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

Friday, October 8, 2004| 9:30 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (25 days until Election Day)
ST. LOUIS -- With the national polls showing a tied race, 96,000 new jobs in September falling short of forecasts, tonight's town hall presenting the candidates' last shot at debating Iraq (since the Tempe forum focuses on domestic policy), and the President needing to turn in a strong performance, there's something of a make-or-break feel to this debate -- even as our brains tell us that 25 days is a long time in politics, and lots of people will be watching baseball tonight.

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Seven months into the general election campaign, and just over three weeks out from Election Day, the presidential race is still a toss-up -- that's remarkable in and of itself.  But beyond that, a lot about this election has defied what close observers have come to view as the norm, including: the dominance of national security over domestic issues for the first time in decades, the parity the two parties have achieved on fundraising, and the flouting of many of the usual tenets of incumbent-vs.-challenger races.

A Kerry victory would be huge.  But the storyline of dissatisfied voters ousting an incumbent is nothing new.  The bigger story would be if Bush wins. 

As we have said here before, Bush and his campaign have at least temporarily suspended the usual reality for presidents seeking re-election, which is that the elections are referendums on the incumbent.  If Bush wins, it will be because he made this race a referendum on Kerry and reframed the usual course of campaign debate about a war and the US economy. 

One Republican strategist points out that in 2000, voters were happy with the status quo and the Bush campaign convinced them it was time for a change.  In 2004, it's the opposite.  "Can we convince people who are not happy with the status quo to stay the course?"

Tonight, Bush and Kerry together face real voters who may ask tough, non-journalistic questions that aren't necessarily pegged to today's news.

Both candidates are scheduled to be down all day today, except for the usual closed-press walkthroughs of the debate hall at Washington University.  There, starting at 9:00 pm ET, they will be questioned by a series of "soft Bush," "soft Kerry," and undecided voters selected by Gallup (which calls them all "uncommitted").  The questions will be facilitated and followed up on by moderator Charlie Gibson. 

There's also the usual behind-the-scenes campaign ridiculousness.  The Kerry campaign is trying to cause problems for the Bush folks by telling reporters that the Bush campaign asked for visibly marked areas on the set within which the candidates can move around, charges on GOP official with knowledge of the process.  The official says the Bush campaign requested no such markings, and the debate MOU makes no mention of any.  The official also says the Kerry campaign is calling these tape marks "the Maginot line."

After the debate, Bush heads to a debate-watching party in Queeny Park at 11:05 pm, while Kerry attends a rally at 11:00 pm.  The Vice President attends a debate watch party in Palm Harbor, FL at 8:00 pm.  Edwards does a town hall in Scranton, PA at 10:45 am, then heads to Detroit for fundraising receptions. 

And within seconds of hearing about the September jobs data, the Kerry campaign scheduled a 9:30 conference call to talk about it...

Today's stops
Cheney attends a debate-watching party in Palm Harbor, FL tonight and Edwards campaigns in the battleground states of Pennsylvania and Michigan.  The Citizen's Voice says today will be Edwards's third visit to this region in Pennsylvania.  The Democrats took both of these states by over 200,000 votes in 2000.  Pennsylvania's unemployment rose from a 5.3% in July to 5.6% in August, while Michigan's dipped slightly from a July 6.8% to a 6.7% in August.

Build-up to St. Louis: National and Homeland Security
Rumsfeld, Bremer, Duelfer: Knight Ridder ticks off the latest developments regarding the Administration's case for war in Iraq which Kerry is likely to try to use to his advantage tonight.

Bremer pens a New York Times op-ed arguing that his we-needed-more-troops-in-Iraq comment needs to be put in context.  "Mr. Kerry is free to quote my comments about Iraq.  But for the sake of honesty he should also point out that I have repeatedly said, including in all my speeches in recent weeks, that President Bush made a correct and courageous decision to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein's brutality, and that the president is correct to see the war in Iraq as a central front in the war on terrorism."

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein on the potential political impact of the Duelfer report: "Though public support for the war hasn't been hurt much by earlier studies that found Iraq lacked such illicit weapons, the exhaustive new report from the CIA's Iraq Survey Group could prove considerably more damaging to Bush...  The situation exposes Bush to a potentially dangerous squeeze: mounting losses on the ground combined with mounting challenges to his original justification for the war."

