First Thoughts: Two key speeches

Why Obama’s second speech today (on health care at 4:55 pm ET) could be the more important one to watch… But we’ll be watching the first one (at the UN at 10:10 am), too… On yesterday’s “Shutdown Showdown” developments: McConnell opposes Cruz-led filibuster, as Cruz finds out getting 41 votes isn’t easy… New NBC4/NBC News/Marist poll shows McAuliffe leading VA GOV race by five points among likely voters, 43%-38%... Two reasons why McAuliffe is ahead: 1) gender gap and 2) likeability gap… Is McDonnell hurting Cuccinelli? Or is Cuccinelli hurting himself?... And watching Virginia’s “Battle for the ‘Burbs.”

President Barack Obama speaks during his meeting with Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan in New York September 23, 2013. Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

*** Why Obama’s second speech today could be the more important one to watch: While President Obama's first speech today (to the United Nations General Assembly at 10:10 am ET) will receive most of the attention in the moment, we're focusing on his second speech (with Bill Clinton on health care at 4:55 pm). Why? Because it's the second issue -- health care -- that will likely define Obama's legacy when he exits office come Jan. 2017. And that’s especially true as enrollment begins in the new health-care exchanges exactly one week from today. According to our most recent NBC/WSJ poll, the health-care law remains unpopular: 44% call it a bad idea, while 31% believe it’s a good idea. What’s more, by a 45% to 23% margin, Americans say the law will have a negative impact on the country's health-care system rather than a positive one. But the law also has room to grow: It’s more popular among those who understand it (42% good idea, 45% bad idea), while it’s very negative among those who don’t understand it well (17% good idea, 44% bad idea). Also be sure to pay attention to Bill Clinton’s role when the two men discuss health care at the Clinton Global Initiative. Remember, Clinton’s previous effort to sell the reform -- earlier this month in Arkansas -- got drowned out by Syria. Also, it was now 20 years ago almost to the day when Clinton himself tried to sell health-care reform to the country (the famous Health Security Card speech to Congress). One thing the White House believes is that some of the folks the president would like to reach on the issue of health care (older voters) are more likely to listen to an explanation from Clinton than Obama right now. It’s something they learned during the 2012 Democratic convention.

*** But we’ll be watching the first speech, too: Of course, Obama’s U.N. speech will be important to watch, too. “Seeking to build on diplomatic opportunities, President Barack Obama is expected to signal his willingness to engage with the new Iranian government if Tehran makes nuclear concessions long sought by the U.S. and Western allies,” the AP says. “Obama … also will call on U.N. Security Council members to approve a resolution that would mandate consequences for Syria if it fails to cooperate with a plan to turn its chemical weapons stockpiles over to the international community.” But Obama’s words won’t be the real news from the U.N. Rather, it will be any picture of him with Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani (if they can make the logistics work). It’s still possible this chance meeting won’t happen.

*** On yesterday’s “Shutdown Showdown” developments: We probably weren’t the only ones who thought -- for about 30 minutes yesterday -- that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) looked to be the leader of the Senate Republicans as he sparred with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. As for the Senate GOP’s actual leader, well, he largely remains on the sidelines in this current budget debate. “[A]s Congress trudges toward its next budget showdown, the Mr. Fix-It of Washington is looking more like its Invisible Man as he balances his leadership imperatives with his re-election,” the New York Times says of McConnell. But the GOP leader did make news yesterday, saying that he wouldn’t join the Cruz-led filibuster. "Senator McConnell supports the House Republicans’ bill and will not vote to block it, since it defunds Obamacare and funds the government without increasing spending by a penny," Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said, per NBC’s Mike O’Brien. McConnell's No. 2, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, joined with the Kentucky senator. The McConnell-Cornyn decisions were interesting -- Cornyn doesn’t have true primary challenge, and McConnell’s fellow Kentucky senator, Rand Paul, hasn’t made this budget debate a big issue, so both felt politically comfortable doing what they are doing.

