By MICHAEL FALCONE and AMY WALTER
The political fortunes of the current crop of potential Republican presidential candidates rose and fell with extraordinary volatility this week. At least one of them violated the do-no-harm clause — repeatedly — another proved that money may still be paramount, and a third seemed to increase his political net worth simply by doing nothing.
Here’s what we learned:
All About Ryan. The first shot has been fired in the 2012 campaign. Democrats are going to make Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget and Medicare overhaul plan the centerpiece of election cycle. A case-in-point comes today as one of the new Democratic fundraising groups, led by former White House communications guru Bill Burton, launches its first ad. Priorities USA Action, is trying to revive the flip-flop charge on Mitt Romney. According to the group, “In the ad, Romney is pressed on whether he stands with Newt Gingrich — who called Congressman Ryan’s plan to essentially end Medicare ‘radical’ — or Governor Nikki Haley, who said that Gingrich was cutting Ryan ‘off at the knees.’” (The spot is timed to Romney’s visit to South Carolina this weekend.) The Ryan plan was already going to be a big part of the campaign, but Gingrich opened that can of worms even further this week and now every Republican candidate is going to have to answer for it.
The Romney camp swiftly responded to the new ad this morning: "President Obama’s first campaign ad is an attack ad,” said Andrea Saul, spokeswoman for the Romney for President Exploratory Committee. “President Obama and his team are desperate to change the subject to anything other than jobs and the millions of Americans out of work. With 9.6% unemployment in South Carolina, voters are looking for a jobs plan not a smear campaign.” The fact that an outside group is taking the first shot is telling: the parties and the campaigns are going to be marginalized like never before. http://abcn.ws/mkX6No
First Impressions Matter. Former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman kicked off his debut trip to New Hampshire last night, telling ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview that if he had to do it all over again (that whole working for the guy he may soon be seeking to defeat thing), he would. “I'd do it again. Of course. I've always been trained and I hope to train my own family that when your country needs you…if there is the prospect that you can get in there and bring about change in a way that helps your country through public service, I'm there,” Huntsman told Stephanopoulos when asked about his service in the Obama administration. It’s a question he will get over and over again and how his answer plays with voters in the Granite State, in particular, could make or break his candidacy. (More on Stephanopoulos’ interview with Huntsman below). http://abcn.ws/mdZ2Ff
Second Impressions Matter Too. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich proved this lesson over and over again this week, beginning with his choice of words last Sunday to describe fellow Republican Paul Ryan’s budget plan — he called it, “right-wing social engineering” — and continuing with his attempt to walk those comments back this week. It’s almost too easy to point out how the flaws in Gingrich’s handling of the issue, from start to finish (though we’d bet it’s not quite finished since he’s going to get grilled on it again this weekend on CBS’ “Face the Nation”) reflects flaws in the former House Speaker’s candidacy. As we noted earlier this week, if the Republican primary comes down to discipline, it’s not clear that Gingrich is going anywhere fast.
Money Talks. Mitt Romney knows how to raise serious coin, and he showed us — and probably sent chills through the rest of the GOP field — earlier this week after a dialing-for-dollars event in Las Vegas netted him more than $10 million in a single day. “As today’s event makes clear, Gov. Romney will have the resources to be competitive and to spread his jobs and economy message,” Romney’s national finance chairman Spencer Zwick said on Monday. He’s certainly right about that, but now it’s time for Romney to show that he can not only appeal to big-money crowd but also to primary voters on Main Street. He’s been quieter on the campaign trail that some of his potential rivals, but he’ll be making two strategic visits in the coming days — South Carolina this weekend and a trip to Iowa next week. http://abcn.ws/jY8Uiw
Slow And Steady (Could) Win The Race. “Don't confuse being loud with being strong,” former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty told Time Magazine in a recent interview. And that’s fast becoming Pawlenty’s mantra for the presidential race. Pawlenty is doing as much as anybody to build a campaign structure block-by-block and his method consistently earns him points with activist types in key primary states who equate that kind of effort with respect (and possibly with their votes). As Pawlenty told Time’s Michael Crowley, “I think I'm the one candidate in the race who can unite and excite the whole conservative movement and the Republican Party … I think most of the other candidates are going to appeal to one of those buckets. But I can appeal to all of them deeply and authentically.” http://ti.me/lu2YKM
It’s Nice To Be Wanted. These days, it seems like all Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has to do is show up at events, get asked about his plans for the 2012 race, give a variation of the same answer he’s been giving for months, and the excitement around him kicks up another notch. Daniels said this week that he’s closer to a decision, but he’s playing the “humble” card for all it’s worth. When asked about whether there was a void in the GOP field that only he could fill, Daniels said, “I think there’s a lot of good people and it’s awfully early. We haven’t heard really what some of them think about the big questions, so no, nobody is indispensable, least of all me.” A variety of key establishment Republicans want him in — badly — and we'll likely see within the next week or so whether he’ll take the bait. http://abcn.ws/j8LwbU
HOW CLOSE IS HUNTSMAN TO JUMPING IN? ABC’s George Stephanopoulos spoke to the former Utah governor last night as he kicked off his inaugural trip to New Hampshire. Huntsman told Stephanopoulos he is “close” to making a decision about a presidential bid. So he asked him how — after serving in the Obama administration for two years — does he stand a chance at winning the Republican nomination?
