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First Thoughts: Sweet Home Michigan?

Sweet Home Michigan for Romney?... The contest there on Feb. 28 will likely be an inflection point -- the place where either Romney rights his ship or where it becomes obvious he might not be the GOP nominee… Restore Our Future and Santorum camp spar over the airwaves in Michigan… A reminder: Romney won the state in ’08 by just nine percentage points and with less than 40%... Quinnipiac poll: Santorum leads in Ohio… Texas primary won’t occur until at least May… More problems associated with Maine’s caucuses… A tentative deal on the payroll tax cut (but is it a done deal?)… And Obama talks manufacturing in Wisconsin at 1:40 pm ET.

Joshua Lott / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event in Mesa, Arizona February 13, 2012.

*** Sweet Home Michigan? The good news for Mitt Romney as several national polls now show him tied or even slightly trailing a surging Rick Santorum: The next major contest, on Feb. 28, is in Michigan. But the bad news is the same: It's Michigan. Indeed, the state where he grew up, where his father was governor, where his mom ran for the U.S. Senate, where he launched his '08 campaign, where he won in 2008, where he's airing a new TV ad, and where he campaigns today could be the inflection point in this Republican nominating contest. Either Michigan is the place where he rights his campaign's ship and continues his methodical march to the nomination. Or it’s the place -- because of all the advantages he enjoys in the state -- where we all realize he might not recover to become the GOP nominee. (And trust us, if Romney loses Michigan, the GOP noise about finding a new candidate will become deafening.) That's what's at stake in Michigan two weeks from now. There’s no overstating the importance of this race.

*** Restore Our Future vs. “Rombo”: And given the stakes, the TV ads are getting more aggressive. The pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future is up with a hard-hitting advertisement against Santorum in Michigan (as well as in Arizona and Ohio), which charges that Santorum voted to raise the debt ceiling five times, voted to increase spending, and joined Hillary Clinton to let convicted felons vote. In response, Politico is reporting that the Santorum campaign is up with its own ad -- entitled “Rombo” -- showing a Romney lookalike firing mud from a gun. “Mitt Romney’s negative attack machine is back,” the ad says. “This time, Romney is firing his mud at Rick Santorum… Why? Because Romney is trying to hide from his big government RomneyCare and his support for job-killing cap-and-trade.”

*** What Gingrich never really had -- an effective response: This kind of response ad is worth watching (and seeing how much money is actually behind it), because it’s what Gingrich NEVER really had in Iowa or Florida. Meanwhile, turning back to that Restore Our Future ad, we’re not quite sure that Santorum is MOST vulnerable on spending and pork. Santorum’s biggest vulnerability might be that he’s simply too conservative (even for some Republicans) on social issues and that it makes him potentially unelectable in a general. But can Romney and his allies really go there, especially in a GOP primary? By the way, don’t miss Romney’s answer about Santorum’s surge this morning on FOX when he was asked if the two of them could envision running together. Romney said sure -- and added that he and Santorum actually agree on most issues; Romney said what makes them different are their backgrounds.

*** A reminder: Romney won Michigan in ’08 with just 39%: Here’s one final point we’re going to make about Michigan: Do note that Romney won the state in 2008 by just nine percentage points (39%-30% over McCain) and never cracked 40%. Yes, Romney was no longer the front-runner at that time in the race. And, yes, McCain had won the Michigan primary in 2000. But those results are a reminder that Romney might not be as formidable in the state as everyone thinks…

GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum is riding his momentum from a trio of caucus wins to the top of the latest national polls. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.


*** Q-poll: Santorum leads in Ohio: And Michigan isn’t the only state in the industrial Midwest that Romney might be sweating. A brand-new Quinnipiac survey of Ohio -- which holds its primary on Super Tuesday, March 6 -- finds Santorum leading Romney among likely GOP primary voters by seven points in the state, 36%-29%; Newt Gingrich gets 20% and Ron Paul 9%. Also in that poll, Obama leads Romney by two points in Ohio (46%-44%), Santorum by six (47%-41%) and Gingrich by 12 (50%-38%). And Obama’s approval rating in the state is 47%-48%; it’s actually the president’s best score in that poll in the past year, despite being upside down.

