Romney Takes Nevada, But Obama Takes The Lead (The Note)

(Image Credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

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

This was supposed to be Mitt Romney's week. Back-to-back wins in Florida and Nevada have helped to cement him as the all-but-certain Republican nominee.

Instead, the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll points to President Obama as the biggest winner of the GOP primary contest.

President Obama has snuck ahead of Romney among registered voters, 51 percent to 45 percent. What's more, 50 percent of voters in the new poll approve of Obama's job performance and the same percentage say he deserves re-election.

"Two chief factors are at play," according to ABC News pollster Gary Langer. "One is the economy's gradual but unmistakable improvement, marked by the newly reported January unemployment rate of 8.3 percent - the lowest since a month after Obama took office. The other: questions focused on Romney's wealth, his low tax burden and, relatedly, his ability to connect with average Americans."

Here's a worrisome marker for the former Massachusetts governor: Fifty-two percent of those polled said the more they hear about Romney the less they like him.

Though his GOP rivals appear undeterred by his decisive win in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, Romney is likely to do his best to ignore them - at least on the stump. After brawling with Newt Gingrich ahead of the Florida contest, Romney has, once again, pivoted back to Obama.

It was evident in his victory speech in Las Vegas on Saturday night. Romney mentioned "Obama" or "Mr. President" by name roughly 15 times. He did not mention Gingrich, Rick Santorum or Ron Paul even once, offering only offered a vague reference to the "other people" running for president.

Look for Romney to let his campaign aides and his surrogates do most of the attacking for him. The Romney press shop, for example, unleashed a missive on Sunday accusing Gingrich of "flailing" in his post-Nevada caucus press conference, listing a series of negative headlines.

In the 22-minute long session with reporters, Gingrich pledged to stay in race "all the way to Tampa," and said his goal was to be at about "parity" with Romney in the delegate count after the April 3 Texas primary.

He also didn't miss a chance to unload on Romney, calling him a "a pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax-increase, George Soros-approved candidate of the establishment."

But while Gingrich whines, Santorum is campaigning as tirelessly as ever and he has the potential to make some inroads. His effort is also attracting the attention of the Romney high command in Boston.

A second Romney campaign message on Sunday took the form of an opposition research dump slamming Santorum as a "proud defender of earmarks and pork-barrel spending."

But, at least for now, Romney can take comfort: Republicans and Republican-leaning independents support him 39 percent to 23 percent over Gingrich nationally. Another 16 percent back Santorum and 15 percent would vote for Paul.

ABC's senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper dug into the details of the new poll on "Good Morning America" today. "The more the American people hear about Mitt Romney, the more they don't like," Tapper noted, adding this caveat: the White House "is taking nothing for granted. They know there's probably going to be another valley ahead. But this is going to be a very tight race assuming Romney is the nominee." WATCH:

POLL SNAPSHOTS from ABC pollster Gary Langer:

ROMNEY AND HIS WEALTH: "Based on his roughly 14 percent tax rate on 2010 income of about $22 million, the public by a broad 66-30 percent says Romney is not paying his fair share of taxes; even nearly half of Republicans say so, as do half of very conservative Americans.  The public by 53-36 percent, a 17-point margin, thinks Obama better understands the economic problems people are having. Obama leads Romney by 55-37 percent in trust to better protect the interests of the middle class, and remarkably, by 10 points, 52-42 percent, in trust to handle taxes."

OBAMA'S LIABILITIES: "There are continued challenges for Obama. A negative turn for the economy (watch gasoline prices) could be very damaging. His approval rating on creating jobs is flat this month at 44 percent. Just 38 percent approve of his handling of the deficit, while 58 percent disapprove, a serious weakness unless he can make the case that it was deficit spending that turned the economy. And fewer than half, 47 percent, approve of his handling of taxes, even if he's leading Romney on the issue."

BOTTOM LINE: "More than anything, the 2012 campaign remains about the economy and its impact on public perceptions. A vast 89 percent continue to rate the economy negatively; however, the number who give it the worst rating, "poor," has declined to 42 percent, from 50 percent in July. It matters: Among registered voters who say the economy's merely not so good, Obama leads Romney by 62-35 percent. Among those who say it's poor, Romney leads, 65-29."

