“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.

First glance (22 days until Election Day)
The President can't hide... from events beyond his control which bolster Kerry's arguments in the run-up to the debates. 

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The death of Christopher Reeve, the closest thing many knew to Superman, puts stem cell research in the spotlight at the start of the week of the final presidential debate, which will focus on domestic issues.  This comes after last week's stream of remarks by key Administration players on Iraq undermined Bush's case for war in the run-up to the St. Louis town hall.

Kerry even mentioned Reeve in the debate last Friday in talking up embryonic stem cell research, the issue he has used more than any other to try to level the playing field on values, and which he is sure to raise more often as Bush-Cheney tries to hang the "liberal" millstone around his neck.

On Friday, we pointed out that a lot about this election has defied the usual trends and dynamics for an incumbent seeking a second term, and that as a result, the bigger story would be a Bush win.  Today, as Part Two, we'll note how event-driven this election has been, with many events beyond Bush's control potentially affecting the race directly or at the margins -- like Reeve's passing. 

On top of that, many of the big expectations the Bush campaign reasonably had heading into this general election have been not only disproved, but disproved to a problematic degree:

Republicans figured that the war and fighting terrorism would be great strengths for Bush.  Their case for war has been repeatedly undermined, including by some of their own people, and Iraqi insurgents seem determined to escalate the violence as we get closer to election day.

Republicans figured that the economy would improve.  But job growth, the most widely used measure of economic improvement, has been sluggish.  Democrats also have successfully demonized outsourcing. 

And, Republicans figured they would have more money than Democrats.  But 527 groups funded with massive influxes of small contributions and big checks from wealthy liberals like George Soros have helped Democrats overcome their usual fundraising disadvantage, and buffeted Kerry during August when his campaign was dark.

Taken together, you could argue that the fact that Bush nevertheless stands an even shot at winning is testimony to both the discipline of his campaign and to missed opportunities over the last several months by Kerry and his operation.

With the Wednesday debate being out west, the candidates spend the first half of the week in the Mountain and Pacific time zones.  In fact, they're both in New Mexico today.  The President attends a rally in Hobbs, NM at 11:05 am, then he travels to Colorado for a luncheon fundraiser for Senate nominee Peter Coors in Denver at 2:20 pm and a rally in Morrison at 7:00 pm.

Kerry takes time off from debate prep to give a 12 noon ET speech in Santa Fe on energy independence; MSNBC's Felix Schein says the speech is not expected to break new ground, but to review Kerry's energy proposals. 

The Vice President does rallies in Medford, NJ at 10:30 am and Batavia, OH at 2:20 pm.  And Edwards does a town hall in Newton, IA at 11:00 am, a rally in Kansas City at 6:00 pm, and a Victory Fund reception in Leawood at 8:10 pm.

Today's stops
Bush campaigns in New Mexico and Colorado today.  New Mexico's August unemployment was 5.4%, up from 5.3% in July.  Colorado's jobless rate remained steady in July and August at 5.1%.  Gore won New Mexico in 2000 by just over 350 votes, while Bush took Colorado by just over 145,000 votes.  The AP notes that Bush will likely speak about domestic issues in preparation for this week's debate. 

Kerry also spends the day in New Mexico.  The Albuquerque Journal notes this is Kerry's sixth trip to the state and that he said wants to bring "some of that good mountain inspiration" to Wednesday's debate in Tempe.

The AP also says the West is "considered a second-tier battleground region behind the upper Midwest and big swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida."

National and Homeland Security
The Los Angeles Times reports, "The Bush administration plans to delay major assaults on rebel-held cities in Iraq until after U.S. elections in November, say administration officials, mindful that large-scale military offensives could affect the U.S. presidential race."  The story also notes, "Any delay in pacifying Iraq's most troublesome cities... could alter the dynamics of a different election - the one in January, when Iraqis are to elect members of a national assembly."

Post-Duelfer report, the New York Times notices that Bush "appears to have expanded the conditions for a pre-emptive military strike.  He no longer talks about urgency...  Taken at face value, Mr. Bush appears to be saying that under his new standard, a country merely has to be thinking about developing illicit weapons at some time."

