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First Thoughts: Bachmann's turn for overdrive

Bachmann’s turn for overdrive: Before her official campaign announcement today, Des Moines Register poll shows her running neck-and-neck for the lead in Iowa… The poll has rough news for Pawlenty, and it shows that Romney is the strong overall front-runner in the GOP race… Obama today talks debt ceiling with Reid and McConnell (separately)… And a possible compromise: defense spending cuts.

*** Bachmann’s turn for overdrive: More than two weeks ago, we said it was important to take a Michele Bachmann campaign seriously, and the new Des Moines Register poll of likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers backs that up. According to the survey, Mitt Romney (at 23%) is running neck-and-neck with Bachmann (22%), followed by Herman Cain (10%), Newt Gingrich (7%), Ron Paul (7%), Tim Pawlenty (6%), and Rick Santorum (4%). Bachmann couldn’t have wished for better news to set up her official announcement, which she makes today from Waterloo, IA at 10:00 am ET. And surprisingly, the poll overshadowed Sarah Palin’s stop in Iowa on Tuesday, which had the potential of overshadowing Bachmann’s day today. Bachmann has one good problem: She’s peaking early. Can she keep it up? And keep this in mind: Bachmann is doing this without the so-called MSM; in fact, she’s even doing it without FOX News (whose Chris Wallace asked her yesterday if she was a “flake”).

*** Rough news for Pawlenty: If the poll is great news for Bachmann, it’s bad news for Pawlenty -- who has put so much effort into Iowa. (Do note, however: The poll was conducted before his TV advertising in the state began.) The Des Moines Register survey, on top of the rough two weeks he’s had after the New Hampshire debate, has to hurt fundraising (more on that below). On “TODAY” this morning, Pawlenty responded that these early polls aren’t always good predictors. “If they were, we’d have Hillary Clinton as president,” he said, noting that Mike Huckabee was at 4% in the poll at this point in the ’08 cycle. “We still have plenty of time.”

*** Romney the strong front-runner: And then we come to Romney. He’s now out in front in both Iowa (barely) and New Hampshire (overwhelmingly). Yes, he’s vulnerable. But he’s just not the front-runner; he’s a STRONGER front-runner than many in Washington will believe. Then again, the last three strong front-runners in the summer before the nominating contests were Howard Dean (2004), Hillary Clinton (2008), and Mitt Romney himself (2008). The one bad piece of news for Romney in the Des Moines Register poll: It takes away his ability to make a surprising finish in the Hawkeye State, even if he decides not to play in the caucuses. And given his 52%-38% fav/ufav among likely caucus-goers (compared with Bachmann’s 64%-12% score and Pawlenty’s 58%-13%), he doesn’t have much more room for growth. In fact, he’s just the second choice of 10% of likely caucus-goers.

*** On the 2012 trail: Romney’s in New Hampshire, holding events in Salem and Concord… Santorum’s in Iowa… And Huntsman raises money in California.

*** Going negative early: On Friday, the Karl Rove-founded Crossroads GPS group announced it was launching a $20 million TV ad campaign aimed at President Obama, including a $5 million buy that begins today. Is there ever a bad time to spend $20 million? However, you could argue that this is a coming a little early. Does it have the ability to numb the public -- especially in the battleground states -- if we head down this negative path so early?

*** Obama to meet with Reid and McConnell (separately) to discuss the debt ceiling: Away from the presidential campaign trail, the big story remains the debt-ceiling talks. Obama and Vice President Biden meet with Senate Majority Leader Reid at 10:30 am ET, and then they meet separately with Senate Minority Leader McConnell at 5:00 pm. McConnell, per his office, will tell the president that raising taxes has to be off the table. Democrats, of course, want to cut oil subsidies and raise taxes on the very rich. And there does appear to be some wiggle room, but not much. McConnell aide Don Stewart wouldn't say if raising taxes on those making $1 million a year, for example, is completely off the table. Instead, he said Democrats want hundreds of billions in new revenues and, "You can't get there with the easy stuff," he said.

*** Are defense spending cuts the path to compromise? But maybe they can get there will cuts in defense spending. The Washington Post: “As President Obama prepares to meet Monday with Senate leaders to try to restart talks about the swollen national debt, some Republicans see a potential path to compromise: significant cuts in military spending. Senior GOP lawmakers and leadership aides said it would be far easier to build support for a debt-reduction package that cuts the Pentagon budget — a key Democratic demand — than one that raises revenue by tinkering with the tax code. Last week, Republicans walked out of talks led by Vice President Biden, insisting that the White House take tax increases off the table.” Defense cuts are a possibility, says Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who is going to play a key role in the final outcome of a debt-limit deal. “Boehner has always said that there's waste at the Pentagon, just like the rest of the government,” Steel told First Read before adding, “Tax hikes on small businesses are definitely off the table.”

Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 47 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 78 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 134 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 224 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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