Will Mississippi and Alabama primaries shake up the race? Don’t count on it.

Tomorrow’s contests in Mississippi and Alabama could have a big impact on the GOP race if either Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum wins convincingly. If Romney has a strong showing in one or both states, it could put the nail in the coffin for his opponents, by showing the conservative base is at last coalescing around his candidacy. On the other hand, if Santorum wins handily, it would serve as perhaps the sharpest signal yet about the depth of resistance to Romney’s candidacy - and suggest that conservatives are digging in their heels.

Of course, right now neither scenario seems likely. Based on the polling available in those two states - which has been pretty all over the map - the most likely outcome seems like a virtual three-way tie. And the candidate best poised to squeak out wins might actually be Newt Gingrich.

Although Gingrich has been trying to dampen expectations somewhat, suggesting he will do well but not promising any wins, some polling has shown the former House Speaker gaining ground in recent days. This may be a reflection of the “$2.50 gas” message Gingrich has been driving, hammering his plan (which critics have called unrealistic) to lower the price of gas to $2.50 a gallon, at a time when consumers are feeling increasingly pinched at the pump.

More likely, though, Gingrich’s gain is coming mostly at Santorum’s expense (in one set of polls by Alabama State University, Santorum lost six points in a week, while Gingrich gained seven). That’s not all that surprising given that Santorum has once again come under withering attack from the Romney Super PAC, which has spent somewhere between $2 and 3 million attacking Santorum in both states.

And if Gingrich is the victor tomorrow, it won’t do much to change the overall dynamics of the race. Santorum would take a bit of a hit - since those states present one of the best opportunities for him to pick up delegates and momentum on the calendar going forward. But he could also continue to argue that it’s Gingrich’s presence in the race that’s preventing conservatives from coalescing around his own candidacy.

In Romney’s case, while he’d obviously love to take one or both states himself, the more critical priority is denying Santorum the wins. Losing two more Southern states would perpetuate talk about Romney’s troubles with the base, but losing them to Gingrich rather than Santorum would allow Romney to argue there’s still no viable alternative to his candidacy. The Groundhog Day campaign seems likely to continue.

— Liz Marlantes

"But the president had an alternative to drilling - and this is why debating him would be just one of those moments where you could almost sell tickets for charity. The president said we have to be practical, drilling won’t solve it. And then he offered his practical solution. Anyone here remember what it was? Algae."
— Newt Gingrich, in his speech after winning his native state of Georgia, attacking President Obama’s energy policies - and arguing once again that he would be the best candidate to go up against Obama in a debate.

NEWT SLEEPS, HE SNORES

Good thing for Newt Gingrich that there’s voting going on today - otherwise this ABC News video of him repeatedly nodding off while waiting to speak to the AIPAC conference might have gone seriously viral. Actually, we think it still might. Best part is at the end, when Gingrich suddenly wakes up and says: “I understand that you have a panel. I look forward to any questions.” After several excruciating seconds of silence, the moderator informs him there is not a panel. Gingrich then recovers and goes into his prepared remarks.

For another version of the above video - without Newt’s eventual remarks, but with snoring! - watch here

Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum hit by new Obama Michigan ad

Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich have one thing in common, President Obama’s campaign would like you to know - they didn’t want the federal government to bail out the American auto industry.

The Obama campaign is hitting the GOP field - and Romney in particular - with an advertisement arguing that “when a million American jobs were on the line, every Republican candidate turned their back” before flashing Romney’s now-infamously headlined op-ed “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”

UPDATED: The Republican National Committee is having none of Obama’s auto bailout talk, dropping this stack of fact checking news articles on why bailout claims are not to be believed.

The Michigan GOP primary is five days away and Democrats are getting into the mix in more than just the Obama for America ad spot: Democratic party officials have encouraged their members to vote in the GOP’s primary, even.

But whatever mischief Democrats would do at the ballot box, the advertisement is  more interesting. The auto bailout is something on which Michigan voters, according to the most recent polling, give Obama a great deal of credit: 63 percent of registered voters and 42 percent of likely voters support the bailout while 58 percent of voters say Obama deserves a good or great deal of credit for the strength of the auto industry versus 37 percent who say he deserves little or none.

The bottom line: This is a good issue, the polls say, for Obama in Michigan.

While that same poll shows Obama handily defeating both Romney and Santorum in Michigan, it’s not just Michigan where such an ad could make waves.

As anyone who has driven from Cleveland to Detroit along I-80 knows the prominence of the auto industry in northwest Ohio as well. Ohio, it goes almost without saying, is another important battleground state.

Team Obama smells blood in the water on the auto bailout, it seems, and they are going to get their message into the mix early and often along what might be called the Auto Belt.

As with many things breaking news, your faithful Decoder found this nugget through the Twitter feed of Obama for America deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter.

