Tales from the Trail

Washington Extra – Combat ready?

The Obama administration is known to be methodical when it comes to its messaging. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s declaration that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan might end next year seems to have caught people here and overseas by surprise.

Today, everyone from Panetta to White House spokesman Jay Carney to NATO allies tried to tamp down notions that a major policy shift was underway. But many were still scratching their head about whether there is now a new U.S. timetable for winding down a war that is over a decade old.

One senior NATO official summed up the potential for confusion with a mind-bending quote: “He (Panetta) said the combat role will come to an end but he also said combat will continue. And that’s exactly what I’m saying.”

So the question is: Did Panetta jump the gun or is this part of a carefully crafted messaging plan, right out of the Obama administration’s playbook?

Here are our top stories from Washington…

Deficits, the US election and politics of fear

The top contenders in the presidential race seem to have a simple plan for the gaping budget deficit: use it to strike fear into the hearts of voters. Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney says President Obama is such a big spender that he would trigger a Greece-style crisis if re-elected. Obama says Republican candidates would balance the budget by slashing social programs older Americans rely on to pay their medical bills. Polls suggest both approaches resonate with voters.

Is Romney too rich and out of touch?

Mitt Romney ran into a wall of criticism during what should have been his Florida victory lap when he said live on CNN this morning that he is “not concerned about the very poor” and the country has a safety net to protect them.

Democrats leaped onto the remark as yet another sign that the wealthy Republican frontrunner is out of touch with average Americans. Whether or not that is true, it was another gaffe by a candidate who is becoming increasingly known for misspeaking on the campaign trail, especially on issues related to wealth and poverty, even as he blasts Democratic President Barack Obama for waging “class warfare.”

Last month, Romney said he had made “not very much” in speaking fees — and the total turned out to be $375,000. In December, he blundered in a debate by offering Texas Governor Rick Perry a $10,000 bet on healthcare policy. Earlier in the campaign, Romney came under fire for saying he liked to fire people, telling jobless workers in Florida that he, too, was unemployed. And he famously told a questioner at the Iowa State Fair that “corporations are people.”

First lady likes Obama’s voice; rates Romney singing ‘beautiful’

Michelle Obama might have been one of the few people in the United States who knew President Barack Obama could actually carry a tune before he surprised an Apollo Theater audience this month.

In her debut appearance on NBC “The Tonight Show” as first lady, Mrs. Obama told host Jay Leno that her husband sings to her all the time.  She said she even knew what song it would be when she heard about his singing a line from Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” Mrs. Obama gave a very tiny demonstration before conceding that the president was the better singer. Obama said her husband has a beautiful voice.

Asked about the performance turned in by Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney singing “America the Beautiful” on the campaign trail in Florida, Mrs. Obama said “its beautiful.”

Washington Extra – Driver’s seat

The day the Congressional Budget Office forecast that the United States is headed for its fourth straight year with a $1 trillion-plus budget deficit, President Obama touted the benefits of big government spending.

His venue? The Washington auto show. His tools? Shiny new American cars, preferably those from General Motors and Chrysler. Those were the two companies that received billions in a 2009 taxpayer funded bailout that has obviously paid off, both for the automakers and the Obama administration.

The president got behind the wheels of muscle cars, SUVs, trucks, and fuel efficient and electric models and proclaimed “The U.S. auto industry is back.” But he couldn’t just leave it at that, for there were more political points to score. He did so by taking a veiled swipe at his most likely opponent in the November election – Mitt Romney – for having opposed the bailout that helped bring Detroit back from the brink.

Obama tells high-tech worker: Send me your resume

By Samson Reiny

President Barack Obama, whose chances for re-election may rest on his ability to show U.S. voters he is doing all he can to reduce unemployment, offered on Monday to personally pass along the resume of an unemployed engineer to potential employers.

Fielding a question from a woman on a Google+ online chat session who asked why the government continues to grant H1 visas even as her semi conductor engineer husband cannot find a job after three years of searching, Obama said the difficulty was surprising to him because he often hears business leaders in that field talk of a scarcity of skilled workers.

