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First Thoughts: A turning point for Obama?

Are we seeing a turning point on the economy and for President Obama? … It’s a coin flip in Florida … The candidates debate one last time before voters go to the polls there – what to watch for … It’s Vegas, baby, Vegas for Obama, then off to Colorado – the importance of the West … A finger-wagging tense moment with President Obama and Tea Party favorite Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer … More than $20 million spent between Romney, Gingrich and friends … And to the moon!

*** A turning point for Obama? Six months of positive to semi-positive economic news is starting to have an impact with the American public, according to the latest NBC/WSJ poll. And that uptick is benefitting President Obama. This poll showed important one-year highs on the direction of the economy. By a 37%/17% margin people said it would better in a year vs. worse. That’s a seven-point jump in a month and a 16-point improvement from October. Right track, wrong direction is still just 30%/61%, but that right direction number’s an 8-point boost from a month ago, a 13-point bounce from October. And -- excluding the bin Laden bump in May -- the right track is the highest it’s been since February 2011.

*** Obama in positive territory for first time in six months: The president’s approval rating is at 48%/46%, the highest since June. There have been upticks like this before and the White House won’t be celebrating – remember, when there appeared to be “green shoots” in 2011 or 2010, something out of the president’s control -- whether it was the BP oil spill, the Greek debt crisis, or the Arab Spring -- derailed that optimism. But this poll does feel different. The positive economic data has been on a more consistent trend. By the way, how much is the president’s job approval benefiting from the economy or GOP race? The full poll, including a VERY deep dive inside the Republican race will be released tonight at 6:30 pm ET.

*** Anybody’s race in Florida: Five days until the voters go to the polls in the Sunshine State, the GOP presidential contest is very volatile. It’s a pure coin flip. Two polls out yesterday both showed Romney and Gingrich in a statistical dead heat, but with very different trends – one with Gingrich surging, the other with Romney on the rise. The bottom line is no one knows what’s going to happen, raising the stakes for tonight’s debate, the 19th of this cycle and the last one before this primary. We’ve seen a ton of late deciders in these early contests – 53% in South Carolina said they made up their minds in the last few days, 46% said so in both New Hampshire and Iowa. These debates have shaped this race as much as anything, and the big question is: who shows up -- “Good Newt” or “Bad Newt,” Aggressive or Passive Romney. Their approaches will tell us tonight where both campaigns think this race is headed. (Romney, by the way, got a boost in his electability argument with a Suffolk poll out this morning showing him beating Obama by five in Florida, but Gingrich losing by nine.)

NBC's Tom Brokaw talks about Rep. Nancy Pelosi's assertion earlier this week that Newt Gingrich will not be president, suggesting that she might have potentially harmful information about the Republican candidate for the White House.

*** Wild West: President Obama continues his whirlwind post-State of the Union tour with a speech at 10:00 am ET in Las Vegas, before heading to Colorado. Both are key to the president’s reelection hopes. With New Mexico, they could be his Western Firewall. Latinos, of course, are crucial -- they make up 27% of Nevada residents and 21% in Colorado. Obama will speak in Aurora, CO, which is in Arapahoe County, one of the pivotal swing counties in the country (it went for both Obama and Bush). By the way, how concerned should the White House be about the mediocre ratings for the State of the Union? Fewer than 40 million tuned in, down from a year ago.

*** Finger pointing: The president spoke in Arizona and had a tense exchange with Arizona firebrand Gov. Jan Brewer, a Tea Party favorite, at the airport yesterday where she met him. AP captured an image of the governor with her finger pointed sharply at the president. She says he asked about an unflattering mention of him in her book, which led her to calling him “thin skinned.” It’s something that’s going to keep the conservative media fired up today. She gave them something to chat about. It’s certainly not exactly the kind of picture you think of when a governor greets a president.

*** Tough interviews and Gingrich’s moon shot: Don’t miss the interviews yesterday with Romney and Gingrich with Jorge Ramos. He pointedly went after both men’s weakness -- Romney on his wealth and Gingrich for his extra-marital affairs. It’s hard for Gingrich, in particular, to “attack the media” in this instance when he and his rival are trying hard to court the significant conservative Cuban vote in Florida. Also yesterday, speaking of issues important to Florida, Gingrich went after the Space Coast vote, going so far as to pledge, "By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon. And it will be American.”

*** Big money: Just how important is Florida to both the Romney and Gingrich candidacies? Romney and Gingrich allies are spending more than $20 million between them to try and win it and possibly put away the GOP nominating fight. Here’s the latest:

- Pro-Romney: $15.4 million (Romney campaign: $6.6 million, Restore Our Future $8.8 million)

- Pro-Gingrich: $3 million with another $3 million promised (Winning Our Future $2.7 million, Gingrich campaign: $282,000)

***On the trail: No surprise here: All the candidates (except Ron Paul) are campaigning in Florida: Romney stumps in Jacksonville …Gingrich holds rallies in Mount Dora and Jacksonville … Santorum visits Tallahassee … All the candidate will attend tonight’s debate in Jacksonville beginning at 8:00 pm ET on CNN and co-hosted by the Republican Party of Florida and the Hispanic Leadership Network.

Countdown to Florida primary: 5 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 9 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 40 days
Countdown to Election Day: 285 days

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