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RealClearPolitics Politics Nation Blog

 

Blog Home Page --> February 2010

Gillibrand Sighs With Relief As Paterson Exits

Of all the Democrats who sighed with relief at the news that New York Gov. David Paterson won't run for a full term in office this year, perhaps none was louder than that of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

While his exit clears the Democratic primary field for Attorney General Andrew Cuomo -- saving him both money for the general election and a potentially bloody, intraparty battle -- Gillibrand is assured she won't be running her first Senate campaign with a politically anemic governor at the top of the ticket.

Paterson was scheduled to announce his decision to leave the race this afternoon -- less than one week after formally announcing he was running.

Republicans believe he was dead weight for Gillibrand and that Democrats in Washington knew it. Speaking with RealClearPolitics earlier this week, one New York Republican Party official said he believed the White House wanted Paterson out of the race more for Gillibrand's advantage than Cuomo's.

The White House reportedly told Paterson in September that it would prefer he not seek election to a full term this year. Paterson refused to do so until now, as revelations surfaced this week about his alleged intervention in a domestic abuse case involving one of his top aides.

Cuomo is widely seen as a much more attractive candidate to lead the Democratic ticket in November, and polling against Republican Rick Lazio proved he had a far better shot at winning the governor's race than Paterson. Cuomo hasn't officially entered the race, but it is believed he will -- especially after hiring Phil Singer, a spokesman for Hillary Clinton's presidential bid, earlier this month.

Cuomo would enter the race with sky-high approval ratings that Democrats hope will help trickle votes down the ballot, especially to Gillibrand.

Appointed just more than a year ago to fill Clinton's Senate seat, the former congresswoman remains unknown to a third of the state's voters. A Siena Research Institute poll released this week found that just 30 percent would vote to elect her, while 40 percent would vote for someone else and another 30 percent were undecided.

With Paterson officially out of the running for governor, Gillibrand's biggest impediment right now to a November special election victory is a potential primary challenge from former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who met earlier this week with the state party chairman.

As for November, although two Republicans are currently running, the state GOP is continuing to discuss the race with other potential -- and possibly more viable -- challengers.

NRCC Launches TV Ad In Pomeroy's District

The National Republican Congressional Committee is targeting North Dakota Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D) with a 30-second TV ad airing in his state. The ad aims to put political pressure on Pomeroy to not support a Democrat-written health care bill that could come up for a vote in the next several weeks.

Pomeroy briefly considered running for the state's vacant Senate seat this year, but opted for re-election instead.

"Seventeen years in Washington have changed Pomeroy," the announcer states. "Now he's voting 97 percent with Nancy Pelosi."

Snowe Most Liberal Republican, National Journal Finds

Over at RCP Blog, Tom rounds up the new National Journal rankings of the most liberal and conservative members of Congress.

Here, a look at the most liberal Republicans and most conservative Democrats in each chamber:

Most Liberal Republicans: House
1. Mike Castle (DE)
2. John McHugh* (NY)
3. Dave Reichert (WA)
4. Joseph Cao (LA)
5. Mark Kirk (IL)

Most Conservative Democrats: House
1. Bobby Bright (AL)
2. Parker Griffith** (AL)
3. Gene Taylor (MS)
4. Travis Childers (MS)
5. Jim Marshall (GA)

Most Liberal Republicans: Senate
1. Olympia Snowe (ME)
2. Richard Lugar (IN)
3. Susan Collins (ME)
4. George Voinovich (OH)
5. Judd Gregg (NH)

Most Conservative Democrats: Senate
1. Evan Bayh (IN)
2. Ben Nelson (NE)
3. Arlen Specter (PA)
4. Russ Feingold (WI)
5. Jim Webb (VA)

*Retired to become Army secretary
**Switched to the GOP

The Week In Midterms: Showdown In Texas

Starting today, we'll take a look back at some of the biggest news of the week in the midterm elections. The focus will be on Senate and gubernatorial races, but occasionally we'll note big news in some of the key House races. Feel free to e-mail us with suggestions.

SENATE

NEW YORK: Kirsten Gillibrand continues to focus her attention on a Democrat from another state who may not even run, as the GOP continues to search for its own candidate. Former Republican Gov. George Pataki is not expected to run, even though he continues to lead Gillibrand in the polls. Former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. met with state party Chairman Jay Jacobs, who told Ford to think "long term" about his political future in the state.

FLORIDA: The week started horribly for Gov. Charlie Crist, as a new Rasmussen poll found him trailing Senate GOP primary opponent Marco Rubio by 18 points. Things turned for Rubio on Thursday, however, as the Miami Herald published a front page story looking at his personal use of a state party credit card.

INDIANA: Rep. Brad Ellsworth's entrance to the race at the end of last week came one day after a poll found him trailing former Republican Sen. Dan Coats by 14 points. This week we learned Ellsworth isn't the only Democratic congressman interested in running for Sen. Evan Bayh's seat -- Baron Hill made clear he would make a decision on a bid in the next week or two.

ILLINOIS: The Senate field was solidified this month when Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and Rep. Mark Kirk won their respective primaries. In the first poll since, Giannoulias leads by 7 points with one-in-five voters still undecided.

KENTUCKY: The Republican primary between Trey Grayson and Rand Paul is getting nastier by the week, with Grayson releasing another round of TV attack ads.

GOVERNOR

FLORIDA: The RGA's first ad of the 2010 campaign targeted Alex Sink's (D) banking background. Rasmussen finds Bill McCollum (R) ahead by 13. The candidates dueled over ethics. Sink's campaign staff sees changes.

ILLINOIS: Gov. Pat Quinn (D) leads both potential Republican candidates, per Research 2010. The GOP primary remains unsettled, but state Sen. Kirk Dillard (R) admitted his chances of overtaking state Sen. Bill Brady (R) are slim.

IOWA: Gov. Chet Culver (D) trails former Gov. Terry Branstad (R) by double digits. One Democrat wants to recruit a primary challenger. Culver says he hasn't been asked to step aside.

NEW YORK: Another New York Times story hits Paterson, prompting calls to resign. He asks Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo (D) to investigate. The senators stop short of that for now. He says he won't drop his campaign just yet, but will talk to party leaders. Siena shows Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo (D) a clear frontrunner.

OHIO: Gov. Ted Strickland (D) has retaken a lead over former Rep. John Kasich (R).

TEXAS: Rasmussen shows Gov. Rick Perry (R) ahead, just a point shy of avoiding a runoff. PPP (D) shows it a bit closer. The Republicans are raking it in. And are spending big too. The DGA is investing in Bill White (D). And Perry sat down for an interview this week with Politics Daily.

--Kyle Trygstad and Mike Memoli

House Ethics Panel: Rangel Broke Rules

The House Ethics committee has found that New York Rep. Charles Rangel (D) broke House rules by accepting trips to the Caribbean that were paid for by a company that lobbied Congress, the Associated Press reported first. The report could have an effect on his status as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Rangel told reporters Thursday evening that he believes he will only be "admonished."

In its report, released Thursday evening, the panel's chair and ranking member wrote that Rangel was the only one of the six members being investigated who acted knowingly and violated rules. Rangel violated the "House gift rule" for accepting payment for travel.

Officers and employees at Carib News, the organization that hosted the members and accepted corporate contributions to help pay for it, were found to have given false or misleading statements to the ethics panel, which has referred their actions to the Justice Department.

"It is the intention of the Committee that publication of this Report will serve as a public admonishment by the Standards Committee of Representatitve Rangel," the report reads.

Rangel continues to be under investigation for other potential improprieties not connected with the Caribbean trips, including some tax-related issues. As Ways and Means chairman, he helps write the country's tax laws. He's been under investigation since mid-2008, when he called for an ethics investigation on himself.

The 79-year-old has represented Harlem since 1970. He spent Thursday at the Blair House attending President Obama's health care summit.

Durbin: Democrats Will "Press Forward" On Health Care

Speaking to reporters during the lunch break at today's health care summit, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin hinted that Democrats are expecting to press ahead on health care through reconciliation, a tactic Republicans have decried for this legislation.

"I'm glad the president is trying, the American people want him to try," he said, according to a pool report. "If nothing comes of this we're going to press forward. We just can't quit. This is a once in a political lifetime opportunity to deal with a health care system that is really unsustainable."

The use of reconciliation was actually a flashpoint early on in today's summit, with Senate GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander asking President Obama to renounce the use of the procedural tactic.

"You can say that this process has been used before, and that would be right, but it's never been used for anything like this," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid later responded.

"No one has talked about reconciliation but that's what you folks have talked about ever since that came out, as if it's something that has never been done before," he said. "The Speaker and I have not talked about doing reconciliation as the only way out of all this. Of course it's not the only way out. But remember, since 1981 reconciliation has been used 21 times. Most of it has been used by Republicans, for major things, like much of the Contract for America, Medicare reform, the tax cuts for rich people in America. So reconciliation isn't something that's never been done before."

Recalling Obama's Health Care Messaging

Republicans have been critical of today's health care summit as little more than a photo op. Well, it's just the latest in a long series of public events in which President Obama has tried to sell health reform to a skeptical nation and Congress. After the jump, take a walk down memory lane.

March 2: Obama announces Kathleen Sebelius as his nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services. This after his first choice, Tom Daschle, was forced to withdraw his nomination.

"Health care reform that reduces costs while expanding coverage is no longer just a dream we hope to achieve, it's a necessity we have to achieve."

March 5: Obama holds a health care summit in the East Room, featuring Sen. Ted Kennedy as something of a surprise guest.

"I think most of us who have been in this room before have seen other times when the House and the Senate have made efforts, but they haven't been the kind of serious effort that I think that we're seeing right now. ... This time we will not fail."

May 11: Obama holds an event with health care stakeholders, saying they've agreed to bring down costs by $2 billion over 10 years. He calls it a "watershed event in the long and elusive quest" for health reform.

"What they're doing is complementary to and is going to be completely compatible with a strong, aggressive effort to move health care reform through here in Washington with an ultimate result of saving health care costs for families, businesses and the government," Obama said.

May 13: Speaking with Democratic leaders after a White House meeting, Obama sounds bullish about the prospects for reform passing by fall 2009.

"We've got to get it done this year, both in the House and in the Senate. And we don't have any excuses. The stars are aligned."

May 28: Obama tries rallying his campaign organization, Organizing For America, in a telephone conference call. He makes a dire warning about passing reform in 2009.

"I think the status quo is unacceptable and that we've got to get it done this year. If we don't get it done this year we're not going to get it done."

June 15: Obama speaks in Chicago to the American Medical Association, a group believed to be skeptical of reform, and continues to ratchet up the stakes.

"The cost of our health care is a threat to our economy," he said. "It's an escalating burden on our families and businesses. It's a ticking time bomb for the federal budget. And it is unsustainable for the United States of America."

June 22: With lawmakers increasingly skeptical of the progress of legislation, Obama returns to a campaign staple during a Rose Garden address.

"To those in Washington who have grown accustomed to sky is falling prognoses and the certainties that we cannot get this done, I have to revive an old saying we had from the campaign: Yes we can. We are going to get this done."

June 24: Obama takes to the primetime airwaves in an ABC special program, "Primetime: Questions for the President: Prescription for America." He takes pre-selected questions from an East Room audience. The special drew lackluster ratings.

What's lacking is political will, and that's what I'm hoping the American people provide, because genuine change generally does not come from Washington. Whether we like it or not, it comes from the American people saying, "It's time for us to move forward." And I think this is that moment.

July 13: Announcing his choice for surgeon general, Obama urges Congress to break the logjam and says, "Don't bet against us."

"I understand that people are a little nervous and a little scared about making change. The muscles in this town to bring about big changes are a little atrophied. But we're whipping folks back into shape. We are going to get this done."

July 15: Obama is joined in the Rose Garden by a group of nurses, and keeps the pressure on lawmakers to meet a summer deadline.

"It's time to buck up Congress, this administration, the entire federal government" to pass health care now, he said.

July 20: At a DC children's hospital, Obama accuses his rivals of playing politics in response to Sen. Jim DeMint's infamous "Waterloo" quote. But for the first time, he seems to acknowledge health care legislation won't be passed before the summer recess.

"This isn't about me. This isn't about politics. This is about a health care system that is breaking America's families, breaking America's businesses, and breaking America's economy. And we can't afford the politics of delay and defeat when it comes to health care. Not this time. Not now."

July 29: Obama holds a town hall meeting in North Carolina to sell health care. But he ultimately spent more time defending his stimulus bill.

"The reforms we seek will bring stability and security that you don't have today - reforms that become more urgent and more urgent with each passing year."

August 11: After town hall meetings across the country feature heated debates over health care legislation, Obama travels to New Hampshire and calls for a more civil discussion.

"One of the objectives of democracy and debate is that we start refining our own views because maybe other people have different perspectives, things we didn't think of. Where we do disagree, let's disagree over things that are real -- not these wild misrepresentations that bear no resemblance to anything that's actually been proposed."

August 14: Obama again hits the road, this time in Montana for a health care town hall. He's asked about whether he'll raise taxes to pay for the plan.

"When I was campaigning, I made a promise that I would not raise your taxes if you made $250,000 a year or less. That's what I said."

August 19: Obama participates in a teleconference with faith-based groups and makes a religious appeal for reform.

"These are all fabrications that have been put out there in order to discourage people from meeting what I consider to be a core ethical and moral obligation, and that is that we look out for one another. That I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper. And in the wealthiest nation on earth right now, we are neglecting to live up to that call."

August 20: Obama's PR blitz continues with an appearance on a conservative radio talk show and later with a gathering at DNC headquarters. On the radio show, he talks about his hope that a bipartisan group can come to an agreement.

"We're happy to make sensible compromises. What we're not willing to do is give up on the core principle that Americans who don't have health insurance should get it."

August 26: Sen. Ted Kennedy dies. Obama does not mention health care in a public statement.

September 7: At an AFL-CIO picnic in Cincinnati, Obama tries to rally his base for a new health care push.

"It's time to do what's right for America's working families, and put aside the partisanship. Stop saying things that aren't true. Come together as a nation to pass health insurance reform now-this year."

September 9: Obama delivers an address to a joint session of Congress.

"The time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action. Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on health care."

September 20: Obama appears on most of the major Sunday talk shows to talk about health care, a modified "Full Ginsburg." He defended his role in the effort on "Meet The Press":

"We wouldn't have gotten this far if, you know, we hadn't been pretty insistent, including to folks in my own party, that we've got to get past some of these ideological arguments to actually make something happen."

September 21: President Obama appears on the "Late Show" with David Letterman.

October 5: Obama is joined by lab coat-clad doctors in the Rose Garden.

"These men and women here would not be supporting health insurance reform if they really believed that it would lead to government bureaucrats making decisions that are best left to doctors. They wouldn't be here today if they believed that reform in any way would damage the very critical and sacred doctor-patient relationship."

December 24: Before leaving for the holidays in Hawaii, Obama praises the Senate for passing its version of health care legislation.

"With today's vote, we are now incredibly close to making health insurance reform a reality in this country. Our challenge, then, is to finish the job."

January 22: In an Ohio town hall meeting after the Massachusetts Senate special election, Obama concedes a setback.

"I have to admit, we've run into a bit of a buzz saw along the way. The longer it's taken, the uglier the process has looked."

January 27: In his State of the Union address, Obama vows to press on with health care reform.

"By the time I'm finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance. Millions will lose it this year. Our deficit will grow. Premiums will go up. Co-pays will go up. Patients will be denied the care they need. Small business owners will continue to drop coverage altogether. I will not walk away from these Americans. And neither should the people in this chamber."

February 9: After announcing his health care summit during a Super Bowl interview, Obama comes to the press briefing room and talks about his vision for the event.

"Bipartisanship can't be that I agree to all of the things that they believe in or want, and they agree to none of the things that I believe in or want."

On Stimulus, Republican Governors Walk Fine Line

A year after the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the overwhelming majority of Congressional Republicans continue to be critical of the so-called stimulus bill for having spent far too much for far too little economic boost. House Minority Leader John Boehner's "Where are the jobs?" mantra has become a staple of the minority party's critique of the administration's signature economic initiative.

