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First Thoughts: A more moderate Mitt returns?

A more moderate Mitt returns?…. How will conservatives react?... Questions about Romney’s “redistribution” counterattack… When leaving out part of the tape… New information contradicts White House line that attack on U.S. embassy wasn’t premeditated… Romney’s money problem… And NBC/WSJ/Marist to unveil new polls of CO, IA, and WI.

NBC's Domenico Montanaro and Chris Cillizza discuss on MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports Mitt Romney's new moderate tone and new battleground polls showing an advantage for President Barack Obama.

*** A more moderate Mitt returns? After originally standing by his comments at that May fundraiser in Florida, where he was surreptitiously recorded saying that he can’t win the “47%” of Americans who are dependent on the government, Romney backed down last night. “This is a campaign about the 100%,” he said at a forum in Miami sponsored by Univision, per NBC’s Garrett Haake. But Romney did more than back down from those 47% remarks; he also softened his tone on health care, immigration, and gay rights. "Now and then the president says I’m the grandfather of Obamacare. I don’t think he meant that as a compliment, but I’ll take it,” he said, going on to praise the Massachusetts law. He also clarified his earlier remarks on self-deportation. "I said I'm not in favor of a deportation, a mass deportation effort rounding up 12 million people and kicking them out of the country," he said. "I believe people make their own choices as to whether they want to go home, and that's what I mean by self-deportation. And he added this about gay marriage: “I would like to have the term marriage continue to be associated with a relationship between one man and one woman, and that certainly doesn’t prevent two people of the same gender living in a loving relationship together having gay domestic partnership, if you will.”

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports on Mitt Romney's appearance at Univision's "Meet the Candidates."

*** How will conservatives react? Last night was the candidate many of us expected to start seeing in June or July, not in September -- it was the Romney of 2004. And on health care, we have seen Romney make moderate-sounding remarks on the subject, but then he’s had to walk them back after receiving criticism from conservatives. That’s the thing to watch today: Will we see any conservative blowback about Romney’s comments last night? Or will conservatives cut him slack for the first time this campaign because he’s on the ropes? We know the campaign is exhausted from litigating every little thing with their conservative critics, especially since it believes it’s running a more ideologically conservative campaign than any Republican in a generation.

Jim Young / Reuters

Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney arrives at Univision and Facebook's "Meet the Candidates" Forum moderated by Maria Elena Salinas and Jorge Ramos in Miami, Florida, September 19, 2012.

*** Questions about Romney’s “redistribution” counterattack: Before Romney backed down from his “47%” remarks, the campaign tried to change the subject, seizing on a 14-year-old remarks of Obama talking about “redistribution.” We have more on those 1998 comments below, but here’s a question we have: Who is that counterattack playing to outside of the conservative base? After all, Obama hasn’t exactly hid his intention to raise taxes on the wealthy to help pay down the deficit. “Now, I’ve cut taxes for those who need it -- middle-class families, small businesses,” Obama said in his convention speech earlier this month. “But I don’t believe that another round of tax breaks for millionaires will bring good jobs to our shores or pay down our deficit.” And here’s a second question: What happened to Romney’s message of jobs, jobs, jobs? The “redistribution” push smacks of a campaign trying to win a news cycle but stumbling in its attempt to have a core message.

TODAY's Matt Lauer speaks with Ed Gillespie, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, about the candidate's recent controversies and how he has handled the steady drip of bad news.

*** When leaving out part of the tape… : But here’s something else about those 1998 remarks from Obama -- they’re not the whole story. As NBC’s Mike O’Brien reported last night, the actual video of the 1998 “redistribution” comment by Obama shows the then-state senator speaking about “competition” and “the marketplace” in his VERY NEXT sentence. In the whole clip, Obama says: “I think the trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level to make sure that everybody's got a shot.” Then he adds,” How do we pool resources at the same time as we decentralize delivery systems in ways that both foster competition, can work in the marketplace, and can foster innovation at the local level and can be tailored to particular communities.” The second sentence could have been uttered by Bill Clinton or another former member of the DLC.

