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Blog Home Page --> April 2010

Week In Midterms: Who Benefits Most In Florida?

So Charlie Crist, the Republican governor of Florida, is now an independent. A year ago most expected him to not only walk away with the Republican nomination but also the general election. Today, after announcing the switch at a news conference yesterday afternoon, we have the most interesting and competitive race in the country.

Some have compared the situation to Connecticut circa 2006, when Sen. Joe Lieberman was defeated in the Democratic primary then ran in the general election as an independent. That's a favorable comparison for Crist, who hopes to siphon votes from both Marco Rubio (R) and Rep. Kendrick Meek (D).

Crist thinks this helps him because he would've lost the GOP primary. Democrats think this helps Meek, with Crist and Rubio splitting the GOP vote. And Rubio's campaign can't be totally complaining, as it now will begin to receive all the GOP fundraising and support that Crist left on the table.


*Arizona: PPP - GOP Primary: McCain +11 vs. Hayworth; General: McCain +16, Hayworth -3 vs. Glassman (D).
*Arkansas: Rasmussen: Lincoln (D) down 20+, Halter (D) down 12+ vs. 5 Republicans.
*Delaware: Rasmussen: Casle (R) +23 vs. Coons (D).
*Indiana: SurveyUSA - GOP Primary: Coats 36, Hostettler 24, Stutzman 18; General: Coats +16, Hostettler +13, Stutzman +6 vs. Ellsworth (D).
*Nevada: Rasmussen: Lowden (R) +13, Tarkanian (R) +10, Angle (R) +8 vs. Reid (D); DailyKos/R2000: Lowden +4, Tarkanian +2, Angle +3 vs. Reid.
*New Hampshire: UNH/Granite State: Ayotte (R) +15 vs. Hodes (D)
*North Carolina: SurveyUSA - Dem Primary: Marshall 23, Cunningham 19, Lewis 10; PPP - Dem Primary: Marshall 26, Cunningham 23, Lewis 7.
*Ohio: Quinnipiac - Dem Primary: Fisher +17 vs. Brunner ; General: Fisher +3, Brunner +4 vs. Portman (R).
*Washington: SurveyUSA: Rossi (R) +10 vs. Murray (D).

ARKANSAS: The Hotline reports on the ridiculous amount of outside money being spent in the state's bitter Democratic primary between Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.

ILLINOIS: It's now been one week since the Giannoulias family bank failed and was taken over by federal regulators, about which the campaign launched a 60-second TV ad. Though a meeting wasn't expected, Obama gave Alexi a shout-out during his speech in Quincy, and David Axelrod held a brief, private meeting with him. It seems the state and national party are so far standing behind him.

NORTH CAROLINA: CQ-Roll Call reported that Cal Cunningham and Elaine Marshall are likely headed for a runoff, as neither are expected to garner more than the 40% necessary to win the nomination in the May 4 Democratic primary.

PENNSYLVANIA: The primary is less than three weeks away, and Rep. Joe Sestak is on the air with a new TV ad featuring military veterans defending his service as a Navy admiral. The impetus for it was a recent ad from Sen. Arlen Specter criticizng Sestak's service. And by the way, this week marked the one year anniversary of Specter's switch to the Democratic Party.

UTAH: Sen. Bob Bennett is facing a historic loss at the May 8 state party convention if, as some speculate, he does not win enough support to make it onto the primary ballot.


* Arizona: Rasmussen: Brewer (R) +8 vs. Goddard (D); PPP (D): Goddard +3 vs. Brewer, other matchups.
* Georgia: Rasmussen: Various matchups
* Illinois: Rasmussen: Brady (R) +7 vs. Quinn (D)
* Michigan: Rasmussen - GOP Primary: Hoekstra +6; EPIC-MRA - Dem Primary: Fieger +8
* Ohio: Quinnipiac: Strickland (D) +6 vs. Kasich (R)
* Oregon: Rasmussen: Various matchups
* Rhode Island: Rasmussen: Chafee (I) +11 vs. Lynch (D); tied with Caprio (D).

CALIFORNIA: The GOP ad war continues. Steve Poizner charges that Meg Whitman will mean more of the same policies under the GOP incumbent -- Arnold Schwarzenegger. Jerry Brown is defending the state's climate change law. While the Republicans spend away, Brown has an impact without opening his wallet.

COLORADO: GOP frontrunner Scott McInnis said he would sign a law similar to the new Arizona immigration statute. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper has outraised McInnis two-to-one.

FLORIDA: Florida Democrats target Rick Scott (R) in a new Web video, showing their focus isn't solely on Bill McCollum (R).

MASSACHUSETTS: The RGA launched a campaign targeting independent candidate Tim Cahill, a former Democrat. Republican nominee Charlie Baker disavowed the national committee's attack. He also shook up his campaign team just after securing the nomination. The Globe picks apart Baker's fiscal credentials. Cahill continues to target the Democratic White House, criticizing a new wind farm.

MINNESOTA: Sarah Palin endorsed in the crowded Minnesota GOP field, picking state Rip. Tom Emmer. State House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher won the DFL endorsement, but the primary is still ahead.

THE REST: Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) has words about would-be Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). Texas Gov. Rick Perry criticized the new Arizona law. The GOP field in Georgia slimmed as Ray Boyd announced an independent bid. The Democratic candidate in Utah may pick a Republican as his running mate.

Cook Political Report:
* Florida Senate from Likely R to Toss Up
* Illinois Senate from Toss Up to Lean R
* IL-14 from Lean D to Toss Up
* MI-03 from Solid R to Likely R
* NJ-06 from Solid D to Likely D
* NM-01 from Likely D to Lean D
* PA-12 from Toss Up to Lean R
* RI-01 from Solid D to Likely D

Rothenberg Political Report:
* Florida Senate from Clear Advantage R to Narrow Advantage R
* New Hampshire Senate from Toss Up to Narrow Advantage R

Senate: GOP +8
Governor: GOP +5
House Map

--Mike Memoli and Kyle Trygstad

Dem Support For Giannoulias So Far Unwavering

State and national Democrats are standing behind their man in Illinois, despite what some believed could be disastrous for Alexi Giannoulias' Senate campaign -- the state treasurer's family-owned bank was seized by federal regulators last week. The FDIC calculates the bank's failure comes at a hefty price tag of $394 million.

Speaking in Quincy, Ill., Wednesday, President Obama offered Giannoulias, who was in attendance, a special shout-out, calling him the "treasurer and soon-to-be senator." The remark was unexpected after a White House spokesman had earlier suggested that it would not be "appropriate" for the president to do so at an official event.

It was also noteworthy because rumors have circulated in both state and national political circles that party support for Giannoulias could be waning, and perhaps there could be movement toward finding a different nominee. But recently, most evidence is to the contrary.

"The rumors emanate mostly from Republicans and from the 202 area code," said Illinois Democratic Party spokesman Steve Brown. "No Democrats in Illinois or in the state party are talking about that."

One person in Washington talking about it is Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He hinted to reporters Thursday morning that it looked like Democrats replacing Giannoulias on the ticket was a real possibility.

"I just hope that the Democrats in Illinois respect the rights of Democratic primary voters to select their nominee, and we don't see some backroom shenanigans that this White House has been very active in -- in trying to force him out of the race and disrespect the vote of Democratic primary voters there," Cornyn said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.

"I just know that Giannoulias is a flawed candidate and they're realizing it -- and I think they're worried," he added.

The Chicago Tribune reported that at the Quincy event Wednesday, Giannoulias was also summoned backstage prior to Obama's remarks for what White House adviser David Axelrod called "catching up." And following the president's remarks, Obama gave Giannoulias a hug.

A public embrace from the president isn't necessarily a good thing for, say, a Republican governor in Florida, but it's a welcome sign of support for this Illinois Democrat, whom the White House needs to keep Obama's former seat blue.

Cornyn: NRSC Backing "Not Necessarily Helpful" In Primaries

Hours before one of the National Republican Senatorial Committee's prized recruits is set to announce his decision to bolt from the GOP, Sen. John Cornyn (R) conceded that the national party may have been better off with a hands-off approach to primary battles.

"I think more than any time I've seen in the recent past, instead of a Contract for America, voters want a Contract from America. In other words, they want to be listened to, not lectured to, and not to have their choices made for them," he told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor today. "In this political environment, it's not necessarily helpful for candidates running in the states to have the national party chairman endorse them."

Cornyn was asked repeatedly about Gov. Charlie Crist's (R) looming decision on his Senate candidacy in Florida and the implications of his anticipated independent run. He defended his decision as NRSC chairman to back Crist despite the fact that Marco Rubio was already in the race.

"When Jeb Bush told me he wasn't going to run I looked around to the most popular Republican in the state, and it was pretty clear who that was," he said. "At the time we made the endorsement Governor Crist was one of the most popular governors in America, and I would say it's been a breathtaking change of circumstance to see him now contemplating this course after seeing his numbers plummet so dramatically."

Cornyn said he's attempted multiple times in the past weeks to contact Crist, but that he's since "given up." He planned to encourage him to stay in the GOP primary, or potentially consider running again as a Republican in 2012.

"If he really wanted to talk to me he knows how to get a hold of me," Cornyn said.

When Crist makes his announcement, the committee will immediately throw its support to Rubio, who Cornyn said can win the three-way battle.

"We will unify behind Speaker Rubio," the Texas senator said. "I'm not saying it won't be tough. Florida's a big expensive state to run in. But I'm confident we will hold that seat and Speaker Rubio will be the next senator from Florida, if Governor Crist does as you all have reported he will."

Cornyn also said he would ask for his personal contributions to Crist's campaign to be refunded, as other local and national Republicans are expected to do.

Crist's departure from the GOP would trigger, Cornyn argued, an early start to the general election campaign, something that would turn focus to the likely Democratic nominee.

"People are going to begin focusing on Kendrick Meek, a guy who voted for a half trillion dollar cuts in Medicare which Florida's senior population may take a dim view of -- I expect they will -- and his otherwise very liberal voting record," he said.

Cornyn's acknowledgement that the NRSC's backing or perceived backing of several candidates across the country is notable considering how many face strong challenges. Another example is Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grasyon (R), who is trailing Rand Paul (R) in most polls. Cornyn said the NRSC would enthusiastically support Paul if he wins the primary next month.

"We've got strong candidates running in contested primaries and I think that it would be a mistake at this point for me or anybody that works in Washington, DC, to sort of try to anoint anybody. So I'm gonna leave that where it should be left and that is up to the voters in the state of Kentucky," he said.

War Chests Bulging For Vulnerable Southern Dems

Chairman Pete Sessions recently referred to the National Republican Congressional Committee's slew of candidates across the country as a "geographically balanced machine." It will need to be just that for the party to win back House control in the November midterm elections.

While the South has been a natural base for the party and a place many assume the GOP can pick up seats in a favorable year, several Southern Democratic incumbents in competitive districts currently boast overwhelming fundraising advantages over their GOP challengers. After the first fundraising quarter of 2010, at least eight Southern Democrats have more than 10 times as much cash on hand as their closest GOP challengers, and for some of them the margin is far greater.

This includes Reps. Mike Ross (AR-4), Jim Marshall (GA-8), Mike McIntyre (NC-7), Heath Shuler (NC-11), Rick Boucher (VA-9) and Nick Rahall (WV-3) -- whose districts were all won by John McCain in 2008. Others in districts Barack Obama carried with 55 percent or less are John Barrow (GA-12) and Bob Etheridge (NC-2).

They all have more than $800,000 in the bank, while none of their Republican opponents have as much as $100,000. McIntyre was actually outraised by $20,000 in the first quarter but still has an $800,000 cash-on-hand advantage.

Money isn't everything, and the enthusiasm gap is currently a detriment to Democrats nationwide. But even in the most favorable political environments challengers need cash to knock out incumbents. The financial disadvantage disclosed in the latest fundraising reports perhaps takes a few of these districts off the board of competitive races.

Of course, not all Democratic incumbents in the South enjoy such large leads in the money race, and Republicans have solid challengers in other potentially vulnerable districts. Some of the most vulnerable Democratic districts nationwide are open seat races in the South, where Democrats retired for various reasons -- some to run for higher office, some to avoid a difficult re-election bid.

But winning back the majority will require the GOP gaining many of its seats in states like Arizona, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- places Democrats were successful the last two election cycles.

The NRCC is confident it can do that and argues that the environment will overcome some of the fundraising disadvantages it will likely face in races across the country.

"Most Republican challengers are unlikely to outraise incumbent Democrats, but that doesn't mean they won't be in a strong position to compete in this political environment," said NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay. "For every dollar that Democrats raise, they will be forced to spend hundreds more defending their job-killing agenda that has led voters to abandon their party in droves."

CA Sen: Huckabee Endorses DeVore

California Sen. Barbara Boxer may have President Obama's fundraising abilities on her side, but GOP hopeful Chuck DeVore now has the backing of the man who nearly ran against Obama in 2008.

The DeVore campaign announced today the endorsement of Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and a candidate for president in 2008.

"Chuck DeVore has a clear pro-life record," Huckabee said in a press release. "We need people like Chuck Devore in the U.S. Senate because he'll work to bring some common sense back to Washington."

Huckabee is just one of the potential 2012 GOP presidential candidates who are working to help Republicans in the 2010 midterms. Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have all endorsed candidates as they gear up for possible bids of their own.

This endorsement comes with a pledge from Huckabee's political action committee for financial assistance. With the June 8 primary just six weeks away, fundraising help is something DeVore desperately needs against former Rep. Tom Campbell and establishment-backed Carly Fiorina.

"Support from Huck PAC's motivated network of grassroots activists will be essential in winning this primary -- and defeating Barbara Boxer in November," said DeVore.

HuckPAC has endorsed candidates in 22 states, and promises to "promote their campaigns and financially support their efforts."

Immigration Reform's Unclear Path

While Democratic leaders ramp up for an effort to push immigration reform to the floor of the Senate, the general sense among Senate Republicans is that it has no chance for success, GOP aides tell RealClearPolitics. If it fell well short of passing in 2007 after extensive bipartisan work, how exactly will 60 senators come together in the next month on a bill that has yet to be written?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's decision yesterday to back off from pushing immigration ahead of climate change reflected that.

On June 28, 2007, just 46 senators voted in favor of cloture on the comprehensive immigration bill, 14 shy of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster. Among the 46 were 12 Republicans, including Arizona Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham -- all of whom could now oppose a new bill.

Even though Graham was integrally involved in forming a new reform plan with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), he was incensed at Reid's sudden decision last week to make immigration reform a priority over a climate change bill that Graham, Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) were set to roll out Monday.

Also, Democrats can no longer count on other GOP cross-over votes either: Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, who voted for the bill, is retired; and Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, another 2007 supporter, is stuck in a bitter re-election battle for his party's nomination. If he makes it through the May 8 state party convention and onto the June primary ballot with a more conservative challenger, a vote in favor of an immigration reform bill supported by Reid and the White House likely wouldn't help his chances.

In the vote three years ago, 16 Democrats voted against ending debate and sending the bill for a final vote. Among them were several freshmen who helped the party win back control of the Senate, as well as members across the left side of the political spectrum -- from Vermont's Bernie Sanders to Nebraska's Ben Nelson.

Because the odds appear against a bill passing the Senate this year, Reid is being criticized -- by Graham and others -- for using the effort simply for political gain. Latinos made up 15 percent of the 2008 Nevada electorate, and 76 percent of them voted for Barack Obama. Facing poor polling numbers, Reid could certainly use a boost from that influential voting bloc in 2010.

So could California Sen. Barbara Boxer and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who also have large percentages of Latino voters and are in for a challenging election season.

For its part, the Nevada Democratic Party supports Reid's push for immigration reform as soon as possible and says it's Republicans who are playing politics with the issue.

"Senator Reid has always been committed to comprehensive immigration reform - reform that secures both our borders and brings 12 million illegal immigrants out of the shadows," said state party spokeswoman Phoebe Sweet. "Republicans who would rather play partisan politics than work toward solutions do so to the determent of this country's national and economic security."

Campaign Promise At Risk, White House Targets "Media Games"

The president's Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform met for the first time today, charged with making recommendations to the White House and Congress about how to address the nation's long-term budget challenges. The first witness, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, laid out the few options that can be offered.

"The reality is that the Congress, the Administration and the American people will have to choose among making modifications to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, restraining federal spending on everything else, accepting higher taxes, or some combination thereof," he told the 18-member panel.

In advance of the meeting, the administration has faced questions about whether one of candidate Barack Obama's definitive pledges -- not to raise taxes on families earning $250,000 or less -- is at risk. The panels recommendations are nonbinding, and it was created via executive order and not Congressional statute. But President Obama has vowed not to dismiss any ideas, leading to questions about his campaign rhetoric.

That reality is particularly vexing to the administration, and twice this week it has publicly trashed the "Washington game" being played.

At his press briefing Monday, Robert Gibbs was particularly cheeky.

"You've gripped your computers and your Blackberrys to quickly Twitter that Robert Gibbs, per the Washington game, didn't rule out that Barack Obama has said X, Y, Z is on the table," he said. When reporters tried to challenge him, he simply joked about having "caught a large fish on my troll of the Washington game."

Today, the president himself addressed this in remarks to the commission.

