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First Thoughts: The most meaningful contest of 2011?

Look to Ohio for the best (and most meaningful) statewide contest of 2011… NBC’s Chuck Todd moderates 7:00 pm ET debate on Issue 2 in Ohio… Perry’s 20-20 plan… But does he step on his message by calling birther issue “a good issue to keep alive”?… Obama remains out West, where he pre-tapes a Leno interview and raises money… DNC hits Romney in TV ad airing in Arizona… Cain unveils 50-state radio ad… And Romney’s in Cincy.

COLUMBUS, OH -- The best -- and most meaningful -- statewide race of 2011 wasn’t in West Virginia (where Democrats narrowly won the gubernatorial contest). Or in Louisiana (where Gov. Bobby Jindal cruised to re-election). And it won’t be in Kentucky (where Democrats are poised for a blowout gubernatorial win). Or in Mississippi (where Republicans are expected to hold the governor’s mansion). Rather, the 2011 race with the biggest political implications is taking place here in the Buckeye State, where voters two weeks from today will decide the fate of Gov. John Kasich’s (R) law curbing collective-bargaining rights for public-sector workers. It will test, once again, organized labor’s strength in the Midwest (after its mixed results in Wisconsin). It will gauge Kasich’s popularity (or unpopularity). It will serve as a trial run of sorts for next year’s presidential contest in this traditional battleground state. And it’s the same fight we’ve seen across the country -- about how governments balance their budgets and about the role of the government worker.

*** Yes on Issue 2 vs. No on Issue 2: Beginning at 7:00 pm ET, one of us is moderating a debate here over Issue 2, the ballot measure over the Ohio law (a yes is a vote to keep it, and a no is a vote to repeal it). Participating in the debate are ex-Congressman Dennis Eckart of We are Ohio (which is opposing the law) and state Sen. Keith Faber of Building a Better Ohio (which is supporting it). And just in time for tonight’s one-hour debate, which airs on NBC stations throughout the state, a new Quinnipiac poll finds 57% of Ohio voters wanting to repeal the anti-collective-bargaining law, and just 32% wanting to keep it. Kasich’s approval rating in the state stands at 36%-52%. With Kasich and Republicans trailing, we have to ask: Did they make a strategic mistake allowing labor and Democrats to turn the contest into a referendum on people (like police and firefighters) rather than on spending? The lesson Team Obama might take away: They can win a spending debate if they don't talk about cuts, but instead talk about people.

*** Perry’s 20-20 plan: At 11:00 am ET today in Gray Court, SC, Rick Perry will unveil his flat-tax plan, and he holds a press conference at the South Carolina State House later at 3:30 pm. Per his preview of the plan in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Perry calls for the option of a 20% personal income-tax rate, a 20% corporate rate, the elimination of long-term capital-gains taxes, as well as taxes on Social Security benefits, NBC’s Carrie Dann reports. The plan’s mantra: “Cut, Balance, and Grow.” Perry writes in the Journal, “The plan starts with giving Americans a choice between a new, flat tax rate of 20% or their current income tax rate. The new flat tax preserves mortgage interest, charitable and state and local tax exemptions for families earning less than $500,000 annually, and it increases the standard deduction to $12,500 for individuals and dependents.” Perry also calls for capping federal spending at 18% of GDP and passing a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution.

AP

Rick Perry speaking at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition presidential candidate forum in Des Moines, Iowa, Saturday, Oct. 25, 2011.

*** Perry calls Romney “a fat cat,” says birtherism is “a good issue to keep alive”: In an exclusive interview with CNBC’s John Harwood, Perry took aim at Mitt Romney as a "fat cat" whose economic plan consists of "nibbling around the edges" of a tax overhaul rather than the sweeping plan that Perry will formally announce today, NBC’s Dann adds. Asked about Romney's 1996 criticism of a flat tax as "a tax cut for fat cats," a chuckling Perry suggested that the former Massachusetts governor should look no further than his own reflection. "I would say he ought to look in the mirror, I guess -- I consider HIM to be a fat cat," he said. But did Perry step on his own message? Also in the interview, he said that continued questioning of the president's place of birth is "a good issue to keep alive," and that it's "fun to poke" the sitting president about the controversy most thought was definitively put to rest when Obama displayed the long-form version of his birth certificate in April. "It's a good issue to keep alive. Donald [Trump] has got to have some fun," Perry said, per Dann. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is out with a memo hitting both the Perry and Romney tax plans.

