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First thoughts: Shades of 2004?

How the emerging ‘12 GOP field looks a lot like the ‘04 Dem field: Romney = Kerry, Thune = Edwards, Palin = Lieberman, Gingrich = Gephardt… The question is: Who will be Dean? (We know it won’t be Mike Pence.)… And who will be Wes Clark? (Watch for Jon Huntsman.)… Bottom line: Like in ’04, there isn’t someone -- right now -- who excites both the base and the establishment… The biggest story in the world: Egypt… Economy grew 3.2% in 4th quarter…Rahm’s back in the race… Hatch catches a break… McConnell and Kaine to appear on “Meet the Press”… And our first Top 10 Senate takeovers for the 2012 cycle.

*** Shades of 2004? While it’s still very early, and we don’t yet know who’ll actually run, the potential GOP presidential field right now looks very similar to the Democratic one that lined up against George W. Bush in 2004. Consider: Mitt Romney is John Kerry (the early front-runner from Massachusetts who looks the part but is viewed negatively as a flip-flopper); John Thune is John Edwards (the good-looking young senator who’s better known for winning a Senate race than the legislation he’s produced); Sarah Palin is Joe Lieberman (the ex-VP nominee who’s not trusted by some in the party); Newt Gingrich is Dick Gephardt (the nationally known former House leader); Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels are Bob Graham (the respected grown-up who’s viewed more enthusiastically by the elites than the base); and Herman Cain is Al Sharpton (the long-shot who grabs headlines).

*** Who is Dean -- or the anti-Dean? One Republican who could have fired up the GOP base as did Dean with Democrats in 2003-2004 was Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, but he ruled out a White House bid yesterday and appears likely to run for governor instead. (Pence had a real opportunity to be the Mike Huckabee of the 2012 cycle: someone who makes a name for himself and perhaps grabs a TV contract. But running for governor means that he’s running to win someday. Perhaps 2016 or 2020 but we now know Pence has the ambition to be, well, more than just another famous conservative on TV.) But is there anyone else out there? And what about Tim Pawlenty, who almost seems to be a cinch to run? View the former Minnesota governor as a kind of anti-Howard Dean. While Dean fired up a despondent Democratic base, the GOP doesn’t really need to get fired up after the 2010 midterms. What T-Paw does is add Minnesota Nice to an enthusiastic Tea Party movement. 

*** Then who is Wes Clark? If there will be someone who comes out of nowhere -- like Wes Clark did in that cycle -- it could very well be former Utah Gov. (and current ambassador to China) Jon Huntsman. Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Cillizza reported that Huntsman is leaning toward a bid, and what we’ve heard privately confirms that. In a GOP field, Huntsman, who supports civil unions for gays, would have the center all to himself. But are there enough primary votes in the center to win a GOP primary? Other questions if Huntsman runs: How does someone who’s served honorably in the Obama administration explain he’s the right Republican to challenge Obama? Is his work in China a benefit or a disadvantage in a GOP primary? And how does having two Mormons in the field affect Romney? (For example, does Nevada become harder for Romney to win?) By the way, if there’s a Hillary Clinton, circa 2004, out there -- that is, someone who could run but won’t but is the obvious heir apparent in the minds of many -- it’s Jeb Bush.

*** Where’s the excitement? Perhaps the most consequential similarity between the 2004 Dem field and the emerging 2012 GOP one is this: No one really seems to be exciting both the base and the establishment -- the way Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama excited Democrats in ’08, or the way George W. Bush excited Republicans in ’00. As Penny Nance, the CEO of the conservative group Concerned Women for America recently told CBN’s David Brody: “Evangelicals want someone with: Sarah Palin’s looks and courage, Tim Pawlenty’s Midwest sensibilities, Mike Huckabee’s heart, Chris Christie’s boldness, Rick Santorum’s moral compass, Mitt Romney’s business experience, Newt Gingrich’s brains, Bobby Jindal’s common sense, and Mike Pence’s record.” Translation: There really isn’t a perfect GOP candidate right now.

*** An important reminder about ‘04: But this also doesn’t mean that Obama will have an easy race in 2012. Remember, as Democrats firmly opposed Bush and as the Iraq war got worse for the United States, Kerry came within one state -- Ohio -- of winning the presidential race in 2004.

*** The biggest story in the world? What's happening in Egypt is about as all-consuming of a story for the White House national security team as one can imagine. Publicly, the White House is clearly struggling to strike a delicate balance between supporting a longtime important ally in Hosni Mubarak and sticking to fundamental American beliefs in freedom. Just look at the pained statements both President Obama and Vice President Biden made yesterday in interviews. Said Obama: "My main hope right now is that violence is not the answer in solving these problems in Egypt. The government has to be careful about not resorting to violence. And the people on the streets need to be careful about not resorting to violence. And I think that it is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances." And Biden took it a step further, pushing back at PBS' Jim Lehrer’s question about whether Mubarak was dictator. The president is getting briefed two or three times a day about Egypt by his national security team, and those briefings could get upped today.

