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First thoughts: Paterson's pick

 From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Paterson's pick: At noon ET, New York Gov. David Paterson will finally put an end to what has become the nation's second-best appointment drama -- the best, of course, was the Blago/Burris story -- when he's announces his pick to fill Hillary Clinton's Senate seat. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports that, according to several sources, Paterson has chosen two-term Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand. Gillibrand and her husband were planning to fly to Albany for an 11:00 am meeting at the governor's mansion, followed by the noon public announcement. Paterson, Mitchell adds, has told people he wants to appoint a woman to replace Hillary Clinton, and he likes the idea of having a senator from Upstate New York, which now isn't represented among statewide officeholders.

Video: In a surprising move, Caroline Kennedy withdrew her name from the shortlist to fill Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, citing "personal reasons."  NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

*** Turning safe seats into competitive ones: Looking ahead to 2010, you could argue -- at this very early stage -- that the appointments to fill the vacant Democratic Senate seats haven't helped the party's midterm prospects, despite what looks like a favorable map for the Democrats. In Illinois, Roland Burris is tainted by the Blago affair, and you're certain to see a Democratic primary, even if he decides to run for a full term. In Colorado, no one really knows what they're getting in Michael Bennet, who was sworn in to the Senate yesterday; as one Republican strategist told First Read, Bennet could be great statewide candidate or he could be a disaster. The same holds true for Gillibrand, who won her congressional seat in 2006 due in large part to the Democratic wave and a last-minute news report alleging that the wife of her Republican opponent (the incumbent Rep. John Sweeney) had called police to complain that he was "knocking her around." Can she raise the money needed to hold on to the Senate seat? (Remember, she will not only have to run in 2010, but also in 2012, when Clinton's term is up.) Can she avoid a Democratic primary? (It doesn't look like it. The New York Times reports that Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy says she is prepared to run against Gillibrand due to Gillibrand's pro-gun views.) Also, by picking Gillibrand, has Paterson given Republicans an opportunity to pick up her Upstate congressional seat? (It isn't a safe Democratic seat by any means.) In fact, the special election to fill Gillibrand's term will be an early test for Obama and for the NRCC. This isn't the ideal situation for the Democratic Party. Caroline Kennedy, politically, solved a lot more problems for the Dems in New York than Paterson or Cuomo or others realized.

*** The economy returns to the spotlight: At 9:45 am, President Obama will host the bipartisan, bicameral leadership of Congress (Pelosi, Hoyer, Clyburn, Boehner, Cantor, Reid, Durbin, McConnell, Kyl) to discuss Congress' legislative agenda, including the stimulus.

Indeed, this meeting means that the economy will be back as the center of Obama's public agenda. Speaking of, the Washington Post notes GOP resistance to Obama's stimulus package is growing. Our question: Does it matter? Remember, Obama has big advantages and can get what he wants passed with just Dem support. What price is bipartisanship for Obama? Answer that and you'll have a good idea of the cost of the stimulus once it makes it out of Congress. After the bipartisan meeting at the White House, Obama meets with members of his National Security Council, has lunch with Biden, holds a budget meeting, and then meets with Treasury Secretary-designate Tim Geithner, whose nomination yesterday passed the Senate Finance Committee, 18-5, but who won't be confirmed by the full Senate today.

*** Finding middle ground: Who knew that on the issue of GITMO and interrogations that somehow Obama could find middle ground? But he did just that. On the surface, Obama kept a campaign promise, by shutting down the prison at Guantanamo Bay. But he didn't back himself into a corner when it comes to housing terrorist suspects, either for the purposes of interrogating them or housing them without putting them in the court system.The left seems happy with the decision, and while some conservatives are critical of the decision to shut GITMO (because of the worry of moving terrorist suspects to a prison in THEIR backyard, say San Diego, South Carolina or Kansas), the more they read the fine print, the more they'll see that nothing's been ruled out. Obama simply punted the decision on what to do with detainees. There are a few key loopholes. One, detainees could be turned over to allies that have a less than stellar interrogation policy (Saudi Arabia?) Two, the special commission Obama has created can come up with an alternative interrogation "protocol" for intelligence purposes. (Does that mean something OUTSIDE the Army field manual is possible? White House Counsel Greg Craig did not completely shut the door on that possibility.) Three, Craig also indicated that the president is aware that there may be a category of detainees who can't be tried in our court systems nor returned to another country. So as one Republican consultant told First Read, did Obama close GITMO or simply pledge to move it?

