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First Thoughts: Here come the attacks on Romney

Here come the attacks on Romney… McCain’s revealing answer on Arizona and if it’s in play in the general election… Perry’s decision to stay in the race helps Romney… Obama’s recess appointments -- a fight he wants to have with Congress… Santorum raises $1 million after Iowa… Don’t forget about the pro-Santorum Super PAC… Update on the ad spending in NH, SC, and FL… And lots of campaigning in the Granite State today.

*** Here come the attacks on Romney: Unlike past presidential-primary front-runners, Mitt Romney has enjoyed this advantage over the past year: His GOP rivals have largely attacked each other, and have left him alone. Just last week in the lead up to Iowa, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann were blasting Rick Santorum; Perry also went after Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Santorum for their previous service in Congress; and Jon Huntsman hit Paul over those racially charged newsletters -- all leaving Romney unscathed. (The equivalent would be, in late 2007, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd all beating up each other instead of Hillary Clinton, which never happened.) But after Romney’s narrow win in Iowa, and now that Gingrich is looking for revenge, Romney has now become the target of attacks for the first time this campaign season. In fact, the Gingrich camp is now up with this TV ad hitting Romney in New Hampshire and South Carolina. The question becomes: How does Romney handle it?

*** McCain’s revealing answer on Arizona and immigration: Yesterday, one of us interviewed John McCain after he endorsed Romney at an event in New Hampshire. Toward the end of the interview, we asked McCain this question: Is Arizona in play in the general election? And his reaction was especially telling. He paused for a few moments and replied, “I think that if not this election cycle, the demographics are that Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, even Texas will all be in play.” McCain, who was once a principal architect of comprehensive immigration reform but who no longer supports it until the border is secured, added: “We have to fix our problems with the Hispanics.” Where does it start? “It starts with a way to address the issue of immigration in a humane and caring fashion -- at the same time emphasize the need to secure our borders.”

*** Perry’s decision helps Romney: Make no mistake: Rick Perry’s decision to stay in the presidential contest and campaign in South Carolina -- despite his fifth-place finish in Iowa (where he spent more than $4 million on TV ads) -- greatly helps Romney’s campaign. Why? Because it potentially splits up the conservative/Tea Party/evangelical vote. If both Bachmann and Perry had bowed out, that vote would probably go to either Santorum or Gingrich. In addition, it's -- shall we say -- interesting that Perry's decision surprised many of his own staff. Why the change of heart? Did Bachmann's withdrawal do it?

*** The fight Obama wants: As far as President Obama’s recess appointments yesterday, it is absolutely clear that he and his team want a fight with Congress -- and any legal challenge that comes with it. And they've made it clear if they don't currently HAVE a dispute with Congress, they are happy to pick a fight. And this fight, over the Consumer Protection board, has the added benefit of creating an "us vs. them" middle class narrative. After Obama made his recess appointment of Richard Cordray official, the Romney campaign fired off this press release: “This action represents Chicago-style politics at its worst and is precisely what then-Senator Obama claimed would be ‘the wrong thing to do.’ Sadly, instead of focusing on economic growth, he is once again focusing on creating more regulation, more government, and more Washington gridlock.” But the Obama campaign fired back with this: “By opposing the appointment of Richard Cordray to run the first-ever consumer watchdog bureau, Mitt Romney today stood with predatory lenders and Republicans in Congress over the middle class.”  By the way, given the speed of the Obama campaign response, it's another sign that the Obama campaign is already focusing on the person they believe will be their general election opponent.

*** Santorum raises $1 million after Iowa: Turning back to the GOP presidential contest, Santorum has raised $1 million since his narrow second-place finish in Iowa, a campaign staffer confirmed to NBC’s Andrew Rafferty last night. Can they keep it up?

*** Don’t forget about the pro-Santorum Super PAC: While the pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future has received much attention -- and deservedly so -- for the impact that it played in Iowa, it’s worth pointing out the role that the pro-Santorum Red, White, and Blue Fund had as well. Although Santorum spent a mere $23,000 in advertising in the Hawkeye State, the Red, White, and Blue Fund spent $530,000 there. That’s not a small chunk of change. And organizers say it’s planning to start advertising in South Carolina. Meanwhile, NBC’s Michael Isikoff reports that the conservative investor Foster Freiss, is one of the principal backers of this pro-Santorum Super PAC. He declined to give precise figures on how much he has donated (“I don't dare let my wife know that," he joked), but said he wouldn’t object to a report that he was the major financial backer of the political action committee.

*** Update on the ad spending: By the way, here’s where things currently stand in the early-state advertising battle:
New Hampshire
: Our Destiny PAC (pro-Huntsman) $1.8 million, Paul $1.5 million, Romney $1 million, Perry $234,000, Santorum $30,000.
South Carolina
: Make Us Great Again $1.8 million, Romney $555,000, Perry $220,000, Paul $219,000, Restore Our Future $147,000, Santorum $12,000
: Romney $823,000, Restore Our Future $790,000

*** On the trail: With five days to go until the New Hampshire primary, most of the action is in the Granite State: Santorum has events in Manchester, Northfield, Tilton, and Windham… Gingrich hits Plymouth, Littleton, Lancaster, and Meredith… Huntsman is in Hampton, Durham, Portsmouth, and Newport… And Romney begins his day in Salem before heading to Charleston, SC, where he holds an event with Gov. Nikki Haley and brand-new endorser John McCain.

*** DNC hits Romney: And with McCain once again stumping with Romney, the DNC has a new web video cataloging all of the instances from the 2008 when McCain criticized Romney for being a flip-flopper. The video asks, “Which Mitt is he endorsing?

Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 5 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 16 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 26 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 30 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 61 days
Countdown to Election Day: 306 days

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