“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 13, 2004| 9:30 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (20 days until Election Day)
TEMPE, AZ -- Listen closely to the back and forth tonight, because we doubt you'll hear much more on domestic issues for the remaining 19 days of this campaign.  It's not even certain that Iraq will get the whole night off.  The President may find a way to bring it up tonight, and both candidates have post-debate remarks scheduled.  (Plus, Edwards's "pom-pom" shot at Bush on The Tonight Show is just hanging out there on cable today, begging for some kind of cowboy-to-Breck-boy response.)

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Those who choose Yankees-Sox over Bush-Kerry may never hear the following issues raised in the presidential race again: the deficit, the suddenly hot question of church and state, immigration (this is Arizona, after all), education, gas prices, airline industry problems and other consumer issues, trade, rural and farm issues, civil liberties, abortion, guns, and the environment.

And then there's perhaps the most notable absence of all, compared to the debates of 2000: After 270-plus minutes of meaty, thoughtful exchanges, during which we have seen clear distinctions between the two tickets, and have heard plenty of smart questions from both moderators and voters, there hasn't been a single question on Social Security.

No doubt one will finally be asked tonight.  Still, it's remarkable that one of the main bones of contention in 2000 -- when was the last time you heard the phrase "lockbox" on SNL? -- hasn't really come up at all this year.  That can't be because it's not a huge looming problem (it is), or because the candidates don't view it differently (they do).  It's because of Iraq, and because neither candidate offers a plan to solve the fact that the Baby Boomers' retirement will drain more revenue from the program than is flowing into it.

Fixing this problem requires either raising the retirement age, cutting benefits, or raising payroll taxes.  And despite the amount of energy both presidential candidates are spending on looking tough in this election, neither one is willing to embrace any of these hard options.  Bush's plan to partially "personalize" the program still wouldn't fundamentally fix the forthcoming imbalance between receipts and outlays.  It also would require an estimated $2 trillion over 10 years in transition costs which he has not proposed how to cover.  Kerry, who has been known to say the program just needs some "tweaking," hasn't gotten much beyond telling seniors in Florida and other key states that he won't privatize Social Security, won't raise the retirement age, and won't cut benefits.

Another thing to listen for tonight, with your green eyeshades on: How Bush rhetorically gets around the record deficit, and how much of his domestic agenda Kerry says he'd pay for by rolling back Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans -- now with the added curb of that pledge not to raise taxes on families making less than $200,000.

And if you're thinking of turning President Bush's mentions of the word "liberal" into a drinking game, you're in sync with morning DJ's across America.  That said, Bush's "most liberal Senator" charge itself is misleading.  Bush's source for this claim is the nonpartisan National Journal's rankings for 2003.  The campaigning Kerry missed 37 of the 62 votes used to compile that rating.  According to the magazine, Kerry is the 11th most liberal Senator based on votes over his entire tenure.

Both presidential candidates are down today except for the usual closed-press walkthroughs of Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University.  After the debate, both attend rallies.

Vice President Cheney does a bus tour through Pennsylvania, with stops in Meadville, Prospect and Coraopolis, where he hits a debate-watch party. 

Edwards, in Oregon, does a town hall in Medford at 1:15 pm, a rally in Eugene at 4:45 pm, and a rally in Portland at 8:00 pm.

And Nader gives a speech in Las Vegas, holds a press conference in Tempe before the debate, then offers his reaction to the debate at the University of New Mexico (which leads us to wonder how he plans to watch it).

Edwards spends the day in Oregon, appearing in Medford, Eugene and Portland.  Gore won Oregon by less than 7,000 votes four years ago.  The state's unemployment jumped from 6.8% in July to 7.4% in August.  The AP notes that Edwards visits the state just days before ballots are mailed out to voters on Friday.  Bush campaigns in the state tomorrow.

Nader is in Nevada and New Mexico today, giving a speech in Las Vegas before attending a debate watch party in Albuquerque.  Bush won all but one county in Nevada four years ago, and beat Gore 49.5% to 46%.  Gore won New Mexico in 2000 by just over 350 votes.  The Las Vegas Review-Journal notes Commerce Secretary Don Evans will be also be in the state today campaigning for Bush.    And this "Thursday will mark the biggest day in Nevada presidential campaign history as both candidates and their wives campaign in the state."

Build-up to Tempe
Baseball or politics? -- Boston Globe

The spin first.  Per the pool report, White House spokesperson Scott McClellan was asked yesterday whether the tightness of the race made it more imperative for the President to draw contrasts between himself and Kerry.  His response: "This is a time for choosing.  This is a time when the American people are paying closer attention because they're getting ready to make a decision about the future of where this country is headed...  It's a time for the American people to learn more about the choices they face in this election and to see that there are very clear differences."