*** Texas primary won’t occur until at least May: The AP reports that Texas -- because of the divisions over its redistricting map -- will unlikely hold its presidential primary in April. “Texas was originally scheduled to be a part of next month's slate of Super Tuesday primaries, but the redistricting clash forced the state to reschedule its contest to April 3. With that date now all but dead, too, elections workers who squeezed into a packed San Antonio courtroom Tuesday advocated a new date of May 22, which could be long after Republicans settle on a nominee to face President Barack Obama.” So Texas won’t play a role in this GOP presidential race -- until it does. Consider: If a Republican decides to run for president at the last second, that person could plant his/her flag in Texas.

*** Remember the Maine! The additional news coming out of Maine -- that one county turned in its results on Feb. 7 but weren’t included -- is a disaster for the GOP and the entire caucus system. (And this news is on top of that other county that postponed its caucuses due to snow and wasn’t counted, either.) The GOP caucuses (in Iowa, Nevada, and now Maine) have really taken it on the chin and raise real doubts about the integrity of the voting results. And Nevada is lucky its outcome wasn’t close…

*** On the trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: Gingrich travels to Palo Alto, CA…Santorum visits North Dakota, campaigning in Tioga and Fargo…Meanwhile, Romney hosts a rally in Grand Rapids, MI

*** We have a deal: Off the campaign trail, it looks like Hill Democrats and Republicans struck a tentative deal on extending the payroll tax cut, as well as unemployment insurance and the Medicare “doc fix.” NBC’s Libby Leist and Frank Thorp have the details: The payroll tax cut gets extended through 2012, unemployment insurance goes for 75 weeks in the hardest-hit states and 63 weeks in the others (versus 93 weeks now), there’s no drug test or GED requirements for the unemployment assistance, and there are no Medicare benefit cuts. In addition, the payroll tax cut IS NOT paid for, but the unemployment insurance and “doc fix” ARE. Those offsets, with a price tag of about $50 or $60 billion, come from government spectrum sales, federal pension reform, and a few billion from Fannie/Freddie fees. NBC’s Leist adds that the tentative deal, which could be inked as early as today, was negotiated by House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R) and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D).

*** But is it a done deal? Yet Politico reminds us that it’s not a done deal yet. “As of Tuesday night, there was still some selling left to do on the basic agreement — history has taught congressional leaders not to call a deal done until House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has had a chance to vet it with rank-and-file Republicans...  ‘I just can’t. I just can’t,’ Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said when asked if he would vote for a payroll tax cut without offsetting spending cuts or tax increases. ‘I gotta stand on principle. How can I criticize the president for his budget where he’s increasing the debt and deficit if we’re going to come here and vote to do the same?’ Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) was one of the loudest critics Tuesday night, calling the proposal a ‘welfare payment’ and saying he is going to vote against the deal.”

*** Obama travels to Wisconsin: President Obama hits the road today, giving a speech on manufacturing in Milwaukee, WI at 1:40 pm ET. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes, per NBC’s Ali Weinberg, that Obama’s trip to the state “is his first to Wisconsin since the labor wars erupted a year ago, and comes at a time when the state has more wild cards in its political deck than perhaps any other presidential battleground.” And do note: There will be an official meet-and-greet between Obama and Gov. Scott Walker.

*** Villaraigosa to chair Dem convention: Lastly, the Los Angeles Times reported last night that Democrats have tapped L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to chair the Democratic National Convention. “As convention chairman, Villaraigosa will wield the gavel during the event in Charlotte, N.C., which opens with a festival on Sept. 3 and continues for three days of official business, including the nomination of Obama and his acceptance speech... Villaraigosa is one of the nation's most prominent elected Latino officials and envisions an active role in Obama's reelection effort. The White House, in turn, is counting heavily on strong Latino turnout, especially in battleground states such as Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida.”

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