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 (12 days out)
The Bush campaign is offended on behalf of women voters everywhere that Teresa Heinz Kerry suggested Laura Bush never had a job.  The Kerry campaign is outraged on behalf of seniors that Cheney got a flu shot.  They are also indignant for the nation that Condi Rice is taking time away from national security matters to give speeches in battleground states. 

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We'll fight off yawns over these exchanges since, as our NBC/Wall Street Journal pollsters warn, the slightest breeze could blow the outcome of this tied election in one direction or the other.  Some of these things may wind up mattering.  Pat Robertson's assertion that President Bush dismissed his warning about casualties in Iraq, and that Bush insisted that there wouldn't be any, strikes us as a potentially graver issue since it feeds right into Kerry's "rose-colored glasses" allegation.

Maybe we are in fact doomed to overblown sniping over minor issues for the rest of the campaign.  But maybe there's something bigger going on. 

The Kerry campaign is out there arguing for a fresh start, a new direction, etc.  The word they aren't using, but essentially mean, is change.  The Bush campaign argues that it's risky to switch presidents during wartime (war meaning both the war in Iraq and the WOT).  So for the ankle-bitten, we suggest the following bigger framework for considering the next 12 days. 

Maybe it's just us, but we're sensing inklings of a "time for a change" election which, if true, means that Bush is in a race against the clock.  As NBC/Wall Street Journal pollster Bob Teeter used to say, voters ultimately decide what an election is about -- not the candidates.  For the past eight months, the President and his team have done everything possible to convince voters that the election should be about the war and terrorism, issues which play to Bush's strengths and Kerry's weaknesses.  The fact that Bush pulled this off for so long is a testimony to the discipline of his campaign, Kerry's own incoherence, and the priority voters place on these issues -- it's not all coming from Bush -- reinforced by the news.

The latest national polls, including many tracks, show a tied race.  Our own NBC/Journal poll showed a dead heat among likely voters, after giving Bush a 3-point lead back in September.  Yet our poll also showed some improvement in voters' outlook on Iraq.  Why wouldn't this show up in the horse race?  Maybe the horse race is a lagging indicator.  Or maybe some voters might be ceasing to give the President a break. 

If that's the case, the election couldn't happen soon enough for Bush, and time has become Kerry's friend.  Consider the basis of Bush's case for re-election.  A war for which the justification is constantly changing.  Tax cuts which gave the economy a short-term boost but undermine his ability to fund other programs, fix Social Security, and cut the deficit.  Charges against Kerry on Iraq, which had great resonance for months but have gotten little new gas recently beyond Kerry's "nuisance" remark, which was taken out of context.  And a newer, "liberal" attack which may not be as potent. 

Recent events, including a greater focus away from Iraq and terrorism and onto on domestic issues like the flu and even the presidential race itself, combined with the efforts of the Kerry campaign, may be slowly but inexorably undermining Bush's case.

Another Democratic candidate might get it done more efficiently, but we're talking about Kerry here -- whose performance on the stump is painfully uneven, and who needs to have the press pool witness him hunting and watching baseball to make him seem more likeable.  (Compounding the problem: The campaign can give Kerry a gun but they can't keep his wife from shooting off her mouth.)  And beyond Kerry's own issues, the polls still give Bush a higher score on leadership.  If anything happens in the next 12 days to give that edge greater weight, a movement for change could be at least temporarily stymied.

And of course, even if we are looking at a change election, Bush can still beat the clock and win -- in which case, while it's very early to make such predictions, Republicans would need to fear 2006. 

Values today.  The President's meeting with the Archbishop of Philadelphia at 3:00 pm may overshadow his health care speech in Downingtown at 1:45 pm and his speech in Hershey at 4:25 pm.  Challenger Kerry goes hunting this morning "for some kind of water fowl with a small group including a congressman and the press pool," reports NBC's Kelly O'Donnell.  He then gives a speech in Columbus, OH at 1:30 pm on stem cells and science, for which he will be joined by Christopher Reeve's widow Dana.  Kerry gives another speech in Minneapolis at 7:45 pm and overnights in Milwaukee.  

