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the vote blog

Government is serious. Democracy is sacred. And then there is politics the way it is actually played. The Vote blog looks at politics the way the players talk about it among themselves after work.

In this still image taken from video, US Representative Bobby Rush, a prominent civil rights activist during the 1960s, pulls on the hood of a gray sweatshirt, known as a hoodie during a floor speech in the House of Representatives in Washington March 28. (Reuters)

Why couldn't Rep. Bobby Rush wear hoodie on House floor?

By Staff writer / 03.28.12

Hoodies on the House floor are verboten, apparently. Rep. Bobby Rush (D) of Illinois was scolded and escorted from the chamber of the House of Representatives on Wednesday morning, when he attempted to give a speech on the need for a full investigation of the Trayvon Martin shooting while wearing sunglasses and a gray hooded sweat shirt.

“Racial profiling has to stop, Mr. Speaker,” said Representative Rush while doffing his suit jacket to reveal his hoodie garb. “Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum.”

Rush continued to speak while the presiding officer, Rep. Gregg Harper (R) of Mississippi, banged the gavel, ordering him to desist. Eventually someone from the office of the House sergeant-at-arms appeared and escorted Rush, hoodie and all, off the floor.

The reason for the uproar is that Congress has a dress code. Men are expected to wear coats and ties, and women to wear correspondingly serious clothing. Under House Rule XVII, Section 5, hats are prohibited, and a hoodie is unquestionably a head covering.

“The Sergeant-at-Arms is charged with the strict enforcement of this clause,” concludes that section.

Senior Democrats played down the kerfuffle. Minority leader Nancy Pelosi noted that when she first came to Congress, women were prohibited from wearing pants on the floor. But really, why should the House be such a stickler on items of dress? In the 1830s and 1840s – admittedly, a much more heated era in US history – many lawmakers carried weapons, and violence was not uncommon. In some Asian legislatures today, debates can end in fistfights.

The reason for the rules on decorum may be that civility stands on a slippery slope.

“As [humorist] Will Rogers observed, members call themselves gentlemen and gentlewomen, because the alternatives would be to call one another polecats and coyotes, or worse, liars, hypocrites, stupid, dumb, demagogues, socialists, communists, none of which lend themselves to the deliberative process so important to the governance of the nation,” wrote Ray Smock, director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va., last October.

Mr. Smock, who served as historian of the House from 1983 to 1995, believes that civility now “is at one of the lowest ebbs in congressional history.”

Such breaches of decorum as the “You lie!” shout of Rep. Joe Wilson (R) of South Carolina during President Obama’s 2009 speech to Congress on health-care reforms may be indicative of a larger, paralyzing incivility based on bitter partisanship, in Smock’s view.

Narrower measures indicate that Congress may be becoming more civil, not less. An Annenberg Public Policy Center study of the number of times lawmakers are reprimanded for out-of-bounds language by having their words “taken down” found that infractions have become relatively few and farther between.

“Overall, civility, not incivility, is the norm in the House,” said the September 2011 report.

All that said, Rush had particular incentive to speak out on the Trayvon Martin issue. A former member of the 1960s Black Panthers, Rush was active in the civil rights movement of the era. His own 29-year-old son died of a gunshot.

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Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, as the court began three days of arguments on the health-care law signed by President Obama. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Rick Santorum puts 'Romneycare' on trial on steps of Supreme Court (+video)

By Staff Writer / 03.26.12

It's a relatively quiet week in the GOP presidential nominating calendar.

No primaries between Louisiana this past Saturday (which Rick Santorum won handily, as expected) and Wisconsin, Maryland, and the District of Columbia next week.

All of which means the political news is focused, instead, on the Supreme Court arguments being heard this week on "Obamacare" – which Mr. Santorum sees as the perfect opportunity to press his case.

Santorum took his campaign to the steps of the Supreme Court Monday, and has been using every opportunity he can to hammer home his main point: That Mitt Romney's health-care law in Massachusetts was the "blueprint" upon which Obamacare is based, and that as a result, Romney can't credibly criticize what is, for many Republicans, the most hated achievement of the Obama administration.

"There's one candidate who's uniquely disqualified to make the case. That's the reason I'm here and he's not," Santorum told reporters outside the Supreme Court Monday afternoon. 