The message is murkier when it comes to Republican governors, however. Faced with decreasing revenues and loath to raise taxes, the stimulus dollars were impossible for most to turn down last year, even for its strongest critics.

"I think almost every conservative opposed it but when the federal government spends it across the country I know of no governor, no state, nobody who would turn down any substantial portion of it," Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) said in an interview with CBN at CPAC last week. "There were a few minor exceptions to that but everybody took it."

As governors from both parties gathered in Washington for the annual NGA winter meeting this week, the stimulus remained a major topic of discussion. And in some cases, the continuing debate has forced the Republicans who accepted it into difficult political circumstances.

"It was the right thing to do. We needed the money," Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) told reporters at the White House Monday when asked if he had any regrets over his support for the plan.

Crist, of course, is now the Republican most at risk over the stimulus. His deficit in the Republican primary against Marco Rubio in the race for the open U.S. Senate seat in Florida grows larger with each passing poll, it seems, and his infamous embrace of President Obama at a pro-stimulus rally last February is a major reason why.

Conversely, Gov. Rick Perry (R) has thrived in Texas for having been one of the stimulus plan's most virulent critics early on. He leads in his primary fight for re-nomination, despite rival Kay Bailey Hutchison's accusations that he has been hypocritical on the subject. He did use stimulus funds to bridge a budget gap last year, but has an explanation for it.

"We get back 70 cents for every dollar of federal gasoline tax that we send to Washington, DC," he told RCP last December. When the state had 'the opportunity to retrieve some of those hard-earned dollars back into this state," it did so, but without the strings the federal government sought to impose, he said.

Perry and Pawlenty, along with Govs. Bobby Jindal, Mark Sanford and others, found themselves in Democrats' crosshairs last week for such explanations. The DNC inducted the group into its "Hypocrisy Hall of Fame" for trumpeting job-creating projects that would not have been possible without the Recovery Act. Sanford, in particular, was targeted after having one year ago been the leading voice of GOP governors against the plan, but recently coming to Washington to seek $4 billion in education funds through it.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who replaced Sanford as chair of the Republican Governors Association, contended that while most governors could hardly reject the funds, they have been proven right in their belief that the program has fallen short. He cited a statistic in his own state, that 500 jobs were created at a cost of $350 million in stimulus dollars.

"Seven hundred thousand dollars a job? We can do better than that," he said at a roundtable with reporters this weekend.

Still, that hasn't stopped many from seeking new federal aid. A report issued just before the NGA conference this weekend found that at least 17 governors, including eight Republicans, had presented budget plans in their states for the coming year that assumed a new round of federal aid.

At an opening news conference NGA chairman Jim Douglas (R), governor of Vermont, said that for many states the "worst is yet to come" when it comes to budget deficits. The Recovery Act "provided invaluable assistance" in helping to minimize those challenges last year, he said, and the NGA was working with Congress to secure more dollars.

At the same session, Gov. Chris Christie (R) was asked if he agreed with Douglas' view of the stimulus' positive impact. Just sworn as New Jersey's governor this year, Christie put the debate into perspective.

"It certainly helped states like New Jersey and others to not have to confront the difficult choices that we're now having to confront," he said. "What it did was ... to push off the problem from the Corzine administration to the Christie administration."

New York Republicans Await Gillibrand Challenger

For all the talk of a strong recruiting class and the possible Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate this year, one state sticks out as a potential lost opportunity -- New York.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, appointed just more than a year ago from her moderate House district upstate, is still unknown to a large portion of the electorate while facing low favorable and approval ratings among the rest. Yet no top-tier Republican candidate has stepped forward to challenge her.

Even in New York, where the party has long been down and out, Republicans appear in a position to pick up a seat, especially in the wake of a special Senate election win in Massachusetts. However, so far Gillibrand has had far more to worry about in her own party, as several Democratic House members considered challenging her, and former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. is currently weighing a bid.

Rudy Giuliani and Republican Rep. Peter King declined to run, leaving former Gov. George Pataki as seemingly the party's best hope. Polls show Pataki continuing to lead Gillibrand in hypothetical general election matchups, though few expect him to run.

"He hasn't closed the door," said one national party official. "But he's a long-shot."

Republicans in the state say that evidence of a shifting electorate came later to New York than the rest of the country, causing candidates to not begin planning a race until late last year and even into this year. But several people are now considering bids.

"We're in a situation in which there are good people out there in the field right now laying a foundation for a campaign," said one state party official. "We have two declared candidates now and expect there will be possibly two or three others to enter the race in the coming weeks."

The two in the race so far are economist David Malpass, who advised Giuliani's 2008 presidential bid, and attorney Bruce Blakeman, the GOP's nominee for state comptroller in 1998. Both are making the rounds with county chairs to pick up support before the June nominating convention.

Blakeman, who announced last month, has a fundraiser scheduled this week at the Capitol Hill headquarters of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which lends its space to Senate candidates from around the country.

Other names being floated include Orange County Executive Ed Diana and former Rep. Joe DioGuardi, who's been out of Congress for more than 20 years and is now known as the father of an "American Idol" judge.

"There are a number of other folks who have expressed interest but aren't ready to put their names out there yet," said the New York GOP official. "Either way, it's going to be a pretty robust field and an aggressive campaign."

Former Rep. Rick Lazio was asked by some to consider switching from the gubernatorial race -- where he's likely to face a formidable opponent in Attorney General Andrew Cuomo -- to the Senate race, which most believe the party would have a better chance of winning. His name continues be floated as a possibility for the race despite the Lazio campaign's insistence that there's no chance of that.

"Under no circumstances will Rick Lazio be a candidate for U.S. Senate. He's not looking for a job. He's running because New York is in trouble and needs a fundamental overhaul," Lazio spokesman Barney Keller told RealClearPolitics.

Meanwhile, as the GOP searches for its candidate, the party has the luxury of watching as Gillibrand and Ford battle each other in the press on a daily basis. However, some Democrats posit that Gillibrand's statewide profile has actually increased and grown more positive since Ford's quasi-entrance, leaving the GOP with a tougher challenge than it had two months ago.

And Gillibrand is just one of two Democratic senators running in New York this year. Republicans also need to field a candidate against Sen. Charles Schumer.

TX Gov: Perry, Hutchison Attack With One Week Left

Just one week remains until Texas holds its midterm primaries, which will be highlighted by the race for the Republican nomination for governor. Incumbent Rick Perry has been successful holding off a competitive challenge from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, leading now by 15 points in the RCP Average, which includes a 16-point lead in the latest Dallas Morning News poll.

With just days left to go, both campaigns are hitting the airwaves with attack ads. Perry goes after Hutchison in an ad called, "The Queen (of earmarks)," which accuses the senator of supporting wasteful earmarks for other states and ties her to unpopular Washington.

Hutchison is up with an ad titled, "Fueled," which highlights negative newspaper clips on Perry -- including stand-alone quotes like "ethical clouds" and "cronyism."

White House Won't Rule Out Reconciliation On Health Care

The White House has now posted its revised health care reform bill online, which officials describe as an "opening bid" to be discussed at this Thursday's bipartisan health care summit. While the administration said it is hopeful Republicans will come to the table and offer their ideas, the White House isn't ruling out passing the bill through the reconciliation process if necessary.

"The president expects and believes the American people deserve an up or down vote on health reform," said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communication director. "Our proposal is designed to give us some flexibility to ensure that we get an up or down vote if the opposition decides to take the extraordinary step of filibustering."

Speaking with reporters this morning, Nancy-Ann DeParle, director of the White House Office of Health Reform, described the proposal as essentially the Senate bill, "with some targeted, important changes." One of those is ditching the so-called "Cornhusker Kickback," while providing additional aid to state governments aimed to offset increases in their Medicaid payments. It's also raised the threshold for an excise tax and so-called "Cadillac" taxes. It retains the Senate's language on abortion. Not included is a version of the public option, something a group of Democratic senators are now mounting a campaign to resurrect.

"We are coming to this meeting with an open mind," Pfeiffer said. "We hope the Republicans will do the same."

He specifically called on Republicans to consolidate their ideas into one plan they would also post online, saying both parties should come with their best set of ideas. Republicans have repeatedly demanded that the meeting start with a blank sheet of paper. Among its own caucus, the White House said they are confident they can retain their margins and even win over House Democrats who initially voted against it.

"There are a variety of things here that can address concerns that many different members on our side of the aisle had," he said. "And I think in general, having the meeting with both sides of the aisle, on TV for everyone to see, after having had several days to review the proposal will help take away a little of the concern people have about this seeming to be something that was hatched behind closed doors."

The Week Ahead: Health Care Summit

Thirty years after the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid, Team USA wins another upset in Olympic hockey. Our side defeated the Canucks (Team Canada, that is) in Vancouver Sunday night 5-3, thanks in part to a solid performance in goal by Ryan Miller. Both teams move on to the elimination round, but the Americans get a bye.

Here in Washington, it's another busy week.

White House: At 10 am today, the Obama administration will officially post its latest health care proposal. Early reports on the draft call for the federal government getting new power to regulate excessive premium increases, on the heels of Anthem Blue Cross of California's announcement of a 25 percent hike.

"The status quo is good for the insurance industry and bad for America," Obama said in his weekly video address. "And as bad as things are today, they'll only get worse if we fail to act."

This all comes ahead of a planned bipartisan summit on Thursday where the president has promised to give Republicans a chance to pitch their ideas. Today, President Obama is set to speak to the National Governors Association at the White House (the governors enjoyed a state dinner there last night). Wednesday he'll speak to the Business Roundtable in Washington.

Capitol Hill: House members never made it back to town two weeks ago as Washington was pummeled by snow, and last week was lost to the previously scheduled Presidents Day recess. So the House returns today -- a day early -- for a week in which health care heads back to the headlines. The president's health care summit is set for Thursday -- so far House Republicans haven't said whether they will attend, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday he and other Senate Republicans will be there.

On the docket in the House this week could be a portion of the Democrats' comprehensive health care bill -- removing health insurers' antitrust exemption. The Senate picks up on some leftover business from two weeks ago as well with a cloture vote on a jobs bill scheduled for 5:30 pm tonight.

Politics: This is the final full week of campaigning before the gubernatorial primaries in Texas on March 2. Gov. Rick Perry (R) seems to have a commanding lead in the Republican primary, but he's still short of the 50 percent threshold he needs to avoid a runoff, likely against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. We haven't seen polling since a third candidate, Debra Medina, drew criticism for comments about the 9/11 attacks on Glenn Beck's radio show.

Speaking of Beck, his Saturday night speech capped off a busy weekend at CPAC. The biggest surprise was not Vice President Dick Cheney's unscheduled visit, but instead the victory of Ron Paul in a 2012 presidential primary straw poll. Expect that to lead to continued discussion of the role of the tea party movement as well as libertarians like Paul in the GOP ahead of elections this fall.

Governors also made their mark this weekend at the NGA meeting, with considerable discussion on Sunday shows from both leaders in both parties about the political environment in Washington. Check back here for more from an interview with Gov. Jack Markell (D) and conversations with other state leaders this weekend.

** Poll Watch:
Obama Job Performance: Approve 47.1 / Disapprove 46.0 (+1.1)
Congress Job Performance: Approve 20.4 / Disapprove 73.4 (-53.0)
Generic Ballot Test: Republicans +1.1

**In Case You Missed It: Speaking of governors, New York's David Paterson kicked off his re-election campaign Saturday. Judging by the headlines in the Big Apple, it didn't go well. Oddly enough, Paterson sat at a table with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel at Sunday night's state dinner, after the White House pushed him to announce he wouldn't run.

Speaking of strange pairings, here's video of Michelle Obama talking about her obesity initiative with Mike Huckabee on his Fox News Channel show.

Medal Count: U.S., 24; Germany, 18; Norway 12; Canada, 9; Korea, 9; Austria, 8; Russia 8.

--Mike Memoli and Kyle Trygstad

Markell: Gubernatorial Races Could Be Bright Spot For Dems

In what is shaping up to be a difficult climate for Democrats in the midterm Congressional races this fall, there's reason for optimism outside Washington, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell told RCP this morning.

"We really believe that the governor's races could be a bright spot for Democrats in November," Markell, chair of the Democratic Governors Association, said. In those races, voters are focusing not on Washington but what is being done in their states to "put people back to work and manage spending well to improve schools."

He rattled off a list of states where he feels the party is well-positioned to pick up seats, including California, Texas and Florida. And in many states, Markell said voters will have "stark choices" between Democratic candidates who "are trying to lead forward and take the country to a better place, and Republicans who want to just turn the clock back."

As for states where the party is on defense, Markell conceded that it is a "very tough environment" to be running in. But he advised fellow incumbents to be visible, "directly communicating with their constituents and not hiding behind the trappings of the office."

"It's not just about making tough decisions," he said. "People vote on their aspirations and their future rather than on their fear. So people have got to have a sense that you get it, that you're going to fight for them, and that you have a plan. And that plan has got to be ... very much about jobs, but also about spending money wisely and about schools."

Democrats continue to see retirements in Congressional elections, most recently Sen. Evan Bayh's (D) stunning decision. Gov. Bill Ritter (D-Colo.) was the latest in the gubernatorial arena to decide against another term, but Markell said he doesn't expect any more such announcements.

Gov. Haley Barbour (R), chair of the Republican Governors Association, told a group of reporters last night that his party remains "fired up and optimistic" about their position entering a year when 37 states hold gubernatorial elections.

"I think it's indisputable that today, the political environment is better for Republicans than it was in February 1994," he said, a year when the party ended the year with 31 governors. He offered his own list of states where Republicans are well-positioned, even where the party is running against sitting Democratic incumbents.

"I'd rather have our side of it than their side of it today," he said.

We'll have more from the interview with Markell in the coming days.

McDonnell Makes Surprise Appearance At CPAC

With the ballroom packed with Ron Paul supporters, who are awaiting the libertarian congressman to speak, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell made a surprise appearance on stage -- entering to a roaring, standing ovation. Virginia Attorney Generla Ken Cuccinelli spoke here earlier in the day.

"Thank you for what you did for me. Thank you for what you're going to do for conservative candidates all across the United States of America," said McDonnell, who boasted his big win in a state President Obama won in 2008.

CPAC: GOP's Relationship With Conservatives

CPAC's Friday session has been highlighted so far with speeches by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor and Club for Growth President Chris Chocola. There was even a taped video message from Rush Limbaugh, who received a roaring ovation as he introduced the "Blogger of the Year" -- Ed Morrissey of HotAir.com.

The most lively part of the day so far, though, was an intriguing panel discussion on the struggle between security and freedom. Those involved included former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, libertarian Bob Barr, California Rep. Dan Lungren and Viet Dinh, an assistant attorney general in the previous administration. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft appeared briefly and was promptly heckled by a few for his support for the Patriot Act.

While Bachmann called Republicans the "majority-in-waiting," Chocola -- who's group takes aim at Republicans in primaries, as well as Democrats -- said he hasn't yet seen evidence the party is ready to lead again.

"Can Republicans be trusted with a renewed majority?" asked Chocola, a former Indiana congressman. "I have to admit standing here today, I simply don't know. ... I'm not convinced that they have learned the lessons of the 2006 and 2008 elections."

Chocola noted the national party's backing of Dede Scozzafava in New York's 23rd District, Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and now-Democratic Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter -- all instead of more conservative candidates.

Chocola's speech put a spotlight on the delicate relationship between conservatives and the Republican Party -- a common thread throughout the three-day conference and the 2010 midterm elections, where contentious GOP primaries have popped up around the country.

Pawlenty took the opportunity to introduce himself to conservatives, as he starts down what will be a long road toward November 2012. His likely opponent, Mitt Romney, spoke yesterday, and offered a defense of George W. Bush and scathing criticism of President Obama. Pawlenty didn't mention Bush, but outlined his record as governor and the conservative principles he'll follow. As The Hotline's Reid Wilson notes, the crowd's ovations for Pawlenty were noticeably more subdued than those given Thursday for Romney and Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio.