 *** Out West: On the second leg of his West Coast swing, President Obama today sits down for a pre-taped interview with Jay Leno in Los Angeles. He then he hits a fundraiser in San Francisco and then two more fundraisers in Denver. The day after Obama discussed a new plan to help homeowners refinance their homes in Nevada, the administration today will be announcing new initiatives to create jobs for veterans at community health centers and to expand opportunities for veterans to become physician assistants, a White House official tells First Read. Tomorrow, the administration will unveil a new measure to help graduates with their student loans. 

*** Debbie Downer? At a fundraiser in Vegas yesterday, the president sounded a little more downtrodden than he usually sounds. “That old ‘Hope’ poster is fading. It’s getting dog-eared along the edges there. (Laughter.)  But I just want to remind all of you that we never said this was going to be easy. We never said that change was going to happen overnight. The problems that we confront didn’t happen overnight; we weren’t going to solve them overnight. The challenges we face in terms of rebuilding an economy that works for everybody, making sure that once again we have the best education system in the world, making sure that once again anybody out there who has a good idea can go out there and make it, making sure that we’ve got a balanced approach to reducing our deficit and getting our fiscal house in order -- all those things we knew were going to take some time.” He’s said some of these things before, but it was a heavier dose than normal.

*** DNC hits Romney in TV ad airing in AZ: Also out West, the DNC is up with a new 30-second TV ad in Arizona that hits Romney’s foreclosure comments from last week, when he said: “Don’t try and stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom.” The ad’s narrator asks, “Let Arizonans hit the bottom?” and continues: “Mitt Romney’s message to Arizona? You’re on your own.” The ad -- the DNC’s second one attacking Romney (the first was “Corporations are people”) -- begins airing today on several Arizona stations, as well as on cable. Why Arizona? DNC Communications Director Brad Woodhouse tells First Read, “Second highest rate of foreclosures, state we're adding to the map.” Arizona is a state that, demographically, is eventually going to work its way into the battleground. For now, DNC can make a cheap investment and see if it pays off. It's worth nothing, the last time the GOP held a competitive primary in Arizona, Clinton carried it in the general. Did GOP primary turn off swing voters in 96? Could that happen in 12? Could GOP alienate Hispanics? It's part of the DNC gamble.

*** Team Romney responds: The Romney camp responded to the DNC ad with this statement: “Under President Obama, American homeowners have dealt with falling home prices, rising foreclosure rates, and one of the worst housing markets in recorded history… President Obama and his campaign will continue to try and distract Americans from his disaster of an economic record over the next year but it’s not going to work.”

*** Cain’s radio ad: Speaking of advertisements, NBC’s Alex Moe reports that Herman Cain is airing a radio ad in all 50 states on the Rush Limbaugh program. The 29-second ad focuses on his 9-9-9 plan and targets President Obama -- not his GOP rivals. “9-9-9 means jobs, jobs, jobs. I’m Herman Cain, a candidate for president, and I approve this message but Obama doesn’t. My 9-9-9 plan creates six million jobs. Obama doesn’t want you to know because he doesn’t want me to win. Go to 999meansjobs.com and help me defeat Obama.”

*** Romney in Cincy: We aren’t the only ones out here in Ohio. Per NBC’s Garrett Haake, Romney’s in Cincinnati today, where he’s raising money and where (according to local reports) he’s attending a phone bank to talk to activists and offer his support for their efforts on Issue 2. Yet Romney, Haake adds, apparently has yet to take a position on Issue 2.

*** On the 2012 trail: Elsewhere today, Gingrich files his candidacy papers in New Hampshire… Santorum campaigns in South Carolina… Jon Huntsman, in DC, addresses College Republicans at George Washington University… And Cain signs books and gives a speech to a Tea Party group in Texas. 

*** Tuesday’s “Daily Rundown” line-up: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel… CNBC's John Harwood on his interview with Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX)... NBC's Kristen Welker on President Obama's West Coast swing... National Journal's Jim Tankersley on what the 2012 GOP field is saying (and not saying) about how to fix the housing crisis... And more 2012 news with the Washington Post's Anne Kornblut, AP's Liz Sidoti and Priorities USA's Bill Burton.

*** Tuesday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell interviews NBC’s Chuck Todd (on tonight’s debate), CNBC’s Larry Kudlow and John Harwood, FreedomWorks’ Max Pappas, Politico’s Roger Simon, Ohio GOP Chair Kevin DeWine, and the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza. 

Countdown to Election Day 2011: 14 days
Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 70 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 81 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 88 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 133 days

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