“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.Monday, October 4, 2004| 9:20 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (29 days until Election Day)
"My Johnny ain't no sissy" -- Kerry-Edwards Ohio spokesperson Jennifer Palmieri, October 1, 2004

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"(Expletive) yourself" -- Dick Cheney to Pat Leahy, June 22, 2004

That pretty much sums up the image-related hurdles each running mate needs to clear tomorrow night.  The joking, mild-mannered Cheney from the 2000 debate, after nearly four years in office, has been replaced by the Cheney of Halliburton, undisclosed location, the energy task force, and threats of terrorist attacks under a President Kerry.  His advantage: He has cleared the hurdle of being seen as able to lead the country.  His disadvantage: He has become a lot less palatable to voters since 2000. 

Edwards, meanwhile, presents an unpredictable combination of deft trial lawyer, inexperienced one-on-one debater, optimistic son of a MAY-ell worker, and only semi-effective attack dog.  As with Kerry in the first debate, the burden of proof appears to be more on him than on Cheney.

Edwards arrives in Cleveland at 5:25 pm; Cheney is down in Wyoming until tomorrow.

This week, as Cheney and Edwards prepare to face off in Cleveland on Tuesday and Bush and Kerry in St. Louis on Friday, voters in the following states begin voting in one fashion or another: Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Wisconsin, along with the less competitive Arkansas, California, Indiana, Maryland, Montana, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Both sides agree that to the extent that the vice-presidential face-off factors into the overall debate picture, it's most likely to be by either slowing down or speeding up Kerry's momentum heading into his second showdown against Bush on Friday night. 

Presidential debates aren't one-time events -- they're a solid block of prime 10th-hour real estate.  These four scheduled debates, and the stumping and strategizing leading up to and coming off of each, will dominate the campaign discourse and coverage for a good three weeks at least.  By the time Tempe is really behind us, there will be just two weeks left until election day. 

It will take some time to see if any new Miami-inspired lead for Kerry sticks and if the race is really re-set to a virtual tie, or if a Kerry boomlet fades and Bush regains an edge.  The next three debate performances obviously will affect that.  However, Kerry got some much-needed big mo last Thursday night.  And to the extent that a victory for one candidate depends on his turning this election into a referendum on the other, Kerry made real headway in front of 62.5 million people toward making this race a referendum on Bush.  (That said, we still marvel at how the Bush campaign has, at least temporarily, managed to suspend the political reality that elections are referendums on the incumbent.)

But beyond the debates, how the campaigns fill the gaps in between also matters.  Both Bush and Kerry are keeping one foot in national security -- Bush on Kerry's "global test" line, and Kerry on the New York Times Sunday report about Iraq not using aluminum tubes for enriching uranium, an Administration claim in its case for war -- while also focusing on domestic issues in advance of their St. Louis town hall. 

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell says that per aides, the Kerry campaign plans "three days of pounding" on domestic issues and will "calibrate and recalibrate" their mix of national security and domestic policy.  Today, Kerry is back to touting stem cell research with a 9:30 am town hall in Hampton, NH with Michael J. Fox.  He then goes to Philadelphia to meet with clergy at 4:10 pm, and overnights in Coralville, IA.

President Bush, meanwhile, signs his fourth tax cut bill into law in Iowa at 12:15, as his campaign launches a new TV ad on taxes which accuses Kerry of voting to raise gas taxes 10 times, voting to raise taxes on Social Security benefits and on middle-class parents 18 times, and voting to raise taxes in general 350 times.  He also does an "Ask President Bush" event in Clive, IA at 1:45 pm.

But the skirmishing since last Friday has focused on national security.  Bush and his campaign charge that a Kerry Administration would have America stopping to ask France if it's OK before America moves to protect itself.  A Bush TV ad on "global test" goes into the rotation today, per an aide.  And while Kerry focuses on stem cells today, he also continues to accuse Bush of misleading the country on the war, and this morning receives endorsements from 175 former Ambassadors under both Republican and Democratic administrations, including John Eisenhower.

Also, after Kerry said during that first debate that he has avoided accusing President Bush of flat-out "lying," his campaign has put out a TV ad accusing Bush of doing just that.  We would wonder whether the lying charge might undermine Kerry's gains on appearing presidential from Thursday night -- except that the TV ad doesn't seem to be airing much...