Pence, who's spoken at the conference nearly every year since coming to Congress in 2001, defended his party against the attack line levied for the past year by Democrats, who call Republicans the "Party of No." Although the GOP usually combats that offensive with evidence of the ideas it has brought to the table since Obama took office, Pence embraced the label.

"I say 'no' is way underrated in Washington, D.C.," he said. "Sometimes 'no' is just what this town needs to hear. When it comes to more borrowing, the answer is no. When it comes to more spending, the answer is no. When it comes to more bailouts, the answer is no. And when it comes to a government takeover of health care, the answer is no."

It's Official: Ellsworth Enters Indiana Senate Race

Indiana Rep. Brad Ellsworth announced today that he will run for Senate, a decision that comes on the heels of Sen. Evan Bayh's surprise decision on Monday to retire. Because Bayh retired just before the filing deadline, Ellsworth will not need to run in a Democratic primary to win the nomination. The party's state central committee can simply name him the nominee following the May 4 primaries.

Here is Ellsworth's statement, announcing his candidacy:

"After many conversations with Hoosiers this week, and with the love and support of my family, I have decided to run for the U.S. Senate. "The best years of my life are the more than two decades I spent in the local Sheriff's department. Sheriff is a job that comes down to protecting families from harm, helping folks solve their problems or resolve their disputes, and just being willing to put your fellow citizens' best interests ahead of your own. When I look at the U.S. Senate these days, I sure think they could use more folks with those same qualities. And that's something I hope I could bring to the U.S. Senate - an independent voice to help Indiana through these tough economic times, and get things done for everyday folks who are really struggling."

The Democrat running for Ellsworth's House seat is State Rep. Trent Van Haaften, who filed the necessary paperwork this morning, the Indy Star reports.

Pawlenty: Bush Will Be Remembered 'Fondly'

Tim Pawlenty, unlike Mitt Romney, did not mention George W. Bush in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference today. But in an interview after his remarks, the Minnesota governor said he "absolutely" agreed with Romney that the former president would, in his own words, be remembered "more fondly" over time.

"I think President Bush was a leader with strong convictions who proposed big changes in entitlement programs. Unfortunately the Congress, including for a period of time the Republican Congress, didn't adopt those approaches," Pawlenty told the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody shortly after his speech, which RCP sat in on.

Pawlenty also lauded his actions that ultimately led to a democratic Iraq, which he described as "relatively stable." And since 9/11, the nation did not see new attacks from international terrorists.

"For those reasons and others I think President Bush will remembered much more fondly," he said.

Pawlenty did not have the most favorable speaking slot among the presidential hopefuls here, and his speech was met politely but not overly enthusiastically by an early morning crowd here. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann drew a more spirited reaction in an afternoon speech.

Pawlenty's moment was noted primarily for his reference to the Tiger Woods press conference scheduled to take place after he spoke. He otherwise continued to introduce himself to these activists, and outlined some key principles that guided him, including the notion that "God is in charge," and that government can't spend more than it has.

"If government spending were an Olympic sport, he would be a repeat gold medalist," he quipped.

Acknowledging he likely won't perform well in the straw poll being conducted this weekend at CPAC, Pawlenty said Republicans ought to focus on 2010 first.

"For me personally, I haven't decided what I'm going to do for 2012, and what I do know is that most people around the country don't know who I am so I don't do well in straw polls," he said. "My focus is how can we help like-minded candidates [who share our values] in 2010."

Pawlenty has a busy weekend in the nation's capital, including a low-dollar fundraiser aimed at younger voters tonight that will feature Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. He's also attending events for both the Republican Governors Association and National Governors Association in town.

Spring Training For 2012 Presidential Candidates

Pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training this week, and Republicans considering running for president are warming up to the political season right now at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Appearing at the three day event are Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty -- who are all but certain to run -- as well as Mike Pence, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

This week's conference is just the start. Speaking in less than two months at the Southern
Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans are Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Haley Barbour and Bobby Jindal, along with Gingrich, Pawlenty, Pence and Santorum.

The SRLC is billed as "the most prominent GOP gathering prior to the next national convention," and features a presidential straw poll -- Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist won the Hotline-run poll in 2006, with Romney finishing a surprise second.

CPAC witnessed several interesting moments during the 2008 presidential race. Allen won the annual CPAC straw poll in 2006, edging out John McCain. At the time, Allen appeared well on his way to being the frontrunner for the nomination, but he committed a politically fatal mistake several months later while stumping for his re-election.

In February 2008, Romney announced at CPAC that he was dropping out of the presidential race -- a deflating speech for conservatives.

"I entered this race because I love America," said Romney. "And because I love America, in this time of war, I feel I have to now stand aside, for our party and for our country."

Following Romney's speech, McCain made a plea for conservative support, which he would need heading into a competitive race against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

"I am acutely aware that I cannot succeed in that endeavor, nor can our party prevail over the challenge we will face from either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama, without the support of dedicated conservatives," McCain said.

Potential candidates are making similar pleas this week.

WI Sen Poll: Thompson Leads Feingold

In a new Rasmussen poll, Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (D) fails to garner 50 percent against two announced Republican challengers, while he trails former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who has yet to say whether he will run. Thompson led Feingold by a similar margin last month.

Feingold's resume and bank account make him formidable, even in an anti-incumbent year, but his polling numbers -- sub-50 percent against businessmen Terrence Wall and Dave Westlake, and behind Thompson -- could be a sign of trouble ahead for the three-term senator.

Thompson 48
Feingold 43

Feingold 47
Wall 39

Feingold 47
Westlake 37

The survey was conducted Feb. 17 of 500 likely voters with a margin of error of +/- 4.5%.

From Romney, Red Meat And A Defense Of Bush

Gov. Mitt Romney (R), the first of several potential presidential hopefuls to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, not surprisingly delivered a series of attacks on the Obama presidency just over one year in. What was something of a surprise -- even to the audience that eagerly listened to him -- was his defense of former President George W. Bush.

"I am convinced that history will judge President Bush far more kindly. He pulled us from a deepening recession following the attack of 9-11, he overcame teachers unions to test school children and evaluate schools, he took down the Taliban, waged a war against the jihadists and was not afraid to call it what it is--a war, and he kept us safe. I respect his silence even in the face of the assaults on his record that come from this administration. But at the same time, I also respect the loyalty and indefatigable defense of truth that comes from our "I don't give a damn" Vice President Dick Cheney!"

Romney's comment about Bush received just polite applause among a group that has some reservations about his record on a series of issues. The closing praise for Cheney, who had just made a surprise appearance, was met much more enthusiastically.

Romney invoked Bush as he discussed something he called a true test of an individual: how one responds to defeats. After losses in 2008 -- including , but unmentioned, Romney's bid for the GOP nomination -- the GOP "didn't serve up excuses or blame our fellow citizens," the former Massachusetts governor said.

"Instead we listened carefully to the American people, we sharpened our thinking and our arguments, we spoke with greater persuasiveness, we took our message to journals and airwaves across the country. And in the great American tradition, some even brought attention to our cause with rallies and tea parties," he said.

But after President Obama suffered defeats, both of his agenda and of fellow Democrats, the administration and his party have responded by blaming others. Romney mentioned Obama's criticism of the Supreme Court, of Republicans in Congress, of Bush, and even, he said, the American people themselves.

"It seems that we have failed to understand his wise plans for us," Romney said sarcastically. "If he just slows down, he reasons, and makes a concerted effort to explain Obama-care in a way even we can understand, if we just listen better, then we will get it."

Americans have listened, he argued, and have seen a president break his promises on transparency, on bringing a new kind of politics to DC, and on ending the influence of special interests.

"No, Mr. President, the American people didn't hear and see too little, they saw too much!" Romney charged.

Romney's speech was peppered with one-liners and red meat for the crowd. Referring to his recent trip to the Olympics, he joked that Lindsey Vonn was stripped of her gold medal in the downhill because "it was determined that President Obama has been going downhill faster." Referring to Obama giving himself a B+ for his first year, Romney said that "will go down as the biggest exaggeration since Al Gore's invention of the Internet." And as Obama "pins the blame" on everyone but him, he offered this rejoinder: "When it comes to pinning blame, pin the tail on the donkeys!"

As Romney courts a powerful constituency in his likely bid for the White House, he came armed with his own special guest: Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA). Brown gushed over his state's former governor, saying he played a major role in his victory. And he perhaps tested a slogan for Romney 2.0.

"If you want to fix something that's broken, especially dealing with economic policies, you have to listen to Governor Mitt Romney," Brown said. Later, he added: "He really means it when he says he's committed to rebuilding the Republican Party."

Military Tribunals A Big Applause Line At CPAC

Marco Rubio, in his morning keynote at CPAC, got no bigger applause line today than for attacking the Obama administration over prosecuting terrorists.

"We need to make it unmistakably clear that we will do whatever it takes for however long it takes to defeat radical Islamic terrorism," Rubio told hundreds in the Washington hotel ballroom.

That means, he said, destroying terror cells and their leaders. "The ones that survive, we will capture them," he said, to which someone in the audience shouted: "Waterboard them!" Rubio laughed, and simply continued: "We will capture them. We will get useful information from them. And then we will bring them to justice in front of a military tribunal in Guantanamo. Not a civilian courtroom in Manhattan."

Rubio's speech, his first major introduction to conservatives outisde the Sunshine State, was warmly received, and focused primarily on what he said was a critical moment that this fall's election represents. He did not mention Gov. Charlie Crist (R), his primary rival, by name. But he did allude to him at several times, saying at one point that "the U.S. Senate already has one Arlen Specter too many."

"2010 is not just a choice between Republicans and Democrats. It's not just a choice between liberals and conservatives. 2010 is a referendum on the very identity of our nation," Rubio said.

And because so much is at stake, he said that "many of the old rules of political engagement will not apply." For instance: "A long list of establishment endorsements will not spare you a primary. Clever one-line slogans aren't going to spare you the need to discuss policy issues in detail. And the old tires political attacks that worked once in the past are not going to get you elected this time."

Rubio closed with the story of his up-from-his-bootstraps upbringing.

"Every chance I've ever had, and everything that I will ever accomplish I owe to God, my parents' sacrifices, and to the United States of America," he said, drawing a standing ovation. "My parents never achived wealth or influence, but their hard worked opened doors for their children that had been closed to them. To me, their story is the very essence of the American miracle."

To make sure that was still possible for future generations, he said Americans must decide whether the nation continues to be "exceptional," or like everyone else. "Our task this year is to make sure that Americans choose the right one."

CPAC Opens With Renewed Confidence

A year ago, in the wake of humbling losses in the presidential and congressional races, leaders of the conservative movement were debating its strategy and even its viability at the ballot box. Still, the feeling among many was that Republicans in Congress had simply ignored their conservative values and were now being punished by voters -- and that patience would be required as voters eventually found their way back.

As the annual Conservative Political Action Conference kicks off today, however, what was just a sense of optimism last year has already amplified into renewed confidence. Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, the third-ranking Republican in the House, said in an interview with RealClearPolitics that the party is back on track and expects there not only to be a Republican majority in Congress next year, but a conservative majority.

Pence has been a harsh critic of his GOP colleagues -- as well as Democrats -- since coming to Congress in 2001. A former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, Pence railed against increased government spending under Republican leadership in several CPAC speeches over the last few years, and likened the party to a ship that had not only gone off-course -- but "run aground."

"My speech theme this year is what a difference a year makes," said Pence, who will deliver his annual CPAC speech on Friday. "My goal is going to be to bring to the eight-to-10,000 people there that a year ago I thought we were on the verge of a great American awakening -- but I had no idea."

In November 2008, Barack Obama won states Democrats hadn't even contested in decades, including Pence's home state of Indiana, which had voted Democratic just once since 1940. Now, Democrats across the country are worried for their political health, as analysts believe Republicans will pick up a substantial number of seats in the House and Senate.

Regaining the majority in Congress remains a tall order for the GOP, as Democrats hold an 18-seat edge in the Senate and 77-seat hold on the House. However, polling shows that independent voters, who played a big role in Obama's victory, are trending back toward Republicans, and Democrats in swing districts and states are in trouble.

"I think Americans have been taken aback by the aggressive, big-government liberalism of this Congress and this administration," said Pence. "But I also believe that as House Republicans have been returning to our roots of fiscal discipline and limited government, the American people have been taking a second look and they like what they see."

The candidate receiving the most attention from conservatives nationwide is Marco Rubio, a young, Hispanic, former Florida House speaker, who will give the keynote address at CPAC this morning. Rubio's Senate challenge to the more moderate and establishment-backed Gov. Charlie Crist has excited a conservative base that scoffs at the notion of the national GOP pursuing a 'big tent' majority at the expense of more conservative candidates.

"He's an unusually talented public figure and it's great to be commended, but in many respects Marco Rubio is very typical of the kind of conservative fresh faces that we're seeing step forward at every level across the country," said Pence, who endorsed Rubio over Crist earlier this month. "And I think it's a harbinger of a very conservative comeback in 2010."

Pence, himself, is extremely popular with conservatives, and there's a push for him to run for president. When asked, he wouldn't close the door to a bid in the future but maintained his focus was on helping win back Congress.

"I really believe the opportunity to elect a conservative majority to the Congress is real," said Pence. "But as I'll say Friday, it will be important for all of us to not become distracted and that we stay focused, that we put our heads down, and that we do everything in our power to restore common sense conservative principles to the majority in Washington, D.C."

Crist Camp Offers Mock Speech For Rubio

This morning I wrote about Marco Rubio's (R) upcoming keynote speech to the CPAC gathering tomorrow. This afternoon, Gov. Charlie Crist's (R) campaign looks to get out ahead of his moment in the spotlight by attempting to advance their narrative that the former House speaker is more hype than reality.

In a mock draft of Rubio's speech, the Crist camp has the candidate saying, "I'm thrilled many of you don't know me or what I've done during my 8 years in Tallahassee." They also acknowledge a sore spot for Crist in his effort to woo primary voters, as "Rubio" says, "I owe most of my recent success from a single photograph. I say, 'image is everything' - and luckily, I found a photo with the Governor of Florida greeting the President of the United States. And Presto! Instant candidacy for moi!"

You can read the full faux speech after the jump.

Good morning.  Thank you for that warm welcome and the opportunity to speak to you about why I'm running for the U.S. Senate.  [WAIT FOR APPLAUSE]

Since my campaign began, I've had the privilege of becoming the latest cover boy. Ask my lobbyist colleagues -- I'm a capitalist (at least when it comes to benefiting financially while claiming to serve the people of Florida).  And, capitalizing on that wave, I have successfully painted myself as a political outsider.  Our success in convincing voters that I am a new voice in Florida politics is surprising even to me.  It seems that people are quick to forget (and I certainly won't remind them!) that I was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2000 and rose through the Republican leadership ranks to become the Speaker of the Florida House.  All of this by a spry 36.

I owe most of my recent success from a single photograph.  I say, 'image is everything' - and luckily, I found a photo with the Governor of Florida greeting the President of the United States.  And Presto!  Instant candidacy for moi!  Sure, my opponent was aware Florida was facing a $6 billion dollar deficit and supported getting Florida our fair share of federal money. And, sure, I admitted I would have accepted the stimulus money too in a recent interview (Stimulus! See, just like that, I say the word whenever I can). But that's the Magic of Marco - I just back-tracked.  I find it's easier to criticize when you are out of office than when you are in office.  I'm glad I was not Speaker at that time, or else I would have joined my Republican colleagues in the Florida Legislature and supported the stimulus money for our state, which would have been much harder to back track.  That's what you call lucky.

Concerned about out of control spending in Washington?  Me too!  Pay no attention to the fact that I sent my opponent, Gov. Crist, our state budget loaded with hundreds of millions in special interest earmarks - Crist vetoed $459 million of it.  I've helped support enough earmarks during my time in Tallahassee to make even Shamu's head swim!  I even tried to score some new turf for my flag football league (who wouldn't want me on their team? I deliver!), but that was found out and promptly vetoed too.  I even spent over half a million dollars of Republican Party of Florida money just on my 100 ideas book - including about $175,000 to seek other people's ideas and another $150,000 for other people to write them all down.