Video: The Senate Finance Committee approves the nomination of Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary. MSNBC's David Schuster reports.

*** Cabinet slowdown: OK, we're now in Day 3 or Day 4 (depending if you're counting full days) of this new administration, and it appears it may be a while until the cabinet is fully in place. Right now, Obama has 10 of his 15 cabinet picks filled. Holder, Geithner, and Daschle are all being slowed down a tad in their confirmation processes. Remember, these aren't small jobs, as all are being asked to handle very large portfolios. And then there's the fact that Obama hasn't even named a replacement Commerce secretary yet. Considering how efficient the transition was, it has to be frustrating for this new White House that with all the advantages they have in the Senate, they are struggling to get their nominees in place.

*** Gibbs meets the press: Robert Gibbs' opening act as White House press secretary appears to have come and gone without any major issues. Perhaps his only flub was putting the White House counsel's ON BACKGROUND briefing on the GITMO and interrogation executive orders ON THE RECOCRD. Of course, many in the press didn't understand why Greg Craig's briefing was on background in the first place. Overall, Gibbs came armed with a message to push -- the announcement of the president's daily economic briefing, modeled after the PDB, the daily threat/intelligence briefing he receives -- and he saved the Blackberry nugget (trust us, plenty of reporters had been asking this question behind the scenes) for the press briefing, knowing how it would be news catnip.

*** Abortion politics: By holding off a day signing the executive order on the abortion gag rule -- i.e., not doing it on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade -- the Obama folks are once again trying to win over evangelicals. The move also underscores the fact that Obama has yet to get a single bit of criticism from the pro-choice community on this decision, as well as on his pick of the pro-life Tim Kaine to head the DNC. It's really a sea change in the Democratic Party. There is no way that both of these deals would have been tolerated by the party 10 years ago.

*** McConnell's speech: Also, today Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell will speak to the National Press Club at 1:00 pm. McConnell's office says it will be the first major speech by a GOP leader since Obama's inauguration. And according to Politico, McConnell "will call on both major political parties to stand up to the powerful interest groups that sometimes control them." Early on, McConnell has allowed his House GOP counterpart, John Boehner, to be the leading voice of the loyal opposition. Perhaps McConnell wants to signal that he wants to be the face of the opposition with this speech.

*** Mac is back: The Washington Post front-pages how Washington's maverick -- John McCain -- is back in business.

Here's the paper's fun lead: "A joke made its way around the Capitol yesterday: How do you know the 2008 election is really over? Because John McCain is causing trouble for Republicans again. Two and a half months removed from his defeat in the race for the presidency, colleagues say, McCain bears more resemblance to the unpredictable and frequently bipartisan lawmaker they have served with for decades than the man who ran an often scathing campaign against Barack Obama. In some instances, he's even carrying water for his former rival."

*** Keeping up with the Joneses -- er, the Obamas: In our third installment looking at challenges for the GOP, we turn our attention today to something that once was a Republican strength, but is no longer: money. In his two years of campaigning for president, Obama raised three-quarters of a billion dollars -- much of it over the Internet -- from about four million donors, which comes to less than $200 per donor. To put Obama's haul into perspective, it is more than the combined amount Bush and Kerry had at their disposal in 2003-4 ($695 million), according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. By comparison, McCain raised $367 million in the 2008 presidential cycle, which includes the $84 million he received in public funds. Even when you add the $417 million the Republican National Committee raised, that total ($784 million) trails the combined Obama-DNC haul (almost $1 billion). To win in 2012, the Republican Party and the next GOP presidential nominee will need to find ways to compete with the Obama fundraising juggernaut, and they'll have to do it without a sitting Republican president to help raise money.

Countdown to RNC winter meeting: 5 days
Countdown to NJ GOP primary: 130 days
Countdown to VA Dem primary: 137 days
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 284 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 648 days

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