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First glance (13 days out)
Throughout the presidential campaign, that funny thing called Conventional Wisdom has often been off the mark -- or completely wrong. Howard Dean, remember, supposedly had the Democratic nomination all but locked up, while Kerry looked like he would bethe first Democratic candidate to drop out. C.W. also said Bush would have a HUGE fundraising advantage over the Democrats; that Bush's Medicare prescription-drug plan would be a major campaign sword he would wield; and that Kerry's Vietnam service would be his own ace-in-the-hole. The list goes on and on.

But two weeks until Election Day, once piece of early C.W. does seem to be true: This election is going to be close. Real close.

In fact, the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll is the latest in a growing number of national surveys to show a dead heat. It doesn't get any closer than 48%-48%, as the poll shows among likely voters; among registered voters, Bush leads Kerry, 48%-46%. As NBC/Journal pollster Peter Hart says, "the slightest breeze or the slightest error could flip this election" -- and "it doesn't have to be something that's cataclysmic." 

The President continues to outperform Kerry on fighting terrorism, and some numbers have moved in his direction on Iraq -- including a 4-point uptick in his job approval on foreign policy, and the fact that more voters now say they feel more confident about success in Iraq. (Forty-six percent of registered voters say they feel more confident that the war in Iraq will come to a successful conclusion, compared with 41% who say they are less confident. That's a change from September, when only 37% said they were more confident, while 53% said they were less confident.)

Why the improvement? NBC/Journal pollster Bill McInturff (R) suggests that across the course of the debates, voters determined that Bush laid out a rationale for what's important and why success is necessary in Iraq. Also, he said, the debates themselves moved the media's and voters' focus away from the war. And on top of that, most of Bush's campaign ads lately have tied a need for vigilance at home to vigilance in Iraq. 

Kerry steps into this dicey, no-false-moves atmosphere with a speech today on the war, a topic which has dogged him throughout this campaign. And the speech is delivered in Iowa, a state Kerry aides figure he needs to win to help offset a possible loss of some bigger toss-up state like Florida or Ohio. Bush, meanwhile, visits three battleground states that Gore won in 2000 -- but which are up for grabs now: Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Reminder: the latest round of MSNBC/Knight Ridder/Mason-Dixon polls in the most competitive Red states will be released tonight at 6:30 pm on NBC Nightly News and on MSNBC. The polls from competitive Blue states will air tomorrow night.

And one last thing: Bill Clinton, it seems, is back on the trail.

Today's stops
Bush swings through Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin -- three states that went to Gore in 2000. Iowa's unemployment inched up from 4.4% in July to 4.5% in August, while Minnesota's jobless numbers jumped from 4.4% to 4.8%, and Wisconsin's climbed from 4.7% to 4.8%. In 2000, Gore won Iowa by just under 4,200 votes, Wisconsin by over 5,700 votes, and Minnesota, 48% to 45.5%.

Kerry campaigns in Waterloo, IA, then heads to his wife's hometown of Pittsburgh, PA for another campaign rally. Pennsylvania's unemployment numbers rose from 5.3% in July, to 5.6% in August. Gore won Pennsylvania's 23 electoral votes four years ago, 50.5% to 46.5%. The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier previews today's speech as a "major policy address" that is expected to draw a crowd of about 1,000.

13 days out
The Wall Street Journal has more on the poll NBC/WSJ poll: "Mr. Kerry's solid debate performances have helped him inch toward key objectives: building voter confidence in his ability to be commander in chief; narrowing the gap with President Bush on handling terrorism; and riding a powerful edge on the twin domestic concerns of jobs and health care. In the 12 swing states where electoral votes will likely prove decisive, he leads Mr. Bush by six percentage points."

"The survey also shows President Bush making headway on crucial goals. The Republican incumbent has punched through with his homestretch message of ultimate success in Iraq, exploited his advantage over Mr. Kerry on strength, consistency and likeability, and pushed his approval rating up to 49% from 47% last month, nearly reaching the 50% threshold at which incumbents usually survive."

"Moreover, the president's repeated invocations of progress in Iraq appear to be boosting optimism, notwithstanding continued violence there; a 47%-40% plurality predicts the Iraq engagement will end in victory rather than defeat. So have his warnings of the risk of a potential Kerry administration. By 29%-16%, voters say terrorists are more likely to strike if Mr. Kerry were elected; by 30%-20%, voters say a Bush victory would make another terror strike here less likely."

