Is This A Two-Person Race? (The Note)

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

Rick Santorum wants you to believe two things.

First, that his opponent, Mitt Romney,  is running scared.

"You reach a point where desperate people do desperate things," the former Pennsylvania senator told George Stephanopoulos yesterday on ABC's "This Week," referring to Romney's challenge of Santorum's bona fides as a "solid conservative."

Second, that the Republican nominating contest has actually come down to a battle between him and Romney with Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul as mere footnotes.

"We think this is a two-person race right now," Santorum said on CNN's "State of the Union" yesterday, "and we're just focused on - on making sure that folks know we're the best alternative to Barack Obama and we have the best chance of beating him."

Santorum is pledging to compete in both of the next two primary states - Arizona and Michigan, where voters go to the polls on Feb. 28 - and in as many of the ten Super Tuesday states as possible.

Last week his campaign raised more than $3 million and is hiring additional staff nationally and in the primary states.

Newt Gingrich is being forced this week to take time off the campaign trail to re-fill his campaign war chest and Ron Paul has yet to come up with a win in any state - even in a caucus where his loyal troops were thought to be a secret weapon.

Romney stole some of Santorum's thunder this weekend with wins in both Maine's caucuses and in a straw poll taken at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC, an event which is seen as something of a barometer for the conservative electorate.

It was at that conference on Friday where Romney declared: "I was a severely conservative Republican governor."

But so concerned was Romney's campaign with the perception that conservatives are not enthusiastic about his candidacy that they paid to stock CPAC with supporters who helped Romney win the straw poll.

The Santorum campaign sees several of the coming states as ripe for the taking and a win in Michigan, Romney's home state, would no doubt send shockwaves through the party.

And, as the Boston Globe's Glenn Johnson points out, a fight with Santorum over which candidate is more conservative is exactly what the Romney campaign does not want:

"Perhaps the best thing Mitt Romney has going for him in his continuing quest for the Republican presidential nomination is that, evidently, not enough people like Newt Gingrich, think Rick Santorum has the leadership ability, or share the spectrum of Ron Paul's economic and foreign policy views to coalesce around any of them. Perhaps the worst thing is that the campaign is being perpetuated by a battle over conservative credentials, not the financial and turnaround skills Romney believes distinguish him from the field. It is the most unfriendly territory from which Romney can compete in a campaign now destined to continue at least through the 10-state, March 6 'Super Tuesday' contests. It is also potentially the most damaging to the GOP's general election hopes."

WHAT ROMNEY'S WEEKEND WINS MEANT. ABC News Political Director Amy Walter puts Romney's wins in the Maine caucuses and in the CPAC straw poll in perspective: "To be sure, Romney's wins Saturday are not going to put questions about whether he can seal the deal with the conservative primary voters. After all, he won both Maine and CPAC with less than 40 percent of the vote. Moreover, with Paul's dismal showing Saturday night, and his second place showing in the CPAC poll, Santorum can claim the mantle - for now - of the 'Romney alternative.' But, the best news for Romney is that after a very bad week, there's no bad news for his campaign this weekend. For now, that counts as victory."

BUDGET DAY AT THE WHITE HOUSE. "President Barack Obama's budget plan, to be released Monday, will serve both as an outline of his re-election campaign message and a blueprint of the White House strategy for another clash looming after the November elections," reports the Wall Street Journal's Damien Paletta and Laura Meckler. "At year's end, the president and Congress face several major deadlines: the scheduled expiration of Bush-era tax cuts, $1.2 trillion in politically unpopular spending cuts-half of which would fall on defense spending-and the likely need to raise the federal borrowing limit. Medicare doctors also will face a large pay cut if Congress doesn't change the formula for their payments. … On Monday, Mr. Obama's budget plan will offer an alternative course: replace the scheduled year-end spending cuts with a combination of tax increases on the wealthy and some modest reductions to Medicare and Medicaid. The plan would renew the Bush tax cuts for families earning less than $250,000 a year, but let them expire for those who make more. He would raise the debt ceiling and prevent the Medicare doctors' pay cut."

RNC COUNTER-PROGRAMMING. The Republican National Committee has a full court press planned to bracket Obama's budget announcement, including a new web video called "My Daughter's Future." According to the RNC, the video highlights "the idea that Obama is mortgaging our children's future. It talks about the president's promise to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term and the consequences of his failure to do so as he submits yet another budget deficit over a trillion dollars." WATCH:

The RNC will also hold a press conference call at 4 p.m. ET with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin to respond to the president's budget.