"I've said that it's important that we not restrict the review or the recommendations that this commission comes up with in any way. Everything has to be on the table," he said. "Of course, this means that all of you, our friends in the media, will ask me and others once a week or once a day about what we're willing to rule out or rule in when it comes to the recommendations of the commission. That's an old Washington game and it's one that has made it all but impossible in the past for people to sit down and have an honest discussion about putting our country on a more secure fiscal footing.

"So I want to deliver this message today: We're not playing that game. I'm not going to say what's in. I'm not going to say what's out. I want this commission to be free to do its work," he said.

Primary Fight Looms One Year After Specter Switch

One year ago, just shy of President Obama's 100th day in office, Sen. Arlen Specter jolted the political world by announcing his decision to leave the Republican Party and join the majority caucus.

"I am unwilling to have my 29 year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate," the five-term senator said in the statement announcing his decision. "I have not represented the Republican Party. I have represented the people of Pennsylvania."

It was a decision based largely on political survival, with the final straw being his decision to break with the GOP and vote for the new president's Recovery Act. Pat Toomey, who nearly defeated him in 2004, looked ready to give him an even tougher challenge in 2010, and Specter lacked the institutional support that put him over the edge in their last dogfight.

The switch gave Democrats a 59th vote in the Senate, with a 60th expected to come soon after when Al Franken's victory was certified. At the time, it was seen as another sign of the GOP's extended demise. "How much more can the Republicans take?" the Washington Post's Dan Balz asked, while declaring the party "demoralized, shrinking and seemingly lacking an agenda beyond the word 'no.'"

Fast forward a year and the Democrats are back at 59 votes, a situation possible only because of an even greater political shocker - the victory of a Republican in the race to succeed Ted Kennedy. Still, for both Democrats and for Specter, the decision appears to have been mutually beneficial in the short term.

In his first year as a Democrat, Specter has proved not only to be a reliable vote for the party's agenda, but he has voted all but once to end Republican filibusters, as the Washington Times recently noted. That fact is one reason why the candidacy of Rep. Joe Sestak (D) languished so long - he had no fresh evidence to bring to potential primary voters to make them question Specter's new partisan persuasion. As for Specter, it's unlikely he would have lead in the GOP primary he abandoned as he does in the Democratic primary.

But what about the long term? What seemed like a smooth path to his new party's nomination has hit some late roadblocks. No poll has shown Specter trailing, but a Rasmussen poll released two weeks ago showed Sestak pulling to within two points. Specter has launched scathing attack ads that his rival says engages in Swift Boat-style questioning of his his military service. Vice President Joe Biden, instrumental in securing his former Senate colleague's party switch, came to the Keystone State just last Friday to lend him some needed support as the final stretch began.

"Pennsylvania's better off, the country's better off, and selfishly, Barack Obama and Joe Biden are better off in having a chance to bring about the kind of change in America we think we need," Biden told a crowd near his boyhood home of Scranton.

Even if he does defeat Sestak, Specter has yet to show he can again defeat Toomey. The former Congressman and Club for Growth President leads Specter by 6.5 percent in the RCP Average. Toomey outraised Specter in the first quarter of 2010 by a margin of two-to-one, though the incumbent does still have a $5 million cash on hand advantage. RCP currently classifies the race as lean Republican.

Young Voters, Once Again, Essential For Democrats

Young voters were enthusaistic about voting for President Obama in 2008, but a new Gallup survey finds that excitement for heading to the polls may have dissipated this year. That hasn't gone unnoticed at the Democratic National Committee and Obama's Organizing for America, which e-mailed a video of Obama spelling out the importance of the midterm elections.

"Today, the health insurance companies, the Wall Street banks, and the special interests who have ruled Washington for too long are already focused on November's congressional elections," Obama says in the video. "So this year I need your help once more. ... It will be up to each of you to make sure the young people, African Americans, Latinos and women who powered our victory in 2008 stand together once again."

Young voters offered a huge boost to Obama in 2008, when 18-29-year-olds made up nearly a fifth of the electorate and voted 66 percent for Obama. Up a level, 30-44-year-olds voted 52 percent for Obama and accounted for 29 percent of the electorate.

Perhaps troublesome for congressional Democrats running for re-election, Gallup's survey finds that significant portions of both voting blocs are less than enthused to vote again this year.

In the under-30 bloc, 23 percent is very enthusiastic about voting this year, 28 percent somewhat enthusiastic and 47 percent not enthusiastic. Meanwhile, 30-49-year-olds are only slightly more excited: 32 percent are very enthusiastic, 26 percent somewhat enthusiastic and 41 percent not enthusiastic.

The youngest voting bloc is important for Democrats, even if Obama is not on the ticket. Gallup found that 51 percent would support the Democrat running in their district, while just 39 percent would vote for the Republican. That's the only one of the four age-specific voting blocs that Democrats currently lead.

The fact that young voters lean Democratic and aren't excited to vote is not unsurprising or much different from some recent elections, but "The current data confirm that at this juncture, both of these patterns continue to play out in this year's midterm elections," writes Gallup's Frank Newport. "Democratic leaders have apparently recognized these realities, and are attempting to re-create the enthusiasm for Democrats among younger voters that was apparent in 2008."

Feingold Drops First TV Ad

Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (D) is airing his first TV ad of the campaign. The 30-second spot focuses on his work to cut the deficit and his vote against the 2008 bailout.

The ad comes a week after former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) declined to challenge the three-term Democrat. Feingold will likely face one of the following three Republicans: businessmen Terrence Wall and Dave Westlake, or former Wisconsin Commerce Secretary Dick Leinenkugel, who is formally announcing his entrance to the race today.

The Week Ahead: Crist's Independence Day

Charlie Crist has until this Friday to determine whether he will continue to run for the U.S. Senate as a Republican, continue pursuing his candidacy but as an independent, or to abandon the campaign entirely and focus on his duties as Florida's governor and begin to plot his political recovery. If history is any guide, we can expect he'll wait until just before that Friday deadline to make that decision. In the meantime, politicos in Florida and certainly across the country will continue to debate what his predicament means for Crist, for the Senate race, and for the Republican Party in general.

Heading into the week, reports seem to indicate Crist is leaning toward an independent run. Marco Rubio has built a lead that seems insurmountable given the governor's standing in his own party right now. Some longtime allies are reportedly warning him against abandoning the party he has built his career with, with one notion being that Crist himself once had such an intimidating lead, and that Rubio's warts are only beginning to come to light as the toast of the tea party movement has built his following.

White House: After a weekend of R-and-R in North Carolina with the first lady, President Obama has a busy week that includes a major road trip to the Midwest. Officially, the three-state swing is part of the "White House to Main Street" tour, and Obama's itinerary looks focused on the economy. On Tuesday, he'll tour a Seimens Energy plant in Iowa, before holding a town hall meeting in Ottumwa. On Wednesday, he heads to Missouri, where he'll tour a biorefining plant in Macon, and visit a local farm. He'll then speak in Quincy, Illinois.

Today, President Obama will speak at a summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington. He also honors the 2009 World Series champs, the New York Yankees (something Mike has been looking forward to since last November). Later this week, he honors the Teacher of the Year at the White House. This Saturday, he'll speak at the annual White House Correspondents Association Dinner -- DC's "Nerd Prom."

Vice President Biden seems to be taking the lead role for the administration on financial reform. He convenes a meeting of his Middle Class Task Force in Wisconsin on Tuesday with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. On the political front, the VP's schedule includes a stop in Colorado for first-term Rep. Betsy Markey on Friday. Biden is skipping the Correspondents dinner to instead speak at a fundraising dinner for the Arizona Democratic Party Saturday night.

Capitol Hill:: Today is a big test for Senate Democrats' Wall Street Reform bill, as they need one Republican to join them in a vote to overcome a filibuster and begin formal debate. The two parties are still holding out hope for a bipartisan agreement, but Republican leaders predicted Sunday that Democrats would not get 60 votes today. If the bill does fail today, expect both parties to spin the result: As the Washington Post notes, "Democrats could say the GOP is standing in the way of reform, and Republicans could say the bill's flaws would cause the economy more harm than good." Meanwhile, in other legislative problems, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said Saturday that he would no longer participate in bipartisan negotiations on a climate change bill because of Democrats' decision to push immigration reform first.

Politics: Two filing deadlines are on the calendar this week, both on Friday. The one that will dominate political conversation all week, as we noted earlier, is Florida's deadline to file for federal office. Gov. Charlie Crist seems more and more likely to file as an independent candidate rather than avoid a Republican primary he appears certain to lose at this point. The decision would make an already intriguing race jump to the top as one of the most fascinating of the 2010 cycle, a three way race pitting the beleaguered Crist against a rising conservative star (Marco Rubio) and a young, African American Democrat (Kendrick Meek). Of course, Crist could also drop out altogether, with some speculating he could run in 2012 against Bill Nelson.

Elsewhere, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's decision to sign a controversial illegal immigration measure has certainly pushed the subject back to the forefront of discussion. The Sunday shows began looking ahead to the potential impact on the midterms. The more immediate fallout is of course in Arizona, where Republicans have competitive primaries for both governor -- including Brewer -- and Senate, where John McCain's past support for comprehensive reform still lingers, despite his stated support for this law.

The other filing deadline this week is in Georgia, where a competitive race is shaping up to replace Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), with primaries on both sides up for grabs. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) appears safe, but did draw a decent Democratic opponent in state labor commissioner Michael Thurmond (D).

**Poll Watch:
Obama Job Performance: Approve 48.1 / Disapprove 47.1 (+1.0)
Congress Job Performance: Approve 22.8 / Disapprove 71.2 (-48.4)
Generic Ballot Test: Republicans +3.2

**In Case You Missed It: "President Obama" talks Wall Street Reform on "Saturday Night Live":

--Mike Memoli and Kyle Trygstad

The Week In Midterms: 2012 Endorsements In 2010

It was an especially busy week for endorsements in midterm races this week, especially in Republican primaries. And no race saw more national figures weigh in than Florida Senate, where Charlie Crist's temptation with an independent candidacy drew Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich into the camp of Marco Rubio. Endorsements from potential 2012 hopefuls are coming fast and furious these days, as Karen Tumulty pointed out this week. Romney also endorsed in the Michigan gubernatorial primary, while pitching in for California's Meg Whitman. Tim Pawlenty also announced a slew of endorsements, while announcing a trip to South Carolina on behalf of a Congressional candidate.

Meanwhile, the White House continues to flex its political muscle. President Obama traveled to California on Monday for three events with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D). And Vice President Joe Biden is in Pennsylvania today campaigning for Sen. Arlen Specter (D) and Mark Critz, the Democrat running to replace John Murtha in Pennsylvania 12. All this week in the midterm races.

*California: Capitol Weekly - Primary (R): Campbell 31, Fiorina 17, DeVore 14; SurveyUSA - Primary (R): Campbell 34, Fiorina 27, DeVore 14.
*Florida: Rasmussen - 3-Way General: Rubio (R) 37, Crist (I) 30, Meek (D) 22.
*Georgia: Rasmussen: Isakson (R) +16 vs. Thurmond (D).
*Indiana: Rasmussen: Coats (R) +21, Hostettler (R) +17, Stutzman (R) +5 vs. Ellsworth (D).
*New Hampshire: PPP (D): Ayotte (R) +7, Binnie (R) +5 vs. Hodes (D); Hodes (D) +3 vs. Bender (R), +5 vs. Lamontagne (R).
*New York: Siena: Gillibrand (D) +20 vs. Blakeman (R).
*North Carolina: Rasmussen: Burr (R) +22 vs. Cunningham (D), +18 vs. Marshall (D).
*Wisconsin: Rasmussen: Feingold (D) +6 vs. Wall (R), +11 vs. Westlake (R), +11 vs. Leinenkugel.

ARKANSAS: Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter will debate tonight and tomorrow (and a third time later) before voters head to the polls May 18. Tonight's debate is sponsored in part by Politico and is being streamed live on its Web site. Politico reported today that Halter is playing the usual expectations game leading up to the debate. All eight of the candidates vying for the nomination will be at tomorrow's debate.

FLORIDA: The Florida GOP -- including Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio -- are under federal scrutiny for the use of party credit cards. It's unclear how this could affect the primary or general election, but a federal investigation is never a boost for a candidate. Meanwhile, Rubio continued to rack up endorsements, including from Dick Cheney, Rick Santorum and Eric Cantor. Though Crist says he's not too upset about it. But he'll have to decide by next week whether he's going to run in the GOP primary or go for the general as an independent.

INDIANA: Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) -- who you may remember from such primaries as Florida, California, Colorado and Pennsylvania -- weighed in on the GOP primary here, throwing his support and his PAC's fundraising abilities behind state Sen. Marlin Stutzman. It was the latest indicator that this GOP contest -- like many around the country -- is a race to the right.

NORTH CAROLINA: Going for broke or going broke? Whoever wins the Democratic primary May 4 is going to be at a major fundraising disadvantage against Sen. Richard Burr (R), who has more than $5 million. As CQ-Roll Call reported, the establishment-backed Cal Cunningham raised $345,000 in the 1stQ, leaving him with $478,000 on hand. Elaine Marshall has $181,000 and Ken Lewis half that.

OHIO: And the May 4 Democratic primary is getting nasty, as Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher hurl accusations at each other. Brunner says Fisher has gotten campaign contributions from businesses that received state money, while Fisher brings up Brunner's questionable FEC reporting practices.


* Arizona: Rasmussen: Various matchups
* California: Rasmussen: Brown (D) +6 vs. Whitman (R)
* Florida: Rasmussen: McCollum (R) +7; Quinnipiac: McCollum +4
* Maryland: Rasmussen: O'Malley +3
* Massachusetts: Western New England College: Patrick (D) +5
* New Hampshire: PPP -- General: Various matchups; PPP -- Primary: Stephen +14
* New York: Siena: Cuomo (D) +37 vs. Lazio (R)
* Pennsylvania: Rasmussen: Various matchups
* Texas: Rasmussen: Perry (R) +4
* Wisconsin: Rasmussen: Neumann-Barrett tied, Walker +2 vs. Barrett

ARIZONA: Facing a tough GOP primary, Gov. Jan Brewer (R) is expected to veto a controversial illegal immigration measure. President Obama weighed in, calling the proposed law irresponsible.

CALIFORNIA: A long list of Republican heavyweights is coming to the state on Meg Whitman's behalf. Mitt Romney, Condoleezza Rice, Jeb Bush and John McCain all headed to the state. An internal poll from Whitman showed her losing ground on primary rival Steve Poizner. Whitman turns down a call from Jerry Brown to participate in a three-way debate.

FLORIDA: New GOP hopeful Rick Scott launched a radio ad focused on President Obama. Is the health care suit backfiring on Bill McCollum (R) in Florida?

MASSACHUSETTS: Charlie Baker avoided a primary battle by winning the GOP nomination at the state party convention. But independent candidate Tim Cahill continues to complicate the race and GOP hopes of unseating Gov. Deval Patrick (D). The Globe profiles Cahill.

MICHIGAN: Mitt Romney endorsed in the crowded GOP primary, backing Rep. Pete Hoekstra.

THE REST: Maine Democrat Libby Mitchell released an internal poll showing her up in the primary. Wyoming Democrats still search for a candidate. Hint of a presidential endorsement? Obama's sister introduced former Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D) at an event in Hawaii. Former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) has a new primary opponent in Brian Murphy. John Kasich (R) is closing the fundraising gap with Gov. Ted Strickland (D). Another Chet Culver (D) aide departs.

Cook Political Report:
* Georgia Senate from Solid R to Likely R

Rothenberg Political Report:
* NM-01 from D Favored to Lean D

Senate: GOP +8
Governor: GOP +4
House Map

--Mike Memoli and Kyle Trygstad

5 GOP House Seats Dems Could Win

Republican leaders say their goal in the upcoming midterm elections is to pick up 40 House seats and take back the majority, and most political handicappers say that's a real possibility. By just about any measure of national polling, Democrats face an abysmal national mood and a toxic political environment that's likely to last through Election Day.

But while Democrats prepare for big losses in the midterm elections, there are a handful of GOP seats around the country that the party has a legitimate chance of winning. Doing so would force Republicans to work a little harder to achieve their goal of winning control of the House.

Here's a look at the five Republican-held seats Democrats have the best chance of winning:

Delaware - At Large: Rep. Mike Castle (R) is heavily favored to win Vice President Joe Biden's former Senate seat, but he left behind an open House seat that most expect Democrat John Carney to win. Carney is the former lieutenant governor who lost a close Democratic primary race for governor in 2008. The only Republican with significant money is real estate developer Glen Urquhart, who's dropped $565,000 of his own money into the race, while raising just $3,000. With three counties, the small state's voters elect people they know and like, and Carney fits the bill here. He's been elected statewide twice, and he previously served as state finance secretary under then-Gov. Tom Carper and a staffer in the office of then-Sen. Biden. Carney's raised nearly $1 million and has $675,000 in the bank.

