THE MORNING LINE -- February 9, 2012 at 9:08 AM ET
Romney Readies His Conservative Pitch
Mitt Romney campaigns in Colorado Springs last week. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.
Mitt Romney is taking a break from the campaign trail, no doubt preparing for his big moment Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
The math and the calendar ahead, not to mention his organization, suggest the former Massachusetts governor remains the favorite to capture the GOP nomination to challenge President Obama in November. As the weeks and contests stretch out, and with Romney's three rivals saying they won't let up, the speech could be a big moment.
Low turnout in early Republican primaries and caucuses and a continued lack of enthusiasm for the GOP's candidates haven't helped Romney's case. Could CPAC be his moment to retake control of the party's steering wheel?
Jonathan Martin and Manu Raju write Thursday about Republicans who are worried Romney needs to "step it up," as Politico put it in the headline. From the piece, which includes frank quotes from members of Congress:
The admonition came from outspoken conservatives and members of Congress who typically stay out of party spats.
"There is not exactly Romney-mania right now," Senate GOP Whip Jon Kyl told POLITICO, adding that the former Massachusetts governor "absolutely" must shore up the weaknesses with the GOP base that were on such vivid display Tuesday.
"Playing it safe, which Romney tends to do, is not going to get it for him," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a 2008 Romney supporter and a leading voice of his party's conservative bloc, who called the results this week "a signal."
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), who rode a tea party wave to defeat veteran Sen. Russ Feingold two years ago, said conservatives believe "we're losing this country" and want "a strong messenger carrying a strong message."
"Gov. Romney should probably be a little concerned," Johnson said. Asked if the front-runner has work to do with the party base, the freshman conservative said: "Last night's results definitely confirmed that."
The Washington Times' Ralph Z. Hallow writes about the conservative movement's expectations for the annual gathering, and what it might mean for Romney.
Year after year at these meetings, CPAC attendees have grumbled about the failure of some of the elected Republican officials who profess conservative ideals to adhere to them once in power. Those activists, who keep coming and keep bringing recruits, say they aren't giving up on finding politicians whose deeds will more closely resemble their words.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who has won the straw poll at CPAC two years in a row, won't be attending. Pressure will be on for Romney to knock it out of the park and remind the heart of the Republican Party why he's the guy they want to challenge Mr. Obama this fall.
Team NewsHour will be on hand at CPAC, so make sure to follow us.
The Obama administration's decision last month to require most employers, including religious-affiliated hospitals and schools, to provide contraception through their employee health insurance plans has revealed stark divisions, including inside the White House.
Bloomberg's Mike Dorning and Margaret Talev report that President Obama sided with a group of female advisers not to limit the health care mandate, despite warnings from Vice President Joe Biden and former chief of staff William Daley that the move could turn off Catholic voters:
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic and a two-term governor of Kansas, was joined by several female Obama advisers in urging against a broad exemption for religious organizations. To do so would leave too many women without coverage and sap the enthusiasm for Obama among women's rights advocates, they said, according to the people, who spoke about the deliberations on condition of anonymity.
Vice President Joe Biden and then-White House chief of staff Bill Daley, also Catholics, warned that the mandate would be seen as a government intrusion on religious institutions. Even moderate Catholic voters in battleground states might be alienated, they warned, according to the people familiar with the discussions.
Polling conducted by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake suggests that Catholic voters might not be the part of the electorate the administration has most to worry about. The survey found that a majority of Catholics -- 53 percent -- said the opposition to the mandate by the U.S. Conferences of Catholic Bishops made no difference in their views of the Affordable Care Act, according to a copy provided to The Morning Line by a source familiar with the data.
That said, the administration has plenty on its hands when it comes to Republican opposition to the mandate.
On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, threatened congressional action if the administration followed through on its decision. "If the president does not reverse the department's attack on religious freedom, then the Congress, acting on behalf of the American people and the Constitution we are sworn to uphold and defend, must," Rep. Boehner said. "This attack by the federal government on religious freedom in our country cannot stand and will not stand."
(For more on the split in Congress, be sure to check out the Roll Call piece, "New Chapter in Culture Wars," written by John Stanton and Meredith Shiner.)
Liberal groups, including the Nurse Alliance of SEIU Healthcare and Protect Your Care, plan to get local reporters in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida writing about "the importance of contraceptive coverage" within the health care law with a series of conference calls Thursday.
The issue has also become a focus of the Republican presidential campaign, with Romney criticizing the president during a stop in Atlanta on Wednesday afternoon.
"This kind of attack on religion and on our first freedom, our right to worship and believe as we choose ... this is wrong," Romney said. "If I am president of the United States, I will restore and protect our religious liberty in this great country."
The White House has signaled a willingness to find a compromise with religious institutions on the mandate, but even that action could bring political risks, as any move to restrict access to contraceptives might displease women voters, who supported Mr. Obama over John McCain by 13 points in the 2008 election.
