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First Thoughts: How did Romney get here?

How did Romney get here?... Romney targets Big Labor, but could that hurt him in a general election?... The GOP united in targeting labor is a recent phenomenon… Santorum releases his tax returns… Obama: “Right now!”… And payroll tax cut legislation deal appears to be finalized.

*** How did Romney get here? As Mitt Romney finds himself in a real battle to win Michigan -- a state where he holds so many advantages -- it raises an inevitable question: How did he get here? How did he get to yet another moment where perhaps his entire candidacy is on the line? After all, he didn’t stumble in a debate (as he did in South Carolina). He didn’t commit a serious gaffe. And he isn’t on unfriendly turf (as he was in Iowa and South Carolina). Romney appears to be his current predicament 1) because he and his team gave Rick Santorum an opening in the contests of Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri; and 2) because of ideology. Indeed, according to the polls, Santorum has become the latest conservative flavor of the month (or week) due to the support he’s getting from conservatives and Tea Party supporters. The good news for Romney: He’s been in this position before. After losing in South Carolina and after seeing polls showing Gingrich with momentum heading into Florida, Romney EASILY won the Sunshine State. Less than two weeks from now, we’ll see if he and his campaign can accomplish the same feat. Picking up the endorsement (and endorsement op-ed) of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is a big help.

Gerald Herbert / AP

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally in Kentwood, Mich., Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012.

*** Are we headed for Thunderdome? But the bad news for Romney: He’s been in this position before. And what if the same tricks just simply don’t work. Team Romney may have the ability to throw 100 mph fastballs and most batters swing and miss. But if the ONLY pitch they have is a high hard fastball, then eventually the batter catches up to it. And the batter in this case is both Santorum and the voters. Less than two weeks from now, we’ll see if he and his campaign can accomplish the same feat and put another high, hard one past another conservative alternative batter. Because if he doesn’t, the GOP race for delegates and that nomination could become… well, we’ll let George Costanza say it: “Anything goes. It’s like Thunderdome.”

*** Romney targets Big Labor: As NBC’s Garrett Haake reported last night, Romney made his Michigan strategy clear at his rally in Grand Rapids: pick a fight with organized labor. "The president finally came around to my own view that Detroit needed to go through managed bankruptcy,” Romney said when talking about the auto industry. “But he gave the companies to the UAW [United Auto Workers] when he was finished with the process. That again is something which I think is consistent with the fact that he got a lot of money from organized labor and felt that he should give them a favor." He also said that Obama “got hundreds of millions of dollars from labor bosses for his campaign, and so he's paying them back in every way he knows how. I've taken on union bosses before, and I'm happy to take them on again."

*** But could it hurt him in a general election? This Romney strategy appears to have two components. One, it’s a way to set up a contrast with Santorum, with the Romney camp noting that the former Pennsylvania senator voted on organized labor’s side when he served in the Senate. (We’re betting Team Romney never planned on going this anti-union in their rhetoric, but it’s the best policy contrast they can draw to make Santorum look out of touch with rank-n-file conservatives). And two, the strategy is a way to explain his position on the auto bailout. (However, Romney’s auto talk produced this response from the Obama campaign: “Had Mitt Romney had his way, the government would have not provided the funding that GM and Chrysler needed to stay afloat during their managed bankruptcy and both companies would cease to exist.”) But Romney’s tough words on unions raise this question: Will it be a problem for him in a general election? After all, as Haake notes, 12% of Michigan’s workforce belongs to a union. And in the 2008 general election, per the exit polls, 34% of Michigan voters said that someone in their household was a union member (and Obama won 67% of that vote, though McCain still won 31%). There’s a fine line between bashing UNIONS and UNION MEMBERS, and it’s a tricky line for Republicans in the Rust Belt and Midwest.

