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First Thoughts: Say anything?

Romney doesn’t take a stand in Ohio on collective-bargaining rights … Perry goes after him for “finger in the wind politics” … Obama straddles line between campaign mode and not on Leno, strikes somber chord again at fundraiser, unveils student-loan initiative in Denver … Perry’s post-card politics … Cain leads in another national poll, but he’s selling books in Texas … Perry fifth… Romney’s big-bucks DC fundraiser.

*** Say anything? What hurt Hillary Clinton after that Oct. 30, 2007 debate wasn't her exact answer on drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants. Rather, it was that the entire exchange (and the days after) reinforced a negative narrative about Hillary -- namely that she was willing to say or do anything to get elected as president. Similarly, Mitt Romney's rough day yesterday didn't have as much to do with his actual position (or non-position) on Ohio's anti-collective-bargaining law as it raised doubts about his conservative bona fides. To recap: On the day of a debate (moderated by one of us), on the day of a brand-new poll, and two weeks before the election, Romney walked in a call center for the Ohio GOP on Issue 2, and he refused to take a position on it, even though he's endorsed it before. It was an unforced error.

*** Having it both ways: We understand why Romney wanted to have it both ways. He wants to prove he's a conservative on fiscal issues, but he also wants to protect himself in the general in union-heavy states like Ohio and Michigan -- on an issue that labor is likely to win. And, not surprisingly, his GOP rivals piled on. "Mitt Romney's finger-in-the-wind politics continued today when he refused to support right-to-work reforms signed by Ohio Governor John Kasich -- reforms Romney supported in June,” Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan said in a statement. “Americans are tired of politicians who change their beliefs to match public opinion polls. Mitt Romney has a long record of doing this on issues like government-mandated health care and the Obama stimulus. Mitt Romney needs to realize that when you try to stand on both sides of an issue, you stand for nothing." Bottom line: Romney didn't make a lot of friends yesterday in Ohio, where Republicans are trying to win an uphill battle. So don't be surprised if he comes back to the Buckeye State to try to fix it. A new Quinnipiac poll out today shows Romney losing to President Obama 45%-41% and to Herman Cain in a GOP primary, 28%-21%.

*** Getting personal on collective-bargaining rights: As for last night's debate over Issue 2, both sides -- ex-Rep. Dennis Eckart (D) of We are Ohio (which supports repeal of the law curbing collective-bargaining rights for public workers) and state Sen. Keith Faber (R) of Building a Better Ohio (which wants to keep it) -- performed well. But you could see why the Building a Better Ohio folks are trailing in the polls. Democrats and the unions have been able to personalize the issue, arguing how the police, firefighters, and nurses will be affected. Also, Faber was unable to name any part of the law that may have gone too far. The public wants reforms, but it also doesn't want rigidity. The contest takes place less than two weeks from today.

*** Perry goes on air: Perry is going up with his first ad in Iowa today. The 30-second ad’s tone is upbeat and focuses on energy, per NBC’s Alex Moe. “As president, I’ll create at least 2.5 million new jobs,” Perry says. But that’s a pretty low bar, considering 14 million are out of work. It's a pace President Obama has been on since October 2010 (1.5 million jobs have been created since then. Prior to that, going back to February 2009, about 3.7 million were lost as a result of the near-financial meltdown). Over four years, 2.5 million jobs only averages just over 52,000 jobs a month. It's a fairly easy promise to keep. But does that qualify as bold?

*** Straddling the line: On The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, President Obama was asked if he’s been watching the Republican debates. “I’m going to wait until everyone is voted off the island,” he joked. “Once they narrow it down to one or two, I’ll start paying attention.” Yet, less than a month ago, Obama criticized the GOP field for not standing up for a gay soldier, who was booed at a debate. “You want to be commander in chief, you can start by standing up for the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States, even when it’s not politically convenient,” he said Oct. 1 at a dinner before the gay-rights advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign. The president is still trying to straddle the "I'm not in campaign mode" even as he is in "campaign mode.”

