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First thoughts: Another punch in the gut

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Carrie Dann
*** Another punch in the gut: For the GOP, yesterday must have felt like déjà vu all over again. The guilty verdict in Sen. Ted Stevens' trial -- just one week before Election Day -- was yet another stomach-punch to the GOP, and it was reminiscent of how things went for the GOP in late 2006, when everything seemed to go wrong. The first sitting senator in nearly 30 years to be convicted just so happens to be a Republican. And with everything else seeming to go wrong for the party right now, the Stevens news is like kicking a wounded dog; it just further tarnishes the GOP brand.

Video:  U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is vowing to appeal his conviction on all counts for failing to report valuable gifts and favors. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

By the way, it's worth pointing out the two very different statements that Alaska's other top Republican politicians -- Sarah Palin and Sen. Lisa Murkowski -- released yesterday regarding the Stevens verdict. Palin called on Stevens "to do the right thing," saying: "The verdict shines a light though on the corrupting influence of the big oil service company up there in Alaska that was allowed to control too much of our state. And that control was part of the culture of corruption that I was elected to fight." On the other hand, Murkowski stood by Stevens. "Sen. Stevens has announced that he will appeal the verdict. I look forward to having justice served. Ted has asked for Alaskans and his Senate colleagues to stand with him as he pursues his legal rights. He stood with Alaskans for 40 years, and I plan to continue to stand with him." Just curious: Has Palin voted? If not, who will she vote for in the Senate race? And is she supporting Don Young in the House race?

*** End of an era: Stevens' guilty verdict not only all but ended the career of the Senate's longest-serving Republican; it also signaled the end of an era for Senate Republicans. Think about it -- next year, we could see a Senate where there is no Trent Lott (already retired), Pete Domenici (retiring), John Warner (retiring), Stevens (who will most likely lose next week), and possibly Mitch McConnell (who's in the fight of his political life down in Kentucky). And nevermind the possibility that the GOP Senate caucus won't have a Dole, either. That is A LOT of Republican seniority and institutional knowledge that will/might not be there when the next Congress reconvenes. Of course, it also opens the door for a new generation of GOP senators. Thune? Corker? Burr? DeMint? Kyl? The last time we saw this kind of seniority sea change in the Senate was in 1980, when the Democrats lost lions like Bayh, Church, Culver, and McGovern.

*** (Big) Sky's the limit? A new round of NBC/Mason-Dixon polls shows Obama leading by 11 points in New Hampshire (50%-39%), Obama and McCain tied in North Carolina (47%-47%), and McCain only up four in Montana (48%-44%). This Montana poll, in fact, comes just as we've learned that the Republican National Committee's independent expenditure arm will begin advertising there tomorrow. That's right, folks -- Montana is still in play, and the race there could even be closer than the poll suggests when 1) popular Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) is at the top of the ticket; 2) Sen. Max Baucus (D) is cruising to re-election; and 3) the state GOP there is in a mess.

*** Speaking of the map: While there is going to be a lot of deserved focus on Obama's ability to add to new states to the battleground, it is noteworthy that in this last week, one state is first among equals in the campaign's focus -- and that's an old reliable battleground state: Florida. The Obama campaign is flooding the state with candidate and surrogate visits. The first Obama-Bill Clinton event is set for tomorrow in Florida (and that follows an Obama-Hillary Clinton event in Florida last week). Joe Biden was there yesterday; Obama will be there for two days this week; Caroline Kennedy was there yesterday. It's clearly the state the Obama campaign sees as the McCain backbreaker. The electoral map message an Obama victory in Florida would send shivers down Republican spines. The Democrats already have a big state advantage with CA, NY, IL, PA, MI, and NJ. Add FL and what big states do the Republicans have left to count on besides TX? Republicans better hope this is a one-time phenomenon. But over the last decade, the trend has been in favor of the Democrats in the growth states. That's a flip from the decade before, when it was the GOP that was showing strength in the growth states.

*** The night the lights went out in Georgia? With seven days until Election Day, we're going to profile a Senate race a day that you should keep your eye on. Today's installment: Georgia. The fact that Democrats are daring to covet the seat once held by war veteran Max Cleland (D) and venerated nuke czar Sam Nunn (D) speaks volumes about how the political environment has changed since Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) unseated Cleland in 2002. The DSCC recently started pumping major dollars into the race, hoping to propel former state Rep. Jim Martin to a once-fantastical victory over the well-funded Chambliss. Most of the movement in the race's slowly-but-surely closing poll numbers has more to do with anti-Bush sentiment and anxiety over the economy than with any action by either campaign. Still, Democrats relish the idea of a knife-fight with Chambliss, who successfully ousted Cleland, a triple amputee, by airing ads that slammed his Senate voting record as weak on national security. A recent NBC/Mason-Dixon poll had Chambliss up six points, 45%-39%.

*** Georgia on our minds: If Martin wins, he'll have Obama to thank because the surge in African-American turnout is clearly benefiting the Democrat. By the way, Georgia could be the state that is the final race called in the country. Why? The state has that quirky runoff law, and a third-party candidate in the race might hold one of the major party candidates under 50%. The last time Georgia hosted a Senate runoff was the last time the country elected a new Democratic president: 1992, when the election of Clinton ended up helping the Republicans pull the Senate upset (Paul Coverdell defeated Wyche Fowler). This time, however, Republicans fear that an Obama victory will only energize African Americans in the runoff and make Chambliss' path to victory even more difficult.

*** Taking the (ballot) initiative: We're also going to take a look at some of the more interesting ballot propositions. Today's focus: the definition of "personhood" in Colorado. Voters there will be asked whether or not the "personhood" of a human being begins at the moment of fertilization. Backers insist that the measure is not intended to spur an unraveling of abortion rights, while opponents say that granting an embryo constitutional rights is a radical move that would knock individual and states rights down in a legal Domino effect. But despite a lot of buzz, opponents of Amendment 48 aren't sweating too much; polling shows that the state's voters will vote no, perhaps by as much as a 2-1 ratio.

*** Fun fact of the day: With Montana in the news today, it's worth noting that only twice since 1948 has a Democrat won the state -- in 1964 (when only six states voted against LBJ) and 1992 (when Ross Perot got 26% of the vote and Bill Clinton wound up beating George H.W. Bush 38%-35%). Kerry got 39% of the vote in Montana in 2004.

*** On the trail: McCain and Palin, in Pennsylvania, attend joint rallies in Hershey and Quakertown before heading on separate paths -- McCain to Fayetteville, NC and Palin to Shippensburg, PA. Obama stumps in Chester, PA, Harrisonburg, VA, and Norfolk, VA. Biden, in Florida, hits rallies in Ocala and Melbourne. Michelle Obama holds a rally in Las Vegas, NM. And Hillary Clinton campaigns for Obama in New Hampshire. 

Countdown to Election Day 2008: 7 days
Countdown to Electoral Vote Count: 72 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 84 days
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