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First Thoughts: Romney retools his message

Romney retools his message -- with his biography and even his policy… GOPers and conservatives tell Romney to step it up… Dems break ranks on the contraception issue… Yet polling (for now) shows the issue isn’t as controversial as the noise machine suggests… Jim Fallows on Obama’s first three years… CPAC is back... And Chamber up with House and Senate ads. 

Gerald Herbert / AP

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to the traveling press corps after arriving in Atlanta, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012.

*** Romney retools his message: Beginning with Romney’s speech on Tuesday night, we can point to four examples how he and his allies have begun to retool his biographical message, trying to expand it beyond the simple “economic fix-it man.” So in his address on Tuesday night, he talked about his father’s humble roots and past work as a carpenter. (It was a little forced and the “pointy end forward” nails example is not his best stump moment, but we digress). Then the campaign released a statement yesterday commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Salt Lake City Olympics and reminding everyone of Romney’s role with it. (“I was deeply honored to have been asked to lead the Olympics and am proud that the games were such a memorable success,” Romney said in the release.) Then, campaigning in Atlanta, he talked about his time as a Mormon lay pastor, something he rarely does. (“In that capacity, I had a chance to work with people who lost their jobs, in some cases, or were facing other financial distress.’) And finally, his son Tagg tweeted an article about how Romney rescued a 14-year-old kidnap victim (a story we heard more about in the ’08 race than the ’12 one). You add up these four things, and it’s an obvious attempt in a 24-hour span to humanize Romney and add more texture to his biography -- beyond the guy who’s good at giving a PowerPoint presentation.

*** And the retool is biographical, policy-based, and anti-Washington: But you also get the sense that Romney’s retool after his losses in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri is going to go well beyond biography. He is now set to deliver an economic speech at Ford Field -- where the Detroit Lions play -- on Feb. 24. You don’t create a setting like that unless you have something new to say. Don’t be surprised if this economic speech is used to make a better sale with conservative voters. And when it comes to attacking his GOP rivals, he’s casting both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum as Washington insiders. But there’s one problem here: If you’re going to criticize your opponents as being DC insiders, you probably don’t want to come to DC -- as Romney is doing today -- and raising money from these same insiders. As the New York Times writes, “The timing of Mr. Romney’s aggressive assault on Washington was hardly ideal. He is scheduled to spend Thursday in the capital, surrounded by lobbyists and other donors who are each asked to raise $10,000 in contributions before attending a policy discussion. His campaign has designated “Industry Finance Chairs” from the energy, defense and financial sectors.” By the way, don’t expect the same “Empire Strikes Back” style of attacks on Santorum and Gingrich going forward as we saw in Florida. The campaign seems to get that, while effective at defeating Gingrich in Florida, it did damage to Romney as well.

*** GOPers and conservatives tell Romney to step it up: This retooling comes as GOP leaders and conservatives are asking Romney to step up his game. Politico's Martin writes, “A day after Romney was convincingly defeated by Rick Santorum in non-binding contests in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri, high-profile Republicans voiced long-simmering worries that the would-be standard-bearer lacks a compelling message for conservatives — and must be bolder to capture the party’s nomination.” (And don’t miss this quote from Sen. Jon Kyl in the piece: “Every time he defends his health care action in Massachusetts and every time he says something like [indexing minimum wage], conservatives wonder whether he has the instincts to usually take the conservative position on issues.) And today, the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page hits Romney’s “inability, or unwillingness, to defend conservative principles. He seems to retreat at the first sound of a liberal moral argument.”

Rick Santorum is trying to capitalize on the momentum from his clean sweep in Tuesday's Republican presidential contests. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

*** Dems break ranks on the contraception issue: You know where the politics are on this contraception brouhaha -- at least for now -- when Republicans are uniting and when some Democrats are breaking ranks. Tim Kaine, the former DNC chair who’s now running in Virginia’s Senate race and has been searching for a way to show some distance from his former boss, said that he disagreed with the Obama administration’s decision. “I think the White House made a good decision in including a mandate for contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act insurance policy, but I think they made a bad decision in not allowing a broad enough religious- employer exemption.” Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, who’s up for re-election, also opposes the policy. And West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, also up for re-election, called it “un-American” and a “direct affront to the religious freedoms protected under the 1st Amendment,” Politico says. If these Democrats running in tough (or potentially tough) races were looking for a way to create some distance from Obama, they certainly found it.

*** Yet polling (for now) shows the issue isn’t as controversial as the noise suggests: That said, supporters of the policy are pointing to polls showing that it isn’t as controversial -- even among Catholics -- as the DC noise machine suggests. A recent Public Religion Research Institute poll found that a majority of Catholics think employers should be required to provide health-care plans covering birth control at no cost. And a Democrat sent First Read a poll conducted by Dem pollster Celinda Lake -- from Aug. 2011 -- showing that 53% of Catholics say that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposition to free birth control in the health-care law makes no difference to them. Also, the Democratic National Committee will hold a conference call at 1:30 pm ET hitting Mitt Romney on this contraception issue with two Massachusetts health-care experts. “Romney is a politically calculating hypocrite, and we're gonna call him out for it tomorrow as a pre-buttal to his appearance at CPAC,” DNC Communications Director Brad Woodhouse says. Still, the White House is well aware they’ve fumbled the roll-out of this policy, and they know they can’t afford to let this debate linger beyond the weekend. Expect to hear something from them -- perhaps from the president himself -- that indicates they are open to finding compromise to implement this policy. And expect to hear something before the weekend.

*** Obama’s first three years: Here’s a good read today: Jim Fallows’ piece in The Atlantic on the first three years of Obama’s presidency. His conclusion: Obama was unready for the presidency (as almost all new presidents are) and temperamentally unsuited to it in several ways. But he also argues that many of his accomplishments -- as well as how quickly he’s learned on the job and from his mistakes -- has been underappreciated. And Fallows makes another point about the importance of 2012 for Obama: The outcome of the election will determine how his first three years in office will be later viewed. “If a year from now Obama is settling in for a second term, a halo effect will extend back to everything he did during his first four years... Yet if a year from now a just-beaten former President Obama is thinking about his memoirs … the very same combination of missteps and achievements will be viewed as a narrative leading inexorably to defeat.”

Slideshow: Obama's third year in the White House

*** CPAC is back: The three-day Conservative Political Action begins today in DC, and here are some of today’s more notable speeches, NBC’s Adam Perez reports: Jim DeMint (9:25 am ET), Marco Rubio (10:35 am), Mitch McConnell (11:50 am), Michele Bachmann (12:20 pm), Rick Perry (1:20 pm), House Speaker John Boehner (1:35 pm), Herman Cain (4:25 pm), and Paul Ryan (7:30 pm). The current presidential candidates speak tomorrow, and Sarah Palin delivers the keynote on Saturday.

*** On the 2012 trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: It’s a relatively slow day: Santorum stumps in Oklahoma, rallying in Oklahoma City and Tulsa… Romney visits Washington, DC for a reception with VA Gov. Bob McDonnell… And Paul and Gingrich are off the campaign trial.

*** The Chamber goes up with ads: Turning away from the presidential contest, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is beginning a TV ad blitz in 12 House and eight Senate contests. “The goal is to help Republicans win a majority of seats in the Senate while protecting the GOP majority in the House,” the Wall Street Journal writes. The ads are here

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