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First Thoughts: Off and running

2012 presidential race to pick up speed in June… Team Obama’s good week, BUT… President signs Patriot Act extensions via auto-pen… NBC’s Brian Williams provides perspective on the auto-pen… Romney’s Iowa dilemma… Bachmann’s technical difficulties… Demon RINO… All politics -- even regarding Middle East peace -- is local… “Meet the Press” has McConnell and Schumer… And have a great and safe Memorial Day weekend.

*** Off and running: If this month was the 2012 presidential field stretching its legs, jogging in place and walking up to the starting line, next month is when the race really begins. Last night, we learned that Mitt Romney will formally announce his presidential campaign from New Hampshire this Thursday on June 2. Rick Santorum will do the same from southwestern Pennsylvania on June 6. Also in June, Michele Bachmann will announce her presidential decision from Waterloo, IA, where she was born. (World history buffs, though, might raise their eyebrows at that location.) And the month will bring us another GOP presidential debate, this one to take place in New Hampshire. It took us a while, but the 2012 presidential race is finally about to pick up speed. Everyone, enjoy your long Memorial Day weekend.

*** Team Obama’s good week, but…: If Mitt Romney -- who today visits Iowa -- had a good week last week, then that honor this week goes to President Obama and the Democrats. Yes, the Israel-Palestine story remained a domestic headache for the White House. And, yes, the European trip provided some protocol and date-signing gaffes. But look at the positives: a well-received stop in Ireland (the ancestral homeland to quite a few U.S. swing voters), the Democrats’ victory in NY-26 (which put Republicans on the defensive on Medicare), Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s 29% approval rating in the state (which isn’t welcome news for the eventual GOP nominee in this key battleground state), and Sarah Palin’s return to the 2012 spotlight. But this under-the-Beltway-radar story isn’t good news for Team Obama: The U.S. economy appears to have hit a wall. It was a good week, but…

*** Auto-tune and auto-pen: After the Senate and the House passed legislation yesterday extending key Patriot Act provisions right before they expired, President Obama signed it into law -- from France, via an auto-pen. The White House confirms to NBC News that this is the FIRST time in U.S. history that a president has authorized the use of an auto-pen to sign a bill into law. "Failure to sign this legislation poses a significant risk to U.S. national security. As long as Congress approves the extension, the president will direct the use of the auto-pen to sign it," White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said. That said, of all laws to do this with, this may have been the worse one to pick -- given the conspiratorial feelings about this law on the left and right about it. Then again, the national-security aspect probably gives the White House cover.

*** Some perspective on the auto-pen: NBC’s Brian Williams, whose duties as a White House intern in the 1970s included changing the pens, emails First Read a bit of perspective: "The machines are ubiquitous in American politics and even business. Presidents, governors, senators, and members of Congress and some CEO's use them to personalize correspondence -- or in this case legislation." More from Williams: "They are also ubiquitous on signed photos of politicians -- though experts, collectors, and lay people alike can invariably spot small flaws, mostly in the form of unnaturally squiggly lines on signatures -- a dead giveaway of brands like Auto-Pen, and the one preferred by the White House for many years, Signa-Signer."

*** Romney’s Iowa dilemma: Back to the 2012 race… As mentioned above, Romney’s in Iowa today, making stops in Ankeny (at 11:15 am ET), Des Moines (1:00 pm ET), and Cedar Rapids (at 6:45 pm ET). And the visit has produced this speculation: Does he play or not in Iowa? The New York Times’ Zeleny writes that “the evidence suggests that he is leaning against a strategy of bypassing Iowa. He is the only candidate with a network of supporters in all 99 counties, many of whom say they have received calls from Mr. Romney’s aides in recent days.” The downside to Romney playing in Iowa: If he loses the caucuses -- as he did in ’08 -- that could wound his candidacy. (See: Clinton, Hillary.) But if you believe Iowa is a swing state in a general election, you have to play in the caucuses.

*** Technical difficulties: Due to the Patriot Act votes, Michele Bachmann was unable to attend a GOP dinner in Iowa last night. And her address -- via video -- didn’t go smoothly. The Washington Post: “Bachmann later addressed several hundred Republican activists on a shaky video link. As she talked about the Patriot Act, the video went dark. She said she recorded the speech she had planned to deliver here, but because of technical difficulties could not play it at the dinner. She instead directed people to her Facebook page to watch the speech. ‘I feel terrible about this, absolutely terrible,’ Bachmann said, promising to ‘take a rain check.’”

*** Demon RINO: Anyone who read our stuff from the 2010 cycle probably remembers our fondness for “Demon Sheep” -- the Carly Fiorina Web video that was produced by GOP ad-maker Fred Davis. This cycle, Davis is working for Jon Huntsman. But a Christian conservative blog, Verum Serum, has a video that appears to be a “Demon Sheep” spoof. It shows a rhino walking through the grass and then cuts to Huntsman’s moderate positions, portraying him as a Republican In Name Only (RINO, get it?).

*** Folks, all politics is local: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu got a poll bump out of his trip to the U.S. A new Haartez poll shows that after Netanyahu’s trip, his approval jumped 13 points to 51%, up from 38% five weeks ago. (By the way, a Jerusalem Post poll shows that by a 40%-12% margin, more Israeli Jews think President Obama is more Palestinian than Israeli.) It’s a reminder that it’s important to view world leaders through the same political lense we view our own. (Hat tip: PoliticalWire)

*** On the 2012 trail: Gingrich is in South Carolina… Santorum delivers a speech in DC… And Pawlenty is in New York. 

*** Meet’s Sunday lineup: On Sunday, NBC’s David Gregory interviews Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, and a roundtable consisting of Harold Ford Jr., Alex Castellanos, David Brooks, and Ruth Marcus.

*** Have a great and safe Memorial Day weekend: Our morning First Read note will return on Tuesday…

Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 78 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 109 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 165 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 255 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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