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First Thoughts: Court could determine the legacy of a president

Politics moves to Supreme Court – oral arguments begin on health care… Three days that will determine the legacy of a president … what, who, when, and how to watch (or listen) … Owning ‘ObamaCare’ … Santorum wins Louisiana, but then lashes out with his ‘bull%&!#’ moment … Eight days that could mean the end to the GOP primary … Another Obama hot mic moment on the international scene.

*** Day One at the Supreme Court: For the first time in several months, the top political story won’t be taking place on the Republican campaign trail, or at the White House, or on Capitol Hill. Instead, today’s top story occurs over at the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue that took up much of 2009 and 2010: health care. There will be three days of oral arguments, and today’s topic is over whether the Supreme Court can even hear the case at this particular time. “The justices will hear 90 minutes of argument about whether an obscure 19th-century law — the Anti-Injunction Act — means that the court cannot pass judgment on the law until its key provisions go into effect in 2014,” the Washington Post notes. “It is the rare issue on which both sides agree: the Obama administration lawyers and those representing the states and private organization challenging the new law argue that the Supreme Court should decide the constitutional question now.”

*** On the docket: Tomorrow is the main event, when the justices will hear arguments about the constitutionality of the individual mandate. On Wednesday, they’ll discuss whether the health law can still exist if the individual mandate is found to be unconstitutional, the so-called “severability” issue, as well as whether the federal government can force states to increase Medicaid spending. (Here’s the court’s day-by-day rundown. The court will also provide audio and transcripts no later than 2:00 pm ET for the morning sessions and 4:00 pm ET for Wednesday’s afternoon session.) Here’s how the Wall Street Journal sums up these three days: “In taking up President Barack Obama's health overhaul Monday, the Supreme Court wades into an issue that not only could sway this fall's elections but also could help define for generations what Congress is and isn't entitled to do.” So, that's all, just the fate of the president's re-election and the limits on Congressional power, but beyond that, nothing major.  Seriously, though, how important is this case: “The six hours of planned debate is the most on a case in 44 years,” Bloomberg/Business Week notes.

*** Who to watch – all eyes on Justice Kennedy (and Scalia): More than any other justice over the next three days, all eyes will be on Anthony Kennedy, who’s considered the Supreme Court’s swing vote. The Tampa Bay Times: “Frank Colucci, a political science professor at Purdue University Calumet and author of a book on Kennedy, said the health care case will test the conflict inherent in the justice’s thinking over the years: his belief in judicial limits on federal power but a recognition of the practical conception of commerce. ‘That sets up the two main arguments in this case,’ Colucci said. ‘The people who want to strike down the mandate will give an argument that if you allow this to stand, there are no limits on what Congress can do. The people who want to uphold the mandate will say you can’t strike this without undermining the foundations of the federal power to regulate commerce that the court has accepted since 1937.’” But also watch Antonin Scalia. NBC’s Pete Williams writes in his preview: “[E]ven the opponents of the law say the vote of Justice Antonin Scalia may be in play. He has joined the court’s majorities in past decisions that read the Constitution’s commerce power very broadly.” Here’s who’s doing the arguing for both sides: For the administration: Solicitor General Donald B. Verilli Jr; For opponents of the law: Paul D. Clement, solicitor general under George W. Bush and partner at Bancroft PLLC. Clement, by the way, is considered one to watch as a potential Supreme Court nominee under a Republican president. Just askin’: but does the mandate really rest on wheat and weed? 

*** Owning ‘ObamaCare’ and Romney’s test: The Obama administration made a decision on Friday to own the term “ObamaCare.” It had been used as a pejorative by Republicans, but the White House has made the decision to embrace it and not let opponents have a word that they only drive as a negative. White House senior adviser David Plouffe noted on Meet the Press Sunday that, in 10 years, health care will be a positive and cited polling that people don’t want to re-litigate it. We can report that last part came from Democratic polling Plouffe has seen; he was NOT citing any public polling on this specific issue. By the way, if you’re Mitt Romney, and you basically have eight days to wrap up this nomination before Wisconsin April 3rd, what’s the last thing you want in the news? But if you’re Rick Santorum, it’s do-or-die time on health care for him. It’s a topic he wanted front and center. If he can’t change the momentum now, with health care front and center, he can’t do it.