One of the President's stops today is a Denver fundraiser for Colorado Senate nominee Pete Coors, who asserted on Meet the Press yesterday that Congress would not have voted to authorize a war in Iraq if they had known then what they know now, and that the Administration should be more concerned about Iran and North Korea than Iraq.  – Washington Post

Meanwhile, the Washington Times reports on a Swift Boat Veterans for Truth gathering in DC for purposes of a weekend shoot which "produced enough footage for two or three more ads, which the Swiftees plan to run starting Thursday in Pennsylvania and Ohio and in a few heavily military areas of Florida."

And the New York Times says the Sinclair Broadcasting Group -- which has TV stations in 62 markets, many of them in swing states -- will air a documentary critical of Kerry within the next two weeks.  "Called 'Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal,' the documentary features Vietnam veterans who say their Vietnamese captors used Mr. Kerry's 1971 Senate testimony, in which he recounted stories of American atrocities, prolonging their torture and betraying and demoralizing them." 

The Times reminds us that "Sinclair was already a galvanizing force for Democrats.  The political donations of its executives have gone overwhelmingly to Republicans," and in "April Sinclair refused to run an episode of 'Nightline' on its stations in which the anchor Ted Koppel spent the entire program reading the names of American soldiers killed in Iraq."

The Chicago Tribune writes up the dueling campaign ads over national and homeland security.  "The Bush campaign's newest advertisement on national cable television... quotes Kerry in suggesting that fighting terrorism is more a matter of law enforcement and intelligence-gathering than a military operation...  The Kerry campaign is releasing a new TV ad that says 95 percent of freight containers coming into U.S. ports go uninspected."

The New York Times notes that Bush's retooled stump speech has not only been tougher on Kerry, but has also been stripped of many of his best lines: "Gone was one of Mr. Bush's favorite phrases, used just four days earlier in Ohio, about the 'transformational power of liberty.'  Gone was his familiar line that freedom is 'the Almighty God's gift to each man and woman in this world.'  Gone, too, was his sunny prediction that someday an American president would sit down with 'a duly elected leader of Iraq' to talk about how to keep the peace in the 'greater Middle East.'"

"Campaign officials insisted that Mr. Bush was not ditching his well-worked lines - all of them in the hopeful language of his chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson - to keep pace with reality on the ground in Iraq.  Instead, the officials said that with all the new attack lines against Mr. Kerry, something had to go."

The Washington Post Style section tailed Kerry out of St. Louis and points out that despite the turn to domestic issues, "Iraq remains -- judging by Kerry's events this weekend -- the emotional center of his campaign...  While domestic concerns might be 'winning issues' for Kerry, foreign policy has long been a greater source of interest for him.  Some Democrats and campaign aides -- interviewed before and after Friday night's debate in St. Louis -- expressed some concern that Kerry, when he discusses domestic issues, will lack the passion he displays when the subject is Iraq."

The Wall Street Journal seems to agree.  In its story noting how "Bush has begun an election homestretch battle over domestic issues by framing the race in classic ideological terms: conservative Republican vs. liberal Democrat," the Journal says, "For much of the year, domestic issues have been viewed as Mr. Kerry's strong suit...  But lately, Mr. Kerry has made more political headway by confronting Mr. Bush over Iraq."

The "liberal" label
NBC's Norah O'Donnell reports that per a top Republican source, former Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote a letter to a small group of top Bush advisors a week ago expressing concern about the campaign's strategy in the final stretch of the campaign.  Gingrich wrote, "I distrust personality focused elections," and that "this is becoming a personality focused election."  Another Republican source says Gingrich believes that the "flip-flopper" label has run its course and that it's time to reframe the debate to labeling Kerry as a Massachusetts liberal.  "They won't tell the truth and we need to focus on who they really are," Gingrich reportedly wrote.

O'Donnell suggests that Gingrich's advice may in part explain what appears to be a subtle but significant shift by the campaign, as she reported yesterday.  Three times in the second debate, Bush used the "liberal" label.  He repeated it on the campaign trail this past weekend, adding his new attack line, "He can run, but he can't hide."  While calling a Democrat a 'liberal' is nothing new, both Karl Rove and Karen Hughes hammered home the point in conversations with O'Donnell -- Rove in particular calling Kerry a "left-of-fringe liberal."

