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First Thoughts: Slow start

The slow start to the GOP presidential race… Reagan Foundation, NBC, and Politico reschedule debate for the fall… Obama talks more about Libya to NBC’s Brian Williams… The danger for Obama on Libya: The rebels are now on the run… Obama to discuss energy and gas prices at 11:20 am ET speech in DC… President talks up Kaine for VA SEN (translation: Kaine’s all but in the race)… Schumer’s rough start… NRCC, DCCC rake in the bucks… Pawlenty’s in OH; Gingrich is in MA; and Villaraigosa is in DC.

From NBC's Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Slow start: One of the bigger political stories of 2011 -- outside of the Tucson shootings, the collective-bargaining battle in the Midwest and what's happening in the Middle East, of course -- has been the slow start to the upcoming presidential contest. Right now, just three Republicans (Cain, Pawlenty, and Roemer) have formed exploratory committees, and no one has yet to formally announce a presidential bid. By comparison, at this point in the 2008 cycle, at least 17 Democratic and Republican presidential candidates had already formed their exploratory committees or had officially declared they were running for president (as Obama did from Springfield, IL on Feb. 10, 2007). The 2012 Iowa caucuses, as of now, are set to take place 313 days from now.

*** NBC/Politico debate moves to the fall: This slow start to the GOP presidential race is the reason why the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, along with partners NBC News and Politico, today will announce that it's moving its GOP presidential debate -- originally scheduled for May -- to Sept. 14. “Although there will be a long and impressive list of Republican candidates who eventually take the field, too few have made the commitment thus far for a debate to be worthwhile in early May," said John Heubusch, the Reagan Foundation's executive director. "The Reagan Foundation’s first Republican presidential primary debate will move to the fall, allowing enough time for the full slate of candidates to participate.” The NBC/Politico debate will be moderated by NBC's Brian Williams and Politico's John F. Harris. 

*** Obama talks more about Libya: NBC’s Williams yesterday sat down with President Obama to discuss the U.S. military campaign in Libya. Some highlights: The president didn’t rule out the U.S. arming the rebel opposition ("I'm not ruling it out. But I'm also not ruling it in.”). He talked about the end game ("Our expectation is that as we continue to apply steady pressure, not only militarily but also through these other means, that Khaddafy will ultimately step down."). And he repeated that because the U.S. is intervening in Libya doesn’t mean it will intervene in other Middle East countries.

*** The tide turns in Libya? The danger for Obama on Libya, however, is that the situation on the ground there is changing. When he gave his speech on Monday, there was good news: The rebel forces had the momentum. But now? The undermanned and largely untrained rebels are on the retreat. The Washington Post: "The rebels’ chaotic retreat from the town of Bin Jawwad, which they had captured from troops loyal to Khaddafy just two days earlier, reversed the momentum they had seized over the weekend and suggested that the ad hoc and lightly armed opposition force may have reached the limits of its capacity." And this raises the stakes about arming the rebels, but the hesitance is real since none of the allies are sure exactly who these folks are or who they have been connected to in the past. The president's predicament summed up by Tom Friedman this morning: "Dear Lord, please make President Obama lucky."

*** Talking energy and gas prices: At Georgetown University at 11:20 am ET, President Obama will deliver a speech on energy. Per a preview of the speech by senior administration officials, NBC’s Athena Jones reports that Obama is expected to announce a goal of reducing oil imports to the US by "about one-third" in "a little over a decade" by focusing on four main areas -- increasing domestic oil production, increasing natural gas production and use, boosting research into and production of biofuels, and raising automobile efficiency standards. The president will propose incentives to encourage more oil and gas production and when it comes to biofuels, and he will set a goal of breaking ground on at least four commercial-scale cellulosic or advanced biorefineries over the next two years. A little more on the speech from us: What might surprise some is how little he’ll say about nuclear energy, especially after what occurred in Japan. More than anything else, this speech will serve as a “I feel your pain on gas prices” address.

*** Obama talks up Kaine for VA SEN: If there was any doubt of DNC Chair Tim Kaine running for the open Senate seat in Virginia, President Obama erased it at last night’s DNC fundraiser in the Big Apple. "There has been some speculation about our DNC chair plunging back into the hurly-burly of electoral politics," Obama said, per the pool report. "I don't know if those rumors are true, but what I do know is that I cannot imagine someone who has been a better partner to me, a better friend... Should he choose to do so, he would be an outstanding senator for the commonwealth of Virginia." Folks, Obama wouldn’t be talking this way if Kaine WEREN’T going to run. He’s in… Now, who replaces him? Will the president name the first woman to run the DNC in a generation?

*** Schumer’s rough start: Sen. Chuck Schumer forgetting to hit the mute button before a conference call with reporters yesterday was just the latest example of how his tenure heading up the messaging/communications effort for the Senate Democrats has gotten off to a rough start. The bigger transgression, though: Dems are all over the map on their message when it comes to the budget stalemate. Schumer's had a hard time getting a full read on the Democratic caucus, and he's found himself backtracking a few times since the November elections when it's come to dealing with the White House. What's also not helpful to Schumer: his fraying relationship with one of his long-time close friends who sits in the Senate. Is this simply the growing pains dealing with a new portfolio? Or the result of the fact that nearly half the Democratic caucus is up for re-election in 2012, and they aren't interested in singing from anyone else's song sheet but their own?

*** Raking in the bucks: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie headlines a 7:00 pm fundraiser in DC for the National Republican Congressional Committee. The NRCC tells First Read that this annual dinner -- organized by NRCC Chair Pete Sessions, as well as GOP Reps. Upton, Kline, and Ros-Lehtinen -- has already received more than $10 million in pledges. Meanwhile, we’ve learned that DCCC Chair Steve Israel and DCCC Recruiting Chair Allyson Schwartz announced at a members’ dinner last night that they are paying their dues in full this month -- and joined Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Whip Steny Hoyer in urging their colleagues to contribute what they could for the DCCC’s end of quarter push. 

*** On the trail: Tim Pawlenty addresses the Cuyahoga County Lincoln Day Celebration in Cleveland, OH at 6:30 pm, and Newt Gingrich gives a speech at Salem State College in MA at 8:00 pm.

*** And also in DC: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is in the nation’s capital to pitch “America Fast Forward,” an initiative to help accelerate transportation infrastructure projects across the country.

Countdown to continuing resolution’s expiration: 9 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 135 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 223 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 313 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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