Illinois - 10: This is Democrat Dan Seals' third straight shot at the North Shore district, falling 6-points shy in the last two elections against Rep. Mark Kirk. However, Kirk's running for the Senate this year and taking along his moderate voting record that allowed him to win this Democratic-leaning district for five terms. The fact that Kirk continued to win here -- even in 2008 when President Obama carried it with 61% -- probably says more about Kirk than the district. His opponent this year is businessman Bob Dold, who's raised nearly $1 million and has $380,000 on hand. But Seals is raising impressive sums as well -- he has $460,000 on hand and is receiving some assistance from the national party.

Pennsylvania - 15: Rep. Charlie Dent is facing his most difficult re-election this year, with Democrats scoring one of their top recruits in the nation: Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, who received a fundraising visit from Biden just last week. Dent and Callahan are within $5,000 of each other in cash on hand, and with national Democrats continuing to raise money for November, Callahan can expect to receive all the help he needs. In Dent's favor is the fact that voting in the Lehigh Valley regularly matches the state and national mood -- it's voted for the winner in the last six gubernatorial races, and except for giving John Kerry and Al Gore very small wins, it's voted for the winning presidential candidate since 1980. However, Dent's never faced a candidate as strong as Callahan; and with Obama winning 56% here in 2008, Callahan could be able to swing the congressional vote back to the Democrats.

Louisiana - 2: "Under ordinary circumstances, Cao, as a Republican, would have had no chance in this district." That's how the Almanac of American Politics described his 2008 upset of Rep. Bill Jefferson, and that's how it will likely play out this year with convicted felon Bill Jefferson no longer on the ticket and serving 13 years in prison. This New Orleans-based district voted at least 75% for the last four Democratic presidential nominees. Cao's fundraising took a major hit in the first quarter of 2010, bringing in just $100,000, leaving him with $310,000 on hand. His likely opponent, State Rep. Cedric Richmond, raised $128,000 and has $278,000 in the bank.

Florida - 25: This Miami-area district is likely the biggest reach for Democrats of the five districts listed here. Its large Cuban population leans the district toward Republicans, though it has the smallest Cuban population of the three area Hispanic-majority districts. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart is vacating the seat to run in his brother's neighboring 21st District, which is a slightly safer seat for Republicans. Diaz-Balart faced a difficult 2008 race against Joe Garcia, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party. Garcia lost by only a 53%-47% margin; he took a job in the Obama administration, but recently resigned to run again for the open seat. His likely Republican opponent is state Rep. David Rivera, who has $700,000 in the bank and whom the national GOP has high hopes for. If they both make it through their primaries, this is expected to be a costly and highly contested district.

Burns Aims For First GOP House Pickup

Democrats are 6-for-6 in special elections for the House of Representatives since President Obama took office. But that doesn't faze Tim Burns (R) as he runs in a May 18th contest to replace the late John Murtha representing Pennsylvania's 12th district.

Asked about the Democratic successes in those earlier races, Burns matter-of-factly responds, "I wasn't running in any of those."

In an interview with RCP this afternoon, Burns claimed that the momentum is on his side in the race, as voters in his district are hungry for a change from "Washington as usual," which his opponent represents.

"People understand that this is a guy who's going to vote in lock-step with Pelosi and Obama," he said of Democrat Mark Critz, a former Murtha aide. "They are not happy with either one of them in this district."

Voters can "see through" his attempts to distance himself from the national Democratic agenda, Burns argues, as evidenced by a fundraiser held in his honor in Washington this week by Pelosi, and a visit Friday from Vice President Joe Biden.

Tonight, meanwhile, Burns welcomes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for a fundraiser, and says he has no qualms about standing with the GOP.

"There are a majority of Democrats here, but conservative, common-sense Democrats," he said. "They're pro-life, they're pro-gun and they're pro-common sense. They're tired of the out-of-control spending. They know that we can't spend our way into prosperity. ... So this is a district where Democrats are not afraid to vote for the person over the party."

On his Twitter feed, Burns recently invoked Obama's infamous quote about people "clinging" to guns and religion, saying he proudly does so.

"I think people outside of the district thought that that was going to be a big mistake, and it was going to hurt me. But people loved that here," he said. "It does resonate. People do cling to their bibles and their guns here. And I wouldn't apologize for it and people are not embarrassed by it."

Crist On Cheney Endorsement: "Do I Look Upset?"

Gov. Charlie Crist (R?) has been dodging questions about his political future amid speculation he'll abandon the GOP primary for U.S. Senate. But today, a Florida reporter was able to goad Crist into responding to today's endorsement of Marco Rubio by former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Asked if he was upset about the news, Crist jokes: "Do I look upset?" He added that it was just another example of "a Washington politician telling Florida what to do."

Sounds like the makings of an independent platform.

Indiana Republicans Battle For Conservative Mantle

In competitive primaries around the country, Republicans are attempting to prove they are the most conservative candidate in the race. Look no further than Arizona, where Sen. John McCain -- the party's presidential nominee just two years ago -- is being challenged by J.D. Hayworth for not being a "true" conservative.

The same thing is happening in Florida, where Gov. Charlie Crist appears on the verge of exiting the race altogether because of the popularity of the more conservative Marco Rubio.

It's also true in the open seat race in Indiana, where former Sen. Dan Coats, former Rep. John Hostettler and state Sen. Marlin Stutzman continue to battle for the conservative mantle less than two weeks before the May 4 primary. Coats was recruited by the national party and is widely considered the favorite, but all three have led Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) in general election polling.

With Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) retiring, the eventual Republican nominee will be favored to win the general election. Before President Obama's 1-point victory in 2008, Indiana had voted Republican in all but three presidential elections dating back to 1928.

It's a culturally conservative state, and in general, more conservative Republicans turn out for midterm GOP primaries. To prove their conservative chops, each has unveiled a major endorsement in the past week. On Friday, Hostettler announced the support of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who has a nationwide network of supporters.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who was the first senator to publicly back Rubio, entered the fray on Tuesday by endorsing Stutzman and raising -- as of last night -- $77,000 for him through his Senate Conservatives Fund PAC, which supports only "rock solid conservatives."

"Marlin Stutzman can win this race," DeMint states in a fundraising solicitation. "He is surging in the polls and there is still time to elect a true conservative who will stand up to the establishment in both parties."

The Coats campaign responded by rolling out its own conservative endorsements this week: James Dobson, founder of the conservative group, Focus on the Family, and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who previously indicated his support for Coats weeks earlier when the former senator was set to enter the race.

"Dan Coats' integrity and conservative record make him the best candidate for the job," Pence stated in a press release. "Dan is a proven conservative leader who is trusted by Hoosiers."

When asked whether Pence would actively campaign or fundraise for Coats, a Coats spokesman responded simply: "Stay tuned."

Pence himself considered running for the seat, but declined before Bayh's retirement announcement. Bayh's exit, the landscape of the state and subsequent polling moved the seat into vulnerable territory for Democrats. RCP now ranks the race as Lean Republican.

In PA-12 Special, Democrat Seeks Distance From His Party

Mark Critz was in Washington Tuesday night, feted by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Congressional Democrats who hope he'll join their caucus after a special election next month to replace the late John Murtha. Later this week, Vice President Joe Biden heads to Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional district to join Critz on the stump.

But even as he benefits from the support of his party's heavyweights, Critz is taking pains to distance himself from its agenda as the vote draws nearer. Most conspicuously, the former Murtha aide launched a television ad this weekend in which -- with his voice apparently hoarse from the campaign trail -- he aims to set the record straight and declares his opposition to the health care law passed and signed last month. It was a response to an ad from the National Republican Campaign Committee which said Critz "will put the liberal agenda before Pennsylvania."

"I'm pro life and pro gun. That's not a liberal," Critz says in his own spot.

Critz's camp also says he opposes a proposed cap-and-trade law, something Murtha voted for when the House first acted on it last year.

These positions reflect the unique character of the district. Democrats have a heavy registration advantage on paper, and Murtha won his seat consistently with little trouble. But it was the only seat in the country carried by John Kerry in 2004 but not by Barack Obama four years later. In the heart of steel and coal country, the Democrats here are far more conservative than the national party, as Murtha was on many issues.

While Critz walks this fine line, his opponent is calling him out. To coincide with Tuesday night's fundraiser, Republican Tim Burns' campaign issued a release accusing him of "political double talk," asking: "If we can't trust candidate Mark Critz to be honest about his real support for Nancy Pelosi's agenda, why would we ever send him to Congress?"

Ahead of Biden's visit on Friday, Burns' campaign web site promotes a "money-bomb," with a goal of $50,000 for the campaign to counter the vice president and his "anti-coal, government-run health care, higher taxes agenda."

Burns is also drawing the support of his national party. Not far from Critz's Washington fundraiser Tuesday, national Republicans held one of their own for their nominee. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is set to join Burns in Latrobe this Thursday for a fundraiser, and the campaign says others will likely follow.

Last week, the president himself hailed the victory of Democrat Ted Deutch in Florida's 19th Congressional District as a successful referendum on health care. When asked by RCP how the White House reacted to Critz now distancing himself from that position, Robert Gibbs demurred.

"I have not spent a tremendous amount of time looking at the ads in this," the press secretary said. "But I do not doubt that there will be people in this season that will campaign on a whole host of policy positions. I think given where we've spent our time and our energy, know where we are, particularly on health care."

Whether Critz's positioning will prove successful remains to be seen. Two polls released Tuesday showed a competitive battle, with a GOP pollster showing Critz up by one, and a Democratic pollster showing Burns ahead by three.

Democrats have won every special election for the House since Obama took office, and Republicans are publicly cautious about their chances. In a meeting with reporters Tuesday, NRCC chair Pete Sessions stressed that it was a "Democratic district," and noted that the regularly-scheduled primary election coinciding with the special election is likely to attract more Democrats to the polls, since there is no major competition for the GOP nominations for Senate and governor in the state.

Still, Sessions said, "I'd sooner have our deck of cards on that one."

Sessions: 40 Or Bust

National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Pete Sessions told reporters this afternoon his goal is to win 40 seats this November and take back the majority in Congress.

"Anything less, I did not fulfill my mission statement," he said.

It's a big hill to climb, and it begins next month with special elections in Hawaii and southwestern Pennsylvania -- two vacant Democratic seats where Sessions likes the GOP's chances.

"Both of these are drawn for and are Democratic districts," Sessions said, lowering the expectation bar in case of a GOP loss. But, he said, "We've fielded a great candidate in both races."

Sessions stressed that the NRCC was challenging Dems in the four quadrants of the country -- Northeast, Southeast, Midwest and West -- saying, "We are a geographically balanced machine." But PA-12 also fits right into the area where a large number of Democratic districts are being targeted.

Sessions calls them the Ohio River Valley districts, which lie in West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and even down to Mississippi. This is where Democrats picked up a large number of seats in the last two elections, and Republicans now feel that the environment is right for the party to win them back.

While he believes the poor political environment for Democrats will ultimately be the deciding factor in November, Sessions and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), the vice chairman in charge of finance, noted that GOP candidate fundraising is in great shape -- 121 challengers and open seat candidates have more than $200,000 cash on hand, and 16 challengers outraised a Democratic incumbent in the first quarter.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee notes that its most challenged incumbents -- mostly new members in what they call the Frontline program -- have an average of more than $1 million cash on hand.

Hensarling also announced that the NRCC itself raised $8 million in March, its highest grossing month since becoming the minority party. The committee now has $10 million on hand, $4 million more than a month ago. That still leaves it well behind the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which raised $9.77 million last month and has $26 million on hand.

First Quarter Senate Fundraising Numbers

After the jump, we've compiled the latest available information on candidates' filings, either from campaigns or based on published reports. They're grouped by the RCP rankings for the race, and include total raised this quarter and cash on hand totals, where available.

Boxer* (D) $2.4 million $8.7 million
Fiorina (R) $1.7 million $2.8 million
Campbell (R) $1.6 million $1.1 million
DeVore (R) $641,000 $412,000
Campbell (R) $1.6 million $1.1 million
Bennet* (D) $1.4 million $3.6 million
Romanoff (D) $386,000 $502,000
Norton (R) $816,000 $643,000
Buck (R) $219,000 ^ $417,000
Kirk (R) $2.2 million $3 million
Giannoulias (D) $1.2 million $1.2 million
Carnahan (D) $1.5 million N/A
Blunt (R) $1.3 million N/A
Portman (R) $2.35 million $7.6 million
Fisher (D) $550,000 $1.8 million
Lincoln* (D) $1.34 million $4.3 million
Halter (D) $2 million $1 million
Baker (R) $155,000 $501,000
Boozman (R) $341,000 $563,000
Rubio (R) $3.6 million N/A
Crist (R) $1.1 million $7.5 million
Ellsworth (D) $625,000 $1 million
Coats (R) $379,000 $331,000
Reid* (D) $1.5 million $9.5 million
Lowden (R) $1 million ^ N/A
Tarkanian (R) $445,000 N/A
Chacas (R) $110,000 $1.3 million
New Hampshire
Hodes (D) $665,000 $1.66 million
Ayotte (R) $671,000 $1.3 million
Bender (R) $500,000 ^ N/A
Binnie (R) $400,000 N/A
North Carolina
Burr* (R) $1.5 million $5.3 million
Cunningham (D) $345,000 $478,000
Specter* (D) $1.16 million $9.1 million
Sestak (D) $442,000 $5.3 million
Toomey (R) $2.3 million $4 million
Murray* (D) $1 million $5.9 million
Benton (R) $120,000 $103,000
Feingold* (D) $1.34 million $4.3 million
Wall (R) $1.3 million ^ $1 million
Castle (R) $826,000 $2.3 milion
Coons (D) $635,000 $591,000
Grayson (R) $733,000 $1.13 million
Paul (R) $614,000 $396,000
Mongiardo (D) $312,000 $795,000
Vitter* (R) $1 million $5 million
Melancon (D) $543,000 $2.26 million
Blumenthal (D) $1.87 million $1.6 million
McMahon (R) $8 million ^ $4.3 million
Simmons (R) $550,000 $1.4 million
New York -- Gillibrand
Gillibrand* (D) $1.6 million N/A
McCain* (R) $2.3 million $4.6 million
Hayworth (R) $1 million $680,000
Grassley* (R) $614,000 $5.3 million
Conlin (D) $1.5 million $1 million
Moran (R) $346,000 $3.5 million
Tiahrt (R) $375,000 $1.5 million
North Dakota
Hoeven (R) $1.4 million $1.2 million
Potter (D) $18,000 $17,000
South Dakota
Thune* (R) $1 million $6.5 million
Bennett* (R) $739,000 N/A
Lee (R) $135,000 ^ $85,000
Bridgewater (R) $50,000 ^ $258,000
^ includes self-financing  
** Note: totals are rounded to the nearest thousand.

Cantor Backs Rubio, Slams Crist For Abandoning GOP

Joining the herd of party leaders, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor endorsed Marco Rubio this morning while slamming Charlie Crist for considering an independent candidacy.

"He is firm in his principles and his beliefs, and he keeps his word," Cantor said on a conference call this morning. "That's the kind of leader that we need in the United States Senate."

Cantor said there were "warning signs" with Crist, specifically his decision last year to stand with President Obama in support of the stimulus bill.

"That caused a lot of us some concern," Cantor said. He alluded as well to last week's veto of a GOP-favored education bill. "Now we hear reports all about perhaps that the governor will seek an independent bid to run against Marco. And that to me shows that someone who has built a career based on our party and the principles that we stand for is ready to jettison that connection in order to stay in office. And I just think that right now we need an entirely different kind of leadership, a principled leadership, and an individual that will keep his word to the voters."

Rubio, meanwhile, downplayed the impact of Crist's potential move.

"I wanted the next U.S. Senator from Florida to be someone that I could trust to go to Washington, stand up to the Obama agenda and offer a clear alternative. Irrespective of what decisions other people make about this race, I still feel like I'm the only candidate in this race who's going to do that," he said. "I want to make sure that all this activity that's going on with regard to the process of politics doesn't distract us from what's gotten to this point and that is our focus on public policy."

Rubio has been endorsed just in the past two weeks by Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani as Crist has appeared more inclined to abandon the GOP primary. Cantor joins other members of the GOP leadership who've backed Rubio -- Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-IN) and Study Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA).

GOP Loaded With Self-Funding Candidates

Some of the top Republican House candidates in the country have self-funded large portions of their campaign coffers, a plus for a party aiming to win back Congress this year.

One-third of the 39 candidates that have reached the second tier of the National Republican Congressional Committee's three-step campaign organization program have given or loaned their campaigns significant amounts of money, recent Federal Election Commission filings show.

If Democrats hold on to their three remaining vacant seats in special elections this year, the GOP will need to pick up 40 seats to win back the House. Even with the national political landscape favoring them, GOP challengers need cash to keep up with incumbents that have been raising money for more than a year.

The NRCC had just $6 million in the bank at the end of February, so candidates able to raise vast amounts of money -- including from their own personal bank accounts -- are attractive. The committee's Democratic counterpart has more than three times as much on hand.

The candidate who's loaned his campaign the most so far is Tom Ganley, who's challenging second-term Rep. Betty Sutton in Ohio's 13th District. Despite raising just $16,000, Ganley has shelled out $2 million of his own money and has nearly 10 times as much cash on hand as the incumbent.

Another top self-funder is Randy Altschuler, who's loaned his campaign more than half of the $2 million he's brought in. He's running against fourth-term Rep. Tim Bishop in New York's 1st District on Long Island.

