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Conservative leaders "all in" for Santorum

A group of conservative leaders pledged to raise a combined $1.78 million for Rick Santorum's campaign and SuperPAC after meeting privately in Texas this weekend with the Republican presidential hopeful, POLITICO has learned.

More than 200 conservatives from all over the country convened at the Houston Omni for a Friday fundraising reception for Santorum's campaign. They then met to plot strategy with the former senator Saturday morning, discussing how to overcome Mitt Romney's growing advantage in the GOP primary and fend off Newt Gingrich.

"The message was, 'we're all in,'" said South Dakota businessman and conservative organizer Bob Fischer, one of the event’s co-hosts.

Fischer explained that the $1.78 million represents money that, over the course of the weekend, individuals gave and pledged to raise for the campaign and SuperPAC. "It could be significantly more," he said. He declined to share the names of the donors writing large checks to the SuperPACs.

Santorum’s campaign has been badly outspent by Romney throughout the primary season and could use such an injection of cash. Such pledges are not always followed through on, but in the contribution limit-free, SuperPAC era it’s easier to raise money with a handful of deep-pocketed givers. 

Many of those at the meeting were at the January gathering of conservatives at a Texas ranch where there was a vote taken to rally around Santorum as the chief conservative alternative to Romney.

Co-hosts in Houston included Fischer, Rebecca Hagelin, Richard Viguerie and Tim Lefever.

Also present were conservative leaders Tony Perkins and James Dobson.

“It was not a discussion of who to support, it was a consolidation of support,” said Perkins, differentiating the meeting with the January session. “There was a big push to raise funds. There was a sense of, ‘Now is the time to step up.’”

Perkins said Santorum’s comments Friday night at the closed-press reception were little different than what the candidate has been saying publicly.

Paraphrasing, Perkins said Santorum made clear he was in the race for the long haul and said, ‘We have a chance now and I need your help.’

Fischer dismissed Romney's lead in the delegate hunt and, suggesting a potential convention floor fight, said it was noted at the meeting that in some states delegates are only pledged on the first round of balloting in Tampa.

He indicated that Santorum was ready to go to the convention "if it's needed" and argued that the campaign was now "a two-man race."

But Gingrich’s continued presence in the race looms large for Santorum, especially ahead of Tuesday’s primaries in Mississippi and Alabama, where polls show the three candidates all drawing a significant share of the vote

“If they were to converge together you would have a majority,” said Perkins, whose Family Research Council has not endorsed in the race.

Saying it was Gingrich’s decision on whether to stay in the race, Perkins deemed the former speaker as “the most influential guy in American politics right now – he could be a kingmaker.”

Despite Romney wins, both sides wary of Jeb Bush

Mitt Romney’s tortured triumph in Michigan put him back in the GOP driver’s seat — but that hasn’t quelled the desire among some Republicans to trade up.

Yes, Republicans are still pining for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush despite his repeated and vehement refusal to be sucked into the 2012 Republican vortex.

And Democrats continue to cast a wary eye on a guy they see as more dangerous — and capable of connecting with middle-class and Latino voters — than Romney.

The Bush murmurs persist, even as a resilient Romney marches toward Super Tuesday with a commanding lead in cash, delegates and momentum over a sagging Rick Santorum.

“I have the perfect candidate — Jeb Bush. But he’s not running,” former George W. Bush chief of staff Andy Card told Charlie Rose on CBS on Wednesday, echoing the sentiments of many in his party.

“What Democrat would not worry about a popular leader from a critical state who sounds pretty moderate and can rescue the GOP from its anti-Latino death grip?” asked former Bill Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, who said he’s yet to find a Democratic elder who thinks the GOP is truly “unhinged” enough to consider ditching Romney for Bush.

Bush — who has refused to endorse Romney in 2012 as he did in 2008 and whose son endorsed Jon Huntsman — has fanned the flames himself, possibly to whet his party’s appetite for a 2016 run. After keeping a low profile during the hotly contested Florida primary in January, he popped up last week at the height of the Romney-Santorum duel in Michigan to declare his problems with the GOP presidential field.

