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First Thoughts: The 2012 GOP battle begins

The 2012 GOP battle begins… Huckabee hits Romney on health care; Team Romney responds; and Team Palin piles on… Romney’s health-care problem: Tea Party conservatives don’t like any mandate, state or federal… The six Republicans who are strong bets to run… The six Republicans who are sitting on the sidelines… Pawlenty addresses the Tea Party Patriots tomorrow… The latest from Wisconsin… National Journal on the most polarizing Congress… The misinformed: 22% believe the health law was repealed and another 26% are unsure or unwilling to say… Is Ensign really defending prostitution in Nevada?... And “Meet” has McCain and Scott Walker.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** The 2012 GOP battle begins: Politicos of all stripes have been wondering, “When is the 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination going to begin?” A good starting point, we’ve always assumed, was the moment front-runner Mitt Romney found himself fully on the defensive on RomneyCare. Well guess what -- it has begun, and it was started by someone who might not even run in 2012. In his new book, Mike Huckabee writes, "Ever since the debate over [the national health care] program began, it’s been compared to 'RomneyCare,' the failed statewide health care program implemented by none other than my fellow GOP member Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts.” Romney's spokesman responded to National Journal: “Mitt Romney is proud of what he accomplished for Massachusetts... What's important now is to return to the states the power to determine their own health care solutions by repealing Obamacare. A one-size-fits-all plan for the entire nation just doesn't work." But then Palin's communications aide, Rebecca Mansour, re-Tweeted this line: "Romney spokesman: He's darned proud of RomneyCare."

*** Tea Party conservatives don’t like any mandates, state or federal: And so we’re off, folks. Romney realizes he's going to get hit with health care, so he's owning it. And his states-rights defense -- that Massachusetts pursuing its own health-care fixes is different than the federal government doing it -- is a legitimate one. But here’s the problem for Romney: The libertarian-influenced Tea Party doesn’t like being told what to do by any government, local, state, or federal. That’s the trouble with Massachusetts’ health mandate, and that's the REAL issue Romney has to deal with. And it very well could be the defining issue in the GOP race, just like Hillary Clinton’s vote for the Iraq war resolution was in 2007-2008. Then again, had Team Clinton not made some key mistakes (going all-in in Iowa, discounting the caucus contests), she might have very well won the Democratic nomination. So maybe Romney can navigate his way on this issue. But one thing he needs is a large field, and what if he doesn't get that?

*** The six who are running: After spending the last several weeks dipping their toes in the Iowa and New Hampshire waters, after selling their books, after speaking to reporters, and after assembling early campaign teams, we have a pretty good idea of the early 2012 GOP field. This list isn’t exhaustive, but these six Republicans look to be sure bets to get in the race: Haley Barbour (who will announce his decision by April or May), Jon Huntsman (who seems likely to get in after his ambassadorship ends on April 30), Newt Gingrich (who will make up his mind by the end of this month), Tim Pawlenty (who will decide in “the next few weeks”), Mitt Romney (whose team has been laying low), and Rick Santorum (who will decide in the next three months).

*** The six who are sitting on the sidelines: So that’s likely your field by the spring/early summer, along with the Herman Cain, Gary Johnson, and maybe even Donald Trump (gulp). But here’s a story that will likely compete with the GOP six-pack: the Republicans on the sidelines who could jump in the race. That includes the folks who haven’t made up their minds (but who also haven’t really prepped for a run and so are being treated by donors as NON-candidates): Michele Bachmann, Mitch Daniels, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin. And then there are those who maintain they’re not running (but who will remain part of the discussion anyway): Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. Don’t underestimate the impact that the focus and chatter on the Sideline Six -- up until New Hampshire’s filing date -- could have on the GOP race. Even today, the New York Times’ David Brooks devotes his column urging Daniels to get in the race. Expect to see more of this…

*** Partying with the Patriots: And staying with the 2012 GOP race, a prominent Tea Party group, Tea Party Patriots, is holding a three-day summit that begins today in Phoenix. Speaking at the confab will be Pawlenty, Cain, and Ron Paul (who’s someone else to watch in the emerging 2012 field). A Pawlenty spokesman sends First Read this preview of T-Paw’s speech, which will take place tomorrow: “The Governor will reiterate his call to hold the line on the debt ceiling, repeal Obamacare and stand up to public employees' unions. He'll talk about his record of conservative success in a liberal state like Minnesota, and share stories about cutting spending and taxes, and standing up to public employees unions." By the way it was fascinating to see Pawlenty and Romney’s reactions yesterday to Wisconsin. Pawlenty went all in for the governor; Romney simply dipped a toe in, issuing a statement that didn't even mention Scott Walker by name.

*** The latest news from Wisconsin: The state Assembly -- though not the state Senate -- approved Gov. Scott Walker’s budget legislation. “Just after 1 a.m., Republicans cut off debate on Gov. Scott Walker's bill and in pell-mell fashion the body voted 51-17 to pass it. In the confusion, nearly one-third of the body - 28 lawmakers including 25 Democrats, two Republicans and the body's lone independent - did not vote on the bill at all,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes. “Democrats erupted after the vote, throwing papers and what appeared to be a drink in the air. They denounced the move to cut off debate, questioning for the second time in the night whether the proper procedure had been followed.” The debate in Wisconsin could be a topic of conversation when President Obama and Vice President Biden meet at the White House at 11:00 am ET with the Democratic governors, who will hold a media avail after that. The governors are in DC as part of the National Governors Association meeting, and Obama hosts a dinner for all the governors on Sunday.

*** The most polarizing Congress: The cover story in the latest issue of National Journal observes that the past Congress was more polarized than in any previous Congress since the publication began its annual vote ratings in 1982. “[T]he overall level of congressional polarization last year was the highest the index has recorded, because the House was much more divided in 2010 than it was in 1999,” the magazine says. “Back then, more than half of the chamber’s members compiled voting records between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat. In 2010, however, the overlap between the parties in the House was less than in any previous index. Just five House Republicans in 2010 generated vote ratings more liberal than the most conservative House Democrat, Gene Taylor of Mississippi. Just four Democrats produced ratings more conservative than the most liberal Republican, Joseph Cao of Louisiana.”

*** The misinformed: You can only shake your head at these numbers: A Kaiser Family Foundation poll “found extensive public confusion about the health care law, with 22% of Americans incorrectly believing it has been repealed and another 26% unsure or unwilling to say.” Folks, the law HAS NOT been repealed. As we said when yet another poll showed a sizable portion of the American public thinking that -- incorrectly -- President Obama is a Muslim, everyone deserves blame here. The politicians. The citizenry. And especially the news media. We aren't doing our jobs when the populace is this misinformed. As a collective, look at how the court decisions striking down the health law get covered vs. the decisions to uphold it. And then look at the conservative media outlets and their coverage of this issue.

*** Ensign supports prostitution in Nevada? You can’t make this up; in fact, you’d think this was straight out of The Onion: “Senator John Ensign is breaking with Nevada's senior senator over the issue of legalized prostitution, saying leave it alone,” Las Vegas’ KTNV reported. ‘You know, that's a county by county issue and I think and it should be left to the counties,’ said Ensign after a town hall meeting in Henderson Wednesday.”

*** On “Meet the Press” this Sunday: NBC’s David Gregory will interview John McCain from Cairo, as well as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Plus: AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Dem Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, and the Wall Street Journal’s Kim Strassel.

Countdown to continuing resolution’s expiration: 7 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 168 days (h/t Frank Lavin)
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 256 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 346 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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