“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.

Tuesday, October 5, 2004| 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (28 days until Election Day)
CLEVELAND -- Maybe it's just us, but the media center here feels bigger than the one in Miami.  (But be warned: the rest rooms are smaller.)

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The showdown between "Halliburton" Dick Cheney and John "Man with the Golden Tongue" Edwards at Case Western tonight may not draw nearly the same number of viewers as Miami did, and may have only a tangential effect on the course of the race.  In efforts to keep up the flow, Kerry has a town hall on the middle class today, and Bush has changed his schedule for tomorrow to include a big speech on the economy and terrorism, all targeted toward the St. Louis town hall on Friday night. 

But the contrasts between Cheney and Edwards on image and style, the prospect of Edwards's first big one-on-one debate, and the idea of the former corporate CEO battling the former trial lawyer promise the big theatre that the presidential debates don't.

So this is the "gimme," the fun debate -- which might turn out to have more impact on the course of the race than most vice-presidential face-offs have had in the past.

The President clears the field for his number two, who travels from Wyoming to Cleveland later today, gets greeted by supporters upon his arrival at 2:45 pm, and then re-emerges to take his swivel-chair seat at the table before the 9:00 pm debate start time.  The Bush campaign, however, tweaks Edwards with a new TV ad on med mal, though the ad doesn't mention him.  It accuses Kerry and "the liberals in Congress" of causing "the women's health emergency that is causing hospitals to close maternity wards and OB-GYNs to be forced out," per the release.  We'll see when it goes on the air...

Kerry and Democrats, on the other hand, are out there today with message events, as is Edwards.  Kerry has a town hall on the "middle-class squeeze" in Tipton, IA at 10:00 am.  MSNBC's Felix Schein notes this will be Kerry's last event before the St. Louis debate on Friday night; he heads from Iowa to the Inverness resort on Denver to prep.  Democrats hold a presser to tout their "election protection advisory board" at the DNC at 10:00 am.  And we see Edwards at a town hall in Parma, OH at 12 noon, then he's down until debate time.

Note that the Bush campaign borrows a page from Democrats' playbook on organizing for the debate.  Campaign manager Ken Mehlman e-mails supporters: "The debate tonight presents a tremendous opportunity for the campaign to attract undecided voters, but people's perceptions are shaped as much by their conversations around the water cooler as by the debates themselves."  Mehlman asks supporters to visit the Bush campaign website "tonight during the debate so you will have the facts.  Print and share them with your friends.  Immediately after the debate, visit online polls, chat rooms, and discussion boards and make your voice heard."  He also asks them to visit network news websites and vote in Internet polls, call talk radio, write letters to the editor, and visit chat rooms.

And finally, Nader running mate Camejo is in Cleveland.  And don't forget about the Fahrenheit 9/11 DVD release today...

Today's stops
Bush spends his day in DC with no public events scheduled.  Kerry campaigns in Iowa today before flying to Colorado to prepare for Friday night's debate.  Iowa's unemployment inched up from 4.4% in July, to 4.5% in August.  Gore won Iowa's seven electoral votes in 2000 by over 4,200 votes.  The Kansas City Star notes that while Iowa is always a toss up, it has gone Democratic in every presidential election since 1988.

Build-up to Cleveland
Mary Matalin and Bush senior strategist Matthew Dowd held a press conference call yesterday to set expectations for tonight's debate, MSNBC's Priya David reports, and they argued that Edwards was brought on board by Kerry for this very moment.  Dowd: "...Obviously John Edwards was picked for a reason and he was picked because he was a successful personal injury lawyer that's had an unbelievably good record of winning personal injury awards, so this is not a person that was a Senator that was good at debates, this was a person who was basically paid to debate in front of juries..."

More Dowd: "...This is the moment Senator Kerry wanted to put John Edwards in, and this is what he's lived his life doing, so we expect him to be an effective and emotional presentation, but I think the contrasts in this debate will be clear, between an experienced person that has been through much in government and knows where he wants to take this country with the President..."

