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First Thoughts: A crucial 72 hours

The next 72 hours will be crucial in striking a big debt-limit deal… For now, there’s plenty of optimism a deal can be reached… Today’s bad jobs report: Economy added just 18,000 jobs in June, whilethe unemployment rate increases to 9.2%… GOP losing ground with seniors and in the Midwest?… Do independents really matter?… New York Times runs pre-obituary for Pawlenty… Rick Perry and Texas’ death penalty… Dems grab candidate to replace Weiner and are nervous about next week’s CA-36 special… “Meet the Press” to interview the two Tims -- Geither and Pawlenty… And T-Paw stumps in Iowa, while Huntsman campaigns in Florida tomorrow.

*** A crucial next 72 hours: Here’s a rare monthly Friday when the jobs report ISN’T the top story (even as bad as the numbers turned out to be). What is: the debt talks. The next 72 hours -- with staff work today and tomorrow, and with another congressional meeting on Sunday -- will be key to reaching a deal. As GOP Sen. Roy Blunt (who was a former top House leader and knows how to count votes) said yesterday, “They’ll get there pretty quickly, or they won’t get there.” Here’s what we learned from yesterday’s meeting: 1) the Democratic and GOP leaders agreed on the necessity to raise the debt ceiling by Aug. 2; 2) six of the eight congressional leaders in attendance said their preference was to go big in deficit reduction; 3) the two who said their preference was a mid-sized deal were Eric Cantor and Jon Kyl, veterans of the Biden talks where the $2.5 trillion deal was essentially written; and 4) Democrats don’t want significant cuts to come from Medicare and Social Security. And on that last point, President Obama meets with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at 10:00 am ET. 

*** Plenty of optimism -- for now: Heading into these next 72 hours, we can say that there’s plenty of optimism that a big deal can be reached. The outstanding questions: Can Dems and Republicans persuade a sizable portion of their members to accept the deal? Will both sides give up their top campaign weapons (for the GOP, spending and taxes; for the Dems, Medicare)? And can Boehner get Cantor to back the big deal, because Boehner needs Cantor on his side especially if he's going to lose 70-75 Republican members? If there’s a framework by Sunday (or even an agreement to draw up the framework by NEXT Friday at the latest), it would be more an agreement on specific TARGET numbers, though not something that gets done immediately. In other words, there would be a mechanism to: 1) increase the debt ceiling, 2) make a lot of immediate cuts, 3) agree on some future cuts, and 4) tackle tax reform in the next three to six months to raise additional revenues that would take effect Jan. 1, 2013.

*** Another bad jobs report: As for today’s job report, the numbers aren’t good, despite earlier indications that the numbers would be better than last month. Per the AP, the economy added just 18,000 jobs in June, while the unemployment rate increased to 9.2%. The numbers are a devastating blow to the markets, to the American psyche, and to the political psyche in Washington. Obama makes a statement on the jobs report at 10:35 am ET.

*** GOP losing ground with seniors? Whether it’s due to the current Medicare debate, the end of the health-care fight (in which the GOP clubbed Democrats on Medicare), or something else, Republicans are losing ground with seniors. In our combined NBC/WSJ polls for the first half of this year (so 4,800 total interviews, including 711 seniors), 44% of seniors identify themselves as Democrats, versus 35% who identify themselves as Republicans. So a nine-point spread. But in our merged NBC/WSJ polls from 2010 (12,502 interviews, including 1,931 seniors), Democrats held just a two-point edge among seniors, 42%-40%. Why is this important? Because last year -- when they won control of the House and made gains in the Senate -- Republicans overperformed with seniors. According to the exit polls, the GOP won the senior vote by more than 20 percentage points, 59%-38%. But in 2008, McCain beat Obama among seniors by eight points, 53%-45%. And in 2006, Democrats split the senior vote, 49%-49%.

*** GOP losing ground in the Midwest, too: Something similar is happening in the Midwest, too. Per the merged 2011 NBC/WSJ polls, 42% of respondents in that region identify with Democrats, versus 31% who identify with Republicans. So an 11-point spread. Yet back in our 2010 merged data, the Dem edge was just four points, 41%-37%. What’s more, party identification in the other regions (Northeast, South, West) is essentially unchanged from 2010 to 2011. These shifts -- among seniors and folks in the Midwest -- explain why some Democrats don’t want the White House to budge an inch on Medicare and Social Security in the debt talks.