Today's stops
Bush travels to Iowa today.  Iowa's unemployment inched up from 4.4% in July, to 4.5% in August.  Still, the Des Moines Register reports that "Iowa's economy has fared better" than some of the other battleground states such as Ohio and Michigan.  Bush lost Iowa by just over 4,000 votes in 2000. 

The AP says "Monday is Bush's 17th presidential trip to Iowa.  Kerry has traveled there seven times.  He also got a lot of exposure in the state during the nominating caucuses in January..."

Kerry does a town hall in New Hampshire, and later flies to Pennsylvania.  Gore lost New Hampshire four years ago by just over 7,200 votes, but he won Pennsylvania by over 200,000 votes.  New Hampshire's unemployment dropped from 3.9% in July, to 3.7% in August.  MSNBC's Felix Schein says this marks Kerry's third visit to New Hampshire since he effectively became the Democratic nominee, and of course he was all over the state for months before the primary.

Pennsylvania's unemployment, on the other hand, rose from a July 5.3%, to 5.6% in August.  The Philadelphia Inquirer notes this is Kerry's second visit to Philly in two weeks, and the candidate is "getting be a huge Eagles fan."

And Nader spends the day on Kerry's home turf as he campaigns at Harvard.  Nader received over 6% of the Massachusetts vote in 2000.  

Stem cells and the values debate
MSNBC's Schein says that per aides, Kerry today is not expected to chart a new course or announce a new policy on stem cells, but will highlight how many people could potentially benefit from stem cell research (an admittedly uncertain number) and underscore again how his commitment to this "science" goes further than the President's.  The Bush campaign says, "Like the President, John Kerry believes there must be ethical limits to this research, though Kerry has not clearly said what he believes those should be."

A Kerry campaign memo touts how Kerry would "overturn Bush's virtual ban on federally-funded stem cell research."  The campaign used to simply and incorrectly call it a "ban," while the Bush campaigns cried foul because the President was the first to federally fund stem cell research to any extent.  Now, the Kerry campaign claims "Bush bans 99.999% of stem cell lines from being used for future research.  In fact, only a third of the stem cell lines he promised would be available are actually viable."  The memo promises a new TV ad on stem cells.  We'll see where it airs... 

The AP says Kerry "gets some of his biggest cheers at campaign rallies when he promises to fund more stem cell research...  He contends that Bush's restrictions are so limiting, it amounts to a virtual ban on research.  The Bush-Cheney campaign said the president set a clear moral line by prohibiting taxpayer money from being used to encourage or support the destruction of an embryo."

The Washington Times looks at Bush's lead among Catholic voters per the Pew poll, among others.

The economy
The Wall Street Journal: "With oil having settled above $50 a barrel for the first time, petroleum executives say the industry won't be able to bring on enough extra supply in time to significantly tame prices in the short term, due to long lead times needed to gin up new fields."

The Boston Globe says Kerry, who campaigned in Ohio yesterday, "also seized on the 'flip-flop' phrase favored by the Bush campaign, but which neither Bush nor Kerry tends to use, to describe the steel tariffs that Bush imposed early in his term to aid the US industry, then lifted before expected."

USA Today focuses on "hidden debt" and declares, "The long-term economic health of the United States is threatened by $53 trillion in government debts and liabilities that start to come due in four years when baby boomers begin to retire...  Neither President Bush nor John Kerry is addressing the issue in detail as they campaign for the White House."

"Greenspan and economists from both political parties warn that the nation's economy is at risk from these fast-approaching costs.  If action isn't taken soon - when baby boomers are still working and contributing payroll taxes- the consequences may be catastrophic, some economists say."

Which reminds us that the debt ceiling needs to be raised one of these days.  NBC's Mike Viqueira says Congress seems likely to wait until the lame-duck session -- after the election...

Miami to St. Louis
The latest Gallup poll shows a tie, and USA Today runs through what Kerry accomplished in Miami: "Reclaimed an advantage on the economy...  Improved his standing as a potential commander in chief, though Bush is still preferred...  Convinced more voters that he has a clear plan for Iraq, though still not a majority...  Was judged the winner of the debate by more than 2-to-1, 57% to 25%.  By 13 points, voters say Kerry expresses himself more clearly than Bush.  By 10 points, they say he is more intelligent.  With those glowing assessments come something candidates prefer to avoid: heightened expectations.  By 48% to 41%, voters predict Kerry will do better than Bush in their second debate, on Friday in St. Louis."