Asked whether the third debate would give one candidate decisive momentum, McClellan said, "Talk to the campaign about those issues."

Meanwhile, Kerry advisor Joe Lockhart, in a conference call with reporters, pointed to recent polls showing that Kerry won last Friday's debate, and went on to say that he can't name an incumbent president who lost all three debates who then went on to win the election.  "The pressure is obviously on the president to salvage one debate victory out of the three," he said, adding that salvaging a victory in this final debate wouldn't be easy for Bush, since this is "the most difficult setting and subject matter" for him.

(For those of you who don't remember the previous spin from the Kerry campaign: Before the first debate, they stressed that Bush had never lost a debate.  Before the second debate, they made the point that Bush excelled in town hall formats.  Now they say he must salvage one victory -- on a subject matter that's difficult for him.)

The New York Times: "Republicans… said they were uneasy as Mr. Bush returns to a format… that has seemed to play to the strength of Mr. Kerry…  Republicans are also concerned that the debate... is the only one devoted to domestic policy, and polls show Mr. Kerry has an edge on many of those issues.  'By any objective measure - if Republicans are going to be intellectually honest with ourselves - prior to the first

debate, we were pretty comfortable,' said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster.  'It was a chance for the president to lay him out and just lock it.  In the past two weeks, that's been turned on its head.'"

USA Today: "both men face enormous pressure in their last face-to-face opportunity to change the dynamic of a close race."  And the story points out, "That Wednesday's debate on domestic issues would turn out to be a crucial evening for Bush is an ironic turn of events for the president's re-election team.  GOP strategists thought the terms of the three-debate series... would favor Bush."

David Broder says of both candidates' demonstrated ability to come from behind, "The capacity to persist in the face of adversity and recover is more than a useful political trait.  It is essential for the nation's well-being."  That said, "there are also lots of things we have yet to learn about their agendas...  On the largest, long-term challenge here at home -- the systemic imbalance between federal spending and revenue, especially with the looming fiscal crisis of financing the baby boomers' retirement and health care costs -- we have been fed pablum."

The Wall Street Journal says that "for all the rhetorical fireworks over Iraq, tonight's presidential debate on economic issues may offer the sharpest substantive differences between the candidates," and notes: "The backdrop for the 2004 economic debate is an American economy in the throes of change from the globalization of trade, technological advances and the looming retirement of the baby-boom generation."

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein says of tonight, "Bush's goal, in short, is to aggregate the choice voters face into a single referendum on government's size and scope, while Kerry wants to separate the debate into sparring over his ideas - and Bush's record - on key domestic issues."

"It is an article of faith among Bush strategists - and many Democrats - that the broader and more ideological the choice for voters, the better Republicans fare."

The Washington Times says "Bush will paint John Kerry as a liberal outside the American mainstream..., confident that the focus on topics traditionally helpful to Democrats can be turned to his advantage...  For its part, the Kerry camp says Mr. Bush may already have gone as far as he can with his attacks on Mr. Kerry's record and trying to paint him as a liberal taxer-and-spender, which they say puts him in a box tonight."

Build-up to Tempe: the economy and health care
USA Today lays out the economic issues at stake with this election: "it could determine whether Robert Rubin or Martin Feldstein will be a top candidate to replace Alan Greenspan, who is expected to retire as chairman of the Federal Reserve in 2006.  It will determine the stance of U.S. negotiators as they try to wrap up a new round of World Trade Organization (WTO) talks that could, among other things, make historic changes in agriculture policy.  It will shape tax policy for both consumers and businesses."

"And though Iraq, oil prices and short-term economic concerns are the focus of the campaign now, the next president could end up spending much of his time dealing with a looming issue that has been largely shunted aside: enormous future deficits, including Social Security and Medicare."

"This election could also affect workers in direct ways, including how many qualify for overtime pay, what the minimum wage will be and how the nation deals with a looming pension fund shortfall."

The New York Times gets the Concord Coalition to compute the cost of Bush's and Kerry's proposals, which the non-partisan group puts at roughly $1.3 trillion over 10 years for each candidate.  "… Mr. Bush would cut taxes by $1.2 trillion in the coming decade, while Mr. Kerry's tax proposals, taken

together, would reduce projected revenues by $498 billion.  New spending proposed by Senator Kerry would total $771 billion in the next decade, dwarfing the $82 billion that Mr. Bush has proposed."

"The coalition did not include the cost of Mr. Bush's plan to revamp Social Security by allowing younger workers to divert some payroll taxes into individual investment accounts.  Mr. Bush has not offered a detailed proposal."

The Washington Times checks out the information about Kerry's tax plan on his website and concludes, "Kerry promised in the second presidential debate not to raise taxes on people making less than $200,000 a year, but critics of his revenue-raising plan said yesterday that it would hit people who earn less and further complicate the income tax code."

