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First Thoughts: The handoff on Libya

U.S. hands off Libya no-fly enforcement to NATO … United Arab Emirates to contribute planes … What about Syria … The White House’s shuts out TV cameras … What the Census numbers say about importance of Latinos in politics … An Iowa cattle call … and who’s Iowa is it anyway -- Steve King’s or Chuck Grassley’s? … Bachmann + Trump = Warhol Primary … Haley, Newt, Bachmann, Huck in Iowa; Ron Paul in NH.

From NBC's Chuck Todd, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** The handoff: President Obama has consistently said it would be “days not weeks” until the United States hands over control of military action on Libya. Well, last night, six days from when “days not weeks” first appeared, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the U.S. handed over leadership of enforcement of the no-fly zone to NATO. The U.S. “military will continue to provide support,” however, Clinton said. Libyans were met by “extreme violence” when they stood up, they made appeals to the world, and “the world listened,” Clinton continued, adding, “We faced the prospect of an imminent humanitarian disaster” and the world was “compelled to act.” It's a bit surprising that NATO ended up with full control of the operation, since it seemed the administration was setting up another outcome for days for fear that NATO taking the lead would scare off other Arab countries from contributing to the military effort. The reality, though, coming up with an alternative command structure to NATO was proving extremely difficult on the short time frame the U.S. was demanding.  

*** The handoff 2: Despite the chorus of criticism, particularly from Congress, that the president hasn't been out in front on Libya, the White House is continuing its soft-power approach of letting others share the job of public spokesperson on this military campaign. Not only was it Clinton once again out front, but it’s going to be her and Defense Secretary Gates on NBC’s Meet the Press this Sunday. This is actually a consistent theme out of the White House, when criticism comes from the Beltway chattering class, they double down on their original instinct, sometimes to a fault -- and then capitulating when it's too late to have an impact. Image management aside, the president's political standing when it comes to Libya will be judged by the outcome, ultimately. (Don't miss our expanded Libya timeline.)

*** The single most important 2012 political story…: …It’s not in Iowa (more on that below); it’s not in Washington. It’s happening every single day in America – the growth of the Hispanic population. Latinos made up half of all U.S. population growth in the past decade, by far the fastest growing group. Hispanics have nearly doubled to make up 16% of the country. We’ve said it here before, and now with the new Census numbers out it’s worth repeating: Latinos are already a serious political force in America and their influence will only get bigger. And that could be problematic for Republicans on a presidential level, because overwhelmingly right now, they prefer Democrats. Obama won Latinos 67%-31% in 2008, and they made up just 9% of the electorate. In the 2010 exit polls, when Republicans swept Democrats out of the U.S. House, Hispanics still preferred Democrats by a similar 64%-34% margin. And they made up just 8% of the electorate. In fact, look at the states out West with large Hispanic populations and how Democrats performed out West vs. the Midwest. In states with high Hispanic populations, Democrats were able to keep their losses to a minimum, holding on to Senate seats in Colorado and Nevada, keeping California fairly blue and holding on to House seats in Arizona they should have lost. As one Republican operative said to us in April 2010: “We have problems, clearly, with Hispanics,” the operative said. “If we do not manage an immigration bill appropriately, and we alienate Hispanics, Obama’s going to run up his numbers in the 70s [with Hispanics]. That is not a sustainable model to win.”  For more, see Tom Curry's story on the Hispanic vote and 2012.

*** Iowa cattle call: Speaking of the presidential race, Saturday is the one of the first big GOP cattle calls in Iowa -- conservative Rep. Steve King’s (R) Conservative Principles Conference. Five presidential hopefuls will speak: Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS), Newt Gingrich, Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) (who we learned yesterday is leaning toward a run), and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who won’t run for president, but could be a GOP kingmaker in another early primary state -- South Carolina -- delivers the keynote address some time after 5:30 pm ET. King will open the confab at 10:00 am ET. But…

*** Whose Iowa is it anyway -- Steve King’s or Chuck Grassley’s? King’s influence has grown with the Iowa GOP caucuses being dominated by social conservative and evangelical Christians, many of whom live in King’s Western Iowa district. But remember, Iowa is a presidential SWING state. Obama (D) won it by 10 points (54%-44%); George W. Bush (R) won it by 0.7 percentage points (49.9%-49.2%); and Al Gore (D) won it by 0.3 percentage points. It’s stunning that in a presidential election, a congressman could have more influence than a senator who represents the ENTIRE state. But the Iowa caucuses aren’t about the entire state -- they’re about activists. Remember, Grassley, who had been a health-care negotiator, retreated on the issue and after facing harsh blowback in his state. (He was up for re-election in 2010 and feared a primary challenge). So maybe the King wing has already won out. Is that a problem for the GOP come Fall of 2012? For full coverage of the event, tune into MSNBC and MSNBC.com all day tomorrow as First Read will be live on the scene.

*** The Andy Warhol primary: Staying with the presidential, Michele Bachmann was stirring the Twitter with news that she might run for president yesterday; Donald Trump announced he’s going to Iowa in June. It appears everybody wants their “15 minutes,” and with the dwindled Iowa field in particular, it looks like they’re going to get it. Bachmann and Trump are little more than cable distractions, the very definition of one of OUR favorite expressions "cable catnip." Neither of them has a realistic chance of being president -- or even the GOP nominee. Bachmann reminds us of Bob Dornan, when he ran in 1996. He became not only a non-factor in the overall picture of the presidential race, but he lost his House seat to boot. They have a similar style -- a little bombastic, know how to get press. There’s going to be a lot of wasted effort chasing these brushfires and we’re all probably going to exert too much effort on them -- all for provocative copy.

*** On the trail today: Bachmann, Haley Barbour, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, attend the Pastors’ Policy Briefing in Iowa. Barbour makes two more stops in Iowa, Gingrich appears on Iowa public TV, and then (with Callista), Gingrich screens his “Rediscovering God” documentary in Des Moines. … Ron Paul is in New Hampshire to speak at a Lincoln-Reagan Dinner.

Countdown to continuing resolution’s expiration: 14 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 140 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 228 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 318 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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