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First Thoughts: Chased by a tiger

NBC/WSJ poll suggests GOP is caught between a cliff (independents who might not like deep budget cuts) and a charging tiger (a Tea Party that does)… What’s popular and unpopular to cut… The poll on Wisconsin and the state budget battles: 62% say it’s unacceptable to curb collective-bargaining rights as a way to deal with state budget deficits… A majority wants more government, not less… Obama’s down (in approval), but up (against Romney and Pawlenty)… A Tale of Two Republican Parties… Newt meets with the press (what will he say?)… Roemer to launch exploratory committee… And Akaka’s retirement.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Chased by a tiger: Republicans may have won the battle in passing the two-week spending extension (that contains $4 billion in cuts), and Senate Democrats might be struggling to draft their own legislation to keep the government funded for the rest of the year. But our new NBC/WSJ poll suggests that Republicans are caught between a rock and a hard place -- or, as our co-pollster Bill McInturff puts it, between a cliff and a charging tiger. “It may be hard to understand why a person might jump off a cliff, unless you understand they’re being chased by a tiger,” he said. “That tiger is the Tea Party.” McInturff’s explanation: The Americans who are most concerned about spending cuts are core Republicans and conservatives, not independents or swing voters.

*** Republicans vs. swing-voter groups on spending cuts: Consider: 33% of Tea Party supporters, 34% of Republicans, and 35% of McCain voters list deficit/spending as the top issue the federal government should address, compared with 23% of independents, 24% of suburban women, 19% of seniors, and 19% of those ages 18 to 34 who say that. By contrast, 35% of seniors, 39% of 18- to 34-year-olds, 40% of independents, and 41% of suburban women believe job creation/economic growth is nation's top issue. And two-thirds of independents, seniors, 18- to 34-year-olds and suburban women say they are concerned that major cuts to government spending could impact them and their families, versus roughly half of Republicans, McCain voters, and Tea Party supporters who think that.

*** Popular vs. unpopular cuts: The NBC/WSJ poll also lists 26 different ways to reduce the federal budget deficit. The most popular: placing a surtax on federal income taxes for those who make more than $1 million per year (81% said that was acceptable), eliminating spending on earmarks (78%), eliminating funding for weapons systems the Defense Department says aren’t necessary (76%) and eliminating tax credits for the oil and gas industries (74%). The least popular: cutting funding for Medicaid (32% said that was acceptable), cutting funding for Medicare (23%), cutting funding for K-12 education (22%), and cutting funding for Social Security (22%). Those numbers, McInturff says, “serve as a huge flashing yellow sign to Republicans … if they are going to start to talk about changes to Medicare and Social Security" in April of this year, as House Republicans have promised.   

*** On Wisconsin and the state budget battles: Turning to the budget battles in the states, strong majorities say they are comfortable with states requiring their employees to pay more for their retirement and health care to balance budget deficits. But they oppose stripping public employees' collective-bargaining rights -- as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and Ohio Republicans are pursuing in their states. In the poll, 68% find it acceptable requiring public employees to contribute more of their pay for retirement benefits; 63% are fine with requiring these employees to pay more for their health-care benefits; and 58% are OK with freezing public employees' salaries for one year. However, just 33% say it's acceptable -- and 62% say it's unacceptable -- to eliminate some employees collective-bargaining rights as way to deal with state budget deficits. Americans don't like taking away "rights"; they may be loathe to award NEW rights. But once folks have them, they don't like taking them away even if they are uncomfortable or unhappy with some aspects of those rights or how they are being used. Another example of this: guns.  

*** More government, not less: This is another striking finding from the survey: For the first time since Feb. 2009 -- right after Obama took office -- a majority (51%) believes the government should do more to solve the nation’s problems and meet the needs of people. And get this: That opinion is shared by a majority (an equal 51%) of independents. Americans are feeling shaky again about the economy, and our pollsters believe there's a correlation between the government-should-do-more number and the increased anxiety about the economic recovery.

