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First Thoughts: Iowa matters

Iowa still matters… Obama delivers speech on manufacturing from Bettendorf, IA at 1:05 pm ET… Bachmann leaves Iowa and heads to New Hampshire and South Carolina… Palin appears at movie premiere in Pella, IA tonight… The end of Palin-palooza?... Do Romney, Bachmann, and Perry all have problems with conservative elites?... Is Pawlenty still a top-tier candidate?... T-Paw delivers a foreign-policy speech at the Council on Foreign Relations at 9:30 am ET… And debt and Libya debates continue on Capitol Hill.

*** Iowa matters: So who, exactly, is still saying that Iowa doesn't matter? After Michele Bachmann's formal announcement yesterday in the state (in Waterloo), Sarah Palin tonight attends the premiere of that pro-Palin documentary, "The Undefeated" (in Pella). And the president of the United States also is in Iowa today, delivering a 1:05 pm ET speech on manufacturing (in Bettendorf). Memo to the Mitt Romneys and Jon Huntsmans who aren’t making Iowa a priority right now: Obama is in the Hawkeye State today because it’s a swing state. And by not aggressively playing in Iowa, are they downplaying their Iowa chances in the general? Consider: It’s very difficult THIS CYCLE to imagine how a Republican nominee gets to 270 electoral votes without winning two of the three states of Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The road to the White House for a Republican goes through the Midwest -- or it doesn't happen.

*** Bachmann heads to New Hampshire and South Carolina: Speaking of Bachmann, she campaigns today in New Hampshire before heading to South Carolina. On “TODAY” this morning, she declared she’s running a 50-state campaign “because I intend to be the nominee.” She added, “We are the candidate that’s going places.” When NBC’s Matt Lauer asked her how she’d lower the unemployment rate, Bachmann answered this way: repeal the health-care law, lower the corporate tax rate, and cut back on spending. And when Lauer asked her if she feared being “Palin-ized” -- a term a Tea Party leader told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell yesterday -- Bachmann replied, “That’s something that goes with the territory… There will be attacks to come.”

*** The end of Palin-palooza? You might not have noticed, but Saturday night's release of the Des Moines Register poll may very well have ended Palin-palooza, assuming Palin doesn't enter the presidential race. Saturday morning, the news came out that she would attend tonight’s movie debut, which produced speculation that Palin might step on Bachmann’s launch -- just like she stepped on Mitt Romney’s launch earlier this month in New Hampshire. But a funny thing happened later that night after the release of the poll, which showed Bachmann tied for the lead in Iowa: Palin was barely in conversation on Sunday and Monday. And guess what: Bachmann stepped on Palin. Of course, Palin could very well dip her toes back in the presidential waters tonight. And she could fire up another bus tour. But unless she gets into the race, Palin-palooza will soon be coming to an end.

*** Problems with the elite: It’s worth noting that the top-two GOP candidates in that Des Moines Register poll (Romney and Bachmann) right now are probably the top-two overall Republican candidates. And here’s something to chew on: Both have conservative elite problems. Romney’s are well chronicled -- his health-care law, the enemies he made in ’08, mistrust among elite social conservatives. As for Bachmann, remember that her House colleagues rejected her bid for a leadership post earlier this year. This is going to get re-litigated at some point; if she can’t woo those who know her best… And if Rick Perry gets into the presidential contest, he’d also have conservative elite problems, given that the Bush crowd isn’t a fan. This is an interesting phenomenon, one which Democrats (with either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama) didn’t have in ’08.

*** Is Pawlenty a top-tier candidate? At 9:30 am ET at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, Tim Pawlenty delivers a foreign-policy speech, in which he takes aim at some recent dovish-sounding rhetoric from fellow GOP presidential hopefuls. “What is wrong,” he’s expected to say, according to excerpts, “is for the Republican Party to shrink from the challenges of American leadership in the world. History repeatedly warns us that in the long run, weakness in foreign policy costs us and our children much more than we'll save in a budget line item.” With this speech -- and with his other activities -- Pawlenty is still acting like a top-tier candidate. But after a rough past couple of weeks, he’s going to have to prove (with his 2nd quarter numbers, at the next debate, in future polls) that he actually belongs in the conversation as a top-tier candidate.

*** On the 2012 trail: Elsewhere today, Huntsman is in Utah and Texas… Santorum’s in Iowa… And Gingrich conducts radio interviews.

*** Debt debate continues on the Hill: The politics of the debt ceiling continue to top the agenda on the Hill. Democrats and Republicans are playing chicken on the debt ceiling and Medicare. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to get Democrats to include Medicare cuts in a debt-ceiling deal -- in hopes of blunting the message that it's the GOP that wants to cut the program. Democrats, on the other hand, see it to their political advantage not to include entitlements and instead want new revenue to come from closing tax loopholes, cutting corporate subsidies, and cutting defense spending.

*** The unanswered questions: On the debt debate, we’re no longer at Square One (the Biden-Cantor talks took care of that), but it does seem as if Democrats and Republicans are looking for a Plan B. So call it "Square B." Indeed, there are still these questions: Who goes first -- the House or the Senate? Does McConnell play a bigger role than he did in the fight over the Continuing Resolution? (The thinking is that he will.) Will it be a two-year deal to get through the 2012 election? (It appears everyone prefers that.) And do Senate Democrats have the votes to pass it through the chamber even on a simple majority vote? (Remember that the vote won’t be easy for the Jon Testers, Claire McCaskills, and Ben Nelsons etc.)

*** Libya debate also continues on the Hill: The politics of Libya also will be on full display today -- in what’s expected to be a contentious Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. The administration lawyer, Harold Koh (who wrote the argument that the U.S. isn't engaged in "hostilities") will testify. The hearing begins at 10:00 am ET. The committee will also vote on the Kerry-McCain resolution supporting U.S. action in Libya. But there are five amendments to consider from Ranking Republican Dick Lugar (IN) that would limit the president’s authority, including calling for no ground troops to be used. Per NBC’s Libby Leist, Lugar – the president’s one-time ally on foreign affairs – will lash out at Obama. He will take on the president for not seeking congressional authorization for the mission. He says the White House consultations with Congress have been "perfunctory, incomplete, and dismissive of reasonable requests."

Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 46 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 77 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 133 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 223 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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