Romney has said he will fight to repeal Obama's law, and has argued that the Massachusetts law was different in many respects – particularly since it was what the voters there wanted.

Criticizing "Romneycare" has been a favorite tactic of Santorum's (and other GOP candidates) for months; the Supreme Court case just helps by moving it front and center in the news.

"Why would the Republican Party nominate someone who agrees with that [individual] mandate, on the most important issue of the election? That's why it's become so important because it's the establishment types who don't mind Obamacare," Santorum said on CNN Sunday.

It's certainly unlikely that the issue is going to do much to boost Santorum, who is badly trailing Romney in the delegate account and faces far less friendlier states in April primaries. The only question at this point for Santorum seems to be how much longer he'll stay in the race.

But how much does this it hurt Romney?

Obama's staff have been underlining Romney's Massachusetts health plan too, with David Plouffe, a senior adviser, calling him the "godfather" of the administration's health-care plan.

But not everyone agrees that Romney's health-care history will hurt him.

"To the extent that attacks on President Barack Obama’s health-care reform are good politics, the candidate best able to make them is Mitt Romney," argue Paul Goldman and Mark Rozell in a Politico column. (Mr. Goldman is a former chairman of Virginia’s Democratic Party, and Mark Rozell is a professor of public policy at George Mason University.)

They point out that aspects of ObamaCare are popular, and say that Romney has an edge in criticizing it since he can't be portrayed as totally lacking in compassion the way some other Republicans might be – analagous to Nixon going to China.

Romney "would be the first GOP nominee in nearly 50 years with a proven track record on health care who has been praised by Democrats –including the president – as fair and compassionate. He can’t be demonized as an out-of-touch, uncompassionate, hard-right ideologue on this issue," they write.

That may be a hard distinction for Romney to make to die-hard conservatives in November – but many of those voters may still see him as a better alternative than Obama.

Meanwhile, as much as Santorum and other conservatives are emphasizing the Supreme Court case now, it's hard to know how much of an issue it will be this fall. If the Supreme Court does in fact rule that part or all of the health-care law is unconstitutional, then it's hardly likely to stay at the top of voters' minds.

For now, though, expect Santorum – but not Romney – to get as much news mileage as he can out of the hearings this week.

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A man hides from the rain under his sign at a Tea Party Patriots rally calling for the repeal of the 2010 healthcare law championed by President Barack Obama, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Saturday. The Supreme Court will hear arguments next week over the fate of Obama's healthcare law. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Obama embraces ‘Obamacare’

By Staff writer / 03.24.12

Ever since he launched it two years ago, President Obama’s health care reform program has been slammed by its critics as “Obamacare.”

Republicans hate it. Their presidential hopefuls sneeringly vow to kill it their first day in office – no more so than Mitt Romney, whose health care program when he was governor of Massachusetts became the model for Obama’s. Some states are suing to block the individual mandate – a case the United States Supreme Court takes up Monday.

If there’s an equivalent on the Democratic side – a derisory label tossed about in hopes that it’ll stick – it’s the GOP’s alleged “war on women.”

But nothing has had the effect of rallying conservative troops and annoying the political opposition – in this case the White House and Democratic lawmakers who passed (to use its proper name) the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – than “Obamacare” (or “ObamaCare” if you wish).

But now, in what might be seen as either chutzpah or a wimp-out, Obama and his reelection supporters have fully embraced the term.

On Friday, the Obama campaign emailed supporters: “Today is the two-year anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. Since then, the law that almost everyone calls Obamacare has been doing exactly what the other side has hoped it wouldn’t do: It’s been working. It’s about time we give it the love it deserves.”

From his Twitter account, Obama’s reelection campaign tweeted: “Happy birthday to Obamacare: two years in, the Affordable Care Act is making millions of Americans’ lives better every day.” And just to make it clear, a subsequent tweet read: “If you’re proud of Obamacare and tired of the other side using it as a dirty word, complete this sentence: #ILikeObamacare because…”

At a fundraiser at the Tyler Perry studios in Atlanta last week, Obama also used the term and said he doesn’t mind it because it shows he “does care,” reported Devin Dwyer at ABC News.

“Change is, yes, health care reform,” Obama said to applause. “You want to call it Obamacare – that’s okay, because I do care.”

