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First Glance

From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
Everywhere you look, there's jockeying to fill the leadership void in the Republican party created by a lame-duck President, the lack of an anointed frontrunner for the party's next presidential nod, an outgoing national party chair, and divisions in the party's ranks on Capitol Hill.

On the heels of rival John McCain's announcement that he'll create a presidential exploratory committee, Rudy Giuliani let loose the news that he already has, leaving the political world to debate whether there's enough room in the field for both maverick Republicans, each of whom has his own seemingly unimpeachable battle credentials.  As McCain said on Meet the Press, Giuliani's team says he hasn't made up his mind yet, but is taking the necessary steps in case he does decide to run.

The Republican National Committee is getting a new general chair for the presidential cycle in Sen. Mel Martinez, who will be formally elected -- along with a day-to-day chair -- at the RNC's meeting in January.  The exit polls from last Tuesday showed Hispanics voting for Democrats over Republicans by 69%-30%, a loss of ground for Republicans from 2004, when President Bush got more than 40% of the Hispanic vote.  Martinez supports Bush's proposed guest-worker plan and path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, which split the party in 2006.  He also may cause the party a problem over of his sharply anti-gay attacks on his primary opponent in 2004.

Senate Republicans, for their part, might elect Trent Lott Minority Whip tomorrow, elevating him to just one step below his previous post of Leader.  NBC's Ken Strickland reports that per a source close to Lott, "We are closing in on victory."  He's running against one-term Sen. Lamar Alexander, who only recently seemed to have secured enough commitments from his colleagues to lock in the job.  But now, all bets are off.  Strickland reports that McCain has been quietly making calls on Lott's behalf.  Even before Lott's campaign went public, a few Senate Republicans had privately endorsed him.  Acknowledging that he carries political and personal baggage, particularly over his comments at Strom Thurmond's birthday celebration, some of these colleagues say his leadership abilities are desperately needed.

By contrast, Mitch McConnell is expected to go unchallenged in his bid for Senate Minority Leader tomorrow.  McConnell possesses the same backroom skills as Democrat Harry Reid, who's expected to be elected Majority Leader today. 

None of which is to suggest that Democrats don't have their own issues as they assemble their leadership.  Incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi's decision to back Rep. John Murtha for Majority Leader over current number two Steny Hoyer has produced a stumbling block out of nowhere in the party's otherwise smooth ride to the majority so far.  The one question reporters had for incoming Democratic freshmen yesterday, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports, was about their preference in that race.  An informal poll of about six did not find one vote for Murtha.  The election will be held on Thursday.

MSNBC's Tom Curry reports that in an elevator yesterday afternoon, reporters asked Murtha whether his ethical baggage -- starting with ABSCAM -- would make him the wrong Leader at this point.  His reply: "Wait 'til you see the ethics package we'll pass and I'll support."  But he didn't support the last ethics package, said one reporter.  "But you'll see me support the next one.  Wait 'til you see the ethics package: no meals, no trips, no nothing."

Strickland also reports that Armed Services hearings on the current situation in Iraq will be the highlight of the Senate's work for the rest of the week.  Tomorrow, the committee will hear from General Abizaid and CIA Director Hayden.  As the first hearing on Iraq since the election (though it was scheduled before election day), and with high-profile members participating, including a handful of potential presidential candidates, the session is guaranteed to create some interesting moments.  Incoming chair Carl Levin said at a press conference yesterday that his first priority will be to put "pressure on the White House to commence the phased redeployment of US troops in four to six months." 

Levin also said he recently talked with a "key Republican" he says would be interested in finding a bipartisan resolution on Iraq, Strickland reports.  "There are a number of Republicans who want to change course and to do so in a way which will send a message to the Iraqis that this is there responsibility and we cannot save them from themselves," Levin said.