Romney, The Inevitable? (The Note)

(Image Credit: Gerald Herbert/AP Photo)

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

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Could Super Tuesday be the beginning of the end for Mitt Romney's rivals?

The former Massachusetts governor begins the final full day of campaigning before voters go to the polls with a narrow lead in the most hotly contested of the Super Tuesday states - Ohio.

According to a new Quinnipiac University poll out this morning Romney leads Rick Santorum among likely Republican primary voters, 34 percent to 31 percent.

The numbers have flipped since Friday when another Quinnipiac poll showed Santorum ahead of Romney, 35 percent to 31 percent and it represents a 10-point difference from last month when Santorum held a 36 percent to 29 percent lead over Romney.

"To borrow from the book of Berra, Yogi that is: It's deja vu all over again for Gov. Mitt Romney," said Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown. "Just as he did in Florida and Michigan, Romney has erased a sizable deficit a week before the primary to grab the momentum in the final 24 hours."

It's not a done deal yet, but a Romney win in Ohio - a rust-belt state that border's Santorum's stronghold of Pennsylvania - could end up being one giant leap toward securing the nomination for Romney.

It's not that Santorum and New Gingrich aren't well-positioned to win states tomorrow night. Santorum has a shot in Tennessee and Oklahoma and Gingrich remains ahead in the polls in Georgia, but for Santorum, in particular, a loss in a state as hard-fought as Ohio could prove to be a fatal blow.

Super Tuesday also comes at a moment when many top Republicans are beginning to indicate that they're ready to close the curtain on this year's primary drama. Already top figures in the party establishment are rallying around Romney, including Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who both endorsed him yesterday.

This morning the Romney campaign also announced the support of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Romney appears to be pushing the notion of his own inevitability.

"People recognize that we are on the cusp of getting a nominee who can beat Barack Obama," the candidate said in an interview this morning with a Tennessee radio station.

But will that pressure be enough to convince Santorum, Gingrich and Ron Paul to get out of the race? And when?

Although Romney seems to have the momentum, it's also clear that the primary process has taken a toll on him. Two data points from a NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll out this morning that sting:

-Just 28 percent of adults view Romney favorably compared to 39 percent who view him unfavorably.

-In fact, as the poll points out, "Romney's image right now is worse than almost all other recent candidates who went on to win their party's presidential nomination."

THE BIG PICTURE. In his "Political Insights" column, ABC's Rick Klein writes that "even Romney's nightmare scenario - a loss in Ohio to Santorum and getting swept by Gingrich and Santorum in the Southern Super Tuesday states of Georgia, Tennessee, and Oklahoma - would likely still see him walk away with the most delegates. Layer on that the proportional delegate allocation system in most states and it becomes clear that Santorum and Gingrich simply can't catch up fast enough to erase Romney's lead. The non-Romney candidates may have persuasive arguments, but they can't win by losing. Romney may not surpass the magic number of 1,144 delegates until May or June. But the point is no other candidate is positioned to even come close to that threshold before Romney does. Romney has had his flaws and foibles exposed by this extended primary fight. The commitment by Santorum and Gingrich to continue on could further undermine Romney's attempt to excite and unite Republicans behind his candidacy. But Romney is in position to turn his claim on the GOP nomination from a question of if into one of when. A win in Ohio, while not critical, would put more pressure on Romney's rivals to exit gracefully, as the trend lines become clear."

"THIS WEEK" REPLAY: NEWT GINGRICH AND DAVID AXELROD ON GAS PRICES. Newt Gingrich said in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "This Week" that Mitt Romney was "not a very convincing frontrunner" and was "a long way from having closed out this race." He also asserted that President Obama's goal was to have American at "European level gas prices."

"This president and his secretary of anti-energy, Dr. Chu, have as a goal getting us to pay European-level prices of $8 or $9. Dr. Chu was clear about that before he became secretary.  He wants us to get to be a European-level price structure of $8 or $9 a gallon," Gingrich said. "He said this week, in testifying in the House, he has 'no intention of trying to lower the price of oil or the price of gasoline.'  The American people on the other hand would much rather pay $2.50 and be independent of Saudi Arabia than be where we are today. "

AXELROD HITS BACK. George spoke with Obama campaign senior adviser David Axelrod later in the program and he said Obama administration wants lower gas prices even though Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said recently that lower gas prices are not the president's main goal. "We always want lower gas prices, because that's good for our economy.  The question is whether it's realistic to say, as the speaker did, that there's some magic fairy dust that you can sprinkle and get $2.50 gas?  The American people know that's not the case," said Axelrod. "We have been dealing with this for some time.  Six months before the president took office, gas was at $4.10.  The reason that it was lower when he took office was because we had a worldwide recession.  That's not a strategy for lower gas prices that we want to follow."

