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First Thoughts: Adding up the gaffes

Adding up the GOP gaffes… Do they become a narrative problem for the GOP?... Or do they help Romney?... Newt’s $1 million-plus from Freddie Mac… Perry’s pretty good week… The pre-Watergate bags of cash are back, via the Super PACs… Newt’s flip-flops… Obama’s troop announcement in Australia… And the president to visit New Hampshire next week (and there’s a reason why he’s going there).

*** Adding up the gaffes: Over the past few months, the Republican presidential race has provided a treasure trove of material to Jon Stewart and “Saturday Night Live” writers. Rick Perry’s brain freeze at last week’s CNBC debate. Herman Cain’s pregnant pause on Libya. Michele Bachmann’s historical misstatements. Newt Gingrich’s flip-flops on Libya and Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan. But when you add up the gaffes -- especially the ones on foreign policy -- do they create a narrative problem for the GOP? The New York Times’ Mike Shear writes that they are giving some Republicans concern. “Honestly, the Republican debates have become a reality show,” former Reagan Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein told the Times. “People have to be perceived as being capable of governing this country, of being the leader of the free world.” Of course, all candidates make mistakes on the campaign trail and at the debates. Barack Obama has made them (57 states?); so did Hillary Clinton. But some of these GOP gaffes (think Cain’s Libya one) cut at the heart of the Republican Party’s brand. Peter Feaver, who served as a national security official to George W. Bush, told the Times: “This is the core of the Republican brand. You mess with it at your peril.”

*** But do they help Romney’s stature? Then again, could these gaffes make the other Republican candidates -- Mitt Romney, for example -- look like experts by comparison? Romney is just a former one-term governor with little to no foreign-policy experience. Yet compared to Cain, he looks like George C. Marshall. What will ultimately matter to the GOP and its brand is if the eventual nominee continues to make these mistakes and gaffes. Up until then, however, the late-night comedians are enjoying every bit of this…

*** Newt’s $1 million-plus from Freddie Mac: Just as Newt Gingrich is enjoying his rise in the polls comes this story that exposes his chief vulnerability in this current political environment: He’s a Washington insider. “Newt Gingrich made between $1.6 million and $1.8 million in consulting fees from two contracts with mortgage company Freddie Mac, according to two people familiar with the arrangement,” Bloomberg News reports. “The total amount is significantly larger than the $300,000 payment from Freddie Mac that Gingrich was asked about during a Republican presidential debate on Nov. 9... Gingrich’s first contract with the mortgage lender was in 1999, five months after he resigned from Congress and as House speaker, according to a Freddie Mac press release.” Voters may forgive personal foibles, but what about problems that cut to the core of what angers voters? Not so much. Gingrich has some real explaining to do on this.

*** Perry’s pretty good week: Yesterday in Iowa, Perry delivered this line that differentiated himself with the others in the GOP presidential field: “We need a new builder. We need a Washington outsider,” he said, per NBC’s Morgan Parmet. “I'm unique in this Republican field, I have never been an establishment figure, have never served in Congress or part of an administration, and have never been a paid lobbyist. My career has been that of a Washington outsider.” In that one sentence, Perry dissed entire field: Romney (establishment), Newt/Bachmann/Santorum/Paul (Congress), Cain (lobbyist) and even Huntsman (part of administrations). It’s worth noting this, but ever since Perry’s “oops” moment, he’s had a pretty good week. First there was the way in which he tried to clean up (and joke about) his brain freeze at last Wednesday’s debate. And then yesterday came his speech on reforming Washington. The question is whether Republicans -- especially those in Iowa -- give him another look.

*** The pre-Watergate bags of cash are back: The news that a Super PAC supporting Jon Huntsman -- which Huntsman’s wealthy father is reportedly helping to finance -- is airing a TV ad in New Hampshire is a reminder how one rich friend can go around the campaign-finance limits to benefit a candidate. Just look at all the Super PACs out there. A pro-Rick Perry one is run by his former chief of staff. A pro-Romney one is led by top aides from his ’08 campaign. And one supporting President Obama is run by his former deputy press secretary. And we haven't even delved into the Super PACs popping up for Senate and House races (remember Howard Berman has one for him started by longtime supporters). And these entities can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. For all intents and purposes, the pre-Watergate bags of cash are now back. And it's happening right before our eyes.

