updated 11/1/2004 11:48:53 AM ET 2004-11-01T16:48:53

“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 (18 days until Election Day)
You get a different view of the presidential race from 37,000 feet.  The final debate having taken place in Tempe, AZ, we got a five-hour forced hiatus from the campaign during the flight back to DC yesterday.  When we landed, we found the two sides fairly consumed by two storylines, neither of which seems central to voters' decision-making process.

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The Cheneys didn't mind Edwards's mention of their gay daughter during the vice-presidential debate eight days earlier.  Mary Cheney and her partner, in a rare if not unprecedented, public appearance, were actually in the debate hall that night.  But yesterday, Kerry got slammed not only by a clearly upset Cheney family, but also by McCain and by Bush campaign aides for referring to Mary Cheney on Wednesday night.  Of all Kerry's statements yesterday, his written explanation of why he used the line got the most play.  A big scheduled protest of gay marriage on the Mall today might keep the issue alive for another day.

Also, as you know, FAA regulations prohibit the use of BlackBerries and two-way pagers during flight.  So we shut off our berries (yes, really) when the plane door closed in Tempe, and when we landed in DC five hours later, the following e-mail onslaught had arrived, in chronological order:

1) A fundraising solicitation for Kerry from Al Gore invoking the Florida recount.

2) Notice from the Republican National Committee of a press conference call with Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, who is African-American, "to express his profound outrage with the DNC's Election Day Manual that encourages democrats (sic) to launch 'pre-emptive' strikes when there are no signs of voter intimidation."  (On the manual, see #7.)

3) A note from a Kerry aide in Ohio hailing the 38-page court order released yesterday in which a federal district judge granted a preliminary injunction ordering GOP Secretary of State Ken Blackwell "to allow provisional ballots to be cast in any precinct of a voter's home county and otherwise to comply with the Help America Vote Act.  His order grants all the relief sought by the Democratic Party's lawsuit," touted the aide.

4) A release from Democratic 527 Americans Coming Together headlined, "Republican GOTV Plan: Suppress Democratic Voter Turnout," and charging, "News reports are piling up regarding Republican secretaries of state and election officials concerted effort to use the power of their office to ensure Republican victories in battleground states on November 2."

5) A release from liberal group The Advancement Project headlined, "Voter Intimidation against Latinos expected on November 2nd in Arizona," and outlining the group's objection to Proposition 200, which "would make criminals of state and local government employees who fail to check the immigration status of anyone applying for non-federally mandated state services.  It also would require proof of citizenship to register to vote and an ID when voting in person." 

6) A statement from RNC chairman Ed Gillespie about that "DNC manual" we mentioned above.  Gillespie called it "a Kerry/DNC campaign document that instructs Democrats to make up charges of voter intimidation even if no signs or evidence of voter intimidation actually exist." 

7) (At last!)  The DNC responded to Gillespie's statement (headline: "GOP offers up red herring to cover up shameful record of voter intimidation") by releasing lengthy sections from the field manual in question, titled "How to Organize to Prevent and Combat Voter Intimidation."  The manual actually says, "The best way to combat minority intimidation tactics is to prevent them."  The DNC also decried "misleading statements" about its "efforts to fight voter suppression."

Feeling numb yet?  There was more:

8) The e-mailed transcript from the RNC-hosted Williams call.

9) A DNC e-mail hailing the Ohio court decision as a "victory for voting rights."

10) And, White House Pool Report #2: Bush campaign chair Marc Racicot was "asked about possible voter irregularities, given recent news stories, and said he is optimistic there will be few problems on election day, saying it's irresponsible for people to suggest otherwise without more evidence.  'We've never had perfect elections, we've had fair elections,' he said."

Well.  We've already written about the possibility that voters could further lose faith in the process in 2004, after that faith was shaken in 2000, because of all the legal and PR back-and-forth about votes not being counted during this run-up to November 2, in both sincere and politically motivated claims of trying to safeguard the vote from both the voter's end and the government's end.  Now we can't help but wonder whether the amount of time and energy election officials are going to have to devote to dealing with these claims might wind up distracting them from fulfilling the very duties they need to perform. 

