The Note: Testing The Fragile Front-Runner Theory: Mitt Romney’s Opponents Take Aim

Aug 3, 2011 9:14am

By MICHAEL FALCONE (@michaelpfalcone) and AMY WALTER (@amyewalter)

He’s been called the “fragile frontrunner” yet no one has been able to put a crack in presidential candidate Mitt Romney — at least not yet. This week, however, a whole bunch of folks are trying to take a shot at the glass jaw.

In New Hampshire, rival candidate Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, took a not-so-veiled shot at Romney’s late debt ceiling positioning and his health care record as governor of Massachusetts.

“You can either look at the heavy handed government-centric mandate enforcing people’s behavior, which in cases like Massachusetts, we have seen premiums rise substantially,” Huntsman said at a campaign event in Milford, N.H. yesterday, “or you can create a free market based exchange, which we chose in Utah.”

Huntsman also took aim at Romney for waiting, “right until the very end, until, effectively, a decision had been made” to weigh in on the debt ceiling debate raging in Washington. (Romney came out in opposition of the final compromise plan, while Huntsman said he reluctantly supported it.)

And then there was Sarah Palin, who put her finger in the wind on Fox News last night, blasting Romney, again, over the debt issue.

“Bless his heart, I have respect for Mitt Romney, but I do not have respect for what he has done through this debt increase debate," Palin told Fox’s Sean Hannity. “He did this, he waited until it was a done deal that we would increase the debt ceiling and more money would be spent, more money would be borrowed and spent on bigger government, and then he came out and made a statement that he didn't like the deal after all. You can't defer an issue and assume that the problem is then going to be avoided.”

The national press is admittedly obsessed with what Politico’s Ben Smith termed the “Mittness protection” strategy this week (“Through the hot summer of 2011, the front-runner for the Republican nomination has been in hiding,” Smith wrote. “Since his June 2 campaign launch, he’s done only about 24 public or semi-public events — an average of slightly more than one event every three days, or well below half the rate of Republicans Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman.”)

Perhaps sensing danger ahead, the Romney campaign announced what the Washington Post called “a new phase of his campaign” (at least that’s how Romney’s top advisers characterized it.)

The Post’s Phil Rucker reports that Romney “plans to pick up his pace this month as the 2012 sweepstakes intensifies, with a blitz of appearances in early-voting states and a list of policy proposals.”

All of this is taking place a little more than a week before the Iowa debate, scheduled for next Thursday. But with Romney a non-factor in the Aug. 13 Ames Straw Poll, the folks with the most at stake on that debate stage are Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty, who are engaged in a fierce battle for Hawkeye State voters and a strong finish in the straw poll.

BOTTOM LINE: Yes, Romney is a weak frontrunner. Yes, his lead in the polls is based more on name identification than on deep affection from the GOP base. And, of course, his reputation as a “finger in the wind” politician is going to dog him and drag at him throughout this primary.

That said, there's no real strategic reason for Romney to be doing more or saying more at this stage in the campaign. Yes, he runs the risk of playing it too safe and failing to build excitement or energy around his campaign.

But, he was never going to be some sort of Tea Party or grassroots hero. He is the John Kerry of the GOP. His path to victory is to be the boring but disciplined candidate who is still standing when the other more combustible candidates explode.

 WHITE HOUSE PIVOT? BACK TO JOBS. It’s evident that the White House wants to move on from the debt debacle to its jobs agenda. President Obama mentioned the word jobs a dozen times in his remarks in the Rose Garden yesterday announcing that he would be signing the compromise debt plan. “It also allows us to keep making key investments in things like education and research that lead to new jobs,” he said, adding later: “In the coming months, I’ll continue also to fight for what the American people care most about:  new jobs, higher wages and faster economic growth.”

The reality of course is that you can't simply “pivot” to creating jobs. Democrats have their hands tied — even a whisper of the "S" word (as in, “stimulus”) and it’s met with Instant push back by the GOP.

Plus, as ABC’s Jake Tapper noted yesterday, “For the last two and a half years here as the White House correspondent for ABC News, it feels like every couple of months I am reporting that the White House is announcing that they are pivoting to a jobs agenda, and something else happens.”

OBAMA AT 50: NO GOP BIRTHDAY WISHES. ABC’s Devin Dwyer reports: President Obama turns 50 tomorrow, but that isn’t stopping him from celebrating early.  Obama heads to his hometown Chicago tonight for a birthday-themed fundraiser at the historic Aragon Ballroom.  Organizers expect a crowd of roughly 1000 supporters, who each paid between $50 and $35,800 to attend. The money flows to the Obama Victory Fund, a joint account for Obama’s re-election campaign and the Democratic National Committee.  

