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First Thoughts: Weak jobs report helps Romney get back on message

Another weak jobs report helps Romney get back on message … But Obama leads in Virginia and two words – gender gap. It’s tough to see a great path to 270 for Romney without winning Virginia. … Is McDonnell veep possibility hurt by good VA economy? … The 17 “Swing Markets” – Obama’s going to two of them this weekend … China became the political story yesterday … Romney and religion, the need to coalesce but reach out to swing voters … Santorum, Romney meet, but no endorsement expected today … Romney addresses Grennell … and Lugar’s last chance: the last big weekend of campaigning in Indiana. It’s statesmanship vs. the Tea Party (and the Tea Party’s winning).

NBC’s Chuck Todd, Domenico Montanaro, Natalie Cucchiara, and Brooke Brower

Jewel Samad / AFP - Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event in Chantilly, Virginia, on May 2, 2012.

*** Another weak jobs report helps Romney get back on message: The bin Laden anniversary, a secret trip to Afghanistan to announce staying in that country for 10 more years and simultaneously the ending of the war as we know it, a diplomatic crisis, a presidential candidate drops out, and the latest report on the most important number this election – unemployment. All in a week’s work. It was another weak jobs report. Just 115,000 jobs were added, though the unemployment rate dropped to 8.1 percent,” and CNBC notes that the rate dropped because there were fewer people in the workforce. It was clear in the last NBC/WSJ poll that economic optimism had flat-lined. These jobs reports do have an impact on how people view the economy. We noted earlier in the week that Romney was having a tough week because of all the national security news that dominated. This will allow him to get back on message for a month. “This is not progress. This is very, very disappointing,” Romney said this morning. The upside inside the report was the fact that job gains were revised UPWARD for BOTH February and March, accounting for SOME of the drop in unemployment. But again, the shrinking workforce is the story.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd talks about the April jobs report, in which unemployment fell to 8.1 percent with the economy adding just 115,000 more jobs.

*** Obama leads in Virginia: With Romney in Virginia yesterday, the Washington Post is out with a poll poll in Virginia, where Obama leads 51%-44% over Romney. It’s the fifth swing state poll in two days – WI, FL, OH, PA, VA. What have we learned from those? Romney’s got a lot of work to do. The common denominator on all these – we thought he might get a bump after being the de facto nominee, and while he showed improvement in some places, particularly Florida, he didn’t get much of a bump out of becoming the nominee. Virginia may very well be the scariest state for Romney. If Obama wins Virginia, he could win the White House without FL or OH. If Romney loses Virginia, he doesn’t have a path if he also doesn’t win any of the swing states out West.

*** Virginia, not just for lovers, but also for candidates – but two words – gender gap: Assuming the West becomes out of reach due to the GOP’s problems with Hispanics, then Romney HAS to win one of the following four: PA, VA, WI, or MI. And of those four, Virginia is clearly the most winnable. And of all the swing states, Virginia’s was closest to the national number in 2008. And it has moved with where the country has moved from 2005 forward. “I think most would say it's a very tough path for a Republican to win the presidency without winning Virginia,” said Gov. Bob McDonnell, who appeared with Romney yesterday. “So that's why you see Mitt here last night, today and he'll be here next week a couple times. This is clearly on the top of his list. The president's here today and the president's here on Saturday, so everybody knows Virginia's in play.” Digging deeper into the Washington Post poll and one result stands out above all others: the gender gap. If you didn’t think before that the fight over transvaginal ultrasounds hurt the GOP, then simply look at this gender gap in this poll. That fight did damage to the GOP’s brand with suburban women.

*** The Swing Markets: There are swing states and then there are swing MARKETS inside those swing states. And it’s these swing markets, where you’ll not just see TV ad spending but the candidates themselves. Our ad-tracking partners, SMG Delta crunched the numbers to break down the 17 “swing markets” within the broader group of battleground states. These are the ONLY media markets in these 12 battleground states where Bush won in 2004 and Obama won in 2008. We break down the list of those places here. Interestingly, Virginia sports three of the 17 markets (including Richmond) and Ohio sports two of the 17 (including Columbus). And where’s the president going for his first two official campaign events on Saturday? Richmond, VA, and Columbus, OH. By the way, margins in media markets matter as much as whether a candidate carries it. For instance, Colorado does not have a “swing” market. Kerry and Obama BOTH won the Denver-market. Obama just won it by a MUCH larger margin.

*** China rising: We noted yesterday that the story of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng would become a political story, and did it ever – with Chen himself even calling into a Capitol Hill hearing. Romney criticized the Obama administration, charging that yesterday was “a day of shame for the Obama administration." Romney wasn’t very specific about would he’d do if he were president, but an aide indicated to NBCPolitics.com’s Mike O’Brien that Romney would have offered him asylum. State Department spokesman Mark Toner contended, however, “You cannot achieve political asylum unless you are outside of the country you are trying to flee.” This morning China says Chen can apply to study abroad, which seems like a way for everyone to save face. We can’t imagine Secretary Clinton leaving China without a firm deal in place.