*** Economy grew 3.2% in the last quarter: The AP on the breaking economic news: “The economy gained strength at the end of last year as Americans spent at the fastest pace in four years and U.S. companies sold more overseas. The growth is boosting hopes for a stronger 2011. The Commerce Department reports Friday that growth rose to an annual rate of 3.2 percent in the October-December quarter. That's an improvement from the 2.6 percent growth in the previous quarter. And it was the best quarterly showing since the start of last year."

*** Rahm’s back in the race: So much for that appeals court decision. “The ballot roller coaster for Rahm Emanuel finally stopped Thursday with the former White House chief of staff very much in the race for mayor and the Illinois Supreme Court emphatically rejecting a contentious challenge to his Chicago residency,” the Chicago Tribune reports. “Within minutes of the high court ruling, Emanuel was back shaking hands with voters, taking a congratulatory call from his old boss, President Barack Obama, and working to recapture an aura of invincibility he had worked hard to project until an Appellate Court ruling threatened to boot him from the Feb. 22 contest.”

*** Hatch catches a bit of a break: Given what happened to ex-Sen. Bob Bennett (R) in Utah last cycle, there’s no doubt that Sen. Orrin Hatch is vulnerable to an intra-party challenge this cycle. But the Tea Party Express -- the group that helped defeat Lisa Murkowski in the Alaska GOP primary and Mike Castle in Delaware’s -- told National Review that it won’t be targeting Hatch. Said the Tea Party Express’ Sal Russo: “I think he was an original tea partier. He has been talking about our issues from the beginning. Orrin is a Reagan conservative, as far as I’m concerned, and that’s as good as it gets.” This doesn’t mean that Hatch is completely out of the woods – he has to survive the state GOP’s convention – but it is some good news for him.

*** The “Meet” lineup: On “Meet the Press” this Sunday, NBC’s David Gregory will have exclusive interviews with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and DNC Chairman Tim Kaine. 

*** First Read's Top 10 Senate takeovers: We know it's very early, but here is our initial list of the most likely Senate seats to flip from one party to the other. No. 1 on the list is the top pick-up opportunity.
1. North Dakota: Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad's decision not to run for re-election gives the GOP an excellent shot to win this seat. The silver lining for Democrats -- there isn't the equivalent of a John Hoeven out there for the GOP, so Dems can make this a race if they can recruit a strong candidate.
2. Nevada: If Republican Sen. John Ensign runs -- and if he's the GOP nominee -- he becomes the cycle's most vulnerable incumbent. But don’t be surprised if Ensign gets a primary challenge a la Gibbons vs. Sandoval. (Heller?) Who will end up running on the Democratic side? Rep. Shelley Berkley?
3. Nebraska: If Ensign doesn't run -- or isn't the nominee -- then Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson becomes the cycle's most vulnerable incumbent. Republicans have a top challenger in state Attorney General Jon Bruning.
4. Montana: Democratic Sen. Jon Tester narrowly won this seat in 2006 due to a flawed GOP opponent (then-Sen. Conrad Burns) and an anti-GOP political environment. Now, he's running for re-election in a presidential year, when Obama won 47% in the state in 2008.
5. Virginia: Republican George Allen is already in the race, but will Democratic Sen. Jim Webb give him one? If Webb runs and Obama win's re-election, it's hard to see how he doesn't keep this seat. Just look at Allen's struggle to win in 2000 (a presidential year) when he was enormously popular and the incumbent Dem senator at the time was, well, flawed.
6. Missouri: Speaking of rematches, it doesn't appear at Republican Jim Talent will run against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. That's the good news for the senator; the bad news is that Missouri isn't an easy state for any Democrat. There's every reason in the world this race moves up, but the GOP bench is a tad thinner than it should be. Numbers don't quite add up for any Dem in this state anymore, but McCaskill has some intangibles.
7. Massachusetts: On the one hand, Massachusetts is a reliably Democratic state -- and Martha Coakley won't be the Dem nominee. On the other hand, Republican Sen. Scott Brown has positioned himself -- with his voting record -- as the kind of moderate Republican (like Mitt Romney and Bill Weld) who's won gubernatorial races in the state. Brown could also benefit from the fact the Dem primary will likely be VERY crowded
8. Florida: Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson will be running for a third term in perhaps the nation's ultimate swing state. And like in his 2000 race, this comes in a presidential year. By the way, are folks 100% sure Nelson will run?
9. Ohio: As the case in Virginia, it's hard to difficult to see how Obama wins re-election but Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown doesn't. But if Obama doesn't win a second term...
10. Michigan: Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow's poll numbers aren't the strongest out there. But will the presidential contest be enough to push her over the finish line?

Other Senate races on our radar (in alphabetical order): CT, ME, NJ, PA, WA, WV, WI

Countdown Chicago’s mayoral election: 25 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 284 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 374 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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