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First Thoughts: GOP shifts focus to Hillary

GOP shifts its focus to Hillary…  Beyond  the politics of yesterday’s Be nghazi hearing…  Deep in the heart of Texas: Obama heads to Austin, TX to talk jobs, manufacturing, and technology at 2:05 pm ET and 5:40 pm ET… Census: African Americans had a higher turnout rate in 2012 than whites did… The editing of the Senate immigration bill begins… GOP brand -- is it struggling or improving? Some mixed numbers…  A Democrat enters SD SEN race, but it’s not a top-tier candidate... And Jessica Taylor looks at the seats Dems have to defend to keep their Senate majority.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes remarks after being honored with a Distinguished Leadership Award from the Atlantic Council in Washington, May 1, 2013.

*** GOP shifts its focus to Hillary: Wednesday’s congressional hearing probing last year’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi revealed this political development: Key parts of the conservative movement are turning their attention from President Obama to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “I find it stunning that four and a half months after the attack, Secretary Clinton still has the gall to say it wasn’t us,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) said at yesterday’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. Added Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH): “Tell me, who is Cheryl Mills?... She is the fixture for the secretary of state; she is as close as you can get to Secretary Clinton.” In addition, for the first time since Feb. 2008 (when Obama overtook Hillary in the Democratic presidential contest), Republican groups inundated our inboxes with emails about Clinton. The GOP oppo organization American Rising: “Benghazi Hearing Raises Serious Questions About Clinton.” The Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads: “Hicks told Clinton at 2am it was terrorism.” Here was Citizens United’s David Bossie (who was behind the “Hillary: The Movie”): “The Need For A Select Committee Is More Evident Than Ever.” And Drudge’s front page for most of yesterday looked like a time warp to when the Clintons were the constant focus of conservative attacks.

EDITOR'S NOTE: NBC's Lisa Myers reports that Hicks never told Clinton at 2 am that the attack was terrorism. He said in his testimony that he had previously told that to the State Department and said it was not necessary to say it again. "I had already reported that the attack was -- had commenced and that twitter feeds were asserting that Ansar Sharia was responsible for the attack," former Benghazi Deputy Chief of Mission Greg Hicks told Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa Wednesday during testimony. Issa asked, "You didn't have that discussion with her only because it was assumed that, since you had already reported that the cause of the attack was essentially Islamic extremists, some of them linked to al- Qaida?" Hicks responded, "Yes." Myers followed up with Hicks' attorney who affirmed that Hicks did not tell Clinton personally that this was a terrorist attack.

*** But underneath the politics: Before wiping away yesterday as entirely a political exercise (and a LARGE part of yesterday had the feel of politics), don’t overlook what was discovered and what is clearly a very credible whistleblower in Greg Hicks. Ironically, what yesterday’s House hearing “revealed” was something that was already uncovered by the Pickering-Mullen report on Benghazi: systemic mistakes at the State Department when it comes to the issue of diplomatic security. The “coverup” charges appear to be an overreach, but what’s not an overreach is the focus on the failures at State and the apparent attempt by some at the White House to help State buy time before having the fingers pointed at its failings in the initial hours and days of the attack. And this happened on Clinton’s watch, pure and simple. If she is going to be running for president, her time atState is going to be an issue -- the good, the bad and the ugly. And it doesn’t take a political media genius to use Hicks’ description of his phone call back to State and resurrect Clinton’s famous 3:00 am phone call TV spot. Benghazi probably won’t haunt Clinton in 2016 in a big way, but it’s not going away, either.

*** The “vast right-wing conspiracy” is back: Yet as Democrats prepare for Hillary’spossible political comeback, so are Republicans and conservatives. Consequently, the GOP’s shift in focus shouldn’t be surprising, especially with 2016 on the horizon. But what’s striking is how sudden the transition seemed yesterday. Also striking is that it comes at a time when Clinton is enjoying her highest polling numbers, even among Republicans. In the April NBC/WSJ poll, 56% of respondents had a favorable view of her, including 23% of Republicans. (Compare that with Obama’s 8% among GOP respondents in the same poll.) Make no mistake: That Republican number is going to change for Clinton if she runs for president. So mark May 8, 2013 on your political calendars. That’s the date when Republican Party returned to what was its favorite pastime for a good part of the last 16 years (from 1992 to 2008): going after the Clintons. Folks, the “vast right-wing conspiracy” is back…