JOHN BERMAN'S 'POLITICALLY FOUL': Newt-a-Mania Gripping Georgia? It was "Newtamania" in Georgia this week where Newt Gingrich rocked Hulk Hogan's anthem "Real American Hero." Lyrics from the iconic theme song from the Hulk's World Wrestling Federation days blared through the speakers, "I am a real American, fight for what's right, fight for your life!" Looks like Gingrich is trying to knock his competition out of the ring before the main event in Georgia: Super Tuesday. WATCH:

SUPER TUESDAY VOICES. ABC's Steven Portnoy reports from the Dayton, Ohio area, where Rick Santorum speaks today. The region has seen a steady and sharp reduction in manufacturing jobs the past decade, with nearly half as many people working in factories in 2011 as there were ten years earlier. "The biggest issue for me is getting jobs people can afford to survive with," said an undecided Republican named Rob, who worked as a quality engineer at a plastics plant supplying U.S. automakers until he was laid off more than a year ago. "There's been a lot of businesses going under, people losing their houses," said Sandra Denny, a dog groomer in Dayton.  "There's no jobs, there's nothing here to keep anybody in this state." Denny hasn't decided who she'll pick on Tuesday, but she says the man who can convince her that his economic program is best will earn her vote.

"I like the fact that it's tight.  A tight race is a good race," said Mark Kelly, a 47-year-old Ohio software programmer.  Despite his concerns about the economy, Kelly says he's inclined to support Barack Obama's reelection, like about half of Ohio voters in a new NBC News-Marist College poll out this weekend. "But I was hoping they'd come up with somebody better than Mitt Romney," Kelly said.  "Just to make the election interesting."



IRAN TAKES CENTER STAGE IN OBAMA-NETANYAHU TALKS. ABC's Jake Tapper reports that this morning, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes to the Oval Office to meet with President Obama. The last time they met, in May 2011, Netanyahu offered the American president a lesson on Jewish history - in front of the cameras. President Obama had just given a speech on the need for Israel, in its peace talks with the Palestinians, to return to its pre-1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps. It was an uncomfortable moment. Today's meeting comes in a different context, with Iran's nuclear weapons program the primary focus. The U.S. and Israel agree on much on this subject, but the differences are important: red lines and timelines. In terms of red lines, Obama says Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu says Iran must not even be permitted to garner the capability to develop a weapon - and he wants Iran to cease enriching uranium. As for timelines, as President Obama made clear in his speech to AIPAC yesterday, he believes there's a cushion of time for diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions to work. And while the U.S. shares Israel's skepticism about Iran's agreement to return to the P-5 plus 1 diplomatic talks about its nuclear program - knowing that the country has used those talks as a stalling mechanism - the White House believes they should be allowed to work. Israel feels more urgency about the timeline, given its proximity to Iran and threats that the leaders of that country have made about the Jewish state.

More from Tapper's "Good Morning America" report on how the U.S. and Israel are tackling the Iran question. WATCH:

ROMNEY RAISES SPECTER OF IRANIAN NUKES. Mitt Romney responded yesterday to President Obama's speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, saying the "president has failed" with sanctions against Iran and warning that if he is re-elected, "Iran will have a nuclear weapon," ABC's Emily Friedman reports from Snellville, Ga. "This president has failed," Romney said. "I understand he just gave an address today talking about all the great things he's done to provide greater peace and reduce the threat from Iran. That hasn't happened. This president failed to speak out when the dissidents took the streets in Tehran, he had nothing to say." Earlier today Obama addressed AIPAC and discussed the situating in Iran, saying that he "firmly" believes "that an opportunity remains for diplomacy - backed by pressure - to succeed," adding that "the only way to solve this problem is for the Iranian government to make a decision to forsake nuclear weapons." But today Romney challenged Obama's statements in an answer to a question posed by an 11-year-old boy who had come to hear him speak at a pancake breakfast just outside of Atlanta. "This is a president who has failed to put in place crippling sanctions against Iran," Romney told the boy, who had asked what Romney would do to protect Israel from Iran.

NOTED: BARBARA BUSH ROBO-CALLS FOR ROMNEY. Former First Lady Barbara Bush has recorded robo-calls for Mitt Romney in two Super Tuesday states: Ohio and Vermont. "We have known the Romneys for years and believe Mitt is the best man to lead the country for the next four years and Ann will make a great first lady,"  Bush says on the call, which is hitting households in both states ahead of Tuesday's primaries. On the call, Bush, wife of President George H.W. Bush, refers to Romney as "our friend." Donald Trump has also recorded an automated call for Romney, as he did in Michigan. Both of the calls were paid for by the Romney campaign. Notably, Ann Romney has been talking up the former first lady's support on the campaign trail. At an appearance in Georgia last week Mrs. Romney disclosed that Bush "maxed out" to the Romney campaign, writing a $2,500 check.

