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First thoughts: The GOP's weak 2012 front-runner

NBC/WSJ poll shows that Romney begins the 2012 GOP presidential race in a weaker position than Bob Dole or John McCain ever did… Gingrich and Palin get the largest Tea Party “bounce” in the poll… Paladino’s anger on display in threat to “take out” New York Post reporter… Meg Whitman’s “Maid in America” problem… Castle won’t run as a write-in candidate… Murkowski’s two new TV ads… Palin to headline two RNC rallies… Profiling TN-6… And Rubio leads in yet another FL SEN poll.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** The GOP’s weak 2012 front-runner: Over the past year, the political world has operated under the assumption that Mitt Romney is the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. After all, he has a wide fundraising network and a deep roster of potential campaign talent. What’s more, Republicans almost always nominate their runner-up from the previous cycle (though both Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin might also claim that status). But if Romney is the front-runner, he’s starting out at a much weaker position than Bob Dole or John McCain ever did at this point in the ’96 and ’08 cycles. According to our latest NBC/WSJ poll, Romney’s national fav/unfav is upside down at 21%-30%, compared with Dole’s net-positive 38%-25% in Sept. ’94 and McCain’s 40%-16% in June ’06. Intensity is a problem, too, for Romney. Just 6% view him VERY positively, versus 14% for Dole in ’94 and 11% for McCain in ’06.

*** Romney’s weak GOP support: And then there are Republicans’ views of Romney. His fav/unfav among GOPers and conservatives is, respectively, 38%-17% and 30%-19%. For Dole in ’94, it was 65%-9% and 58%-14%. And for McCain in ’06, it was 47%-16% and 40%-17%. So Romney right now doesn’t appear to be exciting conservatives, Republicans, or the public at large. And it’s not like he’s an unknown political entity after 2008. What has to especially concern Team Romney is that he’s starting -- among Republicans and conservatives -- at a weaker position than McCain was in ’06, and the ’06 version of McCain was hardly adored by the right. Bottom line: While you can’t write off Romney, the GOP’s 2012 field has the potential to be wider open than Team Romney is hoping.

*** The Tea Party bounce: The NBC/WSJ poll also shows that Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin see their popularity jump among Tea Party supporters. Gingrich’s fav/unfav among Republicans is 42%-16%, but among Tea Party supporters, it’s 54%-16% -- a 12-point increase. For Palin, the bounce is 10 points (55%-17% to 65%-13%). For Huckabee, it’s four points (49%-11% to 53%-13%). And for Romney, it’s just three points (38%-17% to 41%-16%). Note: Our poll didn’t measure other 2012 possibilities, like Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, John Thune, Mitch Daniels, and Mike Pence. One other factor that distinguishes Romney from the other three Republicans we tested: He's the only one without a FOX TV contract, which means less exposure to the GOP base on a daily or even a weekly basis.

*** Paladino’s anger: Speaking of the Tea Party, NBC Nightly News last night profiled New York gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino, who epitomizes the Tea Party’s anger and campaign against government. “I am angry,” Paladino said in the piece. “That's OK; it’s all right to show people that you're angry. It's sort of gets the discussion going.” But when is the anger too much? Paladino is now caught on tape threatening New York Post reporter Fred Dicker over digging into the daughter that Paladino had out of wedlock. “If you send another goon to my daughter’s house, I will take you out, buddy,” Paladino yells at Dicker. The reporter replies, “You’re going to take me out? How are you going to do that?” Paladino answers, “Watch.” Why should folks care about Paladino, a candidate who will likely lose in November? Because if he becomes an anchor on the Republican ticket, he could cost the GOP a chance at three to five House seats.

*** Maid in America: In California, Meg Whitman’s gubernatorial campaign is in damage-control mode as a former Whitman housekeeper -- with celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred’s help -- alleged that she was exploited and financially abused. Yet here is the L.A. Times’ take: “Whitman acknowledged Wednesday that she paid an undocumented worker to clean her residence and provide other services in her home for nine years but insisted that she had been unaware of the woman's immigration status.” More: “The controversy poses potential threats to Whitman's campaign. A similar incident severely damaged Michael Huffington's effort to be elected U.S. senator from California in 1994. Whitman has made a point in her campaign that employers should be held responsible if they hire illegal workers.” The Whitman camp has responded that the housekeeper provided false documents about her immigration status, and that Allred has been a Democratic supporter. By the way, don’t be surprised if you start seeing some Dem groups using this controversy in ads targeting Hispanic voters.

*** Castle won’t run as a write-in candidate: Last night, Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, who lost his Senate GOP primary to Christine O’Donnell earlier this month, announced that he would NOT run as a write-in candidate. “While I would have been honored to represent Delaware in the U.S. Senate, I do not believe that seeking office in this manner is in the best interest of all Delawareans,” he said in a statement. “Therefore, it's time for Jane and me to begin thinking about the next chapter of our lives.”

*** Murkowski’s two new TV ads: And speaking of write-in campaigns, NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell reports that Lisa Murkowski’s camp has released two new TV ads that deal directly with her unconventional write-in bid to retain her Senate seat. In one ad, Murkowski takes on the California-based Tea Party Express, and the second one -- called "Murkowski Spelling Clinic 101" -- has fun with a spelling test of her last name.

*** Palin to hit two RNC rallies: First Read has confirmed that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will headline two Republican National Committee rallies -- in Anaheim, CA on Oct. 16, and in Orlando, FL on Oct. 23.

*** 75 House races to watch: TN-6: The Democratic nominee to fill the seat of retiring Rep. Bart Gordon (D) is Iraq vet Brett Carter. The GOP nominee is state Sen. Diane Black. In ’08, McCain grabbed 56% of the vote in this district -- located in the middle part of the state -- while Bush got 53% in ’04. As of July 16, Carter had nearly $100,000 in the bank, versus Black’s nearly $200,000. Both Cook and Rothenberg rate the contest as Lean Republican.

*** More midterm news: In Florida, yet another poll -- this one Quinnipiac -- shows Marco Rubio leading the Senate contest with 46% among likely voters, while Charlie Crist is at 33% and Kendrick Meek is at 18%. http://bit.ly/bs2uLJ

Countdown to Election Day 2010: 33 days

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