Excuse me, but did Dick Cheney just predict that a Kerry victory would lead to a terrorist attack? Have the media got that right?

I spent last week in New York watching the Republicans pummel Kerry night after night as weak and wobbly, practically a national security girlie-man. They got their message across. Forget about taxes and health care, this man who once dodged enemy fire in Vietnam was a menace.

Now, of course, the Democratic nominee is trying to turn the campaign dialogue back to the economy (though Iraq, as always, keeps intruding, especially with the American death toll now having topped 1,000). And the Bush-Cheney team is having none of that.

It's pretty clear, even to a casual observer, that they want this election to be about One Thing. And that Thing isn't prescription drug benefits. That's why the convention tried mightily to morph 9/11, Saddam and the war on terror into one never-ending threat, which also reduces the importance of our failure to find those pesky weapons of mass destruction.

The veep may have figured that he wouldn't draw the requisite headlines if he just repeated the Madison Square Garden attacks. So, in the language of the arms race, he escalated. In terrorist terms, he went to Code Red.

"Vice President Dick Cheney suggested Tuesday that electing the Democratic presidential ticket would make the United States more vulnerable to a terrorist attack," says the Los Angeles Times. | http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/2004/la-na-campaign8sep08,1,2764192.story?coll=la-bottom-elect2004 "Cheney's comments came on a day when President Bush escalated his efforts to paint Sen. John F. Kerry as wobbly on the war in Iraq and the Democratic challenger continued to more harshly criticize the incumbent for the way he orchestrated the attack. "After Cheney's controversial remarks, aides to the vice president sought to clarify them, saying he was referring to the terrorist threat that would face any administration elected in November."

What the vice president really meant to say...

Okay, so what did he actually say?

"'If we make the wrong choice, then the danger is we'll get hit again and we'll be hit in a way that'll be devastating from the standpoint of the United States, and we'll fall back into the pre-9/11 mind set that these terrorist attacks are criminal attacks and we're not really at war. I think that would be a terrible mistake for us,' Cheney told the supporters."

Nice little country you have here. Be a shame if anything happened to it.

"Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards immediately fired back, accusing his opponent of trying to frighten voters."

The presidential race is not over, the New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/07/politics/campaign/07stretch.html assures us.

"With the presidential race down to a two-month stretch, Republicans and Democrats are in unison on two points: President Bush is in a more commanding position than many in his own party forecast only a month ago, while Senator John Kerry is struggling to catch up. Mr. Bush seems to have hit his political stride at the very moment that Mr. Kerry is facing fundamental questions about his candidacy.

"Yet if history is any guide, the contest is far from settled. For all of Mr. Bush's success at his convention in New York last week, the underlying dynamics that have made Republicans view him as an endangered incumbent for much of this year remain very much in place: the nation's unease about its future, the deaths in Iraq and the unsteady economy.

"Though Mr. Kerry, the Democratic challenger, has yet to come up with an overarching theme for his campaign even at this late date - an absence that came into sharp relief after Mr. Bush's disciplined convention built on a message of security - he is a politician who has always seemed to run best when he is on the verge of defeat."

The Note | http://abcnews.go.com/sections/politics/TheNote/TheNote.html sounds the very reasonable note that a polling snapshot may not be that big a deal:

"Isn't it incredible that the ostensibly most sophisticated people in politics are the first ones to wildly overreact to polls?

"The Gang of 500 spent Labor Day asking each other if the race is over. And they will be the first to make up a meta-narrative "comeback" for Kerry if post-Time/Newsweek/Gallup poll numbers this week show the race tighter.

"This is an exact formula - if more than 31 of the 56 days left until election day are fought in the New York Times and on the network news over Iraq, President Bush will be re-elected.

"And it won't be easy for Kerry to keep it below that number of 31. Bush's and Kerry's traveling press corps - like the boys 'n' girls on the bus before them - are obsessed with an artificial 'overshadowed by' daily storyline."

Not to mention the "struggling" story line.

"And 2004's version of choice involves a very sensitive tripwire for Kerry's domestic message of the day being (all together now, in one big media chorus, led by featured performers Carl Quintanilla and David Halbfinger!) 'overshadowed by' a fight with President Bush over Iraq. And the Bush campaign is brilliant about picking that fight."

Brilliant! Write that down: They're brilliant -- for this week, at least.

Looks like the Vietnam debate is continuing to rage. Hence, this Boston Globe | http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2004/09/08/bush_fell_short_on_duty_at_guard/ investigation:

"In February, when the White House made public hundreds of pages of President Bush's military records, White House officials repeatedly insisted that the records prove that Bush fulfilled his military commitment in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.