Matalin: "Cheney thinks in generational blocks, in 40-, 50-, 60-year blocks.  He's a historian, he's a scholar, he takes the long view...  We do expect to be attacked; the Kerry people have been making it clear they want to use this debate to use the 'Man with the Golden Tongue' who was put on the ticket as Matthew said exclusively for this moment, to spend most of his time attacking us.  That's not going to be our objective."

And: "As a style point, the Vice President prepared for this as he prepares for everything.  He's a substance sponge and there's no gimmicks; we're not trying to be fancy or funny or gimmicky."

Cheney went fishing yesterday, David reports.  From Friday through Sunday, he practiced for several hours each day in a full mock debate set-up in his Wyoming home, with Rep. Rob Portman playing Edwards.  In the room were various staffers and advisors, depending on the day, but including Matalin, Liz Cheney, Lynne Cheney, and Scooter Libby.  Daughter Mary wasn't around this weekend, but arrived yesterday. 

When asked about Halliburton, David reports, the campaign said Cheney knows the American people want to hear about the issues and about Bush's plan for moving America forward.

"Accountability will be the centerpiece of what you hear from John Edwards," said Kerry-Edwards strategist Tad Devine during a presser on Monday night in Cleveland.  MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports that Devine maintained that a greater focus is being put on tonight's debate because of last week's presidential debate, which he says affected polls and increased the public interest.  Devine, who worked on Edwards's 1998 Senate race, said times are tougher now for Cheney.  "The Vice President's task I think has been made more difficult because by what the President did the other night in terms of his performance."  Devine echoed other Democrats in saying Halliburton is fair game.  Still, trying to lower expectations for Edwards, Devine called Cheney a "strong performer" and said he filled a foreign policy void on the Republican ticket in 2000.

The Washington Times: "Democrats are brimming with confidence after Sen. John Kerry's performance on Thursday night, and campaign spokesman Joe Lockhart said he thinks Mr. Edwards can further cut into the Bush-Cheney ticket's lead by charging corruption regarding the vice president's ties to Halliburton and its contracts for Iraq's reconstruction."

"The Bush campaign, meanwhile, is not worried about what it considers 'false and baseless attacks' on Mr. Cheney, because it would give the vice president an opening to show that the Bush administration, unlike the Democrats, focuses on what matters in the field of national security.  The campaign also would like to remind the tens of millions of voters watching about Mr. Edwards' background as a trial lawyer, a line of attack by Republicans that has gained little traction so far, but could have more impact coming from Mr. Cheney..."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page prebuts anticipated Halliburton charges by Edwards: "Mr. Cheney's deferred compensation is a standard practice for retiring executives and an entirely legal way of spreading tax liability for previously agreed compensation, so it does not imply any continuing relationship with Halliburton.  In order to re-enter public service, Mr. Cheney had to forfeit millions of dollars worth of stock options to avoid any conflict of interest.  And he has zero control or even input regarding Halliburton's Defense contracts."

But the page goes on to note, "there's a lack of consistency here from the Kerry campaign.  On the one hand, it criticizes the Bush Administration for not spending money Congress allocated to rebuild Iraq faster.  Meanwhile, it criticizes the KBR oil contract needed to get oil flowing quickly...  All of this marks a striking return to the Old Democrat distrust of all private enterprise, which held that if it moves, tax it, if it keeps moving, regulate it, and when it stops moving, subsidize it."

Steve Hayes focuses on the two running mates' approaches to governing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, "Vice President Cheney's governing philosophy is typical of a Western conservative.  He is a fiscal libertarian who believes -- above all else -- that the first responsibility of government is protecting its citizens.  While Mr. Cheney shares most of the values of social conservatives, these are not issues that move him...  Sen. Edwards is either a populist, if you like him, or a class-warfare specialist, if you don't."

Knight Ridder notes that both running mates "have made charges on the campaign trail that have run afoul of the facts," including, from Edwards, that Cheney is still benefiting from Halliburton and that Bush supports tax policies that send jobs overseas, and from Cheney, that Kerry "would require allies to approve before launching U.S. military operations," that Saddam Hussein had ties to al Qaeda, and that Kerry's health care plan would amount to a massive government expansion.

