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First Thoughts: What we learned from the GOP race

NBC's Mark Murray joins Daily Rundown guest host Luke Russert to discuss Rick Santorum's decision to suspend his presidential campaign.

What we learned from the GOP race… And three questions we have after it’s now over: Did Romney win because he was a better candidate than in ’08? Or because the field was weaker?... Did Santorum help or hurt the GOP?... And can Romney win over his conservative critics?... What’s next for Newt? He’s staying in the race… Team Obama releases web video with Romney’s “greatest hits” from the primary season… Obama delivers statement on the Romney -- err, Buffett -- Rule at 10:15 am ET, while Romney camp holds conference call at the same time… And Crossroads GPS joins the TV-ad tag team against Obama on gas prices.

Jeff Swensen / Getty Images

Surrounded by members of his family, Republican presidential candidate, former Sen. Rick Santorum announces he will be suspending his campaign during a press conference at the Gettysburg Hotel on April 10, 2012 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

*** What we learned from GOP race: After 32 state contests, 20 debates, some $190 million spent by the candidates, and $50 million in ads by the various Super PACs, the Republican presidential primary race officially ended yesterday when Rick Santorum suspended his campaign. (Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul would disagree, but it's the reality.) So what we did learn? That money and organization still matter. That a lack of money and organization can get you second place (at least in this field). That, despite all of his advantages, there was a conservative resistance to Mitt Romney. That, despite this resistance, Romney was always the GOP's best chance at defeating President Obama. That the nearly yearlong primary race -- remember, the first debate was in May 2011 -- has taken a toll on the party and its presidential candidates. And that, because of it, the conclusion to the primary season couldn't have come at a moment too soon for the GOP.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum announced Tuesday that is suspending his presidential campaign, effectively giving the GOP nomination to Mitt Romney. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

*** Did Romney win because he was a better candidate than in ’08? Or was it simply a weaker field? But the biggest question we have after the past year: Did Romney triumph the GOP nomination because he was better than he was in '08 (when he finished third, behind John McCain and Mike Huckabee)? Supporting this would be his improved debate performances, knocking Rick Perry down in Sept. 2011, and a more comfortable issue terrain (the economy vs. social issues and national security in '08). Or did he win due to extraordinarily weak field? Backing that up would be the quality of his GOP rivals (hello Herman Cain!), his current poll numbers, and his numerous gaffes and unforced errors. We’ll have an answer to this question come November 6.  Many in RomneyWorld believe that what they've pulled off -- convincing a Southern conservative evangelical Christian party to nominate a Northeastern moderate Mormon -- doesn't get enough credit. Of course, they wouldn't use the word "moderate" (at least right now).

*** Did Santorum help or hurt the GOP? Here’s another question: Did Santorum help or hurt the Republican Party in this primary race? As we pointed out a week ago, Santorum accomplished a lot: He won more states than Huckabee did in ’08 and as many as Romney did four years ago; he has the potential to be a significant player in 2016 or 2020; and he repaired some of the damage from his ’06 Senate loss. But you could make the argument that the GOP’s current struggles with female voters and independents can be attributed to some of Santorum’s rhetoric on the trail (calling Obama a “snob” for wanting everyone to go to college, saying that JFK’s 1960 speech on the separation of church and state made him want to “throw up.”). In the general election, we’re going to see Democrats try to make Romney own some of the things that Santorum said. And unfortunately for Romney, he never aggressively differentiated himself from -- or tried to denounce -- that rhetoric. Team Romney believes it's only casual voters who conflate Santorum's comments on women with Romney. And that in time, Romney can fix this.

*** Can Romney win over his conservative critics? And here’s a third question: Can Romney win over the conservatives who’ve been resistant to him? Just check out some of the quotes in today’s New York Times. Tony Perkins: “I just think it’s going to be a much harder lift to take someone who seems like a moderate and try to get conservatives excited about it.” Richard Viguerie: “After having destroyed every conservative that came on the scene, you can’t say ‘You have to line up behind me.’ No, no, no. Conservatives are not going to jump until they hear where Governor Romney wants to take everybody.” And, of course, we weren’t the only ones to notice the folks who endorsed Romney ONLY AFTER Santorum bowed out of the race -- Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Rick Scott, Pat Toomey. In the next couple of months, Romney will have to fight a two-front war -- against Obama and the Democrats and the conservatives who are still kicking and screaming. Romney probably has no choice but to roll the dice that conservatives will rally. The longer he waits to pivot, the harder it will be.

*** And what about Newt Gingrich? He told NBC’s David Gregory that he will stay in the race and focus for the next 10 days on Delaware, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and North Carolina. Beyond that, Gingrich said Santorum’s exit clarifies the race. He wants to spend this period defining what the platform should be and what the issues should be. The implication, according to Gregory: He thinks he has more influence staying in right now. But here’s the problem for Gingrich as he stays in the race. He has to battle embarrassing stories like this one: His $500 check bounced in trying to qualify for Utah’s June 26 primary. Gingrich likes to note that he's come back before, even when folks like us referred to him as Bruce Willis' character in the "Sixth Sense." The better comparison might now be to the Japanese soldiers found after WWII in the Pacific who had no idea the war was over.

*** On the trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: Romney campaigns in Connecticut and Rhode Island… Gingrich is in Delaware… And Paul holds a town hall in Fort Worth, TX.

*** Romney’s greatest hits (by Team Obama): Now that the GOP primary race is officially behind us, the Obama campaign is out with a searing web video reminding voters of what Romney said during it. “Corporations are people, my friend.” “I like being able to fire people.” “I was a severely conservative Republican governor.” Etc. Bottom line, here’s what the next six months are going to look like: Obama and his allies will try to disqualify him, while Team Romney is going to try to make the state of the U.S. economy stick to Obama.

*** Let’s call it by its real name -- the Romney Rule: Another day, another event around the so-called Buffett Rule. At 10:15 am ET from the White House, President Obama will deliver a statement on the Buffett Rule. But let’s cut to the chase: This isn’t the Buffett Rule; it’s the Romney Rule. While this might not poll well with independent voters, as we wrote yesterday, this Democratic drumbeat is a way to make Romney seem out of touch. Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has released this press statement on Obama’s upcoming remarks today: “Sadly, an administration that promised it would focus on jobs is wasting yet another day on a political event that won’t take a single person off the unemployment line.” And at the same time Obama will be speaking, the Romney campaign is holding a conference call on the “Obama economy.”

*** Crossroads joins TV-ad tag team against Obama: This is what the next two or three months will look like as Romney begins to fill his general-election campaign war chest: Crossroads GPS, the outside GOP group backed by former George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove and others, has a new TV ad knocking President Obama on the issue of gas prices. In what Crossroads GPS says is a $1.7 million buy, the ad is airing in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia. And it's in direct response to an Obama campaign TV ad in these same states -- which was rebutting an earlier ad from a GOP conservative outside group, American Energy Alliance, with ties to the conservative Koch Brothers.

*** Veepstakes watch: The Wall Street Journal writes that there’s growing buzz over Rob Portman… And check out what Paul Ryan said about Romney: “He's kind of a throwback to the '50s.” He later said: “I grew up watching ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ idolizing Mr. Cleaver, Ward Cleaver, and [Romney] has these great attributes, which is he’s a very nice, civil man and he’s very earnest.”

Countdown to the CT, DE, NY, PA, and RI primaries: 13 days
Countdown to Election Day: 209 days

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