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First Thoughts: Can Republicans reciprocate?

Can Republicans reciprocate to Obama?... Conservative activists and organizations are pressuring GOPers not to… A day of contradictions at CPAC… Rubio vs. Portman on gay marriage… Romney returns with CPAC speech at 1:00 pm ET… And federal grand jury investigates Menendez.

*** Can Republicans reciprocate? President Obama has spent the past week wining and dining congressional Republicans. He’s addressed Senate and House Republicans, and he’s answered all of their questions -- all in an effort to strike a budget deal. As we’ve pointed out, this “charm offensive” will matter only if the president keeps it up. (The AP writes that GOP members want to see more of Obama and his congressional liaisons; in fact, some Democrats want this, too.) But here’s our question for the other side: Can Republicans reciprocate? The Wall Street Journal reports that conservative activists and organizations are hoping they don’t. “President Barack Obama's wooing of congressional Republicans in the past week has spurred the party's most conservative faction into girding to keep GOP lawmakers in line. Conservative activists and organizations have begun warning Republican legislators that if they agree to raise taxes in any broad budget deal with the president, they should expect to face challengers from the party's right wing in their next primary elections.” But this raises another question: When do Republicans and conservatives stop worrying about Obama? After all, he’s not running for office ever again. Why is this so much fear and suspicion about the man who sits in the Oval Office (especially after spending the campaign portraying him as weak and incompetent)? Our guess: Opposing Obama is the only thing that Republicans and conservatives still agree upon.

Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images

President Barack Obama departs the LBJ room March 14 on Capitol Hill after meeting with Senate Republicans.

*** A day of contradictions at CPAC: And during the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference, that opposition to Obama was present and consistent. But outside of that, it was a day of contradictions. You had Florida Sen. Marco Rubio arguing that Republicans and conservatives don’t need new ideas. (“We don’t need a new idea. The idea is America, and it still works.”) But you also had Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul contending that the GOP must change. (“The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered. I don't think we need to name any names here, do we?”) You had the relatively new GOP faces (Rubio, Paul, Ken Cuccinelli), versus the old or out of office (Allen West, Rick Perry). You had a CPAC panel on immigration reform, but you also had Rubio not say a WORD in his speech about this issue that he’s helping to spearhead. And you had Rand Paul essentially calling for constitutional protections for American terrorists, but you also had a panel suggesting that President Obama was weak on Benghazi. Yet more than anything else, the vibe at CPAC’s first day was … stale. Part of it is that the conference is taking place in suburban Maryland and in a cavernous complex. But the other part of it is that it’s just four months after the GOP lost its second-straight election against Obama. And as we said yesterday, it’s only natural for a party to experience contradictions and an identity crisis after two-straight losses. Take away the idea of opposing Obama, and all of sudden the party’s problems and divides are front and center. Opposing Obama papers over those problems.

*** Rubio vs. Portman on gay marriage: Speaking of contradictions, here’s another we saw in the past 24 hours: In his CPAC speech yesterday, Rubio stated his opposition to gay marriage, and it drew one of his biggest applause lines. "Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in the traditional way does not make me a bigot," he said. But last night, we learned that fellow vice-presidential finalist Rob Portman supports gay marriage because his son is gay. “Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years,” Portman writes in the Columbus Dispatch. This all highlights another striking divide inside the GOP: Can a party that so relies on social conservatives and evangelical Christians reconcile more and more Republicans accepting gay marriage? As for how this issue played a role during Portman’s VP vetting, the senator says he was forthcoming with Romney’s team and that Romney assured him that the issue played no role in deciding to go with Ryan. This morning, the person who ran Romney’s VP search, Beth Myers, tells NBC’s Kasie Hunt she was aware at the time and also reaffirmed it played no role in the decision. In fact, Myers reveals that Portman called her last night to let her know he was going public.

*** Romney returns: And here’s a final contradiction: Yesterday, we heard at least two Republicans -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Heritage Foundation head Jim DeMint -- implicitly criticize the GOP’s last presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. "The popular media narrative is that this country has shifted away from conservative ideas, as evidence by the last two presidential elections,” Perry said, per NBC’s Kasie Hunt. "That might be true if Republicans had actually nominated conservative candidates in 2008 and 2012." And here was DeMint: “In 2012, with the presidential election on the line, national Republican leadership rejected the lessons of 2010 and went back to the old way of campaigning.” But guess what: Romney is speaking at CPAC today at 1:00 pm ET. As NBC’s Sarah Boxer reports, Romney speech doesn’t amount to a political comeback. “No. No. No,” his son Tagg told Boxer. “He doesn’t want to be back… He’s done.” Instead, he’s speaking to thank the CPAC activists who supported him (after all, Romney finished first or second in the CPAC straw poll from 2007-2012). But as NBC’s Mike O’Brien notes, Romney’s speech today -- his first since losing the presidential contest -- is a “curious” re-emergence. “Romney allies … privately express their misgivings about Romney’s choice of CPAC to stage his national [re-emergence]. Its penchant for red-meat conservative rhetoric could make Romney still seem bitter about the election, and scuttle his chance to builder a broader, statesmanlike profile.”

*** Today’s CPAC schedule: Here are today’s major speakers, per NBC’s Taylor Hiegel: Donald Trump 8:45 am ET, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell 9:00 am, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan 9:30 am, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre 10:45 am, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum 12:00 pm, Mitt Romney 1:00 pm, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal 2:25 pm, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor 3:35 pm, and Jeb Bush 7:30 pm.

*** CPAC’s schedule for Saturday: And here are tomorrow’s major speakers: Iowa Rep. Steve King 9:05 am, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker 9:15 am, Newt Gingrich 9:30 am, Sarah Palin 12:00 pm, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus 3:45 pm, and Sen. Ted Cruz 5:10 pm. The straw poll results will be released at 5:00 pm.

*** Federal grand jury investigating Menendez: And finally, don’t miss this: “A federal grand jury in Miami is investigating Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), examining his role in advocating for the business interests of a wealthy donor and friend,” the Washington Post reports. “Menendez has intervened in matters affecting the financial interests of Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, seeking to apply pressure on the Dominican government to honor a contract with Melgen’s port-security company, documents and interviews show. Also, Menendez’s office has acknowledged he interceded with federal health-care officials after they said that Melgen had overbilled the U.S. government for care at his clinic.” Folks, partisan media outlets reporting scurrilous charges is one thing; a federal grand jury investigation is another thing. And don’t be surprised if this grand jury investigation puts A LOT of pressure on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to relieve Menendez of his duties as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman.

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