From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Backflips for Rush: Rush Limbaugh might not be the "voice and intellectual force" behind the Republican Party, as Rahm Emanuel asserted on Sunday. But this has become increasingly true: When Limbaugh says jump, Republican officials quickly respond, "How high?" First, Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey (R) criticized Limbaugh back in January, but then immediately called into to apologize after receiving a slew of complaints from Rush listeners. "I regret and apologize for the fact that my comments have offended and upset my fellow conservatives," Gingrey told Limbaugh. Now, after RNC chair Michael Steele told CNN over the weekend that Limbaugh is an entertainer who can be "ugly" and "incendiary" -- and after Limbaugh gladly returned the fire -- the chairman called Limbaugh to smooth things over. "My intent was not to go after Rush," Steele told Politico. "I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh. I was maybe a little bit inarticulate… There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership." Of course, there is now an open invitation for some ambitious Republican to become the first to have the guts to stand up to Rush.
*** Steele's rocky start: Steele's apology yesterday was the second time he has said something during his month-old chairmanship that he has had to backtrack from. Earlier, in a FOX interview, Steele suggested that the three Senate Republicans who voted for the stimulus -- Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Specter -- would face primary challenges, and left open the possibility that those three might not receive funds from the RNC. But the committee reversed course, telling First Read: "The RNC has no intention of getting involved in primaries. We work with state parties to elect Republicans and will continue to do that." These reversals come as Steele has raised eyebrows with his language (examples: "off the hook," saying he wanted to give Bobby Jindal some "slum love"). To put it charitably, Steele has gotten off to a rocky start as RNC chair (as Rush himself said) -- primarily due to a lack of message discipline. And some Republicans might agree with this statement from Limbaugh yesterday: "It's time, Mr. Steele, for you to go behind the scenes and start doing the work that you were elected to do instead of trying to be some talking head media star, which you're having a tough time pulling off."
*** Pulled pork? Meanwhile, President Obama is potentially testing the limits of his popularity, as well as the good will he's engendered from some independents who believe he's not just another politician. How? By expressing so much disappointment in the omnibus spending bill that he also plans to sign. The White House hinted yesterday that the president will lay out requirements for the future on how many earmarks that spending bills can have before the president will veto them. It's amazing the things the White House isn't doing -- like getting current administration officials who have earmarks to renounce them, or threaten a veto to get the Congress to rethink some of these earmarks. Still, the argument the White House makes is that it would be too much of a mess to send this back to Congress. Still, the line in the sand the president draws on earmarks later this will be intriguing to use as a future marker.
*** Tease time: Just how popular is President Obama? How about his GOP opposition? Whom does the public blame for the partisanship in Washington? And what are the thoughts about the state of the economy? Be sure to tune into Nightly News, or click on to MSNBC.com, beginning at 6:30 pm ET for the answers to these questions in our latest NBC/WSJ poll.
*** The British are coming! The British are coming! Today, at 11:30 am ET, President Obama meets with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the Oval Office, and the two men have a working lunch afterwards. Sources close to both leaders say the purpose of the today's meeting is to make sure Brown and Obama are speaking with one voice on the economy, going into next month's meeting of world economic leaders. This visit is much more politically relevant to Brown, who isn't so popular at home and would like to bask in the glow of Obama's popularity. The British leader was hoping for a longer public event with the president, but is only getting a small amount of pool coverage. Also today, Obama delivers remarks at the Transportation Department at 9:45 am and then at the Interior Department at 2:00 pm.
*** Explaining AIG: Just askin', but shouldn't the government -- in particular either President Obama or Treasury Secretary Geithner -- spend some time with the American people and explain exactly how $162 billion is need for AIG, and what would happen if AIG failed? This amount of money is war-like spending, and a president would take time to explain what the money is being used for if this were a war and peace issue. Shouldn't the White House view this similarly and explain exactly what the heck AIG does and why it is so important, arguably more important than any other bank or insurance company? Seriously, we hear all the time that AIG has tentacles connected to the entire global economy. OK, fine. Then unwind the issue for the American people. Show us charts, graphs etc., sell the public on the idea that AIG is truly too big to fail. And if you can't make the case in a 15- to 30-minute presentation where the president or Geithner walks us through the issue, then maybe the public will never have buy-in on these bailouts.
*** Replacing Rahm: Question: How many people does it take to replace Rahm Emanuel in Congress? Answer: 23 people. Well, that's at least the number of people running (12 Democrats, six Republicans, and five Greens) in today's special election in Illinois to fill Emanuel's seat. The top vote-getter from each party advances to a general election that will take place next month, and political observers say the top Democrats in this Dem-leaning district are County Commissioner Mike Quigley and state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz. Quigley has been endorsed by both the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times, and he has the highest name ID. Feingenholtz, meanwhile, has the backing of women's groups and the state SEIU. But given that turnout is expected to small and given that it takes just a simple plurality to advance, today's race is wide open. By the way, this isn't just Emanuel's congressional seat -- it's also the one held by Rod Blagojevich and Dan Rostenkowski. As the Cook Political Report's David Wasserman told the New York Times, "How do you follow Rostenkowski and Blagojevich and Emanuel? What will this person be notorious for?"
*** L.A. Story: Also today, Los Angeles holds its municipal elections, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to cruise to victory. As the Los Angeles Daily News writes, "None of Villaraigosa's nine opponents is considered a serious threat, and he is anticipating an easy win to raise his profile as he considers a run for governor in 2010."
*** Three races to watch in '09: Of course, today's contests won't be the only 2009 races we'll be following this year. Plenty of Republicans -- after the stimulus battle, after their post-Nov. 4 victories in Georgia and Louisiana, and at last week's CPAC conference -- have been talking about their political comeback. But as one of us wrote yesterday, the best signal whether or not the GOP is on the road to political recovery is how it performs in the three big races of '09: the special on March 31 to fill Kirsten Gillibrand's congressional seat, and the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia. Victories in those races would demonstrate that the GOP can win outside the South (New York and New Jersey), as well as in a state that Republicans must carry in future presidential contests.
Countdown to NJ GOP primary: 91 days
Countdown to VA Dem primary: 98 days
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 245 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 609 days
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