White House makes its clearest break with Mubarak… How the situation in Egypt now brings political peril for Team Obama… All CPAC eyes on Romney, who speaks at 10:30 am ET… Other potential presidentials on today’s schedule: Thune (1:30 pm), Pawlenty (3:00 pm), Paul (3:30 pm), Cain (4:30 pm), and Daniels (7:30 pm)… How Donald Trump stole Day 1 at CPAC, and what that says about the GOP field… LaPierre: Guns don’t kill people, the government does… Another race/Mississippi story for Barbour… Tea Party forces House GOP leadership to make bigger cuts… And Gibbs’ last briefing.
From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Breaking away: After Egyptian President Mubarak shocked his country, the White House, and the rest of the world by declaring yesterday that he wasn’t stepping down, President Obama issued his sharpest break from Mubarak. “The Egyptian people have been told that there was a transition of authority, but it is not yet clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient,” he said in a statement last night that never named Mubarak. “Too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy, and it is the responsibility of the government to speak clearly to the Egyptian people and the world. The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity.” Clearly, Egypt's at a point of no return, and the same thing can be said for what remains of the U.S. government's relationship with Mubarak and his VP.
*** Political peril: Yesterday was the best example of how the situation in Egypt now carries potential domestic political peril for the Obama White House. Before yesterday, it was probably unfair to say that -- given that there’s only so much the administration can really do from the sidelines. But what happened yesterday in Michigan, where the president subtly signaled that Mubarak was stepping down (which didn’t happen), was embarrassing for them. Combined with the flubs by CIA Director Panetta (who appeared to confirm reports of Mubarak stepping down, but then had to retract) and DNI Director James Clapper (calling the Muslim Brotherhood "secular") on Capitol Hill, the impression was of an administration that simply wasn't on top of the situation. Obviously, the Egyptian government -- from Mubarak to the military -- was NOT speaking with one voice, and in there's a clear explanation for why everyone was receiving so many mixed signals. That said, fair or not, the White House now owns what’s happening in Egypt. It’s on their watch.
*** All eyes on Mitt: Win or lose, Mitt Romney might be the most fascinating GOP storyline of 2011 and early 2012. He's probably the Republican presidential field's front-runner, but he's a weaker front-runner than either McCain or Dole ever was. He has history on his side as GOP primary voters usually choose the next in line, yet this no longer looks like your father’s Republican Party. He has a great story to tell on the economy and turnarounds (Bain Capital, 2002 Olympics), but he’s struggled to explain how his Massachusetts health-care law is different than Obama’s. He’s always looked the part, yet he might have been the GOP’s biggest disappointment in 2008 after losing his leads in Iowa and New Hampshire and also losing his own, well, center. And while his best path to the GOP nomination appears to be through New Hampshire, not going all-in in Iowa could come back to haunt him, since not going all-in in Iowa only means he'll be weaker in South Carolina.
*** Today’s CPAC schedule: Those political dragons Romney will have to slay will be part of the backdrop of his 10:30 am ET speech today at CPAC. The other potential presidentials who will be speaking on Day 2 of the conservative confab: John Thune (1:30 pm), Tim Pawlenty (3:00 pm), Ron Paul (3:30 pm), Herman Cain (4:30 pm), and Mitch Daniels (7:30 pm). Haley Barbour will address the conference on Saturday (9:30 am). A Pawlenty aide sends First Read these advanced excerpts from T-Paw’s address: “Just because we followed Greece into democracy, does not mean we need to follow them into bankruptcy… [W]e cut government in Minnesota, and if we can do it there, we can do it anywhere… I drew a line in the sand and said, ‘Absolutely not. We're going to live within our means just like families, just like businesses, just like everybody else.’… The federal government should do the same.”
