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First Thoughts: NBC's new battleground map

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President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Miami in Florida on Feb. 23, 2012.

Unveiling NBC’s newest 2012 battleground map… Romney gives his big economic speech in Detroit at 12:15 pm ET… Charlie Cook and the emerging C.W. on Romney… Questions we have about that new pro-Romney Super PAC ad… Gingrich criticizes Obama’s apology for the Quran burning… And Dems to Obama: “Don’t say ‘America is back’”

*** NBC’s new battleground map: Much has changed since we last ran our NBC presidential battleground map back in early November. (Has it REALLY been that long?) The economy and labor market have improved; President Obama’s approval numbers have risen after his debt-ceiling blues; and the Republican primary contest has turned into a knock-down, drag-out fight. And that explains why our Electoral College scorecard has gone from 196 D vs. 195 R (with 147 toss-up electoral votes) back in November, to 227 D vs. 197 R with (114 toss-up). The big changes: We’ve moved Michigan and Wisconsin from toss-up to Lean Dem, reflecting Obama’s improved strength in both states; we’ve moved New Hampshire from Lean GOP to Toss-up; and we’ve moved Iowa from Toss-up to Lean GOP. The map and the changes on it are based on the public and private polling we’ve seen, as well as our conversations with operatives studying the battlegrounds. Again, we do not make our judgments SOLELY on public polling or based on poll averages.

Solid Dem (no chance at flip): DC, DE, HI, ME (3 EVs) MD, MA, NY, RI, VT (70 electoral votes)
Likely Dem (takes a landslide to flip): CA, CT, IL, WA (94)
Lean Dem: ME (1 EV) MN, NJ, NM, OR, MI, WI (63)
Toss-up: CO, FL, NV, NC, OH, PA, VA, NH (114)
Lean GOP: AZ, GA, IA, MO, (43)
Likely GOP (takes a landslide to flip): AL, AR, IN, LA, MS, MT, NE (1 EV), ND, SC, SD, TX (97)
Solid GOP (no chance at flip): AK, ID, KS, KY, NE (4 EVs) OK, TN, UT, WV, WY (57)

(Editor's Note: We accidentally put New Mexico in toss-up when we intended to put it in Lean D; that brings it to 227 D, 197, 114 toss. And the post now reflects that.)

*** Breaking down our moves: As we mentioned above, the moves of Wisconsin and Michigan are due to the president’s improved standing, but they also reflect the GOP’s struggles in both states and how Mitt Romney, in particular, appears to be unable to connect very well to Obama’s weakest swing voting group: working-class whites. And until Romney fixes that, those states may be unattainable. As for Iowa, Democratic operatives acknowledge the very LONG Republican campaign in Iowa may have taken a toll on the president. Remember, of all the primary states, it’s the one where candidates truly camped out. We saw a similar issue in New Hampshire, though that’s changed and it appears due to the Republican Party’s shift to the right on social issues during the campaign. By the way, you’ll notice we’ve split Maine. The new congressional map created the most Republican district in that state in quite some time. The president is still favored, but it won’t be a cakewalk.

*** Romney’s big economic speech: Four days until Michigan’s crucial GOP primary, and the big political event today is Mitt Romney’s economic speech at Ford Field in Detroit at 12:15 pm ET. Romney has already rolled out a big portion of it -- the lowered income-tax rates. And the consensus from conservative opinion elites: The plan is better than what it was (which kind of sums up Romney’s candidacy to date). Meanwhile, Democrats and the United Auto Workers are countering Romney’s speech today by holding a rally where they will use American-made cars from a nearby parking garage to spell out: “Romney: Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” And Steven Rattner, who was the lead adviser of the Obama administration’s auto task force, writes a New York Times op-ed taking Romney to task for his opposition to the auto bailout

*** The emerging C.W. on Romney: And don’t miss Charlie Cook’s latest column in National Journal, which sums up some of the emerging C.W. about the state of Romney’s campaign (for the primary and general): “My assumption was that Romney would be the nominee and would make a good run. Now, I have begun to doubt both propositions. His odds of winning the nomination are growing longer. And even if he does, he has twisted and turned himself into a human pretzel. I’m not sure how electable he is. The alternatives, however, seem even less so.”

Tim Pawlenty on why he's supporting Mitt Romney for president.

*** On that new Romney Super PAC ad: Yesterday, much was made -- including by us -- on the new Romney Super PAC TV ad (which describes how Romney worked to find a colleague’s missing daughter) that is nearly identical to one the Romney campaign aired in 2007. But we have some questions that go beyond the blurring line between Super PACs and the campaigns they’re supporting. One, why is the Super PAC running a positive ad? You run positive ads because either A) you’re in good shape or B) your negatives are sky-high. (We bet the latter.) Two, why hasn’t the campaign run a spot like this, and why haven’t we heard more about this rescue story from the candidate? And three, why is the Super PAC -- usually a dispenser of negative ads -- airing this positive bio ad? Does it say anything about the state of the Romney campaign’s war chest?

*** Gingrich criticizes Obama’s apology for Quran burning: In Washington state yesterday, Newt Gingrich criticized the Obama administration for apologizing to Afghan leaders after Qurans were burned at a military base, NBC’s Alex Moe reported. “The president apologized for the burning, but I haven't seen the president demand that the government of Afghanistan apologize for the killing of two young Americans,” Gingrich told a crowd of roughly 500. The Afghans, Gingrich believes, "do not deserve the apology of the United States” after an Afghan soldier shot two American troops at a protest that followed the desecration of the holy books. Later when campaigning in Idaho, Gingrich got this eyebrow-raising question from a voter: “The way I got it figured, and I'm kind of sick but - we had our hippie, which turned out to be a pedophile. OK? My gosh, just 19. Now we got our disco-dancing cokehead. It's time for my generation, and people are pissed off because of affirmative action, blah, blah blah.  Are you willing to get in there and raise some serious Hell and straighten things up?” Gingrich’s answer: "Well as Harry Truman said - somebody yelled at him at one point 'Give em hell Harry.' And he said 'I just tell the truth and it feels like Hell.'”

*** On the trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: Santorum campaigns in Oklahoma and then stops by Michigan… Romney holds two events in the Wolverine State, including his big economic speech in Detroit… And Gingrich stumps in Washington, rallying in Olympia, Federal Way, and Everett.

Does Romney need to win Michigan to stay in the race? Will Santorum's comments on taking one for the team over No Child Left Behind hurt him going forward?

*** Dems to Obama: “Don’t say ‘America is back’”: Finally, Democrats Stan Greenberg and James Carville produced a polling/focus group memo, and this part of it caught our attention: Obama’s declaration from his State of the Union that “America is back” doesn’t test well. “Claiming that ‘America is back’ is by far the weakest operative message and produces disastrous results. It is weaker than even the weakest Republican message and is 10 points weaker in intensity than either Republican message… Less than a quarter of independents say this message would make them more likely to support the President and no independents said that it would make them much more likely to support him.” 

Countdown to Arizona and Michigan primaries: 4 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 11 days
Countdown to Election Day: 256 days

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