And why shouldn’t he use the term?

As Greg Sargent of the Washington Post writes, “The simple fact is that this law is Obama’s number one domestic achievement. It is his. It is Obamacare.”

So now that Obama and friends are happy to boost “Obamacare,” does that mean opponents will drop what they always used as a slur? Not hardly.

Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin likens Obama’s health care program to a “mythical Hydra with its unconstitutional agencies.”

“Obamacare is a real Washington monster whose countless hidden bureaucracies keep sprouting forth even after they’re rooted out,” she writes in her latest column.

A web site called “ObamaCare Watch” says, “Instead of attacking the primary problems – lack of portable insurance owned by the policy holder and costs driven upward by excessive federal subsidization – ObamaCare leaves the flawed policies in place and attempts to coerce coverage of the remaining uninsured with a heavy-handed governmental structure.”

On Monday (the day the Supreme Court takes up Obamacare), the conservative group Americans for Prosperity is hosting a “Hands Off My Health Care” rally in Washington “to demonstrate our resolve to end ObamaCare.”

“We MUST ensure that the Supreme Court and all of establishment Washington know that Obama's healthcare takeover is an affront to liberty, to free-market principles and to our Constitution and that WE THE PEOPLE REJECT OBAMACARE, AND WANT IT GONE,” declares an invitation to sign a petition to lawmakers.

So now that Obama is OK with “ObamaCare,” does this mean it’s safe for Romney to embrace “Romneycare,” as his GOP rivals labeled his Massachusetts program? Don’t count on it. 

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Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses an audience during a campaign stop at an American Legion post in Arbutus, Md., Wednesday. (Steven Senne/AP)

Romney Etch A Sketch: Is aide's comment a present for his foes? (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.22.12

Has Mitt Romney’s campaign inadvertently provided opponents the perfect phrase with which to attack the former Massachusetts governor? That’s the question in the wake of the “Etch A Sketch” comment by senior Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom on CNN.

Asked whether Mr. Romney had moved too far to the right for the general election, Mr. Fehrnstrom said that the GOP hopeful would hit a reset button for the fall campaign. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch,” he said. “You can kind of shake it up and restart it all over again.”

For Romney, Sketch-gate has overshadowed what should have been the triumphant aftermath of an Illinois primary victory. Romney’s primary opponents immediately seized upon the image of an erasable toy to project their doubts about the depths of Romney’s conservatism. Both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich held up Etch A Sketches at rallies on Wednesday.

“Team Romney says if Mitt is GOP nominee, he’ll hit reset button for gen election. Where does that leave conservatives?” tweeted Mr. Santorum on Thursday.

Conservative activists who have long resisted Romney’s likely nomination bemoaned the fact that it is only now, so late in the game, that they have found an analogy that perfectly expresses their doubts about his beliefs.

“We’ve been at a loss to encapsulate our opposition into a one-liner; a bumper sticker,” wrote Daniel Horowitz on the conservative RedState blog on Thursday. “After all, it takes copious pages of ink to explain the extent of Romney’s hypocrisy on the issue of healthcare alone. Yet, late in the 11th hour of the campaign, when it’s probably too late to make a difference, we have finally discovered our symbol that exemplifies Romney.”

If nothing else, perhaps now the Romney team will stop demanding that the right get on board their train and provide some reasons to believe that Romney’s conservative positions won’t get shaken off like a kid's drawing in September, Mr. Horowitz said.

Meanwhile, gleeful Democrats were making much the same point about the power of the Etch A Sketch image.

On the blog of liberal talk-show host Rachel Maddow, contributor Steve Benen wrote that Romney aide Fehrnstrom should simply have said, “Romney is a mainstream conservative, and there’s nothing extreme about his vision for America.”

Instead, he’s hampered Romney with a line that will be tough to live down, according to Mr. Benen.

“It’s the kind of line that reinforces the worst possible fears about Mitt Romney’s entire candidacy – he doesn’t even care what he’s saying to voters right now, because it’ll all be thrown out the window in a few months anyway,” he writes.

Wow. Both left and right agree: The Etch A Sketch thing is deadly. So they must be right, right?

Well, only if the general election were, say, this week. That’s our theory, and we’re sticking with it.

