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First Thoughts: Ryan's impact

The latest example of Paul Ryan’s impact on national politics: today’s special election in NY-26… The Medicare debate has played a role in the race, and if the GOP loses, it could force them to re-evaluate how they approach the issue in the months ahead… Warning: Don’t overstate a single special election, but also don’t underestimate Medicare’s political power… Polls close in NY-26 at 9:00 pm ET… Obama to head to Missouri on Sunday… President Obama and British PM Cameron pen London Times op-ed on their “essential relationship”… Pawlenty’s moment of truth… T-Paw is in Florida… And will it be Scott Brown vs. Elizabeth Warren in MA next year?

*** Ryan’s impact: Five months ago, who could have predicted that Paul Ryan would become one of the biggest forces in American politics? We all knew that John Boehner would play one of those roles. So, too, would Eric Cantor. And Darrell Issa was the committee chairman we all thought would dominate the Sunday shows. But in the past week, let us count the ways that Ryan -- with his budget plan and Medicare phase-out -- has impacted the political debate: 1) a GOP presidential candidate was forced to reverse himself and apologize to Ryan after disagreeing that his plan went too far; 2) the Democratic-led Senate plans to vote on his budget this week simply because Democrats smell political blood; 3) Sen. Scott Brown -- potentially the GOP’s most vulnerable incumbent senator in ’12 (though he doesn’t look that vulnerable right now) -- said he wouldn’t vote for it; and 4) the Ryan plan has become a top storyline in today’s special congressional election in NY-26.

*** Medicare’s impact in NY-26: If Republican Jane Corwin wins this contest to replace ex-GOP Rep. Chris Lee (he of the shirtless photo), the party will breathe a sigh of relief. But if Democrat Kathy Hochul wins, as the current momentum suggests, much of it will be due to third-party candidate Jack Davis siphoning support from Corwin. But the Medicare debate will have played a role, too. “Jane Corwin says she would vote for the 2012 Republican budget that would essentially end Medicare,” goes one Hochul TV ad. “Seniors would have to pay $6,400 more for the same coverage. But the plan Jane Corwin supports would cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans.” Corwin responded with her own TV ad, saying to the camera: “I’ll fight to save Medicare from bankruptcy, and I’ll never let career politicians cut Social Security. You can count on that.” What’s more, a recent Siena poll -- which had Hochul leading Corwin, 42%-38% -- found the Democrat with a 56%-36% fav/unfav among district voters 55 and older, and the Republican with an upside-down fav/unfav, 40%-51%, among this group.

*** Don’t overstate a single special election, but don’t understate the power of Medicare: If Democrats do win tonight, it’s important to note the predictive limits of special elections. Indeed, if you looked only at the results of last cycle’s specials (NY-20, NY-23, PA-12), Nancy Pelosi would still be speaker. But a GOP loss in NY-26 -- a district John McCain won in 2008, 52%-46% -- would be a wake-up call for Republicans on Medicare, forcing their House members and even presidential candidates to re-evaluate how they approach the issue. Never ignore the senior vote and the power of Medicare. One irony of Paul Ryan’s emergence as a force in politics and in NY-26: Most, if not all, of the GOP House candidates running last year distanced themselves from Ryan’s budget “roadmap,” which included not only an overhaul of Medicare but also Social Security. Republicans made a mistake in 2005 when they ignored their near-loss in an Ohio special election; they never even studied the reason behind it, simply chalking it up to a bad candidate. Candidates do matter, but so do issues that motivate folks to polls. Democrats made a mistake last year, taking comfort in their ground game thanks to special election victories.

*** Obama heads to Missouri on Sunday: In brief remarks he made from London on the second day of his overseas trip, President Obama said he will travel to Missouri on Sunday to assess tornado damage there, NBC’s Athena Jones reports. The president said his thoughts and prayers were with the families who are suffering. "And all we can do is let them know that all of America cares deeply about them and that we are going to do absolutely everything we can to make sure that they recover.” Jones adds that Obama spoke by telephone yesterday with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to express his condolences, and talked with him again today. The president directed FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to travel to Missouri to provide assistance, along with a FEMA Incident Management Assistance Team, which is working with FEMA officials already in Missouri to coordinate with state and local officials to help in disaster response and recovery efforts.

*** An “essential relationship”: Also while overseas, Obama wrote a London Times op-ed with British PM David Cameron on the two nations’ “essential relationship.” Obama and Cameron said, “Yes, it is founded on a deep emotional connection, by sentiment and ties of people and culture. But the reason it thrives, the reason why this is such a natural partnership, is because it advances our common interests and shared values. It is a perfect alignment of what we both need and what we both believe. And the reason it remains strong is because it delivers time and again. Ours is not just a special relationship, it is an essential relationship — for us and for the world.” In addition, both the U.S. and U.K. have announced the creation of a joint National Security Council of sorts to deal with the joint operations the two countries have in so many parts of the world. And don’t miss this package one of us put together on Obama’s day in Ireland yesterday.

*** Pawlenty’s moment of truth: Turning to the 2012 presidential race, Tim Pawlenty couldn’t have picked a better day -- after Mitch Daniels’ decision not to run -- to formally announce his presidential bid. It’s a huge opportunity for him. But you do have to wonder if the message Pawlenty unveiled yesterday (It’s “time for truth”) could end up being a headache for the Republican presidential candidate. The Wall Street Journal editorial page loved his statement -- in Iowa, of all places -- that the U.S. can no longer afford ethanol subsidies. But as the ethanol lobby asked, when will Pawlenty deliver his speech in Houston, TX about ending federal oil subsidies? Or when’s the speech in New Hampshire that U.S. tax rates are already at their lowest level since 1950? Or when’s the speech in Northern Virginia that defense spending is too high? And the AP even fact-checked Pawlenty, saying that a parsing of his opening-day statements “shows they were not the whole truth.” Still, he's trying to come across as the straight/tough talker on spending. The initial reaction by some conservative opinion leaders has been positive. This is the anti-Gingrich of announcements… so far. *** CORRECTION *** Tax rates aren't at their lowest level since 1950, but tax levels (as a percentage of all personal income) are.

*** On the 2012 trail: Pawlenty, in Coral Gables, FL, is on the second leg of his announcement tour, holding a Facebook town hall at 1:30 pm ET and media avail at 2:15 pm… Rick Santorum also is in Florida… Buddy Roemer is in New Hampshire… And Michele Bachmann holds a telephone town hall.

*** Warren vs. Brown in MA? As we mentioned above, Scott Brown is potentially the GOP’s most vulnerable Senate incumbent this cycle, but his poll numbers in liberal Massachusetts are in good shape right now. The reason: He’s tried hard not to be viewed as a national Republican -- voting for New START, for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and, this week, against the Ryan budget. But here’s a question: Will that be a trickier line to walk if fellow Massachusetts Republican Mitt Romney becomes the GOP nominee in 2012? Brown and Romney share much of the same political braintrust; The higher profile Romney becomes in the national debate, the harder it's going to be for Brown to distance himself. And now comes the news that Democrats are recruiting Elizabeth Warren to run against Brown next year. The Dems probably realize they can’t beat Brown with a generic Democratic candidate. That’s where Warren comes in.

Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 81 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 112 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 168 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 258 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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