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First Thoughts: Is Bain fair game?

Is Bain fair game? Rattner and Booker (initially) say no… Team Obama says yes… While Booker backtracked in his criticism, what he said on “Meet” hurt the Obama campaign… But remember this when it comes to Bain: There’s a BIG disconnect between opinions in the Acela Corridor vs. the Industrial Midwest… We’ll have some new polls to measure what’s happened in the past three weeks… Putting Afghanistan in the rearview mirror… New York Times examines Romney’s faith… And two weeks out from the Wisconsin recall.

Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks to supporters in front of Sawyer Bridge during a campaign event in Hillsborough, New Hampshire May 18, 2012.

*** Is Bain fair game? Early last week, former White House “car czar” Steve Rattner said it was “unfair” for the Obama campaign to spotlight the layoffs, reduced benefits, and lower salaries that took place under Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital. As Rattner put it on MSNBCs’ Morning Joe, “This is part of capitalism. This is part of life.” (But Rattner also said, “Mitt Romney made a mistake ever talking about the fact that it created 100,000 jobs. Bain Capital’s responsibility was not to create 100,000 jobs or some other number. It was to make profits for its investors.”) And yesterday on “Meet the Press,” Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) also criticized the Obama camp’s hits on Bain. “I have to just say from a very personal level I'm not about to sit here and indict private equity… If you look at the totality of Bain Capital's record they've done a lot to support businesses, to grow businesses. And this to me, I'm very uncomfortable with.” So in these tellings, attacks on Romney’s business record aren’t fair game. Bain is a successful business -- end of discussion.

*** Obama camp keeps playing the Bain card: Yet in the Obama campaign’s telling, Bain is more than fair game. If Romney is going to make his Bain record the central rationale of his candidacy -- more so than his four years as Massachusetts governor -- and if he’s going to take credit for job gains created under Bain, then it’s only fair to point out examples when Bain-controlled companies took on huge debt, slashed worker pay and benefits, laid off employees and filed for bankruptcy, all while Bain investors made money, they argue. Think of it this way, they say: If a presidential candidate says that the education reforms he enacted as a governor are the centerpiece of his presidential bid, then it would be only fair to examine those reforms. Did they work? How well? Can that experience work at the federal level? Those are the kind of questions the Obama campaign wants to raise with Bain, and they’re back today with a new video and conference call (at 11:30 am ET today) on Bain Capital’s layoffs at SCM/Ampad in Indiana.

*** But what Booker said hurt Team Obama: As it turns out, that’s the message that Booker eventually said in a follow-up video. (Think someone in Obama World gave him call? He doesn’t make a YouTube simply to deal with angry Tweeters does he?) “Mitt Romney has made his business record a centerpiece of his campaign. Therefore, it is reasonable -- and I encourage it -- for the Obama campaign to examine that record and discuss it,” Booker said in it. But make no mistake: What Booker initially said on “Meet the Press” did no favors for Team Obama, and it had to make Team Romney smile. Mitt Romney and his surrogates can now say, “Even Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker has called these types of attack unfair…” (*** UPDATE *** Indeed, here's the Romney camp's response to the new web video: "President Obama continues his assault on the free enterprise system with attacks that one of his supporters, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, called 'nauseating' and a former adviser, Steven Rattner, called 'unfair.'... Americans expected a different kind of politics from Barack Obama but, sadly, this is just more of the same failed politics that dominates Washington.") More than anything else, Booker’s initial comments are proof that Republicans know how the play the message game better than Democrats. Does anyone think Chris Christie (R) would contradict a central Romney narrative?

*** The Acela Corridor vs. the Industrial Midwest: But here’s a final point we want to make about Bain. For all the criticism the attacks receive in the Acela Corridor (on Wall Street, NY, and DC), remember that economic populism often plays VERY WELL in Peoria, IL; Elkhart, IN; Toledo, OH; and Green Bay, WI. After all, Bain has hurt Mitt Romney twice in his political career -- first in his 1994 Senate bid and then for an entire month in the 2012 GOP presidential primary. And for Romney to get 270 electoral votes, he’s going to need to win somewhere in the Industrial Midwest -- either Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin. It’s why the Obama camp isn’t going to stop with Bain, even if it creates bad headlines in the op-ed pages that are usually kind to them.

*** Measuring the past three weeks: So much has happened over the past three weeks. The back-and-forth over Bain. Obama’s gay-marriage announcement. The April jobs report. Obama’s campaign kick-offs in Ohio and Virginia. And the Osama bin Laden anniversary. How did they all shape the Obama-vs.-Romney presidential contest? Well, we have a brand-new national NBC/WSJ poll coming out tomorrow. And we’ll have some new NBC/Marist battleground state surveys coming out later in the week. Suffice it to say: We’ll have a good idea where things stand in the presidential contest before you leave for Memorial Day…

*** Putting Afghanistan in the rearview mirror: Of course, another story that’s playing is Afghanistan, which has consumed the NATO talks in Chicago. Reuters: “At a summit in Chicago, leaders of the 28-nation alliance will endorse plans for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force to hand over command of all combat missions to Afghan forces by the middle of 2013 and for the withdrawal of most of the 130,000 foreign troops by the end of 2014.” Here’s the Obama White House’s goal: to get Afghanistan in the rearview mirror and turn back to domestic politics. Even Mitt Romney paid scant attention to Afghanistan in his Chicago Tribune op-ed over the weekend. Seriously, the op-ed was remarkable for its lack of attention to the war strategy.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd talks about the mission for the White House for both summits.

*** ‘Cause I gotta have faith: Speaking of Romney, Sunday’s New York Times took a front-page look at the role his faith has played in his life and political career. “Now, as the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Mr. Romney speaks so sparingly about his faith — he and his aides frequently stipulate that he does not impose his beliefs on others — that its influence on him can be difficult to detect.  But dozens of the candidate’s friends, fellow church members and relatives describe a man whose faith is his design for living. The church is by no means his only influence, and its impact cannot be fully untangled from that of his family, which is also steeped in Mormonism. But being a Latter-day Saint is ‘at the center of who he really is, if you scrape everything else off,’ said Randy Sorensen, who worshiped with Mr. Romney in church.” The piece says what we have for months: This HUGE part of Romney – his faith – has been ignored by the candidate and the presidential campaign. Arguably, it’s the decision by Romney and his campaign team to ignore this part of his biography that could be creating the perception that Romney doesn’t know how to connect. Perhaps he does, but it’s through his faith and because he’s publicly guarded it stiffens him.

*** On the trail: Romney is raising money in New York City.

*** Wisconsin recall -- two weeks out: We are now two weeks away from the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall, and here are some moving parts. First, the Tom Barrett (D) campaign is up with a TV ad hitting Scott Walker (R) for the “John Doe investigation.” Second, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel endorsed Walker over the weekend, saying his recall from office isn’t justified. “Walker's rematch with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was prompted by one issue: Walker's tough stance with the state's public-employee unions. It's inconceivable that the recall election would be occurring absent that. And a disagreement over a single policy is simply not enough to justify a vote against the governor.”

Countdown to WI recall: 15 days
Countdown to GOP convention: 98 days
Countdown to Dem convention: 105 days
Countdown to Election Day: 169 days

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