Yes, small things can quickly become big things in today’s political news cycle, which moves at the speed of iPad apps. Make one small slip and the next thing you know, you’ve got a full-blown flap on your hands. Voters are prone to think that small things such as the Etch A Sketch comment provide them a window into the real life of candidates, writes Chris Cillizza in his The Fix blog at The Washington Post.

But what enters the news cycle can exit it just as fast, pushed out by the latest juicy gaffelet. Three words will illustrate our point: Santorum Satan speech. Remember when that was going to sink his candidacy? Oh ... right. He is now pretty far behind, but we’d argue that it wasn’t the speech per se that made him lose Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois after leading polls in all three states.

We’re big believers in the Feiler Faster theory, created some years ago by writer Bruce Feiler. It holds that the increasing pace of the news cycle is matched by the public’s ability to process and inculcate new bits of information. So the whole process is speeded up, including the getting-over-it part.

We agree with the eminent pundit Larry Sabato, political science professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

“The ‘Etch-A-Sketch’ incident is going in my next issue of ‘Feeding Frenzy’. Sound & fury signifying very little,” Mr. Sabato tweeted Thursday.

He also complained about the Etch A Sketch getting “dragged thru mud” in the whole affair.

“Big part of my childhood," he wrote on his Twitter account. "Proved to me I had no artistic talent.”

RECOMMENDED: Mitt Romney gaffes – 9 times the button-down candidate should have buttoned up

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Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at Superior Energy in Harvey, La., Wednesday, March 21. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

Rick Santorum has had a good run. Where does he go from here?

By Staff Writer / 03.21.12

The upset Rick Santorum was hoping for in Illinois didn't come; instead, he lost to Mr. Romney by more than 11 points.

At this point, it's hard to envision anyone but Mitt Romney getting the GOP presidential nomination.

Yes, Mr. Santorum has had a better run than anyone would have predicted even a few months ago. He appeals to conservative Republicans, Evangelicals, and those who really, really want an alternative to Romney.

But the math is not in his favor. In order to get the nomination, Santorum would need to win 69 percent of the remaining delegates – something which simply isn't going to happen.

His other hope – which he and his team have become more vocal about in recent days – is doing well enough to deny Romney the 1,144 delegates he needs, thereby delaying the decision until the August convention.

But that possibility is also incredibly slim, and would require a major screw-up by Romney. Currently, Romney only needs to win 46 percent of the remaining delegates to get to the magic number – not a high hurdle. The implosion of Newt Gingrich's campaign (he got just 8 percent of the vote in Illinois) hasn't helped Santorum the way some predicted, and might make it even harder to keep Romney from steadily amassing delegates.

Moreover, it's not something most Republicans want.

"Whatever slim chances that Mr. Santorum has would depend on going to the floor in Tampa," wrote New York Times polling expert Nate Silver on Wednesday, calling the nomination contest now "a one-man race." "As this becomes increasingly clear to voters, they may come to see their choice as being less one between Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum and more one between Mr. Romney and a brokered convention. Some of Mr. Santorum’s supporters may desert him once they view the race in those terms, making Mr. Romney’s path easier still."

Add to that Santorum's fundraising deficits: In the past month, his campaign reported raising $9 million to Romney's $12 million, and the Santorum campaign has $2.6 million in the bank compared with Romney's $7.3 million.

And yet, Santorum doesn't sound like he's planning to fold anytime soon.

Speaking to reporters after his thumping in Illinois Tuesday, Santorum refused to even acknowledge that he lost badly.

"It wasn't a tough night. We did very well," he said. "We picked up a lot of delegates tonight in a very tough state. Nobody had any expectations for us to win, and you know we did what we had to do."

He also put more pressure on Gingrich supporters to move over to him, saying, "it's very clear it’s a two-person race and now we need to get all the conservatives to line up behind us."

But if all of Gingrich's supporters had gone with Santorum in Illinois, the former Pennsylvania senator still would have lost.

Looking ahead, Santorum also doesn't get much help from the calendar.

Louisiana votes Saturday, and Santorum is expected to win there. But after that come a slew of Northern states where Romney is far better positioned. Of the states voting in April, Santorum has hope in Wisconsin, and in his home state of Pennsylvania, but that's about it.