The Cleveland Plain-Dealer on the some of the arguments on domestic issues both candidates might make tonight.

The Boston Globe, recalling Edwards's revival last week of comments from Cheney in 1992, says, "For Cheney... the debate is an opportunity to portray both John F. Kerry and Edwards as flip-floppers on Iraq.  But for Edwards, in what may be the biggest moment of his political career, the opportunity is arguably much greater: He is expected to use the skills he honed in his years as a trial lawyer to try to draw a portrait of Cheney as the ultimate flip-flopper on Iraq and the engineer of what the Democrats say is a failed postwar policy."

USA Today: "Kerry and Edwards aides note that this is Edwards' first one-on-one debate...  But advisers underline that Edwards has an advantage Lieberman did not have: Cheney now has a nearly four-year record that he'll have to defend."

The New York Daily News says that Cheney starts out at a disadvantage "because there's no way to lower expectations for the guy touted by his admirers as the savviest, most experienced veep ever.  Edwards has been so invisible on the trail, by contrast, that his expectations are low."

The Boston Herald notes, "The requirement that Edwards remain seated could throw him off his game by denying him one of his best tactics: wandering the room as if it were a courtroom and addressing himself directly to the audience as if it were a jury...  But sitting near each other could have some benefits for the handsome Edwards, 51, by juxtaposing him with the 63-year-old Cheney, who has suffered several heart attacks... "

The Washington Post front-pages twin profiles of Edwards and Cheney.  The Edwards story looks at how past GOP efforts to use his trial lawyer background against him have failed, at Edwards's role in Clinton's impeachment trial, and at his short Senate career and presidential campaign.

The Cheney profile calls him "the administration's essential man.  He roams across the foreign and domestic policy landscape, identifying issues on which he can make a difference.  When he chooses to insert himself into the process, he is a powerful force for resolving problems -- or an unmovable roadblock that thwarts the agenda of others, especially Powell."  The story pays particular attention to Cheney's role in diplomatic talks with North Korea.

More on National Security
Here's a safe bet for a question for tonight, especially considering Cheney's many statements on the issue: The New York Times reports that Rumsfeld yesterday said he has not seen any "'strong, hard evidence'" linking al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, although he added that there are disagreements over that within the intelligence community.

With the President down today, Kerry may have at Paul Bremer's criticisms of the Administration's conduct of the war in a speech yesterday, free of Bush rebuttals.  Bremer said "the United States made two major mistakes: not deploying enough troops in Iraq and then not containing the violence and looting immediately after the ouster of Saddam Hussein," reports the Washington Post.  "Bremer's comments were striking because they echoed contentions of many administration critics, including... Kerry, who argue that the U.S. government failed to plan adequately to maintain security in Iraq after the invasion.  Bremer has generally defended the U.S. approach in Iraq but in recent weeks has begun to criticize the administration for tactical and policy shortfalls."

"A Bremer aide said that his speeches were intended for private audiences and were supposed to have been off the record.  Yesterday, however, excerpts of his remarks... were distributed in a news release by the conference organizers.  In a statement late last night, Bremer stressed that he fully supports the administration's plan for training Iraqi security forces as well as its overall strategy for Iraq."

The Boston Globe reports that "Kerry has said he opposes US involvement in an international court for war crimes until certain conditions are met, apparently contradicting President Bush's assertion during last week's presidential debate that Kerry favors joining the court...  Bush raised the issue of the court during the candidates' first debate on Thursday, saying he would never take part, while 'my opponent is for joining the International Criminal Court.'  Kerry did not respond, and the issue was not raised again during the debate."

However, Kerry clarified his position in a written statement to the Globe last night.  "Kerry's statement on the court, e-mailed to a Globe reporter Saturday night, came after repeated inquiries over the past six weeks and two days after another request the morning of the debate...  The issue is a delicate one for the Democratic nominee, who has faced criticism from Bush supporters for his multilateralist positions.  ICC supporters said Kerry apparently wants to avoid alienating undecided voters who may be suspicious of international organizations having jurisdiction over US citizens."