We all hate taxes.  I hate them even more.  Like when I proposed the largest tax increase in Florida history - boy, I hate that.  Lucky Grover Norquist doesn't hold it against me that I raised taxes when I was in local government too.

I enjoyed speaking to some of you prior to my remarks.  Besides the issues I just touched on, I heard directly about your concerns relating to illegal immigration and cap and trade.  I want to touch on both topics now. 

When it comes to immigration, I am all about talking tough - my approach stems from the fact that it is easier to discuss the issue than to fix it.  I had a bear of a time back in 2007 with this issue.  Six Republican members introduced legislation that would have cracked down on illegal immigration in our state.  Frankly, I had no appetite to deal with this, so I never called one bill up for consideration.  Pay no attention that my more lenient views on immigration were well documented by many at the time.  I supported legislation that would have given illegals in-state tuition discounts instead of out of state costs.  I even won the support of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) - they gave me their highest award in 2007!  They do seem to be a bit miffed at me lately, they claim I'm not the same guy I was in 2007.  Whatever ... Stimulus!

I now say cap and trade is wrong, but I supported a carbon tax.  May sound strange (does to me too), and I know that shakes many of you to the core, but it's true.  Before I became a candidate for U.S. Senate I supported giving Florida's Department of Environmental Protection agency a mandate to go out and develop a cap and trade program including a carbon tax.  This position was to get ahead of what would be coming down from Washington. Clearly I read the political tides wrong, but I cannot stand by my comments from March 2008 or all of you will see right through me, I mean, that's a lifetime ago in politics.  Moving on .

More than anything else, my political rise provided me with the ability to influence public policy and see firsthand why Americans are tired of insider deal making and self-interest influence.  We must put an end to this type of influence in today's politics.  There is no one who understands this more than I - a lobbyist while serving Floridians in the House.

I am not naïve when it comes to dealing with this kind of corruption in the political system. I have learned these lessons from firsthand experience.  You see, when I was Speaker of the House, I tried to influence the political process by inserting language into three pieces of legislation to help a campaign contributor and close political ally be able to secure business with the Florida Turnpike.  I'm sure many in this room during a recent trip to Florida became familiar with the Florida Turnpike.  I slipped this language in to the different bills with the hope it would not cause a concern.  However, my actions hindered my chance of helping my donor and unfortunately all the bills were vetoed by Gov. Crist (three separate pieces of legislation, it can't get better than that- sorry buddy I tried!). 

Being out of office now has benefits, though.  I'm able to crisscross Florida any time I want because of the flexibility I have from my current job at Florida International University.  Education is very important to me.  Although I never really paid FIU any attention before, as Speaker, I made it a priority during my two years to funnel millions of dollars to FIU so that they could be leaders within our state university system.  I knew they were counting on me and, let me tell you, my partnership with them paid off big time.  I was so excited about taking a part-time job, thankfully unadvertised, with FIU making $69,000 a year with full health benefits.  I hear the challenges of folks every day when it comes to health care.  I'm just glad I was taken care of.  I showed my good pal Ray Sansom, my successor and hand-picked budget chief how to do this too - unfortunately for him, he wasn't near as sly as I was.

I'm thrilled many of you don't know me or what I've done during my 8 years in Tallahassee.  My record is irrelevant in this campaign.  My previous statements and actions serve no purpose in this campaign.  The fact that I'm a lobbyist and lobbied during my time in the Florida House has no place in this campaign.  Many sundry things about me are out there but they have no place in this campaign.  As I've said before, everything is done in the context of the moments in which you're living. So, anyone who brings up the fact that I have a record or even refers to me as Speaker must be running the most negative campaign in the history of modern politics, and, because of such, I refuse to talk about my past.  I'm like the Great and Powerful Oz - pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!  All you need to know is that I'm an outsider, I mean Conservative Outsider! [APPLAUSE]. (Oops, I almost forgot that one).  I'm the new guy.  I just hope this best kept secret remains just that.  Despite my experiences and time in Tallahassee, I thank you for your support.

[STAFF ENTERS WITH THRONE]

CPAC Marks Rubio's Debut In National Spotlight

For all the attention Marco Rubio has received in the past year, he's still something of an unknown quantity to many of the conservative activists who have been drawn to his campaign for Senate in Florida. Considered a rising star on the right, Rubio now faces his first major audition on the national stage tomorrow when he delivers the opening keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

"It's safe to say that it's the largest audience that he's spoken to at any point in the campaign," said Alex Burgos, Rubio's campaign spokesman. "It's ultimately an opportunity to share his message, to share his experience with fellow conservatives and talk about the stakes in this race. It's an honor."

Rubio, former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, serves in a roll filled most recently by Paul Ryan and Mike Pence, Congressman seen as playing a key role in shaping the message of the GOP into the future. CPAC organizers point to their keynote speeches as launching pads for that leadership role.

"We try to select someone who we see as an articulate and thoughtful conservative who we believe will deliver an inspiring message to those attending the opening session of the conference, and who we believe is someone attendees should take notice of because he or she will have incredible influence inside and outside the movement in he future," said David Keene, CPAC chairman.

There will certainly be some pressure to justify the outsized persona Rubio has developed as a poster-child for the resurgent right (he's already graced the cover of National Review). And the audience Rubio will be speaking to at the conservative confab is expected to be one of the largest ever, organizers say, with as many as 10,000 attending.

Rubio released a Web video Tuesday previewing his address. "I really, truly believe America is at an extraordinary crossroads. We need to decide which kind of country we want to be going forward," he says.

Rubio will not likely come into the conference with a prepared speech; someone who routinely lampoons President Obama for his reliance on a teleprompter wouldn't likely have his own. Instead, as is his style, he will likely prepare a general outline but largely speak "from the heart" about his principles and the conservative movement.

His remarks will likely mirror what Rubio has been discussing on a local level in his campaign against centrist Gov. Charlie Crist. But he'll also expand on the direction of the Democratic-controlled Washington and the role of the conservative movement.

"Ultimately the message will reflect the message that has allowed him to rise to the point where he is today," Burgos said.

Rubio will have a busy schedule beyond the speech and the conference itself. Among some finance events is a gathering with other Beltway conservatives hosted by Cesar Conda, a former policy aide to Vice President Cheney and the Romney campaign who switched his endorsement from Crist to Rubio this week. Expected to attend are Reps. Pence and Ryan, Sens. Jim DeMint and Jim Inhofe, Mary Matalin, Liz Cheney and former Reps. Vin Weber and J.C. Watts.

His turn in the spotlight comes at an event where presidential politics is always on people's minds. Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty will be speaking as they lay the groundwork for national campaigns. And in Rubio, attendees see someone already being discussed as a potential vice presidential selection.

But Rubio isn't looking past the race before him now, his campaign stresses. In fact, the campaign is organizing around the speech, with watch parties planned for supporters across the state. For its part, the Crist campaign hopes to spoil the moment by making a new offensive questioning Rubio's credentials. On Tuesday, Florida reporters received materials documenting alleged conservative conversions on a host of issues.

"CPAC attendees will be very disappointed to learn [that] the real Speaker Rubio, despite his high-flying rhetoric, supports a carbon tax, is soft on guns and spent so drastically as Speaker it was deemed 'shocking,'" said Andrea Saul, the Crist campaign's communication director. "No matter what lengths Speaker Rubio takes to hide his record, he is still just a big-spending Miami lobbyist."

GOP Primary For Illinois Governor Still Unsettled

The primary was two weeks ago, but Republicans are no closer to determining their nominee for governor in Illinois. Bill Brady (R) still clings to a razor-thin lead over fellow state Sen. Kirk Dillard (R) today, which is the deadline for local election boards to count absentee and provisional ballots.

In a statement issued this afternoon, Dillard says he will wait at least a week before making any decisions about his candidacy. "We believe we have continued to pick up votes and close the gap with Senator Brady. However, we have not been able to get a firm number on all of the ballots," Dillard says. "The election authorities have until February 23rd to report their totals to the Illinois Board of Elections. As a result, we are still waiting to see what that final count is before determining our next course of action."

Unofficial results on election night showed Brady ahead by just over 400 votes; various reports today indicate that Dillard may indeed be closing the gap as absentee votes are tallied. Both candidates received just over 20 percent of the vote in the wide-open race.

Waiting for an opponent is Gov. Pat Quinn (D), who won a hotly-contested Democratic primary against state Comptroller Dan Hynes. But he, too, has an unresolved issue -- he and state Democrats need to choose a new candidate for lieutenant governor. Scott Lee Cohen was forced to withdraw over revelations of past charges for battery, as well as steroid use.

IN Sen: D'Ippolito Misses Petition Deadline

Tamyra d'Ippolito did not receive the necessary petition signatures in order to qualify for running for Senate in Indiana, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party tells RealClearPolitics. D'Ippolito's inability to get 500 signatures from each of the state's nine congressional districts by today's noon deadline saves Democrats from being forced to rely on a politcal unknown and allows the party to hand-pick its nominee to succeed the retiring Evan Bayh.

Bayh's last-minute retirement announcement left potential candidates, such as Rep. Brad Ellsworth, unable to meet the deadline to turn in petitions, but also gave the party a dream scenario in which no costly or damaging primary is necessary. Once Friday's noon deadline for filing candidacy papers passes, the party's state central committee can meet to choose its nominee.

The Indy Star reports two Republican candidates for Senate -- State Sen. Marlin Stutzman and financial adviser Don Bates Jr. -- have officially filed the necessary paperwork with the secretary of state's office, while former Sen. Dan Coats, former Rep. John Hostettler and plumbing company owner Richard Behney say they have filed the necessary petition signatures.

Kaine: Democrats Are Not Panicked

Amid some calls for him to step down, former Gov. Tim Kaine defended his tenure as chair of the Democratic National Committee, while arguing that his party is not "panicked" over a series of setbacks.

"We're governing and we're engaged in politics at a very challenging and tough time," Kaine told reporters on a conference call this afternoon. "We knew that going in."

He said the DNC has raised near-historic totals for a non-presidential year, and built a significant field organization to help 2010 candidates. Early in 2009 cycle the party was successful in special elections, but he conceded the environment has turned.

"In the two governors races, and Massachusetts things didn't go our way," he said. "We know it's going to be a challenging and tough cycle. Historically it always is. But we're not panicked people. When a couple races don't go our way, we don't panic. If we would, we never would have won the White House in '08."

Kaine did not mention a string of retirements, with Sen. Evan Bayh's (D) decision yesterday considered a severe blow. Instead, he sought to launch a new offensive on Republicans on the eve of the anniversary of President Obama signing the Recovery Act. The DNC is targeting more than 90 GOP governors, congressmen and senators, including members of the leadership, in its "Hypocrisy Hall of Fame," people they say vehemently opposed the stimulus bill but welcomed the dollars they provided in their states and districts.

"Many of them are not just asking for funds, they're claiming credit, handing out over-sized checks and acting as if they had something to do with it," Kaine said.

Dovetailing the White House message on what bipartisanship really means, Kainesaid the anniversary of the stimulus also marks the anniversary of "Republicans' effort to begin a new era of politicization."

In response to Kaine's assertion that Democrats are not panicked, one Republican sent along this YouTube clip.

Indiana Makes Senate Winnable For GOP

For a Democrat running in a Republican-leaning state in 2010, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh was in relatively good shape when he announced his retirement Monday afternoon. He had $13 million in the bank and a substantial lead in both public surveys and polling conducted by his campaign. Yet the second-term senator is stepping away from elected office for the first time in 24 years and becomes the fifth sitting Democratic senator not to run this year.

The news surprised both local and national Democrats, most of who only learned hours before -- some even after -- the news leaked out. He had completed the necessary paperwork to get on the ballot, and had recently polled the race. Still, a White House official with ties to Bayh said he had talked about the possibility of retiring "for years" and believed the decision truly had nothing to do with the increasingly perilous political environment.

Bayh said as much at a news conference Monday afternoon in Indianapolis.

"My decision was not motivated by a political concern," he said. "Even in the current challenging political environment, I am confident in my prospects for re-election."

Bayh's retirement instantly puts Indiana on a growing list of pick-up opportunities for the GOP this year. President Obama and Vice President Biden could see their former Senate seats in Illinois and Delaware go red, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) is one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country.

North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan is retiring and his seat is considered the GOP's for the taking, while Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln are in bad shape as well. Throw in the longer shot chances of scoring two upsets in the blue state trio of California, Wisconsin, and Washington, and Republicans can now visualize a path - albeit still a very difficult one - to recapturing a 51-49 majority in the upper chamber.

"The Indiana Senate seat is one that we will fight to hold onto," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.). "We will have a strong Democratic candidate on the ballot there."

Although President Obama won Indiana in 2008, the margin was just a single percentage point and the state is still considered favorable for the GOP. The process of replacing Bayh on the ballot is complicated by the fact that candidacy petitions, which must include at least 500 signatures from each of the nine congressional districts, are due today. Without Bayh or any other Democrat turning in a petition, the state party will be able to name its nominee without the need for a costly and perhaps damaging primary.

Democrats floated the names of Reps. Brad Ellsworth and Baron Hill as potential replacements for Bayh. Both have moderate voting records and hail from districts won by both John McCain and George W. Bush, which bodes well for them in a statewide race.

However, a look at their current House campaigns shows how much work is ahead for Democrats as they attempt to build a well-organized, competitive statewide campaign in Bayh's absence. Ellsworth currently has one person working for his re-election campaign, while the phone number listed on Hill's campaign web site is no longer accurate.

The fact that Democrats can choose their nominee, rather than see an open primary, is the one positive element the party points to in an otherwise unwelcome surprise. Hill had not responded to speculation Monday - he was on an overseas trip. But Ellsworth issued a statement leaving the door open to a Senate bid.

"The next step will be taking a few days to talk to my wife and to folks in Indiana about where I can best serve our state," he said. "In the meanwhile, I will continue to travel throughout the 8th District this week listening to Hoosiers about the challenges they face and their ideas for getting our economy back on track."

Some in the party have also suggested local officeholders, arguing it might be better for the party to run a Washington outsider. Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel was one such possibility, but he issued a statement saying he was "not interested in pursuing this opportunity." Former Gov. Joe Kernan also said no.

The only way Democrats' situation could get more tenuous is if an unknown restaurant owner, Tamyra d'Ippolito, manages to file enough signatures by the noon deadline today. Speaking to RCP Monday, d'Ippolito said she was struggling to collect the required number of signatures from each district. Her campaign manager said the chances of the campaign doing so was "slim to none." But some liberal and conservative Web sites were boosting her profile in the hopes of spoiling Democrats' Plan B.

The leading Republican is former Senator Dan Coats, whom Democrats have been hammering for living outside of Indiana since leaving the Senate in 1998 and working as a lobbyist. Rep. Mike Pence, the third-ranking Republican in the House, said last month he would not seek the seat. Although he reportedly began to rethink his decision yesterday, today's petition deadline would make that difficult.

Menendez called it "a weakened Republican field" with Coats, "whose baggage is now hardly a secret." But the National Republican Senatorial Committee maintains the seat was competitive before Bayh's exit.

"The moment Evan Bayh abandoned the views and values of his constituents by voting for the boondoggle stimulus and the President's government run health care bill, this became a very competitive Senate race," said NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh. "His retirement only strengthens this opportunity for Republicans in November."

--Kyle Trygstad and Mike Memoli

Hafer Steps Forward To Succeed Murtha

Former state treasurer and auditor general Barbara Hafer will run to replace the late John Murtha in Pennsylvania's 12th District. Hafer gives Democrats a legitimate contender for the seat, which Republicans will target in the forthcoming special election and for the full term in November.

The news was first reported bypa2010.com, to whom Hafer said: "I will never be able to fill Murtha's shoes, but I would be honored to follow him. ... Of course everyone is shocked and saddened about John Murtha passing away...but we always have to look forward and try to continue the work he has done for our state."