So why stay in the race? Partly, it may have to do with denial – especially after such an unexpected Cinderella surge late in the campaign season. Or a wish to at least end on a good note, with a victory in Pennsylvania.

Santorum may also be hoping to garner more influence within the party, especially its growing conservative wing.

But expect increased calls, both publicly and behind the scenes, for Santorum to acknowledge what almost everyone else seems to have realized.

On CNN Tuesday, Piers Morgan asked Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom whether it was time for the other candidates to consider stepping down.

Mr. Fehrnstrom replied that he understands the "emotion and the hard work and the sweat that goes into a campaign" and what a personal decision it is to step down – but then made it clear he believes Romney's opponents are in denial.

"At some point the reality is going to set in that Mitt is the all-but-certain nominee," Fehrnstrom said. "I can tell you what Mitt Romney did four years ago when he found himself in the similar situation running against John McCain. After Super Tuesday, John McCain certainly didn’t have the delegates to become the nominee, but he was on track to get those delegates and Mitt Romney made the decision – and it was a difficult one – to step aside. And he stepped aside because he thought it was good for the country."

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Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves to the crowd during a victory rally in Schaumburg, Ill., after winning the Illinois Republican presidential primary, on March 20. (Steven Senne/AP)

Etch-A-Sketch: Can Mitt Romney shake off his aide's Mr. Potato Head gaffe? (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.21.12

Is Mitt Romney an Etch-A-Sketch candidate, one whose positions can be erased with a shake, ready for a new and different drawing?

That’s an analogy that’s getting a lot of discussion today in the Washington professional political class following a comment made by senior Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom on CNN. Asked whether conservatives Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich had pushed Mr. Romney so far to the right that he’ll have trouble with moderates in a general election, Mr. Fehrnstrom said that wouldn’t be a problem.

“Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart it all over again,” Fehrnstrom said.

That comment – which appears to imply that Romney can forget what he’s said and take new stands in the fall – came bouncing back to whack the Romney camp faster than a SuperBall pitched against a concrete wall. The Santorum campaign sent out an email alerting reporters to Fehrnstrom’s words, claiming they’re proof that Romney is a Massachusetts moderate.

“We all knew Mitt Romney didn’t have any core convictions, but we appreciate his staff going on national television to affirm that point for anyone who had any doubts,” said Santorum national communications director Hogan Gridley in a statement.

Gingrich piled on, adding via Twitter that “Etch-A-Sketch is a great toy but a losing strategy. We need a nominee w/bold conservative solutions.”

Democratic strategists gleefully retweeted these remarks, hoping to sow chaos in the GOP ranks, while the blogosphere resounded with Romney critics opining as to what other toys he has in his closet: My Little Phony, Gumby, a Hot Wheels Dog Carrier, and so forth.

Very funny. But will this incident hurt Romney, or simply launch a flotilla of bad jokes? We’re guessing the latter. It’ll be gone faster than you can erase a ... well, you know. Etch-A-Sketch references stop here. We promise.

Why? First of all, Romney’s had a pretty good week, in case you didn’t notice. He won the Illinois primary in a walk. Jeb Bush endorsed him, in essence saying to others in the GOP, “it’s time to end this now.”

In other words, Romney has pretty much won. All that’s left is for Santorum and Gingrich to realize that they’ve become zombie candidates. Fehrnstrom’s comments won’t help rivals who have already lost.

Second, Romney’s got a rebuttal: Fehrnstrom wasn’t talking about him. The aide was talking about the fall campaign.

That’s what Fehrnstrom himself now says. He’s emailed reporters an explanation, in which he says what he meant was “as we move from the primary to the general election, the campaign changes. It’s a different race, with different candidates, and the main issue now becomes President Obama’s failure to create jobs and get this economy moving.”

Third, even if Romney does, um, recalibrate some of his past positions, that’s what most of the punditocracy expects. So they won’t treat it as any big deal.

Liberal commentator Greg Sargent pointed this out today in his Plum Line blog at the Washington Post. A CNN panel of commentators following Fehrnstrom’s remarks took them matter-of-factly, as if they recognized business as usual, Mr. Sargent said.

“It seems likely that many commentators will forget all about Romney’s flirtation with far right positions and grant him the presumption of moderation the second he becomes the nominee,” writes Sargent.