The AP covers President Bush in Colorado Springs yesterday arguing that "Kerry cannot pay for the domestic programs he is proposing unless taxes are raised on the middle class."  And he criticized Kerry's "big-government" health care plan.  "The Kerry campaign says Bush's criticism of the Democrat's domestic programs is based on studies that are misleading and have been shown to be factually dubious in estimating the costs."

The Washington Post fact-checks the latest Bush health care ads, including that while Bush charges that Kerry's health care plan involves "a big government takeover," in fact, "there is no takeover -- the Kerry plan builds on the existing system of private health insurance, primarily through tax credits and incentives."

The Wall Street Journal points out that "President Bush and 25,000 AARP members will be in Las Vegas at the same time this week, but the Republican incumbent won't drop in on the organization that gave a boost to last year's Medicare prescription drug law."  Kerry does address the AARP tomorrow.

Build-up to Tempe: education
The Los Angeles Times finds that over "1,200 California public schools - despite steadily improved test scores over the last two years - face the threat of federal sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law," and uses it to consider the program overall: "The pressures created by No Child Left Behind are weighing on schools nationwide as they struggle to meet the demands of the 2-year-old law, which requires all campuses to have 100% of their students proficient in English and math by 2013-14."

"President Bush has promoted the law as one of his signature domestic priorities...  But many teachers and administrators say the law puts too much emphasis on test scores.  They, along with... Kerry, say the Bush administration has not given schools enough money to get the job done, an accusation federal officials deny."

Build-up to Tempe(???): National and Homeland Security
Despite the focus on domestic issues tonight, the AP says "there may be questions that allow Bush to discuss foreign policy, the war in Iraq and his campaign against terrorism...  Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart said the Massachusetts Democrat has been preparing for Bush to try to shift the debate, but that he plans to hold the president accountable for his 'record of failure.'"

Breck boy versus cowboy: Edwards spent yesterday taking hard shots at Bush on Iraq during the day and at Bush's manliness on The Tonight Show.  MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports that during his town hall in Commerce City, CO, Edwards charged that the Bush Administration sent 40,000 troops to Iraq without the proper equipment: "This President is very good at doing photo-ops with troops.  You know he likes landing on aircraft carriers with mission accomplished on a banner behind him," said Edwards.  "The problem is he has not been there for our troops.  They sent 40,000 American men and women into Iraq without the kind of body armor they needed.  Sent them into Iraq without the armored vehicles they needed."

And in addition to accusing Bush of being a cheerleader in school while he himself was playing football, Edwards also told Jay Leno last night that the square bulge which appeared under the back of the President's jacket during the first debate was "his battery."  Llamas says campaign aides acknowledged that Edwards received some of the questions prior to the interview. 

New comments from the Vice President yesterday in both Iowa and Wisconsin about Kerry's New York Times Magazine interview, reports MSNBC's Priya David.  Here's a verbate from Davenport, IA: "And I ask myself, well, when was terrorism only a nuisance?  Was it in 1983 when terrorists hit our embassy that spring in Beirut?  Killed several Americans, including the CIA station chief.  Or the fall of '83 in Beirut when they killed 241 Marines with a suicide bomber and a truck bomb?  Or maybe it was 1998, December, when they took down Pan Am 103 over Scotland.  Or 1993 the first attack on the World Trade Center in New York, when they tried to take down the tower, they failed, they came back eight years later and got the job done...  Which one of those was a nuisance?  How do you look back on that track record and say that there was ever a time in the last 20 years when we didn't have to be concerned about terror, when we didn't pay a price for it?"

The battleground
"Bush was favored over Kerry in the Nov. 2 election by 49 percent to 44 percent," according to a poll "conducted Thursday through Monday by the Social Research Laboratory at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff," reports the Arizona Republic, noting that Kerry is closing the gap.

New Chicago Tribune polling shows that "Kerry has improved his standing over President Bush in four Midwestern battleground states where domestic concerns of health care and the economy have overtaken the issues of terrorism and Iraq."

"As the candidates prepare for their final face-to-face encounter in a debate Wednesday night in Tempe, Ariz., a forum devoted to domestic issues, voters say they believe Kerry would be more likely than Bush to restore jobs and grow the economy.  While the Iraq war has dominated the race for months, the poll underscores the re-emerging importance of pocketbook issues...  The separate, state-by-state polls found Kerry to hold slim leads over Bush in Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota, while Bush maintained a narrow advantage in Iowa.  But the findings of the surveys, which questioned 500 likely voters in each state, fall within a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points."

MSNBC's David notes that yesterday, Cheney did an ed board meeting with Midwest Lee Enterprises, which owns 40-plus Midwest newspapers, many in Iowa and Wisconsin.

