Debate Day Split Screen: Mitt Romney, Barack Obama Fight For The Economic High Ground


President Obama and one of his top potential Republican presidential rivals each face their own test today just hours before the first significant GOP debate of the primary season.

For former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the challenge is whether he can successfully deflect the focus of his fellow Republican opponents from health care to fiscal issues at tonight’s debate in New Hampshire. For President Obama, it’s whether he can look like he’s sufficiently focused on getting American economy back on track.

Romney and Obama have a lot in common. Both realize that to win they've got to own the economic debate, even as their rivals try to undercut them with attacks on their health care reform plans.

In response to Tim Pawlenty's coining of the pejorative term, “ObamneyCare” -- a reference to the similarities between the health care plan Romney signed in Massachusetts and the one Obama pushed nationally -- on “Fox News Sunday,” the Romney campaign urged Pawlenty to keep his eye on the ball.

“Republicans should keep the focus on President Obama's failure to create jobs and control spending,” a statement from Team Romney read. “People are looking for leadership on the economy and the budget. Mitt Romney wants to be that leader.”

And this morning his campaign released a new video (titled “Bump in the Road”) aimed not at his GOP rivals, but at the president. Romney’s been using the “bump in the road” theme often since President Obama told Chrysler plant workers in Toledo, Ohio on June 3 -- the same day the nation’s unemployment rate his 9.1 percent -- that “there are always going to be bumps on the road to recovery.” Romney’s video features people telling the president that they are Americans, not just “bumps in the road.”

Meanwhile, President Obama wants to talk about the economy too. He will head to Durham, N.C., today to meet with his Jobs and Competitiveness Council and receive their input on ways to spur economic growth and promote job creation.

According the White House, the council will propose ideas for short, medium and long-term job creation, with a focus on high growth sectors.

“We've been at work for the past 90 days to develop recommendations for a series of immediate, actionable steps to accelerate job creation,” jobs council head and General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, wrote in an Op-ed in today’s Wall St Journal. “Today we are presenting an initial ‘progress report’ to the president that includes a series of steps that can help spur hiring in the short term in areas like construction, manufacturing, health care and tourism.”

He added, “No single idea, however well-conceived, will solve our nation's employment challenge. So we're taking a comprehensive approach with eight teams focused on specific areas such as skills and training, regulatory reform, and innovation.”

Before the president’s meeting with the Council, he will tour Cree, Inc., a manufacturer of energy efficient LED lighting. Later in the afternoon the president will address Cree workers. As ABC’s Mary Bruce points out, this is not the president’s first trip to the company. He visited the manufacturer during the 2008 campaign as well.

BOTTOM LINE: The strength of the economy is the key to the fate of both Obama and Romney. Obama, of course, has to prove that despite the slow and unsteady recovery, he's got a steady hand and the right vision to put the country back on track. Romney, meanwhile, has to convince skeptical primary voters to look beyond his record in Massachusetts and focus instead on his record in business.

DEBATE DAY IN NEW HAMPSHIRE. MANCHESTER, NH -- ABC’s Z. Byron Wolf is in the Granite State for the first major presidential primary debate of the year. The debate, sponsored by the New Hampshire Union Leader, WMUR-TV, and CNN, will take place at St. Anselm College starting at 8 p.m. Wolf reviews the cast of characters:

