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First thoughts: Take me to your leader

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Take me to your leader: The self-help saying, "Today is the first day of the rest of my life," could very well apply to the Republican Party today as it meets in DC to elect a new chairman after its stinging political defeats in 2006 and 2008. There are five candidates: current chairman Mike Duncan of Kentucky, Michigan party chair Saul Anuzis, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, South Carolina party chair Katon Dawson and former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele. (A sixth candidate, former Huckabee campaign manager Chip Saltsman, who distributed the CD with "Barack the Magic Negro" on it, withdrew from the race yesterday.) The vote offers several mini-themes. There's the referendum on the incumbent Duncan (the vote will likely turn into a race between Duncan and an anti-Duncan choice). There are the candidates' regional differences (Anuzis and Steele are from reliable Dem states; Dawson and Duncan are from solid GOP ones). There's ideology (Blackwell and Dawson are the most conservative candidates; Steele is perhaps the most moderate). There's race (Blackwell and Steele are black; Dawson once belonged to a whites-only country club; "Barack the Magic Negro"). And then there's the members-only angle (Duncan, Anuzis, and Dawson are RNC members; Blackwell and Steele are outsiders). In fact, that final point could very well swing the election in the second and third rounds of balloting. If Anuzis and/or Dawson drop out, do their supporters bolt to the outsider Steele? Or do they back Duncan, the man they've worked with for quite some time?   

*** Status quo you can believe in? Just askin', but what kind of message would the GOP be sending after its 2008 losses by keeping Mitch McConnell as Senate leader, keeping John Boehner as House leader and keeping Mike Duncan as RNC chair? If that all happens, it's an odd message to send to the party and American voters. Not much change…

*** The mechanics of the vote: The 168 RNC members convene at 10:30 am ET, and here's what follows: They conduct a head count (determining how many members and proxies are in attendance); they determine how the vote is conducted (it's expected to be by secret ballot); they give nominating and seconding speeches; and finally they begin the balloting. To win, a candidate needs a simple majority (so 85 votes out of the 168). There is no cut-off threshold. For example, if Blackwell finishes last in the first round of voting, he isn't forced out of the contest -- so it's anyone's guess how many round of ballots there will be. Also, the results from each round of voting will be announced publicly. As of Thursday, First Read's survey of the 168 RNC members had Duncan with 44 first-vote supporters, Steele with 30, Dawson at 18, Blackwell and Anuzis at 16 each and Saltsman (who has since dropped out) at 1.

*** A tough sell becomes tougher: Obama yesterday channeled his inner-populist, chastising Wall Street executives for taking billions in bonus money, even as many of these firms were begging the government for bailout money. The move may have been calculated as the president and his economic team prepare for the likelihood that they'll be asking for BILLIONS more in bailout money to rescue many of these same financial firms. Convincing Congress to hand more bailout money to banks was going to be hard enough before yesterday. Now that the general public becomes even more sour on these Wall Street executives, it may prove even more difficult to convince members of Congress who will be hearing from many angry constituents. Also, expect two things next week in response to yesterday's news: (1) Congress to drag executives in front the public and attempt to shame them into giving back some of these bonuses, and (2) the administration to write regulations preventing bonuses in the future for firms who take government money. It's going to be tough to legally yank bonus money away now, but putting restrictions on future bonus money is very possible.

*** The race to 60: The Judd-Gregg-for-Commerce-Secretary story is very real. Senate Republicans are upset that he hasn't put the story to bed. So clearly he's pondering. One sticking point is that New Hampshire has a Dem governor, John Lynch, and that could give Democrats 60 seats if Gregg leaves and Al Franken eventually wins. One idea floating out there is a deal between Obama/Gregg and Lynch to appoint a caretaker Republican (perhaps ex-Sen. Warren Rudman?). Even if he doesn't take the job, Gregg is certainly sending the signal that he doesn't want to run in 2010. That is a terrible sign for the Senate GOP. Another retirement makes the idea of netting a single seat in 2010 nearly impossible. This likely outcome in 2010 actually could mean Lynch and Obama are open to a deal that keeps a Republican in the seat until November 2010, since getting that 60th Senate seat in the coming years seems probable.

*** Gone, Blago, gone: So you say there is no bipartisanship in politics? Well, in a unanimous 59-0 vote yesterday, Democratic and Republican state senators in Illinois convicted Rod Blagojevich in his impeachment trial, making Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn the state's top executive. Is the nightmare for Democrats over? Not quite.

First, there's Blago's eventual trial, which will produce plenty of news stories (both in Illinois and nationally). And second, there's 2010, when Roland Burris and likely a host of other Democratic and Republican candidates will be running for Obama's old Senate seat. Burris released this written statement yesterday: "I stand behind the Illinois State Senate's decision today to remove Gov. Blagojevich from office. As I've repeatedly stated, the governor must be held accountable for his actions to the legislature, in a court of law and to the people of the State of Illinois." But it's going to take more than a statement to wash away Blago's fingerprints on Burris' appointment, if he decides to run in 2010.

*** Pallin' around with Obama: Remember this Palin line from the presidential campaign? "Our opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country." Well, on Saturday night, Palin will be in DC for the Alfalfa Dinner, where Obama will also be in attendance. Her reason for coming to the Lower 48? To pal around with Obama, she said. "How often will I get an opportunity to have dinner with the president? I will take up that offer to do so." Speaking of potential 2012 GOP presidential candidates, Mitt Romney speaks today at 12:30 pm ET at the House Republican annual retreat in Hot Springs, Va. He then holds a media availability there at 2:00 pm ET. 
 
Countdown to NJ GOP primary: 123 days
Countdown to VA Dem primary: 130 days
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 277 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 641 days

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