— David Grant / @DW_Grant

At CPAC, Mitt Romney seeks “ultimate seal of approval” from conservatives

Four years ago, Mitt Romney took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference to slide out of the 2008 presidential race.

On Friday, Romney was the on-again, off-again frontrunner for the GOP nomination looking to score enough points with conservative activists, volunteers and media members to earn what American Conservative Union chairman Al Cardenas called “the ultimate seal of approval in terms of authenticity from conservatives.”

While that seal of approval wasn’t necessarily evident after Romney’s appearance, he used his speech in Northwest Washington, D.C. to rip President Obama’s record and highlight his own conservative credentials.

“My family, my faith, my businesses – I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism,” Romney said. “As the governor of Massachusetts I had the unique experience of defending conservative principles in the most liberal state in the nation.”

He contrasted his record with President Obama, who he called “the poster child for the arrogance of government.”

“This election is really a battle for the soul of America,” Romney continued. “Whether we want a nation of and by Washington, or a nation of and by a free people. And we conservatives believe in freedom and free people and free enterprises.”

He even managed a few deft digs at two of his main opponents, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

“Any politician that tries to convince you that they hated Washington so much that they just couldn’t leave,” Romney said. “Well, that’s the same politician that will try to sell you a bridge to nowhere.”

However, Romney was largely silent on two items that some attendees said they most wanted to see from the former Bain Capital executive: emotional outreach to voters and a discussion of his Massachusetts healthcare plan that created a state-run healthcare system.

Cardenas said that voters needed to see Mitt Romney speaking from his heart. Noting Herman Cain’s success at a CPAC straw poll last year, he added “No one gave Herman Cain, in Florida, a calling card about what he needed to say but he spoke from the heart and he spoke with conviction.”

"To hit a home run, you’ve got to cover all the bases and let people know you’re speaking from the heart," said Cardenas, whose group puts on CPAC every year. "When your primary focus in life has been a successful career in business, you want to make sure that people also know the emotional side of you.

Compared to some of Romney’s recent speeches, this oration had a similar gloss on Romney family history but without the deeply personal anecdotes Romney has recently used on the campaign trail.

On the Massachusetts healthcare plan, Josh Kropkof, a student at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey and a Rick Santorum supporter, said Romney should confront the healthcare plan up front to win his support.

“Even though he stands by it as a state’s rights issue, for me, the issue is that isn’t a conservative thing to do,” Kropkof said.

His supporters, however, had nary a quibble with Romney’s speech.

“Whatever he did back then, I don’t think is relevant,” said Milton Strom, a Romney supporter and an attorney from New York, NY on Romney’s healthcare record. “The question is what he’s going to do now. He said he’s going to get rid of Obamacare, clearly… so what he did 20 years ago is irrelevant.”

Indeed, many Romney supporters say they’ve heard all the arguments against him – but the desire to beat Barack Obama burns far hotter.

“I want to win. And I’m scared to death if we don’t,” said Mary Hill, a registered nurse from Kansas City, Missouri. “That’s the main thing that would cause me to support someone like Mitt Romney… What you have to say is ‘do you want Obamacare to be the law of the land?’ If you say that, people are going to get their butt’s to the ballot box.”

— David Grant/ @DW_Grant

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Friday, Feb. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

CPAC: At conservative conclave, economy merits only light mention

After a parade of Republican politicians including high-flying Florida Senator Marco Rubio, House Speaker John Boehner and Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Convention (CPAC).

Cameron spent around of fifteen minutes tracing the plight of the original pilgrims, spanning their journey from England to Holland and finally to the United States. His discussion was capped off with a movie trailer for his new film, “Monumental,” coming out in March.

Wait, what’s this about pilgrims?

All together, CPAC attendees heard roughly as much about America’s big-hatted forefathers as they did about the current state of the American economy.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) spent her speaking slot slamming President Obama for giving the Middle East over to Islamic radicals and turning away from Israel.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell focused on the Democratic party’s cynical political calculations. Texas Gov. Rick Perry got resounding applause for his criticism of President Obama’s “war on religion” over contraception.

How rapidly the political conversation has changed. Since the Republican presidential candidates hammered President Obama over the August jobs report showing the United States generated no new jobs in that month, the unemployment rate has fallen to 8.3 percent from 9.1 percent and the economy has added an average of 183,000 jobs a month.

Indeed, Rick Perry harnessed the contempt in which some conservative – and particularly tea party – Americans generate toward the Wall Street bailouts in an applause line that was every bit as harsh on America’s financiers as the language used by many Democratic politicians.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, “those paying the price are not the large banks who were overleveraged, not the insurance companies who took on too much risk, not the executives who continued to reap these large bonuses even after the walls came a tumbling down,” Perry boomed. “No. It was people like you and me… Main St., businesses, our children, who stand to inherit the worst financial disaster this country has ever seen. And it’s wrong.” 

