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First Thoughts: Best of times (and worst of times) for Romney

NBC's David Gregory talks to TODAY's Matt Lauer about whether fierce attacks on Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney will backfire against his rivals or stop what seems to be Romney's inevitable march to the nomination.

This week represented the best of times for Romney (at it relates to the primary) and also the worst of times (for the general election)… New Romney TV ad plays defense on Bain… Obama camp piles on Bain… Don’t forget: In the GOP primary four years ago, attacking Bain was fair game… Social conservatives to meet this weekend in Florida… Colbert’s presidential run (!!!)… Five pardoned by Barbour (including four murderers) can’t be found… Craig James admits to taking $$$ while at SMU… And Reid, Gingrich to appear on “Meet” this Sunday.

*** Best of times (and worst of times) for Romney: To paraphrase Dickens, this week represented the best of times for Mitt Romney. He decisively won the New Hampshire primary and heads into South Carolina and beyond full with momentum; he raised $24 million in the last quarter, demonstrating his fundraising chops; and even some of his skeptics inside the Republican Party realize that he most likely will be the GOP’s nominee. But when you begin mapping out November’s general election, this week also proved to be the worst of times for Romney. His GOP rivals’ attacks on Bain Capital -- and his response to them -- suggested that his chief strength (private-sector business experience) could be turned into a weakness; he committed unforced errors that played into the Gordon Gekko narrative (“I like being able to fire people,” “pink slips,” and “I think it’s about envy”); and NBC’s Michael Isikoff has reported that his top donors are bigwigs from private equity firms. Bottom line: Romney had a good week in the Republican primary and a bad week for the general election

*** New Romney ad plays defense on Bain: This morning, the Romney campaign is up with a new TV ad in South Carolina that defends his Bain record and criticizes his GOP rivals for attacking it. It’s the first defensive ad of the campaign from Team Romney “Mitt Romney helped create and ran a company that invested in struggling businesses, started new ones, and rebuilt old ones, creating thousands of jobs. Those are the facts,” the narrator states in the ad. “We expected the Obama administration to put free markets on trial, but as the Wall Street Journal said, ‘Mr. Romney’s GOP opponents are embarrassing themselves by taking the Obama line.’” As we noted yesterday, Romney is stuck in a tough place. Emotionally, the sad stories of the laid-off workers will strike a chord; the positive stories of Staples and Sports Authority will help blunt a little -- but logical or “head’ defenses are usually never as effective in campaigns when attacks pull at the heart. By the way, another company Romney highlights in this new TV ad is Steel Dynamics. It’s a company that was helped tremendously by government tax breaks and subsidies, not exactly popular among some inside the current Republican Party.

*** The Obama camp piles on Bain: And just as his GOP rivals began to back off their Bain attacks (see: Perry, Rick), the Obama re-election campaign is now piling on. This morning, campaign strategist Stephanie Cutter fired off this scathing memo about Romney’s past work at Bain, which also telegraphs how the Obama campaign plans to attack Romney on this front: "'Free enterprise' isn’t running for president, Mitt Romney is. And voters deserve straight answers about his record, so they can know how his perspective would influence his decisions and actions if he were president of the United States." More: "For instance, voters in South Carolina deserve to know about the millions Romney and his partners made off closing down the 114,000-square-foot Holson Burnes factory in Gaffney, where workers made photo albums and picture frames. Just four years after the factory opened, Bain fired 150 workers and shipped some of the operation overseas. According to the Associated Press, Bain more than doubled the return on the original investment while 'workers were left jobless just as the local economy began to slump.'"

*** Bain was fair game four years ago: In the last couple of days, we’ve seen an intra-party food fight over Bain. Limbaugh, DeMint, McCain, Giuliani, and Club for Growth have criticized the GOP attacks on Bain, while Sarah Palin has said that the scrutiny is fine with her. But here is something worth remembering: Bain Capital was fair game in the Republican primary four years ago. Back then, McCain said Romney “presided over the acquisition of companies that laid off thousands of workers." And here was Mike Huckabee: “I want to be a president who reminds you of the guy you work with, not the guy who laid you off.” And: “[T]here are a lot of people who lost their jobs when his company would take over, restructure a company, lay a lot of people off. Lot of times, the CEOs and the people at the top got some pretty huge bonuses and made a lot of money. A lot of people went home without a pension and a paycheck.” Yet McCain, Huckabee, and others were never criticized for being anti-capitalism. The difference this time around: Republicans obviously want the Bain critics to back because they realize: 1) Romney is the likely nominee, and 2) these attacks aren’t helping their party. 

