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First Thoughts: Changing the tone

New Obama TV ad tries to change the tone… It’s NBC/WSJ poll day! Full survey is released beginning at 6:30 pm ET… Focusing on foreign policy before Romney’s overseas trip and his VFW speech today at 2:00 pm ET… Romney’s foreign-policy challenge: To put more meat on the bone… Another challenge: Can he make the case his foreign policy would be different than Bush’s?... Obama pushes back against “you didn’t build that”… Romney yesterday criticized Obama on the economy… And profiling Chris Christie’s potential VP strengths and weaknesses.

Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

President Barack Obama waves after speaking during a campaign event at the Fox Theatre in Oakland, California, on July 23, 2012.

*** Changing the tone: After the tragic shooting in Colorado and after last week’s back-and-forth -- over Bain Capital, Romney’s taxes, and Obama’s “You didn’t build that” remark -- we noted last Friday how small the presidential campaign had become. Well, apparently President Obama now agrees: He uses the word “small” to describe today’s politics in a brand-new 60-second TV ad. In the spot, the president looks to the camera and says, “Over the next four months, you have a choice to make. Not just between two political parties, or even two people. It’s a choice between two very different plans for our country.” Obama continues in it, “Gov. Romney’s plan would cut taxes for the folks at the very top, roll back regulations on big banks… But you know what? We tried that top-down approach. It’s what caused the mess in the first place.” He goes on, “I believe the only way to create an economy built to last is to strengthen the middle class, asking the wealthy to pay a little more … so that we can afford to invest in education, manufacturing, and home-grown American energy.” And Obama concludes, “Sometimes politics can seem very small. But the choice you face, it couldn’t be bigger.”

In the ad, President Barack Obama laments the negative tone of the campaign his side is at least 50 percent responsible for at this time. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports.

*** Why now? This is the kind of TV ad you’d expect to see at the end of a campaign or the beginning. So why now? One obvious explanation is that the race has become negative, and this ad is an effort to seize a higher ground and maybe repair the collateral damage from his own negative ads. Another explanation is that the TV ad market in battleground states has become SO saturated that this is an attempt -- by having the president speak directly to the camera in a 60-second spot -- to break through the clutter. In fact, as one of us watched the 7:00 pm ET hour of NBC last night in the DC area (battleground Virginia), we spotted two Obama ads, one Romney ad, one RNC ad, and one American Crossroads ad. Phew…

*** NBC/WSJ poll day! Has the negativity taken a toll on Obama and Romney? How do they match up on the issues? And who leads in the presidential horserace? Well, we have a brand-new NBC/WSJ poll we’re unveiling tonight that has answers to these questions. So be sure to tune into NBC “Nightly News,” or click on to NBCNews.com, beginning at 6:30 pm ET to see the results from our poll.

*** Focusing on foreign policy: With Mitt Romney today addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars and tomorrow departing on his six-day overseas trip, the campaign focus turns to foreign policy. (And this focus might not happen again until the fall debates.) While President Obama remains vulnerable on the economy, foreign affairs/national security is another story. There's the end of the Iraq war, the scheduled end of combat operations in Afghanistan, the killing of bin Laden, and the destruction of much of al Qaeda. To be sure, there have been shortcomings and unfulfilled promises -- like Middle East peace negotiations, the conflict in Syria, and closing Gitmo. During his VFW speech in Reno, NV at 2:00 pm ET, per an aide, Romney will focus on those shortcomings, outlining “how the president has relinquished our leadership role in the world, and how we’re just now reaping the consequences.”

*** One challenge for Romney: putting more meat on the bone: Still, foreign policy is a big strength for Obama heading into the fall. Almost every poll shows that. And that's the context for Romney's overseas trip -- for this former one-term governor to demonstrate his foreign-policy chops and put more meat on the bone. So far, Romney’s foreign-policy statements have seemed more like a political strategy (to sound strong and to outflank Obama) rather a clear foreign-policy outlook. On Afghanistan, for example, he said at one GOP debate that “It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can,” but at another debate vowed to defeat the Taliban there, which would only prolong the war. On Iran, Romney has said that he’ll prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon while Obama’s re-election would ensure that outcome. However, his recommendations for how to handle Iran -- crippling economic sanctions, standing by Israel -- are exactly the same policies the Obama administration has pursued. As a Romney foreign-policy adviser told the New York Times’ David Sanger back in May, “‘Romney doesn’t want to really engage these issues until he is in office’ and for now was ‘just happy to leave the impression that when Obama says he’ll stop an Iranian bomb he doesn’t mean it, and Mitt does.’” Again, it’s a political strategy, not a foreign-policy vision.

