“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.

Thursday, September 30, 2004| 9:25 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (33 days until Election Day)
There's plenty of scene-setting being done, so we'll keep ours brief.  Bush campaign senior strategist Matthew Dowd says he expects 50-55 million viewers for tonight's 9:00 pm debate.  That's close to half what very early projections are for voter turnout in the election. 

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That said, more people may have voted before this first debate than at this point in any previous election.  We'll note again that, as of today, voters in 26 states will have already begun to vote in one way or another: Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida (only for overseas voters), Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania (only for overseas voters), South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. 

Absentee ballots are distributed tomorrow in Colorado and Connecticut.  Wisconsin is one of several states where voting begins on Monday, which is 29 days out from Election Day (30 days out being a Sunday).

National polls show the race tilting toward President Bush, though some of the hodgepodge of key state polls paint a different picture, and the prospect of an unprecedentedly well-funded Democratic field operation keep both sides saying the race could go either way.

Kerry said in Fort Lauderdale last night that "everything" is on the line with tonight's debate.  Because he is viewed as having more at stake -- but also the bigger opportunity, given how little voters say they know about him -- he is the focus of more speculation about which candidate might be first to "break the rules" tonight.  Since neither the networks nor the moderators have agreed to abide by the terms set forth by the campaigns, it's unclear what would happen if the terms were broken.

The following three questions off the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (September 17-19, 1,006 RV, MOE +/-3.1%)pretty much sum up where things are:

Forty-one percent of those polled say the debates will be "not at all important" in helping them decide who to vote for -- up from 28% in 2000.  Pollsters Hart (D) and McInturff (R) suggest that's because more people have already made up their minds.

Asked which single goal is most important for Kerry to achieve in the debates, a combined 52% say Kerry needs to show he has a "clear and consistent plan" on domestic issues like the economy and health care (27%), and on defense issues such as Iraq and terrorism (25%).  Twenty percent say his most important goal is to show he is a strong leader.  Only 5% say his most important goal is to show he has a style and personality people can relate to.

Asked the same about Bush, 37% say Bush needs to show "that he is willing to adjust his policies when they are not working."  Only 9% say his most important goal is to show "that he is intelligent and thoughtful about issues."

And per FEMA in Tallahassee, 549,590 Floridians are without power as of this morning.

President Bush this morning tours another hurricane-damaged area near Stuart, FL, then returns to Miami and is down until the debate.  After the debate, he stops at a debate-watching party around 10:50 pm.  Vice President Cheney attends a debate-watching party in Denver at 9:00 pm.  MSNBC's Priya David says Cheney will watch the debate in private and then address the crowd afterward.

Prior to the debate, Kerry is expected to leave the Sheraton Bal Harbour only to visit the debate site (closed press).  After the debate, he has a rally at the Miami sports arena.  Running mate Edwards has a post-debate rally in Columbus, OH at 11:30 pm.

Not to be overlooked: Edwards and Cheney kicked off the build-up to their own debate on Wednesday in Cleveland with an exchange yesterday over some national security issues.  Details below.

Today's stops
The Orlando Sentinel says "Florida Power & Light, the dominant electric company in the worst-hit coastal areas from Melbourne south, is holding to its prediction that some might not have power until Oct. 12.  However, FP&L said all but a few thousand of its Orlando-area customers in Seminole and Volusia counties were back on line Wednesday."

The Miami Herald reports that officials in Coral Gables and the University of Miami are hoping tonight's debate gives the Miami suburb and the college some free publicity.

Post-debate, Kerry attends a rally at the Miami arena, while Bush makes an appearance at a debate-watch party.  The Herald notes that the Kerry is "undaunted by the storms," and will do a two day tour of the Sunshine State starting tomorrow.

Kerry will sleep at a the Sheraton Bal Harbour, a union-owned hotel tonight, reports the Miami Herald.  "Along with bragging rights, the Sheraton gets a nice windfall from Kerry's arrival -- the campaign booked about 300 of the resort's 645 rooms.  Republicans, a traditional foe of labor groups, have no constituency to satisfy in booking hotel rooms, and sources familiar with President Bush's travel expected him to sleep at Miami's tony (and nonunionized) Four Seasons hotel."

