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First Thoughts: The strong GOP front-runner?

Is Romney a stronger front-runner than we all thought?... Then again, are expectations getting too high for him?... What the Ed Rollins hire says about Bachmann’s potential campaign: She’s no Sarah Palin… Tim Pawlenty, truth-teller?... Newt is back from vacation, stumping in New Hampshire… Obama talks the economy at Northern Virginia Community College at 11:30 am ET… Cain is in New York, and Santorum’s in New Hampshire.

*** The strong GOP front-runner? As it’s turned out, Mitt Romney has had a great last seven days, even if Sarah Palin stepped on his toes last Thursday. The economic message he unveiled in his announcement couldn’t have come at a better time for him (amid bad economic news for the Obama White House). The new Washington Post/ABC poll, which shows him leading Obama, helps with fundraising and highlights his electability credentials. And a robo-poll finds him with a sizeable lead in South Carolina, where he wasn’t planning to heavily compete. All of which raise this question: Is Romney a stronger front-runner than we all thought? It’s easy to list his weaknesses -- his 2008 campaign, his health-care law, his past flip-flops -- but we can’t dismiss the bounce he’s received since announcing his presidential campaign and the other strengths he  brings to this campaign.

*** Great Expectations: But there’s a flip side to this early bump: expectations. When you talk to Team Romney, they are a bit nervous about getting ahead too quickly. As Howard Dean, Hillary Clinton, and even Romney himself found out the hard way in 2008 (after being the ONLY Republican that year to lead in both Iowa and New Hampshire, at the same time), being the front-runner -- in the summer before the nominating contests -- is a precarious position. There’s nowhere to go but down… 

*** What the Rollins hire says about Bachmann’s potential campaign: Michele Bachmann’s emerging campaign team took a shot at Sarah Palin, with new strategist Ed Rollins criticizing her for not being serious. "Sarah has not been serious over the last couple of years," he said on FOX. But Rollins brings both the good and bad for Team Bachmann. As Mother Jones’ David Corn has uncovered, Rollins previously questioned Bachmann’s own seriousness after her Tea Party response to President Obama’s State of the Union. But the most significant thing about Bachmann’s hiring of Rollins is that it should end -- once and for all -- the simplistic/conventional Acela Corridor analysis that always puts her in the same space with Palin. The fact is, Bachmann went out of her comfort zone and hired a top Republican strategist. Palin hasn’t, and she probably wouldn't ever do that. Bachmann's not fighting for the same space as Palin; she's fighting in the same space as Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, even Tim Pawlenty. So, folks: Be careful on this Palin vs. Bachmann media narrative. It borders on, well, you know…

*** Tim Pawlenty, truth-teller? One difficulty when a politician casts himself/herself as a truth-teller -- as Tim Pawlenty has done on ethanol, Social Security, etc. -- is that no successful politician can tell all truths. In American politics, there will always be exaggerations, empty promises, gimmicks, and sacred cows. And Pawlenty yesterday may have undercut his narrative of being a truth-teller when he pledged to grow the economy by 5% annually, something that didn’t even happened during the economic boom in the late 1990s. Every president would LOVE 5% growth annually; and if there was an actual way to create it, every president would have done it.

*** Newt is back from vacation: Guess what, folks: Newt Gingrich is back on the campaign trail today, stumping in New Hampshire. It’s his first appearance on the trail since May 26. He officially launched his presidential bid on May 11.

*** Obama and the economy: President Obama may have thought hosting German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a state dinner yesterday would give him a temporary break from the gloomy economic news. But he had no such luck as he tried to calm nervous Americans with more upbeat news in a media avail with Merkel. “Prior to this month, we had seen three months of very robust job growth in the private sector. And so we were very encouraged by that,” he said yesterday. “This month, you still saw job growth in the private sector, but it had slowed down. We don’t yet know whether this is a one-month episode or a longer trend.” Many aides acknowledge that the bad jobs report released last week only raises the stakes for the next one because one can be a bump in the road. But two?

*** Super-NOVA: At 11:30 am ET in Northern Virginia, Obama will talk more about the economy when he delivers a speech at Northern Virginia Community College. Per the White House, the president will “highlight the importance of training and preparing our workforce to compete for manufacturing jobs across our country.” Also today, he  meets with Nigeria’s president at the White House, and honors the Auburn University football team for winning the 2010 BCS college football championship.

*** Boren won’t run for re-election: Creating a possible pick-up opportunity for Republicans, conservative Oklahoma Democratic Congressman Dan Boren announced he wouldn’t seek re-election in 2012. The AP: "Boren, 37, a conservative Democrat who comfortably won reelection last year, said that he is proud of his record and that he was picked three times to represent Oklahoma’s Second District, which has long voted Republican in presidential elections."

*** On the 2012 trail: Elsewhere today, Cain is in New York participating in an Americans for Prosperity rally against capping carbon emissions… And Santorum makes three stops in New Hampshire, including one where he will sign the Americans for Tax Reform pledge not to raise taxes if elected.

Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 66 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 97 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 153 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 243 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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