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First Thoughts: Here we go again

Anthony Bolante / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum smiles while speaking to the crowd at a campaign rally at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, Washington February 13, 2012.

Here we go again: Santorum surges in national polling… Contemplating a two-man GOP race vs. a three-man one… TV ad war heats up with pro-Romney Super PAC expanding its buy in MI (and also going up in GA, MS, OK, TN), while Santorum will begin airing two positive ads in MI… Wrapping up yesterday’s campaign activity: Santorum gets interrupted and glittered in WA… Gingrich, in CA, avoids talking about his GOP rivals… And Romney, in AZ, once again stresses his conservative credentials… House GOP payroll tax-cut concession: a retreat or a trap?... And CW shifts in birth-control debate.

Here we go again: So apparently all it took were wins in the non-binding caucuses of Colorado and Minnesota, as well as the beauty contest of Missouri, to catapult Rick Santorum into a virtual tie with Mitt Romney, according to THREE national polls. A Pew Research Center survey among registered GOPers (conducted Feb. 8-12) has it Santorum 30%, Romney 28%, Newt Gingrich 17%, and Ron Paul at 12%. Gallup (also conducted Feb. 8-12) has it Romney 32%, Santorum 30%, Gingrich 16%, and Paul 8%. And New York Times/CBS has it Santorum 30%, Romney 27%. That makes Santorum -- by our count -- the sixth Republican to see a surge in the national polls, joining Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Gingrich (twice). So if you were to write the early history of this GOP presidential race, you’d have to make these two points, no matter who eventually wins the nomination: One, Romney is the on-again, off-again front-runner who holds almost every advantage (money, organization, endorsements, having run for president before) except the one that matters most: the hearts and minds of the base. And two, all it takes is a little good news (a primary victory, a strong debate performance) for a non-Romney lacking these advantages to give him a run for his money because of the one missing ingredient for the front-runner: passion.

*** Two-man race vs. three-man race: The good news for Romney is that every time a true challenger has emerged, his campaign has either knocked that person down (Perry, Newt) or seen that candidate self-destruct (Perry, Cain, Newt). The potential bad news for Romney is that conservative GOP voters are beginning to run out of candidates. And guess what: There’s now a growing call for Gingrich to leave the race and endorse Santorum. As National Review wrote yesterday, “When he led Santorum in the polls, he urged the Pennsylvanian to leave the race. On his own arguments the proper course for him now is to endorse Santorum and exit.” And political analyst Stu Rothenberg argues that if Gingrich really dislikes Romney so much, he should end his candidacy and back Santorum. “So what’s worse to Gingrich, losing the nomination or watching Romney get it?” Here’s a question to ponder: Does the Romney campaign want Gingrich to stay relevant and actually do well enough in the South on Super Tuesday to guarantee the delegates are split up three ways? Romney’s campaign is the ONLY one with the resources to fight a two-front war and to be in a position to play (cliché alert!) three-dimensional chess on Super Tuesday, while Santorum and Gingrich simply try and play their own game of checkers.

*** TV ad war heats up: The TV ad battle in the Republican race has been largely quiet over the last several days, but it’s about to pick up. The pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future, per the New York Times, has purchased nearly $500,000 in additional airtime in Michigan to run this TV ad hitting Gingrich. (And we can report that Restore Our Future is also going up in Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.) So Romney’s allies clearly aren’t giving up on Newt; they are now committed to fighting a two-front war against both Gingrich and Santorum. The question is how much of a toll does this negative campaign take on Romney? Indeed, that Pew poll -- mirroring our NBC/WSJ survey from last month -- shows independents abandoning Romney in a head-to-head matchup against President Obama. . Meanwhile, First Read can confirm that Santorum is going up with two POSITIVE ads in Michigan (size of buy is unclear right now). What wins out in the Wolverine State -- positive or negative?

*** Santorum gets interrupted, Newt doesn’t mention his GOP rivals, and Romney stresses his conservative credentials: Here’s a quick wrap of yesterday’s campaign activity: Santorum, stumping in Tacoma, WA, got interrupted by Occupy Wall Street protestors and also got glitter-bombed, NBC’s Andrew Rafferty reports. (It is striking the impact that protestors have had on events during this GOP race, and campaigns without a significant infrastructure like Santorum’s are having are especially difficult time dealing with them.) At an event in California, Gingrich never mentioned either Santorum or Romney, NBC’s Alex Moe notes. (When Gingrich was later asked why he didn’t mention them, he replied, “I do dramatically better when I focus on the nation's problems and I focus on the nation's solutions. I don’t do nearly as well when I focus on my competitors.”) And in Arizona last night, Romney (like he did at CPAC) emphasized his conservative credentials, hit Obama on his budget, and painted his GOP rivals as Washington insiders, NBC’s Garrett Haake writes.

President Obama unveiled his 2013 budget plan on Monday, and Republican leaders were quick to lash out in opposition. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** On the trail: Romney raises money in New York City (could it be with Donald Trump?)… Santorum holds rallies in Idaho… And Gingrich remains in California.

*** A retreat or a trap? Turning away from the campaign trail and toward Capitol Hill, House Republican leaders made a stunning concession in the payroll tax-cut fight: They said they are willing to extend the payroll tax cut for 10 months without paying for it, but they will separate that extension from the unemployment insurance and Medicare “doc fix” that Democrats want to pass. Here’s Roll Call: “Republicans are acknowledging that they would rather give in on a straight extension than fight on for spending cuts that Senate Democrats will not accept.” Here’s The Hill: “Republicans retreat on tax cut.” Indeed, House Republicans -- after months of complaining about spending and deficits -- are walking a line here that deficits don’t matter (especially if you’re headed for a political defeat or if you don’t want to raise taxes). But to channel Admiral Ackbar, is this a trap for Democrats? The New York Times: “By separating the payroll tax from jobless benefits, Republicans have somewhat boxed in Democrats, forcing them to decide whether to accept a stand-alone tax cut that touches nearly all working Americans — and is generally more popular than the additional unemployment insurance — or hold out for a package that covers all three programs, at a cost of about $160 billion.”

*** Politics AFTER November’s presidential election: While the president’s budget is unlikely to become close to the blueprint this Congress adopts for 2013, do realize that because of this election year and the leverage BOTH parties THINK they could have in November, the future of the Bush-era tax cuts (which Obama extended once) probably won’t be dealt with by Washington’s leaders until that six-week period between Election Day and the New Year.  So for those thinking the election itself will bring some rest for the weary… think again. Bush isn’t on the ballot in November, but the future of his tax legacy is.

*** CW shifts in birth-control debate: Finally, The Hill makes the point that the Conventional Wisdom in the fight over birth control has flipped. “The furor over President Obama’s birth-control insurance mandate appears to have vaporized as quickly as it blew up. The White House faced just two questions on the issue at a briefing with reporters Monday, just days after the intense controversy threatened to swamp the president’s reelection campaign. While the president’s Friday “accommodation” did not win over the White House’s most harsh critics, some Republicans and Catholic groups have offered measured support, including centrist Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, suggesting Obama might have at least muddied the waters.”

Countdown to Super Tuesday: 21 days
Countdown to Election Day: 266 days

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