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First Thoughts: Goodbye Washington, hello campaign trail

Goodbye Washington, hello campaign trail… That transition couldn’t have come at a better time for Obama, while the increased campaign-trail scrutiny brings both promise and peril for the GOP contenders… Senate vote on debt deal occurs at noon ET… Breaking down yesterday’s House vote… Giffords’ feel-good moment… The “Mittness Protection Program”… And Primary Day in Mississippi.

*** Goodbye Washington, hello campaign trail: When the Senate today, as expected, passes the debt deal and sends it to President Obama’s desk, it effectively moves the political world’s focus from Washington to the 2012 campaign trail. Yes, there are plenty of unresolved issues on Capitol Hill over the next year and a half -- that super committee, the partial FAA shutdown, trade agreements, and renewing the federal gas tax -- but the scrutiny now turns to the early nominating states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina) and then the presidential battlegrounds. That transition couldn’t have come at a better time for President Obama, whose poll numbers have declined during the contentious debt debate. In fact, a brand-new Quinnipiac poll shows his approval rating at just 43% in Pennsylvania, and it has Romney leading him by two points in the state. (Obama won Pennsylvania by 10 percentage points in ’08). These numbers are another reminder why the president HAD to get this debate behind him. It’s been another rough summer for Obama, and when you mess with Congress, you get brought down to its level.

*** Promise and peril for the GOP contenders: That transition from Washington to the campaign trail also brings both promise and peril to the Republicans vying to challenge Obama in Nov. 2012. There’s promise because none of the GOP candidates has really taken off, grabbed the public’s attention, and rallied Republican voters. But there’s peril, too, because increased scrutiny often means increased problems. So over the next few months, stories that have been on the public’s backburner -- the “Mittness Protection Program,” Pawlenty’s high stakes in the Ames Straw Poll, Bachmann-Turner Overdrive, and Rick Perry’s likely entry into the field -- will begin to become national stories. Can they withstand the scrutiny? Or will they wilt under its pressure? For better or for worse, that’s what this country’s presidential elections test. By the way, August is the last month to take candidates jumping in late-"speculation" seriously. Why? There are a series of tough filing deadlines coming up in October and November, and if you aren't in by Labor Day, you are likely going to fail to get on state primary ballots.

*** Today’s Senate vote: Back on Capitol Hill, the Senate votes on the debt deal at noon ET, according to NBC’s Libby Leist. And the measure is expected to easily pass. Yesterday’s bipartisan 269-161 House vote contained some interesting “yes” and “no” votes for 2012 Senate candidates. Nevada’s Shelley Berkley (D) voted yes, but it’s unclear how Sen, Dean Heller (R) will vote. New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich (D) also voted yes, as did North Dakota’s Rick Berg (R). Meanwhile, Montana’s Denny Rehberg voted no, but incumbent Sen. Jon Tester (D) released a statement last night saying that a vote against the bipartisan budget bill “is a vote against Montana.” Tester's statement went on to say, “This isn’t the bill I would have written. But a vote against this bipartisan bill is a vote against Montana’s veterans, active-duty troops, seniors and small businesses, and Montanans deserve better.” As far as the GOP primary races to watch, Orrin Hatch (R) is a no (just like his likely foe Jason Chaffetz). But what about Dick Lugar? He's reportedly a yes, and Mike Pence (who also voted yes) may have given him some cover. Among the GOP presidentials, both Bachmann and Paul voted no yesterday.

*** A feel-good moment: Talk about a feel-good moment when Washington badly needed one. Overshadowing yesterday's bipartisan vote in support of the debt deal, Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords (D) returned to the House -- to cheers and standing ovations -- to cast her vote in favor of the legislation. Now twice in the past year, Giffords has (however briefly) lifted the partisan clouds in the nation's capital. The first time was back in January, after she and others were shot in Tucson. The second came after the most contentious legislative debate since Republicans took control of the House. By the way, Giffords’ office has knocked down the news that she’s seeking re-election to her House seat. "The congresswoman is working on her recovery, and NO decision has been made to seek re-election at this time," her communications director said. Per NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz stated on “Morning Joe” that they are getting Giffords ready so that she would be prepared to run if she makes that decision. Wasserman Schultz and other Dems hosted a fundraiser for Giffords' campaign a few months ago.

*** Can I get a Mittness? Yesterday, Mitt Romney broke his relative silence on the debt debate, releasing a statement opposing the deal. Why did he oppose it? The likely calculation he and his team made was that his health-care law already tests the patience of many conservatives, and so he can't give them a "list" of reasons to be against him. Why add one more thing to that list? Bottom line: He has no margin for error for some conservatives. But the way he spoke out on it (or didn't) risks undercutting the basic premise of his campaign -- that he's willing to lead because the president's not. It's THAT aspect his opponents have picked up on. In New Hampshire yesterday, Jon Huntsman delivered this shot at Romney, per NBC’s Jo Ling Kent: “It’s easy to take a political position later on. It’s tough to take a position early on, which is the real world.” And today, Politico coins this phrase: the “Mittness Protection Program.”

NBC's Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd has analysis on the politics behind the debt deal.

*** On the 2012 trail: Paul and Santorum campaign in Iowa… Huntsman stumps in New Hampshire (as does Pawlenty’s wife, Mary)… And Cain and Pawlenty are in Florida.

*** Primary Day in Mississippi: Today is also primary day in Mississippi, where voters head to the polls to choose Dem and GOP nominees for this November’s race to replace term-limited Gov. Haley Barbour (R). Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant (R) is the favorite on the Republican side, while Bill Luckett, Johnny DuPree, and others battle for the Dem nomination. The Republican will be the overwhelming favorite in the general election. Polls close today at 8:00 pm ET.

*** Tuesday’s “Daily Rundown” line-up: Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Mark Warner (D-VA) on today’s Senate vote on the debt deal… Assessing the economic impact with National Journal’s Jim Tankersley and the Washington Post’s Steve Pearlstein… And rounding up 2012 reactions with the New York Times’ Jeff Zeleny, the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus and Ron Klain, former chief of staff for Vice President Biden.

*** Tuesday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: Mitchell today interviews Reps. Steve Israel, Chaka Fattah, and Elijah Cummings.

Countdown to Wisconsin recall general for GOP senators: 7 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 11 days
Countdown to Wisconsin recall general for Dem senators: 24 days
Countdown to NV-2 and NY-9 special elections: 42 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 98 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 188 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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