“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.

Friday, October 1, 2004| 9:25 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (32 days until Election Day)
All the buzz in the media center yesterday before the debate was over the Kerry campaign's issues with the timing lights being fixed -- distractingly, Kerry aides insisted -- to the podiums.  There was even a confrontation about it between Kerry and Bush aides in front of reporters at the media center juice bar.

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In the end, Kerry didn't have as much trouble hitting the mark on timing as the President.  But more ironically, reporters in the media center missed out on what's causing the buzz now, because from their neat rows upon rows of chairs and tables, they watched a clean feed of the debate.  The rest of America saw a split screen -- and thus a good deal more of the President's reactions to Kerry's remarks.

Bush's puckered expressions of October 2004, as he alternated between looking annoyed, peeved, and intensely intent, probably were not as damaging as the Gore sighs of 2000.  But they exacerbated an air of defensiveness to his responses, and reminded us of the fact that the President, beyond questions from reporters at his infrequent news conferences, has not been challenged on his positions directly and in person in three and a half years.

Also before the debate, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe sent an e-mail to Democratic "talkers" and activists saying, "Tonight, don't let George Bush's henchmen steal another victory...  We all know what happened in 2000.  Al Gore won the first debate on the issues, but Republicans stole the post-debate spin.  We are not going to let that happen again..."

We're not sure Kerry won last night "on the issues," though he may have made some headway toward convincing voters that a candidate can doubt a war and still be a strong leader.  And while those instant polls conducted last night by various news organizations showed a Kerry "win," it'll take a few days for more extended and reliable surveys to show whether the debate had any impact on the horse race.  Given the absence of any major gaffes or untrue statements by the candidates, it may not have.

Still, DNC officials spent the night cutting a web video (note: not an ad) of Bush's facial expressions from the debate, which they release today with a 9:45 am conference call.  Per DNC spokesman Jano Cabrera, the point is "to do to Bush to what happened to Gore and his sighs in 2000."  One reason for the video, another DNC aide said, was because the press in the media center saw a clean feed.

The President was told that split-screens were a possibility, Bush officials say.  And now they're the ones arguing that their man won the debate on consistency and on the issues.  Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman sent the following e-mail to supporters overnight: "President Bush spoke clearly and from the heart last night about the path forward - toward victory and security - in the War on Terror.  The President spoke candidly about the difficulties facing our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan..."  Mehlman argues that Kerry "failed to close the credibility gap he has with the American people as his record of troubling contradiction and vacillation spiraled down to incoherence."

So now what?  The presidential race virtually stopped several days ago in anticipation of this debate.  Today, the candidates resume campaigning and start pivoting to domestic issues. 

President Bush has economic-themed rallies in Allentown, PA at 11:25 am and in Manchester, NH at 3:55 pm.  It's Cheney turn to duck out of sight for debate prep; he holes up in Wyoming.

Kerry wants to start talking about health care, tax cuts -- issues on which Democrats do better.  Last night, NBC's Carl Quintanilla notes, it took Kerry less than 30 minutes from the time the debate ended to raise the following issues at his late-night rally: the Supreme Court, stem cell research, and jobs and the economy.  Kerry stays in Florida today for rallies in Tampa at 12:30 pm and in Kissimmee at 6:15 pm.

Edwards does a town hall in Huber Heights, OH at 1:45 pm and attends a rally in Erie, PA at 5:40 pm, then is down in Chatauqua, NY over the weekend for debate prep. 

And a bunch of Democratic Senators and House members, including Ted Kennedy, will react to the debate in a 10:30 am presser at the DNC. 

Today's stops
With the first debate behind them and the next one a week away, Bush and Kerry are back on the trail.  Bush heads northeast to speak at a morning rally in Allentown, PA before heading to Manchester, NH for another rally.  Pennsylvania's unemployment rose from 5.3% in July to 5.6% in August, while New Hampshire's unemployment dropped from 3.9% to 3.7%.  Bush won the Granite State by over 7,000 votes four years ago, but lost the Keystone State by over 200,000 votes.

At least 10,000 are expected at Bush's event in Allentown today, where he'll appear with McCain. – Morning Call

The Boston Herald notes that Bush's trip to New Hampshire today is his second trip there this fall. 

