Discuss as:

First Thoughts: The wildcard

Like Gulf oil spill and Greece, Japan crisis could threaten U.S. recovery … A make-or-break day on Libya? … On shutdown, circle April 8 with a big, thick red marker … Barbour breaks from the pack on Afghanistan … The Incredible Shrinking Iowa Field … Miami Mayor recalled – largest of local pol in U.S. history … Heller’s in Nevada Senate race… Obama unveils his NCAA bracket … And Snoop skewers Trump at roast, Trump proclaims he’d be “greatest president in the history” of the U.S.

From NBC's Chuck Todd, Domenico Montanaro, Ali Weinberg, and Carrie Dann
*** The wildcard: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said yesterday at the briefing that the United States, specifically the Department of Energy, is going to be helping Japan measure the amount of radiation in the air due to the nuclear plant explosions. It’s an acknowledgment from Japan that they can’t deal with this on their own and the nuclear situation continues to deteriorate. Japan has not become political fodder yet the way Libya and the budget have in Washington. But among the concerns, that this disaster in conjunction with the continued unrest in the Middle East slows the fledgling economic recovery in the same way that the Gulf oil spill and the Greek debt crisis did nearly a year ago.

*** A make-or-break day on Libya: Today, we are supposed to hear something more definitive out of NATO about its recommendation for Libya. Yesterday, Secretary of State Clinton was in Egypt and made an unscheduled stop in Tahrir Square, the site of the mass protests that eventually led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reports. There, she heard, in addition to "Hello Hillary" and "Well done Hillary" a shout of, "You must help Libya.” The question is militarily is it too late to do a no-fly zone in Libya? Once the West sticks its foot in the Libyan door, can they ever retreat? If the U.S. and the international community agree to do this, then are they agreeing to get Gadhafi out at all costs? The one thing about this Middle East uprising, so far, the West hasn’t had to get involved. Now it is being asked to and that comes with consequences. Don't overlook the fact yesterday that Carney at the briefing and administration officials, behind the scenes, are suddenly once again placing more importance on the U.N. when it comes to endorsing a no-fly zone. It's the one international body that seems least likely to endorse it -- and the U.S. knows this. By the way, the combined headlines out of Libya, Bahrain and Yemen don't bode well for those hopeful this Arab spring will continue as the authoritarian regimes are striking back with a vengeance.

*** Circle April 8 with a thick, red marker: We noted yesterday that patience was wearing thin with these short-term continuing resolutions and posited that a third CR was likely not going to be possible. Well, with the House vote yesterday, that is almost a certainty. The CR passed 271-158, with 186 Republicans and 85 Democrats voting for it. It truly took a bipartisan majority to get it done, the first major piece of legislation in this GOP-led House that needed that. And while we should never say never, they could pass a two or three day one to avoid shutdown maybe, with 54 Republicans defecting (22 freshmen), up from just six two weeks ago, and 18 fewer Democrats voting for it overall, it’s looking much more like April 8 is the real date to get the long-term deal done or face a shutdown. One thing to note here: it took both parties to pass this, and to avoid a shutdown April 8 it is going to take BOTH sides again. The bill moves to the Senate where it could get a vote as early as today, but more likely tomorrow, NBC's Ken Strickland reports.

*** What’s Boehner’s next move? Another question: Is Speaker John Boehner stronger or weaker as a result of that vote? Will he have leverage to be able to say he can’t pass something smaller than what was already proposed in HR-1? Or will he be willing to let just 100 to 130 members of his caucus vote on something longer term and pass it with 100 or so Democrats? Or do “majority of the majority” rules still apply -- something like being OK with 130 of his members being able to vote for something? The fact remains: The first side that’s seen publicly as not being willing to give something is likely going to be the party that’s blamed for a shutdown.

*** Barbour breaks from the pack: In Iowa yesterday, Haley Barbour (R-MS) broke with the rest of the top contenders in the GOP field and voiced support for fewer soldiers in Afghanistan. "I think we need to look at that." He added: "What is our mission? How many Al Qaeda are in Afghanistan. ... Is that a 100,000-man Army mission? I don't think our mission should be to think we're going to make Afghanistan an Ireland or an Italy." We wrote a month ago that we’d been hearing quiet reservations about Afghanistan from some Republicans, but they were not ready to say it publicly. Well, here’s Haley Barbour doing just that.

