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First Thoughts: Here come the Republicans

Here come the Republicans … a 10-month reality show – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger … The changing Republican Party … On TODAY, Romney repeats defense of Massachusetts health care, says he listens to the Beatles and read Twilight series book. … the Palins’ summer vacation … the Summer of GOP speculation … Bachmann, Santorum, Pawlenty hit the trail.

*** Here come the Republicans: For the past two-and-a-half years, if not longer, Barack Obama has been the central actor in American politics. Almost every crisis, poll, or political event has involved him or revolved AROUND him in some form or fashion. But in the next several days -- with Mitt Romney’s formal announcement on Thursday, Rick Santorum’s on Monday, and the next GOP presidential debate on June 13 -- that will begin to change. Over the next 10 months, the race for the Republican nomination will become the chief political story in America, and that will affect the contours of the general election. We even started seeing it yesterday, with Palin, Pawlenty, and Bachmann taking center stage. “The Democratic ‘race’ is more akin to watching a single athlete run a marathon,” says Democratic strategist Jano Cabrera, who was a spokesman for Joe Lieberman’s presidential campaign in 2004, the last time a group of candidates from the other party were vying to take on an incumbent president who wasn’t facing a primary challenge.  

*** Sharing the stage: This isn't to say President Obama won't be a main character in the story, it just means he'll be sharing the stage. And that has its pluses and minuses for him. On the plus side, it's the beginning of turning the election away from SOLELY being a referendum. The minus: the sheer volume of attacks from the GOP field could take a toll on him. Just ask former President George W. Bush. The 2004 Democratic primary campaign brought the president down to their level. He still won, though…

*** The GOP’s 10-month reality show: “On the Republican side, we'll have reality television at its finest. A small group of strangers will be thrown together into a series of increasingly intense, high-stake challenges and somehow, out of that circular firing squad, a nominee will emerge,” Cabrera adds. And that impacts the general election. “If history is any guide, the nominee will come with the scars of the process … as the negative narratives that emerge in the primaries often return for a retelling in the general.” In other words, it won’t just be Obama taking the slings and arrows of Republicans anymore. That said, Obama actually emerged stronger through the long 2007-‘08 primary fight with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. The same could be true for someone like Mitt Romney -- if he can satisfy his party on health care. About the only potential nominee that does not NEED a long campaign but could survive one is Romney; the rest of the challengers need a long campaign in order to find time to both define themselves and create contrasts with their fellow challengers.

*** Ch-ch-changes: Speaking of health care and negative narratives, the main takeaway from Ryan Lizza's New Yorker piece on Mitt Romney's health-care law is similar to a point we made earlier this month: The GOP opposition to the individual mandate is more a story about the changing Republican Party. Back in 2006, Romney, the Heritage Foundation, and the Bush administration all supported the mandate. Now? It’s anathema to Republicans and conservatives. “If it were not for Mitt Romney, with assistance from the Heritage Foundation and George W. Bush, it is extremely unlikely that Obama would have passed his universal health-care law last year,” Lizza writes.

*** Romney: “If I become president, I will repeal Obamacare: In his interview with NBC’s Jamie Gangel, which aired on “TODAY” this morning, Romney defends his Massachusetts health-care law. “I understand that there are a lot of people who would just like me to get up and say, ‘Oh, it was a terrible idea. A boneheaded idea. It was just a terrible mistake.’ There's only one problem with that: It wouldn't be honest. What we did was to solve a very serious need that existed in our state.” When Gangel mentions the charge that “Romneycare” helped inspire “Obamacare,” Romney responds, “If I become president, I will repeal Obamacare on the first day I'm in office. My bill was 70 pages. His bill is 2,700 pages. In those extra 2,630 pages he's doing a lot of stuff that is just devastating to the healthcare system in this country… He's wrong.” (He also said his iPad has mostly 60s and 70s music on it, especially The Beatles; and he read The Rule of Nine, a thriller about the death of a congressional gofer and a terrorist plotting an attack on the U.S.; former President George W. Bush’s “Decision Points;” and one of the books in the vampire Twilight series.)

*** The Palins meet the Griswolds: As others have noted, Sarah Palin’s East Coast bus tour -- of which she hasn’t divulged the actual schedule to reporters -- seems more like a family summer vacation than any kind of presidential campaign rollout. The Palin family has visited George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Fort McHenry in Baltimore. And the next stop appears to be Gettysburg. Writes Politico: “For supporters and reporters looking for more details, Palin isn’t providing them. Palin’s staff has been unresponsive to reporters’ requests or told them to check the SarahPAC website, which updates with information only after she’s stopped somewhere.” The New York Times added yesterday, “Ms. Palin, the former governor of Alaska, has made it quite clear that she just wants to be left alone. She doesn’t want to accommodate members of the news media (except, perhaps, Fox)” -- except for the fact that Palin announced this trip to the media.”  Of course, for someone who wants to be left alone, she certainly has quite the attention-seeking bus. The last thing she wants is to be ignored, and she picked her spot -- a slow news hole known as Memorial Day weekend.

*** Hey, look kids, there’s Big Ben and there’s Parliament: Or in this case, there’s Fort McHenry, Gettysburg, and the Liberty Bell… Per NBC’s Shawna Thomas, the Palins plan on visiting the Gettysburg battlefield today, based on what Palin told media yesterday as she walked out of the hotel. Every time Thomas and other reporters following Palin ask one of the media wranglers where they are going next, they say either to watch the Web site or that Sarah's in charge, and they don't know what the next stop is. Trying to read into anything Palin does is futile. She’s unconventional and her fans love that she keeps the media off balance. Her tour doesn’t mean she’s running, or not running. It’s par for the course. One Republican noted to First Read that this tour is just a “head fake.” Any good defender knows that when someone head fakes, you should keep your feet on the ground.

*** On the 2012 trail: Elsewhere today, candidates, who are actually putting together campaigns and should be taken more seriously than the bus sideshow, hit the trail: Bachmann remains in New Hampshire… Pawlenty is in Iowa, making stops in Sioux Center and Le Mars… And Santorum spends his day in the Granite State.

*** “Summer of Speculation” watch: In New Jersey today, Iowa Republican donors meet with Gov. Chris Christie and his top political adviser, Mike DuHaime. Also this week, Rudy Giuliani has a couple of high-profile events. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he’s now “thinking about” a run for president.

Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 74 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 105 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 161 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 251 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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