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First Thoughts: Romney's tough week

Romney’s had a tough week, falling from his front-runner pedestal … The scrutiny’s coming for Perry – for taxes before he was against them, how many Texans don’t have access to health insurance? … Will any of it stick? It’s usually the Teflon Candidate that wins, but who will that be this year? … Hurricane Irene’s hurtling toward the East Coast -- and the way politicians handle disasters can show the best and worst of them.

*** Romney’s tough week: Last week, we wrote that Romney took a few nicks but no major blows in this campaign. Well, the first major blow came with a Gallup poll (and other robos NBC doesn’t report on) showing him being knocked off his front-runner perch -- and Rick Perry leading by double-digits. It led to a round of headlines like this one from his hometown paper The Boston Globe: “Mitt Romney is the Republican front-runner no longer.” On the one hand, being a front runner this early is not always a good thing – it didn’t work out so well for Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani. In track, it’s always good to be a few paces behind the leader and make your kick in the final stretch. (But what happens if you don’t have that kick?) The Romney camp says it’s sticking with its non-interventionist (against the GOP field) strategy -- for now, but as Reuters notes, “[P]ressure could mount for a more aggressive approach as his poll numbers worsen.” And to that point, here’s David Brooks: “It’s more likely that sooner or later Romney is going to have to prove his own toughness by taking Perry on directly” because it’s “unlikely” that Perry “passively” “implodes.” Still, it’s too early to panic, especially since there is no national primary, and Romney continues to hold a substantial lead in New Hampshire, a key early primary state. (Romney has real problems if you start to see him slip in the Granite State.) What this likely means, though, as we pointed out yesterday, we could be in for a LONG campaign.

AP

*** Playing into narratives: Romney played into his biggest weakness, that he’s inauthentic by backtracking on global warming and on Dodd-Frank. And he also played into the awkwardness meme. On Tuesday, Jill Lawrence wrapped some of Romney’s odder moments, comparing him to John Kerry, whom Lawrence covered in 2004. Kerry, she says, has been on her “mind as Mitt Romney, in his second presidential outing, keeps adding to his digital library of remarks that are insensitive, inappropriate or not nearly as funny to others as they are to him.” And his "I'm sorry it's my turn" town hall adds to it. How many other ways could he have handled that? The Romney campaign thinks moments like this show strength – that’s what they said after the Des Moines Register Soap Box “corporations are people” event. But they may have learned the wrong lesson from the Soap Box moment. The party may want a hard-charger, but is that who Romney really is? People still ultimately want their politicians to be likeable.

*** On the other hand: Romney still has a strong argument to make against Perry on electability. The Democratic Party in 2004 may have been angry and anti-war -- and we’ve made this point before – but even though Howard Dean looked like the front runner for a while, it came back to John Kerry in the end. (Yes, Kerry lost in the general, but most observers would argue, he gave Democrats the best chance.) A new Mason-Dixon poll in Florida shows Romney with a 28%-21% lead over Perry, but, more importantly, he holds a 51%-43% lead over President Obama. Perry is essentially tied with Obama 46%-45%. Bachmann trails (though within the margin of error) 46%-44%. And with Pew finding President Obama’s leadership ratings taking a hit, many Republicans are going to be looking for the person with the best chance of winning. The trap, however, for the GOP is thinking Obama’s SO vulnerable that ANYONE could beat him. (Though as David Brooks points out, at least one poll of GOP activists shows they think Perry’s the most electable.)

*** For Perry, here comes the scrutiny: And Perry won’t be able to coast. In addition to what he winds up saying – and how he says it -- on the trail (Bernanke 2?), there’s a long gubernatorial record to mine. You can bet that the national press corps – in addition to the very strong local press corps – will dig into everything from cronyism charges, the poor state of education (did you know fewer people graduate high school in Texas than anywhere in the country?), to executions (234 in the 11 years), and poverty to HPV and health care, not to mention creationism, climate change, secession, etc. And, on cue, today’s Texas Tribune top story headline: “Perry Supported Tax Hikes Before He Opposed Them.”

AP

*** Perry’s health-care record: Yesterday, Perry on Laura Ingraham’s show repeated his attack on Romney’s health-care plan in Massachusetts: "I think Mitt is finally recognizing that the Massachusetts healthcare plan he passed is a huge problem for him.” But Perry has his own health-care problem. Spokesman Mark Miner told the Texas Tribune yesterday: “Texas continues to pursue measures that will increase access and availability of health care coverage.” But the reality is Texas has a higher percentage of people without health insurance than any other state in the country, according to the U.S. Census. Almost one-in-four (24%) are without health insurance. That’s not exactly increasing “access and availability.”

*** In search of the Teflon Candidate? Despite all of these flaws, what matters most is, does any of it stick. Through history, often it’s the candidate who seem to be made of Teflon -- impervious to attacks -- that win. Barack Obama’s pastor, inexperience, and “bitter” comments got tons of coverage, but none of it seemed to stick with voters in 2008. Others have been dubbed the Teflon candidate, and look at some of the names: Bill Clinton (in 1992 by Haley Barbour in an op-ed in the New York Times), Ronald Reagan, even George W. Bush was called “a new and improved Teflon politician” by the Texas Tribune in 1999. In 2007-08, everything seemed to stick to Romney, kind of like John Kerry in 2004 general election. This time around, though, Romney seems to invoke more apathy than anything else, and the book is still out on Perry, who’s only been in two weeks.

AP

Heavy traffic heading inland from the New Jersey shore.

*** Disaster politics: The big news is Hurricane Irene barreling down the East Coast. And it’s a reminder that politicians – governors and mayors -- are often judged by their disaster-relief responses. They can either shine or be hurt politically. There are many historic examples of this, but we’ve had some very recent examples, too: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s approval ratings plummeted in March after the record New York snowfall last winter; Chris Christie caught some bad press for being at Disney World during the snow. It will be interesting to see the differences in the approaches of governors, like Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, Maryland’s Martin O’Malley, Christie, and New York’s Andrew Cuomo.

*** Decision 2012 Trail Mix: Michele Bachmann heads to Florida for the start of a three-day swing. … Romney raises money at Lake Winnipesaukee, NH, where he owns a home. … Ron Paul makes two stops in New Hampshire … Rick Santorum campaigns in South Carolina. … President Obama remains in Martha’s Vineyard for vacation.

*** What to watch next week: President Obama returns to Washington … Bachmann continues her Florida campaigning … Jon Huntsman heads back to New Hampshire and will be David Gregory’s guest on Meet the Press Sunday live and in studio … Romney and Huntsman raise money in the Hamptons this weekend (Irene-permitting) … and Romney also raises money for his campaign in Martha’s Vineyard on the last day of President Obama’s vacation Saturday.

***Friday’s “The Daily Rundown” line-up (with guest host Chris Cillizza): FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate on Hurricane Irene preparations… live reports from NBC News correspondents all along the East Coast… Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-MD) and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) on what Maryland and other states are doing to prepare… plus 2012 news with one of us, Politico’s Jonathan Allen, Democratic pollster Fred Yang and msnbc’s Michelle Bernard.

***Friday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: With the hurricane brewing, it’s North Carolina Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, New Jersey Emergency Management spokesman Steven Jones, Norfolk, Va., City Manager Marcus Jones, and FEMA Deputy Administrator Rich Serino. Talking Libya, Hisham Melham of Al Arabiya TV will be on.

Countdown to NBC-Politico debate at Reagan Library: 12 days
Countdown to NV-2 and NY-9 special elections: 18 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 74 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 164 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up