Kerry, meanwhile, spends some more time in the Sunshine State, rallying in Tampa and Orlando before spending the night at Disney World.  Florida's unemployment remained steady through July and August at 4.5%.  Gore lost Florida -- and thus, the election -- by 537 votes four years ago.  The Orlando Sentinel notes that Bush cancelled his previously scheduled stops in Florida today.

The post-mortem: the campaigns' take
"How'd I do?"  That was the first thing Kerry said to campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill as he returned from the podium after the debate, reports NBC's Carl Quintanilla.  Staffers say he emerged smiling, high-fiving aides and thanking everyone for their help during prep week. 

Later, in the bowels of Miami Arena, Kerry's senior brain trust seemed almost giddy as they waited for Kerry to finish up his late-night rally, says Quintanilla.  The reason: Kerry's ability, they said, to keep the debate about the President's war record -- not his own.  They said Bush seemed lost and angry, sulking in the two-shot and repeating phrases like, "It's hard work."

Edwards, with whom Kerry shared a 15-minute phone call after the debate, suggested Kerry showed the public a true "commander in chief,"  MSNBC's Felix Schein reports.  The Kerry staff went and celebrated last night in the bar of the Sheraton Bal Harbour, where congratulations could be heard and many hugs observed.  One aide, when asked about what the event did for the campaign, compared it to Kerry's Iowa win.

MSNBC's Priya David reports that before the debate, addressing a debate-watch party in Denver, Cheney kicked off his speech by mocking Kerry, saying, "I think the President's ready.  I noticed there was sort of a last minute flurry on the Kerry side, about the lights on the podium.  You know they signed an agreement approving the lights, and then complained about them.  I guess it's sort of like John Kerry, he was for the lights before he was against the lights."  David says Cheney got big applause for that line from the crowd of about 400 or 500.  He also mentioned his own debate, lightheartedly calling it his "rendezvous with destiny," and then flubbing his opponent's name, calling him John Kerry instead of John Edwards. 

After the debate, David says, Cheney returned to the party and called Kerry "unrelentingly negative."  Cheney:  "Thank you, thank you.  Well, we're delighted you were here tonight.  I thought the President did a great job.  I was fascinated to watch on the one hand John Kerry saying that he's committed to winning the war on terror, and to winning in Iraq, and then he turns around and is unrelentingly negative about the proposition, the decision."

The post-mortem: the coverage
The Washington Post's analysis: "If Republicans had hoped Bush could put Kerry away with a strong performance on terrain that has been his strongest suit, they are likely to be disappointed, as the Democrat constantly challenged the president to answer for his policies.  Both men accomplished many of the goals their advisers had set out in the days before the debate and probably reinforced the strong backing each already has among his most committed supporters.  But for those voters who remain undecided, Bush and Kerry may have only whetted appetites for their two remaining debates."

"Instant polls judged Kerry the clear winner, but Kerry came into the debate knowing he had to begin to undo the damage the Bush campaign has inflicted on him and reverse public perceptions that Bush is better equipped to deal with Iraq and to fight terrorists -- and that the president is far more likable personally."

Knight Ridder points out that the debate "was the first such televised encounter ever during wartime.  There were no presidential debates during the Vietnam War."  Note the application of "offensive" and "defensive:" "Kerry stayed on the offensive throughout the showdown,... labeling Bush as a careless leader who let terrorist Osama bin Laden escape in Afghanistan, led the country precipitously into war in Iraq without proper planning and ignored vital security needs at home, such as securing ports.  Bush defended his record as a determined and steadfast leader who's taken the fight to enemies abroad.  Even when Americans disagree with him, he said, they know where he stands."

The Washington Times focuses on Bush's message of Kerry's "mixed messages".

Analysis from the Los Angeles Times' Brownstein: "Overall, the two men raised few new arguments.  But they offered starkly different visions of how America should pursue its goals in the world, how a president should lead and... whether the ongoing war in Iraq had enhanced or diminished American security...  The key political question may be whether the debate allows Kerry to shift the focus of the race away from uncertainties about his personal qualities back toward doubts about Bush's performance and priorities."

