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First Thoughts: A tricky situation

Obama now faces tricky foreign-policy situation… And he has new questions to answer… Why Romney went there… And why it backfired… Obama piles on… Conservatives blame the media… New NBC/WSJ/Marist polls coming out tonight at 6:30 pm ET… Romney stumps in Fairfax, VA at 11:35 am ET, while Obama campaigns in Golden, CO at 1:00 pm ET… And Mitch McConnell hires Ron Paul’s campaign manager to run his re-election effort.

*** A tricky situation: There’s no question that Mitt Romney had a rough day yesterday. But putting Romney aside, there is a much bigger story going on: President Obama is dealing with a full-fledged foreign policy crisis, and it’s a crisis some 50 days before the election. As he admitted in his interview with Telemundo last night, Egypt right now isn’t an ally and it isn’t an enemy. In Libya was the attack on the embassy there an organized terrorist attack? (It turns out that the U.S. is moving war ships there.) And this morning, we’ve learned that hundreds stormed the U.S. embassy in Yemen. And this all comes on top of the Israeli government trying to pressure the Obama administration to do more to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. You wonder if Team Obama learned the lesson that Romney and campaign forgot yesterday: Everything gets amplified this close to an election. And what’s being amplified right now is a potentially serious situation in the Middle East.

*** And questions for Obama to answer: There are a TON of questions that the Obama administration now has to answer. Do we have an intelligence gap in Libya? Why weren’t extra security precautions being taken in Libya and Egypt? (After all, the White House let the word out that extra security precautions were being taken to protect Americans abroad on 9/11.) After Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009, where does the U.S. now stand with the Muslim world? And was the decision to nudge Mubarak out of power the right call? And the questions could go on… but they’re a reminder that while, yes, Romney had a very bad day yesterday, Obama could be in for some very tough weeks ahead.

*** Why Romney went there: With Romney trailing in the polls after the conventions, you understand why he tried to seize politically on embassy attacks in Egypt and Libya. It was maybe an opportunity to change the narrative of the race and possibly get a “You didn’t build that” moment on foreign policy, which hasn’t been a strength for him in this race. But more than that, Romney has been itching to have a fight on foreign policy and national security, even though his campaign has been so focused on the economy. For years, Romney has built up a narrative about Obama that -- despite the polls and bin Laden’s death -- the current president is just another weak Jimmy Carter. Remember, his book is called “No Apology.” So when his aides showed him the original Cairo embassy statement, which apologized for the anti-Muslim movie, he approved a press release that attacked Obama for it, the New York Times says. “In his mind … the Obama administration was aligning itself with those who would do harm to the United States. Already on the defensive for not mentioning Afghanistan in his convention speech and losing some ground in recent polls, Mr. Romney saw an opportunity to draw a stark contrast.” 

*** And why it backfired: But there were three big reasons why Romney’s attack backfired. The first concerned the facts. Romney’s statement criticized the Obama administration for sympathizing “with those who waged the attacks.” And in his news conference yesterday morning, the Republican said, “The embassy in Cairo put out a statement after their grounds had been breached.” But that is not correct. The embassy statement came out BEFORE the attacks, as NBC’s timeline makes crystal clear. The second reason why it backfired was the timing. Romney’s political attacks (in his statement and subsequent press conference) came right before and then after we learned that the U.S. ambassador to Libya (and three others) died. And it created a contrast where you had President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton mourning the loss of life, versus Romney who making a political attack. And the third reason why it backfired was that the original Cairo embassy statement didn’t come from Obama’s mouth or Clinton’s -- but rather from a senior public affairs officer in Cairo (who reportedly ignored specific instructions not to issue the press release). So Romney linking this directly to Obama -- and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus tweeting “Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic” -- was either a stretch or incorrect. 

*** Obama piles on: While President Obama refrained from politics when he mourned the loss of American lives yesterday morning, he later stuck a rhetorical dagger in Romney’s gut when he was asked by CBS about Romney’s response. “Gov. Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," he said. "As president, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that. It's important for you to make sure that the statements you make are backed up by the facts, and that you thought through the ramifications before you make them." And he gave a similar answer in a subsequent interview with Telemundo. It was an interesting decision by the president to wade into the political fray rather than try to stay above it.

*** Blame the media! After Romney’s rough day yesterday, we’ve seen conservative voices blame the media. John Podhoretz, in the New York Post, says “it is the view of much of the mainstream media and foreign-policy establishment that discussing these horrific events in the course of the presidential campaign is monstrous.” And in an editorial entitled “Romney Offends the Pundits,” the Wall Street Journal writes that Romney’s “political faux pax was to offend a pundit class that wants to cede the foreign policy debate to Mr. Obama without thinking seriously about the trouble for America that is building in the world.” But here’s what we don’t understand from both conservatives and liberals who blame the media in instances like this: They say on the one hand that the media doesn’t matter, and then on the other hand say it’s the media’s fault when something goes wrong. They can’t have it both ways. And here’s a final thing to remember: It is always losing campaigns – Democratic or Republican – that end up blaming the media. Also, there’s a crying-wolf aspect to media bias charges that critics ought to think about. We know, there’s a professional class that make their living searching for bias. But just because you think you see it, it doesn’t mean it’s there. Sometimes a bad day is a bad day.

*** New FL, OH, and VA polls coming out tonight: Yesterday, we wrote how Florida is becoming a must-win state for Romney, and we also noted how the Obama campaign is launching a massive ad buy in the Sunshine State. Well today, we’ll have data about where the race in Florida – as well in Ohio and Virginia -- currently stands. At 6:30 pm ET, we’ll unveil brand-new NBC/WSJ/Marist polls on these three important battleground states. In fact, starting this week, we’ll be releasing polls from three different battleground states each week until Election Day.

*** More on the ad spending race: Here’s another way to look at this week’s ad-spending data that we reported on yesterday. The Obama campaign is slightly outspending Romney in every state but North Carolina. But when you factor in the outside groups, Team Obama is outspending Team Romney in Colorado, Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, while Team Romney is dominant on the airwaves in Iowa, Virginia, Nevada, and North Carolina.

*** On the trail: Romney holds a rally in Fairfax, VA at 11:35 am ET… Obama campaigns in Golden, CO at 1:00 pm ET… Biden stumps in Wisconsin… First Lady Michelle Obama is in Virginia… And Paul Ryan is on Capitol Hill.

*** McConnell taps top Ron Paul aide to run re-election campaign: And finally, look at this -- Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), preparing for his re-election fight in 2014, has hired former Ron Paul Campaign Manager Jesse Benton to run his campaign. The AP: “McConnell announced Thursday that he hired Jesse Benton to oversee a campaign that's still two years away and still lacking an opponent. Benton most recently led the Republican presidential race of Texas Congressman Ron Paul, whom many consider the father of the tea party movement.” If you’re potentially worried about  a Tea Party challenge, this is a smart move…

Countdown to 1st presidential debate: 20 days
Countdown to VP debate: 28 days
Countdown to 2nd presidential debate: 33 days
Countdown to 3rd presidential debate: 39 days
Countdown to Election Day: 54 days

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