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First Thoughts: Can't buy me love

Can’t buy me love: Not a lot of love for GOP candidates, especially Romney, at GOP focus group in Fairfax, VA… Another focus group finding: a Teflon Newt, though some of the negative comments about him packed a punch… Unemployment rate drops from 9.0% to 8.6%, with employers adding 120,000 net jobs in November  ... Gingrich’s response on child labor is Classic Newt… Two ways to look at Romney’s meeting with Bush 41 yesterday… Romney, Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry, and Paul to attend Huckabee forum on Saturday… And “Meet the Press” to interview David Axelrod and Reince Priebus.

NBC/Wall Street Journal pollster Peter Hart conducted a focus group among Virginia voters in which Romney was called the "dad who was never home" and Gingrich was called the "friendly uncle."

FAIRFAX, VA -- Most of the 12 Republican primary voters who gathered here to participate in a focus group that NBC/WSJ pollster Peter Hart (D) conducted for the Annenberg Public Policy Center believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. They’re not hopeful about the future. And they don’t like President Obama’s leadership. But they didn’t exactly love the GOP candidates. That was especially true of Mitt Romney. When asked who Romney would be if he were a member of their family, they answered, "black sheep," "fun neighbor," "cousin," "second cousin," "dad that was never home." By comparison, the responses for Newt Gingrich were "grandfather," "father," "my favorite uncle," and "uncle who keeps bringing home different wives." When asked who they would like to serve as their character witness if they were in trouble, just one Republican mentioned Romney. And when Hart pressed them to further talk about Romney if he becomes president, one person described him as a "placeholder." Another called him a "safe bet."

*** Concerns and strengths about Romney: More than anything else, this focus group helped explain WHY Romney hasn’t broken through with GOP primary voters, at least not yet. Polls are great for finding out WHERE a candidate stands, but they do not always help tell the story of WHY a candidate is winning/losing etc. That's not to say the respondents didn't have kind words for him. Asked to list his strengths, they responded, "moral character," "strong leader," "rolls up his sleeves," "role model." (It was interesting that businessman wasn't the first words out of their mouths.) But here were their concerns about him: "not strong enough," "RINO [Republican in Name Only]" "wishy-washy," and "RomneyCare." And here were other words they associated with him: “vanilla,” and “manufactured.” In a roundtable with reporters after the focus group, Hart observed that there was “no warmth, no connection” with Romney. Yet Hart cautioned that -- a la Nixon in 1968 -- he could still end up as president. “No passion, but smart, competent enough to be president, good family values, steady.”

*** A Teflon Newt? Meanwhile, Gingrich did surprisingly well with this GOP focus group. "I was surprised how well Newt Gingrich wore throughout the night," Hart observed. For instance, Hart handed out a paper containing oppo on all the Republican candidates. Only two of the 12 had concerns about the $1.6 million Gingrich made from Freddie Mac; just one was concerned about his immigration views; four had concerns about his three marriages; and six had concerns about his flip-flops on Libya, climate change, and Paul Ryan's budget plan. By contrast, NINE had problems with Mitt Romney's Massachusetts health-care law, and seven had concerns about his flip-flops on abortion, global warming, and taxes. (Strikingly, none of them had concerns about Romney's Mormon faith or his Bain Capital layoffs.) When asked to list Gingrich's strengths, they responded, "proven track record," "knows how the system works," "negotiator," "doer," and "good with foreign policy."

*** But “careless and combustible”: But while Gingrich had the most passion in the room and while his oppo negatives weren’t as high as some of Romney’s, members of the focus group said a few negative things about him that contained plenty of punch. His negatives: "morals," "marriages." Another called him “careless and combustible,” and another said of him “same ole ballgame.” One female focus-group member -- the same who called him “careless and combustible” -- said she would probably vote for Obama if Gingrich were the GOP nominee simply over the personal stuff. In a head-to-head match-up between Romney and Gingrich, seven picked Gingrich and five picked Romney. And when you had all eight GOP candidates, three sided with Newt, three picked Romney, and Bachmann, Huntsman, Paul, Perry, and Cain got one each. (One person was undecided.)

*** Other quick points from the focus group: Speaking of Cain, the focus group wasn't fond of him. Words to describe him: "trouble," "has no chance," "damaged," "unelectable." Among the favorable comments: "Outside the Beltway." Also, none of the respondents said GOP congressional leaders had lived up to expectations. What’s more, about half of the respondents said they could change their minds about their GOP preference (as Hart recalls, Fred Thompson was the star of a two-hour GOP focus group in Richmond, VA four years ago). Lastly, the focus group members were informed and knowledgeable about the Republican race. Some of them relished the opportunity of Gingrich debating Obama in a general election. They knew about Cain’s Libya flub, as well as the female allegations against him. And one respondent referred to Rick Perry as a “piss-poor debater.” As Hart later emailed First Read, “This may be a situation where debates with lots of candidates seem like a mess, but these people formed many of their opinions from the debates.”

Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain meets with his wife for the first time since a woman came forward claiming she had a 13-year extramarital affair with him. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** Unemployment rates drops to 8.6%: More green shoots of good economic news. The AP reports, “The unemployment rate fell last month to its lowest level in more than two and a half years, as employers stepped up hiring in response to the slowly improving economy… Employers added 120,000 jobs last month. And the previous two months were revised up to show that 72,000 more jobs added – the fourth straight month the government revised prior months higher. Still, one reason the unemployment rate fell so much was because roughly 315,000 people gave up looking for work and were no longer counted as unemployed.”

*** Classic Newt: Turning back to the GOP presidential race, Gingrich comments about the need for poor children in poor neighborhoods to work was Classic Newt. He raised an important point (work ethic in poor neighborhoods, but his rhetoric might have gone a little too far. “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits for working and have nobody around them who works,” he said in Iowa yesterday, per NBC’s Alex Moe. “So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday.” A broad generalization that, to the ears of many, comes across as uninformed about poor communities and a little condescending and dismissive of those in poor neighborhoods who work 12-15 hours and don’t know how to get ahead. Again, it’s Newt: The center is an idea everyone agrees with (get kids in troubled neighborhoods an opportunity to get ahead), but then how he gets to that idea assumes a stereotype that is offensive to some.

*** Two ways to look at Romney’s meeting with Bush 41 yesterday: Also yesterday, Mitt Romney met with George H.W. Bush during a fundraising swing through Texas, and Romney had his picture taken with the former president. There are two ways you could interpret the meeting. One, it helped Romney look presidential and like the inevitable nominee. Or two, he sat down with the last Republican president who wasn’t embraced by his base and who ended up raising taxes.

*** On the 2012 trail: Cain holds a town hall in South Carolina before heading home to Georgia to talk face to face with his wife… Bachmann’s also in South Carolina… And Paul and Santorum stump in New Hampshire... Also, on Saturday, FOX’s Mike Huckabee hosts a forum with some of the candidates. The confirmed participants, per NBC News: Romney, Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry, and Paul.

*** Friday’s “Daily Rundown” line-up: Reaction to the new job numbers with Moody’s Chief Economist Mark Zandi and President Obama’s CEA Chairman Alan Krueger… Rep. Jason Altmire (D-PA) on the fight over a payroll tax cut, the economy, and his bet with one of us (!!!) over last month’s Florida State/Miami football game… Pollster Peter Hart and another one of us (!!!) on what we learned in a Republican focus group in Virginia last night… Plus more 2012 news with the AP’s Liz Sidoti, the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus and msnbc’s Michelle Bernard.

*** Friday’s “Jansing & Co.” line-up: MSNBC’s Chris Jansing interviews Nate Silver (to talk about 2012), economist Diane Swonk (on the jobs numbers), and former Gov. Ed Rendell (on 2012).

*** Friday’s “MSNBC Live with Thomas Roberts” line-up: MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts has live coverage of President Obama and Bill Clinton’s joint energy announcement. Also, Thomas interviews Bernstein, Politico’s John Harris, and Dem Rep. Charles Gonzales.

*** Friday’s “NOW with Alex Wagner” line-up: Alex Wagner’s guests include former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, Wes Moore, Imogen Lloyd Webber, and the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein.

*** Friday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell interviews Stephanie Cutter in her first interview in her new role as Obama Deputy Campaign Manager since leaving the White House two weeks ago; MSNBC’s Rev. Al Sharpton; Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and CNBC’s Larry Kudlow on the jobs report,;Salon.com’s Justin Elliott on Occupy Wall Street; New York Times Magazine’s Robert Draper on his Romney profile; and Chris Cillizza with the Daily Fix & Worst Week in Washington.

*** Friday’s “News Nation with Tamron Hall”: MSNBC’s Tamron Hall interviews GOP pollster David Winston, the Washington Post’s Anne Kornblut, Democratic strategist Keith Boykin, Gen. Barry McCaffrey on Iraq withdrawal, and Danie Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

*** Saturday’s (and Sunday’s) “UP with Chris Hayes” line-up: The guests include Dem Rep. Jerry Nadler, former Biden economic adviser Jared Bernstein, and former Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services head Don Berwick.

*** Saturday’s (and Sunday’s) “Weekends with Alex Witt” line-up: MSNBC’s Alex Witt conducts her “Office Politics” interview with Mort Zuckerman.

*** Sunday’s “Meet the Press” line-up: NBC’s David Gregory interviews Obama political adviser David Axelrod, as well as RNC Chairman Reince Priebus. For the program’s weekly “PRESS Pass” feature, Gregory interviewed Politico’s Mike Allen about his new book about the 2012 campaign.

Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 32 days
Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 39 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 50 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 60 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 64 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 95 days
Countdown to Election Day: 342 days

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