RON PAUL'S SUPER TUESDAY STRATEGY.  Super Tuesday is tomorrow and Ron Paul is placing big bets on three states: Alaska, Idaho, and North Dakota, ABC's Jason Volack notes. Paul is sticking with his strategy of focusing on the small caucus states that rely on activist voters. Those three states have a total of 87 delegates at stake. Paul told CBS News' Bob Schieffer that there is a "good chance we come out with a majority of delegate." The Texas congressman visited Alaska over the weekend, the only presidential candidate to do so.  His rivals sent delegates or held teleconferences.  Sara Palin has ambiguously endorsed Newt Gingrich there, but it remains to be seen how far it helps him. Paul is campaigning again today in Idaho which offers 32 delegates. And although Romney, Santorum and Gingrich have campaigned in Idaho, only Ron Paul has a physical campaign office in the state.

NOTABLE: THE ONION LAUNCHES 'WAR FOR THE WHITE HOUSE' COVERAGE. The nation's leading satirical news site is buckling up for Super Tuesday: "The Onion News Network 'War for the White House' team goes in depth to cover the most critical night of the primary season. Andrea Bennett sits down with ONN Analyst, David Barrodale, and GOP Political Consultant, Piper Cahill in the 2012 Election Bunker to discuss the issues that will decide who takes home the most delegates. For instance, will Romney's bold move to start flaunting his wealth, hip hop-style, help or hurt his poll numbers? And how will Rick Santorum's recent admission that he experimented with embryonic stem cells in college affect his performance?" The Onion promises that "this year's reporting, classified as 'On The Front Lines Of The 2012 Election,' is even more bombastic, aggressive, and militaristic than the network's coverage in 2008, which was recognized with a Peabody Award." Watch for a special Super Tuesday video on the Onion News Network tomorrow.



by ABC's Chris Good and Elizabeth Hartfield:

-For those undecided Ohio voters, the Columbus Dispatch outlines differences between the GOP candidates on a slew of issues - only to conclude, the differences are narrow.

-Echoes of Reagan in Santorum's Ohio Campaign. In 1976, Ronald Reagan ran against incumbent Gerald Ford as the hard-charging conservative alternative. Realizing too late his popularity in Ohio, Reagan took 45 percent of the vote on primary day-but, having failed to organize in the state, he won only six of the state's 97 delegates that year. The Cincinnati Inquirer sees some strong parallels to Rick Santorum's effort.

-Widely expected to win the state on Super Tuesday by solid margins, Rick Santorum spent Sunday holding a rally at the Oklahoma state Capitol. "You are the conservative lodestar here," he told the crowd. "You go out and give us a win, and I guarantee you we will go past Super Tuesday."

-In Tennessee, the outcome of Tuesday's battle could signal the direction of the state Republican Party going forward. "With Republicans firmly in control of Tennessee, the outcome of the battle between Romney and Santorum could signal the direction in which the Tennessee GOP, and possibly the entire state, will march for years to come" the Tennessean explains.

-He's not running for president, but Mike Huckabee traveled to Nampa, Idaho for a rally on Sunday to gin up interest in tomorrow's caucuses and to raise money. "You have the opportunity to send your voices reverberating across the country," he said. "I want to assure you, it makes a big difference whether you go or not."



@HenryBarbour : Super Tue…Gingrich needs to win GA, TN and OK to show viability. Santo needs to win OH, TN, OK & ND. Romney needs OH & TN is fat lady.

@ErinMcPike : Prez Obama's campaign organization is way far ahead of the GOP's - and not just in Ohio, but every swing state: #2012

@GOP12 : Gingrich calls for a debate next week.

@mckaycoppins : Mitt Romney Suggested Three Times In 2009 That Obama Imitate Romneycare…

@swheaton : Nice  @usatoday graphic on Super Tuesday - scroll over state for quick political profile and relevant stats



-Mitt Romney campaigns across Ohio today, starting his day in Canton and moving on to Youngstown and Zanesville.

-Rick Santorum begins his day with an event in Dayton, Ohio and continues to stump in Plain City, the Columbus area and Cuyahoga Falls.

-Newt Gingrich focuses on Tennessee, campaigning in Kingsport, Alcoa and Chattanooga.

-Ron Paul campaigns across Idaho, making stops in Sandpoint, Moscow and Idaho Falls.

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