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First Thoughts: Slow ride, take it easy

"Slow ride, take it easy" describes 2012 GOP presidential field so far… That said, CPAC gets underway today with speeches by Bachmann (9:15 am ET), Newt (12:30 pm), Santorum (2:00 pm), and Rand Paul (3:45 pm)… What to watch at CPAC… The libertarian-vs.-social conservative drama at the confab… And the straw poll… Obama heads to Michigan, where he speaks and unveils wireless plan at 1:30 pm… Boy, that escalated quickly, Christopher Lee… Why Democrats -- if they find the right candidate -- can still win Webb’s Senate seat… And don’t forget: George Allen won’t be able to avoid a Tea Party primary like Bob McDonnell was.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Slow ride, take it easy: It’s striking to think that four years ago to this very day, Barack Obama announced his presidential bid in Springfield, IL. And it’s equally striking when you consider -- as some potential GOP White House aspirants begin speaking today at the Conservative Political Action Conference -- that only one Republican so far has even formed an exploratory committee: Herman Cain. Indeed, at this same point in the ’08 cycle, these 17 candidates had either already declared their candidacy or formed an official committee to LEGALLY begin raising money: Biden (Jan. 7, 2007), Brownback (Jan. 20), Clinton (Jan. 20), Dodd (Jan. 11), Edwards (Dec. 28, 2006), Gilmore (Jan. 9), Giuliani (Nov. 20, 2006), Huckabee (Jan. 28), Hunter (Oct. 30, 2006), Kucinich (Dec. 12, 2006), McCain (Nov. 16), Obama (Feb. 10), Paul (Jan. 11), Richardson (Jan. 21), Romney (Jan. 3), Tancredo (Jan. 16), and Vilsack (Nov. 9, 2006). As a matter of fact, the first person to drop out of the race -- Vilsack -- would do so on Feb. 23.

*** CPAC’s line up: But the slow start to the GOP presidential race won’t stop the attention at CPAC; in fact, in a way, it only intensifies it. Two potential presidentials speak today, Newt Gingrich (12:30 pm ET) and Rick Santorum (2:00 pm ET), as the rest of the day appears to be an homage to the Tea Party with speeches by Reps. Michele Bachmann, whose staffers want treated as a potential presidential, (9:15 am), Kristi Noem (11:15 am) and Raul Labrador (11:45 am), and Sen. Rand Paul (3:45 pm). Tomorrow, we’ll see Romney (10:30 am), John Thune (1:30 pm), Tim Pawlenty (3:00 pm), Ron Paul (3:30 pm), Cain (4:30 pm), and Mitch Daniels (7:30 pm). And on Saturday, Haley Barbour (9:30 am) will be the main draw. The no-shows are Sarah Palin, who skipped last year’s CPAC, and Mike Huckabee.

*** What to watch: To us, the biggest storyline at CPAC is the reception that Romney and Barbour get. Can both men be acceptable to the conservative base without losing their establishment credentials? And is being part of the establishment still the drawback that it was in 2010? There's Mitch Daniels: Does he try out his "truce on social issues" line to the crowd and see if he gets booed? Another question we have: What kind of reception does Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (who speaks at noon ET today) get? And are there any subtle shots at Palin or attempts to distinguish themselves from her? Earlier, Santorum knocked Palin for skipping CPAC. “I have a feeling that she has some demands on her time, and a lot of them have financial benefit attached to them,” he said, adding: “I don’t live in Alaska and I’m not the mother to all these kids and I don’t have other responsibilities that she has." Well, Palin fired back on FOX: “I think the reports were much worse than what he really said. I think some things were really taken out of context. So I will not call him the knuckle-dragging neanderthal that perhaps others would want to call him. I’ll let his wife call him that instead.” Ouch. http://politi.co/fJKfOs and http://bit.ly/f3mRTe

*** CPAC drama: It’s also worth pointing out that this year's CPAC has attracted additional scrutiny as some prominent conservative groups (like the Heritage Foundation, the Family Research Council, and Concerned Women for America) and some conservative politicians (like Sen. Jim DeMint and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan) are skipping the confab, in part, because of the inclusion of a gay Republican group, GOProud. The drama is reflective of the libertarian-social conservative split inside the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Conservatives believe the media over-dramatizes splits inside their tent, but this mini-kerfuffle was self-inflicted.