Howard Kurtz points out today, "Kerry may have impressed much of the television audience with a strong debate performance Thursday night.  But it was a September of sagging poll numbers that caused much of the downbeat coverage, and improved numbers -- starting minutes after the debate ended -- have journalists suddenly proclaiming that the senator might overtake President Bush."

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that senior Bush campaign officials have said without prompting that there's "not a lot of hand-wringing" going on about Miami.  One official says people thought we were "blowing a lot of smoke" about Kerry as a good debater but "we weren't."  They again said he was a "championship debater from an Ivy League school."  When asked if the President will prepare any differently for the next debate, the response was simply, "Bush is Bush."  Bush officials also said "of the 8-10 people in on every decision, no one thought the race would be over after one debate."  They expect "short term enthusiasm" for Kerry and expect the polls will move his way.  They further compare Kerry's debate performance to his initially well-received convention speech.

The New York Times examines the frenzied efforts by the campaigns to shape public opinion about the outcome of the debate -- an effort the Kerry camp seemingly won:.  The Times also writes that "swing voters are giving Mr. Kerry a second look after his strong showing in the first presidential debate.  And they are liking what they see."

The Sunday Washington Post covered the revamping of strategy taking place on both sides post-Miami, saying Bush has to pass "the test of explaining why he believes his policies in Iraq are working at a time when conditions on the ground suggest that the insurgency is stronger than ever.  The longer the focus is on Bush's record, these strategists said, the more trouble he may have."

"For Kerry, the test will be to translate a positive debate performance into sustained and consistent performance on the campaign trail, continuing to undo the damage Bush has inflicted on him as someone who lacks core convictions or clear positions, particularly on Iraq.  The first debate may have helped, but even Democrats say that it was not enough to solve the problem.  Beyond that, Democrats said, he must tie together his critiques of Bush's foreign and domestic records more effectively than he has so far."

"Bush's campaign is banking on the fact that rarely has a single debate turned around an election...  Kerry's team sees the debates as pivotal in regaining ground lost in the past two months..."

A Boston Globe focus group universally thought Bush didn't do so hot in Miami, but "not one of their minds was changed by it."  "Before the debate, three in the group were fervent Bush supporters, and one was a reluctant but firm Kerry supporter.  Six were undecided, with three of those leaning toward Bush, two leaning toward Kerry, and one not leaning at all.  And that was exactly where they all stood after the debate as well."

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein on Bush's split-screen problem: "The images were bad enough that senior Republicans, gathering on a campaign conference call Friday, asked if anything in the debate agreement could prevent Democrats from splicing the cut-away shots of a perturbed Bush into an ad...  The danger for Bush is that the images will convince voters he is indignant when questioned or challenged.  That could reinforce a weakness for the president in the polls: the sense that he's too stubborn."

"Insiders wouldn't be surprised to see Kerry press that case further in this week's debate; he signaled that thrust Saturday when he described Bush as 'stubborn, out of touch and unwilling to change course.'  That argument has always been the potential vulnerability in Bush's promises of resolve."

But: "The real issue isn't whether Kerry can score points on Bush's demeanor, it's whether he can keep the race focused on Bush's record and direction."

Bob Novak writes that the "gap in performance here between President Bush and Sen. Kerry hardly seemed wide enough to reverse the popular tide that had been flowing in the president's direction.  Nevertheless, it was enough to still the exuberant optimism in Republican ranks...  Can a front-runner really lose the election because of poor debating skills?  He might if the debate exposes the candidate's basic flaws. That's why Bush supporters are worried about the town hall debate Friday in St. Louis."

Build-up to Cleveland
Edwards aides tell MSNBC's Tom Llamas that Edwards went through at least two full run-throughs yesterday.  They also say he has watched the 2000 debate between Cheney and Lieberman -- and that we won't see anything like that debate tomorrow night.  Campaign spokesperson Mark Kornblau says Edwards realizes that Lieberman's tameness/stay-above-the-fray strategy didn't work against Cheney's "attack dog" style. 

