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First Thoughts: Obama draws his battle lines against Romney

Obama draws his battle lines against Romney -- on fairness, the auto industry, housing, and the “poor”… The president also keeps his eye on independents… Romney says he “misspoke” regarding his “poor” comment… A big January jobs report: Economy adds 243,000 jobs in January, and the unemployment rate drops to 8.3%… An October (or May) surprise: Israel to attack Iran?... Previewing Saturday’s Nevada caucuses and its loosey-goosey procedures… The Bunny Ranch folks are “pimping for Paul”… And Gregory to interview Gingrich on “Meet the Press.”

*** Obama draws his battle lines against Romney: If you've followed every twist and turn in the GOP presidential contest, you might have missed it. But in the last two weeks, President Obama has drawn clear battle lines against the man his team expects will be his general-election foe: Mitt Romney. We can point to four examples, although in each case Obama never mentions Romney by name. The first occurred in the State of the Union address last week, when the president talked about economic fairness just after Romney released his tax returns (showing that he paid an effective rate of less than 15%). “We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by," Obama said. "Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

*** Fairness, auto industry, housing, and very poor: On Tuesday, the president made an unannounced stop at the Washington Auto Show, where he appeared to offer a rebuttal against Romney’s ’08 New York Times op-ed entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” Said Obama: “There were some folks who were willing to let this industry die. Because of folks coming together, we are now back in a place where we can compete with any car company in the world.” The next day, Obama appeared to rebuke Romney’s Oct. 2011 comment to not stop the foreclosure process and allow the market to hit rock bottom. “It is wrong for anybody to suggest that the only option for struggling, responsible homeowners is to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom.” And yesterday, he took a not-so-subtle jab at Romney’s “I’m not concerned about the very poor” remark. “Requiring much from those who have been given so much. Living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper. Caring for the poor and those in need.  These values are old… They are values that have always made this country great.” (For what it’s worth, the White House says the president’s remarks to the Prayer Breakfast were done earlier in the week, but it did not release “prepared remarks” and we’re told there’s always some last minute tinkering.) Two weeks, four pretty clear shots at Romney.

*** Obama also keeps his eye on independents: As of one us wrote yesterday, the last several weeks have also allowed Obama to tailor his re-election to appeal to independents. In fact, he’s done five things: 1) go populist and stress economic fairness; 2) turn his rhetoric into a Midwestern sense of plain-spokenness and sensibility; 3) run against Congress while attempting to show he’s a fighter; 4) respond to the GOP presidential field without naming names; and 5) tout more frequently what he sees as his biggest accomplishments.

*** Romney says he “misspoke” regarding “poor” comment: Speaking of Romney’s “I’m not concerned about the very poor” remark, the former Massachusetts governor yesterday tried to clean up the damage. “It was a misstatement; I misspoke,” Romney told Jon Ralston, per the Washington Post. “I’ve said something that is similar to that but quite acceptable for a long time.” More Romney: “When you do — I don’t know — how many thousands of interviews, now and then, you may get it wrong,” he said. “And I misspoke, plain and simple.” As for yesterday’s Trump endorsement, it’s hard to imagine that it will be an asset for Romney. The best that he and his team could hope for -- “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

As the Republican presidential race moves to Nevada, which holds its caucus Saturday, frontrunner Mitt Romney says he "misspoke" when talking about poor Americans in a CNN interview. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

*** Economy adds 243,000 jobs in January; unemployment rate drops to 8.3%: The folks in the White House couldn’t have asked for a better January jobs report. The question is if these kind of positive economic numbers continue. The AP: “The unemployment rate fell for the fifth-straight month after a surge of January hiring, a promising shift in the nation's outlook for job growth. The Labor Department says employers added 243,000 jobs in January, the most in nine months. The unemployment rate dropped to 8.3% from 8.5% in December. That's the lowest in nearly three years.”

*** An October (or May) surprise: Israel to attack Iran? While everyone -- including us -- expects that the economy will be the central issue in the 2012 general election, we received yet another signal yesterday that there might be a military confrontation with Iran this year. On Thursday, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius wrote that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta believes there’s a “growing possibility” that Israel will attack Iran in the next few months. NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube report, without referring to Panetta specifically, that Pentagon sources say that "senior officials here are growing increasingly nervous, uh, concerned" over the possibility Israel will attack Iran's nuclear facilities "sometime soon."

*** Saturday’s Nevada caucuses: Turning back to the GOP presidential race, tomorrow brings us the fifth GOP contest: the Nevada caucuses. Per NBC’s Jamie Novogrod, a Las Vegas Review-Journal poll shows Romney leading Gingrich by 20 points among likely caucus-goers, 45%-25%; Santorum gets 11% and Paul gets 9%. How do tomorrow’s caucuses work? Frankly, the process is a bit of a joke: The caucus places start and stop at different times throughout the state. Every county but Clark County (Vegas) will be closed issues results by 8:00 pm ET, Clark County (except one location) closes has results at 10:00 pm ET, and one special caucus – at the Adelson Educational Complex -- closes has results between 11:00 pm and 11:30 pm ET to allow Jews observing the Sabbath to participate. As the Atlantic’s Ball writes, “Each county was allowed to set its own caucus procedures this year, leading to a divergent array of start times and rules across the state… The bizarre arrangement leaves the door open to all kinds of campaign hijinks. Party officials say attendees at the evening caucus will have to sign an affidavit swearing that they didn't already vote earlier, and their names will be checked against the voter rolls.” There are 28 delegates at stake, and they will be divided up proportionally. Note: The earliest networks will call the race is at 10:00 pm ET, when the final caucus sites close.

*** Nevada four years ago: Four years ago, Romney won the Nevada caucuses with 51% of the vote, and Paul finished second with 14%. What’s more, 26% of GOP caucus-goers in 2008 were Mormon, and Romney got 95% of their vote. The turnout in 2008 was just over 44,000, and it means half of Romney’s raw vote total came from Mormons. It’s why Nevada this year appears to be over before it started. 

*** “Pimping for Paul": You can't make this up: NBC's Anthony Terrell reports that Ron Paul spoke to more than 700 people in Reno last night. And guess who was in the crowd: Famed Bunny Ranch owner Dennis Hof. Terrell was able to interview Hof. Why is he supporting Paul? "The Bunny Ranch bunnies are supporting Ron Paul because he’s for state’s rights. That’s why the Bunny Ranch exists, we love Ron Paul!" More Hof: "We agree with everything -- repeal the Patriot Act, let’s stay home, let somebody else fight the wars, we need to look at the Fed system and fix it. Ron Paul will do all that, and that’s why I’m pimping for Paul.” Hof's girlfriend, Cami Parker, added, "All the bunny babes are registered Republicans. We will be at the caucus on Saturday and we are pimping for Paul."

*** On the trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: One day before the Nevada caucuses, most of the activity is in the Silver State: Romney makes stops in Elko, Las Vegas, and Reno… Paul hits Pahrump and Las Vegas… And Gingrich holds two events in Vegas… Meanwhile, Santorum stumps in Missouri, whose upcoming contest doesn’t award any delegates.

*** Gingrich to appear on “Meet” this Sunday: On Sunday, NBC’s David Gregory will interview Newt Gingrich, as well as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. On Gregory’s weekly “PRESS Pass,” he interviewed Gingrich supporter J.C. Watts

Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 1 day
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 32 days
Countdown to Election Day: 277 days

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