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First thoughts: The GOP's void

The GOP's leadership void… The hits keep on coming for Steele, though the RNC reported raising $11.4 million in March… But that is less than the $13 million-plus the DNC is reporting… Is Bart Stupak going to call it quits?... Obama heads to Prague this evening… Breaking down next month's British elections… Specter has commanding 21-point lead over Sestak in new Quinnipiac poll… The differences between Specter and Blanche Lincoln… PolitiFact calls McCain's claim "I never considered myself a maverick" false… And Rick Perry places ad on NASCAR car. 

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** The GOP's void: One of the disadvantages of being the political party out of power is the lack of a clearly identifiable leader. Democrats experienced this during the Bush years, (especially 2001-2003 and 2005-2007), but still were able to cling to the Clintons or Al Gore. Yet in this highly charged -- and highly scrutinized -- political environment, the GOP's void is even more pronounced. Who are the Republican Party's leaders? Are they John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and Mitch McConnell in Congress? The embattled Michael Steele? Dick Cheney (who hasn't been shy about taking shots at the Obama administration)? George W. Bush (who has been mostly silent the past 15 months)? Tea Party favorites Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann (who appear together at a rally today in Minnesota)? Or what about potential 2012 front-runner Mitt Romney (who gives a speech and promotes his new book today in New Hampshire)? Even John McCain takes a turn every now and then as the unofficial national opposition leader to Obama.

*** Take me to your leader: Indeed, there are so many different leaders -- spread out in so many different places -- that today's GOP looks more like a feudal system than a political party. That presents a problem when one of those leaders (see: Steele, Michael) is under fire. And it makes it harder to unite the different factions (the establishment pols, the Tea Party leaders, those with eyes on the presidency). But the vacuum also presents the GOP with a golden opportunity. Remember, during the time Democrats were in the political wilderness, their current leader won a U.S. Senate seat, stumped for Dem candidates during the '06 midterms, and then won the presidency two years later. Out in its own wilderness, the GOP could find its own Barack Obama. But that search is all over the map: Some are looking to Marco Rubio; others to Paul Ryan; and still others to Mitch Daniels.

*** Speaking of Steele…: Although the Washington Post reports that the chairman reached out to rank-and-file committee members to reassure them and that the RNC raised $11.4 million in March, the hits keep on coming for Steele and the RNC. First, a New Hampshire committeeman stepped down from his position at the RNC, citing the party's out-of-control spending. Second, prominent GOP strategist Alex Castellanos called for Steele to step down. "I think a change in the direction now, at this point, would do the party good," he told CNN yesterday. Yesterday, Steele got comforting words from a former chair, Ed Gillespie. But today's shots (of sort) by Haley Barbour aren't helpful; then again, Haley also is sending a signal that there are other ways to fund races, even coordinated campaigns, say, through a certain Republican Governor's Association that Barbour happens to chair.

*** DNC outraises RNC in March: While the RNC says it raised $11.4 million in March, the DNC is going to report that it raised more than $13 million for the month, a party source tells First Read. "Since the last days of fundraising were done around passage of health care reform, it's clear supporters of reform were more generous than opponents," the source says.

*** Stupak to call it quits? With just a few days to go before the end of this recess, House Democrats are cautiously optimistic that they could get through it without a single retirement announcement. That said, there is still a concern that some important incumbents in districts that they are uniquely suited could call it quits. At the top of the concern list this week: Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak. The Democrat best known this year as the Democrat who delivered the winning margin of votes for the president's health-care reform bill is said to be simply exhausted. The criticism he received -- first from the left, and then from the right -- has worn him and his family out. And if he had to make the decision now, he'd probably NOT run. As of this writing, a bunch of senior Democrats (many of the same ones who twisted his arm on the health care vote) are trying to talk him into running. The filing deadline in Michigan is still a month away, but veterans of that state's politics are skeptical anyone other than Stupak can hold that district in this political climate.

*** Czech this out: This evening, President Obama departs for the Czech Republic to sign that arms-control pact with Russia tomorrow. As Reuters writes, "Obama hopes the agreement committing the two former Cold War foes to new cuts in their nuclear arsenals will help further his goal of a world without atomic weapons. The signing of the pact with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday comes two days after Obama unveiled a new U.S. policy restricting the use of atomic weapons. Next week, a 47-country nuclear summit will be held in Washington." Also today, Vice President has an op-ed in the L.A. Times defending the administration's new policy on nuclear weapons. One BIG reminder to tomorrow's historic signing: The treaty needs to be ratified by the Senate (67 votes are needed), and that process could take the rest of this year.

*** Across the Pond: With one us covering Obama overseas, it's a good time to break down another big race this year: Britain's parliamentary elections, which are set for May 6. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative Party challenger David Cameron are locked in the closest race to lead Britain in 20 years. And for the first time in the country's history, the candidates will debate on live TV -- on April 15, April 22, and April 29. Per NBC's Sarah Blackwill, a poll for the Guardian newspaper shows the Conservative Party at 37%, Brown's Labour Party at 33%, and the Liberal Democrats at 21%. And here's the kicker: Two prominent Obama advisers are competing against each other. Obama pollster Joel Benenson is working for Brown, while former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn is advising Cameron.  

*** Super Senate Tuesday: In Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln and Bill Halter have agreed to hold a debate on April 23… In Pennsylvania, among likely Democratic primary voters, Arlen Specter has a commanding 21-point lead (53%-32%) over Joe Sestak in their Democratic Senate contest, according to a new Quinnipiac poll. The survey also shows no clear leader in the Dem gubernatorial primary: Dan Onorato is at 20%, Joe Hoeffel is at 15%, and Jack Wagner is at 13%. 

*** Specter vs. Lincoln: It's worth noting the differences between Specter (who is comfortably ahead) and Lincoln (who's ahead too, but appears to be in the biggest political fight of her life). First, Specter -- because he had to prove he was a Democrat after switching parties -- actively courted the Dem base (and always had a good relationship with organized labor). On the other hand, Lincoln has run away from the base and toward the center (and she doesn't have a good relationship with labor, though it isn't that big of a player in Arkansas politics). Second, Halter got into the race late and seemed to catch Lincoln off guard. But there was no catching Specter off guard, since Sestak got into the race very early.

*** More midterm news: In Arizona, PolitiFact says that John McCain's recent statement "I never considered myself a maverick" is not only false, but it rates the claim "Pants on Fire."… Also in Arizona, Democratic Attorney General Terry Goddard yesterday kicked off his campaign for governor… In Maryland, the Baltimore Sun wonders whether Michael Steele's problems could hurt Bob Ehrlich (R) in his campaign for governor; in 2002, Ehrlich made Steele his pick for lieutenant governor… And in Texas, Rick Perry is running an ad on NASCAR star Bobby Labonte's No. 71 Chevrolet Impala "that's part of the Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway April 18 in Fort Worth," the Dallas Morning News reports.

Countdown to IN, NC, and OH primaries: 27 days
Countdown to NE and WV primaries: 34 days
Countdown to AR, KY, OR and PA primaries: 41 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 209 days

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