*** Deep in the heart of Texas: Turning from yesterday’s Benghazi hearing to today’s top political event… President Obama heads to Austin, TX to kick off his new “Middle Class Jobs and Opportunity Tour.” Per a White House official, the president today will announce launching a promise he made in his State of the Union to establish “three new Manufacturing Innovation Institutes, which are partnerships among business, universities and community colleges, and government to develop and building manufacturing technology.” Obama also will call upon Congress “to take action on his proposal to create a one-time $1 billion investment to create a network of 15 manufacturing innovation institutes across the country.” As the AP wrote earlier this week, “President Barack Obama is launching a series of quick jaunts around the country to remind Americans he’s still got jobs and the economy on his mind.” As our own recent NBC/WSJ poll showed, the public seems frustrated that Washington isn’t focused on the economy anymore. The White House is attempting to respond to that. We’ll see if they can sustain the effort -- something they’ve been unable to do before. Here’s Obama’s schedule today in Austin: He delivers remarks at Manor New Technology High School at 2:05 pm ET, and then he speaks at Applied Materials Inc. at 5:40 pm ET. 

*** Census: African Americans had a higher turnout rate than whites did in ‘12: With Obama today in Texas -- where whites make up a minority of all residents -- perhaps it’s only fitting to relay this U.S. Census data from 2012: “About two in three eligible blacks (66.2 percent) voted in the 2012 presidential election, higher than the 64.1 percent of non-Hispanic whites who did so… This marks the first time that blacks have voted at a higher rate than whites since the Census Bureau started publishing statistics on voting by the eligible citizen population in 1996.” The New York Times has more on this data: “The overall turnout rate nationwide was 61.8 percent in 2012, a decline from 63.6 percent four years earlier. Researchers cautioned that their estimates might overstate how many people voted across all categories, because they are based on surveys in which people were asked whether they had voted — a ‘socially desirable’ activity. Some researchers cautioned against treating 2012 as a watershed moment for the black vote. For example, Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University — using the same data but with a slightly different calculation — determined that black voters first turned out at a higher rate than whites in 2008.”

*** Let the editing of the immigration bill begin! The Senate Judiciary Committee today begins marking up the “Gang of Eight” bipartisan immigration bill. NBC’s Carrie Dann: “With the Gang of Eight’s immigration measure coming under the legislative magnifying glass this week, senators on a key committee are sharpening their red pencils in preparation to edit the 844-page bill. The 18 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have proposed 300 amendments to the legislation, ranging from protections for gay couples, to border-security fixes, to efforts to dismantle the bill’s central goal of creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.” More Dann: “While observers do not expect that the bill willundergo dramatic changes in the committee process -- with bipartisan proponents of reform on the panel likely to stick together to resist substantial changes to their core legislation -- the high-profile debate is sure to elevate the often-dull ‘markup’ process to must-see TV for anyone with a dog in the immigration fight.”

*** GOP brand -- is it still struggling or improving? After the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee embarked on a soul-searching mission to see what was wrong and deliver recommendations for how to fix them. The result was a 97-page reportwith suggestions on issues ranging from women, Hispanics, blacks, Asians, gays, and young voters. Yet beyond that report – and besides about half of the Republican Party working to pass comprehensive immigration reform – how is that re-branding effort going? Well, there are mixed numbers. Yesterday, our NBC/Marist poll found the Republican Party’s fav/unfav rating at 37%-53% among registered voters in Virginia – a state Republicans need to win in future presidential contests. Also yesterday, a Pew poll found respondents blaming Republicans by 20 points (42%-22%) for failing to better work with President Obama on key issues. On the other hand, the Pew poll showed the Republican Party either even or slightly ahead of Democrats on top issues like guns (GOP 42%, Dems 39%), the economy (GOP 42%, Dems 38%), and immigration (GOP 38%, Dems 38%).

*** Democrat enters SD SEN race, but it’s not a top-tier candidate: So the first Democrat has announced he’s running in South Dakota’s open Senate contest: two-time Housecandidate Rick Weiland. The Hill: “According to the Argus Leader, Weiland already has the support of his former boss, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D). The two spoke prior to Weiland's announcement and, Daschle said, ‘I encouraged him with great enthusiasm.’” Weiland told the paper that he had also spoken with U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson (D) — son of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson (D) — before announcing his plans, and Johnson had indicated he was unlikely to enter the race. ‘He’s focused on his job. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel that Brendan (wasn’t) going to get into this race,’ Weiland said.” The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee says that this DOES NOT mean that former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) is passing on the race. But if Weiland is the only Dem candidate, it’s hard to think that Democrats will have a puncher’s chance in South Dakota in 2014.

*** Democrats on defense: And speaking of the 2014 Senate races, MSNBC’s Jessica Taylor looks at the seats Democrats have to defend to hold on to the majority.

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