"The impact may... turn on how effectively Kerry can resolve doubts about his own approach to Iraq and use the report to take the offensive against Bush."  But: "The report collides directly with a long list of statements from the president and his top aides before the war, unequivocally asserting that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction or was actively seeking nuclear weapons."

"Even some senior Democratic strategists think Kerry's previous statements make it tough for him to accuse Bush of deliberately misleading the country before the war, despite the release of the new study.  But some predict Bush may be on less defensible ground by continuing to allege that Iraq's weapons program represented a threat to the United States."

The Washington Post says Kerry at his presser yesterday about the Duelfer report used "some of the most contemptuous language he has used against the president and Vice President Cheney during their bitter campaign."  "Kerry was asked at his news conference how he could accuse Bush of 'aggrandizing' the threat Hussein posed when he also had claimed the Iraqi leader was dangerous and needed to be confronted.  Kerry said that effective diplomacy could have kept sanctions in place and Hussein contained."

Yesterday, "Kerry, who used some of his most pointed language yet to attack the president's handling of the war in Iraq, had been forced to postpone his appearance for an hour when Bush preempted Kerry's remarks with an unscheduled announcement of his own, underscoring the increased gamesmanship the campaigns are engaged in with less than a month to go before Election Day" notes the Boston Globe.

Cheney yesterday in Fort Myers, FL: "But we now know from the Duelfer Report... that in fact what Saddam Hussein had done was to take the oil for food program that was intended to provide food supplies and medical supplies for the Iraqi people, and to let the government sell a certain amount of oil and use the revenue from that to purchase essential food and medical commodities for the Iraqis...  Saddam perverted that whole thing, corrupted it, in effect, and generated billions of dollars which he used partly to get around the sanctions... but he also used the funds to corrupt other -- including, it looks like, some employees of the United Nations as well as other governments, in the hopes that they would work with him to undermine the sanctions." 

MSNBC's Priya David reports that Cheney also said that on the plane yesterday, he'd envisioned a world where Kerry's votes had won out at three points in the past 20 years:

-- in 1987, when the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed with the Soviet Union.  Cheney argued that the treaty wouldn't have been signed because Kerry was in favor of a nuclear freeze;

-- in 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.  Cheney charged out that Kerry voted against the use of force to oust Hussein, and if Kerry had had his way, Hussein would be in control of more oil reserves and would have likely achieved nuclear capability; and,

-- in the present day, when the President used force in Iraq.  Cheney argued that Kerry wouldn't have used force, but would have used sanctions and UN resolutions, which Cheney said was the wrong choice because the Duelfer report shows that sanctions were coming apart at the seams and that Hussein would have started up his WMD program as soon as sanctions were lifted.

At both of his stops yesterday, David reports, Cheney added the new phrase, "Indecision kills," in reference to Kerry.

David adds that Cheney specifically predicted violence at the polling places tomorrow in Afghanistan.

Edwards yesterday on the Duelfer report: "The Vice President, Dick Cheney, and the President, George W. Bush, need to recognize that the Earth is actually round and that the sun rises in the east, that there is no connection between Saddam Hussein and September 11th," said Edwards.  "And they need to level with the American people...  Level with the American people about this diversion from the war on terror."

Build-up to St. Louis: the economy
The Wall Street Journal says the Bush campaign "hopes" that the new economic data will "offset bad news on Iraq."  Campaign strategists await jobs report today that's expected to show employment gains.  Since the economy has been out of the spotlight, that news is 'less redundant' and more likely to affect voters, a Bush adviser says.  Democratic strategists, preparing for next week's Bush-Kerry debate on domestic issues, note the incumbent remains on track to be the first chief executive to preside over net job loss since Hoover.  Soon after that debate, trade-deficit and currency-policy reports come out.  The Kerry campaign plans to pounce if the administration again absolves China of manipulating its currency.  Private economists say third-quarter growth, out four days before the election, could top 4%."

The Los Angeles Times front-pages some holes in Kerry's plan to curb outsourcing: "Kerry may well bring up outsourcing at tonight's second presidential debate, especially if the national employment report for September, set to be released today, is weak.  Yet changing the tax code to keep companies from shipping work abroad - a centerpiece of Kerry's proposal to create 10 million jobs in the U.S. - may not do much to solve the problem."

