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First Thoughts: Still waiting

We’re still waiting on the 2012 GOP field to take shape… So far, just two Republicans are officially running (compared to at least 17 Dems and GOPers at this point in the ’08 cycle)… NBC/WSJ poll vindicates Mitch Daniels’ “truce”… Newt’s incomplete rollout yesterday was quintessential Newt… Sununu takes shots at Newt and Huntsman… The Club for Growth’s closed-press cattle call… Unemployment rate drops below 9%, and 192,000 jobs were added last month… On the budget negotiations… NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reports on the “evidence” that FBI man Robert Levinson is alive… And “Meet” interviews Bill Daley and Michele Bachmann.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Still waiting: Another week passes, and we’re still waiting on the 2012 GOP presidential field to fully take shape. But we saw plenty of signs that we’re almost there. Among the folks who are likely to run: Newt Gingrich unveiled an exploratory Web site and is officially "testing the waters"; FOX said it was suspending Gingrich’s and Rick Santorum’s contracts while they decide on '12; Mitt Romney’s PAC hired a top communications aide; Pawlenty released his Tea-Paw-ty video; Haley Barbour made the rounds on Capitol Hill; and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer said he’s making a bid. And here’s what we saw from the folks who are sitting on the sidelines: Chris Christie told National Review Online that he could win in 2012 but doesn’t feel ready (doesn't that mean he's encouraging a draft?), and Mike Huckabee made controversial (and incorrect) statements about President Obama’s upbringing.

*** And then there were two: Still, as of today, there are just two Republicans who have formed official committees to begin raising money for a presidential contest: Roemer and Herman Cain. By comparison, as we’ve pointed out before, at least 17 candidates had either declared their candidacy or formed an official committee to legally begin raising money at this point in the 2008 cycle: 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). In fact, the first person to drop out of the race -- Vilsack -- did so on Feb. 23.

*** Mitch Daniels vindicated? Out of all the poll numbers in our newest NBC/WSJ survey -- on the budget fight, on President Obama, on the 2012 race -- this might have been the most striking finding: 65% of GOP primary voters said they would be more likely to vote for a Republican who focuses MORE on fiscal issues and LESS on social issues, while just 8% said they’d be less likely. And get this: Among evangelicals, the split was nearly identical, 65%-14%. Last year, Indiana Gov. (and potential presidential candidate) Mitch Daniels drew considerable criticism from social conservatives when he told the Weekly Standard that there needed to be a “truce” on social issues. “We're going to just have to agree to get along for a little while" until the economic issues are resolved, he said. Well, it appears more Republicans might agree with Daniels than first thought. But don't write off the impact of social conservatives in a place like Iowa, and don't write off, say, a Santorum who may decide he'll be the lone voice talking social conservative issues -- because it just might be the way to get a ticket out of Iowa.

*** Quintessential Newt: Newt Gingrich's initial (and incomplete) rollout yesterday was a bit, well, disorganized. First, his team -- intentionally or not -- built up an event that turned into an announcement of ... a Web site. Then, once the site went live, we learned that the diverse group of campaign supporters featured on it was just a stock photo, which also once had been featured on a Ted Kennedy Web site (!!!). And then there was more focus on the prominence of Gingrich's wife than on the soon-to-be candidate. The disorganization, though, was quintessential Newt: When he was speaker, there was always an air of disorganization and around him and his team, but he made up for it by being one of the smartest guys in the room. And that's the goal for this campaign. He’s probably going to win every debate, but so did Joe Biden. The question we have about Newt: Does he become Biden (someone who, despite his baggage, improved during the campaign and later became VP), or does he become Rudy (someone who, despite his baggage, never improved as a candidate and if anything hurt his image by running a surprisingly bad campaign)?

*** Sununu’s shots: By the way, in an interview with Real Clear Politics, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu took some shots at some members of the GOP field. On Newt: "I think Gingrich forgets the impact of him sitting on the couch with Nancy Pelosi talking about justifying a carbon tax. There's no way he's going to win a Republican primary with that hanging around his neck, and he's going to learn that pretty quickly." On Huntsman: "He's still an Obamaite. We're not going to nominate an Obamaite. And I will make sure the Republican Party does not nominate an Obamaite." And on Barbour: "Haley's made his path harder in the last two months. Haley's a great governor, great politician, hardworking candidate who loves to campaign, but I'm not sure he has the burning desire to be president… He comes from an area that is so solidly Republican, that he doesn't add anything to a Republican candidacy in a general election." John Sununu is never one to mince words, and he may have just established himself as every political reporter's favorite GOP analyst for the cycle.

*** The Club for Growth cattle call: This weekend, the Club for Growth is holding a GOP cattle call of sorts in Palm Beach, FL. The attendees: Romney, Pawlenty, and Barbour. (In fact, Pawlenty addressed the group last night.) But it’s all closed to the press. And that, Democrats tell First Read, begs questions since some taxes and fees increased during their governorships. A Club for Growth spokesman responds that these talks are held off-the-record to allow for more candor among speakers and Club for Growth members.

*** Unemployment rate drops below 9%: The AP’s breaking news on the monthly jobs numbers: “Employers in February hired at the fastest pace in almost a year and the unemployment rate fell to 8.9 percent -- a nearly two-year low. The economy added 192,000 jobs last month, with factories, professional and business services, education and health care among those expanding employment." The public sector lost jobs, but the private job creation more than made up for that loss.

*** On the budget negotiations: Turning to the budget negotiations on Capitol Hill, we’ve heard that talks will continue today, but it involve staff, not principals. NBC’s Luke Russert reports, per a top House GOP aide, that yesterday’s meeting with Biden, Reid, Boehner, McConnell and Pelosi this afternoon produced a "starting point" for negotiations on the fiscal year 2011 budget. The aide said Reid told those present that Senate Democrats -- today or on Monday -- would announce a plan to cut between $6 billion and $10 billion from the fiscal year 2011 budget. The numbers are still fluid because they are still being worked on by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The source indicated that the WH is backing this bill. But Republicans are not impressed and already making that clear in plenty of email traffic this morning.

*** Evidence on Levinson: A senior U.S. official today tells NBC’s Andrea Mitchell "we have evidence" that retired FBI man Robert Levinson is alive. The suggestion that the U.S. has some proof of life goes beyond Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statement last night that there are "recent indications that Bob is being held somewhere in southwest Asia." U.S. officials tell Mitchell that after years of silence about Levinson's whereabouts, Tehran has been working in the last few months with the U.S. to resolve the case. Officials say they don't know "precisely" where Levinson is -- and wont be more specific on what apparently are active secret negotiations to get him back, possibly from a third country. 

*** Meet’s exclusives: On Sunday, “Meet the Press” has exclusive interviews with White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R). And don’t miss David Gregory’s chat with NBC’s Political Unit on the new NBC/WSJ poll.

Countdown to continuing resolution’s expiration: 14 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 161 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 249 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 339 days

* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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