*** Cruz’s difficulty getting 41 votes: Given these defections on his filibuster, Cruz is finding out that it’s easier to get Facebook likes than 41 votes in the Senate. On FOX, Cruz defended himself, per NBC’s Sarah Blackwill. “Folks can do whatever they want to resist change, and there are a lot of people who've been in Washington a long time that are fearful of change, fearful of risk, they're fearful of anything that changes the clubby way Washington does business,” he said. Cruz also said that Friday’s vote – not Wednesday’s – is the more important one. “I’t's the vote on Friday that matters. The vote on Friday, Harry Reid is trying to cut off all debate on Friday and be able to fund Obamacare with just 51 votes. I hope and believe that all 46 Republicans should vote together on Friday against cutting off debate.”

*** Two reasons why McAuliffe is ahead in Virginia: Ahead of Wednesday’s debate in Virginia’s gubernatorial contest, Terry McAuliffe has opened up a five-point lead over Ken Cuccinelli among likely voters, 43%-38%, according to a brand-new NBC4/NBC News/Marist poll. Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis gets 8% of the vote, while another 10% are undecided. Back in May, an NBC/Marist poll had Cuccinelli with a three-point advantage over McAuliffe, 45%-42%. Why is McAuliffe ahead? We can point to two clear reasons. One, a BIG gender gap exists: McAuliffe is ahead of Cuccinelli by a whopping 18 points among likely female voters, 50% to 32%. By comparison, Cuccinelli is up by 8 points among men, 44% to 36%. Two, the summer -- filled with negative TV ads and a nasty back-and-forth between the candidates -- has taken a bigger toll on Cuccinelli than McAuliffe. The current poll finds Cuccinelli with upside-down fav/unfav rating at 34%-47% among registered voters. Back in May, Cuccinelli’s fav/unfav rating was right side up at 42%-27%. So that’s a huge shift. Meanwhile, McAuliffe’s fav/unfav rating in this poll is 41%-34% negative among registered voters.

*** Is McDonnell hurting Cuccinelli? Or is Cuccinelli hurting himself? There is a third possible explanation for Cuccinelli trailing in the race: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R) ethical woes. Indeed, McDonnell’s numbers have declined in our poll -- from a 61% approval rating among registered voters in May, to 55% now (which is still above Obama’s 48% job rating in the state). What’s more, McDonnell leads McAuliffe by five points, 47%-42%, in a hypothetical match-up (since McDonnell is term limited). Yet back in May, McDonnell’s lead over McAuliffe was 15 points, 51%-36%. So McDonnell’s numbers have taken a hit, and that’s made it harder for the GOP side in this race. But Cuccinelli isn’t losing because of McDonnell; he’s losing because of Cuccinelli. Among the 8% of likely voters who are backing Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, 62% of them approve of McDonnell’s job, while just 32% approve of Obama’s job. So these folks are GOP-leaning voters, but they’re not supporting Cuccinelli. So while McDonnell has certainly made it harder for Cuccinelli to level personal ethical hits at McAuliffe and has complicated the message terrain for him, the real issue for him, it appears, continues to be how HE is perceived with voters, not with how the GOP or McDonnell is perceived.

*** The Battle for the ‘Burbs: In a final note about Virginia’s gubernatorial race, one of your authors wrote that the race will be decided (as most presidential and statewide contests are) in the growing suburbs and exurbs. “This battle for the ‘burbs is all the more noteworthy because both candidates hail from the crucial and vote-rich Northern Virginia suburbs – Cuccinelli from Prince William County and McAuliffe from McLean, both outside of Washington, D.C. But they couldn’t be more different suburban politicians. Cuccinelli is a devout conservative Catholic; McAuliffe is a liberal Catholic. Cuccinelli has home-schooled his children; McAuliffe has sent his to private school. Cuccinelli has served as an attorney and elected politician; McAuliffe has been a businessman and political fixer, but he has never held elected office. And this suburban battle between these different men raises two key questions in the contest: What is more disqualifying for these voters – Cuccinelli’s socially conservative views, or a potential lack of Democratic enthusiasm about McAuliffe’s candidacy?”

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