"Perhaps most significant, [Kerry] stands to make gains among late-deciding voters, who traditionally break against incumbent candidates. Though just 4% now describe themselves as undecided, the Journal/NBC pollsters classify a somewhat larger 12% group as 'persuadable voters,' who disapprove of Mr. Bush's job performance, 45% to 40%."

The African-American vote could be the key determining factor in many key battleground states, but USA Today reports that Kerry has been "slow to excite them," and that a "leading think tank on issues affecting African-Americans, released a poll Tuesday that found 18% of black Americans would vote for President Bush. That's twice the share of black votes Bush drew in 2000, though far lower than Kerry's 69%."

The Washington Times some Democrats don't believe the numbers while "Some Republicans also scoffed at the numbers privately, saying Mr. Bush will be lucky to match the 8 percent of the black vote that he received in 2000... Still, Republicans and Democrats both think that if Mr. Kerry loses a significant part of the most reliably Democratic portion of the electorate, his chances for winning the election drop considerably. "

The Los Angeles Times says some Jewish voters are taking a "second look" at Bush: "Bush has much room for improvement - surveys showed he got 19% of the Jewish vote nationally in 2000, while Democrat Al Gore won 79%. But the president's firm support for Israel and his aggressive response to the Sept. 11 attacks ... have earned Bush a second look from some Jewish voters... Republican strategists said they believed the president could make some modest inroads into the Jewish community, but polls so far offer mixed indications of whether that was happening."

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post looks at the most recent Bush and Kerry ads, and says both candidates "have moved beyond assailing -- critics would say distorting -- their opponents' positions and are setting up straw men that they enthusiastically knock down. They are, some analysts say, campaigning against caricatures."

"'In the specifics, you can get away with just about anything,' said Shanto Iyengar, chairman of Stanford University's communications department. 'Ninety-five percent of the American public knows very little about the details. The only people who care about it are journalists and pundits. In the real world, people don't have time.'"

Finally, observing the back-and-forth on several different issues between Bush and Kerry, USA Today notes some of the "scare tactics" being employed by the campaigns to sway voters.

National and Homeland Security
Here are some excerpts from Kerry's major speech today on Iraq and terrorism: "America is fighting... and must win... two wars.  The war in Iraq. And the war on terror. President Bush likes to confuse the two.  He claims that Iraq is the centerpiece of the war on terror.  In fact, Iraq was a profound diversion from that war and the battle against our greatest enemy:  Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network."

"But now that we're fighting two wars, we must... and we will... prevail in both. In Iraq, because the President's miscalculations have created a terrorist haven that wasn't there before.  And in the worldwide struggle against the terrorists, because they attacked us ... and because they represent the greatest threat to security in our time."

"By treating other countries with contempt, President Bush gave them an excuse to stay on the sidelines instead of shouldering their responsibilities. The President didn't event try.  I will and I believe others will follow. This President likes to say he's a leader.  Mr. President, look behind you.  There's no one there.  It's not leadership if no one follows... The President's failures in Iraq have made us weaker, not stronger, in the war on terrorism.  That is the hard truth.  The President refuses to acknowledge it."

Indeed, MSNBC's Becky Diamond notes that Kerry is framing many of his new attacks against Bush on the fact that he isn't trustworthy. Though Kerry never uses the exact word "trust," he laced his speech on Tuesday with accusations that Bush cannot be trusted. He charged Bush, for example, with a "betrayal of the middle class." Usually, Diamond observes, Kerry says that the President has turned his back on the middle class -- but betrayal is a harsher characterization, and it reflects the increasing severity of the attacks on the stump.

NBC's Norah O'Donnell notes that Bush is not expected to directly respond to Kerry's speech today, but a Bush campaign adviser says, "We are more than happy to continue to debate with him on who is best to win the war on terror." The adviser adds the campaign was "surprised" that Kerry has now "scrapped his plans to focus on domestic issues to play defense on the war on terror."

Still, O'Donnell reports, Bush will include a new line in his speech today about Iraq that "furthers the case" he made in his speeches on Monday.