The New York Times looks at Bush's economic philosophy and provides context for today's job numbers.  "The economy has been growing since late in 2001, robustly at times.  But despite three substantial tax-cut packages - Mr. Bush signed a fourth into law this week - job creation has been modest at best.  The government's financial condition has deteriorated.  Polls show that many Americans doubt conditions are improving...  Mr. Bush, though, has expressed no doubts that his is the right course."

The Washington Post says Bush's siding with the tax cut advocates over the deficit hawks in his Administration "contributed to mounting budget deficits and debt that may prove to be one of Bush's most enduring legacies."

"When Bush took office in January 2001, the government was forecasting a $5.6 trillion budget surplus between then and 2011.  Instead, it is now expecting to accumulate an extra $3 trillion in debt -- including a record $415 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30...  Without doubt, the fiscal turnaround started with the bursting of the stock market bubble and was pushed forward by recession, terrorist attacks and corporate scandals not of the president's making.  But conservative and liberal budget analysts agree that deficits were increased by the administration's policy choices: tax cuts amid swelling red ink and the costly invasion of Iraq."

Bush's OMB director suggests the surplus projections were off.  "But other conservative and liberal analysts believe Bush helped change reality."

USA Today updates the serious harm the price of oil is causing the airline industry:.

Expectations management
The Los Angeles Times says "the setting will test each candidate's ability to field a variety of questions on domestic and foreign policy issues while trying to personally connect with members of the audience.  Analysts said the political dynamic had changed significantly since the eve of the first presidential debate, held Sept. 30."

In a pair of stories, USA Today says "President Bush has an aptitude for the town hall format that will be used in tonight's debate...  In 19 question-and-answer sessions this year, Bush has parried with a few hostile questioners, showcased his easygoing nature and created some poignant moments and laughs.  He seems comfortable roaming a stage, riffing on his views instead of delivering his standard speech.  Tonight's rules allow Bush to move around the stage and respond to the voters who will pose the questions." 

And the Kerry story says "Kerry has another chance to surprise America tonight, and perhaps President Bush, the same way his tight answers confounded expectations in the pair's first debate last week...  Kerry aides predicted Thursday his strongest suit will be answering voters with specifics that relate to them.  People telling their life stories and asking for specific answers are 'the president's worst nightmare,' Joe Lockhart said."

The paper includes sidebars with information on Bush and Kerry town halls through the course of the campaign (hint: Kerry has done a lot more).

The Wall Street Journal says "tonight's contest... will be as much about style as substance -- and Mr. Bush, needing a more decisive and less defensive performance than he gave a week ago, certainly retains a stylistic advantage.  While both candidates come from affluent New England families and attended Yale, the folksy Texan has a big edge in connecting with voters."

The CW and the Kerry spin are that Bush is better in town hall formats, but MSNBC's Felix Schein, traveling with Kerry, observes that Kerry has improved on his town hall performances of late, learning to connect by asking questioners their names, referencing stories he has heard from others, joking and asking questions in return.

The Dallas Morning News notes that in the first debate, questions came from a moderator and were limited to foreign policy.  'The odds of a plumber or bus driver from St. Louis asking a really tough or low-blow question are a lot higher than a mainstream journalist,' political analyst Charles Cook said."

And the Washington Post looks at how Bush may be handicapped in the debates by his general isolation from tough questions from reporters and at campaign events.

The Washington Times has Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman trying to raise expectations for Kerry by talking about his experience as a prosecutor, and notes how the Bush campaign was confident enough about Bush's performance in informal settings that he spoke in the round at the GOP convention.  (That said, that was a speech -- not a Q&A session.)

Edwards yesterday tried to raise the bar for Bush for tonight, MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports: "Call me old fashioned but I think the President of the United States in order to perform well in a debate needs to do more than not screw up his face and needs to do more than be able to string a sentence together."

More build-up
The Washington Post has some details on how the questioners were selected by Gallup and what they'll be doing all day today leading up to the debate.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch sets the scene for students on campus.

Kerry arrived in St. Louis last night and his campaign plane touched down just in time for the top of the 10:00 pm local news, MSNBC's Felix Schein reports, but while the hangar was heavily outfitted with electronics, it was sparsely populated with supporters.  Judging by the thousands of dollars spent on robotic lighting, a massive soundboard, big-screen TV and staging, the campaign was clearly hoping to make a splash upon arrival, Schein says, but there was only a crowd of a few hundred and few cameras.  As a result, Kerry did not make any remarks.

