“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 12, 2004| 9:40 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (21 days until Election Day)
President Bush offers one last speech on the war in front of a military audience in Colorado Springs before heading to Tempe, AZ for his debate against Kerry on domestic issues tomorrow night.  Kerry, like many journalists traveling to the debate, opts to head to Arizona tomorrow so he can watch the Sox-Yankees game tonight; he continues prepping in Santa Fe today.

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We were going to say yesterday, before Christopher Reeve passed away, that we noticed that the Afghans had issues with their election, too.  Instead of dual registration and faulty voter rolls, they had bad ink.  Instead of provisional ballots and paperless e-voting machines, they had (have) donkeys (still) transporting ballots.  Yet US and world leaders and monitoring organizations like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which has expressed doubts about the upcoming US presidential election, pronounced Afghanistan's a success.

So in a new democracy, the process is celebrated more than the potential -- and potentially fatal -- problems.  (It surely helps when the election fits with other nations' foreign policy goals...)  Whereas in the United States, the potential problems threaten to overwhelm the process.

The 2004 election should be a step toward renewing Americans' faith in voting after that faith was shaken in 2000.  It's unrealistic to expect all reforms required under HAVA to be put into effect smoothly within one election cycle, and implementing those reforms is a bumpy process. 

But instead of optimism that some progress could be made, there's widespread pessimism.  All parties involved seem to be fighting the last war: Democrats learned in 2000 that it's hard to change the outcome of an election after the fact, so they're seeking to fix anticipated problems now; Republicans don't want a Bush victory to be in doubt; and the press is trying to get ahead of anticipated issues on every human and technological front by reporting them out beforehand, after playing catch-up last time.

On top of that, the Administration has real concerns about voters' safety from a terrorist attack.  Democrats have real worries that steps being taken to ensure voters' safety -- particularly voters in heavily minority urban areas -- will in fact discourage some from turning out.  All these issues are, at base, genuine and legit. 

But just this week alone, Democrats are accusing the Administration of trying to suppress the vote through anti-terror measures.  The Bush campaign yesterday charged the AFL-CIO with coordinated voter intimidation.  Thousands of lawyers representing both sides already are commingling with election officials to an unprecedented degree.  And the press is covering it every step of the way.

Last cycle, the image of the process was battered on election night and in the weeks thereafter.  On election night 2004, as NBC's Tom Brokaw writes in Newsweek this week, NBC and other networks plan to proceed cautiously in the belief that it's better to be right than to be first.  But this time, seeds of doubt in the process are being sowed before Election Day.  So we'll be looking for election success stories as well as stories of problems after November 2.

President Bush today speaks at a rally in Colorado Springs, CO at 11:30 am, and attends a Victory 2004 luncheon in Paradise Valley, AZ at 3:50 pm.  The Vice President attends a morning coffee in Davenport, IA at 9:00 am, does a town hall in Milwaukee at 12:45 pm, and then heads to Rochester, MN for a rally at 4:55 pm.

MSNBC's Felix Schein advises that we'll probably get a shot of Kerry riding his bike or doing some other physical activity this morning before he goes down for debate prep all day.

And Edwards does a town hall in Commerce City, CO at 11:30 am, then travels to California to tape "The Tonight Show" at 7:00 pm and attend a Victory Fund Reception in San Francisco at 11:15 pm. 

Today's stops
Bush campaigns in Colorado Springs this morning before heading to Arizona for a fundraising luncheon and to prepare for tomorrow night's debate in Tempe.  Bush won Colorado four years ago by just over 145,000 votes.  Colorado's unemployment dropped from 4.4% in July, to 4.0% in August.  The AP says "Bush's campaigning today in the conservative heart of Colorado is an effort to counter Kerry's surprising bid to win a state that has voted Republican in nine of the past 11 presidential elections. One poll shows Bush ahead in Colorado; another shows the two men in a close race."

Kerry, meanwhile, spends the day in Santa Fe, NM preparing for the debate.  Gore won New Mexico by just 366 votes.  The state's jobless rate rose from 5.3% in July, to 5.4% in August.  The Albuquerque Journal reports that Kerry is reviewing Bush's responses during the last debate to prepare for the upcoming one.

Other people's elections
The Washington Times says of the elections in Australia and Afghanistan, "President Bush's policy of spreading democracy abroad, with military might where necessary, was vindicated in overseas elections over the weekend, some observers said...  Kerry campaign national security spokesman Mark Kitchens said the elections in neither country served to vindicate Mr. Bush's policies." 

