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When’s a Campaign Not a Campaign? (See Obama, Gingrich)

Just when you thought it was safe to go back outside, it turns out the campaign lull we thought had just begun hasn’t occurred at all.

We were assured by the Democrats that the president’s travels to three battleground states this week were absolutely, positively, not about politics. Ignore those arenas full of students shouting “Four more years.” This was all about policy, they insisted.

And we were assured by the voters – vast margins of them – that Mitt Romney was indeed the Republican nominee. But what ho: Is that Newt Gingrich still traveling with a full Secret Service entourage in tow?

There are rules about these things. The president has to reimburse the taxpayer at a very specific rate if he uses the trappings of his office — Air Force One chief among them – to go about drumming up votes for re-election.

But the White House is also correct when it points out that the president is the leader of the free world, 24/7. It’s hard to draw a line. President Obama is not the first incumbent to make this point, but Republicans are not entirely crazy to draw the line.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said it wasn’t political when the president visited the University of North Carolina, the University of Colorado and the University of Iowa because he was pressing Congress to pass legislation extending low interest rates on college student loans.

But the Obama campaign said it will be political next week when Mr. Obama and the first lady drop in on Virginia Commonwealth University and The Ohio State University.

Yet the itinerary for both trips looks like a tour through the Obama swing-state campaign map.

“This doesn’t pass the straight-face test,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters on Capitol Hill. “You know it and I know it.” He said the president’s travels this week cost taxpayers $179,000 an hour.

The line can be fuzzy on the Republican side as well. It was widely conceded weeks ago that Romney would be the nominee. Rick Santorum saw the handwriting on the wall and hustled out of the race before he could be embarrassed in his home state of Pennsylvania. For the record, he still hasn’t endorsed Romney.

But we still await Gingrich’s final exit. Reporters and strategists stopped paying real attention some time ago, but the former House speaker only grudgingly agreed to drop out and endorse Romney this week. Each day he stays in the race, taxpayers fork over roughly $40,000 for his Secret Service protection.

The truth is we all know better than to buy into anyone else’s definition of when campaigns begin and end. It will always come to money – money raised and money spent.

How much does it cost to fly the president to official events? How much money was Santorum going to be forced to spend to defend Pennsylvania (and did he have it)? Will the eventual nominee help his former competitors retire their campaign debt? Will Romney spring for a plane and staff to enable them to campaign on his behalf?

Now of course, every formula has its flaw. Ron Paul is, when last seen, still running for president and he has never accepted Secret Service protection. In fact, he called it a “form of welfare.”

But in general, let’s stick with dollars-for-donuts as the best available way to define what constitutes campaigning. Or, as Obama campaign manager Jim Messina put it when he rounded up reporters to announce the Ohio and Virginia kickoff: “Good evening everyone. Welcome to the general election.”

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.

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