*** Newt’s flip-flops: For those who might not have been paying attention to the presidential campaign six or seven months ago (perhaps the GOP voters who now say they prefer Newt Gingrich as their nominee), it’s worth pointing out that he’s made a series of flip-flops that will make it VERY difficult for him to someone use that issue against Romney. For instance: On the individual mandate: On “Meet the Press” back in May, Gingrich said, “I agree that all of us have a responsibility to help pay for health care.” Yet, dealing with the backlash of that, he called “fundamentally wrong” and “unconstitutional." On Libya: On March 7, when President Obama seemed reticent to call for a no-fly zone, Gingrich said one should be established “this evening.” But two weeks later, on March 23, on TODAY, four days after the U.S. and allies struck Libya, Gingrich said, "I would not have intervened.”

NBC's Chuck Todd talks to TODAY's Ann Curry about Newt Gingrich's rise in the GOP presidential polls.

*** And another: And on Paul Ryan’s plan: On “Meet the Press,” Gingrich called it “right-wing social engineering.” He flopped by apologizing to Ryan: “I made a mistake,” he said, adding, “The fact is that I have supported what Ryan has tried to do on the budget.” But then, with little fanfare, he apparently flipped again at his Nov. 6 “debate” with Herman Cain, when he said, “I do not favor a mandatory premium support model.” For more, New York magazine has a host of others from Gingrich over the years.

*** On the 2012 trail: With less than seven weeks before the Iowa caucuses, most of the campaign activity remains in the Hawkeye State: Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum stump throughout Iowa… Elsewhere, Romney attends a fundraiser in Atlanta, GA… Huntsman holds a town hall in New Hampshire… Paul has two events in DC (at the Cato Institute and on Capitol Hill)… And Cain attends two rallies in Florida.

*** Obama’s announcement in Australia: The announcement in Australia that the U.S. will have a regular presence of some 2,500 troops is yet another sign of how the theme of this Asia-Pacific trip is all about stepping up U.S. efforts to be a counterweight to China in the region. It’s been evident on the economic front (see the push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership which specifically does NOT include China), as well as the decision to station troops in Australia to help counter the concerns over China's increased military presence in the region, particularly in the South China Sea. And as political consultants know, sounding tough on China is good politics at home.

*** Obama to New Hampshire: And speaking of Obama, the White House announced yesterday that he will travel to Manchester, NH next week to discuss his jobs plan. There’s a reason why he’s heading to the Granite State: A Bloomberg poll shows the president trailing Romney there by 10 points in a hypothetical match-up, and it’s the only state that John Kerry won in ’04 that’s in the Lean Republican category, according to our NBC Battleground map. Of course, there’s a reason why Kerry won it – and why Romney is doing so well there: its proximity to Romney’s and Kerry’s Massachusetts.

*** Wednesday’s “Daily Rundown” line-up (with guest host Chris Cillizza): Former Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and John Sununu (R-NH) on what to expect from the Super Committee… One of us (!!!) from Australia with more on the president’s trip… Latest on the shots fired at the White House and the Occupy Wall Street movement returning to Zuccotti Park… Daily Beast/CNBC’s Fast Money Contributor Zachary Karabell on how the latest economic developments in Italy and Greece could impact the U.S… Plus more 2012 news with the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus, pollster Fred Yang, and author Jeff Greenfield.

*** Wednesday’s “Jansing & Co.” line-up: MSNBC’s Chris Jansing interviews Rep. Emanuel Cleaver and the New York Times’ Nick Kristof.

*** Wednesday’s “MSNBC Live with Thomas Roberts” line-up: MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts interviews DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Delaware AG Beau Biden, and the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne.

*** Wednesday’s “NOW with Alex Wagner” line-up: MSNBC’s Alex Wagner has a panel including Wes Moore, Jedediah Bila, Harold Ford Jr., and Alicia Menendez.

*** Wednesday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell interviews Dem Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, Stu Rothenberg and Jonathan Alter, and former Dem Rep. Patrick Murphy.

*** Wednesday’s “News Nation with Tamron Hall” line-up: MSNBC’s Tamron Hall interviews The Hill’s A.B. Stoddard, Michelle Bernard, and Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons.

Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 48 days
Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 55 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 66 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 76 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 80 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 111 days
Countdown to Election Day: 356 days

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