The other 11 Republicans who've reached the NRCC's "Contender" status and are partially self-funding their campaigns include (candidate, district, amount loaned and/or contributed to campaign):

• Scott Rigell, VA-2, $599,000
• Bill Flores, TX-17, $493,000
• Nan Hayworth, NY-19, $400,000
• Brian Rooney, MI-7, $240,000
• David McKinley, WV-1, $200,000
• Tom Reed, NY-29, $135,000
• Jim Renacci, OH-16, $122,000
• Frank Guinta, NH-1, $120,000
• Rick Berg, ND-AL, $110,000
• Keith Fimian, VA-11, $105,000
• Larry Bucshon, IN-8, $65,000

None of the 10 Republican challengers who've reached the top "Young Gun" status have given more than $25,000 to their campaigns. But all have raised enough to be on solid financial ground anyway.

Several of the more than 60 Republicans who've just entered the program are self-funders as well, including at least two candidates in each of these districts: New York-23 (which a Democrat won in a special election last year), Pennsylvania-3 (which a Democrat won in 2008) and California-11 (which a Democrat first won in 2006).

Both parties selected candidates who could self-fund for last year's special election in New York's 20th District. Democrat Scott Murphy and Republican Jim Tedisco both loaned their campaigns at least $200,000 for the three month-long campaign, with Murphy finishing on top by 726 votes.

The strategy is being utilized again in next month's special election in Pennsylvania's 12th District, where GOP nominee Tim Burns has loaned his campaign $225,000.

Slipping In Polls, Boxer Gets A Presidential Boost

Much remains on his agenda, but President Obama is now en route to California for a two-day political trip benefiting one of the Democratic caucus' potentially vulnerable incumbents, Barbara Boxer.

Recent polling shows Boxer's potential Republican opponents pulling closer and closer. More importantly perhaps is the fact that the three-term incumbent now consistently polls in the low-to-mid 40s, an ominous sign for anyone seeking re-election, especially a Democrat in this headwind. RCP recently shifted the California Senate race into the "Toss Up" category.

But national Democrats say they remain bullish about Boxer's chances, owing to the strength of her campaign in the early going. Boxer has $8.7 million dollars on hand as of the end of the first quarter of 2010, having brought in $2.4 million from January through March. That's far more than any of the Republicans, who must still battle each other for nearly two more months.

As for her polling weaknesses, a Democratic campaign official said simply, "It is not a good time to be apart of Washington. It is very much an anti-Washington time," pointing to the Republicans who also face challenges - many within their own party. In addition to her own aggressive campaign, Democrats point to the weakness of the GOP field as reason for their optimism.

Boxer herself jabbed at all three candidates - Carly Fiorina, Tom Campbell and Chuck DeVore - in a speech this weekend at the state party convention.

"One of my opponents was Arnold Schwarzenegger's top economic advisor during the state budget crisis. Need I say more? Another had a well-executed jobs plan for India, China and Europe, outsourcing California jobs there. Another is a state legislator who did nothing to solve the state budget mess, and thinks doing nothing is a plan," she said.

But she also acknowledge the enthusiasm of Republicans and tea party activists that may be a factor this fall, telling reporters before her speech that "it is absolutely a fact that we have to match that enthusiasm"

Even Boxer's fundraising may prove insufficient this November given how expensive races are in the state. But Democrats will be boosted by spending for the entire ticket with a top-tier gubernatorial race on the ballot as well.

Obama and the White House has shown its willingness to support its incumbents early in the cycle. The president has already raised money for Sens. Arlen Specter, Michael Bennet, Harry Reid, and Chris Dodd, though the latter of course ultimately gave up his race. Today's events also benefit the DNC, which has committed to spending tens of millions on this November's elections.

Republicans are making hay of the presidential visit and the star-studded fundraisers, coming as the state and the nation still face severe economic challenges.

"Barbara Boxer and President Obama's decision to hobnob with celebrities at a lavish private fundraiser in Hollywood instead of addressing the real concerns of voters who are struggling with record unemployment simply demonstrates how out of touch they are with average Californians," said NRSC spokeswoman Amber Marchand. "This November, there is no doubt that voters will hold Barbara Boxer accountable for her out-of-touch partisan record in Washington when they cast their ballots on Election Day."

The president has no official business in California. Thus the DNC and the Boxer campaign will reimburse the government for the expenses of the Obama visit.

The Week Ahead: Will D.C. Get Voting Rights?

It's a good time to be a Washingtonian. We have the never-dull, first place Capitals in the NHL playoffs, the Nationals are .500 (!) 12 games into the season, and the Redskins have the 4th pick in Thursday's NFL Draft. In what will certainly be a great week of sports in D.C., here's what we'll be watching for in politics:

The White House: President Obama has meeting at the White House today before heading west to California for three, count 'em, three fundraisers to benefit the DNC and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D). Boxer is among the more vulnerable incumbents on the ballot this November, with the RCP Averages against potential GOP opponents finding her ahead by 1 to 6 points. The funds to benefit the DNC will also point to a commitment made to spend tens of millions this fall supporting Democrats.

Obama returns to Washington Tuesday night. Wednesday he'll host a bipartisan group of senators including the leadership and the top members of the Judiciary Committee to discuss the Supreme Court vacancy. The focus seems to remain squarely on Elena Kagan, currently the Solicitor General. On Wednesday the president also honors Olympic and Paralympic athletes who competed in Vancouver. Thursday, Obama will travel to New York City to speak about financial reform.

On Friday he and the first lady head for a weekend getaway in Asheville, North Carolina.

Capitol Hill: This is the week many in Washington, D.C. proper have been waiting for. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) are leading the charge this week for the House to pass a law giving the District a full voting member. Republicans in the Senate added a gun-control poison pill in the upper chamber's successful bill last year, pulling the process to a halt. But Norton now says she's ready to overlook the controversial add-on (which restricts the city's ability to pass gun control laws), and the House is expected to vote as early as Wednesday.

With financial regulatory reform atop the Senate legislative agenda, it begins the week debating and voting on the nomination of Lael Brainard as Under Secretary of Treasury. Others awaiting a Senate vote this week include Marisa J. Demeo for D.C. Superior Court, Christopher H. Schroeder for Assistant Attorney General, Thomas I. Vanaskie for 3rd Circuit Judge and Denny Chin for 2nd Circuit Judge.

Politics: There are no filing deadlines on tap this week. We're still two weeks away from the start of a long stretch of primaries, with the first coming May 4 in Indiana, North Carolina and Ohio. Mitt Romney stops by a Tampa conference center this morning to formally endorse Marco Rubio for Senate. Rubio's been running for more than a year, but it now seems a foregone conclusion that Gov. Charlie Crist (R) will drop out of the primary.

On Friday, we get a showdown in one of the biggest looming primaries as Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) debates challenger Bill Halter (D) and a third candidate, businessman D.C. Morrison at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Don't overlook the fact that Arkansas is one of the states that requires a candidate to reach 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. It's possible, based on recent polling, that neither Halter nor Lincoln could get to 50 and thus extend the fight to June 8.

Also on Friday, Vice President Joe Biden will head to southwest Pennsylvania to campaign with and raise money for Mark Critz, the Democratic candidate in a May 18 special election to replace the late John Murtha (D). Biden's visit, long in the works, signals national Democrats' engagement in the race, expected to be much more competitive than last week's Florida 19 special election. Democrats still have not lost a special election for the U.S. House since President Obama took office, and have not lost a Democratic-held seat in a special election since 2001.

**Sunday Show Highlights at RCP Video.

**Poll Watch:
Obama Job Performance: Approve 48.1 / Disapprove 47.1 (+1.0)
Congress Job Performance: Approve 22.8 / Disapprove 71.2 (-48.4)
Generic Ballot Test: Republicans +3.2

**In Case You Missed It: The Washington Post has long advocated for Washington, D.C., to receive a full voting member in the U.S. House of Representatives, but the paper argued against passage of the bill yesterday in an editorial. The editorial board also used the opportunity to take a shot at the Republican lawmaker who included the gun amendment as a poison pill.

The Post wrote that the bill would "remove the District's ban on military-style weapons, repeal the city's firearm registration system, allow teenagers to possess semiautomatic assault rifles and undermine federal anti-gun trafficking laws. In a final insult, it would prohibit local officials from passing any law that could 'discourage' gun possession. This is not -- as its disgraced and morally craven author, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), claims -- about restoring Second Amendment rights to the District."

--Mike Memoli and Kyle Trygstad

Week In Midterms: Winning The Money War

The quarterly reporting period dominates the headlines this week in midterm races. Our regularly-updated chart has the latest figures.


* Arkansas: R2K/Daily Kos: Primary & General; Benenson -- Primary (for Lincoln): Lincoln (D) +18; Zata3 (D) -- Primary: Lincoln (D) +7
* California: Rasmussen: Various matchups
* Connecticut: Rasmussen: Blumenthal (D) +14 vs. Simmons, +20 vs. McMahon
* Florida: Quinnipiac: Primary & General matchups, 3-way hypothetical; Rasmussen -- R Primary: Rubio +29
* Kentucky: SurveyUSA -- Primaries: Paul (R) +15, Mongiardo (D) +3
* Louisiana: Rasmussen: Vitter (R) +16
* Nevada: LVRJ/Mason Dixon -- Full ballot test: Lowden (R) +10; LVRJ/Mason Dixon -- Partial ballot test: Lowden (R) +8; Tarkanian/Reid tied
*North Carolina: PPP (D) -- General: Various Matchups; PPP (D) -- Primary: Marshall (D) +6
* New York: Quinnipiac: Primary & general matchups
* Pennsylvania: Susquehannah: Toomey (R) +10 vs. Specter; Muhlenberg: Toomey (R) +7 vs. Specter, + 11 vs. Sestak; Rasmussen -- General: Toomey (R) +10 vs. Specter, +11 vs. Sestak; Rasmussen -- D Primary: Specter +2
* Utah: Rasmussen -- Primary: Bennett (R) +23

FLORIDA: The hottest topic in campaign politics is whether Gov. Charlie Crist drops out of the Republican primary to run as an independent. Down 23 points in the polls, the tipping point came this week when Crist vetoed a GOP-backed education bill. NBC News reported most of the chatter within his campaign is centered on an indie bid or pulling out altogether to run against Sen. Bill Nelson (D) in 2012. Oh, and Rubio raised $3.6 million in the 1stQ, more than any other Senate candidate in the country.

GEORGIA: Democrats appear to have scored a legitimate challenger to Sen. Johnny Isakson in the form of state Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports: "We're told that the courting of Thurmond by Democrats in Washington stepped up with Isakson's recent back-to-back hospitalizations."

KENTUCKY: While the Republicans continue to have one of the nastier primaries in the country, they're fundraising is far outpacing the two Democrats in the race. Attorney General Jack Conway (D) raised just $215k, while Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo (D) raised $312,000. Rand Paul (R), who was just endorsed by outgoing Sen. Jim Bunning, brought in $614k, and Secretary of State Trey Grayson raised $734,000.

NEVADA: Sen. Harry Reid got what he asked for: Mason-Dixon did a full ballot test (including "None of these," which Nevada ballots include) and found him garnering just 37% and trailing Sue Lowden (R) by 10 points.

WISCONSIN: Former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) announced Thursday he would not challenge Sen. Russ Feingold, despite leading him in recent polls. Thompson's announcement makes the state a less likely GOP pickup and came on the heels of former New York Gov. George Pataki (R) making it official that he would indeed not challenge Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.


* Colorado: Rasmussen: McInnis (R) +6
* New Hampshire: Rasmussen: Various matchups
* Nevada: LVRJ/Mason Dixon: Primary & General matchups
* New York: Quinnipiac: Primary & general matchups
* Pennsylvania: Susquehannah -- D Primary: Onorato +19; Muhlenberg: Various matchups

CALIFORNIA: Jerry Brown returns to the spotlight this weekend, with an anticipated speech at the California Democratic Party convention. Republicans Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman continue to duel on the airwaves. An interesting tactic by the Whitman campaign -- releasing video footage of its events to local TV affiliates for on-air use.

FLORIDA: Bill McCollum unveiled his economic platform on Tax Day, which included a cut in the state corporate tax rate. Meanwhile, he got a major challenge on his hands in the Republican primary, from anti-health care advocate Rick Scott. The fallout of Crist's SB6 veto played out in the race. Adam Smith of the St. Pete Times weighs in on the FL GOP scandal's impact on McCollum.

MARYLAND: RCP interviewed former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R), talking about his race against Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), RNC chair Michael Steele, and his possible next running mate. Ehrlich says he'd join the nationwide health care lawsuit.

MASSACHUSETTS: Gov. Deval Patrick (D) kicked off his re-election campaign last weekend. This speech sounds curiously like it could be an Obama re-election speech. Republican candidate Charlie Baker was a no-show at the Sarah Palin/tea party event in Boston.

NEW HAMPSHIRE: Gov. John Lynch (D) made it official: he'll seek an unprecedented fourth term. This as a conservative anti-gay marriage group attacks his record in a TV ad. Democrats want to get the ad off the air.

NEW YORK: The New York Times looks behind the curtain at Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's (D) quiet press campaign. Republicans gather this weekend to hear from Steve Levy and Rick Lazio. The Post measures up the GOP candidates.

THE REST: Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe (D) posted strong fundraising numbers. Illinois Republican nominee Bill Brady didn't release his tax returns. Neither would Colorado's Scott McInnis (R). DGA chair Markell makes hay of RGA chair Barbour's comments on slavery. Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) reveled in the tea party. Artur Davis (D) rebuffs the support of black groups in Alabama.

Cook Political Report:
* FL-02 from Likely D to Lean D
* FL-25 from Solid R to Likely R
* NJ-12 from Solid D to Likely D
* OH-02 from Likely R to Solid R
* PA-06 from Lean R to Likely R
* SC-01 from Likely R to Solid R
* SC-02 from Likely R to Solid R
* TX-23 from Likely D to Lean D
* HI Gov from Toss Up to Lean D

Rothenberg Political Report:
* Moved in favor of GOP: AR-02, AZ-05, AZ-08, CA-44, CO-04, DE-AL, FL-22, FL-24, HI-01, IA-03, IL-11, IL-14, IN-02, IN-08, MA-10, MD-01, MN-03, MN-06, NY-24, NV-03, NJ-03, NM-01, NM-02, NY-29, ND-AL, OH-01, OH-02, OH-13, OH-15, OH-16, OH-18, PA-03, PA-04, PA-06, PA-08, PA-10, PA-11, PA-12, SC-05, TN-06, VA-02, VA-09, WI-07, WV-01
* Moved in favor of Dems: CA-47, FL-25, GA-08, NY-23.

Senate: GOP +8
Governor: GOP +4
House Map

--Mike Memoli and Kyle Trygstad

Vulnerable Freshman Dems On Strong Financial Footing

As Americans rushed to mail their federal tax returns by midnight last night, first quarter fundraising reports were also due. The preliminary returns show that the freshman House Democrats widely considered the most vulnerable this year are so far on rather solid political footing, at least financially.

Freshmen were urged almost immediately following their election victories in November 2008 to begin raising money for what historically has been a difficult midterm cycle for the incumbent party after winning the White House.

These are not the only vulnerable Democratic seats, of course, as more than a dozen incumbents are not seeking re-election and several second-term Dems who helped take back Congress in 2006 are again in for challenging re-elections. There are also several more freshmen whose political fates could become increasingly perilous as the year continues on.

In separate columns this morning, political handicappers Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg predicted Republicans could win 30 seats, if not more. RCP's Sean Trende argued this week that if a perfect storm hits in November, Democratic lossess could escalate into 70 to 80 seat range -- something not seen in 80 years.

Democrats are hopeful that aggressive fundraising efforts - in conjuction with a recovering economy - will help mitigate losses in November.

In Colorado's 4th District, Rep. Betsy Markey raised twice as much as Republican Cory Gardner ($500k - $257k), and is currently sitting on $1.25 million in the bank. Virginia Rep. Tom Perriello raised an impressive $600k in the first quarter, leaving him with $1.4 million in the bank. That's about $1 million more than his closest Republican opponent.

Rep. Alan Grayson has sure made a name for himself in his relatively short time in Congress. The wealthy attorney has also proved his fundraising chops after bringing in more than $800k for the second straight quarter and ending March with more than $1.5 million on hand. His leading opponent, Bill O'Donoghue, raised $305k leaving him with $309k.

Across Orlando in the 24th District, Rep. Suzanne Kosmas is one of more than 40 Democrats representing a district that voted for John McCain. After raising $263k in the first quarter, Kosmas also has a significant cash on hand advantage over her Republican opponents. The most well off Republican, Craig Miller, raised $141k and has $315k on hand.

Nevada Rep. Dina Titus raised $253k and has $902k on hand, while Republican Joe Heck raised nearly $150k and has a little more than $250k in the bank. In New Mexico's 2nd District, former Republican Rep. Steve Pearce is trying to win back his old seat and ended the first quarter with more than $700k on hand. Rep. Harry Teague, who won the open seat in 2008 as Pearce ran for Senate, has $927k on hand after raising $130k.