Per Kornblau, Edwards will use the same language and attacks in Cleveland that he's used on the campaign trail -- which, Llamas notes, means Edwards's claims that Cheney is still connected to Halliburton and that he has politicized September 11 could come up.  But Edwards acknowledges he is not an attack dog and will try to use the same strategy Kerry used against Bush: hold the Administration accountable.  The problem, Llamas notes, is that Cheney and Bush are completely different debaters: While Bush is known for staying on message, Cheney is known for going after his opponent.

How can Edwards, known for his charm and politeness, avoid falling into the same trap Lieberman did in 2000?  Former Edwards aide and current Kerry-Edwards Ohio spokesperson Jennifer Palmieri tells Llamas, "My Johnny ain't no sissy."  Palmieri says Americans could see a new side to Edwards if he's forced to aggressively respond to Cheney during the debate.  That said, she maintains Edwards will employ his usual self-control and self-discipline to not lose his cool during the debate. 

Llamas, who has covered Edwards since July, notes that he has never seen a side to Edwards that he would characterize as very aggressive.  Edwards stays on message so much that even when he launches new attacks, they sound like standard stump lines because he never changes tone.  Edwards aides dismiss suggestions that he's not "tough enough" to take on Cheney, saying "when someone who holds back fire finally lets go, it's much more effective."

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell notes that in Edwards's 1998 Senate race, incumbent Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R) "refused" to debate, per Democratic aides, so Edwards has "never done a two-man debate" -- even though Kerry-Edwards officials count 43 debates and forums during the Democratic primaries. 

DNC spokesperson Howard Wolfson says of the debate that "Cheney is a seasoned debater -- we have every reason to believe he will do a good job.  At the same time, he is the architect of so many of this Administration's failed policies and Edwards will certainly hold him accountable for that."

The DNC hosts a conference call at 11:00 am today on Cheney and Halliburton.

The Los Angeles Times points out that, "Historically, the match-up of number twos has done nothing to change the outcome in November."

True.  But the Wall Street Journal says, "The vice-presidential debate suddenly has higher stakes, with the experienced Mr. Cheney expected to respond more forcefully on national-security issues than Mr. Bush did last week.  Kerry advisers want Mr. Edwards to focus on Mr. Cheney himself, because the vice president's influence on security policy and his work in the oil industry have depressed his poll ratings and made him a lightning rod for criticism."

The Washington Post reports, "GOP strategists said Cheney's aim is to return public attention to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the administration's broader handling of the terrorism threat and away from what they called a 'second-guessing' debate over the decision to invade Iraq."

"Kerry's aides are hoping that at the debate in Cleveland, Edwards will summon his skills as a trial lawyer to cast Cheney as the architect of the administration's worst policy judgments, as well as a symbol of corporate excess because of his former position as chief executive of Halliburton, which has received huge Iraq contracts but has also faced accusations of improper billing there."

"Edwards's advisers said his principal aim has always been to validate his selection by Kerry and reassure viewers that he has the seasoning and knowledge for the job, despite a government résumé limited to one Senate term."

The Cleveland Plain Dealer previews preparations for tomorrow night.

In advance of the vice-presidential debate, the Sunday New York Times did Kerry's health: "Mr. Kerry could become the first 'cancer survivor' to be elected president, but he rejected the term as creating an unfair stigma.  He is free of any vestiges of the cancer and characterized it as a nonissue..."

"Mr. Kerry's doctors said they had told him that he was cured.  They based their optimism on an array of tests and concluded that he had a less than 3 percent chance of a recurrence in the next nine years.  Even if the cancer came back, it could be treated without seriously interfering with presidential duties, Mr. Kerry's doctors and experts said."

"Mr. Kerry pledged to disclose any ailment he might develop as president 'if it's relevant to my ability to conduct my office or to affect the country in some way.'  Mr. Kerry, who has signed a living will outlining his wishes if he is incapacitated, said that he and [Edwards] had not discussed how a transfer of power, if necessary, would be invoked under the 25th Amendment.  He said he would do 'whatever's appropriate if a moment arrives.'"

