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First Thoughts: What matters and what doesn't

What matters in presidential politics (Romney’s $10 million-plus haul)… What doesn’t: Donald Trump… Why Romney remains the GOP front-runner… Newt’s tough day and how the Ryan budget has become the right’s new litmus test… Oil politics in the Senate… Tommy Thompson for Senate? Maybe… The Schwarzenegger bombshell… And CA-36 special takes place today.

*** What matters and what doesn’t: Monday brought us examples of what matters in presidential politics and what doesn’t. What matters: the $10.25 million (all of it primary money) that Mitt Romney raised during his “call day.” What doesn’t matter: Donald Trump. If you knew about Trump’s past presidential flirtations in the 1980s and 1990s, you could easily see the handwriting on the wall that he wasn’t going to run (or ever release that financial-disclosure form). But that didn’t stop the attention from the news media and even some key players in Republican circles, and too many of us let him game the system for yet another over-the-top publicity stunt. As the New York Times writes, Trump’s more than 15 minutes in the political spotlight said more about “a media culture that increasingly seems to give the spotlight to the loudest, most outrageous voices.” But it also said something about the conservative/Tea Party movement that his no-holds-barred criticism of President Obama (no matter how ridiculous it was) found a welcoming audience. Trump was always a flawed messenger, but someone else -- Michele Bachmann, maybe? -- could end up filling that void. One thing is for sure: If Trump was a “carnival barker,” then one performer just exited the 2012 tent… 

*** Why Romney is the GOP front-runner: As for Romney’s $10 million-plus haul yesterday, it’s a reminder of the reason why the former Massachusetts governor remains the GOP front-runner, despite his flaws (including his health-care law). And it has become a bar for other Republicans. Ask yourself: Which other GOP presidential candidate (Pawlenty? Gingrich?) is going to raise $10 million for the ENTIRE quarter, let alone in a single day? It'll be a fascinating test. What’s more, it shows why Mitch Daniels has a closing window on getting into the race. Daniels, thanks to the Bush 43 donor crowd currently sitting on the sidelines, is probably the only player right now who could get in this month and raise more than $10 million for the quarter. Yet here are two important reminders about Romney’s haul: One, he had a similarly successful fundraising day in 2007, and look where that got him. Two, his big donors were the folks making the calls, and there is still a question about Romney’s grassroots support.

*** Newt’s tough day: Newt Gingrich’s honeymoon as an official presidential candidate lasted, well, just a few days. After saying on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” that Paul Ryan’s plan for Medicare was “radical change” and that he supported the concept of a health-insurance mandate, Gingrich found himself on the defensive while in Iowa yesterday. Here was Rush Limbaugh, per Politico: “The attack on Paul Ryan, the support for an individual mandate in health care? Folks, don’t ask me to explain this. There is no explanation.” Rick Santorum piled on. "For several years, Newt Gingrich has deserved a lot of credit for thinking through a great many issues in a serious and interesting fashion,” Santorum said in a statement. “But his criticism of Congressman Paul Ryan's Medicare reform plan yesterday was a big departure.” And to top it off, a man in Dubuque came up to Gingrich yesterday and said, "Get out now before you make a bigger fool of yourself.”

*** That “discipline” thing: Gingrich released a statement in the afternoon criticizing the Obama health law and its mandate. “I believe it is unconstitutional for the federal government to impose an individual mandate requiring citizens to buy health insurance,” he said. “I am committed to the complete repeal of Obamacare.” But the damage was already done. (Gingrich now joins Romney in supporting a limited or state-based mandate but not a federal one.) In his “Meet the Press” interview, Gingrich summed up what would be his biggest challenge. “I'm going to have a lot of tests for it on this campaign trail, is going to be whether I have the discipline and the judgment to be president.” As we noted yesterday and we'll re-emphasize today, truer words have never been spoken.

*** The new conservative litmus test: Here’s a final point about Newt yesterday: It’s more evidence that if you criticize Ryan’s budget plan -- and, more importantly, its Medicare overhaul -- then you’re not considered a mainstream conservative Republican. Ryan’s budget plan has become the ultimate conservative litmus test. Who is happiest about this development? The folks in charge of the Obama re-elect…

*** Oil politics in the Senate: The politics of oil will play out in the Senate over the next two days, NBC’s Libby Leist reports. Senators are set to vote on two competing bills today and tomorrow -- though neither has a chance to pass, but will be used to score political points. Up first today, Leist says, is a Democratic bill that would end some tax breaks for the five largest oil companies (ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch shell, and ConocoPhillips) and that’s estimated to save taxpayers $21 billion over 10 years. The vote on it is scheduled for 6:30 pm ET. On Wednesday morning, meanwhile, the Senate will vote on a GOP plan introduced by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to encourage offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, Virginia, and Alaska. Per Leist, it calls for the extension of Gulf leases suspended by the Obama Administration after the BP oil spill and improved safety standards. "The Democrats’ reflexive turn to higher taxes is not the solution to the problem of high gas prices. Our bill helps solve a very real problem but the Democrats’ bill only makes it worse,” McConnell said.

*** Tommy Thompson for Senate? Maybe: Politico writes today (following National Journal's reporting from Saturday) that former Gov. -- and former failed presidential candidate -- Tommy Thompson (R) plans to run for the open Senate seat in Wisconsin. But there is one BIG caveat in the story: “There’s no chance Thompson would run against Paul Ryan, so the former governor will await the Budget Chairman’s official announcement on the race before jumping in. Ryan has suggested in private conversations with GOP officials in recent days that he will take a pass on the race and focus on his House chairmanship.” So we have to wait on Ryan’s decision first… And that could be coming soon. On CNBC with Becky Quick this morning, Ryan promised to announce a decision on the Senate race TODAY.

*** Like sands through the hourglass… : The Los Angeles Times has the bombshell reason for former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s separation from wife Maria Shriver: She “learned he had fathered a child more than a decade ago - before his first run for office - with a longtime member of their household staff. Shriver moved out of the family's Brentwood mansion earlier this year, after Schwarzenegger acknowledged the paternity. The staff member worked for the family for 20 years, retiring in January.” Schwarzenegger has released the following statement: “I understand and deserve the feelings of anger and disappointment among my friends and family. There are no excuses and I take full responsibility for the hurt I have caused. I have apologized to Maria, my children and my family. I am truly sorry. I ask that the media respect my wife and children through this extremely difficult time. While I deserve your attention and criticism my family does not.” Arnold’s right: This is a story about him only, and it destroys any kind of post-Sacramento political image he has. Yet here is something to ponder: What if this story had come out in 2003 or 2006? Cruz Bustamante or Phil Angelides might have been governor… 

*** The CA-36 special: Also in California, today is the special congressional election for Jane Harman’s old House seat. In a crowded field, the top two candidates are Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn and Secretary of State Debra Bowen. If no one gets more than 50% -- which is likely in this large field -- then the top two will participate in a July 12 run-off. Sean "Rudy" Astin's candidate is a longshot.

Countdown to NY-26 special election: 7 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 88 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 119 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 175 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 265 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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