Mitt Romney's Etch A Mess (The Note)

Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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

In a presidential race there are bad days, and then there are days you wish you could "kind of shake it up" and "start all over again."

Yesterday was one of those days for Mitt Romney.

It was a childhood toy - the Etch a Sketch - that ironically threw the Romney campaign so thoroughly off message that the candidate, himself, was compelled to hold an awkward one-question impromptu press conference to respond to the issue.

Strategist Eric Fehrnstrom's comments noting that in the general election, "everything changes. It's almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again," set off the firestorm of derision from Democrats and Romney's Republican opponents alike.

The ensuing mockery completely obliterated any hope that Romney would be able to bask in his Tuesday night win in Illinois or in a morning-after endorsement from one of the most highly-respected voices in the Republican Party: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Bush said on Wednesday it's "time for Republicans to unite behind Governor Romney and take our message of fiscal conservatism and job creation to all voters this fall."

But his message never really had a chance to sink in. Or, as one top Democrat told The Note, "Jeb, who?"

Romney attempted to well, erase, the issue after a town hall meeting yesterday outside Baltimore, Md.

"The issues I'm running on will be exactly the same," Romney said. "I'm running as a conservative Republican, I was a conservative Republican governor, I'll be running as a conservative Republican nominee."

Despite his clarification, there's a certain stickiness to the Etch a Sketch label that Democrats hope to make him own assuming he becomes the GOP nominee. The more pertinent issue in the short term is how Romney successfully jettisons his Republican opponents from the race.

On the night of the Illinois primary, Fehrnstrom suggested it might be time for Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul to "step aside," but the campaign appears to be pulling back a bit.

"We're not there yet," Romney adviser Charlie Black told The New York Times today about whether Santorum should drop out.

By the looks of the efforts of Romney's campaign and his allies in the coming primary contests, there are no signs they believe the race has truly come to an end. And at the end of what was supposed to be a triumphant day, the Romney camp gave his rivals another reason to stick around rather than drop out.

Once again, the former Massachusetts governor will have to rely as much on money - instead of momentum and message - to pull himself through another primary night. Like they did in Illinois, Romney and his allies are dumping boatloads of cash into Wisconsin hoping to stop any Santorum surge before it can begin.

On "Good Morning America" today, ABC's Jake Tapper discussed the Romney campaign's unforced error yesterday. WATCH:


WISCONSIN AIR WARS. The Romney campaign this morning unveiled a new television advertisement titled "Conservative Record," which will run in Wisconsin ahead of the state's April 3 primary. "I spent my career in the private sector. In Massachusetts, when I came in we faced almost a three billion dollar budget gap," Romney says in the ad. "And there were some that said why don't we just raise taxes. Or why don't we just borrow money? "We actually cut spending. I balanced the budget every single year and by the time I left we had established over two billion dollars of a rainy day fund."

And even before the ink was dry on the results of Tuesday night's Illinois primary, Restore Our Future, had already purchased roughly $1.3 million worth of airtime in Wisconsin. This week the group wrote another $1 million check. A source tracking media buys tells The Note that the group has dumped in an additional $972,000 to buy TV ads in Wisconsin ahead of the primary.  Restore Our Future's total buy, based on both FEC filings and our GOP sources, is approximately $2.2 million in Wisconsin. According to filings with the Federal Election Commission and data obtained by Republican sources tracking ad buys, the super PAC is pouring money into Wisconsin, concentrating their resources on the Madison and Milwaukee areas with smaller ad buys in La Crosse, Green Bay and Wausau. There is no mistaking their all-out effort to destroy Rick Santorum in a state that he has a chance of winning.

OBAMA'S ENERGY PITCH: 'WE'RE DRILLING ALL OVER THE PLACE' President Obama kicked off his two-day, four-state trip to promote his energy agenda with stops in Nevada and New Mexico yesterday, ABC's Devin Dwyer and Mary Bruce report. Obama's visit to an active oil field on federal lands in New Mexico was squarely aimed at countering criticism from the right over rising gas prices and claims that domestic oil production is declining on his watch. "We've quadrupled the number of operating oil rigs to a record high. More than 70 of those rigs are right here in this area," Obama said in a speech before a ConocoPhillips rig, idled for the event. "In fact, business is so good that today the biggest problem is finding enough qualified truck drivers to move all the oil that's coming out of these wells down to the refinery.  Too much oil - that's a good problem to have," he said. Domestic oil production overall in the U.S. is at its highest level in the past eight years, according to the Energy Department. But production on federal lands was down 14 percent year-over-year in 2011, and overall remains 13 percent lower than it was in 2003. "You wouldn't know it from listening to some of these folks running for office, but producing more oil here in our own country has been, and will continue to be, a key part of our energy strategy," Obama said. "We're drilling all over the place," he said.

