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First Thoughts: And then there were three

And then there were three: Bachmann, Perry, and Romney… Obama begins his Midwest bus tour… RNC, Romney camp bracket Obama… Way to view Bachmann right now -- as a 12th seed that just reached the Sweet 16… Perry’s off to a strong start, but is there a bandwagon effect?... Two questions for Romney: 1) Does he play in Iowa? 2) Does he engage Perry?... Two reasons why Pawlenty didn’t take off… And Perry remains in Iowa, while Romney campaigns in New Hampshire.

*** And then there were three: After the most consequential weekend so far in the race for the GOP presidential nomination -- Bachmann’s win in Ames, Perry’s official entrance, and Pawlenty’s exit -- it appears we now have a three-person contest. Bachmann, at least right now, is the front-runner in Iowa; Romney is the front-runner in New Hampshire; and Perry has the potential to be the front-runner in South Carolina. While there’s plenty of months to go until the early nominating contests (and plenty of twists and turns ahead), this could spell a LONG fight for the Republican nomination that could extend until May or June. While two other candidates (Santorum and Paul) COULD make hay or become spoilers, we now have a top three (Bachmann, Romney, Perry). Question: Does that encourage anyone else to get in? Palin? Christie? Paul Ryan? Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat sounds the alarm in a piece encouraging Christie to run. “Is this really the best we can do?” he asks. “The answer is no.”

*** Obama begins his Midwest bus tour: A long and very fluid GOP race might be exactly what the doctor ordered for President Obama, whose job-approval rating sunk to 39% in Gallup’s daily tracking poll. He also needs some better economic news, as well as some luck (which he really hasn’t had since that Osama bin Laden raid back in May). Today, Obama tries to get back on track with a three-day bus tour across the Midwest. He begins in Minnesota with a town hall in Cannon Falls at 1:05 pm ET. Then he heads to Iowa, where he holds another town hall in Decorah at 6:15 pm ET. The Midwest has always been important to Obama; it’s where he achieved so much success in the ’08 primaries and later general election. And he needs it to get back on track. And a final note: While we’ve always argued that Gallup’s daily tracking goes up and down -- "Live by Gallup’s daily tracking, die by Gallup’s daily tracking" -- going below 40% is a psychological barrier.

*** RNC, Romney camp bracket Obama: Meanwhile, Republicans are bracketing Obama’s bus tour. The Republican National Committee is launching its own bus tour, and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus holds a rally in Cannon Falls, MN at 10:00 am ET (so three hours before the president’s event there). The RNC also is airing radio ads in Minnesota and Iowa. And the Romney campaign is getting into the act, too, by producing a Minnesota-specific Web video and dubbing Obama’s bus tour as the “Magical Misery Bus Tour.”

*** Bachmann as a 12th seed that has reached the Sweet 16: Back to the GOP presidential race… Bachmann’s straw-poll victory in Ames was impressive because she had everything to lose (her front-runner status in Iowa, her buzz, and her momentum). She’s also turned into a better candidate than anyone would have expected three months ago. Unlike Palin, she’s disciplined and lets the attacks and criticism roll off her back. Unlike the other candidates in the field, she has boundless energy. And she’s become quite the performer (see the reporting about Bachmann’s lighting and announcer in our 2012 section below). But she has significant liabilities (her inability to directly answer questions like on “Meet the Press” yesterday, her general-election standing, and her thin legislative record). By the way, voters who attended the Waterloo dinner last night started regurgitating some of the Pawlenty attacks on Bachmann when one of us interviewed voters after the event. Right now, Bachmann feels like a 12th seed in the NCAA basketball tournament that has won two games. You can’t overlook her and she could pull off another upset, but she also isn’t as strong -- at least on paper -- as her remaining competitors.

Slideshow: The rise of Michelle Bachmann

NBC's Carrie Dann

Rick Perry's bus in Des Moines, Iowa, yesterday.

