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First Thoughts: Santorum's last chance (really, this is it)

Upcoming Wisconsin primary is shaping up to be Santorum’s last chance…. White House more optimistic about its chances with the Supreme Court (at least compared with yesterday)… Romney’s dog-bites-man endorsements… Newt tarnishing his legacy?… So much for Simpson-Bowles’ popularity… And Dems lead OH and FL Senate contests, per new polls.

Republican presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., discusses his plan for free-market health care solutions during a campaign stop at the MacDonald and Owens Lumber Company on March 28, 2012 in Sparta, Wisconsin.
Republican presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., discusses his plan for free-market health care solutions during a campaign stop at the MacDonald and Owens Lumber Company on March 28, 2012 in Sparta, Wisconsin.Scott Olson / Getty Images

*** Santorum’s last chance (really, this is it): With Mitt Romney holding a sizable delegate lead and with more prominent Republicans (George H.W. Bush and Marco Rubio) formally endorsing the former Massachusetts governor, Tuesday’s GOP primary in Wisconsin is shaping up to be Rick Santorum’s last chance -- in math and perception. If Romney wins Wisconsin, Santorum can’t stop him from getting to the magic number of 1,114 delegates, according to our math. When we crunched the numbers showing that Romney would fall about 50 delegates short of the magic number, that ASSUMED Santorum would win Wisconsin, as well as pick up more delegates than he did in Louisiana. When it comes to perception, Wisconsin is Santorum’s final opportunity to convince Republicans that this race isn’t over, and a win in the Badger State would do the trick. Can Santorum pull off a win on Tuesday? Well, we’ll have a new NBC/Marist poll on the race tomorrow morning that could answer that question.

*** A more optimistic White House (at least compared with yesterday): Believe it or not, the White House feels better this morning about its prospects with the Supreme Court’s consideration of the health-care law than it did yesterday morning. First, the administration thinks it’s clear that a majority of the justices are against severability (that the individual mandate can be separated from the rest of the law), and they believe that could help them win over Justice Kennedy, who might be concerned about the Supreme Court striking down the whole thing. Second, the legal-eagle watchers believe that Chief Justice Roberts is still in play, and he might decide to write the majority opinion to ensure that the mandate doesn’t serve as a precedent for future regulations of commercial inactivity.

*** I will survive, hey, hey: And third, Team Obama has convinced itself that it could survive the Supreme Court striking down the law. Make no mistake: If the court does that, President Obama and his standing would take a serious hit. But they think it would only be a week or 10 days of bad press; they contend the economy and other issues would eventually overtake the court news. Also, they believe a decision to strike down the law would be done along partisan lines (5-4), and under that scenario, it politicizes the decision in a way that fires up their base and potentially blunts some of the impact with indies. Finally, Team Obama believes the biggest reason they can politically survive the SCOTUS overturning the president’s signature bill: They would probably be facing an opponent who is uniquely UNABLE to take advantage of the situation because he championed an individual mandate in Massachusetts. All that said, the White House is clearly in a tougher position than it thought before this week’s oral arguments began.

*** The dog-bites-man endorsements: Turning back to the GOP presidential race, Romney last night picked up the endorsement of GOP Sen. Marco Rubio. And this afternoon in Houston, at 5:50 pm ET, he’ll receive former President George H.W. Bush’s formal backing. Yet both endorsements are of the dog-bite-man variety: Bush 41 had already said -- in Dec. 2011 -- he was supporting Romney, and his wife Barbara has appeared in robo-calls for the campaign. As for Rubio, did anyone think he was going to endorse Santorum or Gingrich? What’s more, Rubio’s endorsement appeared to be more of an attempt to end the GOP primary battle than an affectionate embrace of Romney. "I don't have a problem with primaries, but I think we're at a stage now where at least two of the candidates have admitted that the only way to get the nomination is to have a floor fight at the convention," Rubio said on FOX last night. "It’s increasingly clear that Mitt Romney’s going to be the Republican nominee,” he said, adding: “We’ve got to come together behind who I think has earned this nomination and that’s Mitt Romney.”

*** Newt tarnishing his legacy? Politico writes that Newt Gingrich is only tarnishing his legacy the longer he stays in the GOP race. “Instead of bowing out after a string of losses, the former House speaker has decided to cap off a historic career by spending the final weeks of the campaign in a sort of political purgatory — he’ll remain in the race but as something less than a full-fledged candidate.” And get this: Gingrich Super PAC benefactor Sheldon Adelson has said that Gingrich is “at the end of his line.”

*** On the trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: As mentioned above, Romney heads to Houston, TX to receive the endorsement of former President George H.W. Bush… Santorum is out in California, where he delivers remarks on foreign policy in Fairfield… Paul stumps in Wisconsin, holding a town hall meeting in Madison… And Gingrich is also in the Badger State, where he campaigns in Milwaukee.

*** So much for Simpson-Bowles’ popularity: Last night, the House defeated -- by a 38-382 vote -- a budget amendment on the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles recommendations. That just shows that the only way members of Congress would accept tax increases and entitlement cuts and reforms is by both Democrats and Republicans holding hands and jumping off the cliff together. What was more cynically sad were the statements of praise from folks like Paul Ryan and Steny Hoyer about the vote on Bowles-Simpson, even as both of them voted AGAINST the legislation. In addition, the House also defeated -- by a 0-414 vote -- President Obama’s budget. But a caveat here: The House didn’t vote on the president’s budget, per se; it voted on a summary of the numbers in an amendment offered by GOP Rep. Mick Mulvaney. Bottom line: It was a political gimmick.

*** Dems lead in OH and FL Senate races: Quinnipiac is out with new polls showing that Democratic Senate incumbents are leading their top GOP challengers. In Ohio, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) is ahead of Josh Mandel (R) by 10 points among registered voters, 46%-36%. And in Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson (D) holds an eight-point advantage over Rep. Connie Mack (R), 44%-36%. What’s fueling Nelson’s lead, in particular -- female voters. Still, BOTH incumbents are under 50%, and that matters in Senate polls.

Countdown to DC, Maryland, Wisconsin primaries: 5 days
Countdown to Election Day: 222 days

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