The Republican presidential candidates are focusing heavily on Michigan, which holds its primary on Feb. 28, and Mitt Romney is playing up his Michigan roots on the campaign trail. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

*** The GOP united targeting of labor has been a recent phenomenon: And Michigan isn’t the only presidential battleground state with a sizable union population; there’s also Ohio, Wisconsin, and Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania. It’s worth noting that it’s only been in the last three years that the Republican Party has been united in targeting labor and with such intensity. In recent times, several GOP politicians -- Dick Lugar, George Voinovich, Spence Abraham -- tried to win over union voters. And, of course, those famous “Reagan Democrats” that the nation’s 40th president won in 1980 and 1984 were always considered to be folks from union households in places like Michigan. But those days are long gone.

*** Romney in ’08: “I actually believe that the union vote is very important to Republicans”: Here’s a final point on Romney and organized labor. When he was campaigning in the state four years ago -- in Jan. 2008 -- he made a pitch to the state’s union workers. "I actually believe that the union vote is very important to Republicans," he told FOX's Neil Cavuto a day before the ‘08 Michigan primary, adding: "We're in this together. The auto industry is going to succeed or fail. And if it fails, it's going to hurt not just the shareholders, but all the employees." A Romney campaign official tells First Read that Romney believes it’s still important for unions and management to work together. But the campaign draws a distinction from “union bosses” and the rank-and-file. “That is why he supports labor law reforms that will take power from union bosses who have no interest in a constructive relationship with management, and return it to workers,” the campaign official says.

*** Santorum releases his tax returns: Today, Rick Santorum campaigns in Michigan by giving a speech at the Detroit Economic Club and then addressing the Oakland County GOP Lincoln Day Dinner. And last night, according to NBC’s Andrew Rafferty, he released four years of his tax returns (from 2007 through 2010). They showed the Santorums filed an adjusted gross income of $659,637 in ’07, $945,100 in ’08, $1.1 million in ’09, and $923,411 in ’10. The largest portion they paid in taxes was in 2010, when their effective rate was over 28%. That rate, as Rafferty notes, is larger than Romney’s 13.9% from 2010 but smaller than Gingrich’s 31.5%. The tax returns also tell us something else: Santorum made money off being a former senator, though not to the extent that other ex-politicians have.

*** Right now: Traveling with President Obama yesterday in Wisconsin, NBC’s Ali Weinberg was struck by this exhortation from the president: Do it now! "Don't wait. Get it done. Do it now. Let's get it done," he said at his event in Milwaukee. Obama added, "This Congress should send me these tax reforms right now. I will sign them right away.” Weinberg recounts that a woman then shouted from the crowd, "Right now!" "Right now!" The president responded, smiling and eliciting cheers. Then, the chant, crescendoing as more of the crowd joined in: "Right now! Right now! Right now!" The Obama campaign has been looking for a sequel to their “fired up” mantra from four years ago that did help create passion at their rallies. Don’t be surprised if they try and reprise this “right now” again, especially since it appears this was actually organic… By the way, the president’s entire public schedule today is all fundraisers. Four separate events (L.A. and San Francisco). That ties for the most fundraising events he’s done in a day as president. In 2010, he had a handful of days where he did four events as well.

*** Payroll tax cut deal appears finalized: “Congressional negotiators gave final approval early Thursday to an economic plan worth more than $150 billion that would extend a payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits,” the Washington Post writes. “A key roadblock was overcome when the lawmakers agreed to require new federal workers to contribute more to their pension plans, clearing the way around 12:30 a.m. for a majority of the House-Senate conference committee to begin signing onto the deal.” NBC’s Frank Thorp reports that Democrats in the Senate were able to secure enough votes to pass the plan through conference by changing a provision that would increase the amount federal workers pay into their pension funds. The new provision requires that ONLY new federal employees will have to pay more into their pensions. The provision was a major sticking point for Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), who had originally held out because the cost to federal workers.

*** On the trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: Romney, remaining in Michigan, campaigns in Monroe and Farmington Hills before heading to Ohio… Santorum stumps in Detroit and Oakland County… Gingrich and his wife are still in California… And Paul makes stops in Idaho and Washington state. 

Countdown to Arizona and Michigan primaries: 12 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 19 days
Countdown to Election Day: 264 days

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