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

Wednesday, October 6, 2004| 9:30 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (27 days until Election Day)
Well, that was entertaining, wasn't it?

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If you judge the "winner" of last night's debate by the amount of e-mail sent by both sides in their efforts to rebut, truth-squad, and spin, it was a draw (with no one left standing).  If you judge by the number of flat-out erroneous or otherwise factually problematic statements uttered by the candidates, well, both said their fair share -- contrary to Cheney's stinging claim, he and Edwards have in fact met more than once; Edwards kept saying the war cost is at $200 billion (when it hasn't yet reached that amount); Cheney inflated the number of small businesses that would be affected if the tax cuts are rolled back; and Edwards wasn't completely right to say Cheney voted against the Martin Luther King federal holiday.  (More on all this below.)

Based on who spent more time defending their nominee's record, Cheney did his best -- given his built-in disadvantage -- to make that a tie.  If you go by the Internet polls, you get a mixed bag.  And who knows at this point whether American voters even tuned into the debate instead of last night's Yankees-Twins game.

But we do know one thing for certain: Bush and Kerry debate again in two days.

Democrats today intend to latch onto two points, per a top party communications strategist: Cheney's shift on Saddam Hussein not having ties to al Qaeda, and his incorrect assertion that he and Edwards have never met.

Republicans seem bent on touting Cheney's line about Kerry not being able to stand up to al Qaeda if he can't stand up to Howard Dean.  They're also using the word "befuddled" to describe Edwards.

Last night's opponents both hit the trail today in Florida.  Cheney does a town hall in Tallahassee and later does a roundtable in Gainesville, while Edwards stops in West Palm Beach before heading to North Carolina and New York.  Kerry is down today in Colorado, prepping for the "Meet Me in St. Louie" debate on Friday.  Bush isn't down, however: He heads to Wilkes-Barre, PA to speak about Iraq and terrorism -- two topics, we have a hunch, that will come up on Friday.

Today's stops
Bush makes stops in Pennsylvania and Michigan today, with a discussion on the economy and the war in Iraq in Wilkes-Barre, PA and a campaign rally in Farmington Hills, MI.  The Keystone State's unemployment rose from 5.3% in July, to 5.6% in August, while the Wolverine State's numbers dropped from July's 6.8%, to August's 6.7%.  Al Gore won both of these states in 2000.

The Scranton Times reports that Bush was originally supposed to discuss medical liability reform today but scrapped those plans.  The AP says Bush will "contrast his record with his Democratic rival's, declaring that Kerry spent a Senate career voting against measures to protect the nation and that his economic policies would derail recovery... The speech also is an attempt to blunt a new weapons report being released Wednesday that undercuts Bush's rationale for going to war -- that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that posed a threat not only to Iraq's immediate neighbors but to the United States as well."

Kerry spends the day preparing for Friday night's debate in Englewood, Colorado.  The Denver Post reports that Kerry refused an offer of a Coors beer upon his arrival yesterday because he is backing Senate candidate Ken Salazar over beer magnate Pete Coors.

Cleveland post-mortem
The Cleveland Plain-Dealer's headline this morning reads: "No K.O."  It adds, "Cheney was more accustomed than Edwards to the sit-down format of the vice presidential debate, the result of years of appearances on Sunday morning political talk shows and a debate four years ago with then-vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman. He parried with calm skill. Appearing bookish but not passive, he stressed repeatedly that the steadfast White House leadership of the incumbent administration is the way to win the war on terrorism."

The Washington Post analysis says last night's debate seemed like a courtroom drama.  "The Democratic challenger, reprising his former career as a trial lawyer, challenged Cheney mercilessly, as if prosecuting a cagey and possibly untruthful defendant, all the while charming the jury -- the viewing public -- with a winning smile. The Republican incumbent, obviously disdainful of the prosecutor, responded by questioning the prosecutor's credentials, as if lecturing a dense student."

"The jury is still out, of course."

