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First Thoughts: A flawed field

A reality about the 2012 field: Everyone is flawed… But here’s a reminder: Flawed candidates -- Bill Clinton, Barack Obama -- have gone on to win the White House… What matters is how the candidates respond to their flaws… Gingrich makes his ’12 candidacy official, and he confronts four challenges: 1) his personal baggage, 2) his lack of discipline, 3) being tied to Washington, and 4) his potential fundraising… Is Newt Charles de Gaulle?... Obama calls out Republicans for moving the goal posts on immigration reform… He participates in an economic town hall at 2:00 pm ET and then meets with the Senate Democratic caucus at 4:20 pm… And American Crossroads is on the air in NY-26.

*** A flawed field: Whether it’s Gingrich making his presidential bid official today (after a rough start two months ago), or Romney delivering a speech tomorrow on his Achilles heel (health care), or the latest NBC poll (showing President Obama’s economic approval at 37%), every 2012 candidate has this in common: They’re all flawed. In the GOP field, you have a failed former presidential candidate whose own health-care law is similar to President Obama's. You have a thrice-married former House speaker who left that office in an ethical cloud. You have a former Minnesota governor most Americans have never heard of (and when they have, he gets overshadowed by others). You have a former Pennsylvania senator who lost re-election in 2006 by 18 percentage points. And it’s likely you’ll soon have someone who faithfully (and uncritically) served in the Obama administration. On the Democratic side, meanwhile, you have an incumbent president overseeing an economy where the current unemployment rate is 9.0%.

*** But no one is ever perfect: Of course, flawed candidates always have gone on to win the White House. The winner in 1992 (Bill Clinton) was the governor of a small state who had a, well, colorful past. The winner in 2000 (George W. Bush) overcame doubts about his knowledge of world affairs, as well as booming economy under a Democratic administration. And the winner in 2008 (Barack Obama) triumphed despite questions about his experience and his worldview. What matters in presidential campaigns -- and we’ll witness this over the next year and a half -- is how the candidates conquer, exploit, or side-step their flaws. Nobody is perfect, especially in politics. But what counts is how they take a punch and respond. In many ways, a presidential primary campaign is a test to see who can BEST overcome obstacles.

*** Newt’s four challenges: And on that note, Newt Gingrich -- who makes his presidential campaign official today on Twitter, Facebook, and then an appearance with FOX’s Hannity -- perhaps has more to overcome than some of his GOP rivals. Our April NBC/WSJ poll tested 13 different candidate attributes. The worst attributes among Republicans (in order): being a former lobbyist (Barbour is now not running), having multiple marriages (which applies to Gingrich), being a FOX commentator (which Newt used to be), being a Mormon, and being a former House speaker (which applies to Gingrich, too). In our eyes, Gingrich has four challenges: 1) his personal baggage, and he’s trying to overcome it by making his wife, Callista, a big part of his campaign; 2) his lack of discipline, because saying things like Sonia Sotomayor is a racist or that Obama is best understood by his “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior" won't simply become controversies confined to the blogosphere under the presidential spotlight; 3) the fact his ONLY experience is in Washington, making him the most "Washington" candidate in a year where being ANTI-Washington is going to be a plus; and 4) his fundraising -- where is his second $5 million going to come from?

*** Newt’s do-over: Gingrich’s announcement today comes more than two months after his “testing the waters” announcement landed with a thud. Back then, a key Gingrich adviser told at least one news organization that the former speaker was forming an exploratory committee when he wasn’t, and Newt’s testing-the-waters website used a stock photo that had once been featured on a Ted Kennedy site. A few weeks later, Gingrich drew ridicule when he flipped-flopped on whether the United States should have intervened in Libya. It wasn’t a smooth beginning for Newt. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, while Gingrich enjoys high name recognition (only 7% hadn’t heard of him), he was the choice of just 5% of Republicans and GOP-leaning participants, MSNBC.com’s Carrie Dann notes. Gallup also found Gingrich with high name ID but low support.

*** Departure and return? But this also doesn’t mean that Gingrich should be ignored. In the New Republic, Walter Shapiro writes that Newt could be a force in the GOP primary field. “Gingrich … does not have to prove his right-from-the-start bona fides at every moment in the campaign. Back in the days when Mitt Romney was running against Teddy Kennedy as a Massachusetts moderate Republican, Gingrich not only personified conservatism but was the field marshal responsible for its greatest congressional victory.” And in the New York Times, Matt Bai says that Gingrich fashions himself as a Charles de Gaulle or Ronald Reagan. “In particular, Mr. Gingrich is a devotee of the historian Arnold J. Toynbee, who meditated on the concept of ‘departure and return’ — the idea that great leaders have to leave (or be banished from) their kingdoms before they can better themselves and return as conquering heroes.” By the way, Gingrich faces his first news interview on “Meet the Press” this Sunday.

*** A Moat to Nowhere: The most striking (and newest) part of Obama’s immigration speech yesterday was how he called out Senate Republicans who had once supported comprehensive immigration reform (like John McCain and Lindsey Graham). “We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement… They said we needed to triple the Border Patrol. Or now they’re going to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol. Or they’ll want a higher fence. Maybe they’ll need a moat.  Maybe they want alligators in the moat. They’ll never be satisfied. And I understand that. That’s politics.” Of course, so was the president’s speech yesterday -- given the unlikelihood that Congress could pass immigration reform and given the importance of the Latino vote in 2012.  

*** Obama’s day: At 2:00 pm ET, President Obama participates in a CBS town hall on the economy. (As National Journal writes, the White House is probably hoping it goes better than the CNBC town hall he attended last year, when one of the questioners -- a supporter -- told the president that she was “exhausted of defending you.”) Then, at 4:20 pm, Obama meets with the Senate Democratic caucus to discuss “the nation’s long-term deficit challenges,” as the White House puts it.

*** American Crossroads on the air in NY-26: How nervous are Republicans about the possibility they could lose the special congressional election later this month to fill the seat vacated by ex-GOP Rep. Chris Lee (he of the topless photo)? Well, American Crossroads is up with a TV ad hitting the third-party candidate in the race, Jack Davis, who appears to be drawing support from the Republican candidate.  Democrats are still hesitant about getting involved. Why? New York is losing two congressional seats in redistricting, so this seat is likely to be eliminated.

Countdown to NY-26 special election: 13 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 93 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 125 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 181 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 271 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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