“I used to be a conservative and I watch these debates and I’m wondering, I don’t think I’ve changed but it’s a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people’s fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective,” Bush told a gathering in Dallas last Thursday, according to FOX News.

“I think that changes when we get to the general election — I hope,” added Bush, who has personally urged Romney to moderate his rhetoric on illegal immigration for fear of completely alienating Hispanic voters in states like Florida, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

That got the attention of conservatives including Ann Coulter, who slammed him of prepping for a campaign, and Obama campaign officials who found his timing curious.

Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and a friend of Bush, said she saw the former governor last Sunday and he laughed off any idea that he’ll jump in the game.

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Who can save the GOP from it's base?

If Mitt Romney fails to win Michigan next Tuesday, a few high-powered Republicans have started saying, the party needs to go back to square one and recruit a new candidate. Yes, maybe it does. But what will that fix? Not much. What the party needs is not simply a new candidate. It needs someone with the courage to stand up and say that the GOP has gone completely off the deep end—and that the party could run an amalgam of Ronald Reagan and Mahatma Gandhi and he wouldn’t win as long as the party’s inflamed base keeps with its current attitudes. But it lacks such a person utterly. It’s a party made up of on the one hand unprincipled cowards, and on the other of people devoted to principles so extreme that they’d have serious trouble attracting more than about 42 percent of the vote.

Allen summarized a chat between an unnamed Republican senator and ABC’s Jonathan Karl this way: “The senator believes Romney will ultimately win in Michigan but says he will publicly call for the party to find a new candidate if he does not. ‘We’d get killed,’ the senator said if Romney manages to win the nomination after he failed to win the state in which he grew up. ‘He’d be too damaged’ … Santorum? ‘He’d lose 35 states,’ the senator said, predicting the same fate for Newt Gingrich. It would have to be somebody else, the senator said. Who? ‘Jeb Bush.’”

In the plus column for the Republicans, I’d make two points. First, whoever they get sure can’t be worse than Romney, who (as some of us were noting a few weeks ago, back when he was theoretically riding high) really is living down to my expectations. And he or she—well, he; it’s going to be a he if it happens—obviously can’t be worse than Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich. Our senator might be exaggerating about 15 states, but not by much. It’s long been my conviction, for example, that if Gingrich were the nominee, he’d manage to lose Georgia because for every Georgian who likes him there are surely at least 1.5 who are repulsed by him.

Second, it’s still only February. There’s time for people to wrap their heads around someone new. If a Jeb Bush or Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels were to declare an intention to run, they’d have time to solidify support. True, they will have missed the filing deadlines to get on most primary ballots (although not to participate in caucuses). But it’s still not too late to file, for example, for California’s June 5 primary—the filing deadline is March 23. If a late-entry candidate dominated the contests he did manage to enter, he could make a reasonable case that the voters really wanted him. This can’t wait until the convention, which isn’t until late August. That would be awfully late to be getting started with a presidential race in this day and age.

OK, so those are the grounds on which such a move is plausible. But here’s the problem. First, let’s consider the three men named above. What’s so savior-y about them? The Bush name? Please. It’s better than Nixon, but that’s about all that can be said for it. Christie’s tough-talking personality? That appeals to people on the right. But it could wear thin. And yes, the avoirdupois factor is an issue. Most Americans don’t want a president who looks like that. And Daniels has the charisma of an econ-department chair.

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GOP: Contraception fight is not over

Buoyed by the support of the Catholic bishops, congressional Republicans say they’re going all out against President Barack Obama’s modified contraceptives policy, ensuring that the compromise hasn’t ended the controversy over the health care reform rule after all.

Senate Republicans say they want to force a vote on conscience legislation as soon as possible, and the House has already been drafting legislation in the Energy and Commerce Committee.