The Boston Globe: "At the core of Kerry's argument was a newly honed theme: that Bush has lost his way in the war on terrorism, allowing Al Qaeda's top leader to remain a fugitive while the United States pursues a misguided war in Iraq.  Kerry also repeated his accusations that Bush has let conditions in Afghanistan deteriorate, while abandoning the United Nations...  Bush remained steadfast in two lines of attack: that Iraq is central to the war on terrorism, and that Kerry is too inconsistent to serve as commander in chief.  But Bush also responded to Kerry on an array of accusations..."

The Globe's analysis: "After two months spent reacting to attacks on his own record, John Kerry last night succeeded in turning the roving spotlight of the 2004 presidential campaign onto President Bush's Iraq policies."  The paper notes, "for most of the first hour, during which Iraq was the prime focus, Bush's repetition seemed insistent rather than firm, and his body language -- sighing, clenching his teeth, rolling his eyes -- suggested a man on the defensive."

The New York Times analysis: "By the time the debate ended, Mr. Kerry appeared to have accomplished his primary goal for the evening: establishing himself as a plausible commander in chief...  Mr. Bush, who seemed defensive and less sure of himself at the outset, quickly gained his footing, counterpunching effectively by repeatedly charging that Mr. Kerry was inconsistent and lacked the resolve to defend the nation against terrorism."

The Miami Herald: "Bush sought to portray Iraq as a success-in-the-making and as an eventual beacon to democracy in the troubled Middle East...  In the end, given that television is such a visceral medium, viewers are likely to end up where they began, leaving it to future encounters to produce the seismic change the candidates are looking for."

The Wall Street Journal: "Before a national-television audience, both candidates sought to address soft spots in their public images -- for Mr. Kerry, doubts about his leadership ability, and for Mr. Bush, criticism of his stubbornness...  Mr. Kerry's performance was steady, though unlike Mr. Bush, he frequently addressed his remarks to Mr. Lehrer, the moderator, rather than the TV audience at home.  Mr. Bush at times appeared defensive and angry, and slouched at the podium, but firmly reiterated his commitment to success in Iraq that would make the U.S. safer.  Appealing to women voters, from whom he is drawing unusually strong support at the moment, the president emotionally recounted comforting the widow of a fallen U.S. soldier."

USA Today's analysis: "The president's negotiators insisted on flipping the topics" to make this first debate about national and homeland security.  "Bush holds a big advantage on terrorism.  The key to his re-election, strategists in both camps say, is convincing voters that the war in Iraq is part of that effort - and that they should reject Kerry's argument that Iraq is harming the larger fight.  Consider: This year, Bush's rating hasn't followed consumer confidence, the usual trend.  Instead, it has tracked with voters' assessment of Iraq.  The more they believe the war was worth it, the more highly they rate Bush."

USA Today's news coverage: "Kerry went into the debate with the more difficult task: to convince voters open to a change at the top that they should trust him with the presidency.  Bush, for his part, had rarely been in a situation where he needed to defend his record so repeatedly."

More on the demeanor factor
The Washington Post's Tom Shales says Kerry "came off as more presidential than the president."  That said, Shales concludes, "Even if Kerry appeared to win the encounter on basic debating points, Bush retained the tremendous advantage of being a wartime president seeking reelection and a vote of confidence in the war he started."

The New York Times's Alessandra Stanley: "it was body language as much as rhetoric and one-liners that distinguished the two candidates in last night's debate...  The cameras demonstrated that Mr. Bush cannot hear criticism without frowning, blinking and squirming (he even sighed once).  They showed that Mr. Kerry can control his anger and stay cool but that he cannot suppress his inner overeager A student, flashing a bleach-white smile and nodding hungrily at each question."

"Bush has thrown... Kerry's words back on him during nearly every speech of the campaign, but he rocked back in irritation... Thursday night when the Massachusetts senator did the same thing to him," the Washington Post says.  "Bush's aides knew that his temper was a potential vulnerability, and his debate coaching sessions included practice in not getting rattled...  Bush's apparent annoyance at the idea of Kerry as the commander in chief was perhaps the debate's clearest emotion.  Bush repeatedly prefaced his answers with 'of course' and even used the phrase he uses to rebuke offending journalists: 'Let me finish.'"

The Boston Herald points out that "Bush signaled several times to Lehrer that he wanted extra time, an exasperated look on his face as Kerry wrapped up an answer."