O'Donnell notes that this shift reflects another effort by the campaign to try and cast this election as a referendum on Kerry's record rather than the President's.  We'd add that it also reflects the campaign's becoming more focused on domestic issues and less on Iraq in advance of the town hall debate, which was split between foreign and domestic issues, and of the third debate, which will focus entirely on domestic issues.

The AP says "Bush's attempt to increase his focus on domestic policy is buoyed by his advisers' assessment that his much-improved performance in the second debate was strongest when the discussion turned to domestic issues, an area where Kerry believes he has the advantage with voters."

Another plus for Bush on the "liberal" label may be that it motivates conservatives.  The Washington Times notes that Bush "has consolidated the support of conservative Republicans to a much higher degree than was true four years ago, veteran campaign analysts say."

Bob Novak says Bush performed much better at the second debate in St. Louis because he did a much better job of pinning "the scarlet letter 'L' (for liberal)" on Kerry's chest.  "What bothered Republican leaders nationwide about President Bush's performance in the first debate at Coral Gables, Fla., was not so much his bizarre body language as his failure to press the liberal label on Kerry."

One way Kerry may be trying to counter the label is by talking about values.  MSNBC's Schein, who covered Kerry's two church events in Miami yesterday, notes that such appearances have, of late, turned into rallies where the line between politics and faith has been almost eliminated. 

Knight Ridder reports, "For months, the Kerry camp has been trying to reach out to religious voters, using the language of values and equating Kerry's domestic policy proposals to the Biblical call for 'good deeds' from people of faith.  On Sunday, Kerry quoted from the book of James, from Second Corinthians and from the book of Hebrews.  He riffed on the tale of the Good Samaritan, recalling that the story was Jesus' parable about caring for a neighbor."

And the Washington Times notes how Kerry and Jesse Jackson tried to persuade black voters at Kerry's church events yesterday that gay marriage shouldn't be central to how they vote.  "Both parties wonder how well black voters, who traditionally vote Democratic, will turn out to support Mr. Kerry on Nov. 2.  The senator has invested time in the past two weeks visiting churches with primarily black congregations and meetings of ministers.  The issue of banning homosexuals from marrying is a wild card, with polls showing black voters overwhelmingly in support of such a ban."

Taxes and the economy
Walter Shapiro in USA Today covers Kerry's St. Louis town hall pledge not to raise taxes on families earning less than $200,000 a year: "Presidents of any party do not like being so boxed in by their own campaign rhetoric that they cannot make policy adjustments if the external environment shifts.  And never before has a Democratic presidential contender stared directly into the camera during a debate to so forthrightly swear, 'I am not going to raise taxes.'"

"While Kerry's instantaneous decision Friday night to recite the required pledge may have been shrewd politics, his choice is certain to exasperate the Treasury secretary in any would-be Democratic administration in 2005.  Now that the Democratic nominee is so locked in, every discussion of the budget deficit, tax reform, Social Security or Medicare in a Kerry White House will pivot around the pledge."

Forget outsourcing.  The Washington Post front-pages a look at the "contingency" workforce of temp employees who receive little job security or benefits.

More build-up to Tempe
The New York Sun reports that the Tempe debate "has been thrown into doubt after a state judge in Arizona ordered a hearing on whether the event... should be halted because the Libertarian Party's nominee for president has not been invited.  Judge F. Pendleton Gaines III instructed the debate's hosts, Arizona State University and the Commission on Presidential Debates, to appear in his courtroom in Phoenix tomorrow to respond to a lawsuit filed last week by the Libertarians."

"The suit argues that the university is illegally donating state resources to the Republican and Democratic Parties by serving as host for a debate that showcases Messrs. Bush and Kerry but excludes their Libertarian counterpart, Michael Badnarik, who is on the ballot in Arizona and 47 other states."

The New York Post notes that the Bush campaign used the Sunday talk shows to bash Kerry on health care.

The AP reports that the "Bush administration has promoted its education law with a video that comes across as a news story but fails to make clear that the reporter involved was paid with taxpayer money...  The video and ratings documents emerged through a Freedom of Information Act request by People for the American Way, a liberal group that contends the department is spending public money on a political agenda."  The Administration used a similar tactic earlier this year to promote its new Medicare law.

