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First Thoughts: Romney vs. Gingrich

Romney hits Gingrich in interview… And he also gets snippy/testy, which could explain why he’s the favorite but still not the front-runner… Bottom line: Romney has a difficult time reconciling his past positions with where the GOP is today… Obama heads to Scranton, PA (Dwight Schrute country) to deliver speech at 2:45 pm ET… Cain’s death spiral… And Newt’s non-lobbying and his past paid speeches.

*** Romney vs. Gingrich: Five weeks out before the Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney yesterday took a shot at the GOP candidate who has been rising in the polls: Newt Gingrich. It’s the latest sign that the Republican presidential contest might actually be turning into a two-man race (though we also remember what happened back in September when it was a two-person contest between Romney and Rick Perry). “Speaker Gingrich is a good man. He and I have very different backgrounds,” Romney said in an interview with FOX’s Bret Baier yesterday. “He spent his last 30 or 40 years in Washington. I spent mine in the private sector.” Translation: Gingrich is a Washington insider and Romney is not. The former Massachusetts governor also said in the interview that Gingrich’s immigration views -- allowing illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States for 20-plus years to gain permanent residency -- amounted to “amnesty.” This was after Gingrich said that calling his immigration stance “amnesty” is an “Obama-level quality statement.” And Gingrich added that anyone who called his stance amnesty should not be a candidate for president. Folks, this could get testy.

*** Getting snippy with it: Yet perhaps the most revealing part of Romney’s FOX interview was his tone, especially when he was challenged on flip-flopping on key issues or on his Massachusetts health-care law. The New York Times called his responses “snippy,” while the Miami Herald said he was “icily peevish.” When FOX’s Baier noted that Romney had changed his positions on climate change, abortion, immigration, and gay rights, the GOP candidate responded, “Your list is just not accurate. One, we’re going to have to be better informed about my views on issues.” And when Baier asked him about Massachusetts’ health-care mandate, Romney replied, “Bret, I don't know many hundred times I've said this, too. This is an unusual interview. All right, let's do it again,” he said sarcastically before adding: “Absolutely what we did for Massachusetts was right for Massachusetts.”

*** Explaining why Romney is the favorite but still not the front-runner: If you want to understand why Mitt Romney is the favorite to win the GOP presidential race but is not the front-runner, just watch the interview. That’s why he hasn’t put this contest away, at least not yet. He is having a very difficult time dealing with how some of his previous positions -- like on health care -- that are inconsistent with where the Republican Party is today. Also, we now know why he has been avoiding these kind of one-on-one interviews. And given how yesterday went, we’re guessing securing one-on-one interviews with Romney on Sunday shows or with national reporters is going to get harder before it gets easier?

*** Disciplined vs. over-disciplined: Here’s one more point about the FOX interview: Mitt Romney's biggest improvement from his presidential bid four years ago has been his discipline -- he's going to talk about the economy and President Obama, and stick to those topics. In fact, his discipline is what has separated him from Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry. But is there a point when a candidate becomes over-disciplined? Indeed, nearly every time Romney has been challenged on a topic other than the economy and President Obama (like his own record or debate protocol), it appears to get under his skin. But if there’s anything we’ve learned about the U.S. presidency over the past 10 years, it’s that a president often doesn’t get to focus on the issues he wants to. Just when you’re planning to push for immigration reform, an event like 9/11 happens. Or when you want to talk about the economy, there’s a major oil spill in the Gulf Coast.

*** Getting snippy with it, Part 2: But Romney’s FOX interview wasn’t his only testy moment of the day. After reporters following him in Florida tried to ask him several questions, Romney responded: "Guys we have press avails and press conferences almost every day, and that's when I answer the questions. When I'm meeting people it’s not a good time to answer questions that are important. They're important and they require good attention and a thorough answer." But as NBC’s Garrett Haake points out, Romney doesn’t hold press avails and press conferences “almost every day.” In fact, he has held just six avails in the past two months (Oct. 11 in Lebanon, NH; Oct. 22 in Manchester, NH; Oct. 26 in Fairfax, VA; Nov. 11 in Mauldin, SC; Nov. 19 in Nashua, NH; and Nov. 23 in Des Moines, IA).

Here's an earlier look at Romney's temperment through this campaign:

NBC's Domenico Montanaro reports on Mitt Romney's flashes of testiness. That side of him may have come through at last week's debate, but it's familiar to those who've covered him on the campaign trail.