Hafer is a former Republican who switched parties after endorsing Democrat Ed Rendell in the 2002 gubernatorial election. As the GOP nominee, Hafer lost the 1990 governor's race to Democrat Bob Casey, the father of current Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.).

John McCain won the southwestern Pennsylvania district in 2008 by less than 1,000 votes; Murtha won re-election with 59 percent.

Indiana's Evan Bayh To Retire

A true shocker on this holiday: Sen. Evan Bayh (D) will not seek re-election, a Democratic source confirms. Washington Post's Chris Cillizza has the rationale:

"After all these years, my passion for service to my fellow citizens is undiminished, but my desire to do so by serving in Congress has waned," Bayh will say.

The news comes weeks after former Sen. Dan Coats (R) announced he would challenge Bayh. Initially seen as a strong threat, the DSCC and others had been successful in quickly advancing the narrative that Coats had lost touch with the Hoosier State after years in Washington, even pointing to a video in which he openly discusses possibly moving to North Carolina.

Bayh's decision is also stunning given how much money he had in the bank -- nearly $13 million after the latest fundraising period closed. Recent polling had shown Bayh ahead, though not necessarily comfortably.

To say that it will be a challenge for Democrats to hold the seat now is an understatement, and not just because of the political climate. According to the Indiana Secretary of State's Web site, the filing deadline for candidates to qualify for the primary ballot is this Friday. But to qualify, a candidate needed signed petitions from each of the state's Congressional Districts by tomorrow. That gives Democrats almost no time to find a replacement.

A Democratic source says that in the event of a vacancy, the state party could name a candidate later on. The source says to look at two current Democratic Congressman: Brad Ellsworth and Baron Hill.

Week by week, it seems Republicans are closer to putting control of the Senate in play. This is the kind of stunner that ensures that is the case.

The Week Ahead: Olympic Recess

The Winter Olympics opened Friday evening under a somber cloud following the accidental death of a luger just hours earlier. The Vancouver-hosted games continued on, however, with an exciting first two days. Tops was the men's and women's freestyle skiing events. Canada's first gold medal on home soil was won last night in thrilling fashion by Alex Bilodeau -- who barely defeated Canadian-turned-Australian Dale Begg-Smith. America's Hannah Kearney turned in an equally awesome performance the night before to win gold ahead of Canadian favorite Jenn Heil.

White House: The threat of snow shortened what was to have been a long weekend for President Obama at Camp David. He is back at the White House today with no events scheduled on the holiday. His schedule for the rest of the week includes a mix of domestic and foreign policy, as well as some politics. Tomorrow he'll have another event focused on jobs in the DC area. On Wednesday, Obama welcomes Spain's King Juan Carlos I to the White House, followed Thursday by a meeting with the Dalai Lama.

Also Thursday, Obama will travel to Denver one year and one day after he signed the Recovery Act into law. This trip is about politics, though -- he'll be attending a fundraiser for Sen. Michael Bennet (D), appointed last year and facing a tough primary and general election this year. After the event, Obama travels to Las Vegas for a DNC fundraiser. Then on Friday, he'll have events to boost Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's re-election bid. Reid still faces an uphill climb, but he did get some good news with the decision of Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki (R) not to run, and the qualification of a Tea Party candidate.

Capitol Hill: Just before the weekend, Obama signed into law a bill raising the country's debt limit by nearly $2 trillion, as well as a requirement that any new spending or tax cuts by Congress must be offset by a corresponding spending reduction or revenue increase.

Both chambers of Congress are on recess this week in celebration of Presidents Day. Due to snow, the House was out all last week as well. Senators and Representatives will return next Monday, Feb. 22. The Senate will open with a reading of George Washington's Farewell Address by Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), then take up a new jobs bill it was unable to compromise on last week.

Politics: Two big conferences are on the schedule later this week. The annual CPAC gathering starts this Thursday in Washington, with Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio delivering the keynote in the morning. Also due to speak are Glenn Beck, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.

Then on Saturday the nation's governors descend on Washington for the annual NGA Meeting. NGA Chair Jim Douglas of Vermont had chosen health care as his policy focus for the year, so you can expect to hear the state leaders weighing in on the national debate. On Sunday night the governors have dinner at the White House.

** Poll Watch:
Obama Job Performance: Approve 47.6 / Disapprove 45.3 (+2.3)
Congress Job Performance: Approve 20.4 / Disapprove 73.4 (-53.0)
Generic Ballot Test: Republicans +2.0

**In Case You Missed It: Today is Presidents Day, but Sunday was Vice Presidents Day on Sunday talk shows. RCP Video has clips from Joe Biden and Dick Cheney's dueling appearances, focused on the Obama administration's prosecution of the war on terrorism. This is a topic that will continue to be debated.

Medal Count: U.S., 6; Germany, 4; France, 3; Canada, 3; Korea, 2; Italy, 2.

--Mike Memoli and Kyle Trygstad

Trust In Government at Historic Low

Could Washington be any less popular? Not really, according to recent polling. Public approval for Congress and the political parties are at historic lows, while President Obama's approval rating has been in decline for the past nine months.

A New York Times-CBS News survey released last night reported a 15 percent approval rating for Congress. "Most Americans are now dissatisfied or even angry with government - and much of that frustration is directed at Congress," the poll's press release stated. "Levels of distrust and cynicism about government are at or near 15-year highs."

In Gallup's polling, congressional approval is down to 18 percent -- a point reached just twice in the past 36 years. The all-time low, 14 percent, came less than two years ago. The demographics most responsible for the decline in approval have been liberals and Democrats -- the party in control of Washington.

The Washington Post-ABC News poll out this week found 26 percent approving of Congress, which -- other than a mid-2008 dip -- was the lowest it's been since 1994, when Democrats lost the majority.

In the last three Post-ABC surveys in which the question was asked, at least 17 percent of voters have said they don't trust either party to cope with the country's problems over the next few years. Until September, party distrust had only climbed as high as 16 percent once -- in February 1994. And in November 1994, just 37 percent said they were inclined to re-elect their representative to Congress -- 36 percent say the same now.

Further evidence of the distrust in Washington came in a Quinnipiac University survey released Thursday. Just 28 percent said they approve of the way either party in Congress is handling its job, and two-thirds blamed both parties equally for the legislative gridlock in Washington. Meanwhile, 18 percent said they trust the federal government to do what is right at least most of the time, including only 2 percent who trust government "almost all the time."

The Post-ABC poll found the GOP leading the congressional generic ballot vote by 3 points, and Republicans lead the RCP Average by the same margin. With unemployment near 10 percent and support for Congress as low as it is, it's not surprising that Republicans -- the party out of power -- are expected to have a good electoral year.

With more than 30 incumbents in the House not running for re-election and several open Senate seats, the public were already going to see many fresh faces in Washington next year. The level of distrust for government, though, portends even more new members will be heading to the nation's capital in 2011.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) Retiring

Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy is retiring from the House after eight terms in office, AP reports.

"Now having spent two decades in politics, my life is taking a new direction, and I will not be a candidate for re-election this year," Kennedy says in a taped statement that will be played Sunday on local TV stations.

While his late father's Massachusetts Senate seat was won by a Republcian last month, Kennedy's House district is heavily Democratic and he never won re-election with less than 60 percent of the vote -- including 2008, when he won by a 45-point margin. The 1st District is the eastern half of the state's two House districts, and includes Pawtucket and Newport.

UPDATE: DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen expressed confidence in a statement this afternoon that Democrats would hold on to the seat. "We are confident that a Democrat who shares Congressman's Kennedy commitment to public service, particularly during these difficult economic times, will continue to serve the 1st District with the same passion that Congressman Kennedy has throughout his tenure in Congress," he said.

VA-5: The Goode Factor

If former Congressman Virgil Goode decided to challenge for the Republican nomination in Virginia's 5th District, it would be his for the taking and he'd give Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) -- the man who knocked him from office in 2008 -- a tough re-election fight, according to a new PPP survey.

Even if the GOP nominee ends up being someone else, Perriello is in for another close election in the Charlottesville-based district in Southside Virginia. State Sen. Robert Hurt ties the incumbent with 44 percent apiece, while the other Republicans tested against Perriello -- Albemarle County Supervisor Ken Boyd, real estate developer Jim McKelvey, pilot Michael McPadden and real estate investor Laurence Verga -- ran competitively.

If Goode were to run as an independent, the poll shows he would easily outperform the GOP nominee and run evenly with Perriello. And if another candidate ran under the Tea Party mantle it would also take considerable support from the Republican. Still, no matter the situation, Perriello never received more than 46 percent support.

Perriello 44 -- Hurt 44 -- Und 13

Perriello 44 -- Hurt 27 -- Tea Party 19 -- Und 10

Perriello 41 -- Hurt 12 -- Goode (I) 41 -- Und 6

Perriello 46 -- Boyd 42 -- Und 12

Perriello 45 -- McKelvey 37 -- Und 18

Perriello 45 -- McPadden 36 -- Und 19

Perriello 44 -- Verga 34 -- Und 21

The survey was conducted Feb. 5-10 of 924 registered voters in the district, with a margin of error of +/- 3.2%.

After Quick Rise, New Scrutiny Of Medina's Views

(UPDATE: Medina's reaction to Glenn Beck interview added below)

In the Texas gubernatorial race, Debra Medina has risen quickly from an unknown third wheel in the showdown between Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison to a legitimate contender. One new poll this week found her within four points of Hutchison, and given her trajectory, it was conceivable that she could even sneak past the Texas senator to earn a spot in a likely runoff.

Medina's surge has been attributed in part to a strong performance in the debates -- she was only invited to the second forum because of her showing in the first. She's tapped into the tea party movement that Perry has also actively courted, and also has a strong constituency among the activists who boosted Texas Rep. Ron Paul's presidential run last year.

But now her quick rise has brought increased scrutiny of her views, with an emphasis today on whether Medina is a so-called "truther" who believes the September 11 attacks were an "inside job." Yesterday, the Texas Conservative blog wrote:

Many in the Medina Movement are disciples of this libertarian lunacy faction who came up through the Ron Paul Presidential campaign. Remember 2008, every time there was a debate they would flood the on-line polls to justify their existence even though there was no legitimate chance of Paul winning. At events around the country, they would bully event organizers into submission and use "guerilla tactics" to try and get attention. When many of them were asked why they liked Ron Paul -- they couldn't give an answer other than they agree with him that 9/11 was in inside job.

...

Debra Medina herself is a disciple of Ron Paul, having worked on his 2008 Campaign, and follows the same libertarian leaning political stances of her mentor. And it is the libertarian/Ron Paul organization that is at work helping Medina and not the conservative grassroots workers in the Republican Party.

Today, Medina was a guest on Glenn Beck's national radio show, and Beck asked her point-blank whether she thought the government was involved with the World Trade Center attacks. Her response:

"I don't have all of the evidence there, Glenn. I'm not in a place -- I have not been out publicly questioning that. I think some very good questions have been raised in that regard. There's some very good arguments and I think the American people have not seen all of the evidence there, so I have not taken a position on that."

Beck said that sounded like a yes to him, but Medina would not say it outright. After the interview concluded, Beck said: "I think I can write her off the list."

Neither Perry's nor Hutchison's campaigns had an immediate response on the subject.

UPDATE: Medina has posted this on her campaign Web site about the reaction to her Beck interview:

I was asked a question on the Glenn Beck show today regarding my thoughts on the so-called 9/11 truth movement. I have never been involved with the 9/11 truth movement, and there is no doubt in my mind that Muslim terrorists flew planes into those buildings on 9/11. I have not seen any evidence nor have I ever believed that our government was involved or directed those individuals in any way. No one can deny that the events on 9/11 were a tragedy for all Americans and especially those families who lost loved ones.

The question surprised me because it's not relevant to this race or the issues facing Texans. This campaign has always been about private property rights and state sovereignty. It is focused on the issues facing Texans. It is not a vehicle for the 9-11 truth movement or any other group.

The real underlying question here, though, is whether or not people have the right to question our government. I think the fact that people are even asking questions on this level gets to the incredible distrust career politicians have fostered by so clearly taking their direction from special interests instead of the people, whether it's Rick Perry and his HPV mandate or Kay Hutchison and voting for the bank bailout. It is absolutely the right and duty of a free people to question their government. Texas does not need another politician who tells you what you want to hear, then violates your liberties and steals your property anyway. I fully expect to be questioned and to be held accountable as Governor, and that's the underlying issue here: should people be questioning their government. And the answer is yes, they should be.

UPDATE 2: Here's a statement from Kay Bailey Hutchison, which the campaign says she made at a campaign stop today:

"I know exactly who was responsible for the horrific attacks on September 11th - Al Qaeda terrorists who declared war on America. To suggest otherwise is an affront to the men and women who are sacrificing their lives to root out the terrorists in Afghanistan and around globe. Ever since that tragic day, I have fought tirelessly to ensure that we hunted down the Islamic extremists who target our nation. No one stood closer to President Bush and Vice President Cheney in their efforts to defeat the terrorist threat to our freedom."

GOP Recruiting Stocked With D.C. Ties

It may be a decidedly anti-Washington year in politics, but Republicans are putting their bets on some D.C. veterans to take back the Senate. The latest example is former Indiana Senator Dan Coats, who served in the House and Senate for 18 years and is now challenging Democrat Evan Bayh.

And Mr. Coats is hardly the only Republican Senate candidate running with experience in Washington, which in another year might be seen as a recruiting coup for the GOP. Others include Congressmen Mark Kirk in Illinois, Mike Castle in Delaware, John Boozman in Arkansas and Roy Blunt in Missouri. Also running are former Congressmen Rob Portman in Ohio, Rob Simmons in Connecticut and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania.

Polls would seem to suggest the 2010 political landscape won't be a good one for Washington insiders in either party, if that's possible. But Democrats have the most incumbents to defend and the mood facing incumbents hasn't been this bad since 1994, when the GOP stormed back to control Congress. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released yesterday found only 36% of voters say they are likely to vote to re-elect their current representative.

Yet there's plenty of evidence that Republicans also haven't won back the public trust they squandered during the GOP corruption and pork barreling of the last decade. With a 44% favorable rating, the GOP is even less popular than it was in 2006 when Democrats won back both chambers of Congress. All things considered, it's probably a year for new faces or outsiders -- though some Republicans obviously hope it's also a good year for Republicans who were somewhere else or kept low profiles during the Bush years.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart To Retire

UPDATE: Diaz-Balart announced his retirement at a news conference earlier today.

"Today I am announcing that I will not seek a tenth term in the United States Congress this November," said Diaz-Balart, who noted he will be returning to practicing law.

NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions released the following statement:

"Lincoln Diaz-Balart has been a strong voice for South Floridians in Washington for nearly two decades and we are grateful for his commitment to the legislative process as a member of the House Rules Committee and his constituents back home. His tireless fight against Communism and his efforts to promote free markets have made a significant contribution to the cause of freedom around the world. While Congressman Diaz-Balart will be missed by his colleagues, we are confident that voters in South Florida will continue their tradition of sending a Republican to Congress in 2010."

Original Post:

Florida Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart is expected to announce his retirement today at a press conference at Florida International University in Miami, Miami Herald reports. The nine-term congressman marks the 18th Republican to retire this cycle.

That may come as a surprise but not a total shock -- remember the Miami Republican months ago had signaled he'd be willing to retire if Charlie Crist appointed him to the US Senate for a caretaker job?

Word is his brother, Mario Diaz-Balart, will run for Lincoln's seat -- a safer Republican district. That would open up Mario's seat. There's no clear Republican front runner, but David Rivera and Anitere Flores are running for a state Senate seat that is almost fully contained in the congressional district.

And there's speculation the open seat could entice Democrat Joe Garcia to try again. Garcia came close to ousting the younger Diaz-Balart in 2008, but is now working in Washington for the Obama administration.

First elected in 1992 to the Miami-based 21st District, Diaz-Balart ran unopposed in five of his first six elections, and won with 58% in 2008 -- higher than John McCain's 51%.