Before the speech, Obama plans to hold an exclusive, live-stream video teleconference with thousands of volunteers celebrating his birthday at one of 1,100 grassroots meetings across the country. Later he plans to meet privately with a smaller group of between 80 and 100 VIP attendees.

Republicans have unleashed a barrage of criticism against the president for making the trip, accusing him of hypocrisy during tough economic times. “With 9.2 percent unemployment, he could work on creating jobs, but I suppose the White House is thinking he should stick to the part of his job he really likes,” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said in a statement.

Mitt Romney also took a swipe at Obama for the trip, publishing an online video this morning that highlights a spike in Chicago’s unemployment rate and falling housing prices over the past three years. The video is titled, “Obama Isn’t Working: Chicago.” WATCH:


ON TODAY’S “TOP LINE”:  ABC’s Rick Klein and Amy Walter sit down with Scott Paul from the Alliance for American Manufacturing to discuss, among other things, last night’s ABC World News “Made in America” report on where the 2012 presidential candidates’ is made.  Also on the show, Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.  The PCCC criticized the debt deal that passed yesterday, saying the president sold out the middle class in order to raise the debt ceiling. Watch “Top Line” LIVE at 12:00 p.m. Eastern. 

“TOP LINE” REPLAY: DENNIS KUCINICH CALLS DEBT-LIMIT BILL ‘FAIRLY INSANE.’ The liberal Ohio Democrat said the bill the president signed yesterday was “fairly insane.” “The very fact that you make raising the debt ceiling contingent on a broad deal to deal with the national debt is fairly insane,” Kucinich said on the program. “We should not have ever been in that position to begin with. And frankly, the president as a backstop could have invoked the 14th Amendment if he had chose to. There's no reason why we should ever be in a position of making decisions on a 10-year budget that would slash social spending that would set the stage for reduction in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, all because we were told this is the only way we can handle this — I can't buy that and didn't buy that.”

And don’t miss yesterday’s “Top Line” debt deal food fest:  Obama’s “eat your peas” peas, John Boehner’s Jell-O, Rep. Cleaver’s “Satan sandwich” and Nancy Pelosi’s “Satan fries.”

MADE IN AMERICA? ABC ASKED THE CANDIDATES. “Republican presidential candidates are pitching plans to revive the economy, selling a message of jobs and growth. But when it comes to what they are buying, ABC News found that four of the candidates are selling merchandise made overseas. ABC News investigated all eight Republican candidates as well as the president's re-election campaign and discovered that campaign T-shirts for Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Herman Cain were all made outside the United States. The T-shirts for Republican candidates Mitt Romney, Michele Bachman, Jon Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty, as well as President Obama, were all made in the U.S. ABC News chose T-shirts because that merchandise is common to all the campaigns.” (via ABC's Ben Forer) More from last night’s World News report with Sharyn Alfonsi:



DEBT DEAL GIVES WAY TO NEW FIGHTS.President Barack Obama’s signature on a bill raising the debt limit sealed a compromise that averted a U.S. default even as it did nothing to narrow the gulf between Republicans and Democrats over tax increases and spending cuts,” Bloomberg News’ Julie Hirschfeld Davis notes. “The measure postpones the thorniest fiscal dilemmas for later this year when the 2012 election campaign will intensify. A panel of lawmakers must push through a $1.5 trillion debt- reduction package by year’s end — or risk automatic spending cuts across the government, including defense and Medicare. That means the disputes that prolonged negotiations on the debt limit will be refought. The stakes were underscored hours after Obama signed the bill when Moody’s Investors Service said it may downgrade the U.S. credit rating for the first time on concern fiscal discipline may ease and the economy may weaken. In addition, China, the largest foreign investor in U.S. government securities, joined Russia in criticizing American policy makers for failing to ensure that U.S. borrowing is reined in. … Attention now focuses on the mandate of the 12-member super-committee of lawmakers. Congress would either have to approve the panel’s recommendations by Christmas or send a balanced-budget constitutional amendment to the states for ratification — an unlikely scenario given Congress’s makeup — to avoid the across-the-board cuts.”

More on what comes next from ABC’s Jake Tapper:

IMPEACH PRESIDENT OBAMA OVER LIBYA? HUNTSMAN PUNTS. Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, the 2012 GOP contender with the most foreign policy experience, has been one of the fiercest critics of the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in Libya. As he was preparing to unveil his presidential campaign in May, Huntsman, the former U.S. Ambassador to China, told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview that the U.S. not should have become involved in the conflict. “I would have chosen from the beginning not to intervene in Libya,” he said. “I would say that is not core to our national security interest.” And this week, when asked by a New Hampshire resident whether President Obama should be impeached over Libya, Huntsman refused to say, telling the voter that he’d “let Congress make that decision. VOTER: “Do you think it's impeachable?” HUNTSMAN: “I'll let Congress make that decision.” Representatives from Huntsman’s campaign declined to clarify his remarks when asked by ABC News. The clip of the exchange was uncovered by the trackers at the Democratic “super PAC,” American Bridge 21st Century, which is aiming to hold the Republican presidential candidates accountable during this election cycle. “Failing to gain any traction in the polls after pledging to run a civil, high-minded campaign, it's sad to see Jon Huntsman abandon his convictions for a chance to appease the rabid right-wing base by refusing to rule out impeachment,” said American Bridge’s Ty Matsdorf. VIDEO:

