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First thoughts: A divided nation

New NBC/WSJ poll shows a divided nation on health care and Obama… But eight out of 10 Americans agree that Congress is broken… Poll also shows GOP gaining ground on issues like health care and the economy, and taking the lead on the deficit and taxes… Setting everyone straight on "deem and pass"… Dennis the Menace or Dennis the Hero?... Blanche Lincoln unveils tough response TV ad… And Romanoff bests Bennet in last night's Colorado caucuses, but it perhaps wasn't enough to make the case that Bennet is unacceptable to state activists.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** A divided nation: From 2001 to 2005, political analysts were often fond of describing the country as a 50-50, or maybe 51-49, nation. The Democratic routs in '06 and '08 scuttled that kind of talk, but our new NBC/WSJ poll might bring it back. In the survey, the public is split on whether Congress should pass the health-care bill (46%-45%), on President Obama's approval rating (48%-47%), and on which political party would do a better job handling the economy (31%-31%). In the short term, the partisan divide could end up helping Obama and the Democrats, especially on health care. NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D) argues that Democrats' strong support of health care -- they think it's a good idea by a 64%-16% margin -- could ultimately persuade on-the-fence Dem congressmen to back the legislation. But in the long term, Obama did promise to usher in a new, post-partisan age. And looking at our poll, it sure looks more like the country after the '00 election or even the '04 one.

*** But eight out of 10 Americans agree…: But if the country is divided on health care and Obama, there is one thing all Americans -- including majorities of Dems, Republicans, independents -- agree on: Congress is broken. In the poll, just 17% approve of Congress' job, while a whopping 77% disapprove. Given the choice, half of respondents say they would vote to defeat every single member of Congress, including their own representative. And asked which one or two phrases best described their feelings about Congress, the top four responses were all negative: only interested in staying in office (37%), too close to special interest groups (28%), too partisan (19%), and supporting pork projects and waste (16%). Perhaps this is why rookie Sen. Michael Bennet (D) in his first TV ad does everything possible to distance himself from Washington. Not only does he not mention his party (a common practice in many races this year), he doesn't even mention the office he sits in or is running for; the only hint is a chyron that says "U.S. senator."

*** GOP gaining ground: Maybe the most striking finding in the poll is the ground the GOP has gained on the issues. Not yet 14 months since Bush left office, Republicans have pulled even with Democrats on which party better handles the economy (31%-31%), have moved ahead on reducing the deficit (30%-24%) and taxes (36%-25%), and have maintained their edge on combating terrorism (36%-22%). Democrats lead on health care by nine points (although that down from their 36-point lead back in Jan. 2008) and by 24 points on global warming (down from 45 points in Jan. 2008). And demonstrating the Obama White House's communication failures, check this out: By a 46%-45% margin, Americans DON'T believe the U.S. economy would have gone into a greater economic downturn without the stimulus.

*** To deem the impossible deem: Want to know one of the reasons why 77% disapprove of Congress? It's because there has been more attention on process and sausage-making than there has ever been. And the latest process story, as we wrote yesterday, is "deem and pass" or the "self-executing" rule. We have noticed some of our media brethren note that "deem and pass" is bypassing or skipping a vote that's required (like on the Senate health-care bill). That's not true; there will be a vote on it when the House adopts the rules of debate for the reconciliation bill. The best way to describe the process is that "deem and pass" avoids a direct or explicit vote. By the way, congressional scholar Norm Ornstein notes that Republicans frequently used "deem and pass" when they were in the majority. And as Time's Tumulty writes, Democrats like Steny Hoyer complained about the process when they were in the minority. Proving a new (or is it old?) Washington axiom these days, everyone's a hypocrite, especially the other guy.

*** Dennis, the Menace -- or hero? This could either give the Obama White House and House Democrats some momentum on passing health care, or it could be a poke in the eye: At 10:00 am ET, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) holds a press conference to announce how he'll vote on the bill. Despite being one of the most liberal members in the House, Kucinich voted against the original House bill. Why? Because it wasn't liberal enough. No one knows what the congressman will say today. His office told First Read yesterday he was a "firm no." But at the same time as his office was saying that, he was being lobbied by President Obama on Air Force One and called out to "Vote Yes!" at Obama's event in his congressional district. This would be a real slap in the president's face if Kucinich decided to hold a press conference and re-state his opposition.

*** Midterm news: In Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln is up with a tough response ad to the negative advertisement that labor groups are airing in the state. Like Bennet's ad above, Lincoln's distances herself from Washington and tries to make Halter's support look like it's coming from out-of-state folks; this was always the danger for Halter that his campaign could get painted as a bunch of outsiders (in orange caps?) invading Arkansas. … In California, today is the filing deadline… And in Colorado, Andrew Romanoff defeated Bennet in the state's caucuses. But it was far from a knockout blow -- Romanoff needed to make the case that Bennet was unacceptable to state party activists. He didn't appear do that. By the way, don't overlook the fact that Jane Norton's campaign couldn't keep a Tea Party activist from getting a place on the primary ballot, either.

Countdown to IA, UT filing deadlines: 2 days
Countdown to IN, NC, and OH primaries: 48 days
Countdown to NE and WV primaries: 55 days
Countdown to AR, KY, OR and PA primaries: 62 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 230 days

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