Cheney gives a speech in Sylvania, OH at 1:00 pm, travels to Wisconsin for a speech is Ashwaubenon at 5:15 pm, then heads to Minnesota.  And Edwards is in Iowa for a community gathering in Muscatine at 10:50 am and a speech in Iowa City at 6:30 pm, then he heads to West Palm Beach, FL.

In addition to the red-state polls already out there, the latest round of MSNBC/Knight Ridder/Mason-Dixon polls in the most competitive blue states will be released tonight at 6:30 pm on NBC Nightly News and on MSNBC.  

Today's stops
Bush spends the day in Pennsylvania, with stops in Downingtown and Hershey.  The state's unemployment numbers rose from 5.3% in July, to 5.6% in August.  Gore won here in 2000, 50.5% to 46.5%.  The AP notes this is Bush's 40th trip to Pennsylvania, which is comparable in number to his visits to Crawford.

Kerry won't forget Poland this time: He campaigns there -- Poland, OH, of course -- and also visits Columbus today.  Then he heads to Minnesota for an evening rally in Minneapolis.  Ohio's jobless numbers rose from 6.0% in July to 6.3% in August, and Minnesota's numbers also climbed from 4.4% to 4.8%.  Bush won Ohio four years ago, 50%-46.5%, while Gore took Minnesota, 48% to 45.5%.  The AP reports that Kerry's stop in Minnesota today is the third this week by a member of the presidential tickets -- and it won't be the last.

The series
Kerry was in a jovial mood when the press pool gathered in his hotel room to watch the Red Sox game with him, MSNBC's Diamond reports.  The pool threw the candidate several questions about the game, and Kerry noted, "They're the biggest comeback team there is."  Diamond herself asked Kerry if he saw any metaphors there, and he replied, "Becky, we're just playing ball here tonight -- but I like it.  I like what I'm seeing." 

Asked by reporters during the day yesterday whether Kerry would go to a game if they make the Series, Kerry advisor Mike McCurry said, "I'm sure he's thinking about it.  Whether we're thinking about it is another question.  It's hard to figure how to work that in."

Beyond Election Day
Sue first and ask questions later: The AP reports that Kerry, mindful of what Democrats in hindsight view as Gore's mistakes, "will not hesitate to declare victory Nov. 2 and defend it, advisers say.  He also will be prepared to name a national security team before knowing whether he has secured the presidency."

"Six so-called 'SWAT teams' of lawyers and political operatives will be situated around the country with fueled-up jets awaiting Kerry's orders to speed to a battleground state.  The teams have been told to be ready to fly on the evening of the election to begin mounting legal and political fights.  Every battleground state will have a SWAT team within an hour of its borders.  The Kerry campaign has recount office space in every battleground state, with plans so detailed that they include the number of staplers and coffee machines needed to mount legal challenges."

"Aides say the transition process is behind schedule, but Kerry will be ready to name a national security team shortly after the election.  They say he has candidates in mind, but is reluctant to discuss the transition while campaigning.  The advisers spoke on condition of anonymity because Kerry wants the focus to be on his campaign for now."

12 days out
The Washington Times reports on the rolling out of big guns Clinton and Schwarzenegger, noting that Schwarzenegger is likely to campaign with Bush in Columbus, OH the weekend before the election.

As of September 30, the New York Times reports, Bush and the RNC had roughly $108 million cash on hand, while Kerry and the DNC had $79 million.

MSNBC's Diamond is told by Kerry press aides that Kerry will hold more rallies next week and give fewer speeches.  The point of the rallies is to reflect "energy and momentum," says one adviser.

Kerry is scheduled to visit Colorado this Friday and again next week, Diamond says.  Advisor Mike McCurry told reporters on the plane that "unlike Bush and New Jersey, our efforts in Colorado are real."  One advisor tells Diamond that the campaign "has a sense of where we go now through next Friday," but to expect anything in the last weekend -- including a 24-hour trip, which would be "touchdown to touchdown."  As for the traveling press, Diamond says, currently there are 95 members of the media traveling with Kerry, and advance aides say that number will rise to approximately 125 next week.

