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First Thoughts: Declaring success

In 8:00 pm ET speech on Afghanistan, expect Obama -- in some form or fashion -- to declare success in defeating al Qaeda in the region… While the U.S. military might not like the surge withdrawal, Obama has more political leeway than ever before… Huntsman’s sluggish start yesterday and his stronger appearance on “TODAY” this morning… Yet he was unable to answer why his family’s Huntsman Corporation employs more in China and India than it does in the U.S… Pawlenty goes on the air in Iowa, meaning he’s all-in for the Ames Straw Poll… Our anti-CW on Iowa and New Hampshire… More rough news for Newt… And Huntsman stumps in South Carolina on Day 2 of his official launch.

*** Declaring success: When President Obama announced his troop surge in Afghanistan back in Dec. 2009, he said that the “overarching goal” was to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” The president went on to say, “To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives… We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government, so they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.” In his 8:00 pm ET speech tonight on Afghanistan, Obama is expected to essentially respond to that paragraph from 2009 and say that progress has been achieved on all three fronts. And he might even say publicly what officials have been privately touting: that al Qaeda has been operationally defeated and essentially destroyed in the Af-Pak region, with the bin Laden kill being the symbolic exclamation point.

*** Obama’s political cover: The troop withdrawal that the president will announce concerns the 30,000 surge troops, not the total force in Afghanistan. There is no doubt that high-ranking officials in the U.S. military, including Gen. David Petraeus, want those surge troops to stay a bit longer there. But politically, Obama has more leeway than he’s ever had before. Just listen to what Mitt Romney said about Afghanistan in last week’s GOP debate. And listen to what Jon Huntsman said on “TODAY” this morning: “We can probably be a little more aggressive [on withdrawal] over the next year… What we need now is a healthy dose of nation-building at home.” One additional point: Tonight’s speech probably buys Obama a little more space on Libya. Why? Because, for another day or two, it puts THAT conflict on A4, and that's all the U.S. wants now is time as they continue to believe they are thisclose to forcing Khadaffy out.

*** But still a challenge for the president: Yet even though Obama can declare success regarding al Qaeda, and even though he has more GOP political cover on withdrawal, Afghanistan remains a challenge for him. As the Washington Post notes, “His prime-time address must remind a skeptical electorate and a concerned Congress that the country’s longest war remains worth fighting — and funding — for several more years.” The New York Times adds, “[B]ehind his words will be an acute awareness of what $1.3 trillion in spending on two wars in the past decade has meant at home: a ballooning budget deficit and a soaring national debt at a time when the economy is still struggling to get back on its feet.”

*** Huntsman’s sluggish start: The bad news for Jon Huntsman was that yesterday's presidential announcement didn't go smoothly (with audio issues, a misspelling mistake, and a flat speech). The good news: There's always another day, and Huntsman today stumps in South Carolina. His sluggish start was striking because the pre-rollout had been orchestrated so well, and it ran counter to the level of hype they were trying to give to the announcement. Yet the biggest shortcoming of Huntsman's speech yesterday was failing to address our question from yesterday: Who is Jon Huntsman? Yes, he wants to run an optimistic and civil campaign. Yes, he has an interesting biography (high school dropout, the band, the work overseas). And, yes, announcement addresses are rarely meaty speeches. But his announcement yesterday was full of generalities. In fact, the Washington Post fact-checker found that there were almost no facts to check in speech, because it was “content-free” and “fact-free.”

*** Huntsman on “TODAY”: Huntsman, however, was much stronger in his appearance on “TODAY” this morning. Regarding his low name ID, he told NBC’s Ann Curry that he’s still got months ahead to introduce himself to voters. “We have every opportunity to get out and talk about our issues.” On President Obama’s performance on the economy: “There is a lot of work to be done.” And on whether he’d raise taxes as president: “We didn’t raise taxes [in Utah]. We created the environment for business growth.” The one question Huntsman didn’t handle well was the fact that his family’s Huntsman Corporation now employs more people overseas than in the U.S. (“We now employ more people between China and India than we do in North America,” brother Peter Huntsman recently said.) Huntsman’s answer to this: If you look at any manufacturing company, it’s building more facilities overseas. But will that answer fly on the campaign trail?

*** Pawlenty goes on the air in Iowa: As we reported yesterday, Tim Pawlenty is going up with a new TV ad in Iowa -- the first Republican presidential candidate to do so. And now the ad has been released. In it, Pawlenty looks into the camera and takes a subtle dig at front-runner Mitt Romney, saying he passed health-care reform in Minnesota "the right way, no mandates, no takeover." At a $50,000 buy, the ad will air on FOX News in the Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Omaha, Ottumwa, Rochester, and Sioux City media markets from June 23 to July 3. Make no mistake: Pawlenty is all-in on the Aug. 13 Ames Straw Poll. His window is closing, and his team probably realizes he can’t afford another missed opportunity.

*** Some anti-CW on Iowa and New Hampshire: Speaking of Iowa… The Conventional Wisdom as we head into the early nominating contests is that Iowa will benefit the social conservatives, while New Hampshire will be where the moderates fare well. But here's a little anti-CW: It's possible that a moderate (say Romney) has a mathematical chance to win Iowa because either 1) the social conservative vote gets split, or 2) the moderate attracts new caucus-goers like Obama did in '08. As pollster Ann Selzer recently wrote, “Iowa is a problem for moderate Republicans only if they believe the 2012 caucus will fit the mold of 2008.” Similarly, in New Hampshire, it’s possible that Romney and Huntsman could all split up the moderate indie vote, leaving a social conservative (Bachmann? Perry?) to overperform in the state. Remember, the moderate BUSH won Iowa in 1980, and the conservative Buchanan won New Hampshire in 1996 (even when there was NO Dem primary competing for the indie vote).

*** Newt’s second line of credit at Tiffany’s: Unfortunately for Newt Gingrich, the stories keep getting worse, not better. Yesterday, we learned that his campaign lost two top finance staffers. And then came this: He “had a second line of credit at the high-end jewelry store Tiffany’s for as much as $1 million dollars,” the Washington Post’s Cillizza reported. “Joe DeSantis, a spokesman for Gingrich, said that the candidate’s personal financial disclosure filing, which is due within 30 days of his formal entrance into the presidential race, will ‘show that the Gingriches had a $500,000 to $1 million line of credit at Tiffany’s, that it has a zero balance, and it has been closed.’ DeSantis added that all debts to Tiffany’s had been paid in full. He offered no details about when the second line of credit was taken out, what it was used for or when it was closed.” How long will Gingrich allow this to go on?

*** On the 2012 trail: In Georgia this morning, Gingrich already delivered a speech on the economy and the Federal Reserve… And Huntsman, in Columbia, SC, visits a local business, holds a media avail, and meets with supporters.

Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 52 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 83 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 139 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 229 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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