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Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at the Hispanic Leadership Network's conference in January in Miami. Bush has endorsed Mitt Romney. (Wilfredo Lee/AP/File)

Jeb Bush endorsement adds to Mitt Romney aura of inevitability

By Staff writer / 03.21.12

After a somewhat rough month, things are finally coming together for Mitt Romney.

He won Illinois by a decisive margin. He is dominating in the delegate race, and would only need to win 46 percent of the remaining delegates to clinch the nomination.

And on Wednesday he added a key endorsement from a GOP bigwig who has held off on making a choice: Jeb Bush.

The popular former Florida governor – who some Republicans hoped might run himself in this election – issued a statement Wednesday giving Mr. Romney his support.

“Primary elections have been held in 34 states, and now is the time for Republicans to unite behind Governor Romney and take our message of fiscal conservatism and job creation to all voters this fall,” Mr. Bush said in the statement.

The endorsement was hardly a surprise – Romney has also been endorsed by former President George H.W. Bush and by former first lady Barbara Bush. And it's less a ringing personal endorsement of Romney than it is a plea for party unity.

But it is still good timing for Romney, coming off a big win in Illinois that many see as a turning point in the race. And it adds to the sense of inevitability that Romney will be the eventual nominee.

While Romney has always come across as the choice of the GOP establishment – and has earned far more endorsements than any other candidates in the race – some of the biggest names in Republican politics have held out on giving their blessing.

Bush's endorsement may signal more to come from other key Republican leaders – like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – whom party insiders had tried to draft to run themselves.

His rivals sought to downplay the endorsement, with R.C. Hammond, a spokesman for Newt Gingrich, calling it "just the completion of the establishment trifecta" – a reference to Romney's previous endorsements from Bob Dole and Jeb Bush's father.

But expect more key endorsements in the days and weeks to come, and increasing pressure – both public and behind the scenes – for Romney's remaining rivals to drop out of the race.

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses the Northern Virginia Technology Council in Reston, Va., last month. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Alarm bell for Mitt Romney? New poll shows Obama surge.

By Staff writer / 03.20.12

While the focus in the GOP primary battle Tuesday is all on Illinois – where polls point to Mitt Romney having a large lead over Rick Santorum – another poll released Tuesday has a less favorable message for Mr. Romney.

This one comes from Virginia. A new Quinnipiac poll of the state pitted Romney against President Obama in a hypothetical matchup – and has him losing badly.

The 50 to 42 percent lead that the poll gives Mr. Obama is the biggest margin yet over Romney in a key swing state that Quinnipiac has been polling regularly.

Moreover, having Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell as a hypothetical running mate doesn't help him much. In that matchup, Obama still wins, 50 to 43 percent.

Obama also beats the other remaining GOP candidates in the poll: 49 to 40 over Mr. Santorum; 54 to 35 over Newt Gingrich; and 49 to 39 over Ron Paul.

It's a hypothetical matchup in a single state, months before the general election. So, why does it matter?

For one thing, the poll points to momentum in the wrong direction in an important state. As recently as late December, Quinnipiac had Romney beating Obama, 44 to 42 percent.

Obama inched past Romney in the state for the first time this election cycle in February, when the Quinnipiac poll had him leading, 47 to 43 percent.

Now, that margin is getting wider. And the poll points to particular warning signs for Romney among women. Among Virginia women, the president leads 52 to 39 percent.

"The president's lead over Romney in Virginia is due mainly to his strong margin among women ... but he also wins 48 percent of men to Romney's 45 percent," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

Romney's status as GOP nominee is becoming more certain as the delegate math gets harder for Santorum. But Romney now needs to strike a fine balance: continuing to court conservative Republicans, whose votes he will need to sew up the nomination, without alienating the women, independent voters, and more moderate Republicans whose votes he will need in November.

There are also indications in the poll that Romney just isn't that well liked.

Obama's favorability rating – the percentages of voters that see him either favorably or unfavorably – was 51 to 44 percent. And he got the best job approval score he's received in almost a year in Virginia, with voters approving of the job he's doing 49 to 47 percent.

"These numbers don't constitute a mandate, but they are an improvement," Mr. Brown said.

Romney, on the other hand, gets a negative favorability rating, 36 to 43 percent. It's the first time since Quinnipiac began polling that question in October that Romney's favorability score has been negative, and it's not a good sign for the former Massachusetts governor.