More: "[I]f they were evenly matched on the substance ... their styles could not have been more at odds. Edwards grinned easily and gestured demonstratively; only a slight tremor in his hand at the debate's start betrayed his nerves. Cheney, elbows on the table, hands clasped, was serious and stern, delivering his barbs at Edwards acidly. It quickly became clear that Edwards would not be intimidated by Cheney and that Cheney would concede no ground -- leading to a sometimes explosive result."

The assessment of the Los Angeles Times' Brownstein: "Tuesday's 90-minute encounter was far more intense and confrontational than Cheney's relatively genteel debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman in 2000. At times it felt like a heavyweight bout, in which each fighter was landing teeth-rattling blows against the other. But behind the heated rhetorical battle, a clear strategy emerged on each side - one that signaled the two campaigns' broader goals in the election's final month."

"Cheney's unstinting attacks on Kerry's voting record ... dramatized the priority the Bush campaign placed on moving the spotlight back onto Kerry; that emphasis is likely to be apparent again today when Bush delivers a major speech that sources say will broaden his critique of Kerry's record. But Edwards cheered Democrats with a sweeping indictment of Bush's record ... that probably previewed the arguments Kerry intended to stress in the next two presidential debates."

"Indeed, each man may have crystallized his side's case against the other more sharply and concisely than their principals did in the presidential debate last week." 

The Boston Globe says, "In strategic terms, Cheney seemed to succeed in turning the spotlight back on the Democrats, and Edwards seemed to answer doubts about his experience by holding his own beside the vice president. But last night may well be remembered as the debate that gave voice to some of the resentments that were largely absent from last week's face-off between the presidential candidates."

"When Senator John F. Kerry and President Bush praised each other's families during the second half of last Thursday night's encounter, they seemed to signal a camaraderie that transcended the deadly serious issues they'd discussed... There was no camaraderie evident between Edwards and Cheney."

The New York Times analysis: "[I]f Mr. Cheney came into the debate seeking to reverse the slippage the Republicans have witnessed since Mr. Bush's answers and demeanor Thursday night distressed many supporters, Mr. Edwards succeeded in blocking him for much of the night, although certainly not all. Instead, viewers watched two stylistically different but clearly accomplished politicians in an intense and often grim debate, and loyalists of both parties can be forgiven for thinking that the No. 2 candidates were more slashing debaters than Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush."

The Washington Post's Tom Shales writes that Edwards "did a pretty good, non-Quaylish job last night of facing up to Cheney in the only debate between vice presidential candidates of this election year... The debate was like a tea party for pit bulls. Cheney's snide remarks were generally more potent than anything Edwards could come up with, but Cheney has a way of emitting them without appearing vicious or reckless about it. He has that sly Bob Hope grinning sneer so well lampooned by Darrell Hammond on 'Saturday Night Live.'"

"The same political pundits who proclaimed Sen. John Kerry the winner of the first presidential debate last night gave the nod to Vice President Dick Cheney, saying he had bested Sen. John Edwards in their debate by clearly illustrating the large stature gap between the two vice-presidential candidates," notes the Washington Times.

MSNBC's Priya David reports Cheney appeared to be in very high spirits at his post-debate rally.  At one point, he spoke about his wife, Lynne, who had said during her introduction of him that she'd known him since he was 14 years old.  Cheney said, "Lynne wouldn't go out with me till I was 17.   I bet tonight she's glad she did."  To David, who covers Cheney, that seemed like an indication that he felt pleased with his performance.  Apart from that, he mostly stuck to his stump speech, with just a brief nod to the debate itself, saying, "This is a very special night...  These debates are always interesting, you spend a great deal of time thinking about them and getting ready for them...  It is a vitally important part of the process."

Per David, Bush spokesperson Steve Schmidt said after the debate: "John Edwards appeared befuddled at times.  He had emotional responses, he offered slogans, but he didn't appear to be in control of the facts in huge portions of the debate.  He was misleading on a number of fronts...  It was a decisive victory.  I mean, I think what the American people saw tonight was someone who was clear and calm and understood the grave threats to this country."