The President today attends rallies in Cedar Rapids, IA at 3:00 pm and Oshkosh, WI at 6:20 pm.  The Vice President, in Michigan, has coffee with community leaders in Berrien Springs at 9:00 am, a town hall in Kalamazoo at 12:10 pm, and a rally in Grand Rapids at 4:25 pm. 

Kerry campaigns in Wisconsin -- in Milwaukee at 12:45 pm, Sheboygan at 6:00 pm, and Appleton at 8:45 pm.  He then heads to Dayton, OH.  Edwards campaigns in Mentor, OH at 1:15 pm, then heads to Arnold, MD for an event at 6:00 pm, and from there to DC for a Victory Fund reception at a private residence.

Today's Stops
Bush spends the day in Iowa and Wisconsin.  Iowa's jobless rate rose from 4.4% in July to 4.5% in August, and Wisconsin's rose to 4.8% from 4.7%.  Gore won both Iowa and Wisconsin by a margin of less than one-quarter of a percent of the vote in 2000.  Kerry also campaigns in Wisconsin today with stops in Milwaukee, Sheboygan and Appleton.  The Oshkosh Northwestern notes that the last time Bush and Kerry were in Wisconsin at the same time, three banks were robbed.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel looks at why Wisconsin is so important this year and notes, "Because Democrats have carried Wisconsin four consecutive times, the potential for a Bush victory has fueled talk that the state is trending Republican.  But the evidence for that is mixed...  Republicans believe that small social shifts, including suburban growth and a changing job scene, are making the state more GOP-friendly...  Yet the state's acute competitiveness also might be more about stability than change..."

"Kerry's stops today in Milwaukee, Sheboygan and Appleton are part of his third bus trip to the state. Bush, who is stopping today in Oshkosh for a rally, has taken four bus trips."

Cheney spends the day in Michigan, a state whose jobless numbers fell from 6.8% in July to 6.7% in August.  Michigan's jobless numbers rose from 6.0% to 6.3%.  Four years ago, Gore won Michigan, 51% to 46%.

And Edwards is in Ohio, then makes a rare stop in Maryland before heading back to DC.  Maryland's unemployment climbed from a July 4.1% to an August 4.3%.  Bush won Ohio in 2000 50% to 46.5%, while Gore took Maryland with 56.5% of the vote.

18 days
The Washington Post: "In Wednesday's third and final debate, Kerry aides said their research showed that Kerry made significant gains on character issues, such as honesty and leadership, two areas in which Bush has often enjoyed a commanding edge..."

"Bush advisers... said they were not surprised that the president's pre-debate lead has evaporated, given Kerry's debating skills, the morale boost Kerry's performance had has provided the Democrats, and... a weak jobs report and a new report about the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq...  They argued that the third debate, in particular, has provided openings for Bush to attack Kerry on health care, taxes and immigration."

"The Kerry campaign plans to attack Bush where it believes he is most vulnerable, calling him disconnected from reality, whether in Iraq or on issues affecting middle-class families."

The Los Angeles Times calls Bush's emphasis on Kerry as a liberal "a shift from the Bush campaign's months long effort to portray Kerry as an indecisive flip-flopper and to undercut his credibility as a potential commander-in-chief."  The story lays out Kerry's not-so-easily labeled voting record, noting the Bush campaign's misleading charge that Kerry is the Senate's most liberal member; the caveat that "by other measures, Kerry's Senate voting record is consistently liberal, even if he does not rank as No. 1;" and "occasions when he was at odds with his party's left wing."

The AP reports, "Persuadable voters watching the presidential debates tended to give higher marks to... Kerry than President Bush, but many sound reluctant to make a final decision in the presidential race...  The three presidential debates, including the final one Wednesday night, have not answered questions some of these voters still have about the candidates."

Walter Shapiro calls these voters "stumbling-block voters" -- as in, "They all would have picked their presidential candidate by now except for one factor (it varies with each of them) so important that it sends them back to the starting gate."

The Washington Post focused-grouped the final debate with some undecided voters in Edina, MN and found, "Before the debate these viewers had all registered concerns about policy, with terrorism and the quality and cost of health care topping the list...  In the end, however, the participants kept returning to the candidates' personal attributes.  Some of these attributes are proving to be a critical hurdle..."