Over the next 12 days, Edwards's duties for the campaign will not change much, reports MSNBC's Tom Llamas.  He will deliver the campaign's message at his campaign stops, and when his ticket is attacked by the Bush-Cheney campaign, it will be his task to respond.  The campaign wants to get Kerry away from the daily exchanges with the President and let Edwards handle the counterpunching, Llamas says.  That said, the campaign is also trying to make sure that Edwards chooses his battles wisely.  With time running out, the campaign does not want to get sidetracked in talking about issues Republicans can use to their advantage, like the Mary Cheney line last week. 

National and Homeland Security
The Washington Post covers the back and forth over the Robertson comments on CNN late Tuesday, including Karl Rove saying the President never said there wouldn't be any casualties in Iraq.  Robertson's allegation on CNN: "'I warned him about this war.  I had deep misgivings about this war, deep misgivings.  And I was trying to say, "Mr. President, you better prepare the American people for casualties,"' Robertson said.  'Oh, no, we're not going to have any casualties,' Robertson quoted Bush as saying."

The Los Angeles Times puts it this way: "Democrats trying to portray President Bush as too headstrong when he decided to invade Iraq got help this week from an unlikely source...  Robertson's comments quickly became an issue in the presidential campaign and put the White House in the awkward position of denying comments from one of Bush's most prominent supporters."  The story notes, "Robertson issued a two-paragraph statement confirming his support for Bush, but he did not withdraw his comments."

USA Today says, "The 'scare' issues drawing headlines in the presidential race include flu shots, Social Security and the draft.  But terrorism dwarfs all of them, in scale and ferocity."

"Sometimes the tone is heart-tugging.  Most often it is scorched earth.  But the messages are consistent. Bush says a Kerry presidency would put the nation at risk because he is a liberal vacillator.  Kerry says keeping Bush is the bigger risk because he has botched the war on terrorism and hasn't done enough to make the country safe.  The consensus among several academics who study the presidency and foreign policy: Kerry has the tougher case to make."

The Washington Post puts yesterday's Bush-Kerry exchange over fitness to be commander in chief in a larger context: "At stake in the exchange was a crucial distinction: whether Americans connect the unpopular war in Iraq with the more popular war against al Qaeda -- a perception that would benefit Bush -- or whether they see the two as separate or at cross-purposes, as Kerry has argued.  Americans are split on the question, with 45 percent saying the Iraq war has helped the war against terrorism and 40 percent saying it has hurt, according to a poll released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center."

The Chicago Tribune: "Kerry's speech was a response to Bush's Monday address in New Jersey that accused the senator of engaging in a mentality of 'retreat' and 'defeatism' that would make the country less safe."

The New York Times zeroes in on Bush's vision of freedom in Iraq, a topic with which he concludes his speeches.  "It is deliberately far more Reagan than Bush 41, a sparkling symbol of 'the vision thing' that Mr. Bush's father lacked, with disastrous electoral results, a dozen years ago.  And while the president's riff rarely shows up on the evening news, it is the uplifting moment in his daily message."

The Los Angeles Times on some of the security-themed ad traffic out there: "A Republican National Committee ad seizes on a recent Kerry statement about his desire to reduce the terrorist threat to a 'nuisance.'  The ad, which aired Tuesday in Denver, asked whether Kerry was 'too weak' against terrorism.  The Media Fund, a liberal group unaffiliated with the Kerry campaign, aired two new spots on Black Entertainment Television that charged Bush was out of step with African Americans.  In one, a narrator said: 'The way this war's going, our 14-year-olds are going to be fighting in Iraq in four years.  You better wake up before you get taken out.'"