*** A flat Day 1: Day 1 set a relatively low bar for today’s speakers. At last year’s CPAC, Marco Rubio and Jim DeMint rocked the house. Yesterday, by comparison, was … flat, at least until Donald Trump took the stage (more on that below). Newt Gingrich walked into the ballroom with Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” blaring, but that ‘80s tune was probably the most exciting part of the speech. He discussed the accomplishments of the 1990s like welfare reform, balanced budgets, and tax cuts (which Bill Clinton could also take credit for); he called for an American energy policy (oil, nuke, clean coal); and he proposed abolishing and replacing the EPA. (Gingrich v. Obama debates in the fall of 2012 would have a college professor faculty debate feel to them, no?) Later, Rick Santorum addressed a ballroom that was about a third empty. He started off his remarks criticizing Obama for not believing in American exceptionalism. Then he responded to Mitch Daniels' "truce" on social issues, saying: "They are the issues that matter."
*** But Trump steals the show… : But then stepped up Donald Trump -- yes, that Donald Trump. He ended up stealing the show. He was, without question, the best-received speaker yesterday. "While I'm not at this time a candidate for the presidency, I will decide by June whether I will become one," Trump declared. "I'm pro-life. I'm against gun control. I agree with your previous speaker and I will fight to end Obama-care and replace it. And Trump showed pluck in not shying away from the numerous Ron/Rand Paul supporters in the audience. "I like Ron Paul," he said before adding, "He has zero chance of being elected." Of course, someone could say the same thing about The Donald…
*** … And what that says about the GOP field: That Trump stole the show yesterday says more about the lack of enthusiasm for the GOP field than anything else we’ve seen. Trump should be a punch line, and probably will end up being one. But it only reinforces the point we made a couple of weeks ago: that the potential GOP field looks a whole lot like the Dem field from 2004. The base enthusiasm to fire the incumbent president is clearly there, but there's no single candidate lighting the base on fire and sending the message they are ready to do it. Of course, it will be interesting to see how Romney, T-Paw, Daniels, Barbour, etc., are received today and tomorrow.
*** Guns don’t kill people, the government does: Issues-wise, the most provocative CPAC speech of the day came from the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre. They were his first substantive comments on guns and gun control after the Arizona shootings, and it was a full-throated defense of NRA policies and ideology. “If Tucson taught us anything it taught us this: government failed," he said, per CNN. "And when they tell you that a ban on assault weapons can make you safer, don't you buy it, not one second, because it's a lie. Their laws don't work; their lies aren't true. By its laws and lies and lack of enforcement, government policies are getting us killed." He also said: "The best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." And: "Put guns in the hands of good people.” As msnbc.com’s Carrie Dann put it, Pierre's fairly easy invocation of Tucson signaled that the touchy post-Giffords era is officially over.
*** Barbour and race in Mississippi: By the way, here’s another reminder how the issue of race will be an issue if Barbour, the Mississippi governor, becomes a presidential candidate. The AP: "A fight is brewing in Mississippi over a proposal to issue specialty license plates honoring Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans wants to sponsor a series of state-issued license plates to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which it calls the 'War Between the States.' The group proposes a different design each year between now and 2015, with Forrest slated for 2014."
*** House GOP settles on $100 billion (or $60 billion) cut: On Capitol Hill, it looks like House Republicans have resolved their internal division over how big their spending cuts should be, NBC's Shawna Thomas reports. After a last-minute GOP Conference meeting, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and other members of the leadership came out smiling. Out of the gate, Cantor sort of acknowledged the rancor within his ranks when he said, "Republicans are coming around and uniting around the fact that we are going to bring a bill to the floor next week that cuts $100 billion." Before the official media avail, NRCC Chair Pete Sessions said they were doing away with talk of pro-rating and annualized numbers and just cutting a solid $100 billion. "We need to stand behind what we said." Still, Cantor admitted that the $100-billion number, like the one that was announced before the freshman revolt, "is $100 billion based on the difference between what was projected for FY 2011." And Appropriations Committee staff was quick to confirm that when compared to current spending levels, the cuts will actually come out to around $60 billion.
*** Gibbs’ last day: Robert Gibbs’ final White House press briefing takes place at 12:15 pm ET.
Countdown Chicago’s mayoral election: 11 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 270 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 360 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up