The Los Angeles Times on Pennsylvania: "A seesaw competition initially had Bush ahead. Now, after several apparent lead changes, Kerry seems to have fought back to a slight advantage...  The contest remains close, with Republicans saying they will rely on an enormous precinct-level organization statewide to get their voters out, and Democrats hoping an influx of about 85,000 new voters in Philadelphia will help them build an insurmountable advantage."

The New York Times looks at the battle for West Virginia, and notes that steel tariffs could come into play. 

The Boston Globe looks at the state of play in New Jersey: "The Garden State has traditionally been true-blue to Democrats, but recent polls indicate a tight race...  The loss of 700 residents on Sept. 11, 2001, and scandals involving prominent state Democrats are behind the close presidential race in New Jersey -- a state that has been a party stronghold, according to political analysts and New Jersey voters."

The AP, through its own analysis and the University of Wisconsin's, finds campaign ads concentrated in 14 states.  "The most ads are running in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.  However, 10 other states - Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Wisconsin - also are seeing heavy advertising."

The Los Angeles Times lays out in good detail which unions are doing what, where.

More Bush v. Kerry
The Wall Street Journal's Harwood covers "the bandwagon effect:" "Among campaign operatives, it has become an article of faith that persuading the public you are ahead will itself produce more votes -- by energizing your side and demoralizing the opposition...  No one really knows just how the bandwagon effect works, or whether it even works much at all.  But campaign strategists believe that when candidates are seen as winning, it is easier to raise money, recruit volunteers and attract flattering media coverage."

The final few weeks of the campaign could be highly negative, says the Boston Globe.  "With the days ticking down in this closely fought presidential race, Bush is attacking his opponent in a way that few incumbent presidents have ever done, presidential scholars say.  And the negative tone is a sign of what voters can expect in the final weeks of the campaign, according to advisers on both sides."

"At the same time, the Kerry team does not rule out the possibility of turning up the heat further on Bush, especially if the third debate tonight is a draw."

The Washington Post updates its earlier story of Kerry's vast universe of formal and informal advisors and how that might affect his campaign's implementation.  Kerry "has three dozen domestic policy councils, two dozen foreign policy groups, an expanding corps of consultants, and many informal advisers he calls -- about 15 per night -- before going to bed.  But rather than 'set a course and lead,'...  Kerry has lurched from course to course, periodically switching drivers and road maps -- and messages -- as he reacts to more and more information and advice."

"Kerry and Bush have almost diametrically opposing management styles, and Kerry aides often defend their candidate by pointing out that Bush has the reverse approach -- and that, in their view, it has not worked."

The Florida vote
Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and Reps. Corrine Brown, Alcee Hastings, and Kendrick Meek of Florida do a press conference call today announcing an "African American Members of Congress Bus Tour of selected cities in Florida," which starts tomorrow in Tallahassee and concludes on Monday in Miami.

The Washington Post front-pages its report that in Florida, "[b]lack leaders... charge that GOP officials are deliberately using the law to keep black people off the rolls and hinder them from voting...  Despite attempts by Florida officials to prevent a repeat of the controversy that dogged the last presidential election, black leaders said they are concerned that this year new registrations are being rejected for technical errors and that limited accessibility to early polling places could lead to more disputes, roiling Florida and the nation long after Election Day."

The Florida Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case filed by the AFL-CIO, the SEIU and AFSCME over provisional ballots today at 9:00 am.  Per the plaintiffs' press release, they "are asking the state's highest court to require elected officials to count all provisional ballots cast by registered voters, as defined by the Florida Constitution, if they are cast in the voters' county of registration."

And Democrats' fight against Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood (R) over the citizenship box question continues.  A group of labor unions and liberal organizations announced that yesterday they "filed suit in federal court in Miami against... Hood and the Broward, Duval, Miami-Dade, Orange, and Palm Beach County Supervisors of Elections to stop the disenfranchisement of thousands of Florida residents caused by the unlawful conduct of state and local officials," per the release. 

The Bush-Cheney campaign has set up a "hot line for victims of voter intimidation after a spate of 'violence and vandalism' at campaign offices nationwide, notes the Washington Times.  "The hot line comes on the heels of accusations by the campaign against the nation's largest labor union, the AFL-CIO, of voter-intimidation tactics, including the storming of a state Republican Party office in Orlando, Fla."

"A public test of Palm Beach County's electronic voting machines was postponed because a computer server crashed," the AP reports.  "Elections Supervisor Theresa LePore said a power failure during Hurricane Jeanne caused temperatures in the building to rise, which may have damaged computer equipment...  The computer failure won't affect the function of the machines during the Nov. 2 presidential election, she said."

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