"But Bush fell well short of meeting his military obligation, a Globe reexamination of the records shows: Twice during his Guard service -- first when he joined in May 1968, and again before he transferred out of his unit in mid-1973 to attend Harvard Business School -- Bush signed documents pledging to meet training commitments or face a punitive call-up to active duty.

"He didn't meet the commitments, or face the punishment, the records show. The 1973 document has been overlooked in news media accounts. The 1968 document has received scant notice.

"On July 30, 1973, shortly before he moved from Houston to Cambridge, Bush signed a document that declared, 'It is my responsibility to locate and be assigned to another Reserve forces unit or mobilization augmentation position. If I fail to do so, I am subject to involuntary order to active duty for up to 24 months. . . . ' Under Guard regulations, Bush had 60 days to locate a new unit.

"But Bush never signed up with a Boston-area unit. In 1999, Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett told the Washington Post that Bush finished his six-year commitment at a Boston area Air Force Reserve unit after he left Houston. Not so, Bartlett now concedes. 'I must have misspoke,' Bartlett, who is now the White House communications director, said in a recent interview."

The AP | http://www.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/nation/president/2004-09-07-new-bush-records_x.htm also obtains some new Guard records that the Pentagon had somehow misplaced.

And speaking of Bush's past, here's my report on the forthcoming Kitty Kelley book, the White House denunciations and how the media are handling the explosive volume.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A3665-2004Sep7.html

The GOP's big-tent convention failed to invite one group in, based on this NYT | http://nytimes.com/2004/09/08/politics/campaign/08repubs.html report:

"The board of Log Cabin Republicans, the largest group for gay men and lesbians in the party, voted overwhelming last night against endorsing President Bush for re-election because of his support for a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

"The decision ends six months of soul-searching as the group, which endorsed Mr. Bush in 2000 and Bob Dole in 1996, wrestled with its divided loyalties."

Has Kerry become Clintonized? Slate's Chris Suellentrop | http://slate.msn.9com/9id/92106297/ thinks so: "One day after talking with President Clinton on his deathbed--Kerry's, not Clinton's--the candidate has finally embraced the third: change . . .

"The new message: Go vote for Bush if you want four more years of falling wages, of Social Security surpluses being transferred to wealthy Americans in the form of tax cuts, of underfunded schools, and lost jobs. But if you want a new direction, he said, vote for Kerry and Edwards.

"It's a simple and obvious message, but Kerry hasn't used it before. There were other new, even more Clintonesque wrinkles, too. Kerry talked about the same issues-jobs, health care, Social Security, education-that he's talked about in the past, but he had a new context for them: how Bush's policies were taking money out of taxpayers' pockets. The deficit, the Medicare prescription drug plan that forbids bulk-price negotiation and the importation of drugs from Canada, and the '$200 billion and counting' Iraq war all 'cost you money,' Kerry said, by increasing the cost of government. Kerry even pushed his health-care plan as a selfish device to put more money in voters' wallets (rather than an altruistic plan to cover the uninsured), in the form of lower health-insurance premiums ($1,000, he says). He also talked about a Clinton favorite, putting 100,000 new cops on the street during the 1990s, and he said he wanted to cut taxes for corporations by 5 percent to lower the cost of doing business in the United States.

"Talking about corporate tax cuts on Labor Day--if that's not a New Democrat, I don't know what is."

I'm starting to think that all this talk about Kerry being a strong closer may not matter much -- after all, holding onto your own Senate seat against Bill Weld is hardly the same as toppling an incumbent president with a $200-million war chest. But Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory | http://www.boston.com/news/politics/president/articles/2004/09/07/down_kerry_far_from_out/ disagrees:

"I've always thought that if Kerry comes into Labor Day with a lead in the polls, then he's all done. But if he trails by six points or more to President Bush, then you should assume that he has a very strong chance to win.

"That's the way it's always been with this often maddening campaigner who has no sense for the political jugular, yet is like a caged animal when he's about to lose a race.

"When the polls are friendly, Kerry's worst tendencies are revealed in all their duplicity. He becomes cautious and hesitant. He trips over his meager ideas and convoluted message. He tries to say all things to all people, and consequently ends up saying nothing at all.

"This is the John Kerry of affirmative action, or the John Kerry of teacher tenure, or the John Kerry of Iraq. This John Kerry projects an air of impatient entitlement. The race, in his mind, isn't about the voters, but himself, and he's never realized how limited his offerings are in that regard.

"But when he's staring at defeat, he is a man apart. That John Kerry is focused in his thought, clear on his agenda, and pointed in his speech."

But does that say anything about how Kerry would perform as president?