TAMPA, Fla. - As President Obama prepares to deliver the annual State of the Union address tonight, the state of the race for the Republican presidential nomination seems as unpredictable as ever.
Voters in Florida and around the country will hear a barrage of mixed messages today from the president in Washington and from the Republican candidates vying for the chance to take him on in November.
Here in Tampa, Mitt Romney is starting the day with a pre-buttal to the president's remarks tonight. Aides say he will focus on the economy and re-assert why his private sector experience is exactly what a broken Washington needs right now. Newt Gingrich will be making several stops in Florida, and look for him to serve up some red meat contrasts to President Obama too.
Today's war of words between the president and his Republican adversaries comes against the backdrop of a series of new developments that could shape the outcome in Florida and the primary contests ahead:
-A lackluster debate largely failed to sharpen the differences between the GOP candidates although Romney was forced to go on offense and Gingrich did not shine as he has in several recent outings.
-The former House Speaker released one of his contracts from his consulting firm's work with the mortgage finance company Freddie Mac. (The Romney campaign and many outside observers say the disclosure "raises more questions than answers.")
-Romney released his tax returns, offering the most detailed look yet at the former Massachusetts governor's personal finances.
-And a new ABC News-Washington Post poll shows that "unfavorable views of Mitt Romney have soared, doubts about Newt Gingrich remain widespread and Barack Obama has advanced to his highest personal popularity in more than a year."
THE NUMBERS. According to ABC News pollster Gary Langer, 53 percent of Americans in the new poll express a favorable opinion of Obama overall, up by 5 points from last month to the most since April 2010. Forty-nine percent of Americans now see Romney unfavorably, a new high in ABC/Post polling this cycle. That far outstrips his favorable rating, 31 percent, down 8 points to a new low. The shift, moreover, has been led by political independents, swing voters in national politics. While that reflects a remarkable reversal of fortune for Romney, Gingrich, too, has lost ground, dropping 6 points in favorability since December - and with more than half of Americans, 51 percent, now seeing him unfavorably, up from the low 40s last fall. While it would be speculation to link the slip in favorability to recent criticisms by his ex-wife, his decline occurred among married adults.
The sharpest shifts have been among independents. Unfavorable opinions of Romney have soared by 17 points in this group since Jan. 8, to 51 percent; favorable opinions have dropped by 18 points among independents in the same period, to just 23 percent. Gingrich, for his part, has lost 11 points among independents since December, to 22 percent favorability. Obama, by contrast, gets a 51 percent favorable rating from independents. http://abcn.ws/wzifIV
ROMNEY'S RETURNS. Mitt Romney took in $21.7 million in income in 2010 and paid $3 million in taxes, a tax rate of just under 14 percent, ABC News' Elizabeth Hartfield and Emily Friedman report. The tax returns were first reported by the Wall Street Journal and Reuters early Tuesday morning. In an initial review of the reports, ABC News' tax expert Steve Frushtick notes that based on the reported tax rate, it appears as though the vast majority of Romney's reported income is not based off of a salary, but rather from investments. Individuals bringing in a similar income to Romney's 2010 earnings in the form of a yearly salary would pay a higher tax rate. The returns also show that Romney gave away $3 million in charitable donations in 2010, including $1.5 million to the Mormon Church, according to reports from the outlets who received an advanced copy. http://abcn.ws/wYIeY3
NOTED: Bloomberg's Richard Rubin puts Romney's finances in perspective: "Romney's income puts him near the very top of U.S. taxpayers. In 2008, according to the Internal Revenue Service, the median adjusted gross income was $33,048, which Romney made in less than a day. Reaching the top 1 percent of taxpayers required $380,354 in adjusted gross income, about Romney's earnings in a week. The campaign also is releasing an estimated tax return for 2011 showing that Romney had an effective tax rate of 15.4 percent on $20.9 million in adjusted gross income. That return hasn't been filed with the IRS." http://bloom.bg/y0YIGE
DEMOCRATIC COUNTER PROGRAMMING: "Despite Romney's capitulation today, his decision to release just two years of returns falls far short of the eight years President Obama released, the almost decade released by President Bush and the 12 years of tax returns that his father, George Romney, released during his run for president," Democratic National Committee communications director Brad Woodhouse writes. "It will do little to put to rest the serious questions that have plagued him about how he made his $200+ million fortune."