“We to need to work out a strategy and that probably involves the House,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), one of the Republicans’ leaders on the issue, said Monday. “But the next step is to really get this thing done. This is a critical constitutional issue and I would like to see this get on a piece of legislation the president is obligated to sign.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” this weekend that he would attempt to force a vote “as soon as possible.”

And House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa is holding a hearing on the regulation on Thursday. The tone of the hearing is clear from the question posed in the title: “Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?”

But the strategy could backfire. While the original policy, which would have required religious-affiliated institutions to cover contraceptives, was rejected by Republicans and many Democrats on Capitol Hill, the modified policy could have more support and is getting at least a closer look from potential critics.

It’s also not clear that the public is as offended by the contraception rule as congressional Republicans are. Even before Obama announced the compromise Friday, a Fox News poll of 1,110 registered voters conducted Feb. 6-9 found that the public approved of the original policy, 61 percent to 34 percent. Democrats and independents favored the policy, while Republicans opposed it.

How Super PAC's rake it in

Super PACs raised about $181 million in the last two years — with roughly half of it coming from fewer than 200 super-rich people.

Those are the findings in a new study that confirms what public interest groups have long feared and campaigns are learning the hard way in 2012 — that the cash for big-ticket campaign spending like TV advertising is increasingly controlled by an elite class of super-rich patrons not afraid to plunk down a million bucks or more for favored candidates and causes.

Last year alone, just 32 donors gave $34 million — and that’s not including an eight-figure donation from billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson in January.

The concentration of donors was discovered in Federal Election Commission filings analyzed by two nonprofit groups, U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Demos that are pushing to strengthen disclosure and spending rules. Their results appear in a report published Wednesday that maps where super PACs are getting their cash.

Alongside individuals, corporations chipped in another $17 million last year. And unions kicked in $6 million. Another $2 million came from more shadowy sources difficult to trace, according to the report.

Expect “an unprecedented surge” in cash, particular secret money, later this year as Election Day approaches, predicted a co-author of the report, Blair Bowie of U.S. PIRG, pointing to 2010 patterns. As campaigns brace for that deluge, here’s a primer on the five ways the new outside groups are pulling in money — from secret gifts to transparent donations — and why each might be attractive to a donor:

Individuals

A relatively few wealthy backers are keeping super PACs afloat — and they’re saying so. Last year alone, individuals gave super PACs $63 million.

That includes 15 people who gave $1 million or more, such as DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, who gave $2 million to Priorities USA Action, the super PAC supporting President Barack Obama, and John Paulson, a hedge fund billionaire who gave $1 million to a super PAC supporting Mitt Romney’s GOP presidential campaign, according to FEC reports.

The figures don’t even include the $10 million that Adelson and his wife gave from their personal accounts to the super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich’s GOP presidential campaign after the year-end FEC reports.

Giving from a personal account, rather than a corporate or non-profit account, is seen as a way for wealthy corporate types to shield their business interests from the controversy that such mega-donations can bring. But it doesn’t always work, as New Balance Chairman James Davis found out last year, when his sneaker company penned an apology to gay activists upset by his $500,000 contribution to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future.

Big personal donations also can be a way to advertise support for a candidate, said Foster Friess, a Wyoming mutual fund guru who is a major donor to super PACs supporting Rick Santorum’s GOP presidential campaign.

“I can say I endorse Rick Santorum and am going to vote for him, but it means a little more if I put up some green for him. There’s no need for me to be surreptitious about this,” said Friess, who had given $381,000 to a pair of super PACs supporting Santorum, according to FEC disclosures covering through the end of last year. Friess said he’s given more since then, and will continue giving as long as Santorum “needs me.”

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Mitt Romney and GOP Enthusiasm Gap

In the aftermath of Rick Santorum’s clean sweep of Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, Mitt Romney is still, in fact, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. But the lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy among conservatives foreshadows a potentially ugly road ahead to Tampa and general election problems if he is nominee.

There are all kinds of reasons Romney advisers can offer for his anemic showing Tuesday. Some of them were cited in a memo issued as the polls were opening. Romney was coming off two consecutive victories that should have given him some momentum. The defensively worded memo was designed instead to dampen expectations.