The economy
The Wall Street Journal: "The jobs debate heats up this week, with the White House expecting that revised payroll data to be released Friday will put a shine on President Bush's record of helping the economy create new jobs.  Friday's data will be the last released before the Nov. 2 election.  While markets will focus on the Bureau of Labor Statistics' jobs report for September, politicians might pay more attention to revised data for the period from March 2003 through March 2004."

"A memo from the president's Council of Economic Advisers estimates that the payroll-employment figure for that period could be revised upward by 288,000 jobs, and conceivably by as much as 384,000.  In August, non-farm payroll employment stood 913,000 jobs, or 0.8%, below the level when President Bush took office."

"Even a lesser revision, combined with additional jobs reported for July through September, would reduce Mr. Bush's first-term jobs deficit and weaken challenger Sen. John Kerry's attacks on his economic policies."

That said: "Even with positive revisions, Democrats probably will be able to attack Mr. Bush as the first president to oversee no net job creation since Herbert Hoover.  Republicans have countered that the Bureau of Labor Statistics' household survey shows employment actually up 1.9 million, or 1.4%, under Mr. Bush.  But a study published earlier this year by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland finds the household survey, examined more closely, tells a much less positive story."

On Bush's fourth tax cut, signed into law in Iowa yesterday, the Washington Post says, "Sen. John F. Kerry supported the tax breaks for individuals but raised concerns about those for businesses...  Bush warned that Kerry would reverse the economic course set by this White House and slap Americans with a tax increase and usher in a new era of big government if elected president.  Kerry has promised to roll back Bush's tax cuts for those making more than $200,000 but to provide additional tax relief to the middle class and businesses."

The latest Bush TV ad on Kerry and taxes "recycles similar charges about Kerry's tax record while a mother is heard reacting with dismay.  'John Kerry and the liberals in Congress have voted to raise gas taxes 10 times,' the narrator says.  Both charges are technically true but somewhat misleading.  Many of the votes were on procedural motions or part of larger budget packages, and Kerry has also voted many times to lower taxes during his Senate career."

"In a preview of charges Bush plans to level during the final two debates, he accused Kerry of advocating a nationalized health care system and economic isolationism -- positions Kerry has never embraced during the campaign."

Continuing its look at the nation's debt problems, USA Today reports on how Social Security and Medicare are "on a collision course with financial reality that threatens the nation's prosperity and the well-being of the next generation of elderly...  Experts in both parties generally agree that: 

-- Retirement ages need to be raised for Social Security and possibly Medicare.
-- Benefits should be reduced for the affluent.
-- Everyone should pay higher Medicare co-payments and deductibles so people don't treat medical care as if it's free."

More build-up to St. Louis
The new Washington Post tracking poll shows that "President Bush continues to lead Sen. John F. Kerry among likely voters despite surging enthusiasm for Kerry among Democrats and new doubts about whether the president has a clear plan to deal with terrorism and the situation in Iraq."

The latest CBS/New York Times poll shows a dead-even race at 47%-47% (in both two-way and three-way match ups).  "Forty-one percent of registered voters said they had confidence in Mr. Kerry's ability to deal wisely with an international crisis, up from 32 percent before the debate.  Thirty-nine percent said they had a lot of confidence that Mr. Kerry would make the right decisions when it came to protecting against a terrorist attack, up 13 percentage points...  On both scores, however, Mr. Kerry still trailed Mr. Bush."

The Boston Globe says "Bush is launching a multifront attack in an effort to regain momentum in the presidential campaign, assailing Senator John F. Kerry over taxes, health care, and national security as new poll numbers suggest the race is narrowing to a statistical dead heat."

"Republicans are planning a further offensive over health care today, campaign officials said, and will send lawmakers to the floor of the US Senate with a flowchart mocking the government bureaucracy they predict would be created by Kerry's proposals."