Cheney spends his day in Colorado, a state Bush won in 2000, 51% to 42%.  Colorado's unemployment remained steady in August at 5.1%.  The Rocky Mountain News reports, however, that the Vice President isn't the only one visiting Colorado; Kerry will soon be stopping by Arapahoe County to prepare for the second presidential debate.

And Edwards spends the morning in DC before heading to Ohio for a post-debate rally.  Ohio's unemployment rose from 6.0% in July, to 6.3% in August.  Bush took Ohio's 21 electoral votes four years ago by winning the state, 50% to 46%. 

SCENE-SETTING.
The latest Los Angeles Times poll finds Bush leading Kerry among likely voters, 51% to 46% (and 49% to 45% among registered voters), but nearly one-fifth say the debates could impact their decision.  "Nineteen percent of likely voters said the debate could affect their vote, whereas 79% said it was not likely to.  One good sign for Kerry: 63% of those who said the debate could change their mind now support Bush, and 27% back the Democrat."

"Asked which man was likely to appear more knowledgeable in the debate, likely voters divided roughly in thirds among predicting Bush, Kerry or a tie.  But Bush led, 48% to 20%, when voters were asked which man was likely to display the strongest personality and character."

The Washington Post's table-setter: "Kerry comes to the first of three presidential debates under pressure to rise to the moment.  Over the past week, nearly a dozen national polls have been released.  When taken together, they suggest that Bush is leading by five to six percentage points...  Both sides know that debates can change the dynamic of a campaign, but a senior Kerry adviser, who declined to be identified so he could speak freely, said his candidate must use Thursday's debate to erode Bush's advantage on the Iraq war and terrorism or face a daunting challenge in the final four weeks of the campaign."

The Wall Street Journal writes, "With Mr. Kerry behind in national polls, the burden is heavily on him to convince... 'persuadable' voters that he's a plausible alternative.  If he can't, they might simply opt for the safety of the status quo -- especially at a time of terror fears and war -- or they may not vote at all."

"The size of the persuadable-voter bloc -- those who say they're undecided, or lean toward a candidate, but say they could change their mind -- remains a subject of dispute among strategists.  Some in the Bush camp say it accounts for less than 10% of voters while Democratic pollsters peg the number closer to 20%."

"Who are these voters?  They tend to be less educated, with lower incomes than the population as a whole, pollsters say.  They're usually younger and female.  They pay less attention to news and are more likely to be moved by ads, shifting their leanings depending on the last spot they saw.  They also tend to identify themselves as moderates without any single ideological litmus test that would dictate voting patterns..."

CBS will run a real-time poll on their website tonight, reports the Boston Globe.  "CBS News' real-time meter is the newest twist in a campaign year already brimming with horse race data.  More opinion polls have been conducted in 2004 than in any other presidential election up to this point -- and by more varied pollsters.  When amplified through the Internet and partisan supporters, these polls can have more power than ever to influence public perceptions of the race."

The Boston Globe's Canellos notes, "Kerry joins the realm of challengers to presidents, called upon to establish their fitness on the field of debate, in what history shows is a would-be president's best chance to prove he belongs in people's living rooms.  Kerry's opportunity is real: Since presidential debates resumed in 1976, three challengers have gone on to win the election and two have lost.  In both cases the losers were thought to be too far behind when the debates began to have made up the difference."

The Miami Herald lays out the stakes: "The first debate is perhaps Kerry's best opportunity to convince voters that he could be president, that Bush blundered his way into Iraq and that the Democrat can better protect the United States against the threat of terrorism...  For the president, it's a prime opportunity to seal the deal with voters who remain troubled by the continuing chaos in Iraq, a chance to convince them that despite troop casualties and continued violence, the troubled country is on the road to democracy and that America is safer under his leadership."