The New York Times covers Cheney's remarks yesterday on terror and Kerry. "...Mr. Cheney hit hard on a central theme of the Bush campaign: that the president has a better grasp than Mr. Kerry of the threats facing the nation, and the will to stymie terrorists. As in previous campaigning, the vice president invoked the specter of terrorists' attacking an American city."

MSNBC's Priya David says, however, that Cheney's twin comments -- about the threat of a nuclear attack, and that Kerry isn't aggressive on the war on terror -- were not directly tied together in his speech. In fact, she says, there was a five- to ten-minute span between the two remarks.  Still, David notes that both are common remarks for Cheney to make.

MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports that Edwards spent most of Tuesday talking about the President's terrorism speech. "He's been out giving a speech about terrorism," Edwards said. "It's not filled with ideas or inspiration about bringing people together and how we win the war on terrorism instead it's filled with the politics of fear and hard line attacks on John Kerry, false attacks on John Kerry."

For the second straight year, the Wall Street Journal reports, "U.S. Army recruiters fell short of their goal for signing up enlistees in the first month of a new recruiting cycle. For the first 30-day period in its new recruiting year, the Army was 30% shy of its goal of signing up 7,274 recruits... Enlistments for the reserves were 45% below the target."

The Wall Street Journal's editorial page zeroes in on Kerry's charge that the Bush Administration is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to research "'bunker-busting nuclear weapons.'" "First, the Bush Administration isn't pursuing new nuclear weapons. It is conducting a feasibility study on the possibility of modifying an existing nuclear weapon into one capable of penetrating rock -- a different matter... Second, the amount the Administration is seeking isn't 'hundreds of millions' but is $27.5 million for the fiscal year that just started. It spent $6.5 million in 2003 and $7.5 million in 2004."

The Washington Post says that Condoleezza Rice has made speeches in the battleground states of Oregon, Washington, North Carolina, and Ohio, and that she plans to visit Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida in the coming days - all of which seems to break from the long-standing precedent of having the national security adviser stay away from the campaign trail.

"Although she does not mention Democratic challenger John F. Kerry and avoids answering overtly political questions, the target of her speeches is not lost on local audiences. The Seattle Times, reporting on a Sept. 7 speech to the University of Washington, said, 'Rice sounded at times like a candidate' as she received 'rousing ovations' in defending the administration's handling of the war on terrorism."

God, guns, and gays
The New York Times reports that the Roman Catholic Church's official news service quoted an unnamed Vatican official who said that Kerry was "'not a heretic'" for supporting abortion rights. "The article by The Catholic News Service also quoted an unnamed Vatican official as saying Mr. Kerry was not about to be excommunicated because 'you can incur excommunication' automatically 'only if you procure or perform an abortion.'"

"The article came after a conservative Catholic canon lawyer who is trying to get Mr. Kerry excommunicated publicized a letter that was drafted at the request of a high-ranking Vatican official, a letter that the lawyer said indicated that Mr. Kerry should be excommunicated because he supported abortion rights."

The Wall Street Journal's Gerald Seib writes that the Catholic vote has become a metaphor for the polarization this election is creating. "Though Catholics have their own nominee, their church hierarchy has, in the popular interpretation, tilted more toward Republican non-Catholic, George Bush... As a consequence, Catholics are debating with each other outside their churches and inside their parochial-school auditoriums. Some rail against their own bishops, while others cheer what they see as a long-awaited stand of conscience... The danger is that this election will leave the Catholic community, one of America's social pillars, divided against itself. But it doesn't have to be."

Kerry is clearly aiming for votes when he goes hunting in Ohio on Thursday, MSNBC's Diamond reports. This hunting trip comes after he purchased an Ohio hunting license over the weekend. The last time the candidate actually hunted was on October 31, 2003, when he went pheasant hunting in Iowa. Diamond says she's spoken with several gun owners in rural parts of battleground states, who wear their pistols on hip holsters and who talk about the right to bear arms as their number-one voting issue.

MSNBC's David says FOX's Sean Hannity was on the Cheney bus trip yesterday, and Hannity's full interview with the Vice President will air tonight. In the interview, she reports, he asked Cheney about Kerry raising his daughter's name during the debate. Cheney said, "Mary is a private person" who's "been very active in the campaign." He further said that he thinks Mary shared their sense that it wasn't an appropriate comment. Cheney added it was the first time he could recall one presidential candidate dragging another candidate's family member into the debate to make a political point.