THIS WEEK ON "THIS WEEK": SANTORUM CHALLENGES ROMNEY TO CONSERVATIVE DUEL. "For him to suggest that I'm not the conservative in this race - you know, there's - you reach a point where desperate people do desperate things," Santorum told George Stephanopoulos. "That's pretty funny for Mitt Romney saying I'm acting like a Democrat…Another candidate has come up to challenge him, and this time he's having trouble finding out how to go after someone who is a solid conservative, who's got a great track record of attracting Independents and Democrats and winning states as a conservative." Stephanopoulos also asked Santorum about his controversial women in combat statement as well as a passage from his book that said "radical feminists succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness." He said he didn't remember the quote adding he co-wrote the book with his wife adding "people should have equal opportunity to rise in the work force." (h/t ABC's Shushannah Walshe)

Stephanopoulos also interviewed Obama Chief of Staff Jack Lew and Rep. Paul Ryan. Watch all of George's interviews:



WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF ERRS. As ABC's Jake Tapper notes, White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew Sunday morning was asked by CNN to defend the Senate's refusal to pass a budget in more than 1,000 days. "You can't pass a budget in the Senate of the United States without 60 votes and you can't get 60 votes without bipartisan support," Lew said. "So unless… unless Republicans are willing to work with Democrats in the Senate, [Majority Leader] Harry Reid is not going to be able to get a budget passed." That's not accurate. Budgets only require 51 Senate votes for passage, as Lew - former director of the Office of Management and Budget - surely must know. White House officials did not dispute that Lew misspoke. When asked about the discrepancy, a White House official said "the chief of staff was clearly referencing the general gridlock in Congress that makes accomplishing even the most basic tasks nearly impossible given the Senate Republicans' insistence on blocking an up or down vote on nearly every issue."

OBAMA CAMPAIGN LAUNCHES 'TRUTH TEAM' EFFORT. The Obama campaign is today beginning a new effort to enlist and educate at least 2 million supporters for a "grassroots communications team" they're calling the Truth Team, ABC's Devin Dwyer reports. The teams will be launched at events in several states and with a social media push for three websites: highlights Obama's record and "promises kept"; fact checks GOP attacks; and responds to specific false claims made on the trail. "If the other guys are going to run a campaign based on misrepresenting the President's record - and their own - we have two options: sit back and let these lies go unchallenged, or fight back with the truth," said deputy Obama campaign manager Stephanie Cutter in an email.  "We're fighting back." In 2008, Obama organized a similar effort - Fight the Smears- that involved 1 million+ supporters.

GINGRICH HUNTS FOR CASH. "Newt Gingrich recently joined Gov. Rick Perry of Texas on a conference call with more than 50 'bundlers' who had powered Mr. Perry's formidable campaign-cash machine," reports The New York Times' Trip Gabriel. "Mr. Perry asked his top financial rainmakers to raise money for Mr. Gingrich, telling the group, according to one participant, that he fully supported the former House speaker. But it seems unlikely that Mr. Gingrich will reap a financial windfall from wealthy donors for his cash-starved campaign, Perry supporters and Republican leaders said, even as Mr. Gingrich begins three days of fund-raising in California on Monday. … He will be largely out of sight for part of this week, just as he was in the days before last week's contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, which Rick Santorum won, and before the Feb. 4 caucuses in Nevada, which Mitt Romney won. Even as he sacrifices time in front of voters, his prospects of raising the cash he needs are uncertain. 'Unless your name is Mitt Romney, raising money in this political environment is like trying to hit a bullet with another bullet while riding a horse,' said Ron Nehring, a former chairman of the California Republican Party."

SANTORUM CAMPAIGN STAFFS UP. "ABC News learned over the weekend that Alice Stewart has been hired by the Rick Santorum campaign as its national press secretary. Stewart previously served as spokeswoman Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign and played the same role for Mike Huckabee's 2008 bid. She also worked for Huckabee's Political Action Campaign, HuckPAC, with Santorum's current national communications director Hogan Gidley. Gidley hired Stewart for the Santorum campaign. On Friday the Santorum campaign announced it had raised $3 million since the former Pennsylvania senator's trifecta win in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Tuesday. That's $1 million a day since his victory speech in Missouri. The campaign said it would use the funds to add staff, and Stewart is the first high profile hire since those wins."

NOTED: CONSERVATIVE LEADERS BATTLE OBAMA HEALTH REGULATIONS. A group of 42 conservative leaders from all corners of the Republican Party have joined together in protest of the Obama administration controversial policy on contraception. The group includes Tea Party leaders, former top officials in Republican presidential administrations, conservative columnists and lawmakers. They are coming together under the auspices of the advocacy organization, For America. "The Obama administration's mandate that Catholics provide contraceptive, sterilization and abortifacient services is the greatest assault on religious freedom in the history of the Republic," said L. Brent Bozell, chairman of For America. "Never before has this nation ever witnessed the federal government so ruthless in its over-reach of power, and so dismissive of the Constitution. This is an issue that affects every Catholic and non-Catholic, should it be another Christian, a Jew, even a non-believer."


@DavidMDrucker : Sen Lee(R-UT) focuses on endorsing in GOP Senate primaries,hopes to emulate  @JimDeMint's success w/ PAC:

@HuffPostPol : Details emerge on California congressman's questionable mortgage loan

@ezraklein : The Boston Globe profiles Elizabeth Warren's childhood:

@AdamATCNN : Big ad in middle of NRO article calling for Newt to drop out…

@jimgeraghty : In Indiana's GOP Senate primary, Richard Mourdock releases new statewide ad hitting Lugar on earmarks:



- Mitt Romney is in Mesa, Arizona for an evening "get out the vote" rally at the Mesa Amphitheatre.

- Rick Santorum campaigns in Tacoma, Washington where he'll hold a rally at the Washington Historical Museum.

- Newt Gingrich is in California for an afternoon rally in Los Angeles.

-ABC's Josh Haskell ( @HaskellBuzz)

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