The Washington Post notes that in his remarks on foreign policy yesterday, Edwards used "the word 'incompetent' seven times in the first seven minutes of the speech."  The story reminds us, "During his presidential bid, the energetic senator from North Carolina found his niche in a crowded Democratic field by touting the virtues of forward-looking solutions and staying positive."

The values debate
Kerry aides tell NBC's Kelly O'Donnell that Kerry will spend some time in "lighter venues" where he can be seen doing the things they say he enjoys, like hunting and sports.  This push is intended at least in part to help him with white men (the campaign claims their own polls shows improvement on that count, O'Donnell says), and it is also to make Kerry appear more accessible to address the long-standing deficit in perceptions about his personality and alleged aloofness.

Asked about the trip, one Kerry advisor put it bluntly, MSNBC's Becky Diamond reports: "It's a way of saying, 'I share your values, you can trust me, you know me.'"

The AP says Kerry is on the hunt for "geese and voters who might harbor doubts about him...  Kerry plans to deliver a new speech on faith this weekend in Florida, McCurry said, focusing on an explanation of his values."

Twenty-four Olympians and professional athletes signed an e-mailed letter to Bush supporters: "The same qualities that make a great athlete make a great President -- the determination to do what is right, regardless of the latest polls, the personal strength to bear the weight of the nation on your shoulders, and the faith that a higher power will direct the actions of good people.  We see in President Bush these same qualities."

Bob Novak writes about pro-life Catholics who oppose Kerry because of his support for abortion rights.

The battleground
The Wall Street Journal focuses on the potential importance of local issues: "There are really two presidential campaigns going on this year.  There's the battle over the epic issues of the day... played out in the debates, the candidates' major addresses, the nationally publicized advertisements, and the network evening news broadcasts.  Then there's the campaign percolating just beneath the surface, over a welter of narrower issues.  But those questions matter intensely to certain groups of voters.  They have extra potency because this election, like the one in 2000, could be decided by a handful of electoral votes."

"In some cases, the issues affect a specific contested state: milk subsidies in Wisconsin, nuclear-waste storage in Nevada, methamphetamine abuse in Iowa, new restrictions on travel to Cuba in Florida, silvery minnow protections in New Mexico.  Other questions motivate a bloc of voters spread across multiple swing states, such as the same-sex marriage issue for Christian evangelicals, and the Second Amendment for hunters.  Those hot-button topics tend to favor Republicans, but Democrats have found one they think works to their advantage this year: highlighting allegations of voting-rights violations against African-Americans..."

Among the six states that allow same-day registration, four are battlegrounds where last-minute registration could make or break chances for one candidate, notes the Boston Globe.  In Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Maine, "the same-day-registration states loom as a potential X factor on Election Day.  These are voters the campaigns for the most part do not even know exist, let alone how they will vote."

Knight Ridder writes up the latest round of MSNBC/Knight Ridder/Mason-Dixon red-state polls: "Bush leads in all of the battleground states he carried in 2000, but he faces a tightening contest to repeat his wins in Ohio and New Hampshire...  If Bush holds all the battleground states he won in 2000... he will win re-election.  If he loses red states with 10 electoral votes or more, he has to win away 'blue' states..."

"In Missouri, he led by 49 percent to 44 percent.  In West Virginia, he also led by 49-44 percent.  In Colorado, he led by 49-43 percent.  And in Nevada, Bush led by 52-42 percent.  But Bush leads Sen. John Kerry in Ohio by only 46-45 percent...  In both Florida and New Hampshire, the Republican incumbent leads the Democratic senator by only 48-45 percent, a 3-point edge that leaves the race in those states within the poll's margin of error and makes them toss-ups."

The Boston Globe covers both Kerry and Bush in Iowa yesterday and chronicles their history with the state.

The 2004 presidential and congressional elections will cost a projected $3.9 billion, according to a new study by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. This is a 30% increase from the $3 billion spent in 2000 (when federal elections weren't governed by the new campaign finance reform law).  The presidential election this cycle, the study says, will cost a projected $1.2 billion.