"At a sensitive moment in the U.S. presidential campaign," the Washington Post reports, "the Bush administration is promoting the tentative success of Afghanistan's election as a hopeful model for Iraq's future..."  While Kerry has criticized Bush's Afghanistan policy, "the White House cited the voting in Afghanistan as a validation of the president's strategy on terrorism and Iraq."

"A senior State Department official... said the voting proved that it is possible to move from a society gripped by terror to democracy in a relatively short time.  In June, when voter registration was launched, he noted, analysts predicted intimidation and limited security would prevent the majority from signing up.  Instead, more than 10 million people registered and more than half voted.  Yet experts on Afghanistan caution that, on many counts, the presidential election is not a fair test of whether democracy is taking deep root."

National and Homeland Security
Knight Ridder says the two candidates' speeches in New Mexico yesterday "highlighted what each... considers his main strength.  For Kerry, the message of energy independence is a crossover issue that addresses such domestic policies as conservation, environment and rising oil prices while serving as a way for the United States to extricate itself from turmoil in the Persian Gulf.  For Bush, attacking Kerry's stance on terrorism plays to his strengths with the electorate.  Polls indicate Americans prefer Bush to Kerry in leading the war against terrorists."

The AP notes of Bush's Colorado Springs stop today, "On the way to the debate that will range over domestic issues from the economy to health care, Bush is reaching out to military supporters in Colorado Springs, where the war in Iraq is the chief concern."

The New York Times looks at Bush's record on foreign policy.  "The Nov. 2 election will see if Mr. Bush's approach to foreign policy - replete with images of courage and endurance, of moral certitudes and of generational struggle to defeat a new enemy while transforming an entire region - has proved persuasive to most Americans. It has clearly divided America's friends."

MSNBC's Priya David recounts this notable exchange at Cheney's New Jersey rally yesterday morning between trooper David Jones, East Regional Coordinator for the National Troopers'  Coalition, and the audience as they waited for Cheney to take the stage.  Jones: "When everyone asks me, the country's so divided, so polarized, how is it that the troopers, the national troopers behind me, troopers here in New Jersey and especially the east region, can so easily make the choice that we made, I ask them this: What if by some miracle Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were able to go to the polls?  Is there any chance that they would be voting Republican?"  Crowd: "NO!"  Jones: "Who do you think they would vote for?" 

Crowd: "Kerry!"  Jones: "And then we'd do the opposite."

David reports that Cheney thanked Jones, though it's unlikely Cheney heard much of his speech because he and his staff hadn't entered the staging area at that point.  Cheney spokesperson Anne Womack did not hear the comments, but told David, "Our campaign believes that President Bush has plans that will fight a more effective war on terror and keep America safer.  Those were things that the trooper was expressing...  Obviously Trooper Jones was not speaking for the campaign."  When asked if the Vice President agrees with Jones's views, Womack repeated what she had previously said.

Edwards yesterday responded to the new Bush campaign ad charging Kerry with saying terrorism should be reduced to a "nuisance:" "We've already seen over the last 24-48 hours that they are so afraid of what John Kerry has shown in these two debates," said Edwards during his rally in Kansas City.  Edwards spokesperson Mark Kornblau told MSNBC's Tom Llamas that Edwards was specifically addressing the new ad.  "George Bush is the man who let Osama Bin Laden get away at Tora Bora, George Bush is the man who said may not be able to win the war on terror," said Edwards.

Llamas reports that during a private fundraiser in Leawood, KS, Edwards compared Bush's view of Iraq to a Groucho Marx skit in which Marx's wife catches him cheating with another woman, and Marx says, "Who do you believe, me or your own two eyes?"

Media notes
The Los Angeles Times says of the new Bush TV ad, "some analysts warned Monday that his campaign was playing loose with the facts - and that the attack could backfire.  The new ad... has drawn protests from the Kerry campaign and other critics, who say the Bush camp took a line out of context from a recent newspaper interview with the Massachusetts senator.  Some critics said the ad followed a pattern of the president distorting his rival's record on taxes, healthcare and other matters in an attempt to portray him as too liberal and unfit to lead the fight against terrorism."

"Kerry has also been accused of distortions in his attacks on Bush.  But Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, who is not working for the Bush campaign, said Bush's attacks could wind up hurting the president by undermining his credibility."

"On the campaign trail Monday, Bush appeared to backtrack a bit from the new ad.  He continued to criticize Kerry's choice of the word 'nuisance,' but noted that the Democrat had used it in the context of trying to diminish terrorism."