“If you send me your husband’s resume I’d be interested in finding out exactly what’s happening there,” he said, offering to forward the resume “to some of these companies that are telling me they can’t find enough engineers in this field.”

Hard to believe there’s room for TV programs in Florida

For those voters in Florida who have felt overwhelmed by political advertisements this primary season — you have been.

By January 25, Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney and his supporters had aired almost 13,000 advertisements on broadcast television in the state, compared with only about 200 spots from Romney’s main rival, Newt Gingrich, and outside groups supporting his presidential aspirations, according to data from Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan University media project.

And that was six days before Florida holds its primary on Tuesday.

With the blizzard of ads, Romney has seen his place in the polls leap upward in Florida. He went from trailing Gingrich by 5-9 percent in polls of the state taken a week ago, to leading by an average of 12.5 percent. A week ago, Gingrich was fresh off his upset victory in on Jan. 21 in South Carolina, where he defeated Romney by 12 percentage points.

Washington Extra – Coy in California

California prides itself on setting trends for the nation. This week, it may be the state that bucks the trend if it decides to abstain from a multi-state and federal settlement with the big banks on mortgage abuses.

States must say by the end of this week whether they are in or out of the deal and California is very much in doubt. Attorney General Kamala Harris, a rising star in the Democratic Party, is concerned the banks may get off too easily. Just last week, her people were calling the settlement “inadequate.”

But can she afford to walk away from more than $10 billion that homeowners could collect in her state, where the housing crisis has ravaged communities from Stockton to San Diego? And would she be able to get more for them if she went it alone?

Ad connecting Romney to company in Medicare fraud case “mostly true”

Last week a public workers union launched a television ad that raised an old question about presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s connection to Damon Corp, a company that defrauded Medicare by the millions while under the watch of Romney’s private equity firm Bain Capital. Thursday, the Super PAC Winning Our Future, which supports Romney’s Republican rival Newt Gingrich released the trailer for a campaign video titled “Blood Money” that echoes the same criticism.

The ad created by AFSCME equates Romney with Florida Governor Rick Scott whose approval rating is one of the lowest in the country. Scott is the former CEO of the hospital chain Columbia/HCA that became embroiled in a Medicare fraud case in the late 1990s.

A narrator speaking over black and white photos of Romney says he was director of Damon Corp, which was later fined $100 million for medicare fraud. Romney’s image morphs into that of Rick Scott as the narrator asks, “Corporate greed … Medicare fraud. Sound familiar?”

Ron Paul is all action

Republican some-time folk hero Ron Paul has been mostly missing in action in Florida, a winner-take-all primary state that votes next Tuesday. Currently pulling down only about 10 percent support in the Sunshine State, the Texas Congressman has opted to seek out more fruitful pastures in his quest to assemble delegates for the 2012 convention. Paul’s yard sign elves remain busy, though, and Paulite insurgents have shown up at a number of other events, sometimes jostling with supporters of, for example, Rick Santorum.

But fear not, fans in Florida or elsewhere. A new, virtual version is only a few clicks away, thanks to the pro-Paul RevolutionPAC.

Two talking action figures — the “Commander in Chief” Paul and the “Super Hero” Paul — are now available at ronpaulactionfigures.com. They don’t come cheap, at $94.95 plus shipping and handling. The “Super Hero” version, in standard super-hero bodysuit ensemble with white cape (or is it really an obstetrician’s coat?), is 12 inches tall, speaks a message when a button is pushed, has moveable limbs, and comes equipped with a mini U.S. Constitution. All proceeds go to support efforts to elect Ron Paul, although the figurines are not endorsed by the candidate.

Bush recipe for wooing Hispanic voters

Republicans need to think of immigration as an economic issue — not just a border security issue, former Florida governor Jeb Bush wrote in a Washington Post opinion article on Wednesday, laying out a strategy for wooing Hispanic voters.

Bush, whose op-ed comes ahead of next Tuesday’s Florida primary, calls Hispanics “the most powerful swing voters,” predicting they’ll represent the margin of victory in the fifteen states likely to decide the 2012 presidential race.

“Although Democrats hold the edge, Republicans have an opportunity” to regain the momentum, Bush says.