STRAW POLL EXPECTATIONS. “On August 13, the Iowa State campus in Ames will become the center of the political universe, as thousands of Republicans participate in what is frequently ballyhooed as the season’s most important campaign event,” The New Republic’s Walter Shapiro opines. “We are, of course, talking about the Iowa Straw Poll … The Iowa Straw Poll is one of the most insidious events in politics. Even though the straw poll is about as scientific as sorcery, political reporters over-hype the results and pretend that they mean something. The upshot is that fringe candidates can get an unwarranted boost and serious candidates can be prematurely eliminated before most Iowa caucus-goers, let alone most Republicans elsewhere, have a chance to decide on their preferences. Yet, despite all of the straw poll’s obvious flaws, and even as some candidates boycott it—John McCain in 2007; Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman this year—nothing, it seems, can dim the prominence of this ersatz election.”

REDISTRICTING HEADS INTO OVERTIME?  Roll Call reports there’s a possibility that redistricting in several key states will go overtime thanks to lawsuits that will push them past the 2012 elections. “The scenarios range from lawmakers having to file for re-election in their current district and then refile later in a redrawn one to, in the worst case, running in one district next year and then a redrawn one in 2014,” writes Roll Call’s Shira Toeplitz. Texas and Florida are named as the top two controversial maps, though the Texas map has already been drawn. Those new district lines await approval in the courts or the Justice Department, and there is no set time frame for when that could happen. In Texas, “It’s possible that the federal courts could strike down the map without giving state lawmakers enough time to pass a new plan and resubmit it. In that case, a three-judge panel would likely redraw the map — and it’s anyone’s guess what the final result would be. Candidates would run in the primary and general election under those court-mandated Congressional boundaries — and not those drawn by state lawmakers earlier this year. … By comparison, Florida has a relatively late timeline, with a June filing date and August primaries. Redistricting experts in the Sunshine State say it’s unlikely lawmakers will miss those deadlines. They argue that it’s more plausible that litigation over the new Fair Districts amendment could affect next year’s election calendar.”  

RICK PERRY WATCH: RISKY PRAYER DAY. Despite having the approval of a district court, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's prayer event could prove to be a politically risky venture for the potential presidential candidate as it mixes a government figure with religion and features controversial speakers. "Since he set up the event scheduled for Saturday, however, Perry has become the most talked-about almost-candidate in the 2012 Republican presidential field. But with only 8,000 RSVPs for a stadium that seats 71,500 people, virtually no politicians planning to attend, and a slate of organizers who hold out-of-mainstream views on religious freedom, gay rights and even Adolf Hitler, the event has become a potentially risky gamble if Perry is serious about running for the White House," the Associated Press notes. "Some conservatives suggested the overtly religious event, called “The Response,” could distract from Perry’s key selling points on the relatively successful Texas economy and could backfire in places like New Hampshire, the first primary state."


NOTED: CALL FOR INTERNS. The Note and the ABC Political Unit are in the market for interns for the Fall of 2011. We require actively enrolled students and we prefer applicants who are spending the semester in DC and can commit a regular 9-5 schedule. E-mail a resume and cover letter to

NOTABLE: HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ABC’S JOHN R. PARKINSON: @JRPabcDC: Went to Nats/Braves game w/ @LukeRussert & @JakeSherman. Great seats but Jake was nearly killed with a line drive foul ball. #facesofdeath



@RayLaHood: Congress has recessed, but hasn't adjourned; legislators can still act to pass clean #FAA extension

@pwire: Former Rep. Eric Massa now claims he was the victim of a plot to force him from Congress…

@jonward11: Great piece by @jonathanweisman - Mormons Duck Political Duel in 2012

@mollyesque: One of those pesky Alaska ethics complaints against Sarah Palin has been dismissed. My story:

@mlevenson: Mitt Romney could face a new headache from his home state’s leading antiabortion #mapoli



(all times local)

* President Obama attends a DNC Fundraiser Bash in honor of his 50th Birthday at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom.

* Rick Santorum visits Council Bluffs, Harlan, Ida Grove, Cherokee and Sanborn as part of his Santorum Family Tour.

* Jon Huntsman speaks at a house party in Dover, N.H. at the home of former Republican State Committee Chairman Fergus Cullen at 7 p.m.

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