"I think the biggest sound bite that he came out of here was, 'If you can't stand up to Howard Dean, how can you stand up to al Qaeda?'  I mean, that's the line of the night."

MSNBC's Felix Schein reports on Kerry's phone conversation with Edwards after the debate.  "Listen, I got to tell you something," Kerry said.  "The country tonight got a chance to feel the confidence that I had in you.  And now they have the confidence in you.  They felt the strength, they felt the clarity... facts they keep distorting.  These guys can only resort to fear and distortion. You held them accountable. You did a great, great job."

More: "But I have to tell you ...he had no answer about Halliburton.  He had no answer about you know taking care of the drug companies.  He had no answer about the unfairness of the tax cuts.  He was incorrect on the facts... So we're going to have a terrific opportunity at the end to continue to tell the truth. You did wonderfully.  Give Jack and Emma Claire a hug for me, will you."

According to White House spokesman Taylor Gross, Bush also telephoned Cheney to congratulate him on a job well done last night.  "The President thought the Vice President did great job in the debate," Gross said.

Cleveland fact check
MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports that Elizabeth Edwards played her own role as Truth-Squad sheriff by debunking Cheney's claim that he had never met Sen. Edwards before the debate.  "The Vice President said the first time I met Senator Edwards was tonight when we walked on the stage," Sen. Edwards said at the post-debate rally last night.  "I guess he forgot the time we sat next to each other for a couple of hours about three years ago.  I guess he forgot the time we were there for the swearing in of another Senator, so my wife Elizabeth reminded him on the stage."

Within a couple of hours after the debate, Llamas adds, the Kerry-Edwards campaign was able to produce a photo of Edwards and Cheney standing next to each other in the Senate.  According to Edwards campaign press secretary Mark Kornblau, the campaign will also release video showing the two men together.

In an effort to correct Cheney's own misstatement about what website to consult on Edwards's statements on Halliburton, Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said in his post-debate e-mail to supporters, "Every time Edwards had an opportunity to explain John Kerry's record to the American people, he chose to attack the Vice President, and his low moment came 40 minutes into the debate when a befuddled-looking John Edwards latched onto Halliburton - a political attack proven false by the nonpartisan FactCheck.org."  NBC's Clara Jung points out that if you actually go to "factcheck.com," as Cheney suggested, it leads you directly to "georgesoros.com."

And we'd also point out that FactCheck.org's critique deals only with the false claims about Cheney's compensation after leaving Halliburton -- something Edwards, to the best of our knowledge, didn't bring up.

The Los Angeles Times notes that both Cheney and Edwards played fast and loose with the facts last night.  For instance: Cheney's assertion that he never suggested that there was a tie between Iraq and 9/11; Edwards's insistence that the cost of the war is at $200 billion; Cheney's remark that Kerry wants a "global test" before defending the nation; and Edwards' claim that Cheney voted against the Martin Luther King holiday (Cheney voted against in 1979, but voted for it in 1983 -- when it passed).

The Washington Post fact-checks some other claims from last night.  "Cheney suggested that an agreement had been reached on debt relief for Iraq, saying that 'the allies have stepped forward and agreed to reduce and forgive Iraqi debt to the tune of nearly $80 billion, by one estimate.' While there are reports of some sort of agreement, no plan has been made public. Cheney also said that allies had contributed $14 billion in 'direct aid.' Actually, $13 billion was pledged, but only $1 billion has arrived."

"Cheney said Kerry's tax-cut rollback would hit 900,000 small businesses. This is misleading. Under Cheney's definition, a small business is any taxpayer who includes some income from a small business investment, partnership, limited liability corporation or trust. By that definition, every partner at a huge accounting firm or at the largest law firm would represent small businesses. According to IRS data, a tiny fraction of small business 'S-corporations' earn enough profits to be in the top two tax brackets."

"Edwards also misleadingly charged that the Bush administration is 'for outsourcing of jobs.' The Bush-Cheney ticket has not advocated sending jobs overseas, though administration officials have talked about how outsourcing can be good for the U.S. economy, a position many private economists echo.

