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First thoughts: Drill, baby, drill

Obama picks up the "drill, baby, drill" mantra (although with some important qualifications)… It's a Nixon-goes-to-China-like moment for the president… Romney-care might have lasting power through 2011 and 2012 because the likely GOP presidential candidates agree on almost ALL the issues, a la the '08 Dem field… It looks like Kay Bailey Hutchison is staying the U.S. Senate… Mark Kirk gets boxed in on repeal… Dems see their fortunes turn around in OH? And today's Super Senate Tuesday update: the 9/11 back-and-forth between Trey Grayson and Rand Paul.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Drill, baby, drill: During the 2008 presidential campaign, Republicans of all stripes voiced this battle cry -- "Drill, baby, drill" -- to argue for offshore oil drilling as gas prices spiked to record levels. Then-candidate Barack Obama opposed it, however. ("Offshore drilling would not lower gas prices today," he said. "It would not lower gas prices tomorrow. It would not lower gas prices this year. It would not lower gas prices five years from now. In fact, President Bush's own Energy Department says we won't see a drop of oil from [offshore drilling] until 2017.") But now in what appears to be a Nixon-goes-to-China moment -- as well as a significant departure from the campaign -- President Obama will announce at 11:05 am ET new plans to drill for oil and natural gas off American coasts, the L.A. Times reports. But he will rule out drilling off the West Coast and the coasts above Delaware. "Obama's plans will include opening new areas of coastal Virginia and other parts of the mid-Atlantic region, Alaska and the eastern Gulf of Mexico for drilling. But officials say the president will block drilling in Alaska's Bristol Bay."

*** What say you, Sierra Club? The announcement is stunning for those of us who paid close attention to the presidential race. And it will be yet another test for Obama's Democratic base -- in this case, environmentalists. As the New York Times writes, "But while Mr. Obama has staked out middle ground on other environmental matters -- supporting nuclear power, for example -- the sheer breadth of the offshore drilling decision will take some of his supporters aback." That said, Obama floated this idea at his State of the Union address as perhaps a way to get Republicans to back a comprehensive energy bill. "To create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives," he said in that January speech. "And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development." Of course, Obama isn't the first major Democrat to make this reversal on oil drilling. During the height of the last major gas price spike, Speaker Pelosi had to relent and allow legislation on oil drilling to go forward as many members of her own caucus wanted to support it. Still, this announcement will be a bitter birthday present for Al Gore, who turns 62 today.

*** We can disagree to agree: As the early jockeying for the 2012 presidential race begins, we and others have asked this question: Just how big of a problem will health care's passage be for Mitt Romney given the fact that Obama-care looks a whole lot like Romney-care? On the one hand, you have folks who believe it's a campaign killer; on the other hand, there are those who wisely point out that health care could be an afterthought a year or two from now. But here's one thing to keep in mind: In a potential 2012 field that could include Romney, Palin, Pawlenty, Thune, Gingrich, or even Daniels, these guys agree pretty much on everything. On abortion. On taxes. On Afghanistan/Iraq. And on Obama's health-care law. So 2011 and early 2012 will largely be fought over the 1% where they disagree vs. the 99% where they agree. And that's why the Obama-care/Romney-care story could be important. Yesterday, Pawlenty walked back some personal criticism of Romney, saying that had Romney still been governor of Massachusetts when his plan was implemented, it wouldn't be in such bad financial shape.

*** 2008 vs. 2012: Indeed, what turned out to be fascinating about the GOP's 2008 presidential field were all the issue contrasts. Rudy Giuliani supported abortion rights; John McCain favored comprehensive immigration reform; Ron Paul opposed the Iraq war; and Romney had once favored abortion rights, expanded gay rights, and stem-cell research. But the 2012 field will probably end up resembling the 2008 Dem one, where the candidates agreed on pretty much everything -- but instead fought over broad themes (change vs. experience), qualifications (who could answer that 3:00 am phone call), and who presented the clearest contrast to Bush. That's why Hillary Clinton's Iraq war vote proved to be so consequential. And so too could the health plan that Romney helped erect in Massachusetts.