The Washington Post covers Democrats' ire over Sinclair Broadcasting's planned airing of an anti-Kerry Vietnam documentary: "In the four days since the Los Angeles Times disclosed that Sinclair has told its stations to preempt regular programming and air 'Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal,'... industry executives have said they cannot think of a precedent involving a major television chain."

"Democratic officials acknowledge that the Federal Election Commission is unlikely to act on their complaint before Election Day.  News is exempt from federal equal-time rules...  And even if 'Stolen Honor' were deemed not to be news, Kerry would not necessarily be entitled to equal time because he, not Bush, is featured in the film."

In addition to the DNC's FEC complaint, "18 Democratic senators sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission asking that it investigate whether Sinclair's plan was an improper use of public airwaves."  - AP

Howard Kurtz covers the TV networks' efforts to improve upon election night 2000.

Build-up to Tempe: taxes and the economy
"Crude-oil prices breached the $54 mark Tuesday to reach a new all-time high in electronic Nymex trading, fueled by continuing worries over supply in Nigeria and reduced output in the hurricane-hobbled Gulf of Mexico," says the Wall Street Journal.

The Los Angeles Times traces the $136 billion corporate tax bill from its origin as a trade measure to "a sanctuary for special-interest tax provisions".

"The bill focuses on creating, expanding, shrinking or eliminating tax benefits for corporations and wealthy taxpayers.  But it also will affect many average taxpayers and small businesses."  - USA Today

"Thirteen members of the Senate skipped the vote, including" the campaigning Kerry and Edwards, notes the Wall Street Journal.

USA Today anticipates and deflates claims by both candidates tomorrow night about how they would create jobs: "Job creation is one of the biggest domestic-policy issues in this year's presidential campaign.  But if elected, either candidate will find it hard to set the course of job growth in the $11 trillion-a-year U.S. economy.  Its direction is set by more than 130 million workers, long-running technological and demographic trends, and massive flows of trade, investment and spending not easily swayed by any one person - even if that person is the president."

"On the campaign trail, Bush and Kerry sound very different.  But their claims of what their policies would achieve - and what damage their opponent's policies would do - are overblown, many Wall Street analysts say...  Kerry's goal is to create 10 million jobs in four years.  Bush has avoided making any explicit job-growth predictions, but White House economists earlier this year projected at least 3.6 million new jobs in 2004."

The Boston Globe takes an in-depth analysis look at the Kerry and Bush economic plans, arguing that according to analysts "neither candidate has a credible plan to address the nation's exploding debt... In fact, analysts say, the key budget proposals of President Bush and Senator John F. Kerry will only make it harder to solve a long-term shortfall estimated in the tens of trillions of dollars."

The Washington Post highlights another potential topic for tomorrow's debate: the pension system.  "As the baby boom generation retires and people live longer, both Social Security and privately funded pensions... are under increasing financial pressure.  Yet beyond a vague debate over the future of Social Security, neither President Bush nor Sen. John F. Kerry... has made much mention of looming pension and savings problems, despite pleas for federal intervention from unions, employers and even the PBGC itself."

"It is an issue, however, that could land in the lap of taxpayers -- and the next president."

More Tempe build-up
The new Gallup poll depicts voters as "increasingly pessimistic about the economy, the war in Iraq and the battle against terrorism...  Unease about the country's direction has eroded Bush's job approval rating into dangerous territory for an incumbent president.  And Kerry holds a decided advantage on the domestic issues that will be the focus of their last face-to-face encounter."

"The poll, taken Saturday and Sunday, puts Kerry at 49% and Bush at 48% among likely voters. Independent candidate Ralph Nader is at 1%.  That's almost unchanged from the Gallup survey taken a week earlier.  Among all registered voters, Kerry and Bush each had 48%.  In the 17 states that both campaigns see as most competitive, Kerry was at 48%, Bush at 45%."

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Bill Weld predicts "that Sen. Kerry will win tomorrow night's debate" (Weld calls Kerry "increasingly Kennedyesque"), and that "after George Bush has lost the debates on style, he will win the election on substance."

But the Washington Post covers a Brookings survey showing that "President Bush, going into tomorrow night's debate over domestic issues..., will be defending the smallest domestic agenda a first-term president has had in at least 44 years."  The study's author "grants that Bush's few domestic agenda items have been 'undeniably bold': tax cuts, education legislation, prescription drugs under Medicare, a homeland security department and proposed Social Security changes.  But he says 'it is not clear' that the emphasis on terrorism is responsible for the paucity of Bush domestic proposals...'"

