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First thoughts: Sanford's tango

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Sanford's tango: Well, it turns out that South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) wasn't hiking the Appalachian Trail after all. Instead, he was in -- get this -- Buenos Aires, Argentina. Here's South Carolina's State newspaper: "Gov. Mark Sanford arrived in the Hartsville-Jackson International Airport Wednesday morning, having wrapped up a seven-day visit to Buenos Aires, Argentina." Sanford "said he decided at the last minute to go to the South American country to recharge after a difficult legislative session in which he battled with lawmakers over how to spend federal stimulus money… Sanford said he was alone on the trip. He declined to give any additional details about what he did other than to say he drove along the coastline… When asked why his staff said he was on the Appalachian Trail, Sanford replied, 'I don't know.'" But "Sanford later said 'in fairness to his staff,' he had told them he might go hiking on the Appalachian Trial… It was a long session and I needed a break.'" Our question: Who goes to one of the world's most romantic cities in the world alone? That's going to be the question that nags at many folks following the Sanford story. And since there have been misleading statements for the last three days on this issue, who is going to believe the full story from Sanford now? Don't cry for me, Argentina…

Video: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford tells a local newspaper he was actually in Argentina, not hiking the Appalachian Trail, as his staff had said Monday.

*** A 2012 curse? Here's a quick quiz. Who has had the tougher last five months: A) President Obama, B) congressional Republicans, or C) GOPers who might be considering a White House bid in 2012? If you're answer is C), you're probably right. Let's start with Mark Sanford, who has inspired a new phrase -- "I went hiking on the Appalachian Trail" -- to describe any kind of mysterious disappearance. (Wife's question: "Honey, where have you been the past couple of days?" Husband's answer: "I went hiking on the Appalachian Trail.") Of course, that probably will change now that Sanford was in Buenos Aires. Next, there's Sarah Palin, who has had a rough last several months; after all, when your spat with a late-night comedian has been the highlight of your 2009, you've had a tough year. Then there's Bobby Jindal, who has since stepped back from the spotlight after his dreadful response to Obama's address to Congress. John Ensign dipped his toes in the Iowa waters, but then confessed last week to having an affair. And Newt Gingrich got in trouble -- and didn't do himself any favors among Latino voters -- when he called Sonia Sotomayor a racist. Even the person who was supposed to be the moderate in the 2012 field, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, has gone to work for … the Obama administration.

*** Lesson -- don't act like you're running: By process of elimination, the potential 2012 candidate who has probably had the best five months is Mitt Romney, who has delivered a few hard-hitting speeches at Obama but has largely stayed out of the spotlight. And that very well could be the lesson to this story. After all, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did their best to stay away from the presidential buzz in 2005-2006. We didn't even know Obama was thinking about a presidential bid until right before the midterms, and Clinton didn't set foot in Iowa and New Hampshire until after she announced she was running for president in January 2007. On the other hand, John Edwards was running for president as soon as the 2004 contest ended, and that didn't work out so great for him…

*** Obama's tougher rhetoric: Turning to the man who hopes there isn't a 2012 curse on the Democratic side, President Obama covered a lot of ground during his press conference yesterday -- on health care, energy, even his smoking habit. But the issue that dominated, of course, was Iran. He unleashed his harshest rhetoric, saying he was "appalled and outraged" by the violence there. But Obama also maintained those new words shouldn't be interpreted as new policy. "Track what I've been saying right after the election. I said that we had profound concerns about the nature of the election… As soon as violence broke out, in fact, in anticipation of potential violence, we were very clear in saying that violence was unacceptable." And he denied that his new tougher rhetoric was a response to criticism from Republicans such as John McCain. "John McCain has genuine passion about many of these international issues, and I think that all of us share a belief that we want justice to prevail," he said. "But only I'm president of the United States." Finally, he clearly didn't want to publicly make any threat of consequences to the Iranian government.

