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First Thoughts: Driving a message and pushing the limits

The president this week drove a message without distraction, but also pushed the limits of “official” travel … Boehner accuses Obama of making the presidency “smaller” – he’s become Mitt Romney’s biggest ally on Capitol Hill … Outside group accuses Obama of being too “cool” to be president … Bill Clinton testifies to Obama’s strength, as the campaign highlights the bin Laden raid … Cold War kids … Obama speaks to troops, women … Romney’s in Ohio – at a college campus with Gov. Kasich.

*** Driving a message and pushing the limits: It was a week in which the Obama campaign was remarkably able to push a single issue without distraction from something (or someone) – on student loans. The president took (justified) criticism for pushing that message on official business with Air Force One in swing states, on college campuses (not one but three), while mixing in slow-jamming the news. House Speaker John Boehner yesterday accused the president of starting a “fake fight,” demanded that he reimburse the government for the trips, said it was “beneath the dignity” of the White House, and even went so far as to charge, “This is the biggest job in the world and I've never seen a President make it smaller.” At the end of the day, Obama was able to get out and appeal to groups in areas that are going to matter to his reelection – and, more importantly from a trip-legitimacy standpoint, there is supposed to be a vote today (the last vote by about noon ET, we’re told), on the “policy” in the House, something that might not have happened without the president pushing the issue. Still, the White House pushed the limit on this when they picked three universities all in battleground states. Had they picked just one in a non-battleground, it would have a little higher ground to stand on.

*** A “Stark Contrast”: The Romney campaign pens a memo this morning, highlighting what it sees as the difference between its candidate and President Obama. “This past week previewed the stark contrast facing voters in this election. Governor Romney’s speech Tuesday night in New Hampshire contained a crisp and specific critique of President Obama’s policy failures and his own positive vision for a better America.” But: “President Obama … spent the week slow-jamming the news, striking a Heisman pose, and trying to pick a fight over student loans to help the one-in-two recent college graduates who are either jobless or underemployed as a result of his policies (which is apparently really funny stuff to the President). Unfortunately for him, Republicans agree with the need for a temporary extension, but want it paid for by cutting spending rather than raising taxes. So instead of the fight he was hoping for, he got a debate over taxes and spending – which he wasn’t hoping for.”

*** Too “Cool” for the White House? On cue, Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads is up with a video called, “Cool,” which cuts together clips of Obama wearing 3-D glasses, dancing on “Ellen,” singing Al Green, drinking a beer, killing a fly, calling Kanye West a “jackass,” and slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon. It asks, “After 4 years of a celebrity president, is your life any better?” The ad picks up where John McCain left off with his “Biggest Celebrity in the World” ad, a narrative that was starting to take hold… until McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate.

*** Superficial vs. Serious – Bill Clinton testifies: But the Obama campaign is out with its own strong and sober video, featuring Bill Clinton as a testifier. It is juxtaposition to the superficiality narrative the Crossroads ad tries to create. “There’s one thing that George Bush said that was right,” Clinton says, “The president is the ‘Decider-in-Chief.” It then shows pictures of Obama in the Situation Room during the Osama bin Laden raid. “Nobody can make that decision for you,” Clinton says. “Look he knew what would happen. Suppose the Navy Seals had gone in there, and it hadn’t been bin Laden. Suppose they’d been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for him. … He took the harder, and more honorable path.” Then, a graphic comes up asking, “Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?” And highlights this Romney quote: “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.” This Sunday, Obama will raise money with Clinton at the Virginia home of Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and former Virginia gubernatorial candidate. By the way, there’s been a lot of talk and about Obama money problems, especially with the Super PAC, Priorities USA. Bloomberg today notes that Clinton backers are waiting for Obama backers to start writing checks to the PAC before they will.

*** Boehner, Romney’s biggest ally on Capitol Hill: Back to Boehner’s attack. Of course, Democrats made similar charges against former President George W. Bush in 2004. But as NBC’s Luke Russert points out, Boehner, who stayed out of the endorsement fray, has emerged as Romney’s chief ally on Capitol Hill. “One of the more fascinating developments in the last two weeks on Capitol Hill has been the degree to which House Speaker John Boehner has gone after President Obama and helped to try and frame Obama's general election matchup against Mitt Romney.” Since endorsing Romney 10 days ago, Boehner went on the attack the next day, “accusing Obama of being ‘AWOL’ for the last 6 months and on a ‘constant campaign.’” He accused the president of “failing to lead” on the economy and on legislation related to jobs, student loans, gas prices, and the national drug shortage – instead opting for “campaign theatrics.” The DNC’s Brad Woodhouse responded on Twitter, leveling this: “Let’s be clear: John Boehner is the most useless, feckless, weak and failed Speaker of the House perhaps in American history.” Wow. Here’s NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell’s report on NBC Nightly News last night.

*** Outside spending ramps up: Those aren’t the only ads out there. Americans for Prosperity -- a conservative group with ties to the billionaire Koch Brothers, who made millions in the oil and gas industry -- is actually ON AIR in the next two weeks with a $6.1 million ad buy in eight states – all battlegrounds: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, and Virginia. It once again focuses on clean energy and, in an odd way, outsourcing. “Fact: Billions of taxpayer dollars spent on green energy went to jobs in foreign countries. … Tell President Obama: American tax dollars should help American taxpayers.” There’s also a seven-figure ad buy up in Wisconsin in that recall race supporting Democrat Kathleen Falk ahead of the primary there May 8 to take on Gov. Scott Walker. And the NRCC is going up with $150,000 in ads in the Gabrielle Giffords district, AZ-8.

*** Cold war kids: Vice President Joe Biden was in full attack-dog mode yesterday, lambasting Mitt Romney’s foreign policy, saying that he “mired in a Cold War mindset.” And two Romney advisers added fuel to that attack yesterday when one, former Navy Secretary John Lehman said: "We are seeing the Soviets pushing into the Arctic with no response from us.” And Pierre Prosper, a former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes, said, "The United States abandoned its missile defense sites in Poland and Czechoslovakia, yet Russia does nothing but obstruct us, or efforts in Iran and Syria." Czechoslovakia split into what’s now the Czech Republic and Slovakia… in 1993, two years after the Soviet Union fell. Remember, Romney called Russia America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.”

*** Obama signs order on troops, education, then speaks to women: Today, the president pushes the issue of education again in Georgia at Fort Stewart, where he’ll sign an executive order “intended to help protect active-duty troops and veterans from deceptive and misleading practices.” (He’ll make remarks at 12:35 pm ET). And who’s going to disagree with that? Later, the president speaks to the National Women’s Issues Conference at 4:55 pm ET in DC. Women are, of course, a key group for the president. In the latest, NBC/WSJ poll, women approved of the job the president was doing by a 52%-43% margin and favored him over Romney, 53%-41%. In 2008, Obama won them 56%-43%, an improvement from 2004, when John Kerry won them by just three points, 51%-48%. Mitt Romney is in that all-important swing state of Ohio at… a college campus (Otterbein University in Westerville). Coincidence? He’ll speak at 3:05 pm ET. Ohio Gov. John Kasich will campaign with Romney in the afternoon. Kasich, of course, isn’t the most popular politician in the country.

***Elsewhere On the trail: Newt Gingrich continues his farewell tour, with stops in North Carolina. … Ron Paul hosts a town hall in Houston, TX.

Countdown to Election Day: 194 days

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