for Bush.  "Experts caution that the race is highly fluid, but Mr. Bush, for now at least, is surging ahead in several crucial states.  Polls show Mr. Bush making headway in Iowa and Wisconsin, both of which he lost last time.  He was also building leads in Ohio and West Virginia, states he won in 2000."

Making your vote count
The New York Times says tens of thousands of overseas voters might not receive ballots early enough to vote.  "The tardy ballots are just one of several setbacks or missteps that have affected the ability of the estimated 4.4 million eligible voters overseas to participate in the presidential election.  Some have been unable to send their registrations to a Pentagon contractor's computers, which are clogged by thousands of voter forms.  Others were denied access to a Web site designed to help Americans abroad vote.  And many voters simply have had trouble navigating the rules and methods that determine how and when to register and vote and that vary by state."

Outside influences
The Washington Post's Style section covers two increasingly prominent figures in the race: Democratic 527 sugar daddy George Soros... and Dr. Phil.

The Washington Times covered Soros's remarks in DC yesterday in which he pledged "to spend up to $3 million more on a new advertising campaign and nationwide speaking tour aimed at bashing the president."

And the Washington Post reports that "Warner Music Group... enters national politics today by slapping get-out-and-vote stickers on millions of CDs and DVDs being shipped for sale between now and the Nov. 2 election.  The company also will urge record buyers to vote on Warner radio and television ads touting new album releases and has set up a Web site... with links to election and party sites."

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