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First Thoughts: Ten questions for 2011

Ten questions to start 2011: 1) What will the economy look like come December?... 2) Will the New Year bring us an unexpected event or two or three?... 3) Will there be common ground or trench warfare on Capitol Hill?… 4) Who emerges as the GOP presidential front-runner?… 5) Who else gets in the presidential race?... 6) Will the Tea Party run the GOP, or will it be co-opted by it?... 7) What staff changes will we see at the White House?... 8) Who wins the GOV races in KY, LA, and MS?... 9) What Senate retirements will we see?... 10) And who will win the RNC chair race?

*** Ten questions for 2011: Another year, another round of political stories, especially with a new Congress and the beginning of a new presidential cycle. To make sense of what 2011 could bring us, here are 10 questions to consider. First, what will the U.S. economy look like come December? The answer will provide a good idea of President Obama’s re-election chances, as well as the GOP field (for instance, does a better jobs climate throw a wrench into Mitt Romney’s plans to be the fix-it candidate?). Remember, what happens in the year BEFORE the presidential year impacts the primary field more than what happens DURING the presidential year (see 2007 and Iraq vs. 2008 and economy; would Obama have been the Dem nominee had the economic collapse happened in Sept. 2007?) Back to 2011, the holiday season contained good economic news, foreshadowing a stronger economy this year. But how strong? The December job numbers, which will be released this Friday, will give us a better idea if the economy is really picking up strength.

*** Expecting the unexpected: Second, will the New Year bring us an external event that’s not on anybody’s radar screen? After all, unexpected events like the BP spill and the Greek debt crisis impacted the midterm elections, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) recently discovered that Mother Nature can sometimes exact political damage. If the past is an indicator, 2011 will deliver an unexpected event or two -- or three or four. The only question is what it/they will be. A natural disaster? A scandal? A changing geopolitical event? An eye-opening event in Afghanistan?

*** Common ground or trench warfare? Third, will the Obama White House and the soon-to-be GOP-controlled House be able to find common ground? The first 23 months of the last Congress suggest they won’t, though last December proved that they could come together (on the tax deal, ratification of the New START treaty, and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”). On “Meet the Press” yesterday, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham more than hinted at the former. “I think you're going to see the fight on Obamacare across the board in the House and the Senate to try to defund the Obamacare bill and to start over,” he said. And Politico reports that GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, the incoming House Oversight and Government Reform chairman, has released the list of investigations he wants to launch. Side question here: Do John Boehner and Mitch McConnell want this week, the first impression the new "in charge" GOP will be giving, to be about health care and investigations, i.e. re-litigating the past? That might make the base happy, but what about swing voters?

*** Who’s your GOP front-runner? Fourth, who will emerge as the GOP presidential front-runner by the end of the year? As we’ve pointed out before, Romney enters 2011 in a weaker position than Bob Dole did in 1995 or John McCain did in 2007, which suggests the GOP field could be WIDE open. If/when a front-runner emerges, that candidate will likely discover what other front-runners -- Hillary and McCain in 2007, Obama in the spring of 2008 (with Jeremiah Wright and “bitter” -- realized: that being the front-runner isn’t always easy.

*** And who else gets in? Fifth, which Republicans will end up running for president? Right now, Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Rick Santorum appear to be the sure bets, and you can probably add Newt Gingrich to that list, too. But what about Haley Barbour, who had a rough week before Christmas regarding his comments about the civil-rights era? South Dakota Sen. John Thune? Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels? Or even former Utah Gov. -- and current Obama ambassador to China -- Jon Huntsman, whom Newsweek said met with political advisers last month to mull a possible bid. Many of these candidates who have never experienced the presidential spotlight will need time to make mistakes. But as things stand now, it appears the race may get started later than last time. Does that benefit Romney? If last month’s Barbour controversy taught any lesson, it was this: The later these candidates get in, the fewer mistakes they can make. By the way, Pawlenty begins his book tour on Jan. 11.

*** Assimilate or die? Sixth, will the Tea Party run the Republican Party, or will it be co-opted by it? Yesterday’s New York Times examined this question. “As Tea Party politicians prepare to take their seats when the 112th Congress convenes this week, they are already taking issue with Republicans for failing to hold the line against the flurry of legislation enacted in the waning weeks of Democratic control of the House of Representatives and for not giving some candidates backed by Tea Party groups powerful leadership positions.” One early test for the Tea Party will occur in March, when Congress will vote to extend the debt ceiling.

*** Change you can believe in? Seventh, what staff changes will we see at the White House? We know there will be changes, but are the new folks "fresh legs" or "fresh blood"? So far, it appears it will be "fresh legs" -- folks familiar with the president and his team coming off the bench. We should see two more visible changes in the next week or two. A replacement for Larry Summers (leading candidate is someone on the bench not from the outside, Gene Sperling) and a new role of some sort for Robert Gibbs. The front-runners to replace Gibbs are also folks on the bench not from the outside. And other than those changes, not much else is expected… for now.

*** Gov races in KY, LA, and MS -- and Rahm’s bid in Chicago: Eighth, who wins the gubernatorial races in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi? Those are the only scheduled statewide contests this year. Also, 2011 brings us a handful of mayoral races, including in Chicago, where former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is the clear front-runner in the Feb. 22 election (with a run-off, if necessary, on April 5).

*** Retirement watch: Ninth, which Dem (or GOP) senators will we see retire rather than face re-election. The first of the year always brings the first round of actual retirements. The big early names to watch: Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (D), Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar (R) and Maine's Olympia Snowe (R). And then there’s John Ensign…

*** Steele the one? And tenth, who will become the next RNC chairman? Michael Steele, the current chairman, is running for re-election, but his chances appear to be slim. The presumptive front-runner is Wisconsin GOP chairman Reince Priebus, but the Weekly Standard has wondered whether Priebus’ role as Steele’s general counsel -- and his past defense of the current RNC chairman -- could hurt him. This could be an issue when the candidates (Steele, Priebus, Maria Cino, Saul Anuzis, Ann Wagner) gather today at a debate at the National Press Club. Gentry Collins, the former RNC political director, has dropped out of the race.

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