Two grudge matches in Ohio are proving to be as competitive as expected. First District Rep. Steve Driehaus raised $300k, leaving him with $940k in his second straight race against former Rep. Steve Chabot. Driehaus is out-raising Chabot, but not by much -- Chabot took in $246k and has slightly more than $800k on hand.

Ohio's 15th District features a rematch between Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy and Republican Steve Stivers. Kilroy's fundraising numbers weren't immediately available, but Stivers brought in a $350k haul leaving him with nearly $800k. Kilroy began 2010 with about $700k.

Maryland's 1st District is another rematch to watch. Rep. Frank Kratovil brought in $247k, leaving him with a little more than $1 million. 2008 GOP nominee Andy Harris raised $312k and has more than $700k in the bank.

Virginia Rep. Glenn Nye's 2nd District opponent, Scott Rigell, brought in more than him in the first quarter by a $408k to $363k margin, though more than two-thirds of Rigell's total came out of his own pocket. Still, Nye has $1.1 million in the bank, nearly $500k more than Rigell.

Biden Raises Money For Top Dem Recruit

While President Obama speaks at Cape Canaveral on the future of the country's space program, Vice President Joe Biden is back to serving one of his best roles -- fund-raiser for Democratic candidates.

Biden appeared today with top Democratic recruit John Callahan, the Bethlehem mayor who is challenging Republican Rep. Charlie Dent in Pennsylvania's 15th District. With a large majority in the House, this is one of just a few districts around the country that the party has a decent chance of picking up.

"Not only is John going to win, but you're going to look at his record in Congress and be as proud of him as you have been of him as mayor," said Biden, according to a pool report. He threw in that he'd campaigned with some "real turkeys," but that Callahan is not one of them.

Callahan said a phone call from Biden last summer was what triggered his final decision to run.

The crowd of nearly 300 people at the Blue Grillhouse in Bethlehem paid between $250 and $1,500 to attend the event. It should provide a good start to the second fundraising quarter for Callahan. Both he and Dent finished the first quarter with $825,000 in the bank.

Dent raised $431,000 in the first quarter, while Callahan raised $320,000.

Thompson Is Now Officially Out

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson told a Tea Party rally crowd in Madison that he will not challenge Sen. Russ Feingold, a major blow to Republican hopes of ousting the three-term Democrat. It came down to family considerations, Thompson said.

"My family did not want me to run," he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel moments before taking the stage at the rally.

A Republican source told RealClearPolitics yesterday that Thompson would not run. Thompson later told the AP he had not made up his mind.

Thompson had been leading Feingold in recent polling, while Feingold leads two other Republicans currently running, Terrence Wall and Dave Westlake. With Thompson out, state Commerce Secretary Dick Leinenkugel is reportedly considering a bid.

Obama Drops Into Florida's Political Frenzy

President Obama makes his fourth visit to Florida today, one of only a half dozen states outside the Beltway he's visited that many times since entering the White House. He'll find a Sunshine State again rich with political intrigue, where major developments in the gubernatorial, Senate and Congressional races just this week point to an election cycle as busy as any in recent memory.

Obama's visit - to deliver an address on his space policy and to raise money for the Democratic National Committee - of course points to his own political interest in the state. Not since 1976 had a Democratic presidential nominee won 51 percent of the vote in Florida, as Obama did two years ago. But recent polling shows that his standing has slipped there as in many battlegrounds from 2008, something that could affect the entire Democratic ticket this fall.

Democrats had a voter registration advantage of 660,000 in 2008, after the party added 500,000 voters to its rolls between the 2006 and 2008 elections. Republican registration rose by 130,000. However, after a successful election year that also included picking up two Republican House seats, the party has no apparent edge in this year's midterm elections.

"I think it's lining up to be a pretty Republican year in Florida," said Central Florida University political scientist Aubrey Jewett, co-author of the book Politics in Florida. "Florida-specific polls show Obama's approval rating is about where it is around the country. And the average Floridian isn't happy with the health care bill."

Although Republicans are involved in one of the most heated Senate primaries in the country, both Gov. Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio regularly lead likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Kendrick Meek, in early general election polling.

And yet that Senate race could be at a critical point, with many increasingly convinced Crist will decide to forego the Republican primary he appears unable to win and instead run as an independent. A Quinnipiac survey released this morning found Rubio up 23 points in the primary, while Crist held a small lead as an independent in a three-way general election race.

Crist has until month's end to make that move, but many feel a more immediate decision about whether to sign or veto an education bill backed by most state Republicans will signal his intentions.

In the race for governor, several recent polls found Attorney Gen. Bill McCollum (R) with double-digit leads over state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink (D). Unlike Sink - who's been seen for years as a rising star in the Democratic Party - before his successful run for attorney general four years ago, many believed McCollum's political career was over after 20 years in the House and two failed Senate bids.

But now his momentum appears to be threatened with the sudden entrance of Republican Rick Scott, a wealthy conservative activist who led a movement against national health care legislation.

"While they fight over who is the biggest conservative, Alex Sink will continue to share her vision for the future and her business plan for creating Florida jobs," said Emily DeRose, spokesperson for the Democratic Governors Association.

As the first congressional election since the health care vote in Congress, Democrats are hoping their special election victory Tuesday in the 19th District is a positive omen for the future. They say the senior-heavy district proves that all-important bloc of the electorate is on-board with the new law. Whether true or not, Rep.-elect Ted Deutch (D) had the sizeable advantages of running in a heavily Democratic district and a large fundraising edge over his Republican opponent.

The two Orlando-area Republican seats Democrats picked up in 2008 appear to be the party's most vulnerable this year, though Republicans also have their eyes on Rep. Ron Klein's 22nd District seat.

In the 8th District, Rep. Alan Grayson has made a national name for himself after using fiery language both in the media and on the House floor during the health care debate. It certainly attracted attention, as well as Republican challengers, though a few top GOP recruits opted against running.

One reason could be Grayson's fundraising abilities. He's not only one of the most personally wealthy members of Congress, he's shown the ability to attract dollars from around the country. Grayson raised more than $800,000 in both the last three months of 2009 and the first three of 2010.

Grayson could face businessman Bruce O'Donaghue, state Rep. Kurt Kelly or attorney Todd Long. Jewett notes that this could be one of the most expensive races in the country.

"He probably has been too outspoken and too outrageous for his own good," said Jewett. "But that district has moved Democratic since its creation in 2002."

Rep. Suzanne Kosmas is another freshman incumbent the national GOP is targeting. With the help of former Rep. Tom Feeney's connection to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Kosmas cruised to victory in the 24th District by a 57-41 percent margin.

Among the many Republicans looking to knock Kosmas out this year are State Rep. Sandy Adams, Winter Park City Commissioner Karen Diebel and Craig Miller, the former CEO of the Ruth's Chris restaurant chain. Kosmas is one of many vulnerable Democrats around the country who will face scrutiny over their health care vote. Unlike Grayson's, John McCain won this district with 51 percent.

Florida is ripe with intrigue in other districts as well. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) opted to vacate his 25th District and run in the neighboring 21st, a slightly more Republican seat where his brother Lincoln is retiring. 2008 nominee Joe Garcia is back to run for the open seat after losing to Mario Diaz-Balart by just 6 points.

-- Kyle Trygstad and Mike Memoli

Thune, With No Major Challenge, Raises $1 Million In 1st Q

Sen. John Thune (R) reports raising more than $1 million in the first three months of 2010, boosting his warchest to over $6.5 million as he runs for a second term in South Dakota.

Thune's fundraising takes on an added significance given that Democrats failed to field a single candidate for the office. There is a June 8 deadline for other independent candidates to file, and his campaign talks of the potential for a liberal netroots-fueled challenger. But realistically, Thune boasts an impressive warchest with little reason to spend much of it on his own race, which can only further fuel talk of a 2012 run.

Thune steadfastly refuses to talk about 2012, saying he's focused only on 2010. To that point, he was notably absent from last weekend's Southern Republican Leadership Conference, choosing instead to stay home for party-building activities like county GOP dinners. As chair of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, he's also beefing up his issue portfolio, with a particular focus on fiscal issues.

But his warchest gives him some options in setting the stage for a national campaign. Thune, who first took his Senate seat by knocking out the sitting Senate Minority Leader, will now be active in Republican efforts to retake a Senate majority. Indeed, an adviser says he plans to be active in the coming year supporting other Republican candidates across the country, specifically mentioning the campaign of John Hoeven in North Dakota.

Thune would also be expected to help the party in his home state. South Dakota features a potential GOP pickup opportunity in the at-large Congressional race, with Democrat Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin facing her first major threat in years. The state's governorship is open, with any of the three major Republicans candidates would also benefit from Thune's generosity.

Thune's Heartland Values PAC has already been active, endorsing and contributing to candidates including Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Jim DeMint in South Carolina and Chuck Grassley in Iowa. He will likely be an active campaigner regardless of whether he contributes broadly, and he can be a fundraising draw for these campaigns without opening his own wallet, while at the same time testing the waters in critical early primary states.

In 2006, Hillary Clinton spent heavily on her re-election race, hoping to demonstrate strength heading into a 2008 White House run. Without opposition, Thune likely can't justify the same kind of spending binge on his own race. But his ultimate strength as 2012 darkhorse is that he can plant the seeds for a 2012 run with some cleverly-targeted spending in his own back yard.

The Sioux Falls television market in South Dakota covers most of the eastern swath of the state. But it also extends into two counties in Iowa, which borders Thune's home state to the southeast. South Dakota's Union County is also part of the Sioux City, Iowa, coverage area, a market that covers the heavily Republican northwest portion of the state (McCain won a whopping 80 percent of the vote in Sioux County). Combined, these 15 counties accounted for more than 10 percent of the Iowa caucus votes cast in 2008.

WI Sen: Thompson Won't Challenge Feingold

A Republican source has told RealClearPolitics that former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson will not challenge Sen. Russ Feingold (D).

A Milwaukee radio station first reported that Thompson is scheduled to announce his plans tomorrow at a Tea Party rally in Madison. While the AP now reports that Thompson hasn't made up his mind, he's still not expected to run.

The news is a major hit for Republicans. According to recent polls, Thompson represented the party's best chance to defeat the three-term senator. Feingold currently leads other potential opponents Terrence Wall and Dave Westlake by more than 10 points in the RCP Average, though that will likely shrink as Feingold has never been elected with more than 55 percent of the vote.

The latest poll, released earlier this month, found Thompson up by 12 points. He leads Feingold by 3.8 points in the RCP Average.

This is the second piece of bad news for Republicans in the last day. Former New York Gov. George Pataki (R) announced yesterday that he will not challenge Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), despite regularly leading her in polling.

The Thompson news is arguably a greater loss, however, since national Republicans never expected Pataki to run. It also makes the path to majority control of the Senate far narrower.

NY Sen: Pataki Won't Challenge Gillibrand

Former New York Gov. George Pataki confirmed today that he will not run for the seat of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is running to keep the seat in Democratic hands after being appointed more than a year ago to the vacant seat.

"When you look at what is happening in Washington, it's just a disaster for our future," Pataki said Tuesday in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

However, instead of running, Pataki said "that he would create a new national organization aimed at building support to repeal the recently enacted health-care overhaul."

We reported here back in February that few Republicans expected Pataki to run, despite the fact that he was the only Republican able to hold a lead against Gillibrand in any poll. Well, except for Rudy Giuliani, who made it known last year that he wouldn't be running either.

Pataki led Gillibrand by 5 points in a Quinnipiac poll released on Tuesday, and led Gillibrand by 2.8 points in the RCP Average.

Pataki's official exit from contention leaves a gaping hole in what many Republicans feel -- in the wake of Sen. Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts -- could be a potential pick-up opportunity.

Kirk Outraises Giannoulias By $1M In 1stQ

Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk (R) raised $2.2 million in the first quarter of 2010, $1 million more than his Democratic Senate opponent, state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.

Kirk reports raising a total of $6.6 million to date, with $3 million remaining in the bank. His cash-on-hand total gives the five-term congressman a financial advantage heading into the final seven months of the campaign.

Giannoulias announced $1.2 million in his campaign account as of the end of March. In releasing his fundraising total, Giannoulias took a shot at the Kirk campaign's donors.

"Congressman Mark Kirk has taken millions from corporate special interests and federal lobbyists" he said in a press release. "I am proud of our campaign's historic pledge not to take money from these corporate special interests."

Kirk took a shot of his own, saying the state is ready to move on from several embarrassing situations regarding Democratic lawmakers -- hinting that Giannoulias would be more of the same.

"After Rod Blagojevich and Roland Burris, Illinois voters are looking for clean government and they will have a clear choice in the coming election," he said.

In other Senate fundraising news:
**New Hampshire Rep. Paul Hodes announced raising $665,000 in the first quarter, with $1.66 million on hand. Two Republican businessmen, Bill Binnie and Jim Bender, previously announced raising $400,000 and $100,000 respectively, though their FEC reports will show higher amounts as both partially self-fund their campaigns.

**California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina (R) announced raising $1.7 million in the first quarter, with $2.8 million on hand. Since the start of her campaign, Fiorina has raised $2.78 million and loaned her campaign $2.5 million. Her primary opponent, former Rep. Tom Campbell, raised $1.6 million. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) announced raising $2.4 million in the first quarter, with $8.7 million on hand.

**Ohio Senate candidate Rob Portman (R) raised $2.35 million in the first quarter and $7.6 million on hand. Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D) and Sec. of State Jennifer Brunner (D) have yet to announce their totals.

**Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (D) announced raising $1.34 million in the first quarter and has nearly $4.3 million on hand. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) is considering running against Feingold, with polls showing the race would be competitive.

Dem Favored In First Election Since Health Care Vote

If it's Tuesday, someone somewhere is voting. Well, today that's in South Florida for a special election to replace a retired Democratic congressman and in Waco, Texas, where two Republicans are battling in a primary runoff for the nomination and chance to take on a potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbent.

Here's a look inside the two races:

Florida 19th Congressional District Special Election

Republican Ed Lynch hopes to win the first congressional election since the health care reform bill was signed into law last month. However, despite the bill's unpopularity nationwide, few expect a majority of Florida's 19th Congressional District voters to be swayed by his special election campaign that's centered on repealing the new health care reform law.

Lynch is running against Democrat Ted Deutch, who represents Palm Beach County in the state Senate and is heavily favored to retain the seat left vacant by the retirement of Democrat Robert Wexler. Through March 24, Deutch had spent nearly $1.2 million, more than 14 times as much as Lynch's $83,000.

This is not Lynch's first go at the district. Wexler defeated him in November 2008 by a 66 percent to 27 percent margin.

This Palm Beach- and Broward County-based district also gave President Obama a 66 percent win. It has one of the highest percentages of Jewish voters and ranks second in the number of Social Security recipients, according to the Almanac of American Politics.

The district gave John Kerry an identical percentage, while Al Gore and Joe Lieberman scored 73 percent of the vote in 2000.

Obama did better here than in Massachusetts, the bluest of blue states that surprisingly voted Republican Scott Brown into the late Edward Kennedy's Senate seat in January. That win galvanized Republicans nationwide, but the national GOP has lower expectations here.

Telling for how competitive both national parties think this district is: Neither the National Republican Congressional Committee or its Democratic counterpart spent much if any money here.

Texas Primary Runoff Elections

At one point in time, we expected a runoff election in the gubernatorial primary between Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry. Instead, Perry won just over 50 percent in the initial March 2 vote, and the general election contest with former Houston Mayor Bill White (D) is already engaged. The only statewide runoff is a state Supreme Court race on the Republican side.

Downballot, there are Congressional nominations still up for grabs in seven of the state's 32 districts, all but one of them on the Republican side. Foremost among them is the Republican runoff in the 17th Congressional District, a seat now held by Rep. Chet Edwards (D). Businessman Bill Flores (R), recruited by the NRCC, led the initial vote with 34 percent. He faces runner-up Rob Curnock, the 2008 GOP nominee, who got 28 percent of the vote last month.

The major issue to emerge in the contest has been about Flores' voting record. A radio ad from the Curnock campaign tells voters that Flores, who only recently moved to the district, voted in the 2008 Democratic primary but not in the general election. Flores had claimed during a debate that he voted for Curnock in the 2008 general election, but later clarified that he didn't make it to the polls. Flores is closing with an ad featuring former Sen. Phil Gramm (R), which focuses on the general election fight against Edwards.

Serving his 10th term, Edwards is among the most vulnerable Democrats, representing a district that the Cook Political Report ranks as the 19th most Republican in the country. McCain won the district with 67 percent of the vote in 2008. The Cook Report currently ranks the race as lean Democrat. "In a year when all Democrats will be on the defensive and trying to separate themselves from the Democrat leadership, Edwards will have a tough time in the general election when he will be forced to defend his support for a toxic Democrat agenda that he supports 98 percent of the time," an NRCC memo claims.

There are also runoffs for Republicans in Texas 15 (held by Ruben Hinojosa), Texas 20 (Charlie Gonzalez), Texas 23 (Ciro Rodriguez), Texas 27 (Solomon Ortiz) and Texas 30 (Eddie Bernice Johnson). The only primary for Democrats is in Texas 14, where the winner will face Republican Ron Paul. All but one of those seats ranked as solid hold for the incumbent party by the Cook Report, with Texas 23 listed as likely Democratic.