*** Do independents really matter? And since we’re geeking out with numbers today, political scientist Alan Abramowitz makes this counter-intuitive point: Independent voters don’t matter as much as some claim. “Research … has consistently found that the large majority of self-identified independents are ‘closet partisans’ who think and vote much like other partisans. Independent Democrats and independent Republicans have little in common. Moreover, independents with no party preference have a lower rate of turnout than those who lean toward a party and typically make up less than 10% of the electorate. Finally, independents don’t necessarily determine the outcomes of presidential elections; in fact, in all three closely contested presidential elections since 1972, the candidate backed by most independent voters lost.” Our one quibble: The FINAL 10% of undecided voters are true indies, and they can swing a close election.

*** A pre-obituary for Pawlenty? Why is the Ames Straw Poll so important for Tim Pawlenty, even if he and his campaign downplay his performance in it? Because he needs some good news to stop the early campaign obituaries. Today, the New York Times writes, “Tim Pawlenty was first in line to enter the Republican presidential race. He is now fighting to avoid becoming the earliest major candidate to be shown the door.” Ouch. Another ouch: Pawlenty said he hasn’t yet caught fire in Iowa because “this week is the first time that I’ve campaigned in earnest in Iowa” (when he’s campaigned plenty in the Hawkeye State). But T-Paw does get a favorable story in the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages from Kimberly Strassel. “Running in a highly conservative primary as the former head of a proudly liberal state—one perpetually beset by economic woes—certainly holds its downsides. But Mr. Pawlenty isn't shying away from that past. He's intent on turning his own feisty leadership of Minnesota into his main selling point for the nomination.”

*** Rick Perry and Texas’ death penalty: If Rick Perry decides to run for president, the death penalty will be an issue for him (see: Cameron Todd Willingham and the 2009 New Yorker piece on his execution). And last night, Texas executed a Mexican national, despite an appeal by the White House. The AP: “A Mexican national was executed Thursday evening for the rape-slaying of a San Antonio teenager after the U.S. Supreme Court turned down a White House-supported appeal to spare him in a death-penalty case where Texas justice triumphed over international treaty concerns… Police never told Leal after his arrest that he could seek legal assistance from the Mexican government under an international treaty, and his case had prompted appeals on what it could mean for other foreigners arrested in the United States and for Americans detained abroad. His appeals lawyers said such assistance would have helped his defense.”

*** Dems grab their Weprin to replace Weiner: For the Sept. 19 special election to fill ex-Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D) old House seat, Democrats yesterday selected state Assemblyman David Weprin. Per the New York Daily News, "Weprin, who has close ties to the borough's political machine, will become the candidate to represent Congressional District 9, which spans sections of Queens and Brooklyn." And check this out: "'I've never tweeted in my life and I don't spend any time in the gym,' Weprin added in a slap at Weiner, who was forced to resign last month amid a salacious sexting scandal - including nude workout pics." Note: The winner of the Sept. 13 race probably won't be in Congress for long, given that this House seat probably won't survive redistricting.

*** Dems getting nervous about CA-36: And for next week’s special congressional run-off in California to replace ex-Rep. Jane Harman (D), Dems are starting to get a bit nervous about a race that -- at least on paper -- they should easily win. The contest is between L.A. City Councilwoman Janice Hahn (D) and businessman Craig Huey (R); Obama got more than 60% of the vote in the district in ‘08. "We’ve been saying for a while that this one is closer than people think – whenever you have a multi-millionaire willing to self-fund it’s never a slam dunk,” one DC-based Democratic operative emails First Read. “It was a safe seat for Jane, but not necessarily Dems."

*** Meet’s Sunday lineup: The two Tims: “Meet the Press” this Sunday interviews Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and GOP presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty. The program’s midweek “Press Pass” featured a conversation with Mort Zuckerman.

*** On the 2012 trail: Pawlenty today stumps in Iowa, hitting Waterloo and Cedar Rapids… On Saturday, Herman Cain and Gary Johnson address the Conservative Leadership Conference in Nevada, while Jon Huntsman campaigns in Florida.

Countdown to CA-36 special run-off: 4 days
Countdown to Wisconsin recall primaries for GOP senators: 4 days
Countdown to Wisconsin recall general/primaries for Dem senators: 11 days
Countdown to Wisconsin recall general for GOP senators: 32 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 36 days
Countdown to Wisconsin recall general for Dem senators: 39 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 67 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 123 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 213 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up
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