*** Quick on the trigger: Romney rolled the dice a tad by deciding to jump on the Chen story. Yes he couched his comments with “If the media reports are true” but what if they aren’t. There’s a backstory here that no one is quite sure of. Why not wait a day? Why not wait two days until all the facts are known and the Secretary of State is back in the country? Of course, Republicans might argue that they put pressure on the administration to fight for Chen. This morning, Clinton, by the way, said, “All of our efforts with Mr. Chen have been guided by his choices and our values,” per NBC’s Sarah Blackwill. “And I'm pleased that today our ambassador has spoken with him, our embassy staff and our doctor had a chance to meet with him and he confirms he and his family now want to go the United States, so he can pursue his studies. In that regard, we are also encouraged by the official statement issued today by the Chinese government confirming that he can apply to travel abroad for this purpose.”

*** Close up: Romney was asked by local NBC Virginia affiliate WAVY if he believed his religion was part of the reason conservatives were slow to embrace him. Romney replied, “I've got great support from evangelical voters - a number of states that we had primaries in I was the leading contender.” Evangelicals were not a strength for Romney; it’s a big reason he lost South Carolina and didn’t win a single culturally Southern state. He won evangelicals in NH, MA, FL, NV, VT, MD, VA (where only he and Paul were on the ballot). He acknowledged, though, “I know there will be a narrative perhaps to that degree….” But he said, “I want all elements of our party to come together and support me, but I also have to get those folks that are the undecideds, the independent voters, women voters, Hispanic voters, young people, I've got to get them, too.” How tough has this pivot been for Romney? AP notes today that members of the Mormon Church are nervous about the church coming into the spotlight, having again to defend the church amidst “vetting” that “will take place amid the emotion of what may well be a nasty general election.”

*** McDonnell hurt by good VA economy ironically? McDonnell noted yesterday that Virginia has the lowest unemployment rate in the Southeast, and he’s running sunny ads about the state of the Virginia economy. If you’re wondering how he did in the audition, he might not make as much sense now, because he throws Romney off his “bad economy” message a bit. McDonnell would argue that it’s because of his pro-business policies that have helped create jobs in the state. But it’s hard to have it both ways. "Remember three and a half years ago, we heard that tune about hope and change?" McDonnell said. "Now what do we have? We have recession, division and malaise. It’s time for a change, don't you think?" But when you peel back the onion of the Virginia economy, you realize just how much the federal government is such a vital part of the economy. Two words: defense contractors.

*** Santorum, Romney meeting but not expected to appear together publicly: Romney will appear with Rick Santorum on his home turf in Pittsburgh today, but there isn’t expected to be an endorsement and, NBC’s Andrew Rafferty reports, the two aren’t even expected to appear together PUBLICLY. Santorum is really running out of political capital here – whatever’s left of it. Even Michele Bachmann, who once said Romney couldn’t beat Barack Obama, endorsed him yesterday. As AP’s Phil Elliott pointed out, Santorum endorsed Jon Bruning yesterday in the Nebraska Senate primary, but still hadn’t yet endorsed Romney. Romney holds an event at noon ET. The last time Pittsburgh hosted one of these meetings was for Bush-McCain.

*** Romney addresses Grennell – ‘wanted him to stay’: Mitt Romney address the Richard Grennell controversy for the first time this morning on FOX. “We wanted him to stay with our team,” he said, per NBC’s Garrett Haake. “He's a very accomplished spokesperson. We select people not based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation... We select based on ability.”

*** Big weekend of campaigning in IN and WI: It’s the last chance for Richard Lugar to turn the tide in his bid to retain his Senate seat against upstart Tea Party challenger Richard Mourdock, the state treasurer. Bloomberg today sums it up – pitting Lugar’s “statesmanship” against Mourdock’s fight for conservative purity. In Wisconsin, two Democrats – Kathleen Falk and Tom Barrett have their last chances to sell Democrats on why they would be best to take on the well-funded Gov. Scott Walker, in the recall fight. Barrett is favored by double-digits, according to a poll out Wednesday.

*** Get the NBC Politics app:  Get the power of our political reporting and analysis where and when you want it with the new NBC Politics app. Get the latest stories and video from First Read, The Daily Rundown,  Meet the Press, and more. Read our daily Tip Sheet to stay in-the-know with Decision 2012 and check out our national and state contest results. The app features an exclusive battleground map game that allows readers to carve out each candidate’s path to 270. Share those maps with us via Facebook or NBCPolitics.com and we might feature them online on air. Download it now for your iPad or iPhone. In this week’s Press Pass, David Gregory interviews actor Robert DeNiro from near Ground Zero. And check the blog this afternoon for The Week Ahead and The Week That Was.

*** The schedule: President Obama speaks against about student loan interest rates, this time at a high school in Arlington, VA, at 11:50 am ET. Then he hosts the 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball champion Kentucky Wildcats at the White House at 4:50 pm ET. … Vice President Biden speaks about women’s issues at the YWCA Annual Conference in DC at 1:15 pm ET.

Countdown to Indiana Senate/Wisconsin recall primaries: 4
Countdown to Wisconsin recall election: 32
Countdown to Election Day: 186 days

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