Not surprisingly, turnout is expected to be very low. A spokesman for the Secretary of State's office told the Associated Press that early voting has been light.

CA Sen: Boxer Raises $2.4M In 1stQ

California Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) raised $2.4 million in the first three months of 2010 and boosted her cash-on-hand to $8.7 million, her campaign announced this morning.

Without a competitive primary race, Boxer has been able to mostly hole away her dough, saving $1.5 million of her first quarter fundraising. Meanwhile three Republicans -- former Rep. Tom Campbell, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, and State Assemblyman Chuck DeVore -- battle it out for the chance to take her on.

Campbell announced last week a $1.6 million first quarter haul. He's so far the only Republican to release fundraising numbers, which are due to the Federal Election Commission on Thursday.

Boxer is running for her fourth term in office, and at this point holds small leads over all three Republicans in the RCP polling averages. She also led a generic Republican 48%-34% in a USC/L.A. Times poll last week.

The Week Ahead: A Boston Tea Party

After a bit of a lull, the world of politics heats up in a big way this week. Congress is back in session, voters head to the polls in Texas and Florida, and the tea party movement is set for a big rally in Boston on Tax Day this Thursday. Here's a look at this week in politics.

The White House: President Obama continues his administration's extended focus on nuclear security issues with a major summit here in Washington today and Tuesday. Participating are several dozen heads of state -- though not Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu. Nuclear security is one of the few issues associated with Obama during his time in the Senate, and his partnership with Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) is something the White House hopes will help pave the way for ratification of a new START Treaty.

On Wednesday, Obama revisits a promise made in the State of the Union address to hold a bipartisan meeting with Congressional leadership. It's only the second such meeting -- the other held days after he made the promise in February's speech. On Thursday, Obama heads to Cape Canaveral, Florida, for a speech on his administration's space policy. His budget plan significantly scaled back NASA's budget, killing the Constellation program and thus hitting a key industry in the politically vital Sunshine State. He's also raising money for the DNC in South Florida that night.

Left off the schedule but no doubt a focus: consideration of a new Supreme Court pick. Obama chose Sonia Sotomayor just over three weeks after Justice Souter announced his resignation in 2009. It's expected that the White House may be able to move on a selection sooner this time, considering most names on the 2009 short list are still considered viable and won't need much new vetting.

Capitol Hill: After two weeks of recess, the Senate returns to work today with a vote on the Continuing Extention Act while the House starts tomorrow with 20 suspension bills and the Clean Estuaries Act on the docket for the week. It wasn't a great two weeks off for House Democrats, as health care polling failed to improve and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who led the compromise on the bill that enabled its passage, announced his retirement. With Spring Break now in the rear view mirror, Senate Democrats have a full plate ahead of them: Wall Street reform and confirming Obama's Supreme Court nominee.

Politics: For the first time in more than a month, we have some Congressional elections on the schedule this Tuesday. Voters in Texas go to the polls to vote in primary runoffs, with the Republican race in Texas-17 one of the few that folks in Washington will be eyeing. In Florida's 19th Congressional District, voters will finally select a replacement for Rep. Robert Wexler (D). State Sen. Ted Deutch (D) is a favorite in the heavily-Democratic district, which President Obama carried by 32 points in 2008. Democrats have not lost a single special election for the House in the 2009-10 cycle.

This week there's also a filing deadline in New Jersey. The only elections this fall are for the House, and Republicans are looking to reclaim the 3rd District seat now held by Rep. John Adler (D). Among the candidates: Jon Runyan, former Eagles offensive tackle. Democrats hope to put up a fight in the 7th District, held by freshman Leonard Lance (R). But the environment looks to make this competitive seat -- won by Obama in 2008 -- safer for the GOP.

A date not to overlook this week comes Thursday -- tax day. Last year this marked one of the first major public demonstrations for the tea party movement. Rallies are again on tap around the occasion, including an event in Boston the day before featuring Sarah Palin with the Tea Party Express.

**Poll Watch:
Obama Job Performance: Approve 46.1 / Disapprove 47.3 (-1.2)
Congress Job Performance: Approve 19.0 / Disapprove 75.5 (-56.5)
Generic Ballot Test: Republicans +2.3

**In Case You Missed It: Kyle was at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans this weekend. The big headline was the straw poll, won by a single vote by Mitt Romney over Ron Paul -- winner of the CPAC straw poll in February. Don't miss the rest of Kyle's coverage of some of the big speeches -- including Palin's, Gingrich's and Liz Cheney's -- as well as talk of unity in 2010, some GOP darkhorses, and GOP sentiment on health care reform.

** Sports Alert: A banner week in Washington sports, too. The Caps start the NHL playoffs Thursday against the Canadiens as arguably the favorite to win the Stanley Cup. And the Nats finished the first week of the regular season with a .500 record -- the first time at sea level since early in the '08 season. More importantly, Stephen Strasburg pitched a helluva game in his first minor league outing for the Nats' Double-A team.

--Mike Memoli and Kyle Trygstad

Palin Is Back -- On "SNL"

Tina Fey reprised her performance as the former Alaska governor on last night's "Saturday Night Live." In the sketch, she unveils the lineup of her new TV network.

SRLC: Romney Wins Straw Poll

NEW ORLEANS -- Mitt Romney won the Southern Republican Leadership Conference straw poll today with 24% of the vote -- garnering 1 more vote than Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich tied for third with 18%.

There were a total of 1,806 votes cast. Romney received 439 votes, Paul 438.

The poll, meant to take the pulse of Southern GOP activists, has little meaning, but Romney -- who did not even attend the event -- will surely use it to tout his credentials. He was even able to defeat Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February and pushed his supporters to attend this event.

Romney, as David Weigel reported, received some help from Nancy French's Evangelicals for Mitt, who offered "around 200 tickets for free, for anyone who wants to come and support Mitt Romney."

Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist won the straw poll at the 2006 SRLC in Memphis, where he bused supporters in to boost his vote total. However, Frist did not end up running for president. John McCain, the frontrunner at the time, threw off the credibility of the results that year by encouraging his supporters to vote for George W. Bush.

This year's straw poll ballot did not offer a line to write-in a candidate not listed. The candidates on the ballot included: Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Gary Johnson, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, Mike Pence, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.

Not on the ballot were Haley Barbour, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal and John Thune.

2010 SRLC Straw Poll Results
Romney 24 (439 votes)
Paul 24 (438)
Palin 18 (330)
Gingrich 18 (321)
Huckabee 4
Pawlenty 3
Pence 3
Santorum 2
Johnson 1

*1,806 votes cast

SRLC: Republicans Seek Unity For 2010

NEW ORLEANS -- One of the biggest threads of the 2010 midterm elections has been whether Republicans will stay unified enough to win back one or both chambers of Congress. That storyline reared its head today on Day Three of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.

The split between the national party and conservatives around the country blew up a year ago when Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was endorsed minutes after announcing his Senate candidacy, despite the presence of a conservative primary opponent named Marco Rubio.

The recent flurry of criticism for Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and his handling of the committee's spending has not helped matters either. Steele will speak later today, and -- if the questions former Sen. Rick Santorum got during the Q-and-A session he held following his speech are any indication -- Steele is going to have a mixed reception.

Despite the name, some conference-goers said they don't consider themselves Republicans and would be happy to support a candidate of any party -- as long as they have similar principles and beliefs.

A couple of these people spoke up during the Q-and-A session with Santorum. The first audience member to speak asked Santorum why he and former President George W. Bush endorsed Sen. Arlen Specter, then a Republican, over conservative Rep. Pat Toomey in the 2004 Pennsylvania Senate primary.

"So many of us want to give money to the RNC but we won't anymore because we want to pick and choose our candidates -- because the RNC would choose Specter over Toomey," she said.

Well, Toomey's running again, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee endorsed Specter a year ago before he switched parties. It also withheld an endorsement of Toomey until former Gov. Tom Ridge decided not to run.

Santorum defended the decision, saying he based it on the fact that two Supreme Court seats were about to open up and -- with a small majority in the Senate -- he wanted to ensure Bush's nominees were approved. What he didn't say was that as the NRSC decided in 2009, in 2004 Specter's politics appeared to be a better fit for the state.

In the wake of the 2008 elections, that's why the NRSC backed Crist over the more conservative Rubio. It's a decision NRSC Chairman John Cornyn regrets, but the principle is one both parties will continue to follow. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour even emphasized it in his speech today and said the party needs to be open to candidates all along the Republican end of the political spectrum.

Barbour, who now chairs the Republican Governors Association and led the RNC in 1994, also stressed that unity is critical to the party's chances in November.

"This message of unity is so important and we cannot let ourselves be torn apart of the idea of purity," said Barbour. "In a two-party system, both parties are necessary coalitions, and we want our coalition to drive our policies."

"How do we in in 2010?" Barbour added. "We stick together."

Santorum urged Tea Party members to run against Republicans in primaries, and Barbour maintained that whoever wins the primaries "will be our candidate." That's part of the outreach to the Tea Party that has laced most of the major speeches over the last three days.

"The Democrats' fondest hope is to see the Tea Party or other conservatives split off and start a third party," said Barbour. "Barack Obama is...praying for the conservative vote to be split in 2010. We can't let that happen. We've got to stay unified."

Three Republicans To Watch In 2012

NEW ORLEANS -- Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty all skipped this year's Southern Republican Leadership Conference. They once stood alone as the three frontrunners for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, but two others stepped up this week and solidified their spots at least alongside them at the top of the ladder.

Rick Perry, still relatively unknown nationally for someone who governed Texas for the last 10 years, and Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, delivered presidential candidate-esque speeches on the first two days of the conference. With delegates from 14 southern states on hand, their appearances could help lay a foundation for a national bid -- if they do indeed decide to run.

Before either spoke, one high ranking Republican official brought up both names to RealClearPolitics as two of the three Republicans, along with Mitt Romney, with the best chance of defeating President Obama.

Gingrich, known around the country for nearly two decades, openly addressed the subject, saying he would decide whether to run for president by next February. He offered his usual command of the issues and history, and displayed his ability to be both wonky and energetic.

Words don't do justice for Perry, whose arm movements and speaking style make lines from his speeches far more dramatic than they seem on paper. He's currently running for re-election, but is clearly attempting to build a national following.

Perry interrupted his speech to direct the audience to text "FIRED UP" to his text messaging service, a tactic the Obama campaign successfully utilized in 2008.

He also offered a campaign slogan for those running for Congress this year, but sounds like something he could say in two years as well: "I'm going to go to Washington D.C. and make it as inconsequential in your life as I can."

The third Republican to watch isn't someone likely to run for president in 2012, but she could become a fast-rising player in Congress. With a calm speaking style, Liz Cheney, daughter of the former vice president, delivered a biting, even-tempered speech that received perhaps the biggest ovation of the conference so far.

Cheney said last June that she wouldn't run this year but left the door open to a future bid. As a Northern Virginia resident, Cheney could have a couple options: Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (D) is up for re-election in 2012, and if 10th District Rep. Frank Wolf (R) wins re-election this year, he will be on retirement watch after serving 30 years in Congress.

"2010 and 2012 are going to be critical years in the long history of this great republic," Cheney said Thursday night. "We have to stand up and fight."

Republicans will be pushing her to do just that.

SRLC: Health Care The Top Rallying Cry

NEW ORLEANS -- Health care reform is giving GOP leaders a shiny trophy of evidence to prove to its base that party control of Congress must change this year. Speakers here at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference have all criticized the legislation, and if the activist audience's reception is any indication, this will be the No. 1 rallying point in the fall elections.

While the state of the economy could decide many of the congressional elections this year, no issue excites the GOP base like health care.

"One of the most arrogant power plays in American history," Liz Cheney called it.

"The most radical president in American history has now thrown down the gauntlet on the American people," said Newt Gingrich.

"The mother of all unfunded mandates," said Sarah Palin.

"This is no time to be timid," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. "We must repeal this bill."

"We need to stay focused on what really matters," like national security, said Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Recent polls on the subject are wide-ranging, with more people opposing health care reform by between 3 and 21 points. However, none show a plurality supporting it. The RCP Average now shows 40 percent favor it and 52 percent oppose.

Whether it is good policy or not, Republican candidates will run on it and Republican voters will rally around it.

By winning back Congress in November, Jindal said, "we put our country back on the right track so we make sure that we continue to be the greatest country on Earth."

Week In Midterms: Grudge Matches

Former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) is attempting to do what others have failed to in recent gubernatorial races: win a rematch.

Ehrlich announced Wednesday that he'll run for his old job, seeking to avenge his 2006 defeat against then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D). He lost that year despite fairly strong personal approval in the state, a victim some say of the strong anti-Republican tide that year. With the political winds seemingly blowing the opposite way, Republicans think he can be successful. But a look at recent history even in Maryland alone shows he has an uphill climb. In 1998, Ellen Sauerbrey (R) ran against Gov. Parris Glendening (D) after losing a tight race just four years earlier. She lost again.

More recently, Dino Rossi (R) tried to unseat Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) after a 2004 race decided in the Democrat's favor only after several recounts. He lost in a 2008 comeback attempt by a wider margin. In Rhode Island Myrth York (D), like Sauerbrey, lost in 1994 and 1998 against the same foe -- Republican Lincoln Almond. She lost again in 2002 when she ran a third time.

But there is some precedent Ehrlich allies would prefer to point to. And it starts with the ultimate "Comeback Kid" -- Bill Clinton. He was unseated as Arkansas governor by Frank White in 1980, but he ran again two years later and defeated White, taking back a post he would hold for another decade. And another Democrat presidential hopeful -- Michael Dukakis -- successfully avenged a gubernatorial defeat. He lost his 1978 re-election bid in the Democratic primary to Edward King, but defeated King four years later.

Speaking of grudge matches, Rudy Giuliani exacted a measure of revenge against Charlie Crist in Florida this week, as he endorsed the governor's primary rival, Marco Rubio. That and more as RCP looks at This Week in the Midterm Elections.


* California: LA Times/USC - Primary: Campbell +4
* Colorado: Rasmussen: Norton (R) +5 vs. Bennet
* Illinois: Rasmussen: Kirk (R) +4; PPP (D): Kirk (R) +4
* Kentucky: Rasmussen: Various matchups
* Missouri: Rasmussen: Blunt (R) +6
* Nevada: Rasmussen: Various matchups
* Pennsylvania: Quinnipiac - General: Toomey (R) +5 vs. Specter; Quinnipiac - Primary: Specter (D) +21; PPP (D) - General: Toomey (R) +3 vs. Specter
* Washington: Rasmussen, Murray (D) +2 vs. Rossi
* Wisconsin: St. Norbert College - General: Thompson (R) +12 vs. Feingold

FLORIDA: Charlie Crist tried to slam the door shut on rumors he'll run as an independent, saying in a statement: "This should completely and utterly put to rest any of the unfounded rumors coming from the Rubio campaign that Governor Crist would run as anything other than the Republican that he is." Marco Rubio posted a strong fundraising number for the first quarter, raising $3.6 million. He got some help on the campaign trail this week, as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani endorsed him. Remember that Crist reneged on an endorsement of Giuliani in 2008, ultimately siding with John McCain. Kendrick Meek (D) qualified for the ballot via petition.

CALIFORNIA: Carly Fiorina (R) launched her first TV ad, a soft bio spot in which she promises to go to Washington to get something done. No demon sheep this time. McCain, busy with his own race, still found time to head to California on Fiorina's behalf this week. She was one of his top campaign surrogates in 2008. Tom Campbell raised $1.6 million for his camp in the first quarter.

ARKANSAS: Labor is stepping up its role in the primary between Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter (D). The two campaigns continue their air war, with this spot from Lincoln targeting Halter's record in the private sector. Halter attacks Lincoln's vote on TARP in this ad. GOP candidate Gilbert Baker launched his own ad. The Post profiles the race.

ARIZONA: Rep. Jeff Flake (R) stars in a radio ad for Sen. John McCain's (R) re-election bid. He attacks primary challenger J.D. Hayworth on the issue of earmarks by saying, "Arizonans need a senator who has never wavered when it comes to pork-barrel spending." Is McCain a maverick? The Chamber of Commerce backs the incumbent.

NEVADA: Harry Reid (D) kicked off his re-election campaign with an event in Searchlight to start the week. Speaking with Fox News, Harry Reid said he saw a change in attitude about health care now that the bill was passed.

SOUTH DAKOTA: Looks like we can already project a winner. John Thune (R) faces no Democratic challenger in his bid for a second term.

UTAH: Sen. Bob Bennett (R) "is starting to return fire" as he faces a tough primary battle for re-election. He's challenging primary opponents' stances on various issues, like Afghanistan and No Child Left Behind. The points were made in a letter to 3,500 GOP delegates.

THE REST: Patrick McIlheran looks at whether Russ Feingold can win again in Wisconsin. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) launched his first TV ad, featuring praise from constituents. Former Rep. Rob Simmons (R) says Linda McMahon lied on a candidate questionnaire. Colorado's Michael Bennet (D) plays two Washingtons against each other. Arlen Specter (D-PA) has turned out to be a "model Democrat." Rand Paul wants Mitch McConnell to stay out of the Kentucky primary.


