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First thoughts: Stepping on its message?

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Stepping on its message? Very late last night, President Obama finally returned home after his surprise visit to Iraq, where U.S. soldiers there greeted him enthusiastically. While it's always a good thing for a president to visit with U.S. troops and while Obama needed to go to Iraq since he was so close by -- remember that Landstuhl controversy during the presidential campaign? -- his Iraq stop did step on his final day in Turkey, costing the White House plenty of "how did the trip go?" coverage. (Of course, that didn't stop many in the media, including us, to ask that very question before today.) But consider: This White House regularly steps on its own message, believing if it doesn't step on its message, someone else will.

*** Not so popular right now: During the first 11 weeks of the Obama presidency, congressional Republicans have achieved this feat: They have maintained (for the most part) a unified opposition to Obama and the Democratic agenda. All Republicans, save for three moderate GOP senators, voted against Obama's stimulus. And every single Republican voted against the Democratic budget. But looking at recent polls, we've got to ask: Where has this gotten the GOP so far? The recent New York Times/CBS poll showed the Republican Party's favorability rating at an all-time low, matching the result from last month's NBC/WSJ poll. One GOP strategist tells First Read that Republicans are hoping that short-term pain leads to long-term gain. "My sense is we are making progress towards reclaiming mantle of fiscal responsibility, which is first step towards rebuilding," the strategist said. "Obama is hugely popular, which makes for a tough environment. But that will/must fade with time, and we'll get our second look from public."

*** The never-ending recount: After yesterday's recount activity in Minnesota -- where Al Franken (D) increased his lead over Norm Coleman (R) -- the question for many is no longer whether Coleman is going to lose; rather, it's when he's going to lose. Coleman's lawyers maintain they're going to appeal to Minnesota Supreme Court, and there's the possibility they might take it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But from a P.R. standpoint, it wasn't good news for Coleman that the legal challenge he initiated ended up (so far) handing more votes to Franken. (Does that mean that Franken might pick up even more votes if this moves to the state Supreme Court?) "When you contest the results of an election, and you lose ground, you ought to know time is up," Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said in a statement. Countered GOP Sen. John Cornyn: "Events [yesterday] do not address the main issue that remains unresolved: over 4,000 Minnesotans were disenfranchised by this three-judge panel. That's why it's so critical for this process to move forward before the Minnesota Supreme Court and why Senate Republicans fully support Senator Coleman's efforts."

*** Shiver me timbers: NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports that pirates have seized the U.S.-flagged, Danish-owned ship Maersk Alabama about 240 miles off the coast of Somalia. Mik adds, "Reports indicate that as many as 21 American crewmen are aboard. The Maersk Alabama is part of a line based in Norfolk, VA and a primary contractor for the U.S. Defense Department. Military officials could not say exactly what cargo the container ship is carrying, but do not believe it is a DOD or U.S. government shipment. At the time the pirates seized the vessel, the nearest U.S. Navy warship was more than 300 miles away.  It is believed that one or more of the Navy's counter-piracy Task Force 151 is headed toward the Maersk Alabama."

*** Biden watch: While President Obama has no events on his schedule after returning to the White House late last night, Vice President Biden picks up the slack. He and his wife travel today to Fort Bragg, NC, where the couple will welcome home the XVIII Airborne Corps, who have just returned from Iraq. Note: This is Biden's second stop this month in this battleground state. (And as we've noted earlier, President Obama and Michelle Obama also have visited the state during these past 11 weeks.) Biden's also in the news after blasting Dick Cheney (calling him "dead wrong" for saying that the Obama administration's policies have made the country less safe), and with the Washington Post reporting that the vice president will be tasked with shepherding the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty through the Senate.

*** Ethics watch: Here's more potential bad news for a political party that campaigned in 2006 on ending a culture of GOP corruption: "A congressional ethics board has launched a preliminary inquiry into U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill), related to President Obama's vacant Senate seat and the corruption investigation of ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich," the Chicago Sun-Times reported yesterday. "Jesse Jackson Jr. is the second member of the Illinois delegation to come under ethical scrutiny this year. The Senate ethics committee launched an inquiry into Sen. Roland Burris's appointment by Blagojevich."

*** Special election rundown: Speaking of Illinois politics, the Democrat running for Rahm Emanuel's congressional seat -- Mike Quigley -- easily won the special general election yesterday. And in that still-undecided NY-20 congressional race, the counting of absentee ballots begins today.

Countdown to Obama's 100th day: 21 days 
Countdown to NJ GOP primary: 55 days
Countdown to VA Dem primary: 62 days
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 209 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 573 days

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