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First thoughts: Prague-ress

Obama and Medvedev make Prague-ress on nuclear arms control, but some sticking points remain… Republicans head to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference cattle call, where Gingrich (tonight), Palin (tomorrow), Barbour (Saturday), Michael Steele (Saturday), and others address the confab… What the SRLC straw poll says -- and doesn't say -- about the early 2012 race… What else to watch for at SRLC… What was Bob McDonnell thinking?… More speculation in Florida that Crist might make an indie bid… Lincoln and Halter exchange another round of TV ads… And Toomey regains lead over Specter, according to a new Quinnipiac poll. 

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Prague-ress: A little after 6:30 am ET, President Obama and Russia's Dmitri Medvedev signed their arms-control treaty in Prague. "While the new START treaty is an important step forward, it is just one step on a longer journey," Obama said after the signing. "As I said last year in Prague, this treaty will set the stage for further cuts." As one of us reported on "TODAY" this morning, the treaty limits deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 total for each country, a cut of 30% from the last treaty in 2002. Also, long-range nuclear weapons are limited to 700 for each country. Combined, the U.S. and Russia account for 90% of the world's nuclear weapons, with seven other countries accounting for the other 10%. Experts say this treaty will only be a success if it leads to the Russians agreeing to even more cuts. And as we wrote yesterday, the White House needs 67 votes in the Senate to ratify the treaty. This isn't a done deal by any stretch; some Senate Republicans have indicated privately that the debate over this treaty could be a proxy for a debate about the president's overall nuclear weapon policy.

*** But no Prague-ress on Iran or missile defense: At a joint news conference following the signing ceremony, both presidents were asked about Iran and the issue of missile defense. Obama hinted that missile defense talks would continue with the Russians, in conjunction with a U.S. push to get the Russians to scale back their tactical (short range) nuclear weapon stockpile. As for Iran, all indications are the Russians have agreed to support some level of sanctions; Obama said as much. What's unclear is how strong, and Obama ducked a question about a timeline for these new sanctions -- sticking to his previous declaration of sanctions by the end of spring.

*** 2012, here we come: The 2012 presidential election doesn't take place until more than 900 days from now, but that isn't stopping the political world from thinking about it -- especially with what's happening down in the Big Easy. Beginning today, thousands of Republicans are gathering in New Orleans for the three-day Southern Republican Leadership Conference, viewed by many as the premiere off-year GOP presidential cattle call. For political junkies looking ahead to 2012, it's the equivalent to what the NFL combine is for the later pro football draft. Speaking tonight: Newt Gingrich, Mary Matalin, and Liz Cheney. Friday's line-up includes Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and J.C. Watts. And Saturday features Mike Pence, Rick Santorum, Haley Barbour, Ron Paul, and Michael Steele (!!!!). There are two notable no-shows: Mitt Romney (who is on his book tour) and Tim Pawlenty (who is welcoming home MN National Guard members returning from Iraq).

*** The SRLC straw poll: As was the case at the 2006 SRLC event in Memphis, there will be a presidential-preference straw poll released on Saturday night. As what happened four years ago, the straw poll can offer clues about the early battle for the GOP presidential nomination. In 2006, Mitt Romney made a splash, coming out of nowhere to finish a surprising second -- the first true sign he would be a major player in the '08 race. On the other hand, the straw poll isn't the best predictor of the eventual nominee: The winner in 2006 was home-state favorite Bill Frist, who didn't even run for president. And another prominent speaker that year, George Allen, ended up losing his Senate seat months later. Here's how the straw poll, conducted by Wilson Research Strategies, works: Each of the approximately 3,500 Republicans from 38 different states who have paid to attend get to select a first and second choice. The results will be announced on Saturday around 8:00 pm ET. 

*** What to watch: Does Palin, as expected, steal the show? (A cynic might say she's the real reason why Romney and Pawlenty aren't attending.) How is Steele received on Saturday afternoon? (Does he apologize? This could very well be the conference's most interesting speech.) Does Ron Paul pull off another straw poll win, like he did at CPAC? (We are already hearing from rivals that Paul's folks are organizing to win this; and if Paul does win this one, look for a movement by the other 2012 hopefuls to kill straw polls in the future.) What is the overall mood among speakers and attendees about the upcoming midterms? (We bet the mood is going to be MUCH different than it was in 2006.) And do the speakers refer to Hurricane Katrina? If so, what do they say? (The Bush White House, of course, was widely criticized for its response to the hurricane that crashed into New Orleans.)

*** What was Bob McDonnell thinking? By virtue of winning the gubernatorial contest in the battleground state of Virginia last year, Bob McDonnell became an instant VP possibility in 2012. But the controversy surrounding his Confederate History Month proclamation -- and its omission of any reference to slavery -- could come back to haunt him during veepstakes. After receiving criticism (including from his Democratic predecessor, DNC Chair Tim Kaine), McDonnell apologized yesterday for the slavery omission and said he was adding a provision to the proclamation calling slavery "evil" and saying that it led to the Civil War. But as George Allen knows very well, it's very hard to escape controversies about race and civil rights.

*** Indie Crist? After Marco Rubio's campaign reported raising an impressive $3.6 million in the first quarter, there's a fresh round of speculation about whether Charlie Crist might run for the Senate as an independent. Writes the St. Pete Times' Adam Smith: "Crist bucked fellow Republicans and vetoed an elections bill he was expected to sign -- and the same day he reversed course and hinted he might veto a teacher tenure bill favored by Jeb Bush and other Republican leaders. On top of that, Crist plans to call the Legislature into special session this summer to overhaul state ethics laws -- an issue Republican leadership has avoided this year. It all fed a surge in speculation that Crist is positioning himself to drop out of the Republican primary and run instead as an independent." Smith adds that Crist has until April 30 to make up his mind whether he'll run as a Republican or indie. None of this speculation helps Crist one bit in the Republican primary, so the longer this speculation is out there, the harder it is for him to win over rank-and-file Republicans.

*** Super Senate Tuesday: In Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln and Bill Halter have exchanged a new round of TV ads. Halter's explicitly criticized Lincoln's 2008 TARP vote, while Lincoln's blasts Halter for outsourcing jobs to India… And in Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey has regained his general-election lead over Arlen Specter in a new Quinnipiac poll. The matchup has swung 13 points in a month?!?!? What's happened for it to move that much?

*** More midterm news: In Arizona, GOP Rep. Jeff Flake appears in John McCain's latest radio spot, praising McCain's work against earmark spending and also taking a shot at his former colleague in the House, J.D. Hayworth: "Republicans, including Senator McCain's opponent, lost their bearings on federal spending," Flake says in the ad… And in Iowa, the three Republicans running for governor participated in their first debate. The big topic: gay marriage.

Countdown to IN, NC, and OH primaries: 26 days
Countdown to NE and WV primaries: 33 days
Countdown to AR, KY, OR and PA primaries: 40 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 208 days

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