*** Santorum wins Louisiana, trails in the delegate count: As expected, Rick Santorum won Saturday’s Louisiana primary -- and it turns out he did so easily. He beat Mitt Romney, 49%-27%, with Gingrich finishing in third place with 16% and Paul with 6%. But Santorum’s decisive victory in Louisiana netted him just five delegates, according to Louisiana’s proportional rules: Santorum got 10 delegates, Romney five, and another five were unallocated. That brings NBC’s delegate count to Romney 490, Santorum 203, Gingrich 137, and Paul 34.

*** The 50% evangelical pattern continues: Once again, perhaps the best way to explain why Santorum won Louisiana and not, say, Illinois, is by looking at the evangelical vote. As has been mentioned, Romney has WON every state so far (where there has been exit polling) where self-described evangelical Christians make up less than half of all GOP primary voters. But he’s LOST every state where evangelicals make up more than half of all GOP voters. And what was the percentage in Louisiana? 61%. Given this obvious pattern, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza has projected how the remaining contests will play out. Romney will probably win: RI, DC, UT, CT, NY, NJ, MD, DE, CA, WI, NM, and SD, while Santorum will likely win AR, KY, NC, WV, IN, TX, PA (not a state where there’s a majority of evangelicals, but it’s Santorum’s home state), NE, MT, and OR. Is it that simple?

*** Santorum loses his cool in Wisconsin: Yet the day after Santorum won Louisiana’s primary by a greater margin than Romney won in Illinois, the former Pennsylvania senator lost his cool -- becoming frustrated with reporters asking him to clarify his remark that Mitt Romney is the worst Republican in the country to take on President Obama. When he was pressed by reporters following him in Wisconsin, Santorum said, “On the issue of health care. That’s what I was talking about, and I was very clear about talking about that. OK? Come on guys, don’t do this. I mean you guys are incredible. I was talking about Obamacare, and he is the worst because he was the author of Romneycare.” But when he faced the same question again, he used a profane word and accused the media of "distorting" his speech: "Quit distorting my words. It's bull%&!#" And Santorum is now raising money off of the question raised by a New York Times reporter, claiming a New York Times reporter tried to, um, “bully” him. Speaking of meltdowns, Newt Gingrich called President Obama’s statement on Trayvon Martin “disgraceful” and “appalling,” contending the president was bringing race into it by saying his son would look like Martin. These are the words of someone in the last throes of a campaign.

*** Eight days until the race could be over? Don’t forget, there are eight days to go in what could be the most pivotal race yet. With a win, even by a hair, Romney would put this race away. Santorum needs a “win on the road,” so to speak, to show he has a legitimate chance at this thing. Here’s a look at how the ad spending is breaking down there, as of Friday evening: Restore Our Future PAC - $2.2 million; Romney $737,000; Santorum $40,000

*** Another Obama hot mic moment: President Obama was caught yet again in an international situation with a hot microphone. This time, he was caught telling Russia’s Medvedev that he needs “space” from Russia on missile defense. “This is my last election,” Obama can be heard telling Medvedev, per NBC’s Shawna Thomas Kristen Welker, and Alicia Jennings. “After my election, I have more flexibility.” To which Medvedev responds: “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.” Obama: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it's important for him to give me space.” An administration aide says the president wasn't saying anything nefarious as others are trying to imply; He simply was noting reality, that this year isn't the best time to discuss and negotiate missile defense, because it's an election year, and there are a lot of other items on his agenda. Still, it makes the president look like he’s acting with politics in mind first. At least Obama wasn’t talking about Israel’s Netanyahu again. Geopolitically more significant, might be that the exchange affirms what most suspected that the person really in charge in Russia is Vladimir Putin.

*** On the trail: Romney, in California, holds an event in San Diego and raises money there, as well as in Redwood City… Santorum is in DC… Gingrich stumps in Delaware, and wife Callista is in Wisconsin 

Countdown to DC, Maryland, Wisconsin primaries: 8 days
Countdown to Election Day: 225 days

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