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First Thoughts: Running in circles

President Barack Obama is stepping up his outside game – with events this week to build public support for his preferred combination of tax increases and spending cuts. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports.

Obama to head to Philly ‘burbs on Friday to campaign on averting the fiscal cliff… But the reality is that everyone is still running in circles -- until we get closer to the deadline… The challenge of getting to 218 House votes… Face-saving time? Susan Rice travels to the Hill to meet with McCain, Graham, and Ayotte… 2016 Watch Part 1: Christie’s job-approval rating reaches 72%... 2016 Watch Part 2: Jeb Bush huddles with top GOP political operatives in DC… Conservatives groups try to decapitate Capito’s candidacy -- just hours after it was announced… And Feb. 26 is the date set for the special primary election to fill Jesse Jackson Jr.’s House seat.

*** Running in circles: In the latest development in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, the White House announced this morning that President Obama will be hitting the road on Friday to make his case that the Bush tax cuts should be extended for the middle class, but not for income above $250,000. The president will travel to the Philadelphia suburbs, in Hatfield, PA, to deliver remarks at the Rodon Group manufacturing facility. In addition to that trip on Friday, Obama today meets with small-business owners and tomorrow with middle-class Americans who the White House says will be impacted if the tax cuts aren’t extended. While Team Obama is beginning to increase its activity as we get closer to the fiscal cliff deadline at the end of the year -- we learned yesterday that Obama chatted over the phone with House Speaker John Boehner on Saturday (along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid) -- the reality is that everyone is going to run in circles over the next couple of weeks. Why? Because Washington typically needs the pressure of a deadline to get things done. There’s more of a chance for getting a deal in mid to late December. That’s just the nature of how this process works. And by the way, it’s what the negotiators themselves know. All of them have privately expressed an interest to hit the fast forward button on the DVR and simply get to the end game.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

President Barack Obama shakes hands outside a small bookstore in Arlington, Va., Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, where he went shopping with his daughters.

*** The challenge of getting to 218: But getting a deal isn’t going to be easy. Why? It’s about getting to 218 House votes (the Senate will approve whatever gets through the House that has the White House’s blessing). Here’s why getting to 218 is a challenge: Looking at the just-completed election, 205 House Republican incumbents ran in general-election races, and 190 of them (93%) won. What’s more, 117 of these House Republicans (so 66%) won by getting 60% or more of the vote. Put it another way, House Republicans were elected by a different electorate than we saw in the presidential and key Senate contests of 2012. And this makes getting them to sign on to higher tax rates or even just more revenue a challenge. Boehner may end up being comfortable going to floor with less than a majority of the majority (100-120 members), but he needs a deal that can get at least 100 Republicans. Yet that will have to include some serious inclusions of entitlement reform. The White House defines “entitlement reform” as Medicare and Medicaid… They do NOT believe Social Security should be included. Is that going to fly with House Republicans? We’ll see. But more importantly, if Medicare means-testing and raising the age to 67 is part of a final deal that raises tax rates and it garners 100-120 House Republicans, can the White House and Nancy Pelosi (or Steny Hoyer) find 100-120 Democrats to join in?

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, the woman who could be President Obama's pick to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, heads to Capitol Hill today for closed-door meetings with Republican senators in an attempt to explain her comments about the Benghazi terrorist attacks.

*** Face-saving time? As NBC’s Luke Russert and Andrea Mitchell reported yesterday, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice today will head to Capitol Hill to meet privately with GOP Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte -- who have been Rice’s biggest critics over her initial comments about the September Benghazi attack. Today’s meeting comes after McCain appeared to soften his criticism of Rice, saying on Sunday: "I'd give everyone the benefit of explaining their position and the actions that they took. I'd be glad to have the opportunity to discuss these issues with her." Indeed, today, appears to be an opportunity for both sides -- Rice and her biggest GOP detractors -- to save face as Rice seems to be the front-runner to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. The meeting was requested by Rice, and sources tell NBC News that when she heard McCain’s public comments over the weekend, she decided to take him up on the offer to sit down. If Rice passes this test today with McCain/Graham/Ayotte, then expect her to get the secretary of state nod. She doesn’t have to “win” McCain over, simply assuage him a bit.

Top Talkers: Three weeks after his re-election, a majority of the country approves of the job President Obama is doing, a new CNN/ORC poll shows. And in New Jersey, current Gov. Chris Christie has announced his bid for re-election, and a new poll should be an encouraging sign. 77 percent of N.J. approves of his job, according to a new poll. The Morning Joe panel discusses.

*** 2016 Watch, Part 1: The day after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) filed paperwork to run for re-election next year, a new Quinnipiac poll shows Christie’s approval rating -- post-Hurricane Sandy -- at a whopping 72%. That’s the highest approval rating for a New Jersey governor in the history of the Q-poll. And it shows why it might be risky for Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) to mount a challenge against Christie, a potential GOP 2016er. Of course a lot can happen in a year, but Christie winning a second term in a blue state could silence many of the Republicans who criticized him for cozying up to Obama after Sandy. Remember, even Romney decided not to seek a second term as Massachusetts governor. And those close to Christie have always believed that Christie won’t have a story to tell Republican primary voters if he can’t convince New Jersey voters to re-elect him.

*** 2016 Watch, Part 2: Also, National Review’s Costa reported yesterday that Jeb Bush was in Washington, to discuss education reform -- but also to meet with top GOP political operatives including Romney pollster Neil Newhouse. “In an interview with NRO, Bush did not rule out a presidential run. ‘I am here to catch up with folks and promote education reform,’ he said, smiling. When asked again whether he will issue a Sherman-type statement about his future, Bush remained coy. ‘We have an alumni group that I like keeping in touch with,’ he said. ‘I’m here to focus on educational reform, and that’s what I’m going to tell people.’” Today, Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education hosts a summit in DC, where Bush (at 8:45 am ET), John Podesta (at 11:30 am) and Condi Rice, among others, (7:30 pm) all speak.

*** Conservative groups try to decapitate Capito’s candidacy: Think the folks over at the National Republican Senatorial Committee experienced a little PTSD after conservative groups began attacking Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R), who yesterday announced she was running for West Virginia senator? In fact, her candidacy wasn’t even a day old before the attacks started. Here was the Club for Growth: “The problem is that Congresswoman Capito’s record looks a whole lot like the establishment candidates who lost this year. Congresswoman Capito has a long record of support of bailouts, pork, and bigger government.” And here was Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund: "Congresswoman Capito is not someone we can endorse because her spending record in the House is too liberal." The question confronting Republicans right now: Just weeks after their losses in the November elections, do they place a premium on electability or on ideology? That’s a debate that still hasn’t been settled inside the GOP. Democrats have made a virtue about finding Senate candidates who fit their state and fit their electorates. The Republicans have allowed ideology to trump the “right fits” for a state. Capito is a classic example of a candidate who “fits the state” better than she fits the GOP’s ideology.

*** Special primary set to fill Jackson’s seat: Lastly, the Chicago Tribune reports that Illinois Gov, Pat Quinn (D) set a special primary election for Feb. 26 to begin replacing Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D), who last week announced that he was stepping down from Congress. Quinn also set the special general election to occur on March 19, but the governor is trying to move that up to April 9 to coincide with already-set municipal elections. Roll Call lists some of the Democrats who are eyeing the seat, including Jackson’s wife Sandy, his brothers, and ex-Rep. Debbie Halverson, who actually kicked off her campaign for the seat yesterday.

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