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First Thoughts: The lights go out...

Due to technical difficulties (a.k.a. a Washington Bureau power outage... as you'll read below), we were delayed in getting First Read out this morning. Thanks to our readers for your patience. Everything's not quite up to speed here (as of 12:50 p.m. ET). But we'll be doing our best to keep you updated on all your political news.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** The lights go out in China (and in D.C.!): In a test of how much freedom the Chinese actually have, President Obama held a town hall earlier today in Shanghai. And it's quite possible that more Americans -- in the middle of the night -- saw the town hall than Chinese did in the middle of their day. The reason: State Chinese TV aired only edited clips of the president's town hall. That, however, didn't stop Obama from (subtly) denouncing censorship. "I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me," he said at the town hall. "I actually think that makes our democracy stronger, and it makes me a better leader." Yet just as one of us was reporting on TODAY about censorship in China, the lights went out in our Washington bureau, causing our morning First Read note to come out a little later than usual this morning. It's just a coincidence our power went out at that very time, we think… Obama today already has traveled from Shanghai to Beijing, where President Hu greeted him. Later tonight (Eastern time), Obama and Hu hold a bilateral and make statements to the press.

*** The emerging framework on Afghanistan? Also during his town hall, Obama mentioned -- definitively -- that al Qaeda was no longer in Afghanistan, but instead is in Pakistan. In addition, he said the United States' job in Afghanistan is to "stabilize" the country. When you combine that with Hillary Clinton's statement on "Meet the Press" ("We're going to expect more from the Afghan government going forward, and we've got some very specific asks that we will be making"), you get an idea of the administration's framework on Afghanistan. They want to have a trigger that enables them to pull out on the Afghan government, if it doesn't meet certain conditions.

*** Gitmo politics: First came the conservative furor at the Obama administration's decision late last week to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others in federal court in New York. Now comes their reaction to the news that some Gitmo detainees might be housed at the Thomson Correctional Facility in Illinois, which Gov. Pat Quinn (D) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D) are expected to announce at 2:00 pm ET. Per NBC's Edgar Zuniga Jr., Illinois GOP Reps. Donald Manzullo, Mark Kirk, and Peter Roskam will hold a press conference at 11:30 am ET to oppose any such transfer (despite all the other murderers, rapists, and child molesters who already populate the state's prisons...).  

*** Deadline Fatigue? Speaking of Gitmo, White House adviser David Axelrod suggested on CNN yesterday that the U.S. might not meet the deadline to close that prison facility. "We believe we are going to substantially meet the deadline. We may not hit it on the date, but we will close Guantanamo. And we are making good progress toward doing that." Just think of the other deadlines that the Obama administration has now missed -- on health care and Afghanistan. Missing these deadlines, separately, is understandable. But they are accumulating, and that can lead to a trend.

*** Palin-tology: Even with the president in China, with the Gitmo news, with Afghanistan, with the state of the U.S. economy, and with one of the biggest legislative fights in memory (over health care), the story that's been mesmerizing the political world over the past few days is ... Sarah Palin. This is a testament to her political strength (the buzz and curiosity that surround her) and her political weakness (that she remains a deeply polarizing figure, even within her own party). Indeed, in last month's NBC/WSJ poll, 52% of Republicans had a positive opinion about Palin, compared with 28% of independents and 9% of Democrats who said that. As GOP political consultant Mike Murphy, who isn't a Palin fan, told First Read: "She is polarizing within the GOP and totally unpopular outside the party. And that is not a recipe to get into the White House." Palin's interview with Oprah airs today. Her book officially hits the stores tomorrow. And she begins her book tour on Wednesday.

*** Like sands through an hourglass…: NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports that John McCain has specifically asked his former aides not to do interviews rebutting Palin's charges in her book -- to avoid escalating the feud between her and the campaign staff. Most are complying with his wishes, hoping it will die down. But in a conversation with Mitchell last night, one key player targeted by Palin in the book points to emails on Huffington Post that contradict Palin's version of several instances. The former McCain campaign aide, who asked not to be named, told Mitchell: "It is unrecognizable at every instance. There is not one truthful account as it relates to any conversation I ever had with her." Regarding the accusation that the campaign tried to hire a nutritionist to make her eat, two former aides said that the campaign was getting media calls and calls from higher-ups on the plane that Palin wasn't eating enough and had lost too much weight. There was concern about her health and stamina heading into the vice presidential debate.

*** The Young and The Restless: In addition, former McCain (and Bush White House aide) Nicolle Wallace tells Mitchell that the conversations Palin recounts in her book involving the Katie Couric interview, Palin's campaign wardrobe, or any of the other allegations involving Wallace never happened. "I never saw her take a note and she never contacted me for any fact-checking, nor did anyone on her behalf." Wallace says, "It's just fabricated." She adds that the same campaign staff whom Palin disparages in her book as idiots prepared Palin for a hugely successful convention speech and initial rollout, a good initial interview with Charlie Gibson, and a passable debate performance.

*** Taking on the Stupak Amendment: Turning to health care, the debate over abortion continues. At 10:15 am ET, the Center for Reproductive Rights will hold a press conference at the National Press Club to unveil a TV ad criticizing the anti-abortion Stupak amendment that was added to the House health-care bill.

*** Get out of my dreams … and into my car: Finally, Republicans are pouncing on this news today: While saying it's making progress, GM reported losing $1.2 billion in the 3rd Q. "Today's release of General Motors' financial results is further proof that President Obama's economic experiments are wrong for America," RNC Chairman Michael Steele said in a statement. "Sadly, GM has not only failed to turn a profit since the president poured $50 billion of the taxpayers' dollars into GM's bankruptcy restructuring, but it has actually lost $1.2 billion." That said, GM "will accelerate its repayment of bailout funds to the U.S. government, the automaker announced on Monday morning," The Hill writes. "The company will pay back its outstanding $6.7 billion in debt to the government in quarterly installments, allowing it to finish repaying its loans four years earlier than had been required." 
 
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