“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, October 7, 2004 | 9:25 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (26 days until Election Day)
Two reports, one complicating each presidential candidate's life, will dominate tomorrow night's St. Louis town hall: the jobs report due out tomorrow morning and expected to yield good news for the President, and the already released Duelfer report, which did not.

  1. Other political news of note
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      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

While Kerry continues to prep in private outside Denver, the President continues warming up in public, trying to keep heat on Kerry and build momentum heading into tomorrow night, and also trying to deflect increasing questions about the Administration's case for war in the face of Duelfer's verdict that Saddam Hussein didn't have much ability to produce WMD.

Bush is relying more and more on his backstop -- that voters view Hussein as a former threat.  Odds of that long-held attitude changing within the remaining 26 days of this race seem pretty slim.  The Duelfer report feeds right into Kerry's charge that the Administration misled the country into war, but Democrats still need to walk a fine line with their critiques, since Bush and Republicans will take every possible opportunity to rhetorically knock Democrats onto the side of arguing that getting rid of Hussein was a bad thing.

The President today has a rally in Wausau, WI at 4:20 pm.  Vice President Cheney, still in Florida, has a town hall in Miami at 9:00 am and a roundtable in Fort Myers at 11:35 am.

Kerry makes his way from debate prep outside Denver to St. Louis later today, but has no public events.  MSNBC's Felix Schein says to expect some sort of public appearance -- why else go to Colorado? he asks -- but details are TBD. 

Kerry advisors Lockhart and Devine hold a 10:30 am press conference call to preview tomorrow night's debate, and the campaign says they're up with a new TV ad on stem cells featuring Michael J. Fox saying "lives are at stake and it's time for leadership."  We're still waiting to hear when and where the spot will air.

Edwards does Regis and Kelly, then tapes The View.  He then heads to a 1:00 pm homeland security town hall in Bayonne, NJ, where he'll get endorsed by some September 11 families and talk about "the Kerry-Edwards comprehensive plan to protect America's ports, harbors, rails, subways, and chemical plants."

Lastly, the Governator marks one year since the recall, and Tom DeLay gets admonished again.  Details below.

Today's stops
Bush attends an afternoon rally in Wisconsin today, a state he lost by a margin of less than 1% four years ago.  The Badger State's unemployment inched up slightly from 4.7% in July, to 4.8% in August.  The Wausau Daily Herald reports that about 7,000 people are expected to attend the event, and schools will close early today to avoid motorcade traffic.

The AP says of Bush's stop, "his visit Thursday takes him to a friendly part of the state, Marathon County, which he won four years ago by 2,337 votes or 4 percentage points.  By cultivating such areas of a state that is growing more Republican, Bush aims to build on his 2000 success and take the state's 10 electoral votes from the Democratic column."

The story also notes that "[e]xcept for time spent in St. Louis for the debate and a fund-raiser for local Republican candidates on Saturday, Bush is devoting a full week to states won by Gore but viewed by the president's advisers as ripe for GOP picking."

Kerry spends the day in Colorado preparing for tomorrow night's debate.  His stay marks his fifth trip there this year.  The Denver Post notes that while Kerry has remained with aides, his wife made a public appearance in the Inverness Hotel for a "15-minute chat with about a dozen Republicans who have swung their support to her husband." 

Both Bush and Kerry head to St. Louis tonight.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that law enforcement and security officials are busy making final preparations to the city and the debate site.  And the Washington University Student Life reports that out of 6,000 students who wanted tickets for tomorrow's debates, only 300 are finalists.

Build-up To St. Louis: National Security
The Washington Post says the Duelfer report "contradicts nearly every prewar assertion made by top administration officials about Iraq...  Neither Bush nor challenger John F. Kerry spoke directly about the report yesterday, though at a campaign appearance in Pennsylvania the president emphasized that Hussein was a threat to the United States."

The Post's analysis notes that the "report also comes just a few weeks after... Kerry gave new life to his campaign by emphasizing what he asserts is the gap between the president's rhetoric and the realities in Iraq...  The risk for the Bush campaign is that the drip-drip of the revelations will slowly erode the advantage that the president has held among voters for his handling of the Iraq war and especially the struggle against terrorism.  Despite growing misgivings about the violence in Iraq, Bush has held a commanding lead on whether he would better protect the country from terrorists."

