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First Thoughts: The most important seven days of Romney's political life?

One week until the Michigan (and Arizona) primary… The most important seven days of Romney’s political life?... Is Romney’s campaign cash drying up? (Check out that burn rate.)… Super PAC fundraising eclipses campaign fundraising on the GOP side, but that isn’t true on the Dem side… Adelson: “I might give $10 million or $100 million to Gingrich”… Santorum increasingly throwing rhetorical red meat… Politics of the pump… Obama to tout payroll tax-cut extension… And Obama camp says Romney, Santorum will increase the deficit.

Adam Eschbach / AP

Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, pauses for a moment during a rally in Boise, Idaho at Guerdon Enterprises Friday, Feb. 17, 2012.

*** One week out: The next seven days until Michigan's primary may very well be the most important of Mitt Romney's political life. They could determine if he becomes the GOP nominee; if he does not; and if we might enter -- as we've described it before -- the political equivalent of Thunderdome, with either a "brokered" or "contested" convention in August. All of these things are on the line for Romney next Tuesday. And in between, he will have two big opportunities to right his campaign’s ship: 1) Wednesday night’s debate in Arizona and 2) Friday’s economic speech in Detroit. 

*** Campaign cash drying up? For Romney, what’s also at stake at next week’s Michigan primary is whether or not his campaign funds begin to dry up. Yesterday, the Romney campaign reported raising $6.5 million in primary funds for the month of January. Yet more importantly, its burn rate was more than 287% (spending $18 million-plus last month, versus raising $6.5 million), and it now has $7.7 million in the bank (compared with President Obama’s nearly $76 million). This begs the question: When will we start seeing Romney writing checks to his campaign, like we saw in 2007-2008? In fact, has he already written the check? (We won’t know that until March 20, the next reporting period.) Here are the other fundraising hauls for January: Gingrich $5.6 million ($1.8 cash on hand), Paul $4.5 million ($1.6 cash on hand), and Santorum $4.5 million (nearly $280k cash on hand). And on Friday, we found out Obama raked in $11.9 million in January, with the DNC and other committees bringing in an additional $17.2 million.

*** It’s a bird, it’s plane, it’s the Super PACs! But to demonstrate the power of the Super PACs and their influence on the GOP race so far, the January fundraising for these Super PACs eclipsed what the actual Republicans raised. “The Super PAC backing Mr. Romney, Restore Our Future, raised $6.6 million in January and spent close to $14 million, much of it on advertisements battering Mr. Gingrich in Iowa and Florida,” the New York Times writes. “A Super PAC backing Mr. Gingrich raised much more that month — almost $11 million… The super PAC backing Mr. Santorum, the Red White and Blue Fund, raised about $2 million in January, much of it from Foster S. Friess.” It’s worth noting that a Michigan loss for Romney also probably dries up much of this Super PAC money, too. What about the pro-Obama Super PAC, Priorities USA Action? According to NBC’s Carrie Dann, the organization raised just $58,815 in January, which probably explains why Team Obama made its reversal on Super PACs…

*** Adelson: “I might give $10 million or $100 million to Gingrich”: Don’t miss these remarks from Gingrich’s top Super PAC benefactor, Sheldon Adelson: “I might give $10 million or $100 million to Gingrich,” he told Forbes magazine. “I’m against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing elections. But as long as it’s doable I’m going to do it. Because I know that guys like Soros have been doing it for years, if not decades. And they stay below the radar by creating a network of corporations to funnel their money. I have my own philosophy and I’m not ashamed of it. I gave the money because there is no other legal way to do it.” And also don’t miss what the Wall Street Journal reported last week -- Adelson is willing to use his money to go after Santorum. (Adelson apparently is uncomfortable with some Santorum’s more conservative social policy positions.) According to the January fundraising report, Adelson and his wife gave a combined $10 million to the pro-Gingrich Super PAC Winning Our Future. Wow.

*** Lots of red meat for the base: Just like the other former surging Romney alternatives before him -- Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich -- Santorum has been tossing around A LOT of rhetorical red meat lately. The theology comment. The criticism of some free pre-natal screenings. The allusion to Hitler. He even made a Rev. Wright reference on Fox last night (as well as last week). The Santorum of Iowa (nice guy trying to show he’s more than just a conservative bomb-thrower) has morphed back into the rhetorical bomb-thrower? Is this what the base wants? As we’ve written about before, there is a chunk of the Republican base that wants someone to talk tougher on the president; at least tougher than Romney talks.

*** On the trail: Romney stumps in Michigan (and so does his wife) before heading to tomorrow’s debate in Arizona… Santorum holds two events in Phoenix, AZ, including a rally at 7:30 pm ET… And Gingrich remains in Oklahoma…

Several states are expected to see the price at the pump top $5 a gallon by this summer. CNBC's Jim Cramer weighs in on what's causing the increase.

*** Politics of the pump: After previously facing the financial industry’s collapse, the BP spill, the European debt crisis, the Japanese tsunami, and the Arab Spring, here’s the latest external event -- largely outside the White House’s control -- that could impact the U.S. economy: another round of high gas prices. “Just as the recovery is finally looking real, surging fuel prices are once again looming as a major threat to the financial health of U.S. consumers and the broader economy,” the Los Angeles Times says. The politics of gas prices are always dangerous. After all, this is something that almost every American consumer sees, and every news organization (local or national) is ready to cover it (and usually LEAD their broadcasts with it). The one silver lining for the Obama administration: Given that gas prices were at highs just last summer, were consumers already pricing this in their budgets? That said, NBC’s Ali Weinberg notes that the Obama White House pushed several news items yesterday (like a Houston Chronicle story on increased oil production) to deflect charges from Republicans that the administration is to blame for the higher gas prices. The White House moves yesterday also indicate how nervous they are about the politics of the pump story.

*** Obama to tout payroll tax cut extension: And don’t be surprised if you hear President Obama mentioning that the payroll tax-cut extension, which Congress passed on Friday, will get consumers with rising gas prices. At 11:35 am, Obama and Vice President Biden hold an event at the White House, where they will tout the passage of the legislation. “The president,” the White House says, “will be joined by Americans who have shared their stories on WhiteHouse.gov and Twitter about what $40 a paycheck means to them. Because of this bipartisan action, the typical American family will still see an extra $40 in every paycheck.” The White House adds that the actual legislation will be signed into law later this week.

*** Obama camp says Romney, Santorum will increase the deficit: By the way, the Obama campaign is out with this memo from Policy Director James Kvaal: “Gov. Mitt Romney and Senator Rick Santorum claim they will champion spending cuts deep enough to cut taxes and balance the budget. In fact, they have both proposed irresponsible and reckless tax plans that would drive up the deficit by trillions of dollars, while their claims to balance the budget through spending cuts are completely unrealistic. Romney’s plan would increase the deficit by at least $175 billion a year.”

Countdown to Arizona and Michigan primaries: 7 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 14 days
Countdown to Election Day: 259 days
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