*** Social conservatives meet in Texas: This weekend, social conservatives are meeting in Texas to see if they can rally around an alternative to Mitt Romney. But here is something they probably need to consider: If they are going to rally around someone else, they also have to take down the nominee. Why? If they don’t succeed, then they have probably alienated the person who will be the Republican nominee and the leader -- at least for several months -- of the political party they support.

*** Perry’s latest d’oh moment? Perry flubbed his three departments once again, NBC’s Carrie Dann reports. During a radio interview this morning, he was asked which federal departments he would shut down. Perry listed: "Three right off the bat: Commerce, Interior, and Energy are the three that you think of." Problem: Those are NOT the three he had previously not been able to name. He swapped Interior for Education. He has not previously said he would eliminate Interior. The radio host later followed up and asked Perry if he would eliminate Education, and Perry responded with a harsh critique of federal education standards. A Perry spokesman’s spin to reporters later: "Every agency is on the chopping block" and that all departments would be scrubbed and evaluated. "It shouldn't be surprising that the governor is talking about another agency that needs to be looked at and cut," spokesman Mark Miner said.

*** Colbert’s presidential run: For some campaign humor, comedian Stephen Colbert announced on his show last night that he would form an “exploratory committee for president of the United States of South Carolina,” the New York Times writes. However, as NBC’s Ali Weinberg notes, South Carolina doesn’t allow write-in ballots for president. And get this: The Colbert Super PAC -- Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow -- has placed a broadcast ad buy in the Palmetto State. You can’t make it up.

*** On the trail: It’s a relatively slow day for most candidates as they campaign throughout South Carolina and Florida: Gingrich hits the Sunshine State, campaigning in Miami and Orlando then jetting to Duncan, SC for a GOP presidential candidate forum, to which Huntsman and Santorum are also attending… Perry continues his trek throughout South Carolina rallying in Hilton Head, Bluffton, and Charleston… Romney visits Doral, FL and then travels back to South Carolina… And for the second day, Paul is a no-show on the campaign trail.

*** Five pardoned by Barbour can’t be found: The headlines for ex-Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour are getting worse. Here’s the latest from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger: “5 pardoned can’t be found.” From the story: “Four murderers and one robber that former Gov. Haley Barbour pardoned last week are likely to return to prison, but officials from the attorney general's office were still searching for them Thursday night. None of the five men, all of whom worked as trusties in the Governor's Mansion - David Gatlin, Charles Hooker, Anthony McCray, Joseph Ozment and Nathan Kern - met a crucial deadline required for receiving a pardon a week ago today. They are among 208 prisoners Barbour granted clemency days  before he left office on Tuesday. Barbour maintains he pardoned many who already had been released so that they could obtain employment.”  As we noted yesterday, Barbour’s considered a key cog in the Republican effort to build a national campaign to not just raise money for the presidential race (via American Crossroads) but also for the GOP’s campaign to hold the House and take back the Senate. If Barbour becomes politically radioactive, it’s potentially a BIG problem for the super-est of Super PACs: Crossroads.

*** Craig James admits to accepting money while at SMU: And don’t miss this: Texas Senate candidate Craig James -- the former college star and ESPN commentator -- admitted to accepting payments when he played at SMU, which ultimately received the NCAA’s death penalty. The Houston Chronicle writes, “[H]e concedes he did wrong as a football player at Southern Methodist University where he accepted illegal handouts from school boosters. The amount he accepted was ‘insignificant,’ declining to tell reporters how much he took during his playing days in the 1980s. He spoke cryptically of ‘$20 handshakes.’” More: “‘I didn’t have the maturity to turn it away,’ James said, adding he did ‘not really’ know that it was wrong at the time.” By the way, football players admitting to taking money in college is kinda like baseball players finally admitting they took performance-enhancing drugs. Everyone knows they did it even as they deny it. And when they finally admit it, it only stains the ENTIRE game. For James, this VERY late confession means he starts his campaign with a character issue.

*** Reid, Gingrich to appear on “Meet”: On “Meet the Press” this weekend, NBC’s David Gregory interviews Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Newt Gingrich, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, and South Carolina GOP Rep. Tim Scott. On Meet's weekly "PRESS pass," Gregory interviewed Suze Orman

Countdown to South Carolina primary: 8 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 18 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 22 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 53 days
Countdown to Election Day: 298 days

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