RNC COUNTER-PROGRAMMING: A FOCUS ON HEALTH CARE. In each state President Obama visits, the Republican National Committee has prepared something of a welcome for him. First, the RNC is running an ad in key media markets where Obama will set foot saying that despite his promise to lower health care premiums, the health care reform law has actually lead to "higher  costs for patients, higher costs to taxpayers." The RNC is also running robo-calls in the states Obama is going this week, specifically aimed at independent seniors. Here's what those calls say:

"In 2008 Barack Obama campaigned on the promise of providing relief to American families and creating jobs.  Instead of the relief he promised, health care premiums are rising, budget deficits skyrocket, and 6 million Seniors will lose their prescription drug benefits.  America can't afford 4 more years of Barack Obama.  Help us defeat Obama in November."


ETCH A SKETCH MANIA GRIPS GOP RACE. By early afternoon, the Etch A Sketch comment had taken over conversations about the Republican race. Both Santorum and Gingrich had used them as props. And Stewart, fresh from Toys R Us, was handing out the red drawing toys for free in Maryland. Rick Santorum's campaign spokeswoman Alice Stewart was dispatched to Toys R Us this morning to buy 20 Etch A Sketch toys. She handed them out to the press corps at a town hall for Santorum's chief rival, Mitt Romney, in Arbutus, Md., yesterday afternoon. Santorum said the comment reflected Romney's willingness to compromise his principles and become "a completely new candidate" who can "draw a new picture" simply to get elected. "That whoever you are going to vote for is going to be a completely new candidate, remove all trace of any kind of marks and be able to draw a new picture," Santorum said. "Maybe a picture sort of like when he ran for governor of Massachusetts, not as a conservative. One thing you can say - even my staunchest critics will say - is what you see is what you get."

Gingrich made similar comments in Louisiana, when he handed an Etch A Sketch from the stage to a child in the crowd, telling her she could now be a presidential candidate. "It is such a perfect illustration," the former House speaker said. "How is anybody going to trust any pledge he makes if his, some people talk about  making pledges that are in stone, but the idea that a Romney pledge is on etch a sketch.  This will just resonate.  It will remind everybody in the Conservative movement why they are very worried about a Romney presidency and about a Romney candidacy.  And it really makes  you doubt and wonder about his sincerity.

NOTED: Etch A Sketch maker Ohio Art was hoping for an uptick in sales, ABC's Emily Friedman reports. "Happy to see Etch A Sketch, an American classic toy, is DRAWING attention with political candidates as a cultural icon and important piece of our society," read a statement from the company. "A profound toy, highly recognized and loved by all, is now SHAKING up the national debate."

MEET THE WOMAN WHO GAVE RICK SANTORUM $1 MILLION. For Rick Santorum, February was a great month, both politically and monetarily, according to financial reports disclosed to the FEC on Tuesday, ABC's Elizabeth Hartfield writes. Santorum's super PAC has largely been funded by billionaire investor Foster Friess, who sometimes appears on the campaign trail besides Santorum. This month however, there was a new mega-donor. Annette Simmons, an executive at the Contran Corp. in Dallas,  donated $1 million to the Red, White and Blue fund in  February. Not only was Simmons donation her first to the group, it was her first in general, she told ABC news. "I don't think I've ever given to anyone politically," Simmons said, "but I was impressed with Santorum." Simmons said she was drawn to Santorum's strong Christian and family values. "I just knew that I wanted to help Santorum because he's the kind of man I would want to be president," she proclaimed. After she made her generous donation, Santorum, accompanied by Karen and three of his children, paid Simmons a visit at her home, to personally thank her.