THIS WEEK ON "THIS WEEK": RON PAUL'S HAZY CRYSTAL BALL. Coming off of a back-of-the-pack finish in the Nevada caucus Saturday night, Ron Paul said Sunday morning that it is "hard to say exactly when" he expects to score a victory in an upcoming caucus or primary. "Of course you set [your target] for victory, but you have to live within the real world," Paul told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "This Week". "But we have three or four caucus states that we believe our numbers are doing pretty good and we have to wait and see and keep doing exactly what we're doing." Paul, who is the only 2012 GOP presidential candidate who has not won a primary or caucus, said despite his losing record, he has already achieved his goal igniting a "big change in this country." "There is an intellectual revolution going on with the young people," Paul said. "It has not been translated into an absolute political change, but, believe me, there is an intellectual revolution going on and that has to come first before we see big political changes."

More from Sunday: Obama and Romney economic advisers square off:

For George's full interview with Ron Paul and the roundtable with George Will, Arianna Huffington, Dana Loesch, Matthew Dowd:


THE BIG PICTURE: DELEGATE MATH. ABC's Rick Klein crunches the numbers: "With no one else able to boast of Romney's financial advantage and campaign infrastructure, precious few opportunities remain for his rivals to gain a foothold that would knock him off course. But this is where delegate math is not Romney's friend, not this year. The proportional allocation of delegates - as opposed to the winner-take-all format that dominated previous cycles - combines with a back-loaded calendar to leave virtually no chance for Romney to end the race quickly, unless his rivals cooperate. As of today, only 143 delegates have been awarded - barely 6 percent of the full complement of 2,286 who will be selected to cast ballots at the Republican National Convention. Fewer than 200 additional delegates are up for grabs through the remainder of February. And Super Tuesday isn't half as supersized as it was four years ago. At the end of the night March 6, only 820 of the 2286 delegates will have been awarded - less than 36 percent of the full total. What's more, the Super Tuesday states will be allocating delegates proportionally. The inclusion of several big southern states on that date would make a Romney sweep unlikely in any event. That means the only way to end the race early is for other candidates to drop out quickly."


WHAT WENT WRONG IN NEVADA? 'BICKERING AND BUMBLING.' "A painstakingly slow hand count of Clark County's presidential caucus vote delayed final results by more than a day, prompting accusations of fraud and conspiracy from supporters of Rep. Ron Paul, doubts from national Republicans about Nevada's ability to run a caucus and derision from national political observers, who called for Nevada's status as an early caucus state to be summarily yanked," writes the Las Vegas Sun's Anjeanette Damon. "While no evidence of fraud was uncovered, the prolonged count capped a caucus marked by disorganization, bickering and bumbling at nearly every turn. By the time Clark County finished counting, the vote had long been tallied in the rest of the state, a victory had been declared (Mitt Romney) and the candidates had given their speeches and left the state. Only their lawyers stayed behind to monitor the count. … In a handful of precincts, the ballot tally didn't match the sign-in tally. Dealing with the discrepancies slowed and confused the process. Some precincts were off by one vote because precinct captains forgot to sign in. … The process that began so bitterly ended rather smoothly: Counters threw out less than 20 ballots in the end, including 10 for Romney in an unsigned, unsealed envelope."

FINAL NUMBERS:  The Nevada GOP released final results for Saturday's caucuses after a full hand-certification of ballots:

Romney: 50% Gingrich: 21.1% Paul: 18.7% Santorum: 9.9%

RON PAUL: DOUBLE DIPPER? "Rep. Ron Paul appears to have been paid twice for flights between Washington, D.C., and his Congressional district, receiving reimbursement from taxpayers and also from a network of political and nonprofit organizations he controlled, according to public records and documents obtained by Roll Call," the newspaper's Jonathan Strong reports. "Roll Call identified eight flights for which the Texas Republican, a GOP presidential candidate and leading champion of smaller government, was reimbursed twice for the same trip. Roll Call also found dozens more instances of duplicate payments for travel from 1999 to 2009, totaling thousands of dollars' worth of excess payments, but the evidence in those cases is not as complete. Paul's office vigorously denies that the Congressman ever intentionally received multiple reimbursements for the same trips. Paul's office declined to make the Congressman available for an interview. Spokesman Jesse Benton said it was 'possible that wholly inadvertent errors were made in a handful of instances' in which flights were reimbursed twice, but he maintained that 'absolutely zero taxpayer funds were ever misused.'"

SANTORUM ON DEATH PANELS…. Rick Santorum carried a doomsday message to those gathered at the local university in the northern Minnesota town of Bimidji, ABC News' Shushannah Walshe reports. If President Obama's health care plan is allowed to take affect, those on the "margins of life," including children with special needs like Santorum's own daughter, will not get the necessary medical help to survive, he said. The former Pennsylvania senator even brought up Sarah Palin's controversial "death panels" claim. "I don't know how much time we have, so being away from her is a cross, it's a heavy cross daily," Santorum said referring to being away from his youngest daughter Bella, who suffers from a rare and serious genetic disorder called Trisomy 18. Two weeks ago she was hospitalized with double pneumonia in a grave health scare for the family.