*** Shrewd politics: Of course, Obama is being quite shrewd politically in comparing his plan to Romney's, as he did in his interview with NBC's Matt Lauer; after all, if history is a guide, Romney is the most likely GOP nominee (and perhaps the candidate the White House fears most?). "I think that the Republican Party made a calculated decision, a political decision, that they would not support whatever we did," he said in the interview that aired yesterday morning. "And I think that's unfortunate because when you actually look at the bill itself, it incorporates all sorts of Republican ideas. I mean, a lot of commentators have said, you know, this is sort of similar to the bill that Mitt Romney … passed in Massachusetts."

*** KBH going to stick around? At 11:00 am ET today, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) is holding a news conference in San Antonio with GOP leaders Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, the Dallas Morning News reports. A Republican source with knowledge of the decision tells First Read that Hutchison is expected to announce that she is NOT resigning her Senate seat. Remember, Hutchison had said that she would leave the Senate after her March 2 gubernatorial primary against Gov. Rick Perry, which she lost (and lost decisively). A resignation would have triggered a special election for the seat. The GOP source believes that Hutchison will say that she is remaining in the Senate until her term expires in 2012, although she could also announce that she is staying until this year ends. Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn (a fellow Texas senator) will be joining Hutchison at this news conference, which offers the biggest hint as to what she'll be announcing. Expect her to say that she has listened to Texans and her GOP colleagues, and that these times are too important for her to leave the Senate.

*** The appeal of Repeal? It appears that Illinois GOP Senate nominee Mark Kirk has become the first Republican candidate to get boxed in by the debate to repeal the health-care law. Let us recap: First, Kirk signed the Club for Growth's repeal petition and told a closed-press fundraiser that he would lead the effort to repeal the law. Then yesterday, he refused to answer reporters' questions whether he was still intent on repeal. And now the Club for Growth has reminded Kirk of his previous pledge, per Greg Sargent. "He said that he's going to do this," Club for Growth spokesman Mike Connolly said. "We expect him to live up to his pledge." 

*** An Ohio turnaround? A new Quinnipiac poll suggests that Democrats may have regained their mojo in the Buckeye State. In the Senate contest, Dem front-runner Lee Fisher now leads Republican Rob Portman by four points (41%-37%) after trailing Portman by three points (40%-37%) last month. In addition, Obama's approval rating in the state has bounced up from 44%-52% last month to 47%-48% now. And Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) maintains his five-point lead over John Kasich (R). This is a big change in perhaps the country's most important swing state.

*** Super Senate Tuesday: In Kentucky, as we wrote yesterday, Rand Paul and Trey Grayson are battling over 9/11. In a past ad, Grayson claimed that Paul has "strange ideas" on defense, noting his support of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison facility and past statements suggesting Paul downplays the threat of Afghan extremists. "Even though the 9/11 attacks began there, Paul thinks that Afghanistan is not a threat to our national security," Grayson said in the ad released on March 10. But Paul's new 30-second ad first affirms his outrage at the 9/11 attacks and support of the war in Afghanistan. Then it strongly criticizes Grayson for his claims. "America was attacked and fighting back was the right thing to do," Paul says. "Now, desperate Trey Grayson is using 9/11 to attack my integrity and my patriotism." He continues, "Trey Grayson, your shameful TV ad is a lie, and it dishonors you."

*** Other midterm news: In California, Meg Whitman has another TV ad… In Florida's gubernatorial race, Bill McCollum (R) is leading Alex Sink (D) by 15 points (just asking, but who believed that by April 1, 2010, Democrat Bill White would be in better shape in TX GOV than Democrat Alex Sink in FL GOV?)… And also in Florida, Charlie Crist is being hounded by a controversial comment one of his supporters made.

Countdown to IN, NC, and OH primaries: 34 days
Countdown to NE and WV primaries: 41 days
Countdown to AR, KY, OR and PA primaries: 48 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 216 days

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