Here's the breakdown of the projected spending on the 2004 elections (these estimates are based on campaign finance figures released this week -- and are conservatively projected throughout the rest of the election):

Individual contributions to candidates and parties - $2.5 billion
PAC contributions to candidates and parties - $384 million
Candidate self-funding - $144 million
527 spending (related to a federal election) - $386 million
Public funds to presidential candidates and conventions - $207 million
Convention host committee spending - $139 million
Other (loans, interest, independent expenditures) - $102 million

Laura Bush v. THK
The Washington Times covers the flap over Teresa Heinz Kerry's remark to USA Today that Laura Bush never held down a real job: "Late yesterday, Mrs. Kerry tried to telephone Mrs. Bush to apologize directly, but was told by the first lady's chief of staff that such an apology was unnecessary."

"Mrs. Kerry's missteps and the Mary Cheney flap, which overshadowed what pundits regarded as an otherwise strong debate performance by the Massachusetts Democrat, apparently have helped Mr. Bush improve his standing among women since the last presidential election."

"Kerry aides said they were a bit unnerved when they read Heinz Kerry's remarks. As media outlets began highlighting the remarks, the campaign opted for an apology that was also aimed at the working mothers whom Kerry is courting," says the Boston Globe

Another Washington Times story notes, "Most of the undecided voters across the nation - 62 percent - are women, and they are aggressively being courted by both presidential candidates, who have tailored campaign messages to increase their take of the crucial voting bloc."

Health care and the flu
Cheney was inoculated against the flu on the advice of his doctor, the campaign tells MSNBC's Priya David, who thinks the shot must have happened fairly recently, raising the question of whether it happened before or after Bush spoke in the last debate about healthy people forgoing shots for those who have a greater need.

Making your vote count
The Washington Post covers the Bush campaign conference call yesterday on which Bush attorneys charged "that fraudulent voting engineered by pro-Democratic groups could throw the election to John F. Kerry -- a charge Democrats immediately attacked as a Republican smoke screen to justify the intimidation of minority voters on Election Day."

"Despite the charges and countercharges,... many nonpartisan experts said they doubt that suspect registrations will lead to widespread illegal voting in the presidential election.  To a large degree, election officials said, the bad registrations can be attributed to the parties' decision to outsource voter registration operations to private companies and nonprofit groups that pay temporary employees for every new voter they sign up.  In essence, they said, the problem is not fraud for partisan gain but greed."

The Miami Herald reports that "lawyers for U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler made their final challenge to Florida's rules for recounting close contests on touch-screen voting equipment" yesterday.  While a ruling would have no bearing on this year's election, Wexler's lawyers have asked the court to consider "appointing monitors to oversee the programming of touch-screen machines and the counting of votes."  The judge has said he will rule "as soon as possible."

"Just under two-thirds of Florida voters were confident that their ballots would be properly counted in next month's presidential election," per the latest Mason-Dixon poll, the AP reports. 

Roll Call says, "The Government Accountability Office said last week that the Justice Department has made significant strides toward ensuring voter access to polling places, but GAO warned that Nov. 2 balloting still faces the threat of widespread confusion due to new voting systems and requirements.  GAO recommended that, in the roughly two weeks that remain before the elections, Justice come up with a 'reliable method' of tracking voting irregularities and documenting the actions taken to address them...  The report from the Congressional agency was requested by" Democratic members.

The New York Times profiles one of our favorite toss-up Senate races this cycle: the brawl in Alaska between Lisa Murkowski (R) and Tony Knowles (D).  "Both parties have funneled huge resources into this race on the nation's frontier, making it extremely expensive by Alaska campaign standards and, in the last few weeks, increasingly vicious...  Television and radio here have been saturated in recent weeks with attacks ads...  [T]his is the first competitive Senate race here in a quarter-century."

The Washington Post covers a Kentucky Senate race suddenly looking a bit better for the Democratic challenger -- but still probably a longshot -- because of concerns about the GOP incumbent's mental health.  Sen. Jim Bunning has suggested the Democrat, who has Italian roots, looks like one of Saddam Hussein's sons.


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