The Washington Times focuses on Bush's change of focus for tomorrow: "Bush, stung by the erosion of his lead over Sen. John Kerry in post debate polls, has abruptly scheduled a major speech for tomorrow in hopes of halting Mr. Kerry's momentum."  The original plan was for Bush to speak about med mal reform.  "The president is said to be eager to rebut Mr. Kerry's attacks on" terrorism and the economy.  "The Kerry campaign was delighted that the Massachusetts Democrat has forced the president into reactive mode."

The Washington Post picks up on Kerry's mocking of Bush's line about the presidency being "hard work:" "Never mind that Bush maintains a more hectic campaign rhythm than his challenger.  The Kerry campaign is trying to capitalize on Bush's obsession during the debate with saying how difficult his job is."

"Kerry is on some tenuous ground as he makes the suggestion of sloth.  The Massachusetts senator has been off the trail 63 days this year, including 13 crucial days since his nominating convention.  This past weekend is the first since the fall campaign began on Labor Day that Kerry has campaigned both days.  In contrast to the punctual Bush, Kerry is often late...  And while campaigning he missed 177 of 194 votes in the Senate, Republicans point out."

God and guns
Addressing a group of clergy in Philadelphia yesterday, Kerry repeated his attacks on Bush about faith while calling his overwhelmingly white campaign the most diverse he can remember, MSNBC's Schein says.  Kerry: "These aren't new words for me.  These aren't new feelings for me.  These aren't something that I have found in the last 29 days to come here and persuade you with.  These are the beliefs and the values and the principles and causes that I have championed for 35 years or more."

Kerry also said, "I respectfully say to you that I believe that I have today the most diverse and I hope inclusive campaign in the history of Presidential politics and I pledge this to you, if you will make me President of the United States I will do my best to even do better than Bill Clinton to make sure the government of the United States looks like the face of America."

For the second time in three days, Schein notes, Kerry has crossed paths with Jesse Jackson, both times at faith-based functions and both times in cities where the Democratic nominee needs heavy African-American turnout.  Al Sharpton also appeared on Kerry's behalf.  After ignoring this part of the Democratic base for much of the summer, Schein says, there now seems to be a sense of urgency and a specific need to motivate the faith-based activists in minority, urban communities.

The Washington Times focuses on the latest Pew results showing that Kerry "Kerry has seen a 10 percent decline in his support among black voters in the past month."

The Los Angeles Times covers the NRA's new ads against Kerry, depicting "Kerry as a politician who has long favored gun control over the rights of gun owners...  Another recent NRA ad, which aired in Florida, accused Kerry of wanting to shut down gun shows.  While the NRA is critical of Kerry, Cox said it had not endorsed Bush."

Making your vote count
USA Today covers the rush to register: "Election officials say it will be days, if not weeks, before they can determine whether Democrats or Republicans registered more voters in the states that could decide the presidential election.  What's clear, they say, is that the close 2000 election, major get-out-the-vote efforts by both parties and independent groups and worries about the economy and the war in Iraq are helping spur more people to register.  Whether they vote is another matter."  (Voter registration deadlines.)

The Los Angeles Times, in covering the spike in voter registration, notes this about Florida: "In recent days, Florida Republicans have leveled charges that Democratic organizing groups are breaking the law in their rush to sign up new voters: registering known felons - a violation of state law - and in some cases registering the same person several times over.  And Democratic activists are questioning a state order that would-be applicants who failed to check a box attesting to their citizenship - one of eight such boxes asking for different personal ballot registration information- be rejected."

Stop the presses.  The New York Times says many strip clubs around the country are conducting voter-registration drives. 

The Wall Street Journal anticipates lots of problems with counting the vote: "A new federal election law that was meant to bring more uniformity to locally run elections is itself spawning a patchwork of inconsistent policies in different states.  Language in the law allowing voters to cast 'provisional votes' when their registration is in doubt has already set off legal battles over which provisional ballots will ultimately be counted.  New voting technology has sparked debates over the possibility of computer hacking, even as the infamous punch-card machines, outlawed in Florida and elsewhere, are still in use in parts of 22 states."

"Compounding all this is the challenge of training poll workers for new machines and new legal questions, and the likelihood of record crowds at the polls, amid unprecedented efforts to mobilize new voters."

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