Video: In a midday news conference President Obama says he's "appalled and outraged" by the actions taken by Iran's government after a disputed election. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** Iranian diplomacy: Behind the scenes, there's been some news on the diplomatic front. On the record, the president clearly is doing his best to keep his options open regarding Iran. As the Washington Post's Balz points out, this president always finds a way to give himself wiggle room -- no matter the issue. And that's clearly the case with Iran. Also, an interesting report in the Washington Times about possible communication between the U.S. (via the Swiss) to the Supreme Leader in Iran (pre-election) sparked this response from a senior administration official, who wouldn't confirm the story: "We have indicated a willingness to talk for a long time and have sought to communicate with the Iranians in a variety of ways. We have made it clear that any real dialogue -- multilateral or bilateral -- needed to be authoritative. Not gonna get into the specifics of our different ways of communicating, but there is an outstanding direct request from the Perm 5 plus 1 that was made on April 8th. The Iranians have yet to respond to that." Couple this with NBC News' Libby Leist's reporting that a State Department official says any BILATERAL diplomatic outreach is now "on ice" and it's clear whatever policy the Obama administration wanted to pursue with Iran has now changed to something that's more multi-lateral.

*** Health care day: The focus of Obama's Wednesday is on health care. At 2:00 pm ET, he discusses the issue with Govs. Jennifer Granholm (D), Jim Douglas (R), Jim Doyle (D), Mike Rounds (R), and Christine Gregoire (D). Then he participates in a televised town hall on health care, which ABC will televise beginning at 10:00 pm ET. Of course, Obama made plenty of news on the subject in yesterday's press conference. He suggested, as he has before, that reducing health-care costs is a higher priority than ensuring universal coverage; he advocated for a public/government option to compete with private insurance, but implied that it was negotiable (again, wiggle room); and he issued his strongest challenge to private insurers who are worrying that a government option will drive them out of business. "If private insurers say that the marketplace provides the best quality health care, if they tell us that they're offering a good deal, then why is it that the government -- which they say can't run anything -- suddenly is going to drive them out of business?" he asked. "That's not logical." However, Obama did seem to struggle a bit when asked a question about how he could ensure Americans that they would keep their health-care plans if there was a government option. But he replied that businesses are ALREADY dropping their plans…

*** Targeting DiFi: By the way, for those in the chattering class who somehow think health-care reform is in trouble, remember that there is a very sophisticated campaign apparatus that is in place to support the president on this issue. Just ask Sen. Dianne Feinstein about that apparatus. After her comments on Sunday suggesting the president didn't have the votes for health care, she found herself under the rhetorical siege by MoveOn and AFSCME's Gerald McEntee. Is this a warning to other wavering Senate Dems?

*** Just askin': Was anyone else surprised at the president's downcast rhetoric on the stimulus? He seemed to side with the public polls on this issue, admitting that the recovery act wasn't getting money out fast enough. In addition, he volunteered that he was not pleased how the mortgage assistance program was working. Congressional Republicans will likely attempt to use his surprisingly blunt stimulus talk against him politically. The president is counting on straight talk to buy him more time.

*** A planted questioner? Perhaps the most controversial moment at yesterday's press conference occurred when Nico Pitney of the Huffington Post got the second question and asked the president a question he had received from an Iranian. Some in the media wondered if Pitney was a planted questioner, and it does appear that the White House wanted him to ask his question. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank wrote, "The use of planted questioners is a no-no at presidential news conferences, because it sends a message to the world -- Iran included -- that the American press isn't as free as advertised." Politico originally said it was a "clearly coordinated" exchange. Pitney later said he was never promised a question, and Arianna Huffington responded that some in the media "can't seem to understand why the president would have the nerve to call on someone whose Iran coverage has been praised throughout the media, from Charlie Rose to Andrew Sullivan to the Economist." The ultimate irony to all this? The president didn't really answer the question -- specifically the part that asked him to lay out the conditions at which he'd accept Ahmadinejad's election. (Editor's note: We changed our original headline here from "Planted Question" to "Planted Questioner," because no one is accusing Pitney of asking a planted question.)

Countdown to Election Day 2009: 132 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 496 days

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