The GOP front runner -- Mitt Romney is the man to beat. The former Massachusetts governor, who failed to secure the nomination in 2008, is better recognized than any of the other Republican candidates who will be on the stage Monday. The First Casualty -- Newt Gingrich is wounded and his campaign is limping into New Hampshire after most of his top staffers quit last week. The Rabble Rouser -- A newly combative Tim Pawlenty is trying to stir things up in the Granite State. The only candidate with public events on Sunday, Pawlenty tied Romney to President Obama and the divisive health reform law that Washington Democrats passed in 2010 and which Republicans generally oppose, derisively calling it "Obamacare." The Wildcard -- Who is in the top three in recent polling? Herman Cain. The former Godfather's Pizza CEO and political neophyte ranks third in the most recent poll. His unlikely candidacy has support from the Tea Party and his main issue is opposition to raising the debt ceiling. The Candidate on the Fence -- Michele Bachmann is the social conservative firebrand who has not entirely jumped into the race. She'll make that decision and announce it later this month in Iowa, where she would likely focus her campaign. The Unheard -- Rick Santorum is struggling to be heard amongst all the other candidates. He officially announced his candidacy in Pennsylvania last week. But the former senator has had trouble gaining traction. The Godfather -- Ron Paul was not allowed in every debate four years ago, when he ran for president. The Libertarian-minded Republican's small-government idealism had a small but dedicated following then. It still does, although he seems prescient now and is in many ways the ideological godfather of the Tea Party.

RETURN OF ROBERT GIBBS. “Former White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs will be in New Hampshire to present a rebuttal to expected attacks at the Republican presidential debate,” WMUR Political Scoop’s James Pindell notes. “WMUR has learned that Gibbs will be in the Granite State today as seven Republicans explain to Granite Staters and a national audience why they want to have a chance to challenge President Barack Obama in the 2012 election. He will also be in the state on Tuesday. Gibbs has been a regular figure in the Granite State over the years. Prior to visiting the state as an Obama staffer, he was also the communications director for John Kerry’s presidential campaign before a staff shake-off in the Fall of 2003. Gibbs left the White House in February.”

ON TODAY’S “TOP LINE”: GARY JOHNSON. ABC’s Amy Walter and Rick Klein interview one of the presidential candidates who is not allowed to participate in tonight’s presidential debate: former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. Also on the program, Greg Mueller, president of CRC Public Relations, the firm that is promoting the new film about Sarah Palin, "The Undefeated." Watch “Top Line” LIVE at 12:00 p.m. Eastern.

CORKER: WAR IN AFGHANISTAN ‘NOT SUSTAINABLE.’ In another sign of growing bipartisan concern about American involvement in Afghanistan, one Republican senator on the Foreign Relations Committee says the war is "unsustainable,” ABC’s Jonathan Karl and Gregory C. Simmons report. "I think all of us who have been in Afghanistan on the ground multiple times know that what we're doing there on the ground is just not sustainable," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said in the latest installment of ABC’s “Subway Series.” Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has suggested the troop withdrawals scheduled to begin this summer should be "modest," but Corker joins others in Congress who are looking for a significant draw down of American involvement in Afghanistan by the end of the year -- including scaling back what he called the U.S. "nation-building effort" in Afghanistan. "We've got this huge nation-building effort under way [and] I think if our citizens saw our footprint in Afghanistan, saw what was happening there from the stand point of all the things we're investing in this in this country, the distortions in its culture -- we've got to change our footprint," Corker said. "This is not a model that we can replicate in other Middle Eastern countries."

Did you know ABC’s “Subway Series” has its own website? Check it out for current and archived interviews:

WHAT WE LEARNED FROM THE SARAH PALIN E-MAILS. ABC’s Michael Falcone and The Daily Beast’s Shushannah Walshe along with producers Eloise Harper and Laura Ganis spent several days reviewing the thousands of pages of Sarah Palin’s emails released last Friday in Juneau, Alaska. Here is a sampling of what we found out about the former Alaska governor and potential 2012 presidential candidate:

Her view of the media took a turn for the worse in 2008. After her selection as John McCain’s running mate, Palin and her staff back at the state capitol in Juneau, believed that the press scrutiny she was receiving as the VP nominee was overwhelming and unwarranted. It was also Palin’s first major experience in the national media spotlight. “Arghhh! I am so sorry that the office is swamped like this! Dinosaurs even?! I’ll try to run through some of these in my head before responding,” she wrote to a press aide. “And the old, used tanning bed that my girls have used a handful of times in Juneau? Yes, we paid for it ourselves. I, too, will continue to be dismayed at the media and am thankful you and Sharon are not part of the strange going’s-on in the media world of today.”