*** Obama visits Dwight Schrute country: At 2:45 pm ET, President Obama delivers remarks from Scranton, PA, where he will push Congress to extend the federal payroll-tax cut. Interestingly, Obama’s push on the payroll-tax cut comes as Republicans have indicated en masse yesterday that they’re in favor of extending the tax break. The big question, of course, is how to pay for it. Tied to Obama’s trip to Scranton, the Republican National Committee is up with a web ad that hits the president by using his own words from a 2008 trip to the Pennsylvania city. And a Romney spokesman has fired off this statement: “President Obama told Pennsylvanians they would be better off under his leadership, and they will hold him accountable for his failed economic record.”  As for the GOP idea to “pay for,” the Wall Street Journal is reporting today that a few ideas being talked about include raising some airport fees or selling more spectrum.

*** Cain’s death spiral: By now, you know that Herman Cain’s presidential campaign is in a death spiral, especially after Cain admitted to his senior aides that he is “reassessing” the state of the campaign. But here’s a question we have: What does Cain have to gain by getting out of the GOP presidential race? A future political career? A vice-presidential nomination? You could make the case that by staying in the race – and having some positive debate performances down the stretch – Cain could return to the candidate he was back in August (that is, someone who’s on the stage, who can deliver some memorable lines and is likeable, but who isn’t a threat to win in Iowa or anywhere else).

*** Newt’s non-lobbying and his paid speeches: The New York Times is up with a front-page story that only buttresses Romney’s contention that Newt Gingrich is a Washington insider. “Newt Gingrich is adamant that he is not a lobbyist, but rather a visionary who traffics in ideas, not influence. But in the eight years since he started his health care consultancy, he has made millions of dollars while helping companies promote their services and gain access to state and federal officials. In a variety of instances, documents and interviews show, Mr. Gingrich arranged meetings between executives and officials, and salted his presentations to lawmakers with pitches for his clients, who pay as much as $200,000 a year to belong to his Center for Health Transformation.” And don’t miss Newt’s explanation why he wasn’t a registered lobbyist – because he made so money already giving paid speeches. “I did no lobbying of any kind — period,’’ Gingrich said yesterday, per the AP. “I’m going to be really direct, OK? I was charging $60,000 a speech. And the number of speeches was going up, not down. Normally, celebrities leave and they gradually sell fewer speeches every year. We were selling more.’’ Wow. Gingrich referred to himself as a celebrity? What would the McCain ad team had done with that line in 2008?

*** On the 2012 trail: Perry and Huntsman are in New Hampshire… Newt Gingrich remains in South Carolina… Bachmann campaigns in Iowa… And Herman Cain holds rallies in Ohio.

*** Wednesday’s “Daily Rundown” line-up: Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS) from the RGA meeting in Orlando… White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on the payroll tax cut fight… The latest on the British embassy being stormed in Tehran with NBC’s Ali Arouzi and Secretary Clinton’s trip to Myanmar with NBC’s Kristen Welker… More on GOP 2012 with the New York Times’ Helene Cooper, National Journal’s Reid Wilson, and former Obama White House Deputy Communications Director Jen Psaki.

*** Wednesday’s “Jansing & Co.” line-up: MSNBC’s Chris Jansing interviews Politico’s Ben White, New York Times’ Charles Blow, Steve Forbes, and Dem Rep. Loretta Sanchez.

*** Wednesday’s “MSNBC Live with Thomas Roberts” line-up: MSNBC’S Thomas Roberts interviews Politico’s Jim Vandehei on Herman Cain’s Campaign, as well as former RNC Chair Michael Steele and  former  Gov. Ed Rendell.

*** Wednesday’s “NOW with Alex Wagner” line-up: Alex Wagner’s guests include The Nation’s Ari Melber, Politico’s Ben Smith, Comcast DC Bureau Chief Robert Traynham, and The Grio’s Joy-Ann Reid.

*** Wednesday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell interviews Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D) and Paul Ryan (R), the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, Politico’s Mike Allen, and NBC’s Stephanie Gosk.

*** Wednesday’s “News Nation with Tamron Hall”: MSNBC’s Tamron Hall interviews Phil Musser, Peter Mirijanian, and Michael Smerconish, as well as the Wall Street Journal’s Brody Mullins.

Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 34 days
Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 41 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 52 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 62 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 66 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 97 days
Countdown to Election Day: 344 days

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