Today's news comes one day after Michigan Republican Vern Ehlers announced his retirement.

NRCC's First 'Young Guns'

The National Republican Congressional Committee announced this morning the 10 candidates who have met enough organizational benchmarks to reach the so-called "Young Guns" status. Benchmarks include fundraising, volunteer recruitment and even a certain number of door knocks.

"After already demonstrating their ability to build competitive, effective, and winning campaigns, these 'Young Guns' are ready to win on Election Day," read the NRCC press release.

Here are the first Young Guns of the 2010 cycle: Steve Chabot (OH-01); Tim Griffin (AR-02); Andy Harris (MD-01); Pat Meehan (PA-07); Steve Pearce (NM-02); Martha Roby (AL-02); Dennis Ross (FL-12); Steve Stivers (OH-15); Vaughn Ward (ID-01); Allen West (FL-22).

Paterson: "I'm Black, I'm Blind, And I'm Still Alive"

Gov. David Paterson (D) continues to fight back against "outrageous" rumors that he said have distracted from his ability to govern the state. Appearing on Don Imus' show on Fox Business Network this morning, he described his efforts to tamp down a supposed "bombshell" coming from the New York Times.

A frustrated Paterson bemoaned his "dismal, almost Kafka-esque situation where you can't even respond because you can't respond to the rumors about the rumors." And he also suggested that his political adversaries were at fault here.

"For a person that has such weak poll numbers and hasn't raised enough money and has diminishing political support, someone is going very far out of their way to see that I'm not a candidate this year," Paterson said.

Imus immediately interjected, "I wonder if that's Cuomo," referring to state Attorney General and likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo.

"I don't know who it is, and for me to speculate on it would be for me to commit the same act I'm complaining about. I just know that it's a well-orchestrated attempt to do this," Paterson responded.

Working against the perception of him as an ineffective leader, Paterson described his successes in tackling the state's fiscal woes. He also claimed, "For the last four months, in the 15 largest populated states, only one governor's poll numbers have consistently gone up. And you're looking at him."

"I'm black, I'm blind, and I'm still alive. How much better do they want me to be?" he joked.

Paterson also was asked about the potential for a Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. He had kind words about Harold Ford, but that he would still support the incumbent.

"He was a very good Congressman, and I think he will run a very good campaign. I think people will really appreciate his ability," he said. "But I think Kirsten Gillibrand has done a very effective job. I appointed her, and I am going to stand by her."

NRCC Touts Recruits In Expansive '10 Landscape

Republicans continue to expand their offensive efforts in House races this year, with the National Republican Congressional Committee announcing this week that 29 candidates moved forward in their campaign organization program.

The move coincides with the Cook Political Report now identifying 50 Democratic seats as competitive. As things stand today with two Democratic vacancies (and one soon to come: Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii will resign his seat to run for governor), Democrats hold a 77-seat lead. Should Democrats keep the three seats, Republicans would need to pick up 40 seats to win back the House.

The death of Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) Monday leaves open yet another swing district Democrats will need to defend without an incumbent -- and another bull's-eye for the GOP. But Republicans are also setting their sights on Democrats in their first or second terms who helped the party win back Congress. While Michigan Rep. Vern Ehlers will reportedly become today the 17th Republican to retire, most of those districts are considered safe.

With the new additions, the NRCC now has 63 candidates in its Young Guns program, which was designed to help GOP challengers develop well-organized campaigns to defeat Democratic incumbents. Thirty-three have reached "On The Radar" status -- the first of a three-step process toward becoming a Young Gun -- and 30 are now ranked as a "Contender."

"These candidates are putting the pieces of a winning campaign in place by meeting the rigorous goals laid out by the Young Guns program and aggressively paving their way toward victory on Election Day," said NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions. "The progress of these candidates is not only a testament to the Young Guns program, it is a sign of the hostile political environment that Democrats have created for themselves."

Among the On the Radar candidates is former congressman Mike Fitzpatrick, who was knocked from Congress in 2006 by Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) and is hoping to win his seat back. Moving up to Contender was another former congressman running for his seat, Tim Walberg of Michigan, as well as Keith Fimian, who is taking on Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) for the second year in a row following Republican congressman Tom Davis's retirement.

As Republicans step up their recruitment and organization processes this year, new polls show evidence of a diminishing 2010 political landscape for Democrats. Gallup reported yesterday that the two parties are now tied in generic ballot testing at 45 percent apiece -- which the polling firm deems a lead among likely voters for Republicans.

"The closeness of the two parties over the past several months on this 'generic ballot' measure is similar to that found in most Gallup readings from 1994 through 2005 (spanning the period when Republicans won control of the U.S. House and subsequently maintained it for more than a decade)," reports Gallup's Lydia Saad.

"Because Republicans are generally more likely than Democrats to turn out to vote, particularly in midterm elections," Saad continued, "a tie between Democrats and Republicans among registered voters probably corresponds to a Republican lead among likely voters."

Obama Says He's Open To GOP Ideas, Not Posturing

President Obama outlined his vision for a bipartisan approach to health care today, saying that while he was open to considering new ideas from Republicans, he had little patience for a prolonged process where parties were more interested in scoring political points.

"We can't afford grandstanding at the expense of actually getting something done," Obama said, arguing that Americans don't want "another year of partisan wrangling" and "posturing."

IMG_5323a.jpgAhead of a scheduled February 25 summit on health care, the president said he would "start from scratch" only in the sense of giving a new airing to constructive proposals.

"My hope is that we can find enough overlap that we can say, this is the right way to move forward even if I don't get every single thing that I want," Obama said. "Bipartisanship can't be that I agree to all of the things that they believe in or want, and they agree to none of the things that I believe in or want."

Obama's comments came in a surprise visit to the press briefing room, which was emptier than usual as fewer reporters had made the trek to the White House through a snow-covered city. He said today's bipartisan, bicameral shows he's making a genuine outreach, though Republicans argue the White House is only reacting to a new political reality after a year in which they were shut out.

"We're interested in a bipartisan conversation about health care. But a bipartisan conversation ought to be just that: bipartisan from the beginning," House Minority Leader John Boehner told reporters after emerging from today's meeting. "We've been asking to be involved in these health care conversations going back to a letter that we sent to the president last May, and we got no response to it."

And just this afternoon, Boehner's office released a statement with the title: "White House Health Care Summit: Honest, Bipartisan Conversation or Set-Up For Another Democratic Backroom Deal?" Robert Gibbs, taking questions after Obama departed, would not rule out Democrats pressing forward on health care through the reconciliation process, one option Republicans want ruled out before they come to the table. But he argued it would be hypocritical for them to spurn the session.

"I hear crazy stuff in this town all the time," Gibbs said. But "I can't imagine that a group that wanted to sit down and talk in a bipartisan way with the president about health care would now walk away from the process of sitting down in a bipartisan way and talking to the president about health care."

Even as Obama came emphasizing bipartisanship, he did suggest at least one move aimed at circumventing what he described as extreme Republican obstructionism: recess appointments. The president said rather than "advise and consent," Republicans have chosen to "obstruct and oppose."

Today's impromptu session, while not a full-fledged press conference, was the first extended opportunity for reporters to pose questions to the president since a prime-time, East Room event July 22. Reporters have been increasingly eager for a press conference, and both the Washington Post and New York Times in recent days have noted the lack of one. Instead, Obama has conducted a number of one-on-one interviews, particularly with the major television outlets. Today, three of the six questions he took were from network correspondents, however, while another was from ABC Radio.

(S)No(w) Votes In The House This Week

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced this afternoon that the House will not hold votes this week due to weather-related travel troubles for members attempting to get back into town. The House was already scheduled to be out of session next week for the President's Day recess.

"As a result of the inclement weather affecting Members' ability to travel to Washington, DC this week, there will be no votes in the House for the remainder of the week. The change this week means that we will add two days to the schedule as we look to take action on a jobs bill and other critical measures. Therefore, the House will reconvene on Monday, February 22, one day earlier than previously scheduled. The House will now also be in session on Friday, February 26th."

For more on the crazy weather we're having here in the D.C. area, check out the Washington Post's excellent Capital Weather Gang blog.

Congressional Leaders React To White House Meeting

The immediate reactions are in from the congressional leaders in attendance for a small gathering at the White House today to discuss a jobs bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid:

"Today's meeting with the President was productive. I applaud his continued efforts to work on a bipartisan basis to strengthen our economy. One of the most important issues on the minds of people in Nevada and across the country is the need to create jobs. Last year we took steps that prevented a bad situation from becoming worse, but it's time to make our country strong again. Senate Democrats remain hopeful that our Republican colleagues will work with us this week to take swift action and pass legislation to help businesses thrive and create jobs."

Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

"I applaud President Obama for bringing together the leaders of Congress - Democrats and Republicans alike - to address the most pressing challenges facing our nation today: creating good-paying jobs for America's workers and reducing our nation's deficit.

"Nearly one year after the Recovery Act and other efforts prevented an even greater economic catastrophe, it is up to leaders from both parties to find common ground and work together to get our economy growing again. I look forward to building on today's meeting and working with our partners across the aisle to pass jobs legislation as soon as possible and to create a bipartisan commission to help reduce our deficit."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell:

"We had a good meeting with the President, and, what I'd like to emphasize is there are some areas of potential agreement. He mentioned in the State of the Union his support for nuclear power, for offshore drilling, for clean coal technology and for trade agreements, presumable with Colombia, Panama, and Korea - the ones that have been languishing now for a year and a half, or so.

"These are areas where I think there could be pretty broad, bipartisan support to go forward on a collaborative basis. Obviously, there will be areas of disagreement. But, emphasizing the things that we might be able to work on together, I would mention those four areas, all of which I think would be job generators: nuclear power, offshore drilling, clean coal technology, and pass those languishing trade agreements which we know create jobs here in the United States."

House Minority Leader John Boehner:

"Immediate action to address Washington's out-of-control spending is needed to spark the economy and provide greater certainty to small businesses alarmed by Washington's spending, taxing, and borrowing. We cannot afford to simply punt the spending issue to a commission that won't even release its recommendations until the end of the year. If President Obama will use his authority to force Congress to start cutting spending now, Republicans will stand with him and help him get it done."

White House Health Care Meeting Met With Skepticism On The Hill

President Obama's recently proposed White House health care meeting was immediately met with skepticism on Capitol Hill -- Republicans are wary of the motives behind the move, while Democrats doubt the result will be any different than negotiations with the GOP over the past year.

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, called it "a hollow PR blitz," adding, "Republicans welcome honest discussion, but this event reeks of political gamesmanship." GOP House leaders John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.) sent a lengthy letter to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel outlining their many concerns with the meeting.

On the Senate side, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) indicated a willingness to talk as long as the plans that passed the two chambers are scrapped and the two sides start from scratch, which Boehner and Cantor called for as well.

"If we are to reach a bipartisan consensus, the White House can start by shelving the current health spending bill," said McConnell.

Meanwhile, some liberal members aren't convinced Republicans are willing to negotiate and believe the opposing party has simply adopted an obstructionist political strategy -- and the event could provide a televised forum for political posturing.

"If there is an earnest effort to come to some kind of understanding, then it's worth the effort," Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Monday in an interview with RealClearPolitics. "Personally, I'm not optimistic."

President Obama announced the Feb. 25 meeting during an interview with CBS News just before the Super Bowl, hoping the televised effort will help bring transparency and solutions to the Democrats' stalled effort of reforming the health care system. Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate will be invited, though it's unclear which of the many factions in the debate are willing to compromise their priorities to solve the impasse.

For instance, liberals are still pushing the public option, which was left out of the Senate bill after failing to receive enough support and assumed to be a nonstarter in bicameral negotiations. With weather permitting, Grijalva and other Progressive Caucus leaders will meet late this afternoon with several senators, including Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), to discuss the government-run insurance option, an insurance exchange and other reform measures.

"We don't think they're dead," Grijalva said of the progressives' priorities. "I hate to be pessimistic about the White House meeting, but regardless of what happens with that we're still working to get something done."

Reactions To Murtha's Death

Here is a look at John Murtha the man and congressman by Politico's David Rogers.

President Obama:

Michelle and I were deeply saddened today to hear about the passing of Congressman John Murtha. Jack was a devoted husband, a loving father and a steadfast advocate for the people of Pennsylvania for nearly 40 years. His passion for service was born during his decorated career in the United States Marine Corps, and he went on to earn the distinction of being the first Vietnam War combat veteran elected to Congress. Jack's tough-as-nails reputation carried over to Congress, where he became a respected voice on issues of national security. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife of nearly 55 years, Joyce, their three children, and the entire Murtha family.

And here are reactions from members of Congress:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

"Today, with the passing of Jack Murtha, America lost a great patriot. He served our country on the battlefield winning two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star. He served his country in his community winning the hearts of his constituents and served in the Congress winning the respect of his colleagues.

"On Saturday, he became the longest-serving Member of Congress from Pennsylvania, and one of the most distinguished. He is well-recognized as a champion of our national security; always putting the troops and their families first. He quietly and regularly visited our men and women serving our country who were injured to assess their needs and offer them thanks and encouragement. As proud Marine, he was always Semper Fi!

"The nation saw his courage writ large when he spoke out against the military engagement in Iraq - winning him the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.

"Jack was also a hero in advancing scientific research to fight breast cancer, prostate cancer, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS. He measured the strength of our country by our military might and also by the well-being of the American people.

"San Francisco lost a good friend in Jack Murtha. His leadership as Chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee was essential in turning the Presidio from post to park.

"Dedicated to God and Country, and devoted to Joyce and their family, Jack Murtha was a giant. All who served with him were honored to call him colleague. I was privileged to call him friend.

"I hope that is a comfort to Joyce; their children, Donna Sue, John and Patrick; and their grandchildren that so many people mourn their loss and are praying for them at this very sad time."

DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen:

"With the passing of Congressman Jack Murtha, America has lost a patriotic veteran, Pennsylvanians have lost a tireless advocate, and we have lost a friend.

"Congressman Murtha dedicated his life to serving the nation he loved. As a Marine who wore the uniform for 37 years, Congressman Murtha courageously fought in Vietnam. As Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Congressman Murtha worked to ensure that our men and women in uniform and their families had the support and resources they deserve.

"In 2005, Congressman Murtha inspired a new generation by taking up the fight to end the Iraq War. His leadership will be missed, but his place in history is secured as the first combat veteran of the Vietnam War elected to Congress. Three days ago on February 5th, 2010, he became the longest serving Member of Congress in the history of Pennsylvania.

"On behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, I extend my deepest condolences to Congressman Murtha's wife Joyce, their children, their grandchildren, and his constituents in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District. I hope it is of some comfort that the thoughts and prayers of so many are with them at this difficult time."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid:

"I am deeply saddened by the loss of my colleague Jack Murtha. I send my condolences to his wife, Joyce, the entire Murtha family and the people of the 12th Congressional district in Pennsylvania as they grieve his passing.

"The scores of friends and colleagues who worked with Jack during his 36 years of service in Congress will miss the tenacity and passion that he brought to his job every day. Before his time in Congress, Jack served our nation admirably in Vietnam and holds the distinction of being the first Vietnam Veteran elected to the House of Representatives. The American people are safer because of the military experience that Jack Murtha brought to Congress. He will be sorely missed."

John Murtha Dies

Rep. John Murtha (D-PA 12), an 18-term congressman from southwestern Pennsylvania, died today at age 77. He had been hospitalized for complications related to gallbladder surgery.

Murtha's death comes just days after he became the longest-serving member of Congress in Pennsylvania history. Murtha represented the 12th District since winning a special election in February 1974. Beginning with his election to a full term later that year, Murtha never won re-election with less than 58 percent of the vote.

Murtha's passing will set the stage for the seventh House special election in the 111th Congress, in a district that was evenly split in 2008 between John McCain and Barack Obama. Murtha had faced his toughest race that year as well, on the heels of a controversial remark about people in his district being "racist." He's also been the subject of scrutiny over earmarks he's secured for his Johnstown-based district.

