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First Thoughts: Is the end of the Afghanistan war near?

Is the end of the Afghanistan war near?... Panetta announces that combat operations will end there in the middle of next year… Republicans pounce on this announcement… Romney’s gaffe yesterday highlights a political weakness: Despite having some strengths, he’s just not a gifted politician… Conservative opinion-makers pile on Romney’s gaffe… Why it’s hard for Romney to play the “out of context” card… A little caution on Trump endorsing Gingrich today… The Romney-Paul bro-mance… And is Chuck Schumer really the Dems’ best point person to combat Super PACs?

Ralph Orlowski / Getty Images

Members of the 170th U.S. Army Infantry Brigade stand in formation before being reunited with their families upon the troops' return from Afghanistan at U.S. Army Garrison Baumholder on January 28, 2012 in Baumholder, Germany.

*** Is the end of the Afghanistan war near? While another story is the top topic of political conversation -- Romney’s “I’m not concerned about the very poor” -- there’s a more impactful story that’s in the news today: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s announcement that the U.S. will end its combat operations in Afghanistan by the middle of next year. The Washington Post: “The United States hopes to end its combat mission in Afghanistan by the middle of next year, more than a year earlier than scheduled, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Wednesday. His remarks reflected a growing sentiment within the Obama administration that its approach to Iraq, where the official end of U.S. combat operations came 16 months before the final U.S. troop withdrawal in December, may provide a useful model for winding down operations in Afghanistan.” This is a big deal on a number of fronts. But politically, consider this: It gives President Obama the ability to say -- by his convention speech in early September -- that the two wars he inherited are over or on the road to being mostly over.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is saying that U.S. troops could transition from a combat role to a training and advisory role by the middle of 2013. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski has the details.

*** Republicans criticize the Afghanistan announcement: Not surprisingly, Republicans have used that news to criticize the Obama administration. In Nevada last night, Romney said, per NBC’s Garrett Haake: “His secretary of defense said that on a day certain, in the middle of 2013, we're going to pull out our combat troops from Afghanistan… So the Taliban hears it, the Pakistanis hear it, the Afghan leaders hear it. Why in the world do you go to the people that you're fighting with and tell them the date you're pulling out your troops?” Romney added, “It makes absolutely no sense. His naiveté is putting in jeopardy the mission of the United States of America and our commitments to freedom. He is wrong. We need new leadership in Washington." Sen. John McCain also pounced on the announcement (though the criticism was relatively tame by McCain standards): “It is very unfortunate that the administration continues to provide reassurance to our enemies that the United States is more eager to leave Afghanistan than to succeed.” It’s familiar disagreement between the two parties on the warfront (both Iraq and Afghanistan): the fear of a public date-certain. But notice that’s the only criticism; there isn’t NECESSARILY pure criticism on the decision to begin the wind down.

*** Now, to rejoin today’s gaffe-y, mini-feeding frenzy already in progress: Mitt Romney has always had several political strengths. He’s a strong fundraiser with the ability to self-finance his campaigns (as he did in 2008). With his good looks and square jaw, he’s cut out of central casting as a presidential candidate. His family is attractive, too. And he’s developed a good sense -- and we mean this as a compliment -- to modify his positions on issues to reach the voters he’s trying to woo. His eye is ALWAYS on the prize. But in the nearly six years that we’ve covered Romney as a presidential candidate, we’ve also come to this conclusion: He’s not a gifted politician. And that fact was on display yesterday -- one day after his decisive victory in Florida -- when he uttered the words, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” What was damaging about those remarks is that played into the pre-existing narrative that he’s an uber-wealthy pol who may not be in touch with average Americans’ lives. Like any minor gaffe, if it was an isolated incident, it wouldn’t have had legs.