…AND SWEATER VESTS. The presidential candidate came to this northern part of the state because this small town is where his signature look is made: the Santorum sweater vests. Taken on a running tour of every step of the sweater vest-making process, as well as the town's popular spots, by the owner of Bemidji Woolen Mills, Santorum was greeted by smiling crowds and members of the community happy to meet the first presidential candidate to visit the town in decades, but also clearly gleeful to have the business. Santorum himself even mentioned that the look started as a "fashion faux pas." The sweater vests come with a $100 donation to the campaign and aides say they have sold over 1300 on their website.

NOTED: Billionaire mutual fund manager and the main donor to the Santorum super PAC, Foster Friess, is traveling with the candidate this week. Yesterday, he joined Santorum bounding around Bimidji, Minn. in a sweater vest. Today, he's on the charter in a large white cowboy hat and will be with the campaign all day. He will be at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC later this week as well.

IS GINGRICH 2012'S MIKE HUCKABEE? "Newt Gingrich is starting to look a lot like Mike Huckabee," notes Politico's Jonathan Martin. "Running a seat-of-his-pants campaign that was short on cash but long on one-liners, the former Baptist preacher enjoyed early 2008 success, hit a rough patch and then had what turned out to be a meaningless rebound when the race turned to his native South. Now, it's Gingrich who's living off his own rhetorical chops and conservative unease with the establishment-backed opposition - and hoping he can revive his prospects by turning in a strong showing when the GOP primary moves to the Bible Belt next month. But even if he should string together a series of wins in Dixie, the former House speaker increasingly appears consigned to Huckabee's fate … Gingrich may face even longer odds than Huckabee did, though. When the former Arkansas governor enjoyed his 'dead cat bounce,' winning four Southern states on Super Tuesday, he was facing off against John McCain and Mitt Romney, two candidates who evoked considerable skepticism among grass-roots conservatives. Gingrich's bid to come back is severely complicated by the presence of Rick Santorum, a movement conservative who will appeal to many of the religious conservatives the former speaker needs to overtake Romney."

THE FEBRUARY LULL. "Seven states will hold their nominating contests this month. The next in line are Colorado and Minnesota, which hold caucuses Tuesday. Missouri also holds a primary, though it is considered more of a 'beauty contest,' because the state's official nominating process takes place later in the year. And Maine is in the midst of a multi-day caucus that ends Saturday," reports the Washington Post's Sandhya Somashekhar. "It is hardly the thrill-a-minute fight that has been unfolding since September, punctuated by a series of debates that allowed voters to see in real time some of the candidates' sharpest ups and downs. … But if January was like a gladiator match, February will be more like a game of chess. It will serve as a test of the candidates' grit as they navigate the labyrinthine rules set forth by each state's Republican Party and try to collect enough delegates to support them at the Republican National Convention in August. They will have to raise enough money to stay in the game and keep up their momentum - as well as their own endurance on the campaign trail. 'If they don't effectively compete, they will allow the perception to be created that the other guy has the momentum, that the wind is out of their sails,' said Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee. 'You want to create the perception of momentum.'"


@JillDLawrence : My primal scream: Time to Get Rid of Caucuses, Let Other States Go Early, Or Both  @nationaljournal  #NVCaucus  #IACaucus

@stephenfhayes : Swing state RT  @jamiedupree: LOW TURNOUT - In 2008, there were 44,000+ in Nevada GOP Caucus; in 2012, there were 33,000+ who voted, down 25%

@HotlineReid : The Iowa caucuses were originally scheduled to happen today. Thank Florida for forcing everyone into January  #HotlineSort

 @PounderFile : New  @RNCresearch piece w/ infographic…The Missing Worker  #ObamaFailedPromis

@dtoddharris : Rubio op ed: Failed government policies threaten college dreams


-Mitt Romney is on the trail in Colorado where he'll hold a rally with supporters in Grand Junction. Romney heads to Centennial in the evening for a grassroots rally.

-Newt Gingrich is also campaigning in Colorado speaking to the Colorado Energy Summit in Golden. Gingrich travels to St. Paul, Minnesota in the evening for a rally.

-Ron Paul spends the day in Minnesota with two events in St. Cloud and Minneapolis.

-Rick Santorum starts his day in Rochester, Minnesota delivering a major health care speech at the Kahler Grand Hotel. Santorum will take an afternoon flight to Colorado for the 2012 Colorado Energy Summit. After delivering a speech to the summit, Santorum will hold an evening rally in Denver.

-Josh Haskell ( @HaskellBuzz )


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