Hannity then asked about the comment by Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill that Mary was "fair game." Cheney said that it "clearly showed this whole thing was calculated."

Sen. Clinton broke ranks by saying Kerry may have made a mistake in referencing Cheney's lesbian daughter in last week's debate, the Washington Times reports, but Kerry will not apologize for his comment.

Bill Clinton's return
Speaking of the Clintons: The AP reports that Bill Clinton will stump for Kerry early next week in Philadelphia. "It was unclear whether Kerry would be there, too. But Clinton, who is recovering from heart surgery, has agreed to the appearance for his fellow Democrat... Kerry's campaign also has outlined for Clinton other ways he can help rally voters and participate in the last two weeks of the presidential campaign, including visits to battleground states. 'There has been some discussion with the former president about things that will be great for him to do,' said Kerry adviser Mike McCurry. 'We're hoping that something will be able to come together.'"

Health care and the flu
The New York Times notes how Democrats and the Kerry campaign are tying the flu vaccine shortage with national security. "Democrats have seized on the vaccine shortage to accuse the administration of being unable to protect Americans - from either illness or terrorism. 'If you can't get flu vaccines to Americans, how are you going to protect them against bioterrorism?' Senator John Kerry ... asked in an interview with National Public Radio."

"[HHS Secretary Tommy] Thompson said that more had been done to fight the flu by this administration than by any previous one. Echoing comments made in recent days by Vice President Dick Cheney, he said that tort reforms proposed by the administration were needed to help vaccine manufacturers even more. But Congress in 1986 passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act that largely shields vaccine manufacturers from serious legal liability. Congress voted this year to add flu vaccines to the program, a bill that only awaits President Bush's signature, according to a spokesman for the program."

The battleground
The New York Times reports that interest groups will be pumping at least $350 million in "the most expensive voter-drive ground war in history. It includes the major parties and their allies, the independent but partisan groups known as 527's... And for the first time in a national campaign, it includes hundreds of civic organizations and deep-pocketed business interests."

The DNC held a conference call with reporters yesterday to tout its get-out-the-vote activities.  DNC National Field Director Karen Hicks said the Democrats have 250,000 active volunteers who have knocked on 6 million doors and made 18 million phone calls. In addition, she said, there is a 2,500-person support staff to assist these volunteers. In the Q&A session, DNC General Elections Manager Michael Whouley was asked to compare the Democrats' GOTV operation with the Republicans 72-Hour program, which was very successful in 2002. "At the end of the day, we are going to have 51% in the battleground states and they will not," Whouley replied. "I think we have more persuadable voters who will break our way in the next two weeks."

According to campaign officials, MSNBC's Llamas says, John Edwards will be in the Midwest, Florida, and his home state of North Carolina over the next two weeks. Though North Carolina seems to be a Red State, the Kerry-Edwards campaign still believes the state will be in play on November 2 (although, to the best of our knowledge, it isn't airing ads there).

Making your vote count
The Los Angeles Times writes about the surge in overseas voting, and the problems that have been created because of it: "Democratic and Republican organizers say the upsurge in registration abroad has burdened an already unwieldy system of absentee voting, causing frustration among the many overseas Americans who have yet to receive ballots from their home states."

The Washington Times reports that Democratic sugar-daddy George Soros "has given millions of dollars to a coalition of anti-Bush organizations whose nationwide voter-registration drive has been targeted by state and federal authorities for possible widespread fraud."

"Hundreds of questionable voter-registration applications, such as duplicates, and accusations of workers shredding registrations in favor of one party are under review by local, state and federal law-enforcement and election authorities in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota, West Virginia, Oregon, Ohio, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Florida."

The politics of baseball

MSNBC's Diamond notes that Kerry made a rare appearance in his plane's press cabin to tell the Boston Globe's GlenJohnson the score of last night's Red Sox-Yankees game (which, just in case you've fallen off the planet, the Sox won). He told reporters that he was getting regular updates in flight. One reporter suggested that Kerry should make a detour to New York to catch the game. Kerry replied, "Keep your eyes on the prize. They do that; I'll do this."


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