“The president asked me, the president of all the people. And during a time of war, during a time of economic difficulty for our country, if I'm asked by my president to serve, I'll stand up and do it,” he said. Huntsman dismissed calling Obama a “remarkable leader,” saying he was referring to Obama’s historic election in a thank you note.
Does he still believe it? “History will show how effective he is,” he said. On foreign policy, Huntsman broke with Obama on Libya: “I would have chosen from the beginning not to intervene in Libya. I would say that is not core to our national security interest.” And he suggested that a drawdown from Afghanistan was inevitable: “We have too much in the way of boots on the ground in corners of the world where we probably don't need it.” It was the former ambassador’s most comprehensive interview since his return from China on April 30 and he laid out his positions on everything from the stimulus to “Obamacare.”
More from Stephanopoulos’ exclusive interview with Jon Huntsman: http://abcn.ws/mdZ2Ff
ON TODAY’S “TOP LINE.” ABC’s Rick Klein and Amy Walter feature Jonathan Karl’s “Subway Series” interview with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a former member of the “Gang of Six” (preview below). Also on the program Politico’s intrepid Congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, to talk about all the action on Capitol Hill. Watch “Top Line” LIVE at 12:00 p.m. Eastern. http://bit.ly/ABCTopLine
COBURN AT ODDS WITH GOP LEADERS. “Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) tells ABC News that the federal debt is now so out of control that the credit rating of the United States is in jeopardy and the only way to deal with it is a bipartisan agreement that increases tax revenues. "The fact is we're at the lowest tax rate this country's been in a hundred years," Coburn said in an interview on ABC's Subway Series with Jonathan Karl. "And nobody believes that we're going to get a bipartisan agreement without some way to increase revenue for the federal government. We're also at the lowest level in a long time in terms of revenues coming in." Increasing tax revenues, Coburn said, does not mean increasing tax rates. Higher revenues could be accomplished by closing tax loopholes for individuals and/or corporations. "Do I want tax rates to rise? Absolutely not. Will I fight that? Yeah," Coburn said. "Would I agree to a plan that would create great economy that would markedly increase revenues to the federal government? You bet. And that's what I want to do." Earlier this week, Coburn dropped out of the so-called Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of Senators that has been working for months to find an agreement to curtail entitlement spending and reduce the deficit. http://abcn.ws/lRFokF
COBURN TO GINGRICH: KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT. In the same interview, Senator Coburn says Newt Gingrich needs “keep his mouth shut” about Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan until he has his own plan to deal with skyrocketing entitlement spending. “If you haven’t put a plan on the table, you need to keep your mouth shut because the problem hasn’t gone away,” Coburn told ABC News. “You’re elevating yourself by being critical of someone else.” http://abcn.ws/lhBR31
PALIN SAYS SHE HAS ‘FIRE IN MY BELLY’ "The question remains — will former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin run for president, or won’t she? In a Thursday appearance on “On the Record” on the Fox News Channel, host Greta Van Sustren asked Palin if she had the “fire in the belly’ for such a run, especially after former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee announced he would not be running in 2012 on his Saturday night show. Palin’s response: She does indeed,” The Daily Caller’s Jeff Poor notes. “‘That’s a great question,’ Palin said. ‘I think my problem is that I do have the fire in my belly. I am so adamantly supportive of the good traditional things about America and our free enterprise system and I want to make sure America is put back on the right track and we will do that by defeating Obama in 2012. I have that fire in my belly.’ However, Palin pointed out there are obstacles to making a run for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, primarily family concerns.” http://bit.ly/m0K0oh
