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First thoughts: Ready, set, vote

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Ready, set, vote: With the House set to vote tonight on the economic stimulus -- and with the Senate expected to consider the legislation next week; it's already passed some key committees -- President Obama speaks yet again on the economy at 11:15 am ET, after meeting with business leaders at the White House. He also heads to the Pentagon in the afternoon to continue talks about how to wind down the war in Iraq. As for the president's goals yesterday, Tuesday's meetings were less about gaining support for the stimulus package, and more about garnering good will for future, tougher votes -- believe it or not, possibly for more bailouts. What was probably most striking were the different agendas each Republican caucus had with the president. House Republicans wanted to talk about the actual stimulus package. Senate Republicans wanted to talk about the bigger problems with the economy. In fact, according to two senators in the room Tuesday, the president wouldn't dissuade those who kept asking if more money was going to be needed to solve American's financial crisis. Meanwhile, a new plan going forward on saving banks and dealing with home foreclosures could come out of the Treasury Department next week, including an idea that includes creating a so-called "bad bank," a government entity that buys up bad assets. Also, Al Gore testifies this morning before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he will endorse Obama's economic recovery plan, as well as talk about climate change and the need to move forward THIS YEAR on cap-and-trade, rather than using the economic crisis as an excuse to put it off.

Video: The House will vote on Obama's stimulus package; meanwhile, there is some opposition to the $825 billion price tag.

*** Palin and Limbaugh: One of the things Republicans did very effectively during their 24-year run from '80 to '04 was define who the opposition was, whether it was raising the profile of a Michael Moore or a Jesse Jackson or someone from the most liberal or divisive wing of the Democratic Party (see Ted Kennedy or Hillary Clinton). Well, it appears Democrats in general, and President Obama specifically, seems to enjoy propping up two of the more divisive figures in the Republican Party, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. The more attention a Palin or a Limbaugh gets right now, the harder it will be for the Republican Party to pitch itself as a Big Tent party again. This is a dangerous period for the GOP, the party is, well, without definition. Is it a less-government, low-tax, fiscally responsible party? It's hard to make that case after the last decade of governing. Because it's hard to define the GOP on issues right now, it becomes easier for the Democrats to paint the GOP with the brush of a personality like Limbaugh and Palin.

Video: MSNBC's Pat Buchanan and radio talk show host Heidi Harris debate whether Rush Limbaugh is running the GOP.

*** Good news and bad news for Duncan: The RNC's winter meeting begins today, and the contest for RNC chairman takes place on Friday. With that contest just two days away, a First Read survey of the RNC's 168 voting members -- conducted by NBC's Claire Luke and Jade Taenzler -- finds current chairman Mike Duncan leading the field of six candidates. But Duncan, who was appointed by George W. Bush, is still well short of the needed 85 votes (50% plus one vote) to be named chairman, with some RNC members seeing him as too tied to Bush, as today's Washington Post reports. Duncan starts with a solid advantage with 44 committed supporters saying they prefer to keep him in charge. The next closest is former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele with 20. South Carolina party chairman Katon Dawson is a close third with 18; former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is next with 16; Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis is at 15; and former Huckabee campaign manager Chip Saltsman rounds out the group with just one person supporting him. While Duncan is leading the pack, almost as many (43) as have said they're voting for him have said they're undecided. One RNC member said he/she is choosing between Duncan and Steele. First Read was unable to reach 10 members during the survey, which was conducted by phone and email over the past two weeks.

*** What about second choice? We also surveyed second-choice preferences, but the vast majority would not commit, either publicly or privately, or said they were undecided. A statistically insignificant number expressed a preference -- three for Anuzis, two for Blackwell, two for Steele, one for Dawson, one for either Steele or Blackwell and one for either Duncan or Anuzis. One thing to keep in mind when it comes to Duncan's support is how solid it is in a second round of voting. Will he experience drop-off in a second round or does the fact that he's leading in various surveys mean he'll solidify these folks? Duncan doesn't strike us as someone who is the LAST choice of RNC members and that could be the key to victory for him. Everyone else in this field has some baggage that seems difficult to overcome and, barring, a superstar alternative, Duncan may find himself as the last man standing.

*** Here come the 2010 ads: In what appears to be the first TV ad of the 2010 Senate cycle -- with that election 643 days from now! -- the National Republican Senatorial Committee announced today it is airing a spot on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. As we've mentioned before, Reid very well may be the most endangered Democrat in 2010 (not counting, of course, those controversial appointees in Illinois and New York or the appointees in Colorado and Delaware). The ad, which begins running this week in Reid's state of Nevada, blasts the Democratic leader on the original financial bailout (which several Republicans supported), as well as on the stimulus. "Super spending partisan Harry Reid," the ad goes. "As Democrat leader, he helped pay for vicious attack ads criticizing last year's bailouts. But guess who voted for the $700 billion bailout. You guessed it -- Harry Reid. And now he wants a trillion more dollars in new spending? A trillion dollars?? Tell Harry Reid to stop wasting our hard-earned money." By the way, if Reid goes down or comes close and has the party spending millions to save him, will it permanently spook Senate Democrats from ever electing another red-state or swing-state senator as party leader? 

*** Divide and conquer? Speaking of Democratic leaders, are House Republicans trying to drive a wedge between Nancy Pelosi and President Obama? Indiana Rep. Mike Pence (R) appeared to be at it on Hardball yesterday, having nothing but praise for the president after their meeting on the Hill. He softly called him "very sincere" in his call to bipartisanship, but stressed that Obama was likely "surprised" to see that House Democrats aren't following in his call. He lamented that Republicans have had no input into the stimulus. The White House, for its part, seems to relish the role of mediator. It's exactly where they want to be. The question is, of course, how long will Speaker Pelosi put up with the idea that Republicans have the president to whine to when they are not getting their way?

Countdown to NJ GOP primary: 125 days
Countdown to VA Dem primary: 132 days
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 279 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 643 days

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