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First Thoughts: Didn't we almost have it all?

Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at a caucus, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012, in Portland, Maine.

Romney survives over the weekend by winning Maine caucuses and CPAC straw poll… His struggle so far: an “excitement deficit”… Breaking down the 18 different contests over a 15-day period… Paul campaign disputes Romney’s Maine victory… How to judge the White House’s birth-control compromise: If we’re still talking about it this week (and so far today, it isn’t a topic of conversation)… And Obama to discuss his budget at 11:00 am ET in Northern Virginia. 

*** Didn’t we almost have it all? Perhaps the best way to view Mitt Romney’s weekend is that he survived. He couldn’t afford to lose the Maine caucuses (and have the storyline exist that he lost four-straight contests). He couldn’t fare poorly in the CPAC straw poll (especially after his “severely conservative” line). And guess what: He won both. They weren’t impressive victories, and they both had their controversies -- a Maine county postponed its caucus, while Rick Santorum accused the Romney camp of rigging the straw poll (but isn’t that exactly what a straw poll is?) But both events showed that they can win, even when it isn’t pretty. And that very well might be the theme of Romney’s entire primary fight: winning ugly. Still, a win is a win…

*** So (not) emotional: On Sunday, the New York Times’ Frank Bruni did a good job of summing up why Romney is struggling, even when he wins: His candidacy has an “excitement deficit.” Bruni writes, “It’s hard to find a single Republican, including those most solidly behind him, who demonstrates true passion for him or can do even a persuasive pantomime of it. They call him effective, not inspirational. They praise his competence, not his charisma. He doesn’t exert any sort of gravitational pull on his party. There’s no full swoon.” He concludes, “Almost all of the presidents elected over recent decades have been propelled by pockets of intense enthusiasm, which can paper over so many specific political predicaments and eclipse tensions with the base. They were saviors before they were disappointments, not disappointments right out of the gate. And almost all of them had something solid — a resonant personal story or an outsize personality or a bold vision — for admirers to latch onto. Romney wafts through a voter’s fingers, a puff of presidential-looking air.”

*** All at once: Looking ahead in the GOP primary race, there will be 18 different contests over a 15-day period. And here’s a good way to score their outcome: If Romney isn’t the guy with the most combined delegates, then we may very well be headed for a brokered convention. Here are 18 contests in 15 days:

Tuesday, Feb. 28: Michigan (primary), Arizona (primary)
Saturday, Mar. 3
: Washington (caucus)
Tuesday, Mar. 6
: (Super Tuesday): Alaska (caucus), Georgia (primary), Idaho (caucus), Massachusetts (primary), North Dakota (caucus), Ohio (primary), Oklahoma (primary), Tennessee (primary), Vermont (primary), Virginia (primary), Wyoming (caucus)
Saturday, Mar. 10
: Kansas (caucus)
Tuesday, Mar. 13
: Alabama (primary), Hawaii (caucus), Mississippi (primary)

GOP candidate Rick Santorum says he is focusing on a "two-person race" with Mitt Romney as Sarah Palin is speaking out to question Romney's conservative credentials.  NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

*** I want to dance with somebody: Given all of these different contests, here’s an early look where the individual campaigns plan to spend their time. Romney: Arizona on Monday; Michigan on Wednesday and Thursday; Idaho on Friday; and Utah on Saturday. Santorum: Washington state on Monday (same day same-sex marriage gets signed into law in that state); Idaho on Tuesday; and Michigan on Thursday. Gingrich: California (which doesn’t hold its contest until June 5) from Monday through Thursday; and Georgia on Friday. Indeed, don’t lose sight on Gingrich’s disappearing schedule. Gingrich seems to be in a SERIOUS cash crunch given he’s spending his ENTIRE week, basically, fundraising. 

*** How will I know (if Romney really won Maine)? What is it with the Republican Party and its caucuses? First was the controversy over the Iowa results -- with the state party saying that Romney came out on top only to later reverse course and declare Santorum the winner. Next was Nevada, which held its caucuses at different times and with one special caucus site forcing participants to sign a legal declaration under the penalty of perjury that they couldn’t attend earlier caucuses because of their religious beliefs. And then on Saturday, one Maine county (Washington County) postponed its caucus -- due to snow -- until Feb. 18, which allowed the Paul campaign to cry foul and make the case it could have won if there hadn’t been a postponement. By the way, Ron Paul still hasn’t won a single contest so far...

*** My love is your love: In Maine (without the results from Washington County), turnout was up slightly (2.6%) from 2008 -- 5,585 people voted this year in the weeklong caucuses, up from 5,446 in 2008. But even though Romney won, that turnout increase appeared driven by Paul supporters. Romney got 23% fewer votes (2,190 votes versus 2,826), and Paul doubled his 2008 showing (1,996 votes, up 100% from 999 in 2008). There's also been a big difference between Romney's turnout in the first four contests and the last four. Overall, the frontrunner's seen a 14% increase in the number of people voting for him this year than in 2008. But in the first four highly contested contests, where Romney and his Super PAC spent millions of dollars in advertising promoting himself and attacking others, Romney's turnout was up 38%. But in the last four, his turnout is down 60%.

*** On the trail: Gingrich holds a Hispanic leadership event in California… Romney is in Arizona, where he attends a get-out-the-vote rally in Mesa… And Santorum holds a rally in Tacoma, WA.

*** It’s not right, but it’s OK: Maybe the best way to judge if the White House’s compromise/accommodation on birth control was a success is if the issue is still a topic of conversation this week. And so far, it isn’t. (However, 42 conservative leaders say they’re opening a “united front to battle Obama” on this issue.) Indeed, it’s doubtful the issue will have any impact on November’s presidential contest. But don’t be surprised if it plays a role in some of the Senate contests, especially in the Midwest (Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin.). Tough for the cultural wedge issues to stay top of mind in a presidential. But down the ballot? Different story.

*** Same script, different cast: All presidential budgets are political documents, and the one President Obama will unveil today -- in a presidential year -- is no different. The New York Times: “In his budget Mr. Obama again will commit to $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years, including $1.5 trillion in tax revenue from the wealthy and from closing some corporate tax breaks, and reductions in spending for a range of programs, including the military, Medicare, farm subsidies and federal pensions. But Republicans are sure to criticize the president’s proposals as heavy on gimmickry and double-counting, and reject his proposed tax increases. For all the debate over deficits, Mr. Obama on Monday will highlight spending increases and tax cuts that he seeks, which are popular despite their impact on the federal debt.” He will discuss his budget at 11:00 am ET at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, VA. Bottom line on this budget: Thanks to some spending caps and other agreements from previous showdowns, this is a document designed for the presidential campaign -- Obama is emphasizing his spending priorities (coupled with some familiar tax policy) hoping to have THAT conversation with swing voters. So where does he start? In a swing state at a community college. This is a page, frankly, ripped from the Clinton playbook of the ‘90s.

Countdown to Super Tuesday: 22 days
Countdown to Election Day: 267 days

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