Fact-checking
The Chicago Tribune truth-squads Bush's labeling of Kerry as flip-flopper on the $87 billion, Kerry's assertion of a $200 billion price tag in Iraq, and Bush's claim of 10 million registered voters in Afghanistan. 

The AP says "Kerry used suspect accounting in sizing up the cost of the Iraq war and President Bush got his opponent's position wrong on withdrawing troops...  Often, wrongful assertions or oversimplifications went unanswered."

The Boston Globe's main story has a nifty sidebar that lays out candidate statements and the fact-checks side by side.

The Los Angeles Times: "No mistake was so glaring that it was likely to do lasting damage to a candidate.  But as they grappled on the familiar territory of the Iraq war and related subjects, the combatants shaded the truth again and again in ways that echoed what they have said on the campaign trail."

More Bush v. Kerry   
The Washington Post debunks the concept of "security moms:" "like the now-discredited 'NASCAR dads' swing group before them, there is little if any hard evidence that security moms will have a distinctive impact in this election -- or that they even exist as a distinct group, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll and interviews with strategists from both parties."  Some pollsters "have found that security moms are not politically unique, nor do they 'swing' politically.  Instead, they are little different than married men with children on security-related issues, remain reliably conservative and Republican, and have moved in roughly equal proportions with men away from John F. Kerry and toward President Bush in the past six weeks."

The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire says, "Team Kerry battles Democratic gloom as electoral map shrinks.  'I just don't see a Kerry victory right now,' says a senior party strategist, as Bush's 'flip-flop' attacks leave weakened Kerry focused on fewer states...  Private party polls show Kerry running even with Bush in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, buoying hopes.   Republican presidential veteran, noting Reagan was still struggling in early October of 1980, says, 'There is plenty of time for things to change' for Kerry.  Clinton, whose polls rose after surgery, will stump for Kerry."

The New York Times reviews George Butler's documentary of Kerry, "Going Upriver," which opens in theaters today.  "Nobody interviewed on camera has an unkind word for Mr. Kerry...  The emphasis on Mr. Kerry's bravery and leadership under fire is obviously meant to suggest qualities desirable in a commander in chief."

"In his campaign Mr. Kerry has focused on his combat experience, but 'Going Upriver' pays at least as much attention to what he did when he came home, which has incensed his critics and is presented in the movie as demonstrating courage and character."

Making your vote count
The Washington Post examines what the Pentagon claims is the "most aggressive voter education campaign in military history," and the "missteps" that have marred it.  "The military does not keep voter registration figures, but voting assistance officers in Iraq said they have noticed a sharp increase in the number of service members who want to vote -- the first time since the Vietnam War that a presidential election has been held when there is such a large troop deployment."

"Some service members in Iraq say that, despite the program, they remain confused about voting requirements that differ from state to state.  The 2004-2005 voting assistance guide for overseas citizens -- the bible for all voting assistance officers in Iraq -- is 369 pages and ends with Appendix F."

The Wall Street Journal covers voting issues in Florida: "Election officials in four counties have kept more than 17,000 people from the voter rolls, saying their registration forms were incomplete.  Voter-turnout groups are scrambling to reach those registrants to encourage them to provide any missing information before the state's 5 p.m. Monday registration deadline.  But some county and state officials are frustrating their efforts by refusing to allow them to copy the lists of disqualified voters.  Yesterday, America's Families United, a nonpartisan organization that promotes civic participation, filed a lawsuit against Duval County to obtain the roster of disputed registration forms.  The suit was filed on behalf of an array of get-out-the-vote groups involved in registering low-income and minority voters who tend to vote Democratic."

The AP covers Democrats' criticisms of Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (R), which may have the effect of motivating Democratic voters in this key state.

(Almost) lost in the shuffle
The House Ethics Committee last night "admonished" Tom DeLay for trying to bribe Rep. Nick Smith (R) of Michigan to vote for the Medicare bill, the Washington Post reports.  "The ethics panel, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, said it would take no further action in the case...  Last month, a Texas grand jury indicted three of DeLay's political associates in a case involving a political committee affiliated with the majority leader.  The House ethics committee is weighing a complaint against DeLay, unrelated to the Smith matter, which involves the Texas group and two other matters."

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