"A U.S. official, who declined to be further described, said the timing of the report -- which is dated last Thursday -- was controlled by Duelfer."  - Washington Post

The Boston Globe says Bush in his Wilkes-Barre, PA speech yesterday "maintained that Hussein's history of developing weapons of mass destruction and using them against Iraqi Kurds and neighboring Iran in the 1980s -- combined with his ties to terrorist groups -- posed a sufficient threat to justify removing him from power."

The Washington Post calls Bush's speech "his toughest and most comprehensive attack on" Kerry yet.  "...[T]he president used his speech here to try to reframe the campaign debate and regain the momentum by putting the onus back on Kerry's record... and shifting attention away from questions about why he launched the war against Iraq in the spring of 2003." 

"A Bush adviser said the president hopes to change the dynamics of the race with more biting attacks on Kerry's record and trustworthiness and on what Bush charges is Kerry's reluctance to use U.S. military force to defeat terrorism.  The strategy is aimed at stoking public fears about terrorism, raising new concerns about Kerry's ability to protect Americans and reinforcing Bush's image as the steady anti-terrorism candidate, aides said."

The New York Times says the speech "signaled that he would stand firm between now and Election Day over his handling of Iraq and appeared to be an effort to take attention away from the 918-page report released in Washington on Wednesday detailing how Saddam Hussein's stockpiles of unconventional weapons had been dismantled years before the invasion last year..."

"The result, many around Mr. Bush concede, is that the president is taking a considerable risk in the next 27 days that he will appear out of touch with the realities on the ground in Iraq - and indeed Mr. Kerry's campaign quickly sought to exploit that vulnerability on Wednesday.  But one of Mr. Bush's closest aides said that 'it's more important that he shows he is going to stick with it, not look back, and make this work.'"

"Yesterday's speech gave Mr. Bush, who was criticized for failing to pounce on Mr. Kerry's record in the first debate, an opportunity to sharpen his attack and diffuse the lingering effects of his so-called 'scowl and growl' before tomorrow's second debate," says the Washington Times.  "It also filled the void in the news cycle that Mr. Kerry has controlled since his solid performance in the first encounter led to poll gains."

The Kerry campaign has called the speech "the Mulligan speech - [Bush's] hastily arranged but much anticipated, cut & paste address aimed at rebutting the arguments John Kerry made... during the first Presidential debate in Miami.  We thought the debate was the forum where the rebuttals would be raised but whatever," a Kerry campaign e-mail says.

Bush e-mailed supporters overnight.  The lengthy message includes the "global test" argument, and this: "My opponent continues his pattern of confusing contradictions...  He can't be for getting rid of Saddam Hussein when things look good, and against it when he's falling in the polls...  The American President must speak clearly, and when he speaks, must mean what he says.  This is just one example of how my opponent's weak, vacillating views would make for a more dangerous world."

Cheney had a new line about Iraq yesterday, MSNBC's Priya David reports: "Iraq represented the place where we were most likely to get a nexus, if you will, between the terrorists on the one hand, and weapons of mass destruction on the other."

USA Today says the candidates have similar exit strategies for Iraq.  "Any talk of bringing troops home by a particular date only encourages the insurgents to wait out the U.S. presence, Bush has said.  Kerry has set a goal of beginning to withdraw troops within six months of taking office and withdrawing all American combat forces in his first term.  But his advisers say that could change."

"Although Kerry and Bush both define the United States' goal as creating a stable Iraq that is not a haven for terrorism, Bush puts more emphasis on leaving behind a democratic government."

And USA Today also says, regarding the Afghanistan elections this coming Saturday, "Success in this election could also reverberate in the USA.  With so much going wrong in Iraq as elections there approach in January, President Bush is gambling that a successful election in Afghanistan can be proof that his foreign policy is on the right track.  His administration hopes the Afghan model can be transferred to Iraq."

The economy
With the BLS report on unemployment due out tomorrow, "Administration forecasters say the estimate could add 288,000 to 400,000 jobs to Mr. Bush's record," reports the Washington Times.  "If the revisions are anywhere near these numbers, economists and political strategists say, it would strengthen Mr. Bush's assertions that job creation has improved on his watch and make Mr. Kerry's charges of a weak economy less compelling."  Kerry "is expected to make the president's job-creation record the primary focus of his campaign offensive in tomorrow's debate in St. Louis, but economists say Mr. Bush enters the prime-time face-off with some healthy figures in his favor."