She had her eye on the VP slot early. Palin kept a close watch on her constituent mail in the months before Sen. John McCain picked her as the vice presidential nominee, especially a series of flattering messages suggesting she join the Republican presidential ticket. “Sarah Palin should run for Vice President of the United States,” Richard Casey of Fort Collins, Colo. wrote in a message sent to the governor through her website in June 2008. “She is terrific! A vote from Colorado.” Palin, who was evidently personally monitoring her constituent email, forwarded the message -- without comment -- to Jessalyn Rintala, Palin’s coordinator of constituent relations and Janice Mason, the governor’s scheduler and executive secretary.

She’s quirky. For Sarah Palin, it is almost a term of art. When something goes wrong, it’s not just bad, it’s “unflippinbelievable,” or alternately, “flippin unbelievable.” Palin’s used the softer version of the coarser expletive repeatedly in her email conversations. "Unflippinbelievable. Please have him clarify asap,” Palin wrote in an Aug. 4. 2008 missive to several aides in response to a quote in a newspaper article that the governor did not like. On July 9, 2008, she has a similarly unfavorable reaction to a story in the Anchorage Daily News, telling staffers, "It's flippin unbelievable that the ADN allows lies like this to be posted. I'm calling.”

She can keep a secret. Let this be a lesson for 2012 watchers engaging in the endless will-she-or-won’t-she speculation about whether Palin will jump into the presidential race. We may not know until she’s ready to tell us. Why? Here’s a case-in-point: In the days before Sarah Palin’s unveiling as Sen. John McCain’s running mate she was busy with the everyday business of governing. She approved future press requests and meetings at the Republican National Convention -- meetings that she would later have to cancel -- and received words of encouragement from supporters hoping she would be chosen as McCain’s vice presidential pick. She did all of this while keeping her location -- Arizona not Alaska -- a secret even from some of her closest aides. Many members of her stunned staff wrote congratulatory notes to Palin once the news broke, some saying they watched her convention speech on television with tears in their eyes.


HUNTSMAN’S WEEK? “Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman said Democratic President Barack Obama is ‘absolutely’ beatable, given the ‘economic backdrop,’ and said he may decide this week to seek the Republican presidential nomination,” Bloomberg’s Peter Cook and Bob Willis report. “‘We’ve got everything that any country would hope for in order to hit it out of the ballpark,’ said Huntsman in a weekend interview with Peter Cook on Bloomberg Television’s ‘Bottom Line’ in Manchester, New Hampshire. ‘We just don’t have a plan, we don’t have vision, we don’t have the right leadership to get us there.’ Huntsman, 51, is seeking to capitalize on his business, government and foreign-policy credentials to position himself as a credible alternative to Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who formally entered the race last week. With a Republican debate set for today in New Hampshire, Huntsman is drawing closer to declaring. ‘We’re moving in that direction,’ he said in the interview, airing today. ‘We’ve got about all the boxes checked.’”

GINGRICH DODGES PRESS IN L.A. “Newt Gingrich spent much of Sunday evening seemingly trying to get away from an army of cameras and reporters attempting to get him to say a word. He had no media handlers to keep reporters back as he was mobbed walking through the Beverly Hilton before and after his 40 minute speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition,” ABC’s Alex Stone reports. “He repeatedly told reporters to ‘cover the speech.’ At one point the media had him cornered in a hotel elevator. He stood staring at us silently despite getting questions from the assembled reporters. His assistant ordered reporters to not board the elevator and shut the elevator doors. After the speech, Gingrich got into a black SUV and sped away (very fast through the valet area of the Beverly Hilton). Getting into the SUV he was asked by a fan for an autograph and said ‘no’ and shut the door. He was off to the airport for a red-eye flight to New Hampshire. During his speech, Gingrich spent most of his time on the topic of relations with Israel.”