The Washington Post Style section nails the difference for Bush between the debates and the bubble of the final stretch: "The last debate is over, thank gosh.  No one will criticize the president at his events, no one will ask questions or press him to admit mistakes.  On Wednesday night he was blowing kisses to the shrieking crowd of 35,000 at a rally at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix."

Kerry pooler David Jackson of the Dallas Morning News got to the bottom of a private exchange between Bush and Kerry at the debate the other night: "After the two candidates shook hands, Kerry moved toward the audience - but Bush grabbed his arm, with both hands, and pulled him back into continuing their brief conversation."  Jackson later followed up, reporting that Kerry advisor Mike "McCurry said that when Bush pulled Kerry back last night it was to ask him a friendly question: 'Where are you going to be on Election Night?'  McCurry said Kerry got the impression it was to set up the election night phone calls."

The economy
The nation has hit the debt ceiling, Treasury Secretary Snow told Congress yesterday, per NBC's Mike Viqueira.  Congressional action is required to raise the ceiling.  Of course; they're out until the scheduled lame duck session starting November 16.  Snow told members that the government will use "prudent and legal action" to avoid exceeding the limit, but said congressional action must be taken by mid-November.

The Wall Street Journal reports, "The U.S. trade deficit, propelled by a steep foreign-oil bill, surged in August to the second-highest mark in history.  The politically sensitive deficit with China hit a new high...  The trade gap has been an issue in the presidential race, with John Kerry charging that President Bush has not done enough to protect American workers from unfair trade practices from low-wage countries such as China."

The Journal also reports, "Crude oil's move above $50 a barrel last month may mark the point where higher oil prices begin to take a greater toll on growth."  The Journal's latest survey of 54 economists shows that "a sustained move into the range of $50 to $59 a barrel - a move that lasted for a complete quarter -- would force them to shave their gross-domestic-product forecasts for that quarter by one-half point."

The New York Times does a final fact-check on Wednesday's debate: "Much of the presidential debate on Wednesday night turned on the question of whether Americans had more money in their pockets as a result of President Bush's policies…  The truth seems to be that, on average, Americans may have more money at their disposal.  But more people are worse off than are better off."

The AP previews Kerry's jobs speech in Milwaukee today.

Mary Cheney and the values debate
Cheney yesterday called Kerry "a man who will say and do anything in order to get elected.  And I am not speaking just as a father here, though I am a pretty angry father, but as a citizen."  Liz Cheney said last night that she was offended and that it was "out of bounds" for Kerry to "exploit" the child of one of his opponents "to make a political point," adding, "What kind of a man would do that?"  She didn't answer questions about whether her sister was offended, MSNBC's Priya David notes.

David also says the Bush campaign is working harder to keep Mary Cheney "safe" from the media.  David says she began shooting some DV video of Mary Cheney yesterday, and the campaign hustled her away as soon as they realized it.  When David for an unrelated reason walked over to a press area where Mary Cheney was standing, the campaign made a big deal of rushing her away again.

Per the White House pool report yesterday, McCain visited with the traveling press on the plane and "quickly segued into unloading on his good friend John Kerry for pointing out during last night's debate that Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Mary is a lesbian.  'Maybe Senator Kerry didn't appreciate the sensitivity of it, but I don't think there's any doubt in my mind that it was inappropriate.  And just -- you don't know why someone would bring up something like that in a debate.  And so I don't think it helped Kerry, in my view, because I don't think people like that.'  Was it intentional?  'My view is that it was inappropriate and I don't know if he did it intentionally or not.'"

More from the pool report on McCain: "What about gay activists suggesting Lynne Cheney must be ashamed of her daughter if she felt so compelled to defend her?  'First of all, it's inappropriate, in my view, because it had nothing to do with the context of the question.  But second of all, Lynne Cheney is a mother and she's entitled to her views when one of her children are discussed...'  Did the president discuss it with you?  'No, it came up in the course of the reporting...  He didn't have any comment about it."

All of which eventually prompted Kerry to release a statement explaining his reference: "I love my daughters.  They love their daughter.  I was trying to say something positive about the way strong families deal with this issue."