The New York Times' truth-squadding effort: "Mr. Edwards suggested an improper relationship between the Bush administration and Halliburton, the company with large contracts in Iraq that Mr. Cheney led before he ran for vice president... But there is no evidence Mr. Cheney has pulled strings on Halliburton's behalf since becoming vice president."

"Mr. Cheney said that Mr. Kerry had voted 98 times to raise taxes. No question, he cast votes for higher taxes. But the number Mr. Cheney cited included multiple votes on the same legislation. Mr. Edwards said Mr. Kerry had voted against the overall legislation to cut taxes because the benefits went largely to the wealthy."

More on national security
The Washington Post previews the government report on Iraq's weapons program (that will be released today), which says that Iraq had the desire but not the means to produce weapons that would threaten his neighbors and the West.  "Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), vice chairman of the House intelligence committee, said she had not read Duelfer's report but has been told that it thoroughly undercuts the administration's assertions that Iraq posed a serious threat. 'Intentions do not constitute a growing danger,' Harman said. 'It's hardly mushroom clouds, hardly stockpiles,' she added, a reference to administration rhetoric used in the run-up to the war."

White House press secretary Scott McClellan: "'The fact that he had the intent and capability, and that he was trying to undermine the sanctions that were in place is very disturbing. And I think the report will continue to show that he was a gathering threat that needed to be taken seriously, that it was a matter of time before he was going to begin pursuing those weapons of mass destruction.'"

The Washington Times puts it this way: "The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to hear testimony today on another round of Iraq Survey Group findings, bolstering earlier reports that no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq... However, the official said the report will make clear that Saddam had 'every intention' of restarting WMD programs in the event sanctions against Iraq were lifted."

The Washington Post covers Kerry's attempt yesterday to seize on Paul Bremer's assertion that there were not enough troops in Iraq.  "Bremer's comments triggered widespread political fallout and escalated public debate over U.S. policy in Iraq. They also reflected the growing number of challenges from key government quarters about the Bush administration's original assessments of Iraq and justifications for invading."

"In an effort at damage control, the administration disclosed yesterday that top U.S. officials handling Iraq were split over troop strength. After two years of denying internal divisions, the administration confirmed that Bremer had pushed for additional troops. The statement acknowledging the divide, however, came not from the White House but from the Bush-Cheney campaign."

The New York Times writes about Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's speech yesterday to the National Assembly in Iraq.  Allawi said "the country's instability is a 'source of worry for many people' and that the guerrillas represent 'a challenge to our will.'"

"His tone was a sharp departure from the more optimistic assessment he gave to the American public on his visit to the United States last month. At his stop in Washington, Dr. Allawi made several sweeping assertions to reporters about the security situation in Iraq, including saying that the only truly unsafe place in the country was the downtown area of Falluja, the largest insurgent stronghold, and that only 3 of 18 provinces had 'pockets of terrorists.'"

"He did not directly contradict those statements on Tuesday, but his latest words reflected a darker take on the state of the war."

More build-up to St. Louis
MSNBC's Schein notes that Kerry is prepping for Friday's debate at the Inverness Resort in Englewood, CO, a community that belongs to suburban Denver and Arapahoe County -- real estate considered by many to be at the heart of the race for this state.  Though a generally conservative area, Schein says, this part of Colorado has experienced astronomical growth over the past few years, slowly changing the political landscape of this state and thus making it more competitive than many had expected it to be.

Making your vote count
The Washington Post takes its turn writing that Democrats fear that anti-terrorism efforts on Election Day could dissuade minorities and others from heading to the polls.  Democrats "contend that an elevated national threat warning ... could scare away voters, intentionally or not, especially in cities, which tend to vote Democratic. Voting rights advocates worry that fear of terrorism could lead to federal agents and local police being posted at polling places, a tactic that has historically been used in some places to intimidate minority citizens."

Federal and state officials "said they were aware of the political minefield surrounding the issue. But they said that if there were an attack and elections and homeland security officials were unprepared, the consequences could be more disruptive.

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