Cheney's Gainesville, FL town hall yesterday focused mainly on the needs of small business, MSNBC's Priya David reports, and included an interesting moment when Cheney was asked about simplifying the tax code.   He said the ticket has interest in simplifying it, but no specific plans yet.  And he added, "I'm in the same boat as a great many other Americans.  I probably couldn't fill out my own tax return.  I don't have the time.  And so you go get somebody else to do it for you, and it's a great industry -- for my accountant, and everybody else's accountant."

More St. Louis build-up
The AP says Bush in his speech in Wisconsin today "was expected to revisit a barrage of attacks against Kerry, which he unveiled Wednesday in a new stump speech that paints a Kerry presidency as dangerous to the nation's economic future and national security.  The speech, and a campaign schedule focused on states that went Democratic last time around, represent the Bush campaign's attempt to stunt Kerry's momentum..." 

The Wall Street Journal says of Bush's remarks yesterday, "Mr. Bush portrayed himself as a 'compassionate conservative'...  But his remarks yesterday appeared geared toward his political base, in part reflecting the priority the campaign is making of energizing core supporters and steering them to the polls.  Also, to give the blows added punch, Mr. Bush is leveling the attacks on his challenger himself, rather than relying on campaign surrogates, as in the past."

The Chicago Tribune, referencing Bush's speech yesterday, says the "contrast between Bush's occasional hesitancy during the debate last week and the robust and exuberant manner with which he delivered Wednesday's diatribe against Kerry also provides fresh evidence for observers of a contrast between Bush on script and Bush on his own."

The Boston Globe notices the "Massachusetts liberal" charge resurfacing: "Bush advisers hope the... label will stick on Kerry's domestic policies the same way the 'flip-flop' tag has on his foreign policy positions.  Republicans have built extensive opposition-research files on Kerry and have long eyed reprising the tactic that worked so well against former governor Michael S. Dukakis in the 1988 presidential contest."  On Bush's criticisms of Kerry's health care plan, "Kerry aides contend that the mocking is coming at the expense of facts."

In advance of the town hall, and after the VP debate in which health care wasn't really raised in the questioning, the AP compares the Bush and Kerry health care plans.  "Kerry's proposal dwarfs that of the president, costing hundreds of billions of dollars more and covering millions more people, according to most independent and campaign estimates...  The ranks of the uninsured, currently 45 million, would drop to 27 million people over 10 years, according to a range of estimates.  But it would be costly.  The campaign says the plan would cost taxpayers $653 billion over 10 years.  Other estimates put the cost at double that or more...  Kerry says he would pay for it by rolling back tax cuts for people with incomes of more than $200,000 a year."

"Bush would rely on tax incentives and market-based choices for individuals in a plan the White House says would extend coverage to 11 million, and perhaps as many as 17 million, people at a cost of $100 billion to $150 billion.  Independent estimates from the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the Lewin Group say the number of newly insured would be more in the range of 7 million to 8 million.  Democrats say the president has done little in the past four years to improve health care and proposes the same in a second term."

In the thick of the debate series, the Washington Post Style section ponders the exact location of "the line" the debaters try not to cross: "Like art and porn, what constitutes a breach of 'the line' rests in the eye of the observer."

God, guns, and gays
Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis last Friday "issued a pastoral letter saying it was a 'grave sin' to vote for politicians who supported same-sex marriage, abortion or stem-cell research," the Los Angeles Times reports.   "The letter - about 6,700 words long - was published Friday in the weekly archdiocesan newspaper and posted on its website."

"Burke earlier this year said he would not give Communion to Kerry, who's Catholic, because of the politician's support of abortion rights.  The pastoral letter was not designed to sway voters away from Kerry or any other specific candidate, said the Rev. Edward J. Richard, spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Louis."

The New York Daily News reports that Kerry, in the upcoming October 26 edition of a gay magazine, says that he would become the first President to push for same-sex civil unions -- even though he still believes that marriage is between a man and woman. 

The New York Times once again observes that Kerry rarely invokes religion on the campaign trail.  "Polls suggest that Mr. Kerry may be paying a price for his privacy, with nearly three-quarters of the public wanting a president of 'strong religious faith,' and a swath of independent voters who identify as religious swaying toward Mr. Bush... Mr. Kerry... said in an interview on his campaign plane on Monday that he would most likely give a speech about religion and policy 'somewhere in the course of the next month.'"

