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First Thoughts: Who benefits from Huck's absence?

The biggest beneficiaries of Huckabee’s absence: Bachmann and Santorum… Can Romney still downplay Iowa?… Huck’s very unsurprising decision… Waiting on Daniels… Newt comes out against Ryan’s budget plan on “Meet”… Gingrich gives a speech in DC (on Alzheimer’s research funding) and then heads to Iowa… Romney participates in his national “Call Day” and then holds an online Facebook town hall… Obama heads to Memphis, TN… Paul Ryan to announce his Senate plans by this week… Rahm Emanuel gets sworn in as Chicago’s next mayor… And it’s Tomblin vs. Maloney in WV’s special gubernatorial election.

*** Who benefits from Huck’s absence? After Mike Huckabee’s announcement Saturday night that he won’t run for president, all the other Republican candidates THINK they benefit, and there’s some truth to that. Yet right now, the biggest beneficiary would be Michele Bachmann, if she gets in. And next, it would be Rick Santorum. The reason: With Huck’s absence, the biggest void in the 2012 field is on the social conservative front, and Bachmann and Santorum are the only true warriors there (maybe Herman Cain to a lesser extent). Tim Pawlenty is also a social conservative, but he’s hardly the warrior that Bachmann and Santorum are. (Then again, Huckabee -- despite his preacher past -- wasn’t considered a warrior when he was Arkansas governor.) The void Huckabee leaves is one of the "conservative populist,” as the New York Times’ Ross Douthat captures well today.

*** Can Romney still downplay Iowa? The Iowa contest is now wide open. And Politico’s Martin raises an intriguing question to ponder: Can front-runner Romney -- who at one time was the favorite in the ’08 GOP caucuses -- still downplay Iowa? “Without the former preacher in the race, why couldn’t Romney make a strong showing in Iowa? The 34% of caucus-goers who supported Huckabee in the race could splinter, leaving a path for Romney to capture a plurality victory in the Hawkeye State… ‘They certainly are going to have to revisit Iowa,’ said Brian Kennedy, a former state GOP chair there who backed Romney in 2008 but is now uncommitted… Another Iowa Republican was even blunter, suggesting that the Romney fig leaf for not being able to win the caucuses has been stripped away. ‘The biggest loser is Romney because he no longer has a foil in Iowa,’ said the Republican. ‘All the Iowa polls sans Huckabee have him winning.’” It may be that Romney's gambit all along was to set up this idea he might not fully compete, so that if he wins Iowa, it essentially ends the race, assuming he follows a victory in Iowa with one in New Hampshire. This all sets up quite the storyline for Romney’s visit to Iowa on May 27.

*** Huck’s unsurprising decision: Huckabee’s decision shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who has been watching the emerging field. For starters, he hadn’t assembled his team, and key ’08 aides and endorsements had started to work for other GOP candidates. What’s more, with his multi-million-dollar house in Florida, it was pretty evident it would be difficult for Huckabee to step away from his FOX show.  Then there was his upcoming Christian-themed Alaska cruise in June. Bottom line: As Huckabee said on Saturday night, his heart just wasn’t in it.

*** Waiting on Daniels: And that brings us to Mitch Daniels. With Huck’s absence, the 2012 GOP presidential field is pretty much set -- with two exceptions. One is the aforementioned Bachmann, and the other is Daniels. If Daniels gets in, then that probably closes the door for the field, as well as for all the we-need-someone-else speculation. But if Daniels follows Huck’s route and DOES NOT get in, that will trigger a constant storyline within the GOP that they need another candidate (Chris Christie? Jeb Bush?), and that storyline will last through October or November. As for Daniels’ ultimate decision, he has done more than Huckabee to suggest a possible presidential bid (his speeches at CPAC and AEI, as well as last week’s Indiana GOP dinner). But he confronts the same question that Huckabee did: Is his heart in it? Have we ever seen someone get a nomination who didn't seem to always have that "burning desire"? Daniels' lack of fire should worry supporters. (See: Thompson, Fred).