*** Obama’s down -- but also up: As for President Obama, the poll shows his approval rating declining a few points since Tucson, from 53%-41% in January to 48%-46% now. “If you leave out Tucson, the president’s job rating is where it was for most of 2010 -- not terrible, not great,” said NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D). (Still, it's a net positive, only the second time he's had a net positive rating since May 2010.) Looking ahead to 2012, Obama leads Mitt Romney (R) by nine points in a hypothetical general-election presidential contest, 49%-40%, and he leads former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) by 19 points, 50% to 31%. But against a generic Republican, the president’s lead narrows to five points, with 45% saying they will “probably vote” for him and 40% saying they will “probably vote” for the GOP candidate.

*** A Tale of Two Republican Parties: Meanwhile, looking at the GOP field, we’ll paraphrase John Edwards’ “Two Americas” -- there are two Republican parties right now. Put simply, Tea Party Republicans back Huckabee, and non-Tea Party Republicans prefer Romney. This means that if Huck and Palin, as expected, don’t run, there’s A LOT of space for someone to seize the Tea Party mantle. (And that’s probably why we saw Team T-Paw produce that Tea-Pawty video.) Overall, Huckabee leads the pack as the first choice of 25% of GOP primary voters -- followed Romney at 21%, Newt Gingrich at 13% and Palin at 12%. Ron Paul comes in fifth at 6% -- followed by Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels at 3%, Rick Santorum at 2%, and Jon Huntsman at 1%. And get this: Haley Barbour was the first choice of just one respondent out of the 282 GOP primary voters the poll surveyed.

*** Newt’s day: Speaking of the GOP presidential field, Gingrich meets with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) to discuss states rights and the 10th Amendment in the governor’s office at 2:30 pm ET, and the two men will hold a media avail afterward. What Newt will say at the avail is anyone’s guess. But as we wrote yesterday, it wouldn’t be surprising if he announced he’s “testing the waters,” or “intending” to form an exploratory committee, or entering an “exploratory phase.” Then again, now that FOX has suspended him -- as well as Rick Santorum -- that’s one less thing he has to worry about. Interestingly, Newt, a former Speaker (and former LEADER of the GOP establishment) does 12 points better among tea party Republicans than NON-tea party, er, establishment Republicans.

*** And Roemer’s day, too: And it appears that Newt will get a little competition today. At 1:30 p.m. ET, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer holds a news conference in Baton Rouge, La. to announce the formation of a presidential exploratory committee. “I should be president or somebody better than I should be,” Roemer told Politico’s Martin yesterday. “And the only way to make sure of that is to make [my opponents] go around me, through me or over me in the primaries.” Martin notes, “While Roemer is a native son of a state that witnessed a miracle last year — the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl — he faces very long odds. A former Democratic member of Congress who switched to the GOP in 1991, midway through his single term as governor, Roemer has been largely absent from politics since consecutive failed gubernatorial runs.”

*** Ready to compromise, er, find “common ground”? The White House yesterday looked eager to seek out a repeat of the lame-duck session compromise on taxes, offering up Vice President Biden to negotiate with Republicans on a longer-term solution to keep the government up and running. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner appeared reticent to the offer, insisting Senate Democrats come up with their own plan -- publicly -- first. This meeting for today that the White House wants is not yet scheduled. Republicans have to be careful not to look like they are just trying to delay and that they aren’t willing to negotiate in good faith. It’s a tough balance for them with the Tea Party freshmen, who will likely insist on the full package of cuts. But there’s no reason negotiations can’t happen with the House GOP’s $61 billion cuts plan as the starting point. After all, the lame-duck tax cut deal was struck behind closed doors.

*** Akaka’s retirement: Lastly, word came out last night that Hawaii Sen. Daniel Akaka won’t seek re-election next year, which creates yet another open Senate race for Republicans. But even if former Gov. Linda Lingle (R) gets in, it will be tough for a Republican to win a race in Obama’s home state when he’s on the ballot. By the way, this is PROBABLY the last retirement; DSCC Chair Patty Murray and Senate Dem leader Harry Reid have been pushing incumbents up in 2012 hard to make QUICK decisions. And Akaka was the last unknown.

Countdown to continuing resolution’s expiration: 15 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 162 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 250 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 340 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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