And the Boston Globe reports that Kerry will be assisted with debate prep by Rep. Barney Frank "because of his familiarity with domestic issues -- the focus of the debate -- and his ability to speak about them in memorable ways."

Note that a scheduled Kerry address to the AARP on Thursday signals that Kerry intends to come off the Tempe debate still focusing on domestic issues like Social Security and Medicare...

More Bush v. Kerry
The Boston Herald on what the "October surprise" might be:  "This much is clear: Democratic circles are intensely suspicious about the possibility of President Bush's team, particularly his political guru Karl Rove, trying to engineer a surprise to ensure Bush is re-elected."

The Washington Post on Edwards's round of Sunday shows and increasing visibility overall: "An Edwards aide said Sunday that in the week after his debate with Vice President Cheney, Edwards has been called on to take a more prominent role in disputing Republican accusations and solidifying the women's vote, which Democrats were becoming increasingly concerned about several weeks ago."

MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports the existence of a new "hot" Edwards campaign button which shows Edwards's face with "Hot Chicks dig Edwards" written in bubble script.  The buttons are not official Kerry-Edwards campaign material.

Leaving Miami Sunday night, Kerry ran more than an hour behind schedule, MSNBC's Schein reports -- an hour during which dozens of law enforcement officers, staff members, and Secret Service agents stood idly by and dozens of vehicles literally idled, making todays speech on with energy independence all the more fitting.  But his habit of being late also says something about how Kerry operates, Schein notes.  That he often sends staff members in dozens of directions in search of information he rarely uses is already known.  That he can ramble and lack discipline on the stump is known.  That he spends hours consulting via phone is known.  Does running perpetually late fit the same pattern and indicate as much about discipline, structure, and organization?

GOTV
The Bush campaign, focusing beyond the final debate, has e-mailed supporters asking them to participate along with "tens of thousands" of volunteers in a "Walk the Vote Weekend" next weekend to "carry out the largest door-to-door contact program ever assembled."

The Los Angeles Times notes how for some African-American voters in Florida, the recount "has elicited a surge of activism in the 2004 presidential race."

The New York Times also describes the fervor among many African-Americans to vote, which is causing their voter-registration rates to skyrocket:.

Making your vote count
The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein notes that under Colorado's proposed initiative to split the state's electoral votes, "it would require a 61% landslide in the popular vote to win the sixth Electoral College vote."  The state seems most likely to split its votes 5-4.

"Historically, the best argument for the proportional system has been that it makes every vote valuable, since every ballot would affect the candidates' ability to reach the 270 Electoral College votes required for election.  The modern era's polarization has added another justification.  Today, most voters never see the candidates because their states are safely in either the blue or red column.  A proportional system would give candidates the incentive to campaign even in states they are sure to lose."

But, Brownstein notes, "If the idea spread, it would increase the risk that no candidate would reach a majority in the Electoral College.  That's because proportional representation makes it much easier for third-party candidates to capture some Electoral College votes."

USA Today does its take on provisional ballots being the hanging chad of 2004:.

The battleground
USA Today reports that Pinellas County, Florida still seems split over its choice for president.

Sunday's Boston Globe started a series looking at the state of play in battleground states.  First up, Ohio.

The Washington Post reports from Toledo, "Between March and late September, 14,273 commercials about the presidential race aired on Toledo's four leading TV stations, according to the ad tracking firm TNSI/Campaign Media Analysis Group of Arlington."

The Washington Post also focuses on battleground Iowa: "Together with Minnesota and Wisconsin, Iowa makes up part of a trio of upper midwestern states where Democratic strength has been weakened in the past four years and where the Bush campaign sees the chance to defeat Kerry and to offset a potential loss in Ohio or Florida...  Until the presidential debates began, Bush held a narrow lead over Kerry in Iowa, according to polls for both campaigns.  The first debate gave Democrats an infusion of energy, and private polling by the Democrats shows some movement in Kerry's direction, although not as much as in some other states."

"As of the middle of last week, about 270,000 Iowans had requested absentee ballots...  State Democratic Party officials say Democrats hold a 2 to 1 edge in those requests and an even larger advantage among those who have returned ballots."

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