As both presidential candidates stump in battleground states, Mitt Romney tried to turn the page on a troubled few weeks with a message of inclusiveness at a town hall meeting in Florida. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

*** Speaking of context: Meanwhile, Republicans yesterday jumped all over a Politico piece, noting that a portion of Romney's comments in that Mother Jones video on Middle East peace (where Romney acknowledges that there could eventually be peace) had been omitted. First Read reached out to Mother Jones' David Corn, who argued that the portion wasn't included in its initial video because Romney had said it before. (Mother Jones later posted the entire video, as has NBC News.) Both of these new video revelations don’t necessarily negate what Romney also said about the Middle East (that Palestinians don’t have an interest in peace and that a two-state solution isn’t feasible), and they don’t negate that Obama talked about redistribution. But they also don’t tell the whole story.

*** Contradicting the White House’s official line: And speaking of maybe not telling the whole story, the White House maintains that the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya, which killed four Americans, wasn’t a coordinated terrorist attack. “Based on the information that we had at the time and have to this day, we do not have evidence that it was premeditated,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said yesterday. But every piece of new information suggests that al Qaeda may have had a role in that attack. Here's the Wall Street Journal: “U.S. intelligence officials are investigating indications that al Qaeda's North African affiliate is connected with militants involved in the attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya, the top U.S. counterterrorism official said, providing the first public acknowledgment of the extremist movement's possible involvement in the deadly assault.” So if U.S. intelligence officials are hinting that al Qaeda’s North African affiliate is connected to the attack, then how can the White House stick by this not “premeditated” line? The introduction of al Qaeda into the story indicates some form of pre-meditation unless were parsing “aspirational” and “opportunistic” from full-fledged pre-meditation. Given the proximity of Election Day, it’s not hard to figure out the story the White House fears on this: There was a pre-planned terrorist attack on an American ambassador on the anniversary of 9/11 of all days.

*** Romney’s money problem: As your First Read authors have been pointing out for a while now, Mitt Romney’s fundraising is not as impressive as it looks in those initial press releases. Why? Not ALL of the money the being raised by Team Romney is available for the Romney campaign to use in TV ads. The New York Times: “Despite what appears to be a plump bank account and an in-house production studio that cranks out multiple commercials a day, Mr. Romney’s campaign has been tightfisted with its advertising budget, leaving him at a disadvantage in several crucial states as President Obama blankets them with ads. One major reason appears to be that Mr. Romney’s campaign finances have been significantly less robust than recent headlines would suggest. Much of the more than $300 million the campaign reported raising this summer is earmarked for the Republican National Committee, state Republican organizations and Congressional races, limiting the money Mr. Romney’s own campaign has to spend.” The bottom line: Romney has a small donor problem; if he didn’t, he would not have had to borrow money in August against his general election funds and he wouldn’t be so reliant on these high-dollar events he’s regularly planning rallies around.

*** More polls! Looking to pore over more Obama-vs.-Romney horserace polls? Well, we’re releasing three new NBC/WSJ/Marist state surveys tonight at 6:30 pm ET -- of Colorado, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

*** On the trail: Both Obama and Romney are in Florida today: Obama, at 2:10 pm ET, attends in the Univision forum in Miami that Romney hit yesterday… Romney holds a rally in Sarasota at 3:55 pm ET… And Ann Romney campaigns in Wisconsin and Iowa… Also worth noting: NBC’s David Gregory moderates a noon ET debate between Virginia Senate candidates Tim Kaine and George Allen, and Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown square off in a debate at 7:00 pm ET.

Countdown to 1st presidential debate: 13 days
Countdown to VP debate: 21 days
Countdown to 2nd presidential debate: 26 days
Countdown to 3rd presidential debate: 32 days
Countdown to Election Day: 47 days

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