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First thoughts: Tough talk

Tough talk at Day One of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference… Palin headlines Day Two (she speaks around 1:30 pm ET)… The GOP's rough past two weeks… Bibi's no-show for next week's nuke summit… Bart Stupak to retire… And First Read's Top 10 GOV takeovers.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
NEW ORLEANS -- With President Obama in Prague yesterday, Republicans were gathering thousands of miles away at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference here to deliver a series of verbal uppercuts at his presidency. Day One of the three-day conference began as the giver of the invocation implicitly took a shot at Obama ("True hope and change," he said, "are found only in you" -- God). Then Liz Cheney accused the president of alienating friends like Bibi Netanyahu and Hamid Karzai (really, Karzai?), while appeasing enemies. And in the finale speech last night, Newt Gingrich called President Obama's White House "the most radical administration in America's history" and also a "secular, socialist machine." To be sure, there was a lot of talk about the coming midterms, as well as Gingrich arguing that the GOP must become the party of "yes." But make no mistake: This conference -- not too dissimilar from the Dem ones from 2003-2008 -- was all about the man currently sitting in the White House. 

*** SRLC, day 2: The second day of speeches at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference begins after 1:00 pm ET, with addresses by Sarah Palin, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Palin, of course, is the main attraction. And her speech is only her latest high-profile appearance in the last couple of weeks after stumping for John McCain in Arizona, campaigning against Harry Reid in Nevada, and sharing the stage with Michele Bachmann in Minnesota. Saturday's SRLC line-up, beginning again at 1:00 pm ET, includes Congressman Mike Pence, Rick Santorum, Haley Barbour, Ron Paul, and Michael Steele. The straw poll results will be released on Saturday night around 8:00 pm ET.

*** The GOP's rough last two weeks: Ironically, while Republicans are on the offensive here at the SRLC conference, this has been a rough two weeks for the GOP -- whether it has been the intense focus on Michael Steele and the RNC or the controversy over Bob McDonnell's Confederate History Month proclamation. Want to bet that congressional Republicans can't wait for this Easter/Passover recess to end, just so they can change the story? As it turns out, one thing that links both the Steele and McDonnell stories is race (Steele being the first African-American RNC chair, Steele saying he faces a slimmer margin of error because of his race, McDonnell originally omitting slavery from that Confederate History Month proclamation). The GOP is still trying to find the right tone when it comes to race. Here at SRLC, ex-Rep. J.C. Watts -- the Republican Party's last black congressman -- spoke, giving a powerful story about his rise from a poor boy in Oklahoma to college football star to serving in Congress was possible only in America. On the other hand, not a single speaker mentioned Hurricane Katrina yesterday. 

*** Bibi's no-show: While Katrina wasn't mentioned, one topic that did come up at SRLC was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's decision not to participate at next week's nuclear summit in DC. Per NBC's Michelle Perry, an Israeli embassy spokesman said that Netanyahu decided to cancel his plans to attend after receiving several reports that a number of states were going to use the opportunity to criticize Israel for not signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel, Perry adds, will be sending Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor and a number of staff for representation at the conference. At the SRLC last night, when Liz Cheney mentioned Netanyahu's no-show, the GOP audience cheered. 

*** Stupak to retire: First Read has learned that Rep. Bart Stupak (D) is holding a press conference at 12:30 pm ET and despite reports to the contrary, we confirm that Stupak will, in fact, be retiring.  

*** First Read's Top 10 GOV Takeovers: Since it's Friday, we have another First Read Top 10 list -- this time a look at what we consider the Top 10 possible gubernatorial takeovers this cycle. As with our previous Senate and House lists, GOP pick-opportunities dominate our Top 10. The number in parentheses is what the contest ranked the last time we looked at the GOV races back in February.
1. Wyoming (10) – In February, this ranked at the bottom our Top Ten list, because we were unsure if popular Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) was running for re-election or not. Now that we know he's NOT running, a Republican will most definitely win here.
2. Kansas (1) -- Sam Brownback's (R) presidential campaign went nowhere, but it looks like he will be the state's next governor.
3. Hawaii (2) -- With GOP Gov. Linda Lingle term limited, this remains the Democratic Governors Association's best pick-up opportunity. And if Dems possibly lose the HI congressional seat next month, does that help rally the troops in November?
4. Tennessee (5) -- With Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) term limited, Republicans have an excellent shot at winning in this red state. They just need to determine their nominee first.
5. Oklahoma (3) -- Ditto, with Gov. Brad Henry term limited.
6. Michigan (6) -- See Tennessee and Oklahoma, but unlike those two states, Michigan is a blue. A Republican will most likely be the next governor to deal with the state's 14.1% unemployment rate.
7. Vermont (4) -- With GOP Gov. Jim Douglas retiring, this is the DGA's second-best pick-up opportunity.
8. Pennsylvania (7) -- Another blue-purple state that might flip red, with Republican Tom Corbertt leading in the polls.
9. Iowa (8) -- Chet Culver (D) remains the most endangered incumbent governor this cycle. And he's hoping the GOP primary wounds top challenger Terry Brandstad (R).
10. Arizona (unranked) -- A relatively weak GOP incumbent (Jan Brewer), a GOP primary, and Dems already having their candidate (Terry Goddard) are a formula for a Dem pick-up opportunity this November. 

*** Top 10 most competitive GOV races: Meanwhile, these are the gubernatorial races that we see being most competitive come November: CA, CO, CT, FL, GA, IL, MD, MA, MN and OH.

*** More midterm news: In California, Carly Fiorina released her first TV ad… In Florida, Charlie Crist issued a statement saying that he would not run for the Senate as an independent… In Texas, Bill White (D) blasted Rick Perry (R) over education… And in Utah, embattled Sen. Bob Bennett (R) is returning the fire he's getting from his GOP primary opponents.

Countdown to IN, NC, and OH primaries: 25 days
Countdown to NE and WV primaries: 32 days
Countdown to AR, KY, OR and PA primaries: 39 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 207 days

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