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First Thoughts: 2012 field comes into focus

2012 field comes into sharper focus this week… Important reminder: November 2012 is a LONG time away… Gang of Six could reveal its budget plan soon, and it will include tax reform (though not actual tax hikes)… Obama attends the annual White House Easter Egg Roll at 10:15 am ET… Romney hits Obama in Union Leader op-ed… Santorum’s big (and busy) week… An update on Nevada… And an update on Gabby Giffords.

From Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** 2012 field comes into focus: So far in the early 2012 presidential race, President Obama, Mitt Romney, and Tim Pawlenty have formed their presidential committees. Herman Cain, Buddy Roemer, and Gary Johnson are in, too. And Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are “testing the waters,” so to speak. But by the end of this week, the 2012 field will come into sharper focus. Haley Barbour has repeatedly said that he’ll announce his intentions by the end of April -- which is this Saturday. Also at the end of this month, Jon Huntsman’s ambassadorship to China ends and he returns to the United States. And Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, with his state’s legislative session ending, told the Washington Post’s Balz that he’ll be making his decision soon. “It’s time to cut bait,” he said. Two other things to keep an eye on: 1) Romney, T-Paw, Santorum, Cain, and Michele Bachmann will attend an Americans for Prosperity confab in Manchester, NH on Friday; and 2) the first GOP debate takes place on May 5 in South Carolina. As Politico noted late last week, "The hazy Republican presidential primary is about to get some clarity" in the next two weeks.

*** Slow ride, take it easy: Yet as we examine every presidential move, pore over every state and national poll, and fixate on the unemployment rate and gas prices, it’s important to remember that it’s VERY EARLY. Election Day 2012 is still a year and a half away. Consider: About this time two years ago, President Obama was nearing his 100th day in office; the GOP had just lost the special congressional election in NY-20; Arlen Specter was about to switch parties; and Bill Clinton was stumping for Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s gubernatorial contest. And a year ago today, Washington was speculating on whom Obama would name to replace John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court; Blanche Lincoln was debating Bill Halter in Arkansas’ Democratic primary; and Charlie Crist was about to launch his indie Senate bid. Bottom line: It’s likely that so much will change a year and a half from now.

*** Gang of Six could reveal its plan soon: On "Meet the Press" yesterday, Sens. Tom Coburn (R) and Kent Conrad (D) -- two members of the so-called bipartisan "Gang of Six" working to forge a long-term solution to the nation's debt -- suggested that they could reveal their plan soon. "We've agreed not to discuss the status of our negotiations," Conrad said. "But if we don't have an agreement soon, we won't be relevant to this discussion." When NBC's David Gregory asked if they intend to be relevant, Conrad added, "We intend to be relevant, and I would say this: We have made enormous progress in this group, and it is the only bipartisan effort that is under way. And at the end of the day, it has to be bipartisan or nothing is going to happen."

*** Pledging allegiance -- to the United States or Grover Norquist? On the thorny subject of raising taxes, both senators said that their plan would produce more revenues by reforming the tax code, though not by hiking individual tax rates. Said Conrad: “Revenue has to be part of this, because revenue as a share of our national income is the lowest it has been in 60 years. Spending as a share of our national income is the highest it has been in 60 years. So you got to work both sides of the equation.” When Coburn was asked if such reform would break the promise he and other Republicans have made to Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform not to raise taxes, he responded, “Which pledge is most important … the pledge to uphold your oath to the Constitution of the United States, or a pledge from a special interest group?” 

*** Walk’n roll: At 10:15 am ET, President Obama attends the annual White House Easter Egg Roll and delivers remarks. At 11:30 am, he meets with his national security team to discuss Afghanistan and Pakistan.

*** Romney hits Obama in another op-ed: Continuing his selective media strategy, Romney pens an op-ed in the Union Leader -- in advance of his attendance at Friday’s Americans for Prosperity confab in New Hampshire. Romney’s target, of course, is the president. “With its failed stimulus package, its grandiose new social programs, its fervor for more taxes and government regulations, and its hostility toward business, the administration has made the debt problem worse, hindered economic recovery and needlessly cost American workers countless jobs.” More: “The Obama administration may not be serious about addressing the problems that have caused the S&P downgrade, but in less than two years the voters will tell us whether they will issue a decisive downgrade of their own.”

*** Santorum’s big week: As we pointed out earlier, Rick Santorum this week is embarking on a major campaign swing that makes it seem like it’s 20 days until the Iowa caucuses, instead of the actual 287 days away. Today, Santorum heads to Goose Lake, IA. On Tuesday, it’s to Dubuque, IA, Dyersville, IA, and Cedar Rapids, IA. On Wednesday, he goes to Marshalltown, IA. On Thursday, it’s to DC for a foreign-policy speech. On Friday, he speaks at the NRA’s annual meeting in Pittsburgh and then heads to Manchester, NH. And on Saturday, he delivers remarks at another event in New Hampshire. That’s nine events in six days in three states (plus DC).

***An update on Nevada: On Friday, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) announced that he would appoint someone to fill John Ensign’s Senate seat by May 3, and it’s still expected that person will be GOP Congressman Dean Heller (who is already running for the seat in ’12). Yet it’s unclear how the special election to succeed Heller would proceed. Last week, it was widely assumed that the political parties would get to pick their nominees, which would probably keep Sharron Angle out of the race. But the Las Vegas Review Journal reports that the state law “regarding House special elections is open to interpretation. That thrusts the process into unchartered territory and possible litigation by the political parties and the candidates, including … Angle… Ultimately, Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat who has a reputation for fairness, will rule on how to apply special election law.”

*** And an update on Giffords: With Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords expected to attend her husband’s shuttle launch later this week, the Arizona Republic takes a peak at her recovery so far. “Giffords speaks most often in a single word or declarative phrase: ‘love you,’ ‘awesome,’ even ‘get out’ to doctors... Longer sentences frustrate Giffords. She must search her brain for the words she wants, which feels like trying to pull out the name of a familiar face you can't quite place." The paper also notes that she's left-handed now.

Countdown to NY-26 special election: 29 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 109 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 197 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 287 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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