The Beginning Of The End (The Note)

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

The GOP establishment - old and new - is united in bringing this Republican presidential primary to a close.

Marco Rubio's endorsement of Mitt Romney last night did not come as a huge shock, but it did come with a stern warning from the Florida senator.

"It's evidently and increasingly clear that Mitt Romney's going to be the Republican nominee," Rubio said on Fox News' "Hannity" show last night, adding that Republicans must avoid a "floor fight" in Tampa this summer: "I don't think there's anything good about that."

"I think it's a recipe for disaster," he added. (More on what Rubio's endorsement means:

And this afternoon in Houston, Romney will receive an official endorsement from former President George H.W. Bush.

Although Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich can continue to complain that these are just more signs of the establishment dictating a nominee, the voters finally seem to be swinging to Romney's side.

The latest polls show Romney opening a healthy lead in Wisconsin, closing in on Santorum in Pennsylvania - the closest thing Santorum has to a "must win" state -  and even in North Carolina, a recent poll shows a tie between Santorum and Romney.

Of course, when Romney is looking his best is often when he does his worst. Witness yesterday's latest flub when on a tele-town hall with Wisconsin voters when Romney seemed to laugh off a story about his father shuttering an automobile factory. (More on Romney's comments:

For all the guff Romney gets for being too scripted and stiff, it's when he tries to be spontaneous that he gets himself in trouble (who will ever forget his two Cadillac's, Michigan's trees being at just the right height, and how he like to fire people who provide services to him?)

Even so, the law of diminishing returns suggests that the "Richie Rich" label is already baked into the cake. More stories about car elevators or his dad's factory closings will become part of the background noise. By November, this storyline will feel like old news.

DEMOCRATIC COUNTER-PROGRAMMING. Democratic National Committee Senior Advisor for Hispanic Affairs Juan Sepúlveda released the following statement on Marco Rubio's endorsement of Romney: "On the same day that he proposed denying young adults who were brought to the U.S. as children, through no fault of their own, an earned path to citizenship after serving in the armed forces or pursuing higher education, Senator Rubio joined proponents of controversial anti-immigrant policies like Kris Kobach and Governor Jan Brewer in endorsing Mitt Romney. Rubio's support for Romney underscores what we already knew: Mitt Romney would have the most extreme immigration platform of any presidential nominee in recent history."


HOT OFF THE PRESSES. The Romney campaign this morning released a new web video titled "Better?" Here's how the campaign is branding it: "President Obama named himself one of the four best presidents in history - but he is just being modest. President Obama is the best president at piling on debt. In one term, he has managed to pile on nearly as much debt as all the previous presidents combined." WATCH:


OBAMA ADVISERS WANT TO ENGAGE ROMNEY ON FOREIGN POLICY. A group of 18 foreign policy advisers to President Obama has written a public letter to Mitt Romney rebuffing criticism leveled by his campaign at Obama's national security record, ABC's Devin Dwyer reports. The group also offered to "engage" with Romney's team of advisers on a set of key foreign policy issues. "Because you have repeatedly said that your foreign policies will be informed by the advice of experts, we wanted to highlight some of the factual inaccuracies in the letter from your advisers," the group wrote, referring to an open message published Tuesday in the National Review. Romney's team, seizing on Obama's hot mic comments to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in South Korea, accused Obama of presiding over a period of "weakness and inconstancy" and suggested it would continue if he's re-elected. While Obama's allies offered a familiar litany of talking points to counter the claim - from progress on Iran sanctions to renewing the trade embargo with Cuba - they also turned up the heat on Romney, whose foreign policy agenda, they said, lacks substance. "What specifically would you do to address the Iranian threat that is different from what President Obama is already doing?" they asked.