*** Another challenge: Can he make the case his policies would be different than Bush’s? Remember: A president can have a MUCH LARGER impact on foreign policy than on domestic affairs. Of course, back in 2008, then-candidate Obama faced his own foreign-policy challenges. Obama said he'd meet with unsavory world leaders without pre-negotiations. Also, critics -- both Republicans and Democrats -- called him naïve for saying he'd take action in Pakistan against al Qaeda if that country refused to move on actionable intelligence. (Then again, that's how the U.S. took out bin Laden.) And back in ’08, Obama was a one-term senator whose biggest foreign-policy credential was sitting on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But Romney has an additional challenge as we noted yesterday: After campaigning with John Bolton, hobnobbing with Condi Rice, and raising money with Dick Cheney, can Romney make the case that his foreign policy would be different than the Bush years? Or does he even need to? Don’t forget: The Bush political baggage for the GOP has always been greater on the international front than on the domestic front.

*** Obama pushes back against “You didn’t build that”: NBC’s Kristen Welker and Ali Weinberg report that Obama, at a San Francisco fundraiser last night, pushed back against the GOP’s latest hit on Obama for saying, “If you own a business -- you didn’t build that.” Obama accused Romney of “knowingly twisting my words around to suggest that I don’t value small business,” adding: “When folks just like, omit entire sentences of what you said, they start kind of slicing and dicing… he may have gone a little over the edge there.” And the campaign has released a new video responding to this Romney/GOP charge. What’s more, the New Hampshire Union Leader yesterday reported that the star of Romney’s TV ad hitting Obama over “you didn’t build that” received “some government help for his business, albeit a long time ago.”

*** Romney again hits Obama on the economy: Meanwhile, Romney attended his own California fundraiser yesterday, where he resumed his attacks on the Obama’s economic politics, NBC’s Garrett Haake observed. Romney criticized what he said was the president's failure to "do what's necessary," to pull the United States out of a recession. "Instead, he pursued his liberal agenda," Romney told a crowd of some 400 donors. "He's a liberal through and through." Also yesterday, Romney gave an interview to CNBC’s Larry Kudlow. Here’s the lead from USA Today on that interview: “Mitt Romney said … he believes new gun legislation is unnecessary and defended an assault-weapons ban he signed into law as Massachusetts governor.” Said Romney: “With emotions so high right now, this is really not a time to be talking about the politics associated with what happened in Aurora. I still believe that the Second Amendment is the right course to preserve and defend and don't believe that new laws are going to make a difference in this type of tragedy."

*** On the trail: In addition to Romney’s VFW speech, President Obama raises money in Oregon and Washington state… And First Lady Michelle Obama campaigns in Ohio.

*** VEEPSTAKES: Chris Christie’s VP strengths… : He is the “bold” pick -- a firebrand, who doesn’t shirk from a fight. That demeanor fires up the base, which loves a fight and wants someone to take that fight to President Obama… Christie also is seen as a problem solver, someone willing to deliver tough medicine, especially to public workers, in order to balance a budget. That would appeal to those who believe the top issue facing the country is its debt and deficits… The bottom line is if you want a fighter, Christie’s your guy, but you’re guaranteed a fight – at the No. 2 position

*** … and weaknesses: Though Christie’s demeanor might fire up the base, it might not necessarily appeal to independents… Then there’s his weight: There would be legitimate health issues raised about his readiness to be president with the rigors that come with the job… The New York Times reported that Romney was irked that Christie lack of promptness… He could take some of the attention away from the principal and be a distraction… And he canceled largest infrastructure project in the country and then a congressional investigation found he “exaggerated when he declared that unforeseen costs to the state were forcing him to cancel” it, the New York Times reported.

Countdown to GOP convention: 34 days
Countdown to Dem convention: 41 days
Countdown to Election Day: 105 days

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