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First Thoughts: Steele's last day?

Get ready for a new RNC chairman… The five candidates in today’s race: Michael Steele (who unlikely will keep his job), Reince Priebus (who’s considered the front-runner and is backed by Team Barbour), Saul Anuzis (who ran for the job two years ago and has the social network caucus), Ann Wagner (who’s viewed as being closest to the Bush world), and Maria Cino (backed by Boehner and Cheney)…. What to watch: If Priebus is in the high 60s on the first vote, he’ll probably win. If not, it’s anybody’s game… Winner is the first to get to 85 votes out of 168... Obama to deliver remarks at Richard Holbrooke’s funeral… Jeb Bush and other Republicans court the Hispanic vote in Florida…T-Paw’s good week… Gingrich and Barbour speak at House GOP retreat in Baltimore… “Meet” lineup: Gillibrand, Schumer, Coburn… And the 2012 cycle’s first retirement: Kay Bailey Hutchison.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Steele’s last day? Unless the shocking happens -- on par with Hillary beating Obama in New Hampshire, or Jesse Ventura winning the race for Minnesota governor -- the Republican National Committee will elect someone other than Michael Steele to be the party’s next chairman at the RNC’s winter meeting today. We have two questions. One, just who will that person be? And two, will that person be able to turn around the RNC’s finances (its debt is $20 million) and make the committee relevant again as we head into 2012? There are five candidates: 1) Steele, who surprised almost everyone in deciding to run for re-election after a rocky first term; 2) Wisconsin state party chairman Reince Priebus, who’s viewed as the front-runner; 3) Michigan committeeman Saul Anuzis, who ran for chair two years ago; 4) former Missouri party chair Ann Wagner; and 5) former Bush administration official Maria Cino.

*** Meet the challengers: National Journal’s Reid Wilson has noted that the four Republicans challenging Steele have their different backers. “Priebus … is seen as the candidate backed by the Republican Governors Association and, by extension, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour… Cino is getting help behind the scenes from House Speaker John Boehner… She’s also receiving aid from former Vice President Dick Cheney and former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie… [Wagner] has scored endorsements from such conservative luminaries as John Bolton and John Ashcroft, and she is seen as the candidate closest to former President Bush’s team… Anuzis has tried to set himself up as the outsider candidate… He has close ties to former Speaker Newt Gingrich, although Gingrich is neutral in the race.”

*** What to watch: According to Hotline’s count, Priebus has public commitments from 43 of the RNC’s 168 members, Steele has 17, Wagner 15, Anuzis 14, and Cino 12. The winner is the first to obtain a majority of the RNC members (so 85 votes), and it’s likely that it will take several rounds of voting to get there. (The 2009 vote that elected Steele went six rounds.) Today’s voting begins around 12:30 pm ET, and here’s how the process works: The 168 members write down their votes on a piece of paper, walk up and put their ballots in boxes, and those votes are tallied by an independent accounting firm. If no candidate gets the necessary 85 votes, there will be a 20-minute break before another round of voting. What to watch: “I am looking to see Priebus’ first-ballot number, and then the movement after the second ballot,” a GOP strategist emails First Read. “If Reince posts 67 or 68, it could be quick. Under 60, and ballot No. 3 becomes ‘Let’s make a deal.’ That’s when it gets fun.” Bottom line: The more ballots this thing goes, the tougher it will be for Priebus.

*** Obama today: At 11:15 am ET, President Obama meets at the White House with President Zardari of Pakistan. And at 3:00 pm, Obama -- along with Vice President Biden -- attends Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s funeral in DC, where the president will deliver remarks. This has to have been an emotionally exhausting week for the Obama White House with the tragedy in Tucson, Holbrooke’s funeral, and the death of a top aide’s wife.

*** Courting the Hispanic vote: The Republican Party’s struggles with Hispanic voters have been well documented. In 2004, Bush won approximately 40% of the Latino vote, but that percentage shrank to 30% in 2006 and 31% in 2008. Last November, it headed back up to 38% -- though still below the 40%-plus threshold that many GOP strategists say is needed to win in a presidential contest and the GOP’s performance was subpar in the West. Well, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has helped organize the inaugural Hispanic Leadership Network conference in Coral Gables, FL, which seeks to strengthen the GOP’s bonds with the Hispanic community. Yet there’s this hitch: Only one potential GOP presidential candidate is addressing the group, Tim Pawlenty (who speaks today at 12:10 pm ET). Those who are attending include Jeb Bush (who delivers opening remarks at 9:20 am), former Bush Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez (9:55 am), Colombian President Alvaro Uribe (9:55 am), and Sen. John Cornyn (11:10 am). Politico reports that Bush’s brother, George W. Bush, will address the confab via video.

*** T-Paw’s good week: Speaking of Pawlenty, while we thought this week’s events would overshadow the beginning of the former governor’s book tour, it turns out he had a nice week -- getting plenty of coverage at the National Press Club and pick up with his TV interviews. There’s a long way to go, and he’ll be an underdog in a GOP presidential field if he runs, but T-Paw has to be feeling good right now.

*** Barbour, Gingrich to address House GOP retreat: While just one potential GOP presidential candidate is speaking at the Hispanic Leadership Network in Florida, two will be addressing today the House GOP retreat in Baltimore: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Politico: "Much of what will go on in Charm City is a reflection of where the Republican Party is in 2011. It’s looking to decentralize more power to the states, and has invited Govs. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Rick Perry of Texas and Bob McDonnell of Virginia to talk about 'Solutions for the States.' House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling, whose group will run the retreat, invited [Phil] Gramm, his political mentor and former boss, to speak on a breakfast panel with Gingrich." http://politi.co/fVxRvI

*** Meet the Press lineup: On Sunday, “Meet the Press” will interview New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) to get an update on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ (D) condition. The show also will have Sens. Chuck Schumer (D) and Tom Coburn (R), and a roundtable consisting of Al Sharpton, Tim Shriver, Peggy Noonan, and David Brooks.

*** 2012’s first retirement: Finally, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) became the first retirement of the 2012 cycle, with her announcement yesterday that she won’t run for another term in 2012. Two things: 1) While many Republicans want her seat, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is the 800-pound gorilla. "If Dewhurst gets in, I think he clears the field," the Cook Political Report’s Jennifer Duffy tells First Read. 2) Despite their rhetoric, Democrats don’t have a good shot at picking up this seat. Texas has gotten harder for Democrats in the last 10 years, not easier -- which is counter to the C.W. Dems like to sell about the state.

Countdown Chicago’s mayoral election: 39 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 298 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 388 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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