Asked whether it was a mistake for Kerry to mention Mary Cheney by name, Kerry spokesperson David Wade told MSNBC's Becky Diamond, "Not at all, he was honoring the way a strong family has stood by their daughter, they should be very proud - and they are.  She's an official in the Bush-Cheney campaign."  Asked whether the campaign regretted Kerry's decision to specifically mention her name, Wade said, "No, Team Bush will say anything to distract from their failure in three debates."

On MSNBC's Hardball last night, Edwards said, "We respect the way they dealt with this in their own family and it should not be an issue that's used to the divide the country as George Bush is doing."  Asked by Chris Matthews whether it was unusual for a candidate to bring up another candidate's child, Edwards replied, "Well, only in this case because Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne had themselves brought it up.  I mean, having watched the entire 2000 debate with Lieberman, he brought it up himself and talked about what it meant for him and his family and he had talked about it, I think, a few weeks before my debate with him..."

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that Kerry advisors suggest that the debate answer should be viewed in the larger context of where Kerry stands on issues relating to gay rights and homosexuality, and they contend Republicans have used those issues as a "wedge" in this campaign.

The AP lists Kerry's mention of Mary Cheney "to score a political point on gay rights" in its look at the incredibly intense political "mean season:" "From the rhetoric of the candidates and their advertising to the conspiracy theories and invectives trafficked on the Internet by untold partisans, the political process is awash in acrimony.  The reasons vary." 

The Los Angeles Times says that "by invoking the sexual orientation of the vice president's daughter, the Democratic candidate unleashed a rhetorical tempest on issues as diverse as the morality of gay marriage, the place of family members in political discourse and the roots of human sexuality."

The New York Post: "Republicans suggested it was a Democratic ploy to play on homophobia and scare away the conservative Christians who are a central part of Bush's political base.  But Kerry spokeswoman Debra DeShong told Fox News Channel: 'The Republicans are the ones who use gay issues to divide America.'  She cited a recent Republican National Committee flier that said Democrats would ban the Bible and allow gay marriage."

The New York Daily News says Kerry insiders "who participated in the senator's debate prep insist [the Mary Cheney] comments were 'off-the-cuff' and not part of their debate plan.  But one aide said of the GOP response: 'This issue makes them uncomfortable, because they use the issue politically.'"

USA Today reminds us, "same-sex marriage has emerged as a central issue in 11 states where voters will decide whether to ban such unions."

The Washington Post says "former professional football player turned megachurch pastor" Ken Hutcherson "intends to pack a stadium-size crowd of evangelical Christians onto the Mall today to decry same-sex marriage and 'let everyone know God is in control' of the Nov. 2 elections.  Hutcherson's 'Mayday for Marriage' rally is one of dozens of loosely coordinated or independent efforts by evangelical ministers, Christian lobbying groups and the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign to mobilize religious conservatives in the final weeks of the 2004 presidential race."

And the Boston Globe reports on the NRA's "aggressive campaign against Kerry this year... all across the Buckeye State, and in other battleground states, too.  By Election Day, the group will have spent $20 million... in the hopes of convincing the NRA's 4 million members -- and the rest of the 4 in 10 Americans who own guns -- that a Kerry administration threatens their Second Amendment rights."

Gun control is "also one of the ways the Republican Party solidifies its base.  Gun control, like abortion and gay marriage, may not be discussed openly very often in this campaign, but the candidates' positions on those issues send important signals to voters -- particularly conservative ones."

More Tempe fallout
The Wall Street Journal says "it increasingly appears the debates this year are the most significant ones since the 1980 Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan encounter.  More than that, they may have reversed a trend that began with the spread of cable television in the 1990s in which public attention was declining."  Another Journal story reports that the third debate "drew an estimated 51.2 million viewers, capping a series of political match-ups that have drawn the largest television audiences in a dozen years."

The Washington Post suggests that all the months of expectations-setting for Kerry by the Bush campaign may have backfired with the debates: "The Bush team's ferocious advertising push in the spring and summer and the Republican convention were successful at defining Kerry as a vacillating opportunist who has no coherent policy on Iraq and is spineless on terrorism...  By turning Kerry into a cartoon, the Bush campaign created such low expectations for the senator that he easily exceeded them in the debates."