The Wall Street Journal editorial page hopes for an exchange over health care, for Bush's sake: "Americans are being offered a real choice of health care visions this November.  We believe Mr. Kerry's leads inevitably toward the kind of low-innovation, low-quality government systems found in Europe and Canada.  Mr. Bush's, meanwhile, would make health insurance more portable and flexible...  We only wish this genuine clash of ideas was getting the attention it deserves."

The Arizona Republic looks at how moderator Bob Schieffer has prepared for tomorrow's debate and notes that "with the debate centering on domestic policy, Schieffer expects to address taxes, Social Security, health care and jobs, as well as gay marriage and Supreme Court nominees. But the one question on everyone's mind this election, he says, is clear: Which one of these men can make us safe from terrorist attacks?"

Left, right and center
MSNBC's David notes that at times, Bush and Cheney have tripped over Kerry's name, saying "Kennedy" instead.  Usually the mistake really seems like a mistake, David says, but yesterday, Cheney made the "mistake" far more obviously.  At his Ohio rally, he said, "In vital matters of national security Senator Kennedy, Senator Kerry, excuse me!  I keep forgetting that Senator Kerry is the more liberal of the two."  David says Lynne Cheney laughed heartily on stage, arms flung out wide.

The Washington Post outlines the differences between Bush and Kerry's events and stump speeches and notes "the passions that define the 2004 elections: The Republican faithful love their candidate; the Democratic faithful have less such enthusiasm for Kerry but know he is their vessel for defeating Bush -- about which they are passionate."

"Following the Bush campaign's calculation that the election will be determined more by the turnout of each party's faithful, Bush's speeches and their settings are largely emotional celebrations of conservatism.  The Kerry campaign, figuring the election will be determined as much by centrist 'swing voters,' is making more of an overt appeal to the middle class."

"Abortion and embryonic stem-cell research suddenly appeared on the election landscape last week, but both presidential candidates mostly have steered clear of the contentious issues, despite the fact that President Bush and Sen. John Kerry hold diametrically opposed views," says the Washington Times.  "Since Friday's debate... Mr. Bush has mentioned neither issue, even though his position on the issue is strongly supported by his conservative base.  For his part, Mr. Kerry often mentions stem-cell research in his stump speeches, but rarely mentions abortion.  When he does, he takes the tack... that Mr. Bush will pack the Supreme Court with pro-life judges."

"Scott Stanzel, a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, noted that Mr. Bush said in the debate that he would have 'no litmus test' when picking Supreme Court judges.  Mr. Kerry, on the other hand, has vowed that if elected president, 'I will support only pro-choice judges to the Supreme Court.'"

The Arizona Republic says that with Christopher Reeve's death yesterday, we can certainly expect to the issue of stem cell research to pop up at the debate.

The New York Times reports that conservative Catholic bishops are using their influence to oppose Kerry because of his support for abortion rights.  "Galvanized by battles against same-sex marriage and stem cell research and alarmed at the prospect of a President Kerry - who is Catholic but supports abortion rights - these bishops and like-minded Catholic groups are blanketing churches with guides identifying abortion, gay marriage and the stem cell debate as among a handful of 'non-negotiable issues.'"

Making your vote count
"Seven American activist groups asked the United Nations on Monday to provide international observers for next month's U.S. presidential election," reports the Los Angeles Times.

The battleground
After a hiatus, the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project releases a new report today detailing the latest data on TV advertising in the presidential campaign (and with the rapid fire of ads in the past few weeks, we need all the help we can get!).  According to the release, the study will detail, among other things, "which candidates' parties or groups are positive and which are negative; what issues they're addressing; and 9/11 advertising and imagery." 

The Wall Street Journal on targeted advertising: "With many states up for grabs, candidates and their allies are using tailored broadcast ads... which are also called 'tracking' or 'pre-buttal' ads.  These spots, an advertising innovation this election, are prepared for specific markets and run around the time the opposing candidate makes a campaign appearance.  Tracking ads are cheaper and easier to produce than national ads, but can be just as effective."

GOTV
The Washington Post sums up the final concert in the Democratic 527s' series: "None other than Bruce Springsteen, the gruff-voiced bard of the working class, stormed a sold-out MCI Center last night in the hopes of sending one man straight to the unemployment line."

"In all, sponsors said the 33-city, 11-state Vote for Change concert tour raised $15 million for America Coming Together... and identified 300,000 potential new members for the political action committee associated with MoveOn.org," reports the Los Angeles Times.   "Jim Dyke, communications director for the Republican National Committee, agreed that the artists appeared to avoid controversy during the tour.  But he questioned whether their message affected many voters."

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