Bush v. Kerry: GOTV
The Sunday Washington Post: "In the week ahead, a Kerry official said, the campaign is going to be hitting the Republicans-for-Kerry theme some more.  The campaign will tout that it has established Republicans-for-Kerry groups in 21 battleground states, and will unveil an Internet-led pitch aimed at expanding the number of grass-roots volunteers belonging to Republicans for Kerry and increasing the group's visibility during the month before the Nov. 2 election."

And the Monday Washington Post asks the key questions about both sides' claims regarding newly registered voters in Ohio -- questions which in fact apply in all contested states: How changed will the electorate really be from 2000?  Will these new voters actually vote?  "Not all of the claimed registrants are reflected in the latest official releases from the secretary of state's office, where information can lag coming in...  Registration ends Monday, and no effort has been made yet to determine how many of the applications are duplicates...  Election officials, and even activists with the groups, acknowledge that a significant fraction of the 300,000 Democratic applications do not reflect new voters, much less represent a guarantee that these people will get to the polls."

Kerry in his speech yesterday noted that on Tuesday, "my campaign is holding a press conference in Washington to announce the formation of a team of nationally prominent lawyers - both black and white - working for us, who will make sure that this time we deliver on the promise to protect every vote and to fight against anyone who tries to deny that right.  We are going to make sure that this time every vote is counted and every vote counts."  Late Sunday, MSNBC's Felix Schein says, the campaign sent out two e-mails highlighting potential voting irregularities and disenfranchisement efforts in various battleground states.

The Los Angeles Times covers the apparent change in tune among Arab-Americans in Florida who now seem to favor Kerry.  "Kerry's gains, though, could prove thorny in Florida, where Democratic Party politics has long been characterized by close ties to the state's massive Jewish community and staunch support for Israel..."

Making your vote count
With voter registration deadlines today in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida, among others, the New York Times says that registration numbers have skyrocketed this election season.  "Registration numbers are impossible to tally nationwide, and how many of the newly registered will vote is a matter of some debate.  But it is clear the pace is particularly high in urban areas of swing states, where independent Democratic groups and community organizations have been running a huge voter registration campaign for just over a year."

The Miami Herald notes that voter registration closes at midnight in Florida.  "The surge -- nearly 600,000 new voters have registered to vote in Florida since January -- underscores the hotly competitive nature of the presidential race, particularly in battleground states such as Florida where the race could be decided."

"Democrats, though, still have the edge in total voter registration: As of August, 4.1 million voters were registered Democrats; 3.7 million were registered Republicans."

Not to be missed, the Saturday New York Times reported, "Sixty percent of the overseas military voted in the 2000 election, up from 53 percent in 1996, according to a new Pentagon report...  At the same time, voting by civilians dropped to 22 percent from 29 percent, the report said.  Civilians' low participation rate is raising fears among Democrats who believe that these estimated 3.9 million eligible voters are more likely than members of the military to support" Kerry over Bush.  "It is also fueling concern that the Federal Voting Assistance Program, which the Pentagon manages for all overseas voters, may be doing more to help the estimated 500,000 members of the military overseas.  Pentagon officials have denied such accusations."

"Local election offices in at least 8 of 15 swing states had failed to mail out their ballots by Sept. 19, the cutoff for ensuring that those ballots can be mailed back in time to be counted.  The Pentagon activated a system last week that will enable military voters to obtain their regular ballots from their local election offices instantly through a new Internet site, myballot.mil.  The Pentagon said it could not open the system to civilians because it was employing a military database to confirm the identities of users and did not have the means to check civilians."

"A Pentagon spokesman confirmed yesterday that the request that the ballot be posted online was being considered...  A group supporting Mr. Kerry, Americans Overseas for Kerry, said it would post the ballot on its own Web site...  The group Republicans Abroad said it planned to run advertisements in numerous international newspapers urging Americans overseas to cast their votes immediately by obtaining a write-in ballot."

"Leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, sent a memorandum to secretaries of state on Thursday urging them to see that their ballots are mailed out to military personnel as soon as possible, and to consider various options, including the new myballot.mil. project, to resolve mailing problems."

"Another overseas voting advocacy group, the nonpartisan Overseasvote2004, said it had forwarded concerns to the State Department about information provided by several of its outposts abroad..."


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