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First Thoughts: Romney gets rejected

The verdict from last night’s races in CO, MN, and MO: Romney gets rejected… Santorum sweeps all three contests, but can he capitalize in Arizona or Michigan?... A rough night for Gingrich and Paul… Romney: My father was a carpenter… You know the economy is improving when the culture war comes roaring back… Team Obama’s tough week… And four additional points on the contraception debate.

Emmanuel Dunand / AFP - Getty Images

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney holds a campaign rally at RV America in Loveland, Colorado, February 7, 2012.

*** Romney gets rejected: If anything has summed up this GOP nominating race so far, it's the tale of the on-again, off-again front-runner Mitt Romney. The rivals, contests, and events might change, but this storyline has been pretty consistent over the past several months: Just when it looks like Romney is about to pull away with the nomination, he comes back down to earth. And that happened again last night with Rick Santorum sweeping the contests in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. Yes, the Missouri primary amounted to a beauty contest. And, yes, the delegates in Colorado and Missouri technically won’t be awarded until later (pretty much like how it works in Iowa). But you can’t dismiss that voters and caucus-goers in these three states rejected Romney. Every time the former Massachusetts governor has won a contest, it has been due to his significant campaign war chest and Super PAC, his organization, and even geography. But it’s never been because his message is resonating with the conservative base of the party, the very folks who participated in last night’s Colorado and Minnesota caucuses.


*** Santorum’s big night -- but can he capitalize in Arizona or Michigan? We’ve now had eight contests (IA, NH, SC, FL, NV, CO, MN, MO) and Romney has victories in just three of them. And guess what: Santorum has now won four. We wrote yesterday that the races in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri were do-or-die time for Santorum, and he more than came through. Eight contests in, and you have to conclude that Santorum -- someone who was getting almost no attention last summer and fall -- has been the biggest surprise of the GOP nominating race. The question for him: Can he capitalize on last night’s success. One thing that certainly helps him: The current national debate (contraception, gay marriage, abortion) is clearly in his wheelhouse. If the theme of the Republican presidential contest has been the on-again, off-again front-runner, then another story has been the inability of Romney’s rivals from capitalizing on their success. Last month, Santorum was unable to get a bounce from Iowa. And Newt Gingrich couldn’t cash in on his South Carolina win. So can Santorum make a move in Arizona or Michigan on Feb. 28? The answer to that question will determine if Romney goes back to becoming the on-again front-runner three weeks from now.

NBC's Chuck Todd tells TODAY's Ann Curry that Rick Santorum's sweep of Tuesday's GOP presidential contests was a "rejection by conservatives of Mitt Romney."

*** Santorum to plant his flag in Michigan: On “Morning Joe,” Santorum said he was going to “plant” the flag in Michigan, and he hinted that he’d only go to Arizona to participate in the debates. On paper, this may seem like an odd decision, but Santorum is banking on: 1) that his blue collar conservative message has a better chance of resonating in Michigan than Arizona; and 2) that he can actually win some delegates in Michigan since Arizona is winner-take-all and second place gets you squat. That said, Romney has two built in advantages in both states. In Arizona, it’s the large Mormon vote. In Michigan, it’s the fact that his father was governor and he is a favorite son of sorts. Santorum’s gambling that it’s easier to potentially shock Romney in a virtual home state than contend with Romney’s strength in the Mormon community.

*** A rough night for Newt and Paul: Last night was a pretty rough one for Gingrich, as he finished third in Colorado, fourth in Minnesota, and wasn’t on the beauty-contest ballot in Missouri. However, the best thing that happened to him is that Santorum swept -- including in Colorado, which Romney was expected to win -- and made the story more about the front-runner’s struggles rather than Gingrich’s back-of-the pack finishes. Romney now has this challenge: His faces a two-front war against both Gingrich and Santorum, men who have their weaknesses (not much money, little organization) but also their strengths (the South for Newt, the culture battles for Santorum). As for Paul, he finished second in Minnesota, third in Missouri, and fourth in Colorado -- disappointing showings for an organization that was supposed to do well, especially in the caucuses. And get this: Paul is the only remaining GOP candidate who’s yet to win a contest.