GINGRICH'S CONTRACT. "It was the Big Reveal that showed almost nothing," repots The New York Times' Trip Gabriel and Mike McIntire. "After Mitt Romney repeatedly challenged him to release documents relating to his work for Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage giant, Newt Gingrich released a contract that is mostly legal boilerplate, and contains no details about the advice he gave or ways in which he would make use of his expertise or political contacts. But the yearlong contract did show that Mr. Gingrich was hired by the division of Freddie Mac responsible for lobbying - its office of public policy, which paid the Gingrich Group $300,000 for 2006. And the agreement spelled out the expected services in a single sentence: 'Consultant will provide consulting and related services as required by Freddie Mac's director, public policy.' … Mr. Gingrich worked for Freddie Mac on and off over a six-year period, from 1999 to 2006. The contract released on Monday evening was for only part of this span." http://nyti.ms/yZMaBS
ROMNEY CAMP SPIN: "Newt Gingrich's Freddie Mac contract raises more questions than answer," Romney campaign communications director Gail Gitcho said in a statement. "His secrecy about his lobbying for Freddie Mac is troubling. No amount of bluster will hide the fact that Newt had his hand in Freddie Mac to the tune of $25,000 a month. The bursting housing bubble helped lead to the current economic crisis and Newt Gingrich has his fingerprints all over it."
DEBATE WRAP. "I'm not going to sit back and get attacked day in and day out without returning fire," Mitt Romney vowed on the debate stage in Florida last night, kicking off the closing week of what has become a pivotal fight for the Sunshine State.
"We an't possibly retake the White House if the nominee is a person who was working with the chief lobbyist for Freddie Mac," Romney added. He put Gingrich on his heels, but fell short of scoring any knockout punches. What he did manage to do was force Gingrich to speak in Washington-ese all night. And, anytime he's defending his record as Speaker or his official role at Freddie Mac, it makes it harder and harder for Newt to portray himself as an outsider.
However, a subdued and chastened audience was good for Romney. The NBC News moderator, Brian Williams, admonished the crowd not to clap. Newt didn't get the chance to get them on his side like he has on other occasions. And, Williams never gave him the same opening that he got at last week's CNN debate in South Carolina when the topic of Gingrich's previous marriage came up.
Newt kept his cool for most of the night and even took a quick zen-like break to re-center himself during a conversation about whether he did or did not lobby members of Congress in favor of Medicare's prescription drug plan.
And the debate only reinforced the notion that, at least as far as Florida is concerned, this is a two-person race between Gingrich and Romney. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul appeared marginalized all night long.
DEBATE FATIGUE? HERE'S THE CURE. Are 18 debates and counting starting to fade together? Here's is a user's guide from ABC's Sarah Parnass of some of the best moments from the previous showdowns. A reminder of what we've seen over the past eight months and a list of where the candidates will face off next: http://abcn.ws/zFLra2
VIDEO OF THE DAY. ABC's Jake Tapper kicks off his inaugural ABCNews.com/Yahoo! digital show, "Political Punch." Jake will take you behind the curtain of the White House press corps, offering an exclusive look at the hottest topics inside the Beltway from social trends, to politics, pop culture, and media. His first installment - an insider's look at President Obama's recent trip to Disney World. WATCH: http://abcn.ws/ydgi09
ON THE AIR IN FLORIDA. The Service Employees International Union and the super PAC Priorities USA Action are announcing a new Florida ad campaign hitting Romney for, in their words, "Disingenuous, 'Two Faced' Outreach to the Hispanic Community." The groups will hold a conference call today to preview the new spot.
STATE OF THE UNION: WHAT THE PRESIDENT WILL SAY. "Obama will use his third State of the Union Address to promote what aides describe as a populist economic agenda he's already spent weeks pitching directly to voters, insisting the ideas deserve bipartisan support. Now, in the face of what he's framed as Republican obstruction, Obama will draw an election-year line in the sand," ABC's Devin Dwyer reports. "This is a 'make-or-break moment for the middle class and folks trying to work their way into the middle class,' Obama said, previewing the address in a video posted on his re-election campaign website and emailed to supporters. … The class contrast, one of Obama's major re-election campaign themes, will get what is arguably it its biggest audience yet with the nationally televised address in prime time. An estimated 43 million viewers watched Obama's State of the Union last year. http://abcn.ws/ztEEIy
"But as Obama lays out what he calls a 'blueprint' for the county, viewers may find that many of the ideas aren't all that new. Proposals Obama put forward in 2011, from eliminating subsidies for oil companies, to overhauling No Child Left Behind and the nation's immigration system, remain unresolved. Many of the infrastructure investments the president heralded have not gotten off the ground, while sweeping tax reform to 'simplify the system and get rid of the loopholes' is still elusive."
WHAT TO WATCH. ABC's Congressional guru John R. Parkinson has a viewers guide of what to watch for tonight when President Obama delivers his State of the Union address at 9 p.m. ET. http://abcn.ws/ybWqxS
-Date Night: A large contingency of Republicans and Democrats have decided to repeat last year's bipartisan moment, where members find a lawmaker from the opposing party to sit next to during the address. (More on "Date Night" from ABC's Senate guru, Sunlen Miller: http://abcn.ws/zKQoMp)
-Gabby: Rep. Gabrielle Giffords will attend the State of the Union in one of her final acts as a member of Congress. The Arizona congresswoman will be seated between Republican Rep. Jeff Flake and Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva. Giffords' husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, will join first lady Michelle Obama in her box to watch the president's address.
