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First thoughts: The big, fat O

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** The big, fat O: Despite Obama traveling to Capitol Hill to meet with them in private, despite including one of their former members (Ray LaHood) in his cabinet, and despite inviting their leaders over for cocktails last night at the White House, not a single House Republican voted for the stimulus package, which cleared the House yesterday by a 244-188 vote. Predicting that GOP outcome before the vote, the Washington Post notes, House Republican Leader John Boehner put his finger and thumb together to signal the big, fat "O" -- zero. House GOP leaders seemed to go out of their way to make sure reporters knew the message they were sending was directed at Speaker Pelosi, not the president. (As one snarkily noted to First Read, the president met with House Republicans on the stimulus bill more times than Pelosi did.) But how closely does the American public follow congressional politics? Won't this look like they are snubbing a president who just days ago reached out to them? Republicans are taking a risk by looking so defiant, especially if this package ends up working. The last thing Republicans need is another "O" -- obstructionist" -- being tagged to them.

*** Another Obama olive branch: That said, in his statement last night, Obama said that he wants "to strengthen" the stimulus plan before it gets to his desk. It was an interesting word choice and yet another olive branch to House Republicans. (And get this -- Obama didn't include the words "Democrat" or "Democratic" in his statement.) There are a number of Democrats scratching their heads at the House GOP goose egg; we even learned that LaHood was calling his fellow House Republicans asking for them to support the legislation. After all, the president has a 70% job approval rating and the package itself has the support of a majority of Americans, who in general appear to believe they want government to do something -- rather than nothing -- when it comes to the economy. Interestingly, the president may have his own issues to deal with in his own party. The more defiant Democrats are thinking, "I told you so," when it comes his GOP outreach efforts. In addition, we've been hearing chatter from congressional Democrats that they'd like the president to act as concerned about winning their support as he acts when it comes to the Republicans. Meanwhile, a coalition of liberal groups is launching a new ad campaign that urges moderate Republican senators to support the economic stimulus.

*** The state of the GOP: Given last night's House Republican vote, as well as tomorrow's RNC chair contest and even the recent GOP fealty to Rush Limbaugh, it's worth pointing out that the Republican Party is about as unpopular now as the president who just left office. In addition to December's NBC/WSJ poll, which showed that only 27% of the country viewed the GOP favorably (versus 49% who said that about the Dem Party), a new Gallup analysis of the 350,000 interviews it conducted in 2008 finds the Democratic Party leading in every state in the nation except in Alabama, Kansas, Nebraska, Alaska, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah. (That's right, even in some states McCain carried like Texas and Georgia, voters identify more with the Dem Party than the GOP.) Gallup summed up it up this way: "The political landscape of the United States has clearly shifted in the Democratic direction… As recently as 2002, a majority of states were Republican in orientation. By 2005, movement in the Democratic direction was becoming apparent, and this continued in 2006. That dramatic turnaround is clearly an outgrowth of Americans' dissatisfaction with the way the Republicans (in particular, President George W. Bush) governed the country."

*** (Don't) run away, run away from the pain: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will talk about this very topic -- the Republican Party's political standing -- when he gives the keynote address at 2:30 pm ET today at the RNC winter meeting. "The first task, in my view, is to find the voters who've left the party," McConnell is expected to say, according to excerpts his office emailed First Read. "As we do this, the temptation for some will be to run from our principles or to dilute our message. I think that's a temptation we need to resist. These people were Republican for a reason. You don't get them back by pretending to be something else. And you certainly don't gain voters by running away from the ones that are most loyal."

*** RNC chair count: Our latest numbers on the RNC chair race that takes place tomorrow: Duncan 44, Steele 30, Dawson 18, Blackwell and Anuzis 16 each, Saltsman 1, Undecided/Not Reached 43. The Web site, YourRNC.com, which also has been tracking this race, updated its numbers as well: Duncan 36, Dawson 20, Steele 18, Anuzis 17, Blackwell 13, Saltsman 0. (Per a list provided by the Steele campaign, it claims 18 publicly pledged, but 12 others private for our total of 30.) In a conference call yesterday, the Duncan team boldly proclaimed, per NBC's Claire Luke, "We expect it to be a very interesting day on Friday, but no matter how many ballots it goes to, we expect Duncan to be the winner." Interestingly, the debate over the president's stimulus package is coming in the same week as the party's chairman race. And the GOP has been going through an identity crisis of sorts. Is it a low-tax, low-spending, less-government, personal responsibility party? Well, it's what many in the House GOP caucus want to be but that isn't what the party has been these last six years and while the base of the GOP may be responding to this new redefining of what the party wants to be, is it believable to the vast middle of the electorate who shifted toward the Democrats in droves over the last two years and

*** Blago's last day as governor? After saying that he wouldn't testify at his impeachment trial, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) will now make an appearance after all, when he delivers a closing argument of sorts at the trial at noon ET. And those could very well be his final words as governor. After his remarks, the state Senate will vote to remove him from office. To do that will require a vote from 41 out of the state's 59 senators, and it if happens Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn (D) will become the state's 41st governor.

*** Obama's day: Obama today will sign his first bill into law -- the Lilly Ledbetter bill, which eliminates the statute of limitations when women and others can sue for workplace discrimination. After that, Obama will stop by a reception (which is closed to the press) where Ledbetter and Michelle Obama will speak. Later today, Obama and Biden will meet in the Oval Office with Treasury Secretary Geithner, and then Obama will hold another Oval Office meeting with Secretary of State Clinton. Also today, the House GOP caucus begins its annual retreat in Hot Springs, VA.

Countdown to NJ GOP primary: 124 days
Countdown to VA Dem primary: 131 days
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 278 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 642 days

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