WHO WILL GET 2012’S TEA PARTY NOD? “Tea party activists are struggling to rally behind a single presidential contender as disparate groups with conflicting priorities balance candidate viability with conservative purity on policies that extend well beyond the spending concerns that spawned the movement just two years ago,” Roll Call’s Steve Peoples notes. “And Republican presidential campaigns are actively courting the grass-roots conservative movement for the passion, money and army of volunteers that fueled massive Republican gains last fall. ‘Whoever the Republican nominee is, if they want to defeat [President Barack] Obama, they need to have the support of the tea party movement,’ Tim Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant told Roll Call. Reading between the lines, of course, one sees the suggestion that a GOP presidential candidate would not survive tea party hostility. And looking back at the last election cycle, it’s apparent the tea party is perhaps better suited to tear down candidates than to propel them to victory.”

OBAMA SEEKS WALL STREET MONEY. “A few weeks before announcing his re-election campaign, President Obama convened two dozen Wall Street executives, many of them longtime donors, in the White House’s Blue Room,” The New York Times’ Nicholas Confessore writes. “The guests were asked for their thoughts on how to speed the economic recovery, then the president opened the floor for over an hour on hot issues like hedge fund regulation and the deficit. Mr. Obama, who enraged many financial industry executives a year and a half ago by labeling them ‘fat cats’ and criticizing their bonuses, followed up the meeting with phone calls to those who could not attend. The event, organized by the Democratic National Committee, kicked off an aggressive push by Mr. Obama to win back the allegiance of one of his most vital sources of campaign cash — in part by trying to convince Wall Street that his policies, far from undercutting the investor class, have helped bring banks and financial markets back to health. Last month, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, traveled to New York for back-to-back meetings with Wall Street donors, ending at the home of Marc Lasry, a prominent hedge fund manager, to court donors close to Mr. Obama’s onetime rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton. And Mr. Obama will return to New York this month to dine with bankers, hedge fund executives and private equity investors at the Upper East Side restaurant Daniel.”

PRESSURE MOUNTS ON WEINER. “The second-ranking House Democrat on Sunday joined the party leadership in urging Rep. Anthony Weiner to quit because of his sexting scandal, a request the New York lawmaker has sidestepped in favor of a temporary leave of absence,” according to a dispatch from the AP’s Andrew Miga. “The Republican Party chairman criticized Democratic leaders for not taking a more forceful stand earlier on the affair, which has overshadowed much of the legislative business on Capitol Hill over the past week. Weiner has acknowledged exchanging messages and photos, ranging from sexually suggestive to explicit, with several women online. The latest to surface appeared on the gossip website TMZ. The photos posted Sunday were purportedly taken in the House members' gym and show a shirtless Weiner with a towel around his waist and his hand on his crotch. In one photo he is naked and holding the towel over his crotch. TMZ said the photos were sent online to at least one woman. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, spoke of Weiner's ‘bizarre and unacceptable behavior’ in sending inappropriate pictures of himself to young women. Hoyer said it would be ‘extraordinarily difficult’ for Weiner to continue to represent his constituents effectively.”

More on the Weiner situation from ABC’s Jonathan Karl on “Good Morning America” today:


@t hegarance : MT @evanmc_s How progressives plan to make tonight's debate in NH all about Medicare (w praise for Romneycare thrown in)

@ pwire : Bob Dole says Republicans should nominate Gen. David Petraeus in 2012: "We need another Eisenhower."

@ Taylor_West: VERY happy to announce that Chris @Frates is joining our @nationaljournal team - fantastic addition!

@CBSNewsHotSheet : Poll: Most want Medicare changes, but wary of GOP plan

@ jasondhorowitz : Can Philippe Reines, Hillary Clinton's loyal rogue and life of the perpetual DC party, move on?


* The New Hampshire Union Leader, WMUR-TV, and CNN will present the state's first Republican presidential primary debate in Manchester, N.H.

* Iowa tea party supporters will kick off a three-week bus tour with plans to stop in 20 cities across the state. Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are scheduled to appear during the course of the tour.

* Ron Paul will attend a meet-and-greet at the StoneCliff Winery's Riverfront Alliant Amphitheater in Dubuque, Iowa at 11:30 a.m.

* Newt Gingrich releases his 24th book, "A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters."

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