This year, Murtha was facing a primary challenge from Ryan Bucchianeri, a former Naval officer and placekicker on the Navy college football team. Republican Bill Russell, whom Murtha defeated with 58% in 2008, is running again, as is Republican businessman Tim Burns.

Whoever replaces Murtha will have the impossible task of filling in for one of the more powerful members of Congress. Murtha, the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress, was an Approprations committee "Cardinal" -- a title given to the chairmen of the various Appropriations subocommittees. Murtha chaired the Subcommittee on Defense.

The area that now makes up the 12th District was heavily Republican from the Civil War to the 1930s, according to the Almanac of American Politics. Without Murtha, it is the quintessential swing district. McCain won it by fewer than 1,000 votes; John Kerry won it by 8,000 votes four years earlier.

Democrats have won every special election in this Congress, including one pick-up from the GOP in New York 23. Another is set in the Florida 19th on April 13, with yet another seat opening soon when Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) steps down to run for governor.

--Mike Memoli and Kyle Trygstad

The Week Ahead: Digging Out, Digging In

We survived the Snowmageddon in Washington this weekend, but don't look now -- there's more coming this week. Meanwhile, what a weekend in New Orleans: a landslide mayoral win for Mitch Landrieu preceded a big win for the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV -- and Mardi Gras is just a week away. Laissez les bons temps rouler.

** White House: President Obama managed to sneak in some news during his pregame interview with Katie Couric last night. He's invited leadership from both parties for a health care summit at Blair House next week, all of which will be televised. The practical effect is a delaying tactic on health care legislation.

The leadership was already scheduled to come to the White House this week for a session that is due to focus on other legislative priorities, a jobs bill in particular. Also on tap this week: the president hosts another White House concert, this one in honor of Black History Month. Also on Wednesday, Vice President Biden will give a broad speech on nuclear threats facing the nation.

** Capitol Hill:: Congress will likely be slowed this week by the District's massive snowstorm, with more snow expected Tuesday. The House wasn't expected back until Tuesday anyway, while the Senate delayed votes until tomorrow that had been scheduled for today. With jobs the No. 1 priority for Democrats this year, the Senate -- now with 59 Democratic votes -- is having trouble coming to a concensus on a jobs bill that was supposed to be voted on this week. Meanwhile, the House may vote this week on a piece of their comprehensive health care reform bill -- ending the antitrust exemption for insurance companies, titled, "Health Insurance Industry Fair Competition Act."

** Politics: Is New York Gov. David Paterson (D) resigning? During last night's Super Bowl, a report indicated that he would, with a coming bombshell in the New York Times being the trigger. Paterson's office quickly denied it. If Paterson did resign, it would elevate a man most New Yorkers would be hard-pressed to identify -- Richard Ravitch -- to the state's top job. Ravitch was only appointed lieutenant governor after a court fight this year over whether that position could be filled by the governor. If Paterson resigned, or at least announced that he won't run for election, it could speed up Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's entrance into the race. It's quite a saga in the Empire State that began with Eliot Spitzer's surprising resignation in 2008.

Speaking of scandals, Illinois lieutenant governor nominee Scott Lee Cohen officially announced Sunday night that he would withdraw his candidacy -- a move that spares state Democrats of a potentially disastrous situation this November. Though Cohen won the nomination last week on his own, state law calls for him to run jointly on a ticket with Gov. Pat Quinn this fall. Now, the state Democratic committee gets the luxury of picking a new candidate for that slot -- which could provide an opportunity to find someone more electorally potent for the entire slate.

The Texas governor's race continues to heat up. Sarah Palin, fresh off her Tea Party Convention keynote address and Fox News Sunday appearance, joined Gov. Rick Perry yesterday for a rally. Meanwhile, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison paid for some Super Bowl ad space to air this attack on the incumbent.

** Poll Watch:
Obama Job Performance: Approve 48.4 / Disapprove 46.9 (+1.5)
Congress Job Performance: Approve 22.4 / Disapprove 70.2 (-47.8)
Generic Ballot Test: Republicans +2.8

** In Case You Missed It: It was a somewhat lackluster "SNL" this weekend, but this gem late in the show saved it. Andy Samberg's imitation of Rahm Emanuel wasn't great, but he nailed the White House chief of staff's attitude.

A bonus note: this fascinating behind-the-scenes look at one of the few good Super Bowl ads, the Oprah-Dave-Jay spot for "Late Show."

--Kyle Trygstad and Mike Memoli

New Orleans' Next Mayor? Who Dat?

New Orleans has been in a football frenzy ever since the New Orleans Saints clinched their first-ever Super Bowl birth on Jan. 24. Overshadowed by that "Who Dat" mania is the city's mayoral election, scheduled for the eve of the big game this Saturday.

Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu is the presumptive frontrunner in a crowded field. The brother of the state's senior U.S. senator and the son of the city's former mayor, Landrieu lost a close run-off vote four years ago against incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin, now term-limited. That 2006 election took place only months after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina; the mood of the city is far different today, with the Saints a focal point of the city's resurgent spirit.

At a time when all anyone can think about is football, candidates are doing their best to capture voters attention. One, Troy Henry, even launched a campaign ad featuring fan favorite Deuce McAllister and New Orleans native Marshall Faulk.

But it's not just the Super Bowl. The city's Carnival season is also about to kick off ahead of Mardi Gras on Feb. 16. Aware of these distractions, city officials and the campaigns have been encouraging voters to cast their ballots early, and those efforts seem to be successful. A record number of ballots have already been cast, surpassing even the total number of early votes in the 2008 presidential race.

The intersection of sports and politics is nothing new, of course. Though he spent more than $100 million of his own money on his re-election bid, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg soaked up some free media exposure during the Yankees' World Series run last fall. In 2008, then-Senator Joe Biden ended his campaigning with a rally with Jimmy Rollins just after the Phillies' clinched a championship. And Fenway Park and former Sox pitcher Curt Schilling proved to be key players in Martha Coakley's collapse in last month's Massachusetts Senate race.

A poll for WWL-TV released in mid-January showed Landrieu just shy of the 50 percent necessary to avoid a runoff. A final run-off vote would take place March 6, long after Saints-mania - and a Mardi Gras hangover - has worn off.

Senate Dems Begin Year On Right Foot

The Democratic Senate incumbents thought to be in the most electoral trouble this year came out of the 4th fundraising quarter of 2009 with sizeable cash-on-hand totals, as did the ones who are so far only marginally vulnerable.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) each have $8.7 million; Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), $5 million; Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), $5.2 million; and Michael Bennet (Colo.), $3.5 million. Then there is Barbara Boxer (Calif.) -- who will face one of three Republicans battling for the nomination -- with $7.3 million; and Evan Bayh (Ind.) -- whose opponent, former Senator Dan Coats, just got in the race this week -- with $13 million.

In what has already been a tough year for Democrats, these senators all begin their election years on solid footing -- at least financially. Except for Specter's primary challenger, Rep. Joe Sestak ($5.1 million), no one's opponents come close to matching their bank account totals.

Even the Democrats not yet considered vulnerable but are worth keeping an eye on -- Russ Feingold (Wisc.) and Patty Murray (Wash.) -- begin the year with healthy cash-on-hand totals. Feingold, who trailed former governor Tommy Thompson (R) in a recent poll, has nearly $3.7 million in the bank.

Already in the race to challenge Murray is motivational speaker and author Chris Widener and former Washington Redskins tight end Clint Didier, while Rep. Dave Reichert is reportedly still considering a bid. Murray reports $5.2 million in the bank, while Reichert comes closest with less than $500,000 on hand.

Republicans hold the advantage in the open Democratic seats in Illinois and Delaware, as well as a lead in the polls. Democrats just found out their nominees in both states this week, as Alexi Giannoulias won the Illinois Democratic primary and Chris Coons joined the race in Delaware. Republicans hold the money advantage in Connecticut as well, though Richard Blumenthal (D) just entered the race a month ago and is currently 20 points up in the polls.

In the open GOP seats in Florida, Kentucky, Missouri and Ohio, Republicans also are either competitive (Kentucky) or lead in the money race (the other three). In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist has $7.6 million, with his GOP primary opponent Marco Rubio trailing with $2 million. Rep. Kendrick Meek, the likely Democratic nominee, had a successful fundraising quarter and begins the year with $3.4 million.

So while independent voters are trending away from Democrats, the money is still floating in. It's certainly a good sign for Democrats. Of course, raising the money is only the first step.

Paul Ryan: 'One Guy From Wisconsin'

Rep. Paul Ryan, a sixth term Republican from Wisconsin's 1st District, has become the leading figure in the GOP's argument against the sustainability of President Obama's new budget blueprint.

President Obama praised the recently-turned 40-year-old last week at the House GOP's retreat in Baltimore for bringing forth a solid idea to put the country back on track, and this week -- after the president's budget was introduced -- Ryan has hammered two of the administration's financial experts in hearings on Capitol Hill.

Ryan's biggest complaint about the budget is that it fails to bring the deficit below 3 percent of the GDP, a mark previously cited by OMB Director Peter Orszag as the line of credibility. To get there, the White House has called for a fiscal commission made up of Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as administration appointees.

In an interview with RealClearPolitics on Wednesday, Ryan, who is ranking member of the House Budget committee and a senior member on Ways & Means, said he has major concerns about the transparency and fairness of the process.

"We do have legitimate concerns because it's stacked from a partisan basis two-to-one against Republicans," said Ryan. "This is something that's going to be written and introduced after the elections, and then voted on before the next session in a lame duck session of Congress. That doesn't strike me as open government."

Ryan is also unclear why the administration can't get the budget below 3 percent on its own, without help.

"If even Orszag says that it's not a credible budget minus the commission, the deficits are not sustainable using the administration's own methodology," said Ryan. "So we have a budget here that's not credible and not sustainable under the administration's own admission. And that to me is a huge dereliction of duty."

"I'm one guy from Wisconsin with a small staff, and if I can put out a plan that solves our fiscal crisis, surely the head of our government can do the same," he said.

Wisconsin's two Senate seats come up for election in the next two years -- with Sen. Russ Feingold (D) running for re-election this year, and in 2012 Sen. Herb Kohl (D), who turns 75 this weekend, could run again.

Asked about Feingold, Ryan said he thought about challenging him, but decided he could be far more effective this year and next as a top Republican on the Budget and Ways & Means committees than as a Senate candidate and junior senator. However, he thinks Feingold is beatable, with a recent poll showing former governor Tommy Thompson leading in a hypothetical matchup.

"It's a tighter state than you think," Ryan said of Wisconsin, which gave Obama a 14-point win in 2008 but George W. Bush lost it by less than 1 percent in the two previous elections. "I believe that poll -- I think Tommy would beat Russ if he got in the race."

On possibly running for Senate in two years, Ryan said: "Yeah, in the future I may run for something else in Wisconsin."


Read the full transcript of RCP's interview with Rep. Paul Ryan here.

Coons Promises Delaware A Clear Choice

New Castle County Executive Chris Coons formally entered the Delaware Senate race yesterday, a quick turnaround for the Democrat since Attorney General Beau Biden surprised many last week with the decision not to seek his father's former seat.

In an interview with RCP Wednesday, Coons said that Biden informed him of his decision just 10 days ago, and immediately urged him to consider running himself. That was followed the next day by a call from Vice President Joe Biden, who told Coons he was confident he could give Rep. Mike Castle (R) a strong challenge.

"There's no question that he will start with the lead in name recognition," Coons said of the state's 9-term Congressman and former governor. "I intend to give the people of Delaware a clear choice between Congressman Castle and his 18 year record of serving in Congress and what I've done to make our local government stronger and our communities safer."

On Tuesday, before Coons had formally entered the race, the elder Biden told MSNBC that he "is going to surprise the devil out of you" as a candidate. Coons chuckled at Biden's enthusiasm, and said it's a sentiment that he shared when they spoke last week.

"You've got this ability to connect with people, I think it's the preacher in you," Coons says Biden told him. "You listen to people, you engage with them and you lift them up. And if you keep doing that and you engage with people and you care about them the way I know you do, I think you'll surprise Congressman Castle."

That process will start later this month when Coons says he'll make a public announcement of his candidacy, and follow it up with a statewide listening tour. He intends to contrast the tough choices he's had to make in local government with the actions of lawmakers like Castle in Washington.

"Unlike the folks in Congress, local government leaders have to balance their budgets every year. We can't just print more money. And that forces a healthy discipline on us," he said.

Coons said Biden's decision was a surprise, but that he knows it was hard for him returning from Iraq "and immediately being besieged by reporters asking him about this race." The increasingly challenging environment for Democrats was not a factor. In fact, Coons argued that recent Republican victories have been less about either party's standing, and more about voters' mood for change -- something he says he can capitalize on.

"Whether it's Democrat or Republican, I don't think [voters] really care, as much as they care whether you're listening, you're working and you're making change," Coons said.

At the same time, he thinks Delaware is a different place politically than it was when Castle first went to Congress.

"He represented a Republican Party that doesn't really exist nationally anymore," Coons said. "The party has moved to the right significantly. And Delaware, which was a swing state 18 years ago, is now a solidly Democratic state."

Asked about the fact that Castle has not ruled out the possibility that he would only serve the remaining four years on Biden's term and then retire, Coons says it's something voters should consider this fall.

"Delawareans are used to having the advantage, in Senator Roth and Senator Biden, of very longstanding, very senior, very effective senators," he said. "I do think they need to be mindful that this is an open seat, and if one of the candidates is saying upfront that they intend to serve four years and retire, they might want to take that into account whether that's laying the groundwork for long-term effective representation."

Coons said he expects the vice president to campaign with him often, and has received "lots of encouragement from the national party." Castle welcomed Coons to the race Wednesday, saying it will be a campaign "focused on solutions to issues that voters care about-- economic growth, reigning in runaway federal spending, and getting Delawareans back to work."

AZ Delegation Backing McCain In Senate Primary

As former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R) readies a campaign against Sen. John McCain (R), he'll be running without the support of his former colleagues in the Arizona Republican Congressional delegation. All, including Sen. Jon Kyl, are lining up behind the state's senior senator ahead of the August primary.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R) told RCP last week that in a year in which fiscal policy is a paramount concern for voters, no one will be able to challenge McCain's record on that issue.

"When it comes to the prescription drug benefit, whether it's farm bills, transportation bills, appropriations bills - McCain can point at his record and say he was opposed to that. It'll be more difficult for Hayworth to do that," Flake said.

The former presidential candidate can point primary voters to his strong opposition to the Obama agenda, Flake argued.

"I think people will look at records ... and say were it not for McCain and some others in the Senate, the election in Massachusetts would not have meant as much, because health care would have passed," Flake said. "It was the Senate that held that up, and John McCain was a big, big part of that."

Hayworth has telegraphed that he plans to challenge McCain from his right, calling himself a "consistent conservative." McCain has been vigorously responding already, and Flake says he can withstand those attacks.

"John McCain's support is both wider and deeper than people give him credit for. He works campaigns hard - he's a tireless campaigner. So I think he'll do fine," he said.

The Congressional delegation will be part of the campaign's leadership team, which will be rolled out soon. McCain has already been endorsed in Arizona by eight county sheriffs and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. His national support is led by his former running mate, Sarah Palin, as well as Sen.-elect Scott Brown and Steve Forbes.

All of which is to say, Hayworth has an uphill fight on his hands as he starts to roll out his campaign.

Obama, Giannoulias To Chat Today

President Obama has not yet spoken with Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, now the Democratic nominee seeking the president's former Senate seat. A spokesman for the Giannoulias camp says that the White House did send its congratulations last night via a text message, and promised that the commander in chief would be calling today. A White House spokesman confirms that Obama will likely call Giannoulias today.

Of course, Giannoulias was not the Chicago-heavy administration's preference to be the Senate nominee. Publicly they remained neutral, but state Attorney General Lisa Madigan was courted by administration officials. Here's what Robert Gibbs had to say last June:

"The president has a very long relationship with the attorney general dating back to their time in the state Senate, and has enormous respect for what she accomplished there and as attorney general. I think she'd be a terrific candidate. But we're not going to get involved in picking that candidate."