Expectations management
The Washington Times points out that Bush supporters claim "their candidate can only hope not to be blown off the stage in tonight's first presidential debate by an opponent they've spent a year portraying as having the conviction of a wet noodle," whereas Kerry backers, "who in the past have derided the president as a mush-mouthed underachiever, now... assert their candidate will be lucky to be standing after tonight."

"Steven Keller, debate team director and assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, said Mr. Bush scored an amazing success in 2000 through tremendously low expectations.  The Associated Press even convened a panel of debate coaches, who scored all three debates a victory for Mr. Gore on the issues - but the public didn't see it that way."

The New York Times: "Mr. Kerry's aides said that he was not likely to make any great strides in charming viewers, but that likeability was less important now than leadership...  They also said Mr. Kerry was practicing to trim his notoriously windy responses to fit the debate's 60-second time frame.  But in the ABC interview, Mr. Kerry was still struggling to give clear, succinct answers to simple questions..."

Senior Kerry aides tell NBC's Kelly O'Donnell that Kerry completed four mock debates while in Wisconsin.  They were conducted in the evenings and were videotaped.  Aides also said they used a timing device, and that Kerry conducted an earlier full mock debate  while in Boston two weekends ago.

Kerry advisors also tell O'Donnell that the candidate will spend today working off his briefing materials, but the mock sessions are over.  Questions were prepared "based on what's in the news" and assembled by a range of staffers.

Senior staff described the goal for tonight: Kerry needs "to show he can keep the nation safe."  They insist the stakes are equally high for both Kerry and Bush.  They resist calling it a "must win, while also saying they are not diminishing the debate's importance.  O'Donnell reports that Kerry officials describe the Bush presidency as a "fact-free zone," claiming that the President's "record and rhetoric" have been entirely focused on his base and that Bush cannot appeal to swing voters "unless he goes off message."  Whereas they claim Kerry's message appeals to both the Democratic base and swing voters and that Kerry will be talking to "the entire electorate" at the debate. 

MSNBC's Tom Llamas says Edwards yesterday argued that Bush should be held accountable during tomorrow's debate: "You know people keep talking about it being a test for John Kerry, it's a test for George Bush.  It's a test for whether this President is finally going to be straight and come clean with the American people about what's happening in Iraq."  Edwards said Kerry is ready for the debate and in a "fighting mood."

In his exclusive interview with MSNBC's Chris Jansing yesterday, Sen. Judd Gregg (R) talked about his role playing Kerry in the Bush debate preps: "You can never be exactly what Senator Kerry is obviously.  Who'd wanna be (laughs) quite honestly.  But you try to be as close as you can to his views anyway."

USA Today says of the prospect of a verbal gaffe, "Words - the wrong ones, garbled ones or too many - have often been the bane of these men.  Presidential debates have tripped up many a candidate before them, even those with smoother command of grammar and diction."

The "rules".

Advance fact-checking
Knight Ridder anticipates "some charges and countercharges that don't quite square with the facts," and offers "a look at some of the likely lines of attack and at the reality behind them," including possible Bush attacks on Kerry over Iraq, and Kerry claims that Bush is trying to "downplay" the situation there.

The Washington Post lists many inaccurate or misleading claims by the two candidates.  "Bush emphasizes his efforts to avert war.  'I went to the United Nations, because I was hoping that diplomacy would work,' he tells audiences...  While Bush did seek U.N. approval to confront Hussein -- after sharp debate among his foreign policy advisers -- the White House very quickly gave up on the inspection process and assumed a war footing several months before the March 2003 invasion, according to administration officials."

"In a recent line of attack, Kerry has said the cost of Bush's 'go-it-alone policy in Iraq is now $200 billion.'  This is an exaggeration, because it combines the amount already spent -- about $120 billion -- with money that is expected to be spent in the coming year or requested by the administration.  In the past week, Kerry has modified his comments to say Bush 'didn't tell America this would cost $200 billion.'"