*** Laying out the stakes: The president struck a somber tone in at least one moment at another fundraiser: “We have lost our ambition,” he said at an event in San Francisco. “Our imagination and our willingness to do things that built the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam and unleash all the potential in this country.” He also acknowledged mistakes and the less energy with him this time around. “I know I’m a little grayer, not as trendy... I was the new, new thing. We've had setbacks. I've made mistakes on occasion. Michelle reminds me of those frequently." But before critics pounce on the president for not believing in “American exceptionalism,” he also said, “[T]hat vision is still there. … That fundamental belief in the American people is still there.” And: “[A]merica is the greatest country around the world.” NBC’s Kristen Welker, who was on the ground at the speech, notes that the entire speech was not somber. The president is obviously in a tough battle for reelection and is trying to lay out the gravity of the stakes in 2012. And it just might be working. His campaign has already seen a million donors and he’s outraised the entire GOP field combined.

*** Another executive action: Today at 12:45 pm ET in Denver, he will announce another executive action, this time on student loans. According to administration officials, the President will announce a new "Pay as You Earn" program that brings federal student loan payments down to 10% of a graduate's discretionary income and forgives all of their debt after 20 years of payment, NBC’s Shawna Thomas reports. A similar program was already on the books for 2014, but now it will be applicable to next year’s graduates. The administration says this program could aid 1.6 million people. And for people who have two or more of certain types of federal student loans, they'll have a six-month window next year to consolidate them into one loan, therefore lowering the interest rate and making repayment a little less confusing. The White House says about 6 million students and recent graduates could take advantage of this and it could reduce their interest rate by up to 0.5%.

*** Post-card politics, can it deliver? In unveiling his 20-20 optional flat-tax plan, Rick Perry brought with him a prop – a post card. In fact, he held up it up or said “post card” nine times, twice during his speech announcing his plan and seven times in a press conference in the afternoon. (The post card was a folded-over sheet of paper with an income tax form on it that he says is all you need to do your taxes.) But with yet another national poll showing him fading (at just 6% in a new CBS/New York Times poll, behind Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, with Herman Cain leading), Perry is coming out swinging. In two days, in addition to questioning the president’s birth certificate (which he dismissed as a distraction yesterday), he hit Cain on 9-9-9, called Romney a “fat cat” whose plan just “nibbles around the edges,” and went after Romney on the Ohio ballot measures.

*** DC GOP establishment coalescing around Romney? Romney and some of his top congressional supporters are gathering this morning (starting at 8:00 am ET) at the Capitol Hill offices of the American Trucking Association for a power breakfast fundraiser co-hosted by a lineup of Washington’s most influential lobbyists, NBC’s Michael Isikoff reports. An invitation for the event – obtained by NBC News -- provides a glimpse into how the capital’s Republican power figures are coming together behind the Massachusetts governor despite his less than commanding position in the polls. “It’s the Washington establishment coalescing behind him,” said one lobbyist who asked not to be identified about the trucking association fundraiser. “What this means is all the guys talking to their clients and their corporations and telling them, ‘Mitt is the guy.’” After the fundraiser, Romney does an event with the Fairfax County, Virginia GOP.

*** Wednesday’s “The Daily Rundown” line-up with guest host Chris Cillizza: Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) on President Obama’s West Coast swing and the Democrats’ economic message for 2012… one of us (!!!) on the latest in Perry vs. Romney… Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman and Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call’s Nathan Gonzales on the latest redistricting developments… more 2012 news with Washington Post’s Perry Bacon, National Journal’s Reid Wilson and syndicated columnist Cynthia Tucker.

*** Wednesday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up with guest host NBC’s Savannah Guthrie: White House adviser Melody Barnes on the president’s student-loan action, DCCC Chairman Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), and the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne.

Countdown to Election Day 2011: 13 days
Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 69 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 80 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 87 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 132 days

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