Many speakers did check in on the economy, however. 

On a panel about the Arab Spring, former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore (R) argued that America needed to bolster its economy for foreign policy purposes.

“The most important mission of the United States is to repair our economy,” Gilmore said. “If we’re going to be prepared to take any kind of action, either economic or military, we’ve got to do something about that. And that means wet must dedicate ourselves to the growth of the United States economy of the years ahead.”

Rubio talked only in gauzy, high-flying terms about the power of the free enterprise system and the importance of entrepreneurship.

Former presidential candidate Herman Cain took a swipe at economic concerns in his speech, accusing the government of deceiving the American people with economic statistics. He even got in a plug for his “9-9-9” plan, urging the audience to promote the plan to candidates before they get into office.

Most powerful – and extensive – on the subject was Arthur Brooks, president of right-leaning think tank the American Enterprise Institute. Brooks argued it is time for conservatives “to take back the definition of fairness.”

“Every day we’re building a crushing debt for our kids – that’s not fair,” Brooks said. “We’re creating a tax and regulatory burden on new businesses that makes it impossible for poor people to get ahead on their hard work and merit. That’s not fair. And most unfair of all, in my view, is the special access and bailouts to crony corporations who have clever lobbyists and access to the government. That’s not fair.”

What accounts for a general de-emphasis of economic issues? To some extent, that change rests on issues beyond the control of the Republican presidential candidates and the GOP. President Obama’s decision to mandate contraceptive coverage for healthcare plans at religious institutions and the overturning of a California law outlawing gay marriage, for example, pushed social issues to the political fore. And that may be no accident, one conservative commentator argued.

“Republicans did not intend to make this a campaign year where social issues were front and center,” said John Gizzi, the political editor at conservative web site Human Events.

In the early primary and caucus states from Iowa to Florida, Gizzi said, “the social issues were almost never brought up. I submit to you that they have been injected into the political debate by Barack Obama, not the Democratic Party, but Barack Obama.”

Tomorrow, all the GOP presidential candidates save Texas Rep. Ron Paul (whose son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, spoke today) will take to the stage at CPAC to make their case to not only the assembled activists and volunteers but the nation at large: north of 1,200 registered media members at CPAC and network TV coverage means the candidates will have an enormous stage to talk about the economy.

Today, however, such issues took a back seat to pumping up the conservative base with only a salting of economic topics.

— by David Grant/ @DW_Grant

PHOTO: Former presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The best Super Bowl tweets from politicos.

So the Super Bowl ended in soul-crushing ineffectiveness for Patriots fans and giddy elation for the Giants faithful - but in your rush to stuff your face with the most delicious Super Bowl treats you may have missed some of these top tweets.

For example, only one major GOP candidate even laid his support behind one of the contenders - and Newt Gingrich came through with the right pick. (He was echoed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.)

Twitter blew up with that epic Clint Eastwood commercial about Detroit and American automakers - and Dan Pfeiffer, White House Communications Director, pointed out the obvious politics of the situation.

But the real winner of the night had to have been rogue GOP contender Buddy Roemer, who even got a Herman Cain dig in.

Oh, and don’t forget about the competing news event: the final counts from the Nevada caucuses…

Did you see any great political tweets from Super Bowl land? Send them to us or let us know about ‘em here.

medilldc:

Google search trends by volume in GOP candidates based on Florida region, throughout January 2012.

What’s Decoder’s main takeaway? That Florida’s web denizens don’t care for Newt Gingrich all that much. Looking at the Florida exit polls (done up nicely by the New York Times), you see Gingrich’s greatest strength were with voters from ages 45-64 (where he took 33 percent) and age 64 and over (where he took 34 percent).
That may help explain some of Gingrich’s search weakness, so to speak. What else do you think is going on here?

medilldc:

Google search trends by volume in GOP candidates based on Florida region, throughout January 2012.

What’s Decoder’s main takeaway? That Florida’s web denizens don’t care for Newt Gingrich all that much. Looking at the Florida exit polls (done up nicely by the New York Times), you see Gingrich’s greatest strength were with voters from ages 45-64 (where he took 33 percent) and age 64 and over (where he took 34 percent).

That may help explain some of Gingrich’s search weakness, so to speak. What else do you think is going on here?

Newt’s problem in Florida wasn’t just money: It was messaging

If Newt Gingrich loses in Florida today - and, as Decoder wrote this morning, all signs point to a decisive defeat - analysts will undoubtedly point to the impact of money and TV ads. Florida is an extremely expensive state to run in, and Mitt Romney outspent Gingrich there by as much as 5 to 1.

But we’d argue there’s another reason Gingrich has floundered in the Sunshine State: He allowed Romney to get to the right of him politically.