* California: LA Times/USC: Whitman (R) +3
* Connecticut: Rasmussen, various matchups
* Georgia: Insider Advantage - Primary, Oxendine
* Illinois: Rasmussen, Brady (R) +7; PPP, Brady (R) +10
* Massachusetts: Rasmussen, Patrick (D) +8 vs. Baker, Cahill
* Michigan: EPIC/MRA, primary & general matchups
* Nevada: Rasmussen - General: Various matchups
* Wisconsin: St. Norbert College : Various matchups

CALIFORNIA: Meg Whitman (R) announced she'd invest another $20+ million of her own money into the race, with campaign aides saying she would spend as much as $150 million to win the governorship.

FLORIDA: More troubling signs from Alex Sink's (D) campaign: another staff shakeup. Which prompted a comparison to her husband's ill-fated 2002 campaign. Bill McCollum (R) outraised Sink in the most recent filing period. But she still has more cash on hand.

MARYLAND: Bob Ehrlich (R) made it official this week, as he kicked off his comeback attempt with an event in Rockville this Wednesday. It didn't take long for a debate over debates to break out.

MASSACHUSETTS: GOP hopeful Charlie Baker treaded carefully as he praised the tea party movement, but avoided any significant praise for Sarah Palin. "Sarah Palin is simply one person," he wrote in an online chat. "To me, what makes the tea party work is the involvement of thousands of people on the local level across this country."

OHIO: John Kasich (R) faces new scrutiny over his past employment at Lehman Brothers, an issue Gov. Ted Strickland's (D) campaign and state Democrats have been trying to hammer him over in that toss-up race.

TEXAS: Bill White (D) is focusing on education as he challenges Gov. Rick Perry (R). At a fundraiser Thursday, he said Perry has governed too far to the right, to the detriment of Texas schools. "We could be the state that leads the nation, not leaves the nation," he said. Perry, meanwhile, will promote his campaign by sponsoring a Bobby Labonte's 71 car in the Samsung 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway.

NEVADA: The primary between Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) and former Attorney General Brian Sandoval (R) is heating up, with a new committee springing up that will target the challenger.

THE REST: Yet another Republican in the race for New York governor: Buffalo developer Carl Paladino entered Monday, backed by tea party movement. Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard (D) kicked off his campaign this week. Arkansas' Mike Beebe (D) is the rare safe incumbent these days.

Cook Political Report:
* MI-01 from Solid D to Toss Up

Senate: GOP +7
Governor: GOP +4
House Map

SRLC: Palin Mocks Obama, Environmentalists

NEW ORLEANS -- Sarah Palin is the rock star of the Republican Party, drawing the biggest crowd yet in the three-day conference and signing autographs for adoring fans who rushed the stage.

Palin delivered the first major speech of the day, and her mere presence excited the crowd. Her loudest ovation came before she uttered a word of her speech, which focused on domestic energy production. It wasn't Palin's most rousing speech, but it centered on the issue many Republicans believe is her strength.

"Let's drill baby drill, not stall baby stall," Palin said of President Obama's recent offshore drilling announcement.

She mocked Democrats' concern for the environmental impacts of drilling in Alaska -- where she said the majority of people want it expanded -- as well as the reluctance to put wind farms off the coast of New England. Palin also criticized Democrats' "snake oil science" and "this global warming, Gore-gate stuff."

"We have the resources, we have the ingenuity," she said. "Now all we need is the political will."

That's nothing a "good ol' fashioned election can't fix," she added.

Like the other speakers and the general feeling among conference-goers, Palin intimated that the midterm elections this November are a chance to put the country on a different path: "We're writing the new chapter in this proud history. I say we just stand together and take our country back."

Palin also touched on Obama's foreign policy and "Obamacare," which she called "The mother of all unfunded mandates."

Newt Gingrich stressed last night that he'd like to see the party move away from the tagline super-glued to it by Democrats. Palin, however, has no problem with it as long as Democrats are in power.

"There is no shame in being the Party of No," she said. "What's wrong with being the Party of No?"

SRLC: Gingrich Rips Obama's 'Secular, Socialist Machine'

NEW ORLEANS -- Few politicians not in the middle of a campaign enter a room quite like Newt Gingrich. While every other speaker at the SRLC entered from backstage, Gingrich walked in from the back of the ballroom with "Eye of the Tiger" blaring through the speakers.

Gingrich isn't running for office now, but he's leaving the door wide open for a bid. Asked by an audience member after his speech whether he would run for president in 2012, Gingrich said: "In February 2011, Calista and I will probably have to make a decision about whether or not to run."

But, he cautioned the audience to keep their sights on 2010. "If we will work as hard as we can from now until Election Day...when we win control of the House and Senate this year, Stage One of the end of Obamaism will be a new Republican Congress in January that simply refuses to fund any of" Obama's agenda.

Stage Two, Gingrich said, is to be prepared to offer positive alternatives "to ensure that Obama joins Jimmy Carter as a one-term president." That's part of Gingrich's push for the GOP to shed its "Party of No" tag that Democrats have successfully attached to it.

Gingrich warned the 2,500-large audience that "this is the most radical administration in American history." He said Obama has a "fantasy foreign policy" and heads "the worst administration since Herbert Hoover." He even attacked the president's jump shot, saying, "We need a president, not an athlete."

"You watch, this economy is not going to recover," Gingrich predicted.

The former speaker of the House is on a mission "To Save America," which happens to be the title of his book that is being released next month. "And the subtitle of it is Stopping Obama's Secular, Socialist Machine," he said.

That machine, Gingrich said, is made up of labor unions and "liberal tenured faculty," among many other groups he said enabled Obama to become president.

"My prediction is: We will win in '10 and in '12, decisive elections," he said.

SRLC: Liz Cheney Lays Into Obama Agenda

NEW ORLEANS -- Any Republican in the hotel ballroom who hadn't heard Liz Cheney speak before likely walked away impressed. In a nearly 30-minute speech, the former vice president's daughter laid into the Obama administration over health care, foreign policy and national security, concluding that the country simply deserves better.

"2010 and 2012 are going to be critical years in the long history of this great republic, and we have to make our voices heard," said Cheney. "We have to stand up and fight."

Cheney called the health care reform bill "one of the most arrogant power plays in American history." On national security, she said "someone needs to keep reminding this president that foreign terrorists do not have constitutional rights."

She called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's reception in Washington two weeks ago "disgraceful," and said President Obama doesn't understand that "the world is safer when there is no daylight between the United States and the state of Israel."

The speech received rousing ovations during and after, and opened the three-day Southern Republican Leadership Conference. Next on the docket tonight is Newt Gingrich, whom many Republicans here hope will run for president in 2012.

SRLC Kicks Off In New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS -- The Southern Republican Leadership Conference kicks off here tonight and serves as the unofficial launch of the 2012 presidential election season. Republican activists from around the country are descending on the Hilton New Orleans Riverside with newfound energy the party's lacked in the last two election cycles.

One of tonight's featured speakers is Newt Gingrich, who helped usher in the Republican Revolution in 1994. His speech tonight will focus on how Republicans get back to power in 2010.

"To win in 2010 and 2012, it's not enough to say no to the radical agenda of Obama, Pelosi, and Reid," Gingrich said in a released statement. "Tonight's speech will explain why real leadership requires Republicans to offer a compelling vision of safety, prosperity, and freedom that stands in vivid contrast to Obama's secular, socialist, machine now running Washington."

Gingrich is rumored to be considering a run for president. Other featured speakers over the next few days who are considering bids include Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Haley Barbour. However, Tim Pawlenty,Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee will not attend.

Liz Cheney and Mary Matalin are scheduled to speak tonight. Palin, Perry, Bobby Jindal and Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, are speaking Friday. And Saturday features speeches from Barbour, Paul, Santorum, RNC Chair Michael Steele and House GOP Conference Chair Mike Pence.

Kicking Off "Grudge Match," Ehrlich Promises Victory

Bob Ehrlich made his comeback bid official today with a feisty kick-off speech in suburban Washington, promising victory in what promises to be a hard-fought rematch with Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).

Speaking before a couple hundred supporters in downtown Rockville, Ehrlich rattled off a list of questions he says reporters have asked him in recent weeks as he moved to enter the race, including whether the 2010 race would be a "grudge match."

"The last grudge match I had, folks, was in middle school. And I won," Ehrlich said. "We're used to winning."


In his 10-minute kickoff speech, the former governor criticized the direction state government has taken since he left office after his 2006 defeat. He asked rhetorically what have we seen in Annapolis since then, prompting a supporter to shout: "Tax increases!" Ehrlich laughed, promising the man was not a plant. He then spoke of "unending excuses and limitless bailouts from the federal government," a reference to the stimulus plan which helped Maryland and other states close budget deficits.

"We know they raised taxes, and we tried to cut 'em. We know they spend beyond our means, and we spend within our budget. They kill jobs. We help create them. They talk, and we lead," Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich promised a campaign about the future but offered only a brief outline of his plans, saying he's "begin to roll back the 20 percent increase" in the state sales tax, "fix the budget with no gimmicks," and double the number of charter schools.

Ehrlich did not take questions from reporters, many interested in asking about his former lieutenant governor, Michael Steele, now embroiled in controversy over his fiscal management of the RNC. The Democratic National Committee is eagerly trying to tie Steele to Ehrlich, who tapped him as his running mate in his successful 2002 run.

The O'Malley campaign, however, says it's more eager in a debate about Maryland issues, and said Ehrlich the former governor is only offering the same "retread" ideas state voters rejected. Campaign manager Tom Russell also fought back on Ehrlich's attack about O'Malley's handling of the state budget, saying spending increased under the Republican's administration 33 percent in one term -- more than it did in two terms under his predecessor, Paris Glendening.

"And despite all of that spending, he still didn't make any progress in the state," Russell said.

A debate over debates has already ensued, with O'Malley saying he wanted to participate in a moderated forum with his rival during his regularly-scheduled talk show on WBAL radio. Ehrlich rejected that proposal, instead offering a less restricted "conversation" on his show, which O'Malley then rejected.

After his kickoff speech, Ehrlich headed to a nearby ice cream shop, donning an apron and scooping out a special offering in his honor: mint and coffee ice cream. He dodged several questions from reporters but did offer them some of the tasty frozen treats.

Ehrlich was set to hold another rally in the Baltimore area this afternoon.

Steele, RNC Face Toughest Criticism Yet

Staring down the most inviting election cycle the party has seen in six years, the Republican National Committee could be tempting fate as its already controversial leader comes under the hottest criticism he's seen in his 15 months as chairman.

With the party's spending outpacing its relatively good fundraising, Michael Steele critics are on the rise -- and they're going public. A $2,000 expenditure at a West Hollywood, California strip club may have been the breaking point, but issues have been bubbling beneath the surface for months.

Sean Mahoney, one of 168 RNC committeemen, announced his resignation yesterday in a letter to Steele, which was provided to the New Hampshire Union Leader. "The scandal represents a pattern of unaccountable and irresponsible mishaps that ought to unnerve every fiscal conservative," he wrote.

Speaking last night with RealClearPolitics, Mahoney said "the issue at hand is bigger than Chairman Steele," and that he deserves credit for his work last year in helping elect Republican governors in New Jersey and Virginia -- but something needs to change.

"He was all hands on deck for both elections and that's what the RNC is supposed to be all about," Mahoney told RCP. "But there's been a disappointing drumbeat of stories about irresponsible spending at the RNC. A lot of folks are deeply concerned about spending habits at the RNC and are frustrated that a lot of those funds they're sending to Washington are being spent inefficiently."

Mahoney, a party activist who says he'll continue to work to get conservatives elected this year, is reportedly considering a bid for New Hampshire's 1st Congressional District, and his publicized resignation will certainly help him receive some attention from the local and national press. But he's far from the only Republican to express concern for what's going on at national party headquarters on First Street Southeast.

One RNC committeeman, speaking on background with RealClearPolitics, said Mahoney's feelings are likely felt by many of their fellow national committee members, but that there is not a movement among them at this time to remove Steele.

"I think there is a lot of concern frankly," the committeeman told RCP. "You'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to be aware that we have significant problems. Someone has to deal with Michael Steele himself -- or help him deal with them. But we have problems that are significant and widespread."

Former South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson, who finished second to Steele in the 2009 race for RNC chairman, told RCP yesterday he doesn't expect to see many more members resigning.

"But we're at the beginning of the storm, and we'll see what happens," Dawson said.

Just this week, Steele replaced RNC chief of staff Ken McKay, who helped direct the committee's 2009 gubernatorial campaign strategy. Because of McKay's exit, party strategist and Steele adviser Curt Anderson announced his firm would no longer work with the RNC. And Alex Castellanos, a party strategist who recently served as an unpaid adviser to Steele, told CNN yesterday that for the good of the party Steele may need to step down.

Castellanos suggested that some fundraisers are hesitant to contribute to the RNC based on their concerns with Steele. "A lot of that money is frozen - it's not coming into the party," he said, "and perhaps a change in leadership here would thaw that and allow that support to flow."

Steele has said in recent days that he will not resign his post despite mounting pressure from donors and the press to explain the party's spending and relatively woeful cash on hand. Steele has previously been criticized for holding the 2010 Winter Meeting at a lavish Honolulu resort, taking big payments for speaking engagements and for his national book tour, as well as several verbal gaffes.

But things have far worsened since the January gathering in Hawaii. Just prior to the Winter Meeting, senior Virginia committeeman Morton Blackwell expressed immense confidence in Steele. He predicted to RCP that Steele would be "one of the most successful national chairmen in history."

However, the party cannot financially afford to lose donors because of a lack of faith in RNC leadership, party insiders say.

"It is going to be one of the major problems we're going to have to deal with in order to be of the maximum benefit to our candidates," one national committeeman told RCP.

Dawson did not call for Steele to resign, but he said the national party needs to step out of the spotlight and let the state parties do their work.

"Sometimes we just need Washington to get out of our way," Dawson said. "We need the RNC to get off the front page of newspapers and let us do what we need to do this November."

RNC Member Resigns In Protest

The echoes of the Republican National Committee's unchecked spending habits uncovered in recent weeks reverberates again today as a New Hampshire committeeman resigned his seat in protest. In a letter sent to Chairman Michael Steele today, and reported by the Union Leader, RNC Committeeman Sean Mahoney criticized the party's inability to control spending in government and in its own national headquarters.

"The recent scandal involving RNC funds being used to entertain a small crowd at a Los Angeles strip club is the straw that broke the camel's back," Mahoney wrote. "The scandal represents a pattern of unaccountable and irresponsible mishaps that ought to unnerve every fiscal conservative."

While Steele may not have been directly responsible for the $2,000 strip club expenditure, as chairman he's ultimately held responsible for the actions of the committee -- good and bad -- and has also been criticized for his own lavish spending habits. In a letter sent last night to national committeemen and donors, as reported by Politico, Steele attempted to assure them that money would be spent only toward the committee's goal of electing Republicans to office.

The letter sought to explain the departure of RNC chief of staff Ken McKay, who officially resigned yesterday. In turn, Curt Anderson, a party strategist and Steele adviser, announced he would no longer work with the committee, explaining that "McKay's departure is a huge loss for the Republican Party."

Mahoney's resignation today is somewhat of a culmination of events and the clearest sign yet of the mistrust many Republicans have toward the national party.

"I would prefer to stand with the hundreds of concerned taxpayers in Manchester, New Hampshire who have courageously cut back their family budgets to make ends meet rather than with a crowd of self-important politicians who spend other people's money with reckless disregard," Mahoney wrote. "The Committee has clearly lost its way."

Obama Faces Tougher Fight Over Next Supreme Court Choice

Barely a year removed from the last retirement announcement, the Supreme Court appears likely to have another vacancy in the offing. The senior justice, John Paul Stevens, hinted in a pair of interviews this weekend that he may step down at this session's end, a decision that would give President Barack Obama his second appointment in as many years.

After passing health care legislation in March, it might seem hard to imagine a tougher political battle for this White House. And the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor was hardly a picnic either. But recent history shows that presidents' second Supreme Court nominations have been considerably more difficult.

In 2005 President George W. Bush chose John Roberts to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first vacancy on the Court in more than a decade. But the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist just months later led to a change in plans. Faced with simultaneous vacancies, Bush decided to instead name Roberts to fill Rehnquist's seat on September 6, 2005; he was confirmed by a vote of 78-22 by month's end.

To fill the O'Connor seat, Bush first chose his White House counsel, Harriet Miers. A firestorm erupted amongst his own party as conservatives questioned both her views on key issues and her overall fitness for the post. The nomination was withdrawn three weeks after it was offered. Weeks later, Bush turned to an appeals court justice from New Jersey, Samuel Alito. Democrats pressed ahead for a fight they had been unable to wage against Roberts. Two dozen senators -- including Obama -- voted to filibuster the choice. But he ultimately won confirmation, by a vote of 58-42.

Bush's father, George H. W. Bush, saw his first pick for the bench, David Souter, win easy confirmation in October 1990 with 90 votes in the Senate. But his second attempt to fill a vacancy led to what longtime Supreme Court reporter Jan Crawford Greenburg called "one of the most lurid and personally explosive confirmation battles in Court history." The choice of conservative Clarence Thomas to replace liberal Thurgood Marshall alone created a tense atmosphere, but the emergence of allegations of sexual harassment from Anita Hill, a former aide. He ultimately won confirmation by a 52-48 margin.

