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First Thoughts: Getting nasty

Getting nasty: So much for that debate about big ideas and sharp contrasts… The strategy (and danger) for Romney calling out Obama for engaging in a campaign of “division and anger and hate”… Will the GOP’s 2010 playbook on Medicare work in 2012?... Ryan ducks question on tax reform… Good Biden vs. Bad Biden… Team Romney’s newest Spanish-language TV ad… Panetta: Don’t forget there’s a war going on… And wrapping up last night’s primaries: Tommy Thompson won in Wisconsin, but it doesn’t necessarily signal that the GOP establishment is back.

The Paul Ryan pick was supposed to kick-off a high-minded campaign on the issues. However, over the last 24 hours, the attacks from both sides have reached a new level of vitriol. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports.

*** Getting nasty: So much for that debate about big ideas and sharp contrasts. Just days after Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan as his running mate, the presidential campaign yesterday devolved into nasty charges and countercharges. Tuesday began, according to NBC’s Carrie Dann, with Vice President Joe Biden assailing Romney and the Republicans for wanting to end the new regulations on Wall Street. “Unchain Wall Street,” he said. “They’re going to put you all back in chains.” The Romney campaign took offense to the comment, which Biden later clarified was a reference to the GOP’s rhetoric about the “unshackling” of economic forces. And Romney unloaded on President Obama in his final event on his four-day bus tour, accusing his opponent’s campaign of engaging in “division and anger and hate.” The Obama camp fired back at Romney, calling his remarks “unhinged” and “particularly strange coming at a time when he's pouring tens of millions of dollars into negative ads that are demonstrably false.” And Obama himself capped things off by twice making reference to the Romney dog that endured a family vacation on top of the Romneys’ car. So just when we thought last week’s third-grade insults (“Romney Hood” and “Obama-loney”) couldn’t get any lower, yesterday felt like the moment that both campaigns dug in and truly started hating each other.

The presidential candidates and their running mates take swipes at one another while campaigning in the Midwest, criticizing the other's fiscal and energy plans. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

*** The strategy here (and danger) for Romney: What’s fascinating is the Romney campaign’s decision to bring a gun to a knife fight yesterday. It could have knocked Biden for making yet another gaffe or another odd statement. But instead, it decided to step on the gas and use the harshest language possible -- “anger” and “hate” -- against Obama. And there seems to be an obvious strategy here: The Romney camp seems intent on muddying the Obama brand to narrow the likeability gap; it’s too hard to bring Romney up to Obama’s favorability levels, so they want to drag him down instead. But there also is a potential danger here for Romney: For one thing, he opens himself up to criticism that he can dish out the attacks (see those constant references to Obama apologizing for America or not understanding America), but that he can’t take them. And two, the entire conversation about negativity distracts from Romney’s message. After all, we’re no longer talking about the economy or Romney’s plan, or now even his new running mate.

*** Will the GOP’s 2010 playbook work in 2012? In addition to those charges and countercharges, the Romney campaign unveiled a new TV ad, attacking Obama for making cuts to Medicare. “You've paid into Medicare for years -- every paycheck,” the ad goes. “Now that you need it, Obama cut $716 billion from Medicare. Why? To pay for ObamaCare.” The Romney campaign is trying to do two things here: 1) make it clear they’re playing on offense on the dicey topic of Medicare, and 2) signal to the rest of the Republican Party that they’re going to provide air cover in this battle that’s traditionally been on Democratic turf. As NBCNews.com’s Mike O’Brien writes, this ad suggests that Republicans are taking a page out of their 2010 playbook on Medicare, and it worked for them during the midterms. But here’s the question: Does that playbook work AFTER House Republicans passed the Ryan budget in 2011 and 2012? After all, the Ryan budget doesn’t just make cuts in Medicare; it substantially transforms the program. Here’s another question: Can Republicans win by attacking their own ideology (that Medicare cuts need to be made!)? We’re getting numb to campaigns launching disingenuous TV attack ads. But this one is amazing because it pretty much undermines the GOP’s own belief system on entitlements.

DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz tells TODAY's Matt Lauer that Mitt Romney decision to run with Paul Ryan, who she said has a record of slashing spending and offering the rich tax breaks, threatens middle class families.

*** Ryan ducks question on tax reform: One of the strengths of Ryan’s selection as Romney’s running mate is that he isn’t perceived as your typical politician -- he’s willing to stand up for his beliefs and plans. But what did Ryan do in his first big TV interview yesterday? He sounded like a typical politician. When FOX’s Brit Hume asked Ryan to identify the tax loopholes he and Romney would close to pay for their big tax breaks, the Wisconsin congressman ducked the question. "That is something that we think we should do in the light of day, through Congress," Ryan said. “So no, the point I'm trying to say is, we want feedback from Americans about what priorities in the tax code should be kept, and what special interest loopholes we want to get rid of." In other words, Ryan said we’ll do this in the light of ANOTHER day, not this one. It’s what a typical politician says -- not a truth teller

Travis Long / AP

Vice President Joe Biden speaks to campaign supporters Monday, Aug. 13, 2012, during a rally at the Durham Armory in Durham, N.C.

*** Good Biden vs. Bad Biden: The good with Joe Biden (his appeal with white working-class voters, his middle-class roots) also comes with the bad (the gaffes, the ability for him to put his foot in his mouth). And yesterday, as we mentioned above, there was some of the bad. Biden blasted Romney and the Republicans for wanting to end the new regulations on Wall Street. “Unchain Wall Street,” he said. “They’re going to put you all back in chains.” The Romney campaign took offense to the comment, which Biden later clarified was a reference to the GOP’s rhetoric about the “unshackling” of economic forces. It’s still hard for us to ascertain if Biden’s “chains” comment was referring to Romney and the Republicans or to the banks. But it was typical Biden: His mouth sometimes moving faster than his brain. And it’s why you’ll continue to see the Obama campaign keep Biden in safe places.

*** Team Romney’s newest Spanish-language TV ad: The Romney camp is up with a new Spanish-language TV ad. It begins with Obama declaring “Yes we can,” but then a narrator asks (in Spanish): “Can we accept that half of our youth cannot find work upon finishing college? Can we continue with more than 10% unemployment among Hispanics? Can we tolerate that with Obama and Democrats there are two million more poor Hispanics?”

*** Panetta: Don’t forget there’s a war going on: As the campaigns battle over the economy, Medicare, and the negativity of the race, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters yesterday that there’s still a war going on – one that the candidates rarely talk about. “I realize that there are a lot of other things going on around this country that can draw our attention, from the Olympics, to political campaigns to droughts, to some of the tragedies we’ve seen in communities around the country,” Panetta said a press briefing yesterday, per Politico. “I thought it was important to remind the American people that there is a war going on.”

*** On the trail: Obama -- joined by the first lady -- concludes his three-day bus tour through Iowa with stops in Dubuque (at 1:25 pm ET) and East Davenport (at 6:25 pm ET)… Romney raises money in Alabama and North Carolina… Biden continues to campaign in Virginia, while Ryan stumps in Ohio… And Romney surrogates across the country hold “Obama Raiding Medicare” events.

*** Wrapping up last night’s primaries: In last night’s most-watched primary, former Gov. Tommy Thompson won the GOP Senate primary in Wisconsin. But before we proclaim that the “GOP establishment is back,” do note this: The longest-serving governor in Wisconsin history won a GOP primary getting just 34% in a four-person race. If anything, Thompson proves that the establishment can win – if three other folks are dividing up the anti-establishment/Tea Party/Club for Growth vote. In other primaries last night, Connie Mack won the Florida GOP Senate primary, and he’ll face off against Sen. Bill Nelson (D) in the fall. And in Connecticut, the Senate contest there will be Linda McMahon (R) vs. Chris Murphy (D).

Countdown to GOP convention: 12 days
Countdown to Dem convention: 19 days
Countdown to 1st presidential debate: 49 days
Countdown to VP debate: 57 days
Countdown to 2nd presidential debate: 62 days
Countdown to 3rd presidential debate: 68 days
Countdown to Election Day: 83 days

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