In South Carolina, where Gingrich pulled out a stunning surprise victory over Romney, he did it in part by whipping up a late-crashing wave of conservative support. His attention-grabbing debate exchanges with moderators over hot-button issues - such as whether calling President Obama a “food stamp president” was racist, and his outrage at being asked about his ex-wife’s charge that he wanted an “open marriage” - played into the genuine hostility many base conservatives and tea party sympathizers feel toward the “lamestream” media and the left. 

Significantly, those debate moments also wound up overshadowing the other major narrative in South Carolina - Gingrich’s attacks on Romney’s record at Bain Capital and his taxes - which, while effective in pushing Romney’s unfavorable ratings up, held serious danger for Gingrich, since they brought a slew of criticism from fellow Republicans, who argued he was positioning himself against free enterprise.

And it was that latter dynamic - Gingrich attacking Romney from the left in ways that drew criticism from conservatives, rather than marshaling their support - that actually carried over into Florida. Consider: 

  • On immigration: Gingrich ran a radio ad in Florida accusing Romney of being “the most anti-immigrant candidate” - but was forced to pull it after criticism from Sen. Marco Rubio, a tea party favorite. When Gingrich tried to defend the charge in last Thursday’s debate, asking Romney how he would characterize deporting “grandmothers” who have been here for years, Romney came back with the zinger: “Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers.” What the base heard: Gingrich wants to let illegal immigrants stay; Romney doesn’t. 
  • On Medicare: When Romney accused Gingrich of lobbying on behalf of healthcare clients for the 2003 prescription-drug program known as Medicare Part D - an unfunded expansion of Medicare that the Congressional Budget Office projects will cost the government more than $16 trillion - Gingrich defended himself by saying he’d always favored “a stronger Medicare program” and added: “I’m proud that I publicly advocated Medicare Part D.” More recently, Gingrich resorted to attacking Romney for cutting Medicare spending on Kosher meals for Jewish seniors during his time as governor of Massachusetts. What the base heard: Gingrich supports extravagant spending on entitlements; Romney doesn’t.
  • On space exploration: In perhaps the most widely-mocked line of the campaign, Gingrich said he would put a base on the Moon and allow the Americans living there to apply for statehood. Romney retorted that if an employee of his had proposed spending hundreds of billions of dollars for a Moon colony, he’d tell them they were fired. What the base heard: Gingrich would throw billions of dollars at a pie-in-the-sky idea; Romney wouldn’t.

All these lines were clear efforts by Gingrich to pander to different Florida voting groups: Hispanics, seniors, space-industry employees. But ironically, they also allowed Romney to come across as the more conservative of the two men - and in a GOP primary, conservative usually wins.

— Liz Marlantes

Follow the delegates with this clean delegate tracker from the Washington Post. 
While it won’t get complicated until a passle of primaries and caucuses in February, the count of delegates assigned to each GOP candidate is looking to be of increasing importance. As Decoder wrote back in December, the longer the race goes, the longer the delegate situation favors Mitt Romney’s money and organization.
Without a Romney knockout, this tracker will also help you keep tabs on the possibility of a “brokered convention,” a possibility raised by Newt Gingrich which could be a potential outcome of Ron Paul’s strategy, which is to sop up as many delegates as possible. 
A brokered convention occurs when no candidate has the requisite delegates to win the nomination outright and so the GOP’s presidential nomination falls to political horsetrading in Tampa.
There are a couple of twists and turns for this, but we’ll just call out one. As you can see in the delegate tracker, a number of states - including Iowa - have non-binding caucus/primary votes. What does that mean? The delegates Rick Santorum/Mitt Romney won in Iowa, for example, don’t have to vote for him at the convention at all.
In other words, things could get messy.

Follow the delegates with this clean delegate tracker from the Washington Post.

While it won’t get complicated until a passle of primaries and caucuses in February, the count of delegates assigned to each GOP candidate is looking to be of increasing importance. As Decoder wrote back in December, the longer the race goes, the longer the delegate situation favors Mitt Romney’s money and organization.

Without a Romney knockout, this tracker will also help you keep tabs on the possibility of a “brokered convention,” a possibility raised by Newt Gingrich which could be a potential outcome of Ron Paul’s strategy, which is to sop up as many delegates as possible. 

A brokered convention occurs when no candidate has the requisite delegates to win the nomination outright and so the GOP’s presidential nomination falls to political horsetrading in Tampa.

There are a couple of twists and turns for this, but we’ll just call out one. As you can see in the delegate tracker, a number of states - including Iowa - have non-binding caucus/primary votes. What does that mean? The delegates Rick Santorum/Mitt Romney won in Iowa, for example, don’t have to vote for him at the convention at all.

In other words, things could get messy.

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