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First Thoughts: Obama signals re-elect message with State of the Union

Obama, like Reagan, Clinton, and Bush, signals his re-election message in State of the Union … He struck an optimistic, populist tone and took credit for accomplishments, but also drew a line in the sand with Republicans. … This Obama was changed from the one who came into office with lofty goals. … What does it say when your top-two potential opponents start with praise of your speech? … Pro-Gingrich Super PAC going up with $6 million ad buy in Florida, insures a renewed focus on health care for Romney … The latest ad spending … And Obama takes his message on the road to five battleground states in three days.

*** Obama signals re-elect message with State of the Union: While Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are locked in a battle that could drag out a while, President Obama last night in his State of the Union address signaled what he’ll run on this year, and he’s going to take that message on the road with stops in five battleground states over the next three days. Last night’s speech, focused on economic fairness with the president trying to sound like an optimistic populist. He delivered the speech with the confidence of a president who, in his most complete way yet, took credit for what he believes are his best accomplishments -- killing Osama bin Laden, ending the war in Iraq, the auto industry’s turnaround, private-sector job growth (especially in manufacturing), cutting the deficit by more than $2 trillion, and new rules for Wall Street. The speech parallels Reagan in 1984, Bush in 2004, and Clinton in 1996 -- it was less about an agenda for Congress and more about the case for what he accomplished and the beginnings of a theme of why he deserves more time.

President Obama used this election-year State of the Union address to talk about the future and list what he believes are his best accomplishments. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** The fighter: He also delivered a forceful and combative warning Republicans not to stand in his way. “I intend to fight obstruction with action,” he said, “and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.” And though this wasn’t a campaign speech, per se, he seemed to be responding to quite a few things from the GOP presidential race with talk of “envy,” the auto industry, Iran and Israel (he ad-libbed talking about Israel’s security, adding “and I mean iron clad” for pointed emphasis), his nationalistic tone (he said “America” or “American(s)” 88 times last night), and his proposal for a 30% minimum tax on millionaires, the so-called Buffett Rule. “You can call this class warfare all you want,” Obama said. “But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.” That tone is sure to please his base, which has always wanted to see more of a fighter. Obama made it clear he would run against inaction in Congress (and inertia in Washington) if it couldn’t get done some of the wide range of smaller proposals he offered. His challenge was could he sound sunny AND populist -- and he did.

Vote: What did you think of the president's speech?

*** A changed Obama: This Barack Obama, delivering what would be his last State of the Union if he’s not reelected, was different than the one who came into office. He didn’t ask for grandiose things to be accomplished from Congress. In fact, when he called for a comprehensive immigration policy in the speech last night, he said, “But if election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let's at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, and defend this country.” This Obama realizes big things are not likely to happen without huge majorities -- and significant political risk. Don’t bite off more than you can chew or what will come back to bite you. It’s a page from the Clinton playbook. And considering there are a lot of Clinton people in the White House these days who had significant say over this speech (Gene Sperling and Jack Lew, for instance), maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that it had that Clinton small-ball midnight basketball feel.

*** Romney, Gingrich react: Both Mitt Romney (interviewed by NBC’s Brian Williams in post-debate coverage last night) and Newt Gingrich (on NBC’s TODAY this morning) started out their responses to the president’s speech praising his rhetoric before criticizing Obama. Romney even said the president was sounding themes he’s been striking on the campaign trail, but that “he seems to think the country is on the right track and things are going well,” something Romney called “foreign” to people in Florida.” Gingrich said he liked Obama’s “rhetoric,” but the “gap between President Obama’s rhetoric and his deeds” was "astounding." If you’re in the White House, you know the president’s speech probably went over pretty well when your two chief opponents -- before they get to criticism -- start with a little bit of praise. By the way, a new Florida poll out from Quinnipiac shows Romney up two points – 36%-34% over Gingrich (but part of it was conducted BEFORE South Carolina. Gingrich is up six, 40%-34% AFTER Saturday.) Folks, fasten your Florida seatbelts (it’s mandatory in the state anyway).

TODAY's Ann Curry speaks with GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich about his candidacy and President Obama's State of the Union address.

*** Pro-Gingrich Super PAC tries to put away Florida, with renewed focus on health care: A Super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich, Winning Our Future, is going up in Florida with a $6 million ad buy, one day after the wife of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, Miriam Adelson, penned a $5 million check to the group. The new ad being put into the rotation is a hard-hitting one focused on Romney’s health-care plan and him saying he’s a “progressive.” The focus on health care is a shift away from Romney’s time at Bain. Romney really hasn’t taken sustained hits on health care, and it’ll be interesting to see what life is like for him a week later. The ad also likely guarantees health care as a topic at tomorrow night’s debate. The most devastating line of the ad might be -- “the inventor of government-run health care.” Meanwhile, Gingrich is using Republican-turned-independent Charlie Crist against him this week, noting that some of Crist’s ex-REPUBLICAN consultants are now strategists for Romney (the most notable is Stuart Stevens). Interestingly, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), still neutral in the primary, was quick to jump to Romney’s defense, which probably took the Gingrich folks a bit by surprise. Incredibly, even with this buy, Romney and his allies are spending more than DOUBLE what Gingrich and his supporters are.

Here’s an update on spending in Florida, according to NBC/Smart Media Group Delta, with a bunch of changes yesterday, including another Super PAC entering the fray:

- Restore Our Future (pro-Romney Super PAC): $8.7 million
- Romney: $5.7 million
- Wining Our Future (pro-Gingrich Super PAC): $1.8 million (this is the confirmed ad buy so far with likely more to come)
- AFSCME $931,000
- Super PAC USA $245,000 (running anti-Romney ads)
- Gingrich $145,000

*** Wanna be startin’ something: Today, the president hits the road to sell his agenda with stops in five states in three days. At 1:00 pm ET, he speaks in Cedar Rapids, IA, then by 5:35 pm ET, he speaks in Phoenix, AZ, before heading to Las Vegas, where he spends the night. On Thursday, he speaks in Las Vegas before jetting to the Denver suburb of Aurora, CO, in Araphoe County, a key swing county. (Obama won it with 55%, Bush won it twice with 51%). President Obama then heads to Michigan, where he’ll spend the night before speaking in Ann Arbor Friday. When he gets back to the DC area Friday, he’ll immediately head to the Democratic retreat in Maryland. It’s not an official campaign swing, but it looks an awful lot like one.

***On the trail: All candidates -- with one exception -- campaign in Florida, per NBC’s Adam Perez. Santorum rallies in Naples ... Gingrich attends the US Hispanic Chamber/Univision Candidate Forum in Doral, then stumps in Miami, Coral Spring and Cocoa … Romney visits Orlando and Miami… And Paul is (again) off the campaign trail.

Countdown to Florida primary: 6 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 10 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 41 days
Countdown to Election Day: 286 days

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