RICK SANTORUM, THE CANDY MAN. In honor of Rick Santorum's visit to the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, Calif. today, ABC's Arlette Saenz recounts Santorum's history of the keeper of the Senate's candy desk: When he lost his re-election bid in 2006, Pennsylvanian Rick Santorum also gave up the responsibility of upholding one of the longest traditions of the U.S Senate, maintaining the "candy desk." Santorum, who hails from a state with famed candy producers such as Hershey and Just Born Inc., which makes Hot Tamales and Mike and Ikes, stocked the drawer of the desk with candy for a decade from 1997 to 2007 before losing to Bob Casey. "We were pleased to be a small part of sweetening up congressional proceedings," Kirk Saville, a spokesman for Hershey, told the Wall Street Journal when Santorum lost his candy-desk duties. Dating back to 1965, when it was started by Sen. George Murphy, R-Calif., a junior member of the Senate maintained the desk where senators can stop for a sweet treat. Despite rising in the ranks of the legislative body, Santorum kept control of the desk, which is located in the final row on the Republican side of the chamber closest to the most heavily trafficked entrance, as he rose in seniority. Although he no longer bears responsibility for the sweet-tooth tradition, Santorum is slated to deliver a foreign policy speech at the Jelly Belly Candy Co. in Fairfield, Calif. this afternoon. According to a news release from the Jelly Belly Co., executives hope to discuss the importance of U.S. sugar program reform with the GOP presidential candidate while he visits the sweet company.

ROMNEY BOOSTS WISCONSIN GOV AHEAD OF RECALL. During a Wisconsin voters' tele-town hall Wednesday, Mitt Romney threw his support behind embattled Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is facing a recall election after he orchestrated a  law that cuts public employees' collective bargaining rights in the state, ABC's Emily Friedman reports. "Governor Walker is, in my opinion, an excellent governor, and I believe that he is right to stand up for the citizens of Wisconsin, and to insist that those people who are working in the public sector unions have rights to effect their wages, but that these benefits and retiree benefits have fallen out of line with the capacity of the state to pay them, and so I support the governor in his effort to reign in the excesses that have permeated the public sector union and government negotiations over the years," said Romney. This was the first tele-town hall Romney has held with Wisconsin voters ahead of next week's primary.

NEWT GINGRICH DODGES CAMPAIGN QUESTIONS. At an event at Georgetown University, GOP contender Newt Gingrich avoided all talk of his troubled campaign, including recent announcements that he would shed a third of staff, according to ABC's Russell Goldman. Instead, Gingrich gave a cheerful talk on American values, innovation and exceptionalism, themes he has struck repeatedly in recent days on the trail. But a question posed by a Georgetown alumnus about his experience working as a janitor in his own high school as a student there cast a pall on the newly sunny Gingrich. Earlier in his campaign, Gingrich routinely proposed that underprivileged students should work in their schools, including as janitors. "Back in high school," said Hector Cendejas, a 2010 Georgetown graduate, "I was a janitor in my own high school, which was a private school. For me, it was embarrassing to be a janitor at my own high school. … I was poor." Gingrich asked Cendejas, "Did you find it useful financially to earn the money? Was there a reason you were doing it?" "I mean I needed to help my mom," Cendejas said. "She was a single mom and, also, my parents were undocumented." "Well, I am sorry if you were offended," Gingrich said.

SENATE DEMOCRATS UNVEIL TRANSPORTATION COUNTDOWN CLOCK. The countdown clock has officially been broken out, ABC's Sunlen Miller notes. There are just three days left until construction on roads across the nation could come grinding to a halt unless Congress passes a transportation bill. This Saturday is the deadline to pass a highway bill before federal funding expires but, as of now, the Senate and the House are deadlocked with no agreement on a way forward on one bill. Two weeks ago, the Senate passed a two-year $109 billion transportation bill with a large bipartisan vote that won the support of 22 GOP senators.  Since then, however, the House of Representatives has grappled with its own way forward. House Republicans could not originally find support for a five-year, $260 billion measure. So instead of passing the Senate's two-year bill, GOP leaders have been trying to pass a short-term extension instead.  That bill has been "on the calendar" every day this week in the House, but twice already GOP leaders have postponed votes on short-term extensions.