Whereas Gore won the Catholic vote in 2000, the AP says Kerry is splitting the vote with Bush so far -- and probably because the Republicans are making outreach efforts to the Catholic base. - AP

More Cleveland fallout
At his press conference yesterday on the Tuesday night debate, Edwards dodged MSNBC's Tom Llamas's question -- asked three times -- if he thought Cheney is a liar.  Campaign spokesperson Mark Kornblau said Edwards had clearly explained how Cheney misled voters Tuesday night and did not feel a need to get into character accusations.  At his last stop on Wednesday, Edwards did not let up in his attacks: "The camera is not very good for Dick Cheney's credibility," said Edwards in Greensboro, NC.

The Los Angeles Times covers the post-debate spinning by the running mates and their two operations.

The Washington Post says of Cheney's line about never having met Edwards that "[m]uch of the post-debate commentary focused on Cheney's error, when it turned out he and Edwards had met on a handful of occasions, including a prayer breakfast."

The battleground
The Wall Street Journal looks at how the battleground is shrinking, though the race "remains volatile, and reading conditions across battleground states can be more art than science, given wide variations in polls from state to state, and the sometimes-conflicting opinions of party strategists.  The exercise is made all the more difficult this year by higher levels of voter registration and intense partisan feelings in both political camps."

Knight Ridder covers the latest Mason-Dixon poll showing Bush leading Kerry in Florida by 4 points, but within the margin of error.

The Miami Herald reports that once again, Kerry will make Florida his first post-debate stop.

Making your vote count
USA Today says government warnings "that terrorists want to disrupt the Nov. 2 elections have created confusion, anxiety and skepticism among state and local election officials.  One Indiana county has moved some polling places from schools, Minnesota precinct judges have been urged to watch for suicide bombers, and some officials are questioning whether voters are being alarmed needlessly."

New Mexico Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron (D) "says she wonders whether the warnings amount to a veiled Republican effort to suppress voter turnout.  Historically, heavy turnout in U.S. elections has favored Democrats.  Attorney General John Ashcroft - who on Sept. 24 ordered the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies to assign what could be hundreds of agents to help deal with any threats to the elections - this week rejected the notion that the Republican White House has hyped the threat to discourage voting."

International monitors of the US election process were "shocked" to find that most of those in charge of the process are partisan, rather than nonpartisan officials, reports the AP.  "Two observer groups have been examining U.S. voting systems for compliance with international standards for free and fair elections.  The very idea disgusts some Republicans, who say it sends a message of weakness and compromises U.S. sovereignty.  Some Democrats say the scrutiny is overdue."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) believes that "irregularities with voting machines and procedures could jeopardize public confidence". – Washington Times

The Washington Post reports from Oregon on "'vote mobbing' -- a newfangled term for the old-fashioned campaign tactic of approaching people during public events such as ballgames or concerts" to get them to register to vote.

Delay
The House Ethics Committee has admonished Tom DeLay for the second time in a week -- this time for facilitating a fundraiser for an energy firm when the House was considering legislation from which the firm stood to benefit, and also for improperly exhorting the FAA to track down Texas lawmakers who had fled to Oklahoma. 

The New York Times: "The rebukes on Wednesday came on the heels of another admonishment, issued last Thursday, to Mr. DeLay for pressuring a Michigan lawmaker to switch his vote on an important health care bill...  Whether the rebukes will spell political trouble for the majority leader is unclear.  Democrats... have planned press briefings for Thursday morning to discuss the matter.  Mr. DeLay enjoys broad support in the Republican caucus, but some Republicans have said privately that his ethics record could complicate any plans he might have to become speaker of the House..."

Here's the write-up from DeLay's hometown paper, the Houston Chronicle: "The admonishment spares DeLay a more lengthy investigation by the committee less than four weeks before he faces re-election in his Fort Bend County district.  DeLay characterized the committee's decision as a dismissal of Bell's complaint and a rebuke of Democrats and liberals who call for his ouster."

The Chronicle also reminds us that three of DeLay's associates "have been indicted by a Travis County grand jury on charges of illegal fund raising involving Texans for a Republican Majority. DeLay, who was a TRMPAC founder, has distanced himself from its operations."

Caulifornia
The AP reports on how Schwarzenegger plans to mark the one-year anniversary of the recall.

Build-up to Tempe
The Washington Times says Arizona State University, site of the third presidential debate, is currently displaying "an exhibition of political art titled 'Democracy in America: Political Satire Then and Now' that... showcases historical art alongside contemporary art and includes paintings, prints, cartoons and photos.  When plans for the display were first reported in Phoenix's New Times on July 1, the publication said there would be enough anti-Bush art in the exhibit at the Tempe campus to 'make Michael Moore blush.'"

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