MSNBC's Becky Diamond reports that Kerry aides prepared the traveling press for the sight of brooms at the Iowa rally last night, to signify Kerry's "sweep" of the three debates.  In a crowd of thousands, Diamond counted six brooms being held up.

Making your vote count
USA Today: "Complaints from both parties, routine in election years, have reached a fever pitch earlier and in more places than usual.  From Oregon to Florida, shenanigans with voter registration forms are being alleged, and authorities are looking into the charges."

The New York Times reports on yesterday's federal court order that Ohio's GOP secretary of state "count so-called provisional ballots filed in the wrong precincts, a victory for Democrats who contend such ballots are more likely to be cast by low-income and minority voters than others.  The ruling, which could prove crucial in a close election, came as partisan battles over voting rules and voter registration escalated in swing states across the nation."

The Washington Post reports on a new GAO verdict that the "Justice Department is ill prepared to handle a large influx of complaints about voting rights violations in the Nov. 2 presidential election...  The Justice Department said it has put in place better reporting and tracking mechanisms since the GAO report draft was completed in August and has devoted significant resources to ensuring that election reform laws passed since 2000 are followed."

"The report comes amid criticism by Democrats that the Justice Department is too focused on pursuing allegations of voter fraud and trumpeting terrorism concerns that could scare people away from the polls, at the expense of its mission to safeguard the right to vote."

The Washington Times reports that the Democrat-affiliated America Votes coalition "has spent more than $100 million orchestrating the largest voter-registration drive in U.S. history, raising concerns of widespread voter fraud in 14 battleground states.  At the same time, Democratic Party officials are gearing up to challenge unfavorable Election Day results in a number of states through 'pre-emptive strikes,' charging that Republicans prevented minorities from voting even before any such incidents are confirmed."

On the DNC field manual: "A Democratic Party official, who also confirmed the manual's existence, denied that it suggests Democrats make up stories about Republican intimidation of would-be voters.  The official, who asked not to be named, said it explains how to spot voter intimidation before and on Election Day, how to combat it if it is occurring and what to do if it is not, 'but you suspect it will.'  The official also acknowledged that the manual suggests a pre-emptive strike if no signs of intimidation can be shown, but said that section related to states in which intimidation tactics had been a problem in the past."

The AP reports from Pennsylvania, "The administration of Gov. Ed Rendell said Thursday it would put state workers at county election offices on Nov. 2 to watch for any problems in this battleground state.  The plan has raised suspicions among Republican leaders."

The Miami Herald on how the overseas vote could be key.

The Washington Post reports that area election officials "are putting in place contingency plans to deal with any sudden spike in terror warnings over the next three weeks or the possibility of attacks at polling places on Election Day."  But officials are using different approaches, some very visible, some less so.  "The schism underscores the difficulty officials are having in balancing voting rights against the uncertain but well-publicized warning that terrorists might try to disrupt the nation's Nov. 2 presidential election.  Civil liberties advocates warn that too heavy a police presence might violate federal law."

NBC's Tammy Kupperman notes that State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher yesterday welcomed the presence of an OSCE team of observers of the election.  Boucher, while acknowledging that the OSCE has not sent observers to a US presidential election before, painted a picture of the OSCE "routinely" sending observers to watch elections in member countries.  The OSCE previously observed the California recall and the 2002 midterm elections.

"The observers represent a broad range of political philosophies, from the far left to the far right.  The group includes communists from France and Russia, a Turkish women's rights advocate and a counterterrorism expert from Belgium."  - Washington Times

Nader
Although Nader has been knocked off the ballot in Pennsylvania and other states, Democrats still fear he could play the role of spoiler, the New York Times says.  "Polls show that he could influence the outcomes in nine by drawing support from Mr. Kerry.  They are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Wisconsin."

"Moreover, six - Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Wisconsin - were among the top 20 where Mr. Nader drew his strongest support in 2000.  If the vote for Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry is as evenly divided as the polls suggest, the electoral votes in any one of those states could determine who becomes president."

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