- Skipping Out: At least one member of Congress will skip the president's address on his own volition. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Republican, has announced he will not attend the State of the Union because he "does not support the policies of Barack Obama."
-SCOTUS: After an unpleasant moment in 2010 when the president chided the Supreme Court as justices sat in their black robes in the front row ahead of him, just six justices showed up for the president's SOTU address last year.
-iPads/Tweets: Look for members of Congress to read along to the text of the president's address on iPads, and even more to tweet their reactions to it. Many members tweet often from their personal devices, usually providing a more uncanny response in 140 characters than customary in formulaic responses to come later in the night. More than 400 members of Congress are on Twitter - double the count from last year.
-Mitch Daniels: The Republican governor from Indiana may have decided against launching a campaign for the GOP nomination, but he'll deliver the GOP's official response to the president's address. Daniels was selected by House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
OBAMA: ON THE ROAD AGAIN. The day after the State of the Union address the President will depart on a three day trip to Cedar Rapids, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Denver and Ann Arbor, a senior administration official tells ABC's Jake Tapper. Each day he will focus on one of the main pillars laid out in the President's address: American Manufacturing, American Energy and American Skills & Innovation. Throughout all of his events, the President will continue to call for a return to American values - where everyone gets a fair shot, a fair shake, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.
SOTU COUNTER-PROGRAMMING. From the Republican National Committee: "The RNC is running a new TV ad on cable in DC, and broadcast in Grand Rapids, MI, Norfolk, VA, and Charlotte, NC starting today. Knowing the president will use his address to campaign and continue to make the same failed promises we've seen for the past three years, the State of the Union presents an opportunity for the RNC to speak directly to voters in these key battleground states about what the state of our union really is." WATCH: http://bit.ly/wgWr8N
From the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: "The Chamber's getting the jump on SOTU messaging with a unique nationwide ad blitz today and a 'viewers guide' to the speech at FreeEnterprise.com they're up nationwide with a series of ads featuring QR codes in the bottom right corner. When this code is scanned by a mobile device it will pre-populate a tweet on the users' mobile device that says: "During #SOTU I want to hear @WhiteHouse #GetSerious about #jobs" and link to the Chamber's five point jobs plan."
AND FROM THE LEFT. The labor-allied group, A Working Person Like You, will go up with an ad to be run on broadcast networks in Indiana and nationally on CNN and MSNBC to rebut Gov. Mitch Daniels' rebuttal of Obama's speech tonight. The ad, "features him in his own words, from a speech in 2006 to the Teamsters, where he opposed any changes to labor law in Indiana including saying 'certainly not a Right to Work law.'" WATCH: http://bit.ly/xuUr1A
RICK SANTORUM TOUTS FUNDRAISING POTENTIAL. "Rick Santorum made a brief trip to the spin room after the NBC News/National Journal debate - the only candidate out of the four remaining to do so - and said his campaign raised $170,000 on Sunday," ABC's Shushannah Walshe reports. "Although short of a brokered convention, Florida will most likely continue to be a winner takes all state Santorum says he's not 'wasting time' campaigning here instead of moving on to other states like Nevada which votes next or the Super Tuesday states. 'I'm not wasting time if you guys put cameras in front of me and you talk about what I'm saying … this is a national race and we are going to be around for a long time in this race,' Santorum told reporters. 'We are going to be working in a lot of different states and as we - as I said today if you were waiting for something to happen in this race wait for tomorrow, wait for the next day, this race is going to change. People have been up, people have been down and I've been here.' He said the money raised means supporters 'want us to stay in the race.'" http://abcn.ws/zYz8Ti
@kenvogel : Romney said his speaking fees amounted to "not very much," but taxes show he made $111k in speaking fees in 2011 & $529k in 2010.
-Mitt Romney is on the trail in Tampa, Florida where he'll deliver a prebuttal to President Obama's State of the Union address, which will be delivered Tuesday evening. In the afternoon, Romney will attend a housing event in Lehigh Acres, Florida.
-Newt Gingrich will hold three grassroots events in St. Petersburg, Sarasota, and Naples, Florida. The event in Naples will take place in the city's Cambier Park.
-Rick Santorum starts his day in Okeechobee, Florida with a meet-and-greet at the Recreation Outreach Center. Santorum will then travel to Stuart and Punta Gorda to be the featured guest at two TEA Party events.
-Although no longer in the race, Herman Cain is in Washington DC to deliver the TEA Party response to the President's State of the Union address.
-ABC's Josh Haskell (@HaskellBuzz)
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