*** And the straw poll: As far as the CPAC straw poll, the results of which will be announced on Saturday at 5:15 pm ET, 15 Republicans are on the ballot: Bachmann, Barbour, Cain, Chris Christie, Daniels, Gingrich, Huckabee, Jon Huntsman, Gary Johnson, Palin, Paul, Pawlenty, Romney, Santorum, and Thune. Romney won the CPAC straw poll in 2007, 2008, and 2009, and Paul won it last year. Per Politico’s Ben Smith, Paul might win it again this year -- given the word that his camp has purchased 1,000 tickets to the conference.

*** “After you… No, you first”: While the battle for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination hasn’t yet begun, both the Obama White House and congressional Republicans are already in 2012 general-election mode. Why? Because underneath all the happy talk yesterday of finding “common ground,” neither side wants to do anything big, especially when it comes to cutting spending. For example, conservative rock star Marco Rubio was quoted as saying that he wants to tackle Medicare and Social Security, but is looking for “the right” presidential leadership on the matter. So Republicans are saying, “This will take presidential leadership,” while the White House is saying, “Let’s see plans from their side.” And the Obama White House is playing down the idea they'll unveil any bold deficit reduction or government reorganization plans with their budget next week. Bottom line as we head into next year: The status quo benefits both Obama and congressional Republicans, and neither side sees any reason to unveil something BIG only to become a target. It's another form of bipartisan gridlock. Say big things, talk a big game, then simply run the ball up the middle three times and punt.

*** Obama to Michigan: Today, the president travels to Marquette, MI, where he “will see a demonstration of how Northern Michigan University’s WiMAX network has enabled distance learning for university and community students,” the White House says. Then, at 1:30 pm ET, Obama will deliver remarks “on the National Wireless Initiative at Northern Michigan University.”  

*** Boy, that escalated quickly: Yesterday, we wrote that House Republicans were off to a shaky start in the majority (bad vote-counting in the House, message stumbles, etc.). And they had this additional news to deal with last night: “A married congressman from upstate New York” -- Republican Christopher Lee -- “resigned suddenly Wednesday after a scandal erupted over emails and a shirtless photo supposedly sent to a woman in response to a Craigslist dating ad.” You have to give credit, however, to how quickly Boehner, et al dealt with Lee. Within hours of the news breaking, Lee had resigned his post, effective immediately. It's similar to how fast Boehner convinced Mark Souder to bolt. And it’s a marked contrast to what happened after the news about David Vitter (who won re-election last year) and John Ensign (who’s still in the Senate) dropped.  http://on.msnbc.com/gZnku7

*** Virginia isn’t Indiana: The news yesterday the Sen. Jim Webb (D) wouldn't seek another term wasn't surprising -- given that Webb is probably too restless of a soul to want to spend another six years in the world's greatest deliberative body. But what was surprising was some of the commentary now writing off the seat for Democrats. Make no mistake: National Dems would have preferred Webb to run for re-election, and there's a real chance that George Allen (R) can win back the seat. But as Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, Webb, and Obama have proved, a good Democratic candidate can win statewide in Virginia. The task for the DSCC will be finding that candidate. (Can the White House push Kaine into the race? If not, who's Plan B? Tom Perriello? Don't forget, in the spring/summer of 2006, there weren't many who considered Webb a serious candidate. And remember this: Virginia isn’t Indiana; Allen isn’t John Hoeven; and 2012 isn’t 2010.

*** Allen’s primary: There's another thing to remember: Allen has a real primary on his hands against Tea Party leader Jamie Radtke (R). In 2009, Bob McDonnell benefited from NOT having a primary challenge, which allowed him to move to the middle after getting in the race. Allen won’t have that same luxury…

Countdown Chicago’s mayoral election: 12 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 271 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 361 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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