Back in October, his favorability score was 38 to 29 percent.

In other words, Romney's performance so far – in what has been a bruising primary season – doesn't seem to have helped him among voters in a key state. Obama, meanwhile, is benefiting from the recovering economy. And polls like this underscore why Obama is choosing to focus on women as a major key to his reelection.

It's one poll in one state, nearly eight months before the election. But it shows warning signs that Romney will need to heed.

RECOMMENDED: Mitt Romney's top 5 attacks on President Obama

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In this 2011 file photo, actor Robert De Niro is seen in New York. De Niro opened a fundraiser starring Michelle Obama by listing her Republican rivals and jokingly suggesting that America isn't 'ready for a white first lady.' Newt Gingrich was not amused. And the Obama campaign says the actor's quip was inappropriate. (Jason DeCrow/AP/File)

Robert De Niro joke: Too soon for another 'white first lady'?

By Staff writer / 03.20.12

Actor Robert De Niro has just reinforced one of the truisms of a presidential campaign involving an African-American candidate: Just about any reference to race raises hackles.

Mr. De Niro hosted a fundraiser for President Obama with first lady Michelle Obama on Monday night in New York, and he kicked off his remarks with this quip: "Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?"

According to the pool report, the crowd roared and someone yelled "no!" as De Niro asked, "Too soon, right?"

Newt Gingrich didn’t appreciate the irony. The presidential contender and former House speaker called the comment “inexcusable” and demanded an apology from Mr. Obama, according to the Associated Press.

"I think that Robert De Niro's wrong," Mr. Gingrich said at a campaign stop in Shreveport, La., the AP reported. "The country is ready for a new first lady, and he doesn't have to describe it in racial terms."

Tuesday afternoon, a senior Gingrich adviser – African-American, female – also jumped in, arguing that if a conservative had made such a comment, the media would have objected.

"Racial comments and jokes degrade the political process,” said Kiron Skinner, a national co-chair of the Women With Newt Coalition, in a statement. “They have no place in this presidential campaign season. Robert DeNiro and other celebrities supporting President Barack Obama don’t seem to think so. At a star-studded fundraiser in New York City last night, the actor declared that it is too soon for a white first lady. The crowd approved. The media and many others would decry an equivalent comment by a conservative or a Republican supporter of a presidential candidate."

Dr. Skinner continued, "As a senior adviser in Speaker Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign and as an African American woman, I stand against comments like DeNiro’s."

Obama didn’t apologize, but a campaign spokeswoman called the joke “inappropriate,” according to the AP.

RECOMMENDED: How seven first ladies have changed the office

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Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney picks up Napoleon the dog as he campaigns in Lehigh Acres, Fla., in January. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Dog-owner-in-chief? New poll gives Obama a leg up on Mitt Romney.

By Staff writer / 03.20.12

By now, just about everybody on the planet has heard the story about how Mitt Romney once strapped his dog, Seamus, to the roof of the car – in a crate, of course – on a family vacation. And maybe, some have suggested, it’s time to put that story to rest.

But indulge us for one more day. Public Policy Polling (PPP) has surveyed the issue, and got an extraordinary result: Seven percent of the American public say the dog-on-car-roof story makes them more likely to vote for Mr. Romney, and a stunning 14 percent say this is a “humane” way to transport a dog.

Yes, that's what they said.

The PPP poll also sheds light on who Americans think would be a better president for dogs. Mr. Obama beat Romney 37 percent to 21 percent. The rest aren’t sure.

This is a relevant question, since Team Obama has been trying for months to win the Doggie Primary. In January, campaign adviser David Axelrod tweeted a picture of Obama with his Portuguese water dog, Bo, inside “the Beast,” his luxurious presidential limo. The caption: “How loving owners transport their dogs.”

When the question is framed simply as, “Who treats dogs better?” – before the issue of Seamus strapped to the roof is mentioned – Obama beats Romney by an even wider margin.

To the question “Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Barack Obama’s treatment of dogs?” 44 percent said favorable and 14 percent said unfavorable.

For Romney, it’s 20 percent favorable, 29 percent unfavorable.

Not a good area for a presidential candidate to be “under water.” Or maybe we should say, in the doghouse.

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