The arguments advanced by Romney advisers are not incorrect. He did not spend real money in these states. He did not campaign in them very much. There were no delegates awarded in any of the three. Missouri was simply a beauty contest. Arizona and Michigan, whose primaries are at the end of the month, look favorable for Romney. Super Tuesday offers more opportunities to win. Santorum and Newt Gingrich have limited resources.

The campaign memo also said this: “It is difficult to see what Governor Romney’s opponents can do to change the dynamics of the race in February.” In writing that, Romney’s top advisers could not have been anticipating that their candidate would suffer a triple defeat Tuesday.

The issue is not whether Romney has been significantly derailed from his path to the nomination, but rather what kind of nominee he might be and what kind of party would be behind him.

The contests on Tuesday were not all inhospitable states for the former Massachusetts governor. Four years ago, he won Minnesota and Colorado. He captured about 60 percent of the vote in Colorado, about 40 percent in Minnesota. He ran third in Missouri in 2008. He got 29 percent of the vote, just four points behind winner John McCain.

On Tuesday, he won just 35 percent of the vote in Colorado and a paltry 17 percent in Minnesota (in a third-place finish). In Missouri, he managed only 25 percent of the vote to Santorum’s 55 percent, though the 2008 primary awarded delegates and this year’s did not. In raw votes, he was well below his 2008 levels.

All front-runners lose states along the way. Four years ago, McCain certainly did, and so did President Obama. Obama became the Democratic nominee without winning New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania or California. He lost a Florida beauty contest and he didn’t compete in Michigan. Yet today he is president of the United States.

So Romney and his advisers can look around and say that they are still on what they call the methodical path toward the nomination, that they are winning delegates whenever delegates are being awarded. That’s all correct.

But that methodical path they describe also could give him the nomination while leaving his party fractured, the base uninspired and his opponents bitter and slow to reconcile. Once again Tuesday, turnout was below the levels of 2008. Republicans are fervent in their desire to defeat the president in November but can’t work up much enthusiasm for their own candidates.

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GOP Blocks Crucial Consumer Protection Bureau Nominee

President Obama lashed out at Congress on Thursday for blocking his nomination to head a consumer financial watchdog agency, saying Americans are frustrated with legislators for holding up critical appointments to win concessions on other matters.

Speaking shortly after the Senate rejected his appointment of former Ohio attorney General Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Obama said his Capitol Hill adversaries were not acting “on the level” in their consideration of the public interest. And he complained that Republicans in Congress were systematically delaying his political appointments.

“This makes no sense,” Obama said during a short news conference in the White House briefing room. “Consumers across the country understand part of the reason we got into the financial mess we did is because regulators are not doing their jobs. ... There is no reason why Mr. Cordray should not be nominated or confirmed by the Senate and should not be doing this job.”

Obama added that he would press forward with trying to install Cordray, including a potential recess appointment during the holiday break, a move that Congress could not block if it were not in session.

“We are not giving up on this; we’ll keep on going at it,” Obama said. “We will not allow politics as usual on Capitol Hill to stand in the way of American consumers being protected from unscrupulous operators.”

He added that Congress has been systematically holding up many of his other appointments.

“Well-qualified judges do not get a vote. Assistant secretaries to the Treasury get held up for no reason,” Obama said. “They are trying to see if they can use that to reverse some sort of law that’s already been passed. That’s what part of what gets the American people so frustrated. The do not think this is on the level.”

Senate Republicans on Tuesday filibustered Obama’s nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Then in the long-awaited vote Thursday morning, Senate Republicans relied on a procedural vote to keep the Senate from even considering Cordray for the top job at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

By a vote of 53 to 45, Senate Democrats were unable to close off debate to allow the confirmation to proceed; 60 votes were needed to end a filibuster.

58% of GOP voters want a new candidate

The nominating process may officially be underway, but Republicans have yet to enthusiastically embrace a potential nominee for president - and despite the late date, most would like to see other candidates enter the race, according to a new CBS News poll.