*** Newt on “Meet the Press”: In its first “Meet the Candidates 2012” interview, NBC’s “Meet the Press” had Newt Gingrich, and he said some interesting things. First, he opposed Paul Ryan’s Medicare overhaul. “I think that that is too big a jump,” he said. “I'm against Obamacare, which is imposing radical change. And I would be against a conservative imposing radical change.” (However, Gingrich had told Time magazine two weeks ago that he would have voted for Ryan’s budget plan.) He acknowledged his past support for an individual health-insurance mandate. “I agree that all of us have a responsibility to help pay for health care. And I think that there are ways to do it that make most libertarians relatively happy. I've said consistently, where there's some requirement you either have health insurance or you post a bond or in some way you indicate you're going to be held accountable.” And he admitted that a lack of discipline is an issue that he must overcome. “I'm going to have a lot of tests for it on this campaign trail, is going to be whether I have the discipline and the judgment to be president.” This is the quote that will be re-used either in his 2012 political obit or for the stories that lead up to his march to Tampa.

*** 2012 field vs. the GOP Congress: Gingrich’s opposition to Ryan’s plans for Medicare is an example of how the presidential primary campaign could influence the current budget debate in Washington -- either by emboldening the House GOP or handcuffing it. Newt’s comments could also be a realization that Ryan’s budget doesn’t play well with Iowa seniors.

*** On the 2012 trail: Gingrich this morning gives a speech in DC on the importance of Alzheimer’s research funding, and then he’s off to begin his 17-city tour of Iowa… In Las Vegas, Romney holds his “Call Day” fundraising effort and then a Facebook town hall at 3:00 pm ET (it’s a gathering of his online supporters, not akin to what President Obama did with Mark Zuckerberg a few weeks ago)… And Ron Paul appears on MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan show.

*** Obama’s day: Obama heads to Memphis, TN, where he meets with families impacting by the flooding there at 11:30 am ET and then delivers the commencement address at the city’s Booker T. Washington High School (winner of this year’s Race to the Top Commencement Challenge) at 1:00 pm ET. And then he travels back to DC 1) to congratulate UConn’s men’s basketball team for their national championship, and 2) to attend two DNC events.

*** Ryan to announce his decision by this week: On CNN yesterday, Paul Ryan said he’d have a decision by the end of this week about whether he’ll run for the open Senate seat in Wisconsin. The Los Angeles Times: “Noting that [incumbent Democrat Herb Kohl] just announced his intentions, Ryan said: ‘It was a bit of a surprise to all of us and so my family and supporters, we’ve just started digesting this.’ ‘This week, maybe we’ll hear?’ host Candy Crowley asked. ‘Yes,’ he said.” 

*** “A new day” in Chicago: Today, Rahm Emanuel gets sworn in as Chicago’s next mayor -- and Vice President Biden will be in attendance. Here are excerpts of the inaugural address Emanuel will deliver: “When Richard M. Daley took office as mayor 22 years ago, he challenged all of us to lower our voices and raise our sights. Chicago is a different city today than the one Mayor Daley inherited, thanks to all he did.” More: “New times demand new answers; old problems cry out for better results. This morning, we leave behind the old ways and old divisions and begin a new day for Chicago. I am proud to lead a city united in common purpose and driven by a common thirst for change.”

*** It’s Tomblin vs. Maloney in WV: And as expected, Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) won West Virginia’s special gubernatorial primary on Saturday, and he’ll face businessman Bill Maloney (R) in the Oct. 4 general election. The Charleston Daily Mail: “Early conversations with campaign and party officials suggest this could resemble the U.S. Senate race last year between then-Gov. Joe Manchin and Republican businessman John Raese. Now, just as then, Republicans are planning to draw a contrast between their candidate, a businessman, and a "career politician." Tomblin has spent much of his life in politics and Maloney is making his first run for elected office.”

Countdown to NY-26 special election: 8 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 89 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 120 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 176 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 266 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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