THE DEMINT PRIMARY. “Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) isn’t ready yet to cut Mitt Romney loose following the Republican presidential candidate’s defense of his Massachusetts healthcare plan last week,” The Hill’s Michael P. O’Brien writes. “DeMint, the conservative kingmaker who had endorsed Romney for the nomination in 2008, said that he hadn’t yet ruled out endorsing Romney again in 2012 — or for that matter any other candidate. ‘I haven’t stricken anybody off my list, or put anybody on it, really,’ DeMint said. ‘And it’s going to be several months before I look at endorsing.’ A source close to the Palmetto State conservative had emphasized in March that DeMint ‘would never consider’ endorsing Romney again unless he were to admit that the healthcare reform plan he installed as governor of Massachusetts was ‘a colossal mistake.’ Romney did just about everything but that during a high-profile speech last week in Michigan, where he stood by his healthcare plan, warts and all.” http://bit.ly/m79MiM
2012’s SECRET DONORS. “The five are among the outside, or non-party, organizations that have played a growing role in federal elections. They include trade groups, unions and nonprofits started by political operatives that raise and spend money for advertising. The $305 million they reported spending in the 2010 elections was more than four times the amount such entities paid out in the midterm elections in 2006, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, a research group that tracks FEC filings,” Bloomberg News reports. “Growing more sharply is a subset that keeps secret the identities of donors who bankroll the ads. These outside organizations told the FEC they spent $137 million in the 2010 cycle — 25 times the 2006 level. Commission on Hope represents an even more secretive type that has taken itself off the radar of federal regulators entirely — by reporting neither spending nor donors to the FEC. Non-party groups, including the secretive ones, are already planning to raise more money in the 2012 elections. They received a boost from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case last year, which for the first time allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on ads advocating the election or defeat of a candidate. The organizations face little scrutiny from the FEC, where split votes between Republican and Democratic commissioners have stymied enforcement in case after case for almost three years.” http://bloom.bg/isiF3h
IS OBAMA ABOUT TO BREAK THE LAW ON LIBYA? “From the beginning of the U.S. military intervention in Libya, the Obama administration has cited the 1973 War Powers Act as the legal basis of its ability to conduct military activities for 60 days without first seeking a declaration of war from Congress,” ABC’s Jake Tapper and Devin Dwyer report. “The military intervention started on March 19; Congress was notified on March 21. Those 60 days expire tomorrow. Last week, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that President Obama ‘has been mindful of the provisions of the War Powers Resolution and has acted in a manner consistent with them. He will continue to do so.’ Steinberg said the administration is ‘mindful of the passage of time including the end of the two-month period, we are in the process of reviewing our role, and the president will be making decisions going forward in terms of what he sees as appropriate for us to do.’ What is President Obama — a former lecturer in constitutional law — going to do? White House officials refused to say. And the chorus of criticism — from the right and left — is rising.” http://abcn.ws/j4I8i8
DEMOCRATS WON’T RELEASE SPENDING PLAN. “Senate Democrats decided Thursday not to release their spending plan to counter the budget blueprint approved last month by House Republicans, saying they will wait to see whether talks at the White House produce a compromise plan for reining in the national debt,” The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery writes. “Democrats said they are close to agreement on a spending plan that would reduce borrowing by more than $4 trillion over the next decade, with about half the savings coming from higher taxes. That would offer a sharp contrast to the GOP budget, which relies entirely on deep cuts in spending. But rather than subject a proposal for higher taxes to Republican attack, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said he would “defer” action “because of the high-level bipartisan leadership negotiations that are currently underway” involving lawmakers from both parties and Vice President Biden.” http://wapo.st/lQREhJ
* Jon Huntsman speaks at house parties Keene and Hancock, NH in the morning. Later he visits VFW Post 1631 in Concord.
* Rick Santorum will have lunch with local activists at the Thunder Bay Grill in Davenport, Iowa. In the evening, he will attend a "Presidential Pool Party" in Davenport
The Note Futures Calendar: http://abcn.ws/ZI9gV
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