The Wall Street Journal editorial page has a message for Kerry: "we'd like to warn him to stay away from some of the lines he's been using on the stump...  For example, we hope Mr. Kerry steers clear of his vow that, unlike President Bush, he will get the French and Germans to send forces to Iraq...  Mr. Kerry will also want to avoid his frequent claim that the U.S. has 'borne nearly 90% of the casualties' and is providing 90% of the troops.  On the first point, the U.S. has suffered 800 killed in action since the Iraq war began, 1,053 including non-combat deaths.  Our uniformed Iraqi allies, however, have already suffered at least 750 combat deaths.  And that doesn't include the recruits who've been killed by car bombs as they've waited to enlist in the police or new Iraq army..."

"By the way, the Senator would also be wise to break his habit of comparing the first Gulf War favorably to the current one...  In the first Gulf War he now says he likes, the alliance totaled 34 countries.  In the current Iraq conflict, the alliance includes... 30 countries."

Referencing statements Bush made about his prospective presidency during one of his debates with Gore, the AP warns, "What you hear from the candidates is not necessarily what you would get in the next four years...  Just moving into the Oval Office can change a politician's world view. Unforeseen events can lead to a drastic reshuffling of national security priorities - and few presidents have had to deal with an event of the magnitude of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.  Moreover the foreign policy agenda has changed."

Build-up to Miami: National and Homeland Security
The New York Times notes, as the Washington Post did yesterday, that "[o]ne reason the candidates have not discussed a wide range of issues is that - for all the talk about stark differences - on many foreign policy subjects, from relations with China to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the two differ only slightly, if at all."

Still: "In modern presidential campaigns, candidates tend to pick foreign policy issues at least as much for what those issues say about them as for what they might have to say about the issues...  When they debate Iraq, the candidates are clashing over matters of real moment - over whether, for example, the insurgency is growing stronger - but also trying to cement specific images.  Call it character versus competence: Mr. Bush wants to present himself as a leader with the courage to go it alone, facing a rival who wavers; Mr. Kerry wants to present himself as wise and prudent, better able to judge threats and enlist allies against them."

The Boston Globe, reporting on the build-up to tonight's debate, notes how quickly the Bush campaign pounced on Iraq-related parts of Kerry's GMA interview yesterday.

One possible topic for tonight: The Washington Post reports that the Bush Administration is backing a measure in the House's intelligence reform bill that "would allow U.S. authorities to deport certain foreigners to countries where they are likely to be tortured or abused, an action prohibited by the international laws against torture the United States signed 20 years ago..."

Another one: A federal judge in New York yesterday struck down a Patriot Act "provision that allowed the FBI to secretly obtain Internet and telephone records without a judge's warrant is unconstitutional," as the Boston Globe reports. 

Another one: Cheney was asked several times yesterday about the rumored draft, and called it "an urban legend" or a "nasty political rumor," MSNBC's Priya David reports.  "Nobody has any intention -- nobody in a position of responsibility -- any intention of trying to reinstitute the draft.  It makes no sense at all."

Meanwhile, per David, Cheney went after Kerry with more charges of flip-flopping and over Kerry's GMA interview: "He's gotten to the point now where he's taken so many different positions that there isn't anything he can say today that doesn't contradict something he's already said.  And the last count is at least 10 different positions he's taken with respect to the situation in Iraq."  More Cheney on Kerry: "...when asked knowing everything he knows now, would he have voted the way he did then, and he said yes.  And this morning, Diane Sawyer interviewed him on Good Morning America and asked him the same question, knowing everything you know now, would you have voted that way, and he said, no...  He's changed his mind on many occasion."

"President Bush never was disciplined while serving in the Texas Air National Guard, never failed a physical and never asked his father or family friends for help to get him into the Guard during the Vietnam War, the White House said yesterday.  Meanwhile, the White House last night produced a newly unearthed document on Mr. Bush's Guard service, seven months after it said all materials on the subject had been publicly released."  - AP

Meanwhile, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth went up with what they say is their biggest ad buy to date, a new ad featuring "the wives of two U.S. servicemen captured in Vietnam who say John Kerry gave 'aid and comfort' to the enemy while their husbands were prisoners of war for years," reports the Washington Times.  "The independent group plans to spend $1.4 million airing the ad on cable television... and in key swing states such as Nevada, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.  Kerry campaign spokesman Chad Clanton did not dispute the accusations made by the women, but attacked the group...  Other Kerry supporters have said that Mr. Kerry's anti-war activities... was an effort to help prisoners of war..."