*** Conservative opinion-makers pile on: If this were his first flub, you’d see conservative opinion-makers rallying to his defense and blaming the mainstream media. Instead -- after the $10,000 bet, “I like being able to fire people,” pink slip, and how he handled his income-tax returns -- these conservative opinion-makers are piling on Romney. Here’s the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg in a piece entitled “What is Wrong With This Guy”: “As a bunch of us have been writing around here for a while, the under-emphasized dynamic in this race isn’t that Romney isn’t conservative enough … it’s that he’s simply not a good enough politician.” Here’s the Weekly Standard: “Fresh off his big win in Florida Tuesday night, Mitt Romney made the most stunningly stupid remark of his campaign.” Even Rush Limbaugh piled on. This also touches on something else: Romney doesn’t have a lot of support among these folks. Yes, they march into battle with him. But will they run at the first hint of trouble? As one FOFR (Friend of First Read) remarked to us: It’s amazing to see Republicans publicly hate on their presidential nominee the way Democrats usually do, examples being Kerry, Gore even Clinton ’92 and Dukakis.

*** Hard for Romney to play the “out of context” card: A final point we’d like to make about Romney’s “I’m not concerned about the poor” comment: He really can’t complain about being taken out of context. Why? Because one of his very first TV ads took President Obama out of context (quoting him as saying back in ‘08, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose” – when Obama was actually quoting a McCain aide). You reap what you sow…  By the way, as for the quote IN CONTEXT, it is a little less bad but still awkward, frankly. Still, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of yesterday’s little dust-up for Romney: how bad his clarification was. Shouldn’t he be talking about lifting all classes? Nothing on trying to lift the “very poor” out of poverty in his clarification? Maybe he just isn’t good at the day-to-day grind of modern day politics?

*** UPDATE *** The Romney camp says that Romney did later amend his comments and discuss the effort to lift the very poor out of poverty.

Said Romney yesterday: “Oh I’m sure there are. I’m sure there are places where people fall between the cracks. And finding those places is one of the things that is the responsibility of government. But we do have a very ample safety net in America, with Medicaid, housing vouchers, food stamps, earned income tax credit. We have a number of ways of helping the poor. And yet my focus, and the area that I think is the greatest challenge that the country faces right now, is not to focus our effort on how we help the poor as much as to focus our effort on how to help the middle class in America, and get more people in the middle class and get people out of being poor and becoming middle income.”

*** A little caution on Trump endorsing Gingrich: Several news organizations – including Politico, the New York Times, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- are reporting that Donald Trump will endorse Newt Gingrich in Las Vegas today. But a note of caution: We’re hearing and seeing things that this Trump-Newt endorsement isn’t a done deal. If Trump DOES endorse Gingrich, then he’ll be the latest GOP/Tea Party flavor of the month to endorse the former House speaker, joining Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and even the Palins, sort of. (The exception: Michele Bachmann.) But if Trump’s news is an endorsement of, say, Romney, is that the kind of endorsement he really wants? Yet if Trump snubs Gingrich, what an embarrassing way to do it considering that Gingrich is the only one of these active candidates who took him seriously.

*** The Romney-Paul bro-mance: We’ve written before how there’s been a curious alliance of sorts between the Romney and Paul campaigns. And now the Washington Post offers the most detailed report to date of this Romney-Paul bro-mance. “Despite deep differences on a range of issues, Romney and Paul became friends in 2008, the last time both ran for president. So did their wives, Ann Romney and Carol Paul. The former Massachusetts governor compliments the Texas congressman during debates, praising Paul’s religious faith during the last one, in Jacksonville, Fla. Immediately afterward, as is often the case, the Pauls and the Romneys gravitated toward one another to say hello.” More: “The Romney-Paul alliance is more than a curious connection. It is a strategic partnership: for Paul, an opportunity to gain a seat at the table if his long-shot bid for the presidency fails; for Romney, a chance to gain support from one of the most vibrant subgroups within the Republican Party.”

*** Is Schumer really the best point person to combat Super PACs? Just asking, but do Democrats really want Chuck Schumer to be their point person in going after Super PACs? Just how many former Schumer and Harry Reid aides are currently working for some of the top Democratic Super PACs? We can think of several…

*** On the trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: Two days until the Nevada caucuses, Gingrich hits Las Vegas… Romney stumps in Las Vegas and Reno… And Paul campaigns in Elko and Reno.

Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 2 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 33 days
Countdown to Election Day: 278 days
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