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First Thoughts: No laughing matter

Obama defends his record on “The Daily Show”… Adds that progress comes “inch by inch, day by day”… President also gives shout-outs to three vulnerable Dems: Perriello, Boccieri, Markey… Murkowski’s write-in candidacy gets a boost… Murkowski also says she wouldn’t vote for Palin for president… Palin, by the way, stumps for GOP nominee Joe Miller today… Our latest VCI: -35… Jerry Brown up by 10 points in new Field Poll, as SEIU takes an early victory lap.

*** No laughing matter: The most striking part of President Obama’s appearance on “The Daily Show” wasn’t his pitch to younger voters (though that was the purpose of the interview) or saying that outgoing economic adviser Larry Summers did a “heck of a job” (which was an unfortunate choice of words, given what Bush said about Michael Brown after Katrina). Rather, what was remarkable was that it served as the president’s most vigorous defense of his agenda, particularly health care -- against his liberal critics. Host Jon Stewart, who was polite but also aggressive in his questions, noted, "You ran, if I may, with such audacity … yet legislatively it's felt timid at times.” Obama responded that the health-care law insuring 30 million more Americans, giving patients added protections, and reducing health care’s long-term costs isn’t timid. “This is what I think most people would say is as significant a piece of legislation as we've seen in this country's history.”

*** “Step by step, inch by inch”: Then there was this Stewart question: Why haven’t you been able to change, as promised, the way that Washington works? Obama countered that he has made his administration more transparent than previous administrations, and that his lobbying rules have tried to lessen the power of special interests. “My attitude is if we're making progress, step by step, inch by inch, day by day, that we are being true to the spirit of that campaign.” Obama also said, “When we promised during the campaign, ‘Change you can believe in,’ it wasn't ‘Change you can believe in in 18 months.’ It was "Change you can believe in, but you know what, we're gonna have to work for it." Given how so many Democrats are under siege from TV ads about health care, why is it the president waited until this week to spend time defending it? Selling health care and dealing with it on the campaign trail is probably the biggest collective misstep of the entire Democratic Party. The decision to let everyone go their own way because it worked in one special election in Pennsylvania put Democrats on the collective defensive. They aren't running on anything anymore, simply explaining why they did what they did in a VERY defensive crouch.

*** Obama’s three shout-outs: By the way, Obama also gave shout-outs to three vulnerable House Democrats -- from conservative-leaning districts -- who voted for his agenda. “There were a whole bunch of Democrats -- guys like Tom Perriello in Virginia or John Boccieri in Ohio or Betsy Markey in Colorado -- who … knew it was going to be a tough battle, that these are generally pretty conservative districts, and yet still went ahead and did what they thought was right.” Obama campaigns for Perriello tomorrow in Charlottesville, VA.

*** Murkowski gets a boost: This is potentially big news for Lisa Murkowski’s write-in candidacy in Alaska: “Hours after a judge blocked the Alaska Division of Elections' effort to give voters lists of write-in candidates, the state Supreme Court stayed his ruling, providing a boost for the campaign of incumbent U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski,” the L.A. Times writes. “The lists can be shown to voters who request them, the high court ruled, but candidates' party affiliation must be removed.” This could make it easier for Murkowski to pick up write-in votes.

*** The Palin question: In that three-way Alaska Senate race, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie noted on “TODAY” that the candidates were asked in their debate last night if Sarah Palin was qualified to be president. Here’s how Scott McAdams (D) answered the question: "In a strict sense she is, she isn't somebody whose ideology I support and agree with.” Here’s Joe Miller (R): “Of course she is. I mean, you look at who we have in office right now and compare the two, there is no comparison." (That is a much stronger answer from Miller than we’ve seen previously, and Palin campaigns for him today in Alaska.) And Murkowski: “If she were to run right now, I would not support her as president.”

*** VCI update: -35: With the addition of the latest CBS/NYT poll and the Bloomberg/Selzer polls, the October monthly average of our Voter Confidence Index improves from -36 to -35. Historically, that still suggests big losses for Democrats, but it’s up from a low of -41 earlier this month. President Reagan and Republicans were at -35 for the October monthly average in the VCI in 1982 (when Republicans lost 26 seats). It's worse than the -30 for President Clinton and Democrats in 1994 (when Dems lost 54 seats). And it’s better than the historical low in 2006 of -65 (when Republicans lost 30 seats). For more on the VCI, click here.

*** Brown still up in California: A new Field Poll in California has Jerry Brown leading Meg Whitman by 10 points among likely voters, 49%-39%. And SEIU is already taking some credit for Brown’s likely victory next week. SEIU spokesman Teddy Davis emails First Read, “When the story of the California governor’s race is written, people will look to Nicky Diaz Meg Whitman’s housekeeper as a turning point. But what shouldn’t be overlooked is the work that was done with the Latino community during a similar time period by SEIU through ‘Cambiando California,’ a $5 million Latino outreach campaign” that includes TV, radio, and Internet ads. Davis adds that over the final five days, SEIU’s campaign “will include 5,358 canvassers knocking on 511,264 doors and making 138,386 phone calls.”

*** Boehner to appear with Iott? Remember Rich Iott, the GOP candidate who was uncovered to participate in Nazi re-enactments? Well, the Atlantic’s Josh Green reports that Iott is set to appear with House Minority Leader John Boehner on Saturday. Asked for comment, Boehner spokesman Don Seymour emails First Read: “Leader Boehner will be rallying Republican volunteers at the Lucas County Victory Center to support the local Republican Party’s get-out-the-vote efforts. Boehner has been on the road headlining rallies for Republican candidates in Ohio and across the country, and he’ll continue his busy campaign schedule into the final weekend before Tuesday’s referendum on Democrats’ jobs-killing policies.”

*** Today on the trail: Vice President Biden stumps for Maryland Rep. Frank Kratovil (D)… Bill Clinton makes three campaign stops for Pennsylvania Senate nominee Joe Sestak (D)… GOP Govs. Haley Barbour and Bob McDonnell stump for New Hampshire gubernatorial nominee John Stephen (R) and Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee Tom Corbett (R).

*** Today’s debates: It’s Paul Hodes (D) vs. Kelly Ayotte (R) in New Hampshire… It’s David Vitter (R) vs. Charlie Melancon (D) in Louisiana.

Countdown to Election Day 2010: 5 days

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