IS WISCONSIN SANTORUM'S LAST STAND? Rick Santorum, it seems, will likely win in Louisiana on Saturday, but that will do little to change the momentum of the race, ABC's Matthew Jaffe notes. Come April 3, the former Pennsylvania senator will be hard-pressed to find a lot of support in Maryland and is not even on the ballot in D.C. After that, the next round of primaries does not take place until April 24, when New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania all vote. Only Pennsylvania is remotely friendly territory for Santorum, but even there the voters  kicked him out of the Senate after one term. It's not exactly a great home-field advantage. That all makes April 3 in Wisconsin the last best chance for Santorum to get back into the race. Win the Badger State and Santorum will be back in the conversation, at least until April 24. Lose, and he will merely be an afterthought going forward, a dead man walking. Santorum will waste little time in making his case to Wisconsin voters. He heads there Saturday to address a conference in Milwaukee. Romney is also expected to visit the state later this month, while his wife, Ann, will campaign in Madison and Milwaukee on Thursday.


@HotlineReid : Bill and Hillary Clinton Airport in Little Rock looks like the first airport named (at least in part) for a woman in the US  #HotlineSort

@gregmcrc : RT  @thehill: Jeb Bush wants Romney to select Rubio as running mate  #tcot  #gop12  #romney

@byjayroot : Perry, asked about interest in VP slot on Fox, says "I got a better gig where I am."  #RickPerry

@SenJohnMcCain : My op-ed in today w/  @JoeLieberman &  @GrahamBlog: A route to success in  #Afghanistan

@CoryBooker : "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little." Edmund Burke



by ABC's Chris Good

-Gingrich to Louisiana Voters: Obama Will Get More 'Radical.' If you think President Obama is a "radical" now, just wait, Newt Gingrich warned on Wednesday. Campaigning at Louisiana College in Pineville, the former House Speaker told a crowd that "you can't even imagine how radical he'll be" if he wins a second term. The Alexandria, La., Town Talk reports, "Throughout the 45-minute address, the former speaker of the House used the term 'radical' and 'radicalization' in describing Obama, the president's cabinet members and the policies" he's enacted.

-Santorum Stumps Against Obama Drilling Policies. Mitt Romney has made more of a concerted effort to frame his speeches around the general election of late, but the Times Picayune reports that in a campaign stop at an oil and gas drilling company in Harvey, La., Rick Santorum "spent most of his 15-minute speech assailing the Obama administration's policies on oil and gas production in the wake of the April 2009 Deepwater Horizon explosion."

-Wisconsin: Santorum's Last Stand? Wisconsin voter demographics favor Rick Santorum, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Craig Gilbert finds, and after losses in Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois, the Badger State might give Santorum a good chance of beating Mitt Romney in the Midwest. Unlike Illinois, where suburban voters dominated, GOP voters in Wisconsin are more rural and less likely to hold a college degree-groups have all backed Santorum in Midwestern states so far.

-Hoyer Says Romney Will Likely Win Maryland. The House minority whip criticized Mitt Romney's economic policies as the GOP candidate campaigned in Hoyer's home state on Wednesday - but acknowledged Romney is likely to win there. "I don't think that, frankly, in Maryland there will be a group of Republicans who I think will think Santorum reflects their positions," Hoyer told The Baltimore Sun. "In Maryland, the suburban voter tends to be more of a moderate."



-Rick Santorum takes his message to Texas delivering a major healthcare address at the USAA in San Antonio. Texas votes on May 29 th.

-Mitt Romney is in Washington DC for a private fundraiser. Ann Romney is campaigning for her husband in Wisconsin with two events in Middleton and Milwaukee. Wisconsin holds their primary on April 3 rd.

-Newt Gingrich is in Louisiana holding a rally at Big Al's Seafood Restaurant in Houma. Then, Gingrich will participate in the Baton Rouge Tea Party Presidential Forum & Straw Poll. The forum is hosted by the LSU College Republicans. Callista Gingrich is also in Baton Rouge visiting the Center for Visual & Performing Arts.

-ABC's Josh Haskell (@HaskellBuzz)


 Check out The Note's Futures Calendar:


* Get  The Note delivered  to your inbox every day.

* For breaking political news and analysis check out The Note blog: and