*** If You Build It, Will They Come? Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told a crowd in Iowa yesterday, "If I run, I’m going to run to win Iowa." With Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) not running, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee looking increasingly like they won’t run, Mitt Romney looking more focused on New Hampshire, what once looked like an incredibly crowded Iowa field, appears to be the incredibly shrinking Iowa field. That field now is just Barbour and Tim Pawlenty, and maybe Newt Gingrich from the top tier, plus the wildcard of Rick Santorum (R-PA). Barbour is simply stating the obvious because if he (or Pawlenty or Newt) going to become a real threat to Romney, he’s got to win somewhere. He made Iowa relevant. So what does Romney do? How seriously does he contest Iowa? It's a fine line. He wants New Hampshire to be relevant, but he also has a chance to end the nomination before it begins if he somehow won both Iowa and New Hampshire. Our bet: Romney contests Iowa too.

*** Doubling Down on nuclear: Also in his speech in Iowa, Barbour doubled down on support of nuclear power. But so did the Obama administration. Here was Energy Secretary Chu in a hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday: "The administration believes we must rely on a diverse set of energy sources, including renewables like wind and solar, natural gas, clean coal and nuclear power. The administration is committed to learning from Japan's experience as we work to continue to strengthen America's nuclear industry." The debate over nuclear has become a bit of a political football. National Journal reported on House Republicans’ cuts that would cut nuclear safety preparedness and Sen. Joe Lieberman on Sunday said the U.S. needs to put the “brakes” on nuclear for now. But It’s just reality that because options are so limited on energy, the debate over nuclear power isn’t likely going to go very far.

*** Sign of things to come? Miami-Dade’s Mayor Carlos Alvarez was recalled yesterday with 88% voting to oust him. AP points out that it’s “the most populous area, with more than 2.5 million people, ever to recall a local official.” The Miami Herald called it “a stunning margin,” one that capped “a dramatic collapse for a politician who was given increased authority by voters four years ago to clean up much-maligned county government but was ushered out in the largest recall of a local politician in U.S. history.” This recall embodies all of the frustration Americans are feeling right now -- over the economy (which is not very good in South Florida) and how government works (Alvarez gave big pay raises to his staff). It’s a Petri dish for the country’s views on politicians. Everyone’s on a very short leash. By the way, this recall was able to get off the ground thanks to support from a local billionaire businessman (local car dealership magnate and one-time owner of the Philadelphia Eagles) Norman Braman. The position of Miami-Dade mayor is a non-partisan slot.   

*** Give ’em Hell-er: Rep. Dean Heller (R-NV), the person seen as the GOP’s best statewide candidate in Nevada and who Republicans wanted to run in 2010 against Harry Reid, jumped in the 2012 Senate race to replace scandal-plagued Sen. John Ensign (R). Ensign decided to retire rather than face a nasty primary he likely would have lost. Democrats almost immediately released a Web video hitting Heller, “a sure sign,” a party strategist said, “of how aggressive we're going to be in that state, because it's so winnable.” Democrats are hopeful they can avoid a potential primary between Rep. Shelly Berkley, state Attorney General Cortez Mastro, or Secretary of State Ross Miller. This race is likely going to be a tossup and one of the most closely watched. It’s also a presidential swing state -- with a significant Hispanic population, about 27%, that helped Reid over the finish line – where Obama is going to seriously play. Heller, by the way, was a no on the CR. In fact both Heller and Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Montana Republican running for Senate (and fearing a tea party challenge?) voted no on the short-term C.R. And here’s this from the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics blog: “Only four of Nevada's 24 Senators had a prior tenure in U.S. House; 75 percent of Senate bids by Nevada U.S. Representatives have failed since WWII.” and

*** Barack-etology 2011: President Obama will unveil his NCAA Tournament bracket on ESPN today at noon ET. Here are his Final Four (all No. 1s): Duke, Kansas, Ohio State and Pittsburgh. ESPN’s Andy Katz will be on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown at 9:00 am ET to talk about the president’s bracket.

*** T-rump Roast: On Comedy Central last night, Donald Trump was skewered, perhaps harshest by rapper Snoop Dogg, who said, per NBC’s Catherine Chomiak, "Donald says he wants to run for president and move on into the White House. Why not? It wouldn't be the first time you pushed a black family out they home." Ouch. And Trump boasted, “If I decide to run, you'll have the great pleasure of voting for the man that will easily go down as the greatest president in the history of the United States. Me. Donald John Trump.” Ladies and gentlemen, a candidate for president expected to be taken seriously?

*** On the Trail: Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) hits South Carolina. It’s his second trip there, and first since the summer of 2010. Here’s Pawlenty’s latest video from New Hampshire (complete with him playing hockey).

*** Programming Notes: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell interviews Secretary of State Clinton from Cairo on MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports … Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be on MSNBC’s The Lawrence O’Donnell Show at 8:00 pm ET.

Countdown to continuing resolution’s expiration: 2 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 149 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 237 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 327 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

Click here to sign up for First Read emails.
Text FIRST to 622639, to sign up for First Read alerts to your mobile phone.
Check us out on Facebook and also on Twitter.