SANTORUM SERVERS OVERLOAD
Interest in Rick Santorum was so high on Wednesday, it took nearly 20 minutes for a call on his 888 campaign number to be patched to a human being.
"We've been that busy, getting way more than the normal amount of calls," an operator told The Morning Line, noting she was one of 40 people frantically taking donations on the line.
John Brabender, Santorum's longtime media strategist, appeared on Wednesday's NewsHour and said there's little time to stop and savor the former Pennsylvania senator's victory. He said calls and donations were "going through the roof," noting that "we had to add more servers" to meet demand.
Brabender, who had spent all day filming in Pittsburgh, where Santorum claims his roots, wouldn't tell Judy Woodruff what kind of television spot was in the works, but he gave a hint: "I was here shooting a commercial today. I'm not telling you any more than that."
Watch the entire interview and our segment on the Tuesday election's here.
The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg and Nicholas Confessore look at Foster Friess, the man who has given $331,000 to the pro-Santorum super PAC, the Red, White and Blue Fund.
Michael Biundo, Mr. Santorum's campaign manager, said the Red, White and Blue Fund had been helpful not just with television commercials but also with a phone bank operation that helped drive Santorum-friendly voters to the polls in Denver. While he said the campaign was receiving an influx of new donations after Tuesday's victories, "anytime anybody wants to help us, we'll take it."
2012 LINE ITEMS
Hotline's Reid Wilson reported on Twitter (@hotlinereid) that the Obama campaign's first ad about energy ran between Jan. 19 and Jan. 25. There were about 5,000 spots running in 25 markets, costing $1.4 million, he wrote.
Politico's Maggie Haberman and Reid Epstein look at Romney's return to CPAC, four years after he announced his withdrawal from the 2008 GOP race at the annual conservative confab.
Our partners at Patchwork Nation write about how bad a night Tuesday was for Romney.
Paul announces a Valentine's Day "money bomb" and tells his supporters in an email, "One thing has become clear after these early contests -- it's anybody's race."
Ed Koch, who led an anti-Obama push over the president's moves on Israel last year, now tells Ben Smith he "has been hearing fewer and fewer complaints about Barack Obama."
Obama campaign pollster Joel Benenson writes a memo gloating about low turnout in the early GOP contests. "The only state thus far with a significant rise in Republican turnout was South Carolina, where Romney was trounced by Newt Gingrich," he writes. He also argues that "Romney's effort to woo conservative voters is hurting him with independents."
The Democratic National Committee posts a new web video suggesting Romney is beholden to special interests. Watch it here.
Gallup polling shows economic confidence continues to surge following jobs report. Closing in on best level since '07.— Steven Dennis (@StevenTDennis) February 9, 2012
DC Food trucks need you! Pls take just a minute to help all of us remain in business! fb.me/19Q1KctUC— DC Empanadas (@DCEmpanadas) February 9, 2012
OUTSIDE THE LINES
The New York Times reports on the "broad national settlement aimed at halting the housing market's downward slide and holding the banks accountable for foreclosure abuses." The NewsHour will have more on Thursday's program.
The NewsHour's Gwen Ifill spoke with Washington Post reporter Kimberly Kindy about the paper's year-long investigation looking at how members of Congress have steered taxpayer money close to home.
"A growing number of Republicans want to lift the earmark ban that has been embraced by President Obama and Congress," The Hill's Alexander Bolton writes.
A pair of polls released Wednesday show Congress' dismal popularity hasn't gotten any better. Gallup showed the approval rating for Congress at a record-low 10 percent. Even though Congress has only been in session 15 days this year, its approval rating still managed a 3 percent drop since the last Gallup poll in January. And a new Rasmussen survey found 43 percent of Americans believe "a group of people selected at random from the phone book [would] do a better job addressing the nation's problems than the current Congress."
Roll Call's Kyle Trygstad looks ahead to Senate races in 2014. Hint: It looks good for the GOP.
Washington state passes a measure legalizing gay marriage.
The Texas Tribune writes that Gov. Rick Perry was the butt of several jokes at Wednesday night's annual congressional dinner hosted by the Washington Press Club Foundation. (Disclosure: Bellantoni is on the foundation's board.)
NewsHour politics desk assistant Alex Bruns contributed to this report.
ON THE TRAIL
All events are listed in Eastern Time.
Vice President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the Ohio Newspaper Association Convention in Columbus at 11 a.m.
Rick Santorum holds a pair of Oklahoma rallies: in Oklahoma City at 10 a.m. and Tulsa at 2:30 p.m.
Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Mitt Romney have no public events scheduled Thursday.
All future events can be found on our Political Calendar:
For more political coverage, visit our politics page.
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Questions or comments? Email Christina Bellantoni at cbellantoni-at-newshour-dot-org.