Build-up to Cleveland: National and Homeland Security
MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports that Edwards spent Wednesday trying to paint Cheney as a flip-flopper by citing a 1992 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article in which Cheney said that going after Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War would not have been worth the American lives.  (Cheney: "So I think we got it right, both when we decided to expel [Hussein] from Kuwait, but also when the President made the decision that we'd achieved our objectives and we were not going to go get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq.")  Edwards said Cheney knew in 1992 the possible realities of occupying Iraq and still pushed for war this time: "Twelve years ago Dick Cheney was saying there was a great danger and a great risk of going in and occupying a country like this and getting bogged down there, and then now 12 years later where are we?  Oh yeah, we are exactly in this place."

Cheney campaign spokesperson Anne Womack responded, saying "September 11 changed everything," said Womack.  "In the period between 1992 and present day we've had 10 years of Saddam Hussein ignoring the international community, ignoring UN resolution after UN resolution, of shooting at US military planes, of not coming clean about his weapons program."

Llamas says Edwards maintained that the Administration knew what they were getting into in regards to a post war Iraq, and still had no plan to keep the peace.

Nader
USA Today on Nader in Florida: "With ballot deadlines past, Democrats are mobilizing for a last-ditch drive to persuade liberals that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush.  United Progressives for Victory, an outside group made up of party activists, spent $150,000 to keep Nader off the ballot here.  Although it failed, the group plans to raise and spend another $300,000 nationally on print and TV ads, news conferences, phone banks and other efforts.  Its message: the stakes are too high to cast a vote that could help re-elect Bush."

The battleground
Senior Kerry aides claim the race is "neck and neck and within the margin of error," NBC's Kelly O'Donnell says.  They dispute the wider spread in public polls, but would not disclose what their own numbers show.  "We understand who the electorate is and who is gonna turn out."  When asked about perceptions that Kerr  is firmly behind, aides say "there's no doubt that when those who cover you think you're ahead, you get an easier time."  And when you're not, "it's a little tougher."  Further, they say there is a "lifetime left in this campaign."

New Gallup data shows "President Bush has widened his advantage with likely voters in Florida, taken the lead in Pennsylvania and maintains a small margin over John Kerry in Ohio...  The Bush campaign did not respond to requests for comment.  Independent analysts say that although the polls show a Bush advantage, however slight, the three states remain too close to call."

The New York Times wonders whether swing-state Missouri has already swing.  (Our answer: yes, probably.)

USA Today offers an ad round-up, noting that some of the latest probably won't be seen by many voters: "For a week now, each campaign has released about one ad per day, a frenzy of activity that far outpaces the one or two ads per week released throughout most of the campaign.  Twice in the past week, the Kerry-Edwards campaign has followed a Bush-Cheney commercial or conservative group's ad with a 'response ad' a few hours later...  Some of the ads may not be seen by many viewers.  The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the Kerry campaign has released some ads to get attention in the news media and then run them only a few times or not at all."

Fuel politics
USA Today reports, "Natural gas prices have jumped 17% in two days, a chilling development for the millions of Americans who heat their homes with natural gas...  About 55% of U.S. homes are heated with natural gas. While it's unclear whether the recent price rises will directly show up on consumers' bills, prices are expected to be higher this year than last, and the latest gains will likely bolster those predictions."

Court politics
USA Today reminds us, "This election's potential impact on the Supreme Court has seemed to be an afterthought, as Bush and Democrat John Kerry have battled over the war in Iraq, terrorism and the economy.  But the stakes for the court and the law are even higher now than they were in 2000.  The prospect of a change on the court is greater - eight of the justices are now at least 65 - and the replacement of even one justice could affect the law on issues such as abortion rights, affirmative action and religion's role in government."

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