*** Perry’s off to a strong start: And that includes Rick Perry. We heard from a smart observer that you’d know quickly -- like the next 30 days -- if he was real or not, because he’s a very definable politician. Translation: What you see is what you get. And so far, he’s off to a great start after outshining Bachmann at last night’s dueling speeches in Waterloo. As Politico writes, “[T]he contrast that may lift Perry, and undermine Bachmann, in their high-stakes battle for Iowa had less to do with what they said than how they said it — and what they did before and after speaking. Perry arrived early… The Texas governor let a media throng grow and dissolve before working his way across the room to sit at table after table, shake hand after hand, pose for photographs and listen politely…, paying respect to a state that expects candidates, no matter their fame, to be accessible. But Bachmann campaigned like a celebrity. And the event highlighted the brittle, presidential-style cocoon that has become her campaign’s signature: a routine of late entries, unexplained absences, quick exits, sharp-elbowed handlers with matching lapel pins, and pre-selected questioners.” Ouch. The thing to watch for Perry: Does he begin to see a bandwagon effect (in endorsements, voter support, etc.)? That could tell us if there’s still hesitancy in the GOP establishment.

*** Perry’s eyebrow-raising charge: But we also thought this line from Perry last night was strange. "One of the reasons, one of the powerful reasons, that I'm running for the presidency of the United States is to make sure that every young man and woman who puts on the uniform of this country respects highly the president of the United States." Does that mean he doesn’t think the U.S. military respects its current president? That’s quite a charge from someone who isn’t the commander-in-chief.

Slideshow: Rick Perry, the new guy in 2012 town

*** Two questions for Romney: As for the national front-runner, Romney has two questions he needs to answer. One, does he play in Iowa? And two, when does he engage Perry? On the one hand, if he engages early, he gets to define Perry and try to take away any momentum. On the other hand, if you engage, you acknowledge that he’s your rival. We can tell you this: Team Romney wants Bachmann’s candidacy to thrive and wants to turn Iowa into a land war between Bachmann and Perry. If Bachmann falters this fall (and folks, there are some signs; this is an important 30 days for her), Romney's got problems if he gets caught in a one-on-one too quickly with Perry.

Slideshow: Mitt Romney, history of a frontrunner

*** Two reasons why Pawlenty didn’t take off: As for Pawlenty, he did everything a candidate needed to do -- he hired a good staff, shook tons of hands in Iowa and New Hampshire, produced policy papers and plans, said all the right things (except at that one debate), and he worked his tail off. But his campaign never took off. One reason is that he lacked both money and charisma. You can get by until the Iowa caucuses without one of those attributes, but not both. Another reason is the changing Republican Party. Four years ago, the GOP would have loved a future presidential candidate with Pawlenty’s background -- conservative-to-moderate governor of a blue state, relatively young, well-liked, promising future. But the biggest political story since then has been the changing GOP, in which supporting cap-and-trade is unacceptable and in which someone like Bachmann can take off. 

*** The Pawlenty tick-tock: By the way, we’ve learned that Pawlenty could see the writing on the wall Saturday at the straw poll at about 2:00 pm. The campaign had sold about 3,000 tickets, and when it saw the high turnout, they knew it would hurt them. Pawlenty made the decision to end the campaign that night after seeing the results and after conferring with his wife, Mary. He then finalized the decision the next morning after talking to his wife again at about 5:30 am, about two hours before the news broke of his conference call with supporters. His reasoning, according to our reporting? Pawlenty felt he needed a boost out of the straw poll for momentum and fundraising. His resources had dried up and instead of cutting half the staff, and having another week of bad stories, he cut bait.

*** On the 2012 trail: Romney holds two events in New Hampshire, in Litchfield and in Plymouth… And Perry remains in Iowa, visiting the Iowa State Fair (and speaking at the Des Moines Register’s Soapbox event) and then making stops in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

*** Monday’s “The Daily Rundown” line-up (live from Cannon Falls, MN!): Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) on the president’s road trip, Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) on the work facing Congress’ debt super committee, CNBC’s John Harwood on the economy and 2012, GOP strategist Mike Murphy on the 2012 field, and more 2012 with Daily Beast/Newsweek’s Lois Romano, MSNBC analyst/Democratic strategist Karen Finney, and National Review/Bloomberg View’s Ramesh Ponnuru.

*** Monday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports line-up: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell interview’s Moody’s Mark Zandi and the ONE Campaign’s Michael Elliot. Plus, the show will have live coverage of Obama’s town hall in Minnesota.

NBC's Domenico Montanaro reports on the must-stop in Iowa for presidential candidates -- the State Fair, complete with deep-fried butter and cows made of the same.

Countdown to Wisconsin recall general for Dem senators: 1 day
Countdown to NBC-Politico debate at Reagan Library: 23 days
Countdown to NV-2 and NY-9 special elections: 29 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 85 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 175 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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