President Reagan made history with his first Supreme Court choice, selecting a woman, Sandra Day O'Connor. She was confirmed without a single dissenting vote in September 1981. His second chance for a nomination would not come for another five years, when Chief Justice Warren Burger announced his retirement. Antonin Scalia is today one of the more controversial conservative members on the bench, but his confirmation was, like O'Connor's, unanimous.

But four days before that nomination was officially made, Reagan moved to elevate Rehnquist, then an associate justice, to be chief. Though he had been confirmed by a margin of 42 votes 15 years earlier, Democrats and liberal groups focused their energies on defeating the bid for a promotion. Crawford, in her 2005 book, "Supreme Conflict," says Rehnquist's nomination for chief justice "attracted the strongest recorded opposition in the history of the Senate for a chief justice," while Scalia's nomination "slid unnoticed under the radar." Reagan's third and final opportunity to fill a Supreme Court vacancy proved even more challenging, including the failed nomination of Robert Bork.

The recent exception for second nominations is Bill Clinton. His young presidency faced many setbacks, but his first- and only picks for the high court breezed to confirmation. Stephen Breyer was seated with just nine dissenting votes, a year after Ruth Bader Ginsburg had been confirmed by a vote of 96-3.

Obama now appears on the precipice of having his second chance to nominate a new justice. It's not uncommon for new presidents to have these opportunities so soon in a term, especially given that justices of a certain ideology are inclined to wait until a likeminded president takes office with the power to replace them. But Obama's second choice is complicated by a decline in personal popularity, the considerable political capital he expended in the health care fight, and the changed dynamic of the Senate since the election of Scott Brown in January. Republicans are now armed with a 41st vote that can sustain a filibuster. And such a filibuster could be likely as the party seeks to motivate its base heading into midterm elections.

Though a fight will likely materialize no matter who Obama chooses, the nature of that battle will of course be largely determined by the profile of the nominee. In choosing Sotomayor last year, Obama chose what some felt was a tougher road, ignoring potentially safer selections. Perhaps aware that his fortunes could change, a safer choice now may be his best hope to avoid the fate of some of his predecessors.

A Second Look At Gubernatorial Running Mates

Normally the choice of a lieutenant governor excites little interest, but voters in Illinois know better. Five lieutenant governors, including current Gov. Pat Quinn, have risen to the top job in the past three years for varying reasons, including impeachment and criminal prosecution.

Thus Illinois Democrats closed the book on a potentially embarrassing episode this week as Gov. Quinn turned to a trusted name in state politics in his search for a running mate. He chose Sheila Simon, daughter of late Senator Paul Simon, to replace Lt.-Gov. Nominee Scott Lee Cohen, who dropped out after it was revealed he once assaulted a girlfriend.

Around the country, nine current governors achieved their jobs through succession, three of whom ultimately went on to win full terms in their own right. This November, four races feature an unelected governor seeking a full term -- Alaska, Arizona, Illinois and Utah. (In one, New York's unelected Governor David Paterson recently bowed out of a race for a full term).

Lieutenant governors in three other states are also mounting credible runs for U.S. Senate seats, including Arkansas' Bill Halter, Kentucky's Dan Mongiardo, and Ohio's Lee Fisher -- all Democrats.

If the vice presidency is a bucket of you-know-what, the lieutenant governorship might appear to be even less enviable. But in recent years the job has come to seem a newly powerful stepping stone. Ask San Francisco's mayor, Gavin Newsom, who recently dropped a flailing gubernatorial bid but now is running for the lieutenant governor's job.

The Week Ahead: First Pitches And Final Shots

It's Opening Day in Major League Baseball and the end of an exciting NCAA men's basketball tourney. The week ahead in politics is not so bad either, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid formally kicking off his campaign for re-election, Mitt Romney back in New Hampshire for the first time in a quasi-campaign mode since 2008, and a big cattle call for the rest of the 2012 GOP field in New Orleans at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.

The White House: The president is still in a bit of holiday mode. After attending church services yesterday with his family in Southeast Washington, Mr. Obama attends over the annual White House Easter Egg Roll today. This afternoon, he'll take part in an almost-annual presidential tradition as he throws out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals season opener against the Philadelphia Phillies. It's a stop that is already overshadowed by the big news involving the Washington and Philadelphia football teams -- the trade of Donovan McNabb to the Redskins. A solid heater from the tall lefty could help at least erase somewhat the memory of his poor All-Star Game showing.

The big headline of the week for the president is on the international front. On Wednesday night he travels to Prague, where Thursday he'll sign a new START treaty with Russian President Medvedev. While in the Czech Republic he'll have dinner with the heads of state of 11 eastern European nations, and hold a bilateral with that nation's president and prime minister.

Capitol Hill: As it was last week, the story with Congress is everywhere but Capitol Hill, as Members make use of the two weeks off for personal appearances in their districts and states -- shoring up their campaigns, raising money, defending their health care vote. When the bodies return from Easter recess, financial regulatory reform sits atop the agenda -- while a potential Supreme Court replacement could put a hold on the Senate's legislative plans. More on that below.

Politics: We expected some surprises from Congressional incumbents during this recess period, but so far there have been no retirements or shake-ups like we saw in previous months. This week there are two filing deadlines to note: North Dakota and Virginia. What to watch in those states: Will any major Democrat emerge to challenge Gov. John Hoeven in the Senate race? How will the GOP fields shape up in some potentially competitive House races involving freshmen Democratic incumbents.

In Nevada today, Harry Reid officially kicks off his re-election campaign. He'll embark on a three-day bus tour of the state, and it begins in his hometown of Searchlight. Just a week ago, tea party activists rallied there as a show of force against the Democratic leader.

On the 2012 front, three big events to watch. First, Mitt Romney's book tour takes him to the Granite State this week, his first major public appearance in New Hampshire since his 2008 campaign. He'll head to Minnesota later for an event with potential primary rival Tim Pawlenty. Notably, neither of those candidates will appear at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. Confirmed speakers at the major presidential cattle call include Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal and Mike Pence. The straw poll is considered a major early test of the electorate, but we remind you that Bill Frist was the runaway winner in 2006 when Memphis played host.

There's another interesting joint rally taking place in Minnesota, as Palin headlines a Wednesday rally for Rep. Michele Bachmann's re-election campaign.

**Poll Watch:
Obama Job Performance: Approve 47.5 / Disapprove 46.1 (+1.4)
Congress Job Performance: Approve 18.5 / Disapprove 76.2 (-57.7)
Generic Ballot Test: Republicans +2.2

**In Case You Missed It: Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who's turning 90 this month, said in an interview on Friday that he's considering retiring from the Court after 35 years. Stevens, speaking with the New York Times and Washington Post, understood he needed to make a decision soon in order for the political process of replacing him to have enough time. "The president and the Senate need plenty of time to fill a vacancy," he said. Stevens falls on the liberal end of the Court, so an Obama replacement would not tilt it to the left.

In a FOX News Sunday interview, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) urged Stevens to hold off on retiring because it would tie up the Senate from other business. Appearing alongside Specter, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) did not rule out the GOP using a filibuster.

--Mike Memoli and Kyle Trygstad

The Week In Midterms: Fundraising & Impeachments

Here's a look at the week that was in the 2010 midterm elections:


ARIZONA: It was a good week for Sen. John McCain -- Sarah Palin came to town last weekend to shore up support among conservatives; he announced raising $2.2 million in the 1st Quarter; J.D. Hayworth raised less than expected; and a new poll shows McCain leading the primary by 15 points with 52% support.

ARKANSAS: The big news here is the ridiculous fundraising pace of Sen. Blanche Lincoln's primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter -- who's tapped into a nationwide donor network and pulled in $2 million last month alone. Lincoln also received more poor polling numbers.

FLORIDA: It's always an exciting week in Florida. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Conserv.) endorsed Marco Rubio. Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) qualified for the November ballot by submitting far more than the required 112,000 petition signatures in lieu of the $10,000 filing fee. But can he win?

MISSOURI: The candidate filing deadline came this week, and Rep. Roy Blunt will have plenty of company in the Republican primary. Eleven Republicans and three Democrats, including Robin Carnahan, are running to replace the retiring Kit Bond (R). A new poll found Blunt leading Carnahan by 4 points.

OHIO: Early voting began this week, meaning Democrats Lee Fisher and Jennifer Brunner could begin their GOTV efforts five weeks before the primary. Both received solid polling numbers to stand on from Quinnipiac, with Fisher leading Rob Portman (R) by 4 points and Brunner up 1 point. However, Fisher is up 6 points in the primary.

LEFTOVERS: Pennsylvania is the most competitive state in the country. 9/11 peeks its ugly head out in Kentucky. Rep. Jerry Moran leads his GOP colleague in Kansas. Sen. Gillibrand looks good sans Pataki in New York.


ALABAMA: PPP tested both the primary and the general. Rep. Artur Davis (D), who voted against the health care reform legislation, has an edge in the primary but trails every Republican foe. One of the Republicans, Kay Ivey, dropped out of the race and will instead run for lieutenant governor.

MARYLAND: Former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) made it official, announcing he will announce his bid for a comeback. Is Ehrlich skating uphill? A similar scenario played out in 1950.

OHIO: Two polls brought good news for Gov. Ted Strickland (D) this week. A Rasmussen poll showed him moving from an 11-point deficit to a virtual dead heat. Quinnipiac showed him holding on to a 5-point lead.

FLORIDA: Alex Sink (D) tried making an issue of Jim Greer against Bill McCollum (R). Greer is counter-suing the state party he once ran. Sink continues her jobs tour, and downplays polls that show her falling further behind. About that poll: McCollum leads by 15 in the latest Mason-Dixon survey.

NEW YORK: Rasmussen shows Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D) still comfortably ahead, though slipping somewhat. There's a renewed push, the New York Post reports, to push Rick Lazio into the Senate race (or maybe even attorney general) and clear the gubernatorial field for former Democrat Steve Levy.

GEORGIA: Some Georgia Republicans want to impeach Democratic Attorney General (and gov candidate) Thurbert Baker for not joining the health care suit. It could boost him in the primary against former Gov. Roy Barnes. Newly-retired Rep. Nathan Deal, a GOP candidate for governor, is reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee.

THE REST: The DGA announces a record fundraising period. But the RGA has a whopping $31 million on hand.

Is Meg Whitman running out of cash in her California governor run? Some love for Wyoming, where Republicans lead in a Rasmussen poll. Democrats have a true toss-up on their hands in Michigan. Three different outcomes in the open-seat races in Rhode Island, Hawaii and New Mexico. Arizona's Democratic Attorney General, Terry Goddard, challenges potential opponent, Gov. Jan Brewer (R), on the health care suit. The new Democratic ticket in Illinois was unveiled, with a familiar name as Gov. Pat Quinn's (D) pick for LG. Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is going on the air in Iowa. A Maine Republican candidate used Obama's visit to get some attention. Only in Nevada: Dawn Gibbons, estranged wife of Gov. Jim Gibbons, interviews his primary opponent on her new radio show. In PA, Dan Onorato (D) is the first Democrat on the air. Are Saturns the new pick-up trucks? Scott Walker in Wisconsin mimics Scott Brown.

Cook Political Report:
* MD Gov from Solid D to Lean D

Senate: GOP +7
Governor: GOP +4
House Map

--Mike Memoli and Kyle Trygstad

New Ethics Complaint Filed Against Ensign

A new ethics complaint was filed yesterday against Nevada Sen. John Ensign, whom the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington named as one of several lawmakers who lived in a Capitol Hill house paying below-market rent.

"At a time when so many Americans are losing their housing it is surprising to discover that some members of Congress are lucky enough to have a landlord that charges below market rent for fairly luxurious accommodations - and offers housekeeping and meal service to boot," said CREW executive director Melanie Sloan.

The Senate and House ethics committees could take up the complaint and investigate the unique living situation that Ensign and members of both parties from both chambers of Congress have had. Ensign is already under federal investigation for his actions following a much-publicized extra-marital affair, which the New York Times takes a closer look at today.

The Ensign complaint is just one piece of a string of Nevada senatorial-related news today. Tea Party of Nevada candidate Scott Ashjian, who's running for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's seat, paid $5,575 to cover a bounced check and court fees, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports.

"If he had been convicted, the 46-year-old Ashjian would have faced up to 14 years in state prison and would have been banned from running for elected office," the paper reports.

Meanwhile, other Senate candidates leaked parts of their fundraising reports that are due in two weeks. Reid will report raising more than $1.5 million in the first three months of 2010, the Review-Journal reports.. GOP opponents Sue Lowden and Danny Tarkanian will each report raising about one-third of that. Cash-on-hand totals were not released.

End Of Fundraising Period A Key Campaign Benchmark

Wednesday marked the end of the first quarter campaign fundraising period, and with it comes a better understanding for who the most viable primary and general election contenders are. Both incumbents and challengers made strong pushes for last-minute dough before last night's deadline, and many will likely release their totals before the April 15 Federal Election Commission filing deadline.

With deep minorities in both chambers of Congress, Republican challengers and campaign committees in particular will use their fundraising totals from the first three months to prove they have the financial strength to cut into the Democratic majority. But with many key primaries on tap in the next three months, some of the totals to be announced may be more critical in the short term.

Take Arizona, for instance. Sen. John McCain is facing a competitive primary challenge from conservative former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who has relentlessly attacked McCain's longtime independent streak within the GOP. McCain laid his cards on the table first, announcing Wednesday morning -- with more than half a day left to go before the 1st quarter deadline -- that he'd raised $2.2 million in the last three months and has $4.5 million cash-on-hand.

On the Democratic side, Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter made a strong early showing after just announcing his candidacy this month. According to the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, he's set to announce that he raised more than $2 million in just a matter of weeks. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) had reported raising more than $5 million at the end of 2009; both have already been spending big in early TV ad campaigns.

As the deadline neared, candidates' online appeals were flooding inboxes across the country, and not just in the races for Congress. Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, in a tough open seat race, sought to raise $25,000 yesterday alone. After reaching that goal, the campaign sent out another fundraising e-mail at 8:30 p.m. with a new stated goal of raising $2,500 in the last three-and-a-half hours.

The party campaign committees file on a monthly basis. In the last couple of days, the National Republican Congressional Committee issued at least two contribution requests that included a promise of matching funds. The committee ended February with $6 million on hand after out-raising its Democratic counterpart that month for the first time in months.

Last month, the NRCC got a boost from its annual NRCC March Dinner fundraiser, which brought in $7 million. That could help the GOP committee cut into the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's cash-on-hand advantage. The DCCC had nearly $20 million in the bank at the end of February.

The Republican Governors Association is reporting a massive cash on hand total at month's end: $31.2 million. That's an incredible total for the committee as it looks to retake a majority of governorships this November. The DGA is set to announce $8 million raised this month to leave it with $22 million cash on hand -- no small sum, but a lackluster one in comparison to the RGA's take.

The reports of questionable spending by the Republican National Committee just prior to the fundraising deadline means it won't be another month until we see whether it has an impact on the party's bottom line. But very quietly, other GOP committees had already been appealing to donors to send dollars their way in lieu of the RNC. The questionable spending under chairman Michael Steele will no doubt lead to even greater scrutiny of all candidates' spending habits.

As we wait for candidates to unveil their totals, here's a look at some Senate candidates whose reports will be critical.

** Marco Rubio (R-FL): At the end of 2009, the former Florida House Speaker had just caught up to Gov. Charlie Crist (R). Now he looks like the runaway favorite, and many expect his fundraising will match that polling surge. Crist had more than $7.5 million in the bank as of December 31, compared to $2 million for Rubio.

** Trey Grayson (R-KY): All of the Kentucky candidates are under the gun, with that state's primary just a month and a half away. Grayson had led Rand Paul at the end of the fourth quarter by about $100,000, but Paul has since jumped out to a significant lead in the polls. Grayson is taking a more aggressive posture in his TV campaigns, and will need the dollars to maintain that offensive against Paul's tea-party fueled effort. On the Democratic side, Dan Mongiardo had trailed Jack Conway by about $1 million, and needs a stronger showing to protect his lead.

** Reid Challengers (NV): For those certain of the Senate Majority Leader's pending demise, they need to remember that he had far more than all of his potential GOP challengers had raised combined at the end of 2009. In what is considered a lackluster field, a strong fundraising period could be enough for a candidate to start breaking from the pack.

** Jennifer Brunner (D-OH): The Ohio Secretary of State runs just as strong as Lee Fisher (D) against Rob Portman (R) in most polls, but her abysmal fundraising has many Buckeye State Democrats pressuring her to drop out. She seems determined to stay in through the May 4 primary, but with Portman waiting in the wings with a strong warchest, another weak FEC report could become a more prominent primary campaign issue.

** Senate Newcomers: A number of candidates, including some backed by the respective national committees, only entered the race in the past few months, and need strong early showings to demonstrate viability. Halter in Arkansas seems to have done that. Others who need to come out of the gate strong: Chris Coons (D-DE), Tom Cambpell (R-CA), Andrew Romanoff (D-CO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Dan Coats (R-IN), Brad Ellsworth (D-IN), Cal Cunningham (D-NC).

-- Kyle Trygstad and Mike Memoli