BIDEN CALLS ROMNEY OUT OF TOUCH ON MANUFACTURING. Pouring on his trademark folksy style, Vice President Joe Biden today took a new approach to attacking GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney:  highlighting what Democrats believe is his "remarkably consistent" disregard for American manufacturing jobs, notes ABC's Devin Dwyer. "Mitt Romney has been remarkably consistent. As an investor businessman, as governor of Massachusetts and now as a candidate for president. Remarkably consistent," Biden told a crowd during campaign stop at PCT Engineered Systems in Davenport, Iowa. "And I respectfully suggest, consistently wrong." For the first time on the stump, Biden raised the outsourcing of jobs by Bain Capital, the investment firm Romney founded and led, and the outsourcing of contract work by the state of Massachusetts during Romney's tenure as governor. Both are examples, Biden said, of a man out of touch with American workers. "I find that kind of fascinating. No, I really mean it. I mean, that's one, when I was told about it, I said, I'm not going to say that till you fact-check that for me again," he said of contracts awarded to overseas call centers during Romney's term as governor.


IN THE NOTE'S INBOX: "The American Energy Alliance is gearing up a new ad hitting the President on gas prices.  The ad buy starts on Friday and will hit 8 states in two waves that will total $3.6 million. The eight states are Florida, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, New Mexico, Michigan." WATCH:



@RealClearScott : Romney has long been a hardliner on Russia:

@nationaljournal : Sheldon Adelson, a major political donor, says Gingrich is "at the end of his line."

@maggiepolitico : Adelson on Mitt:"He's not the bold decision-maker like Newt Gingrich is…every time I talk to him, he says, 'Well, let me think about it.'"

@American_Bridge : Miss last night's  @WillieGeist1 segment on  @American_Bridge and opposition research? Take a look

@BuddyRoemer : Members of Congress spend 30-70% of their time fundraising instead of legislating. It's all about those re-election checks.  #occupydc



by ABC's Chris Good

-Polling Pennsylvania: Santorum's Lead Slips, Obama Still Strong. Rick Santorum's home-state lead has shrunk to a disturbingly small two percentage points, according to a Franklin & Marshall College poll released Wednesday that showed Santorum ahead of Mitt Romney 30 percent to 28 percent, after he led by double digits last month. President Obama appears poised to win Pennsylvania again in 2012, according to a new Quinnipiac survey that showed him leading both Romney and Santorum in the state, by three and seven percentage points respectively.

-Romney Banks Another Pa. Endorsement. Despite it being Rick Santorum's home turf, Mitt Romney's endorsements in Pennsylvania rival that of his closest 2012 GOP competitor. On Wednesday, he collected the official backing of another elected official there in U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick. "Like many of my colleagues, I know Senator Santorum and respect the work he did for Pennsylvania but I am strongly supporting Mitt Romney," Fitzpatrick said, according to The Morning Call. "Pennsylvania and the rest of the country can't afford four more years of President Obama's failed policies and it is important that we nominate a proven conservative like Mitt Romney to face President Obama."

-Would a Loss in Pennsylvania End Santorum's Run? Pittsburgh Tribune-Review political reporter Salena Zito thinks so, writing that Santorum "faces a second humiliating defeat in a state he represented 16 years in Washington" as a new poll on Wednesday showed Santorum's lead there slipping.

-Absentee Votes Due Earlier in Wisconsin This Year. Voters usually have until the day before an election tro hand in their absentee ballots in Wisconsin, but the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune reports that Friday is the deadline in 2012 after a new voting law was approved.


-Mitt Romney is in Houston, Texas where he'll receive the endorsement of former President George H.W. Bush.

-Rick Santorum heads out to California for a speech on healthcare reform at the Jelly Belly Company in Fairfield.

-Newt Gingrich is on the trail in Milwaukee attending a rally at Marquette University.

-Ron Paul is holding a town hall meeting in Madison, WI speaking to University of Wisconsin students.

-ABC's Josh Haskell ( @HaskellBuzz)


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