*** Romney: “My father was a carpenter”: Who is Mitt Romney? It’s been a question he has struggled to answer. He desperately wants a better narrative than successful businessman from a prominent family, because last night he described his father -- the head of an automotive company, a former governor of Michigan, and former cabinet secretary -- as being a carpenter. “My father never graduated from college. He apprenticed as a lath and plaster carpenter. And he's pretty good at it,” Romney said last night. “He actually could take a handful of nails, stick them in his mouth, and then, you know, spit them out, pointy end forward. On his honeymoon, he put aluminum paint in the trunk of the car and sold it along the way to pay for the gas in the hotels.” Romney added, “But my dad believed in America. And in the America he believed in, a lath and plaster guy could work out to become head of a car company.” It’s hard not to interpret those remarks as Romney trying so hard to persuade voters that he was successful without having any advantages in life. That said, George Romney’s biography would probably play well right now. The problem for Mitt Romney: That’s not HIS biography.

*** Turnout was down: Just like in Nevada and Florida, turnout in last night’s contests was down. In Colorado, turnout was down 6.7% from 2008. The total that voted this time around was 65,489 with 100% reporting, according to the Colorado Republican Party; in 2008, it was 70,229. In Minnesota, turnout was off by about a quarter (24%). In 2008, 62,828 came out, but this time around just 47,801 turned out. And in Missouri -- which was a beauty contest, instead of a real contest -- turnout was down 57% with 251,868 coming out in 2012, and with 588,844 voting in 2008. (CORRECTION: The turnout percent change for Missouri has been corrected.)

*** The culture war comes roaring back: You know the economy must be improving when cultural and social issues come roaring back into the national spotlight. Just days after the unemployment rate decreased to 8.3%, we’ve seen a raging debate over funding to Planned Parenthood, a skirmish between the Obama administration and Catholic Church over contraception, and now the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that California’s Prop. 8 -- which outlawed gay marriage in the state -- is unconstitutional. As we’ve said before, the economy will likely remain the top story in November’s general election. But events overseas, as well as inside this country, can change the issue matrix in the blink of an eye. And the question has to be asked: If the debate between now and the spring is about social issues -- and not the economy -- how much does that hurt Romney? And help Santorum?

*** Team Obama’s tough week: As we’ve pointed out, Mitt Romney had a rough week last week -- after “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” the Trump endorsement, and January’s jobs report. But this week, it’s Team Obama in the hot seat, whether it’s the debate over contraception or its reversal on Super PACs (for which the New York Times editorial page criticizes them today). It’s a reminder that the political pendulum always swings, and a winning campaign is usually determined by who best deals with (or sidesteps) their rough weeks. 

*** Four additional points about the contraception debate: We have some additional points about the contraception debate. One, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is going all in on the issue, reminding us of how he used the Gitmo debate in ’09 to politically bruise Obama. Two, we’re hearing from the White House that while they’ve made their contraception policy, they’ve yet to unveil the actual rule, and they hope that RULE (which comes from HHS) will make it clear to critics that they’re listening. Three, the struggles the White House has had on this issue continues to be a pattern -- they’ve had an inability to message messy policy decisions. Why didn’t they immediately line up women’s organizations to support them? Why didn’t they try reaching out to prominent Catholics who normally back them? And four, don’t think that this contraception debate is one-sided: While one side has been VERY loud (the Catholic Church, its supporters, the politicians who have seized on this issue), contraception is hardly a controversial topic for most Americans; without it, you wouldn’t see women in the workplace, in political office, or in other places outside the home. It’s a pretty simple fact…

*** On the 2012 trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: Gingrich tours Cleveland, OH…Santorum stumps in the Lone Star State, making stops in McKinney, Allen, and Plano…And Romney campaigns in Atlanta, GA. 

Countdown to Super Tuesday: 27 days
Countdown to Election Day: 272 days

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