The survey finds that 58 percent of Republican primary voters want more presidential choices, while just 37 percent say they are satisfied with the current field. The percentage of Republican primary voters that wants more choices has increased 12 percentage points since October.

Mitt Romney, the frontrunner for the nomination, has struggled to break 30 percent support in state and local polls in an election cycle that has seen multiple candidates move ahead of Romney in the polls before seeing their support erode. In this national survey, taken after Romney's narrow victory in the Iowa caucuses, the former Massachusetts governor leads the field - though he holds just 19 percent support. Only 28 percent of GOP primary voters say they've made up their mind, and just 20 percent who've made a choice strongly favor their candidate. 

It's mathematically possible for another candidate to enter the race as late as early February and still win enough delegates to take the nomination, though some deadlines for candidates to get on state ballots have already passed, including those in delegate-rich Virginia and Illinois. A late entry into the GOP race would come with potentially-overwhelming obstacles, including the need to instantly build a national campaign apparatus and do the hard work of getting on state ballots in an extremely compressed time period.

The list of prominent Republicans who have announced they would not seek the presidency this cycle include Chris Christie, Sarah Palin, Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan and Haley Barbour.

There is no candidate in the GOP field who more than one third of Republican primary voters say they would enthusiastically support if he were the nominee. Rick Santorum does best in terms of enthusiasm, with 33 percent saying they would enthusiastically support him. (Roughly one in two say their support for Santorum would either come with reservations or simply result from the fact that he is the GOP nominee.) Santorum is followed by Newt Gingrich, whom 29 percent would enthusiastically support, and Romney, whom 27 percent would enthusiastically support. They're followed by Rick Perry at 17 percent, Ron Paul at 15 percent and Jon Huntsman at 12 percent.

Mitch McConnell votes against Highway bill minutes after promoting it.

Just before the vote, McConnell took to the senate floor and praised the lead sponsors, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Jim Inhofe (R-OK) for their bipartisan effort. “They have worked together in a collegial way to bring us to this point on the highway bill,” he raved.

Moments later, McConnell joined 21 other Republicans — and no Democrats — in voting against the bill. The House is expected to take up a similar version in April, rather than the far inferior House Republican version.

In early March, the Laborers’ International Union of America launched a radio and mail ad campaign aimed at prodding Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) to pass the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, a highway and transportation bill.

Their ads, focused on Kentucky and Ohio, included children singing “America’s bridges falling down, all around the country,” to the tune of the song “London Bridge is Falling Down.” A narrator warned:

The average age of a U.S. bridge is 45 years, dangerously close to the life span of 50 years. More than a quarter of our bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Because of tight budgets, bridge maintenance is in jeopardy. and if Republican leaders in Congress have their way those budgets will get cut even more. Text “Bridge” to 69866 and let Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell know we need a real highway bill to save our bridges and our lives.

This got the attention of McConnell’s staff, who posted a refutation on his campaign website. McConnell professed his support for the highway bill and slammed Laborers for its support of Democratic candidates and the “radical” Occupy movement.

“Contrary to the assertion in the ads,” McConnell’s staff claimed, “Senator McConnell has been working to pass the highway bill in the U.S. Senate, which is currently slated for a vote on final passage next week.” A McConnell spokesman also told a Louisville, Kentucky radio station that the minority leader was working with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to pass the highway bill.

Just before the vote, McConnell took to the senate floor and praised the lead sponsors, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Jim Inhofe (R-OK) for their bipartisan effort. “They have worked together in a collegial way to bring us to this point on the highway bill,” he raved.

Moments later, McConnell joined 21 other Republicans — and no Democrats — in voting against the bill. The House is expected to take up a similar version in April, rather than the far inferior House Republican version.

McConnell’s office did not respond to a request for comment on why he voted against a bill he’d pledged to support and no explanations were apparent on his senate or campaign websites. But it would certainly appear that the Republican leader owes the Laborers an apology.

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