As for Missouri itself, the Kerry campaign retains a staff in the state but stopped advertising here weeks ago, even though a recent UPenn/Annenberg focus group of independent voters in Kansas City and informal interviews with voters in St. Louis suburbs suggest an openness to considering Kerry.  MSNBC's Becky Diamond approached several dozen voters in the greater St. Louis area this week and found a lot of dissatisfaction with the choices.  One Democratic party source tells Diamond that Missouri will be a difficult state for Kerry to win, but that he and other Democrats connected to the overall election effort think Kerry made a mistake in pulling his ads so soon.  This source points to the Democratic 527s "still going balls-out there."  The source says the Kerry campaign pulled its advertising because the polling looked bad at the time, but believes Kerry's outlook has improved and that the polls don't count new registrants.

A Kerry campaign aide tells Diamond that "Missouri was always a state we were always going to advertise in later," which might indicate the campaign will hit the airwaves here after the debate.  This aide says, "There's an ebb and flow to this...  Missouri is still a state of undecideds," and added "all options are on the table."  Both the aide and Kerry's state director emphasize that the campaign's ground game in Missouri is one of their best: 23 field offices, compared to seven in 2000.

The battleground
"Kerry has sliced President Bush's lead in Wisconsin and is tied with him in Colorado, a state Bush won in the 2000 presidential race, USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Polls of battleground states released Thursday show.  Bush leads Kerry 50% to 47% among likely voters in New Mexico, another tossup state, according to a poll conducted Sunday through Wednesday."

The New York Post says that new states polls have Bush up in Florida, Kerry up in Pennsylvania, and both candidates essentially tied in Ohio. 

Democrats argue that New Jersey is in their column, and it should be, but the Washington Times points out that Edwards has visited the state twice in recent weeks.

The Los Angeles Times handicaps Bush's good shot at winning Wisconsin, and also notes that his campaign seems to be pulling out of Washington state (though we can't recall the campaign recently touting it as a possible win).

Making your vote count
"Like personal injury lawyers scouring an accident-prone intersection for the next collision," the Chicago Tribune writes, "thousands of attorneys across the nation are gearing up for the first presidential contest since Bush vs. Gore and the Florida meltdown of 2000...  While no one is predicting the perfect storm of election mishaps and razor-slim margins that resulted in the last presidential election being determined by the U.S. Supreme Court, the potential for extensive court activity exists."

The New York Times notes the intense effort by the military's highest in command to make sure that military personnel abroad votes -- and on time.

One county in Missouri is reprinting 500 absentee ballots after discovering that Bush and Cheney were left off, reports the AP

The AP also says the "Florida Democratic Party accused Secretary of State Glenda Hood of violating federal law when she told elections supervisors across the state that they should reject incomplete voter-registration forms."  Democrats filed a federal suit yesterday asking "a judge to order Hood to reverse those instructions to the state's 67 counties."

"The Democrats were expected to argue in federal court Friday against the state law that requires provisional ballots to be cast in a voter's precinct."

Elsewhere in Florida, the "NAACP sued Volusia County's elections supervisor, alleging the county disenfranchises blacks by having only one early voting site in an area where fewer minorities live.  The NAACP wants elections chief Deanie Lowe to open another early voting site by Oct. 18 in the eastern part of the county, where more blacks live, according to the federal voting rights lawsuit filed Thursday."  - AP

Delay
The Washington Post covers Democrats' calls on DeLay to quit his Majority Leader post, and provides more background for the charges.

The New York Times says the November elections -- rather than the recent ethics rebukes -- will largely decide DeLay's fate.  "'Our candidates are going to talk all over the country about an ethical Congress,' Representative Steny H. Hoyer, the Democratic whip, told reporters.  Of Republicans, Mr. Hoyer said: 'They're afraid that this is going to resonate. I think that's a proper fear.'"

The Los Angeles Times points out, "the infractions for which he has been called on the carpet are not just about his personal ambitions.  They arise from his broader political ambitions to win not just the next election for the Republicans, but to build the GOP into a lasting majority party - a long-term goal shared by President Bush and his top political advisor, Karl Rove."

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