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First Thoughts: Is Pawlenty panicking?

Is Pawlenty panicking?... He’s back to criticizing Romney on health care, after taking a pass at the debate… Romney’s recent slip-ups… In Georgia yesterday, Romney didn’t retract his dovish-sounding comments on Afghanistan… More on the War Powers Act debate… Day 2 at the Republican Leadership Conference: Cain (12:30 pm ET), Paul (1:00 pm ET), Bachmann (2:00 pm ET), and Santorum (3:30 pm ET)… And “Meet the Press” has Durbin and Graham, and NBC’s David Gregory breaks down the 2012 race and the NBC/WSJ poll with the NBC Political Unit.

*** Is Pawlenty panicking? Tim Pawlenty had a rough debate Monday night when he refused to criticize Mitt Romney on health care -- after telegraphing that he’d do so the day before. But just ask Barack Obama: Rough primary-season debates happen; everyone has a bad day. And fortunately for Pawlenty, the media world was already moving on to other stories (Weiner, Libya, other candidate stumbles). So why is Pawlenty now reversing himself and attacking Romney? Is he panicking? Yesterday, he fired off this unprompted Tweet: “On seizing debate opportunity re: healthcare: Me 0, Mitt 1. On doing healthcare reform the right way as governor: Me 1, Mitt 0.” And then he said this to FOX’s Hannity last night, which the Pawlenty camp later circulated to reporters: “I should have been much more clear during the debate, Sean. I don’t think we can have a nominee that was involved in the development and construction of ObamaCare and then continues to defend it. And that was the question. I should’ve answered it directly.”

*** Political schizophrenia: What is going on? Pawlenty takes a shot at Romney on FOX last Sunday. Then he refuses to deliver the same critique to Romney’s face on Monday. And three days later -- after many decided to give him a pass and simply say "OK, let's see what happens next time” -- he’s taking more shots on FOX. As we said after the debate, it appears that one of two things is happening. Either the candidate doesn’t agree with his advisers on strategy, or the campaign internally isn’t agreeing on strategy. Either way, that’s not a sign of a winning campaign. And all yesterday did was bring more attention to this issue.

*** Romney's recent slip-ups: After his presidential announcement earlier this month, Romney has enjoyed his best two-week stretch in politics since his days as Massachusetts governor. His economic-focused message resonated amidst the poor economic news; a national poll showed him leading Obama (though it now appears to have been an outlier); and he performed well at Monday's debate, while Pawlenty stumbled. But since that debate, Romney has slipped up. Republican hawks attacked him for his seemingly dovish debate answer on Afghanistan. He got caught measuring the Oval Office drapes when he quipped to a New Hampshire lumber company owner that the next time he’ll be back is in four years, when he’ll “probably have Secret Service.” And yesterday, he told a group of jobless Floridians, “I’m also unemployed.”

*** You’re out of touch… I’m out of time: It wasn’t a disastrous gaffe. The New York Times notes that Romney laughed, and so did those jobless Floridians. And in that respect, what Romney did wasn’t so different when President Obama laughed at shovel-ready projects earlier this week in North Carolina. But this particular Romney slip-up hits at one of the Republican front-runner’s chief vulnerabilities, especially in a tough economy: that the multimillionaire and multi-homeowner appears out of touch to the average American. Romney delivered this response to his I’m-also-unemployed line: “You know, I will always make light of myself, and self-deprecating humor is part of who I am,” he said. “But the reality is that we have a president that doesn’t understand the plight of the unemployed.”

*** Romney doesn’t retract his comments on Afghanistan: Yesterday in Georgia, Romney was asked about GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham’s criticism that Romney’s recent dovish-sounding comments on Afghanistan could make Obama into Reagan and the Republicans into Jimmy Carter. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says Romney declined to address Graham’s comments, but he didn’t retract what he said at the debate. ”I think we did a superb job in moving the Taliban following 9/11, and that’s why we went there -- to get the Taliban and Al Qaeda out... And now we’re moving to a phase where, to hold on, to the independence and economic vitality which is beginning to grow in Afghanistan, the Afghanis themselves are going to have to step forward…." That's right: Romney was trying to make the case that we're now in a phase in Afghanistan where a war for independence of sorts is being fought. Is that really what's going on there?

*** The War Powers Act debate: There have been three big political stories this week: 1) the developments in the GOP presidential race; 2) Weiner, which is finally over; and 3) the debate over the War Powers Act when it comes to the limited U.S. involvement in Libya. And as we’ve written before, this third story is more about the war between two branches of government (the executive vs. the legislative). Yet lost in the debate is this argument: The United States is a member of NATO, and this is a NATO-led operation. As such, the U.S. can’t simply pull out of NATO (we're not Germany). Then again, is the White House on shaky legal ground when it comes to the War Powers Act? Consider this: It hasn’t asked the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to deliver an opinion on the matter since the operation has started and this debate heated up in Congress. Why? Perhaps the administration doesn’t want to know the answer?

*** RLC, Day 2: As one of us reported last night, Newt Gingrich's speech at the Republican Leadership Conference provided a glimpse of what kind of candidate he will be after his staff exodus -- one steeped in policy, who says he won't run a campaign “filled with attack ads” (since he probably won't be able to afford them) while still delivering plenty of red meat for the conservative base (if he can find free forums). Here's today's speaking line-up at the confab: Cain (12:30 pm ET), Paul (1:00 pm ET), Bachmann (2:00 pm ET), and Santorum (3:30 pm ET); Huntsman pulled out because he’s ill. Rick Perry speaks to the conference on Saturday.

*** RLC straw poll: By the way, here are the folks on the RLC's straw poll, the results of which will be released at 3:30 pm ET on Saturday: Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Huntsman, Gary Johnson, Thaddeus McCotter, Palin, Paul, Pawlenty, Buddy Roemer, Romney, and Santorum. Rick Perry won't be on the ballot.

*** Previewing “Meet” this Sunday: NBC’s David Gregory interviews Sens. Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham, and the roundtable consists of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Paul Gigot, NBC’s Richard Engel, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and NBC’s Chuck Todd. And on MTP’s weekly “Press Pass,” Gregory spoke with two members of NBC Political Unit to discuss the 2012 race and the new NBC/WSJ poll.

Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 57 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 88 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 144 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 234 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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