DSCC Takes First Stab At Coats

Breaking news last night was that former Republican senator Dan Coats was considering challenging Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh (D) this year. This morning, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee dropped its first hit on Coats, highlighting his work as a lobbyist.

"Dan Coats is a federally registered lobbyist whose client lists include banks, private equity firms, and defense contractors," said DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz. "Coats is a Washington DC insider who lined his own pockets as taxpayers spent $700 billion bailing out Wall Street banks. Indianans won't ignore Dan Coats' decade as a lobbyist working the system to gain special favors for the banking industry at the time of financial collapse and at the expense of working Americans."

Meanwhile, the man many saw as the GOP's best chance at defeating Bayh -- Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) -- issued a statement of support for Coats this morning.

"I am very excited about the possibility that former Senator Dan Coats may run for the United States Senate in 2010 and I sincerely hope he does it," said Pence. "His integrity and conservative record would make him the ideal candidate for Hoosiers. If he runs, I will support him."

UPDATE (11:45 a.m.): And the first oppo research has come in. Politico's Ben Smith reports Coats has been voting in Virginia for the past decade.

Reports: Coats Will Challenge Bayh In Indiana

Shocking news Tuesday night: As the political world focused on Illinois primaries, word that former Sen. Dan Coats (R) will announce his candidacy for Senate tomorrow in Indiana, challenging incumbent Evan Bayh.

From the site Howey Politics:

The source, former aide Curt Smith of the Indiana Family Institute, said that Coats knows he has about two weeks to gather the 4,500 signatures - 500 per Congressional district - in two weeks.

Coats was up for re-election in 1998 when he decided to retire, citing the pressures of constant fundraising. Bayh went on that year to defeat former Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke to reclaim his father's Senate seat.

Politico has confirmed the report.

Coats was the ambassador to Germany under Pres. Bush. After returning from that assignment, he was last seen in the public spotlight as the "sherpa" for the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, and then Samuel Alito in 2005.

The Coats candidacy will certainly put major pressure on Bayh, but an important note for the incumbent: he has just under $13 million cash on hand, the third-most of all incumbents in the Senate through the 2009 filings.

Biden: Don't Write Off My Senate Seat Yet

In an interview with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell this afternoon, Vice President Biden said that Democrats can still hold on to his former Senate seat, even now that his son won't be their candidate.

"We have a first-rate candidate now," Biden said, referring to New Castle County Executive Chris Coons. He noted Democrats' registration advantage in the state, and predicted that Coons "is going to surprise the devil out of you."

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Biden said his son, state Attorney General Beau Biden, decided not to run for the seat around Thanksgiving, but only announced it last month because the party wanted to ensure they had a strong candidate. Concern over the political environment was not a factor, he said.

Though Biden stated that Coons is that candidate, Coons himself has only said so far that he's leaning towards running. A Coons spokesperson has not yet returned request for comment.

A funny moment after the Biden interview: Cook Political Report's Charlie Cook, a guest in the next segment of Mitchell's show, says the VP lobbied him in the hallway to change his publication's ranking of the Senate contest as "Solid Republican."

AZ Sen: Hayworth Making It Official

Arizona Sen. John McCain's possible primary challenger is now official. Former congressman J.D. Hayworth -- voted out of office three years ago -- is making his political comeback in this year's Senate Republican primary, challenging McCain from the right. After filing official papers last week, Hayworth will formally announce his candidacy Feb. 15.

Hayworth launched a robo-call campaign last week to persuade GOP voters that McCain had been in office for too long and that his voting record was too moderate. A poll released two weeks ago found McCain leading by 22 points.

"Chuck Todd and many others are right. This will be one of the hottest races in the country because this will be democracy at its very best," Hayworth said in a released statement, noting Todd calling this a Top 10 primary on his MSNBC morning show last week. "It will be an intense debate between a moderate with a transparent election year conversion and a conservative willing to respect but also stand up to the flip-flops and unreliability of a moderate masquerading as a maverick."

Illinois Senate Primaries: More Than Picking a Candidate

The Senate Democratic primary in Illinois today carries more weight than a single election. The winner will be running to salvage a piece of the Obama presidential legacy -- if a Republican wins the seat in November, Barack Obama would become the first senator-turned-president to lose his former seat to the opposite party.

Of course, there isn't much precedent for this. In 2008, Obama became just the third sitting senator elected president, following John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Warren G. Harding in 1920. Kennedy was replaced by the appointed Benjamin Smith, a Democrat, who safeguarded the seat until Edward M. Kennedy came of age in 1962 and won a special election. Harding's first term in the Senate was up in 1920, and Republican Frank B. Willis successfully ran to replace him.

Two experts on the presidency told RealClearPolitics that the loss of Obama's Senate seat wouldn't significantly harm his legacy on its own -- despite its place in the record books -- but it would hurt his effectiveness in office.

"I don't know if it will affect his legacy, but it certainly will have an effect on his presidency," said Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University. "Symbolically, it will be read as another sign of his weakness."

"The bottom line is that Obama needs to retake the political initiative," said Stephen J. Wayne, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University. "He needs a Democratic nominee who can win and will support his policy priorities; he needs to return to the policy and political offensive. The election of a sympathetic Democratic Senator from Illinois will help."

Unable to recruit a bigger name like Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Democrats will rely on one of three mostly untested candidates: state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (whom polls show to be the favorite), former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman or Cheryle Jackson, president of the Chicago Urban League and a former press secretary for impeached governor Rod Blagojevich.

Expected to emerge victorious in the Republican primary is Rep. Mark Kirk, whose moderate voting record in Congress should help him statewide. Kirk was the national party's first choice to take back the seat Obama won in 2004 following the retirement of Republican Peter Fitzgerald, who served one term.

Fitzgerald is the only Illinois Republican to win a Senate seat since 1978, and Democrats have won the state at the presidential level in every election since 1992. However, the Republican win in last month's special Senate election in Massachusetts proved just about any seat is up for grabs this year.

"I doubt whether the President's legacy will stand or fall on that election," said Wayne.

However, Zelizer noted, Obama's agenda took a hit with the Massachusetts loss, and the loss of his Senate seat "would certainly fall into that story."

Race For Illinois Governor Unsettled

Given a mandate in the last elections, Democrats and their top official face an uncertain future. Republicans are divided despite what should be a favorable political environment for the party. Sound familiar? That's the situation both parties find themselves in as Illinois voters head to the polls to choose nominees for U.S. Senate and a slate of statewide offices.

The governor's race in particular has several parallels to the national landscape. Republicans had controlled the governor's office for more than two decades, but saw their hold on state government wiped away in the last decade, because of scandal and the growing strength of Democrats in suburban areas. Democrats now control both chambers of the legislature and, since 2006 when Rod Blagojevich led the ticket, hold every statewide constitutional office.

But Blagojevich's ouster has left both parties with an unsettled environment. Gov. Pat Quinn (D), like many of his fellow governors and the new administration in Washington, has faced a series of unwelcome decisions in a tough economy and a complicated political environment. Polls have shown a tightening race against state Comptroller Dan Hynes (D), and the contest has taken a decidedly negative turn in the final days.

Despite what should be a ripe environment for the party, the GOP race remains a free-for-all. Andy McKenna, who presided over the 2006 GOP rout as state party chairman, held a one-point lead in the final Chicago Tribune poll. State Sen. Kirk Dillard held a lead in a Public Policy Polling survey, but has faced harsh attacks from rivals over his appearance in campaign ads for Barack Obama's presidential bid. Adam Andrzejewski is showing a late surge in support, with a recent endorsement from Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and some conservative activists. Jim Ryan, the former attorney general and 2002 gubernatorial nominee, is also in the mix.

Even with the Blagojevich circus not far behind in the rear view mirror, it's the economy and not ethics that have been paramount in the race. The state's unemployment rate tops 10 percent. Just as the federal deficit projections grow, Illinois faces its own steep shortfall. Quinn at one point proposed a 50 percent increase in the state income tax to close that gap, but pulled back in the face of overwhelming opposition from a legislature where his party has a veto-proof majority. Quinn's decision to release state inmates to save money became fodder for a harsh TV ad from Hynes. But this weekend, Quinn had his own tough attack on Hynes over the disinterring of bodies at Burr Oak Cemetery.

The Republican fight has been a battle of electability, as well as a test of conservatism. Dillard has disavowed his 2008 support for Obama's candidacy, but that hasn't stopped his rivals from continuing to make an issue of it. McKenna flagged it in this TV ad. The president even made note of this in Friday's Q&A with House Republicans. "They're running ads of him saying nice things about me. Poor guy," he said.

Coming so soon in the 2010 cycle, turnout is an open question in the race. The early contest is a vestige of the 2008 primary jockeying, as Illinois sought to move up in the calendar to boost its home state candidate. Now, the state may provide yet another indicator of the environment that now-president is working in.

Democratic Senate Candidate Rips Obama Budget

[UPDATED with White House reaction.]

Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan is one of Democrats' top recruits for U.S. Senate in 2010. So her reaction to the Obama administration's budget proposal announced today is striking in its criticism:

"From where I stand here in Missouri, I'm disappointed in the President's budget recommendation. Budgets are about setting priorities and it's time Washington started making fiscal discipline and tackling the long-term budget deficit higher priorities.

"For too long, officials in Washington, including Congressman Blunt, have contributed to our country's growing deficit with their wasteful government spending, earmarks and favors for corporate special interests. In fact, as part of the Republican Congressional leadership, Congressman Blunt helped turn a $128 million surplus in 2001 into a $1.2 trillion deficit by 2009.

"Missouri families have to balance their checkbooks and our government should be no different, so I urge our elected officials in Washington on both sides of the aisle to work together to get our country's long term deficit under control."

Running against Rep. Roy Blunt (R), a former member of the GOP House leadership, Carnahan's statement is an interesting threading of the needle to lump all of Washington together, even a Democratic White House.

UPDATE: Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton says the White House "look[s] forward to having Robin Carnahan in the Senate to work with in putting our nation on a fiscally sustainable path."

White House Making The Case For Divided Government?

Here's a sentiment you might expect to hear often in the midterm election campaign Republicans: Democrats alone can't be trusted to tackle the tough challenges facing the federal government. Oddly enough, though, it was White House press secretary Robert Gibbs who found himself making that argument today.

Gibbs was discussing the president's plan to appoint a bipartisan deficit commission, which, as part of the budget rollout today, would be expected to find billions in savings to bring the deficit to within 3 points of GDP. Why, he was then asked, can't Democrats find those savings on their own, given their strong majorities in both chambers? Gibbs' exact response: "One party is not going to get -- one party is not going to be able to solve all these. The American people want both parties to work together to solve these. We can make those tough decisions if people are willing to work together to do that."

NBC's Chuck Todd quickly jumped on that remark, pointing out that the remark seemed to be at odds with the political message before elections. "I'm going to vote for a Democrat in November," Gibbs responded. "But, Chuck, the American people want -- today is an election day, okay? Go back to what the President said: If every day is election day, then I can assure you we'll never solve any of the big problems."

In response to a tweet from yours truly about this exchange, White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton took issue with the characterization that Gibbs was making Republicans' case for divided government. "[W]hat gibbs explained is that americans sent people of both parties here to do is actually govern," Burton responded via Twitter.

Paul Announces Palin Endorsement

Rand Paul (R) announced this morning that he's received the endorsement of Sarah Palin in his bid for U.S. Senate from Kentucky. With that endorsement comes a "generous contribution" from the former VP nominee's political action committee. From a campaign release:

Sarah Palin has clearly seen that Rand Paul supports smaller, constitutional government and is taking the fight to the career politicians and will shake up the tax and spend crowd in Washington D.C.     "Governor Palin is providing tremendous leadership as the Tea Party movement and constitutional conservatives strive to take our country back," Rand said.

"Sarah Palin is a giant in American politics. I am proud to receive her support."

...
 
Sarah Palin's endorsement is another major success in a long list of achievements for the Paul campaign. Dr. Paul was recently identified as one of the five most important candidates to support by Dick Armey, Freedom Works and the National Tea Party Movement. Dr. Paul has also received endorsements from Concerned Women for America, Gun Owners of America, Steve Forbes and RedState.com,

Paul is challenging Secretary of State Trey Grayson for the GOP nomination, hoping to succeed Sen. Jim Bunning (R). A recent poll showed Paul with a sizable edge in the early going. Paul has drawn considerable support from the same grassroots base that backed his father's presidential bid. He raised $650,000 in the fourth quarter of 2009 and had $1.3 million on hand.

The Week Ahead: Spotlight Illinois

This week will be capped off Sunday with what should be an excellent Super Bowl between the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints -- two teams with high-powered offenses and underrated defenses. Until then, our attention will be on Democrats' continued efforts at passing health care reform, a forthcoming jobs bill and President Obama's new budget blueprint. The most exciting moment, though, will be Tuesday night when Illinois primary election returns come in.

** White House: Today is budget day at the White House, and the administration's plan for fiscal 2011 will set the tone for the week. The $3.8 trillion budget is highlighted by the three-year discretionary spending freeze President Obama announced in last week's State of the Union address. Obama and administration officials will be highlighting the plan today. Also, Obama continues his State of the Union sales job with a "YouTube interview," where he takes questions submitted from users and selected by YouTube officials. Tuesday, Obama travels to New Hampshire for an event on the economy. Looking ahead, he'll meet with governors on Wednesday to talk energy policy, and speak at the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday.

** Capitol Hill: The week on the Hill begins at 8 a.m. today, when the president's budget arrives. Meanwhile, health care remains the big question mark, as it's unclear if anyone knows what's going to happen -- if Democrats do attempt to pass a bill, how will they do it? Try reconciliation? Break it up in pieces? Or could House Democrats pass the Senate bill, even though Speaker Pelosi has said the votes aren't there? As the L.A. Times reports, conversations between Democratic leadership in both chambers is happening quietly, while the public focus is on creating jobs. We'll find out where unemployment is on Friday, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its January report.

The House will also vote this week on statutory PAYGO legislation, which the Senate passed on a party-line vote last week. The bill requires any new spending to be offset by spending cuts elsewhere.

** Politics: Tuesday is Election Day in Illinois! It's the official start to the 2010 midterm elections, and it couldn't come any sooner. We were spoiled with the exciting Massachusetts special election two weeks ago, but the primaries for House, Senate, and governor in Illinois mark the beginning of what looks like it will be an eventful year. To see all the candidates running in Illinois, click here.

Of the House primaries, there should be some drama in a few districts, including the 10th, which Republican Mark Kirk is vacating to run for Senate. In the 14th, former House speaker Dennis Hastert's son, Ethan, faces a GOP primary in his quest to win his father's seat, which has been held by Democrat Bill Foster for a term-and-a-half. Also up for grabs this year is Obama's former Senate seat and the governor's race, still stained from the memory of Rod Blagojevich -- with competitive primaries in both races.

And don't forget, campaign finance reports were due last night. The latest reports will show how much money candidates have to begin the year, and will indicate which incumbents are vulnerable and which challengers have a chance.

** Poll Watch:
Obama Job Performance: Approve 49.3 / Disapprove 46.3 (+3.0)
Congress Job Performance: Approve 26.3 / Disapprove 66.3 (-40.0)
Generic Ballot Test: Republicans +3.2

** In Case You Missed It: Obama had two straight days of favorable national TV time. On Friday, Obama stood before the House GOP Conference at their annual retreat in Baltimore and answered questions for more than an hour. The Q-and-A was televised live and covered by all the nightly news programs. By Saturday, Organizing for America had emailed its millions-strong list of supporters with a link to the entire session, which can be found here.

In a far less political appearance, Obama and Vice President Biden attended Saturday's Georgetown-Duke basketball game at Verizon Center in downtown D.C. (Georgetown won!) In the second half, Obama sat with the play-by-play announcers for a brief period of time and even analyzed one of the plays -- which drew rave reviews from the broadcasters. You can see video of that here.

--Kyle Trygstad and Mike Memoli