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First Thoughts: And we're off

Steven Senne / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to an audience during a campaign stop April 1, 2012, in Milwaukee, Wis.

And we’re off: Plenty of evidence that the general-election train has left the station… Biden unloads on Romney… Romney unveils his new stump speech… Rick Santorum = Kansas Jayhawks?... Bill Clinton to raise money with Obama… Dems go on the offensive against the Ryan budget… Yet another sign the Tea Party might be over: House GOPers looking to revive earmarks… And it’s tight in the Brown-Warren race.

*** And we're off: Yes, the Wisconsin GOP primary is still a day away. And, yes, Rick Santorum could always pull off a surprise tomorrow. But it's also hard not to recognize that the general election has already begun. On Friday, Mitt Romney unveiled a new stump speech that focused exclusively on President Obama and not his GOP rivals. Then, on Sunday, Vice President Biden appeared on "Face the Nation," where he unloaded on Romney. Also late last week, a conservative group with ties to the Koch Brothers launched a $3 million-plus TV ad campaign in battleground states, while the pro-Obama Super PAC is now up with its own response. And yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said “the chances are overwhelming that [Romney] will be our nominee. It seems to me we’re in the final phases of wrapping up this nomination.” To be sure, we might see final minor twist or turn in this GOP primary race, but with seven months until Nov. 6, the general-election train appears to have finally left the station.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd talks about the ad wars between the American Energy Alliance – a group with ties to the conservative Koch brothers, and Obama's Super PAC, Priorities USA Action.

*** Biden unloads on Romney: As mentioned above, the vice president appeared on CBS’ Sunday show, where he assailed Romney for being out of touch with the middle class and for being naïve on foreign policy. “I can't remember a presidential candidate in the recent past who seems not to understand by what he says what ordinary middle-class people are thinking about and are concerned about,” Biden said. And in response to the GOP criticism of President Obama’s hot-mic moment, he added: “Gov. Romney's answer, I thought, was incredibly revealing. He acts like he thinks the Cold War is still on -- Russia is still our major adversary. I don't know where he has been. I mean, we have disagreements with Russia, but they're united with us on Iran. The only way we're getting one of only two ways we're getting material into Afghanistan to our troops is through Russia. They're working closely with us. They have just said to Europe, if there is an oil shutdown in any way in the Gulf, they'll consider increasing oil supplies to Europe. That's not-- this is not 1956.” Throughout the interview, it was clear Biden’s playing what is a traditional role for a sitting VP: attack dog.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd's previews Tuesday's primaries in Wisconsin and Maryland saying, the general election will probably begin this weekend. A Morning Joe panel also joins to talk about how the women vote will affect the race.

*** Romney unveils new stump speech: Meanwhile, as NBC’s Garrett Haake has pointed out, Romney debuted a new stump speech in Wisconsin on Friday that “sounded more like a late-October general election pitch than a primary candidate’s plea.” Said Romney: "Under President Obama, America hasn't been working. The ironic tragedy is that the community organizer who wanted to help those hurt by a plant closing became the President on whose watch more jobs were lost than any other time since the great Depression." More Romney: "And instead of doing everything possible to promote the power of the free enterprise system, to create jobs and get us out of this crisis, Barack Obama has promoted the power of government. And the results have been predictable and dismal." Wisconsin is as good a place as any for Romney to test a general election message. The Romney map has been shrinking -- not growing -- and he can’t afford for Wisconsin to fall off the battleground map the way Michigan already has.

*** Rick Santorum = Kansas Jayhawks? Back to the GOP primary race, Santorum said on “Meet the Press” that he would bow out of the contest if Romney gets his 1,144 delegates. “If Gov. Romney gets that required number, then without a doubt, if he's at that number we'll step aside. But right now he's not there. He's not even close to it.” And while he maintained that Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary isn’t “do or die” for him, but he noted that it could send a signal. “I keep coming back to the fact that when you look at the odds, they're against us. I think David would like to have these odds versus Goliath I think.” On the campaign trail yesterday, he described his challenge this way: “It’s like telling Kansas last night, ‘You’re down by 18 points, but before halftime — give up its over.’ We aren’t even at halftime folks, not even half the delegates have been selected in this race.” Gingrich also invoked Kansas’ comeback: “I’m going to take Kansas as a model,” he said.

*** On the trail: Almost all of the activity, not surprisingly, is in Wisconsin: Santorum holds rallies in Shawano, Appleton and Oshkosh; he bowls in Menasha; and he ends his day in Ripon, which is considered the birthplace of the Republican Party… Romney and Paul Ryan hold campaign events in Green Bay and Milwaukee… Gingrich campaigns in Maryland… And Paul remains off the campaign trail.

*** Bill Clinton to raise money with Obama: In an interview with NBC’s Luke Russert, former President Bill Clinton revealed he will attend three fundraisers with Obama. “We’re going to do these fundraisers. Three, I think, together,” he told Russert. Clinton also said this about his wife, Hillary, and 2016: “She’s told you and everybody else that she thinks she’ll probably never run for office again. But I’ve been there. I know what happens when you go through this decompression, after years of relentless high pressure activity. And I just think she needs to rest up, do some things she cares about and whatever she decides to do, I’ll support.” 

*** Dems go on the offensive against Ryan’s budget: The week after House Republicans passed the Paul Ryan budget plan, Democrats are going on the offensive in dual ad campaigns. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is up with radio ads in eight GOP districts -- Jeff Denham (CA-10), Mary Bono Mack (CA-36), Tom Latham (IA-03), Dan Benishek (MI-01), John Kline (MN-02), Joe Heck (NV-03), Quico Canseco (TX-23), Reid Ribble (WI-08) -- that hits them for voting “to essentially end Medicare.” An example: “Did you know Congressman Joe Heck voted twice to essentially end Medicare to give tax breaks to millionaires. Tell Heck to fight for Medicare!” In addition, AFSCME and Americans United for Change are up with TV ads (here, here, here, and here) making the same point. Yesterday on ABC, Ryan contended that his budget would “stop subsidizing the wealthy.” Yet it cuts the top rate from 35% to 25%.

*** Yet another sign that the Tea Party might be over: Reuters: “In a closed-door meeting with fellow Republicans [in early March], [GOP Rep. Mike] Rogers recommended reviving a proven legislative sweetener that became politically toxic a year ago. Bring back earmarks, Rogers, who was first elected to Congress in 2002, told his colleagues.” More: “House Speaker John Boehner, who pushed for the earmark ban, is considering forming a committee to study earmarks reforms, according to Rogers. Other sources also said that during the closed meeting, the speaker said he would consider reforms, and other leading Republicans did not shoot down the idea.”

*** Tight in Massachusetts: Finally, a Boston Globe poll over the weekend showed Scott Brown (R) and Elizabeth Warren virtually tied, with Brown at 37% and Warren at 35%, with a whopping 26% undecided. 

Countdown to DC, Maryland, Wisconsin primaries: 1 day
Countdown to Election Day: 218 days

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