By Rick Klein What are you left with when you have a cattle call and take out a few of the top horses? (Hint: She wears lipstick.) The Southern Republican Leadership Conference gets underway Thursday in New Orleans, and with that, the 2012ers march in. Except that Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee — maybe No. 1 and No. 2 in your early seeding, plus an always-intriguing wild card who happened to win Iowa last time around — won’t be there. But Sarah Palin will. And so we’re back in one of those regularly recurring phases of American political discourse that tips toward Palin and basically Palin alone. Here in this tenuous time for the Republican Party — with RNC Chairman Michael Steele under fire; a rising star, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, embroiled in a controversy that really does involve race; and a falling star, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, just maybe ditching the GOP primary — it’s Palin’s voice that again is breaking through, familiar accent and all. Remaking the game: “The cattle call season for the 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls is upon us, but the media obsession with all things Palin and her knack for dominating a news cycle or two calls into question how valuable it is for various potential White House contenders to show up and play,” ABC’s David Chalian reports. It’s the simple fact for Republicans: When Palin is part of the conversation, the conversation isn’t about anyone other than Palin. And that can lead in any number of directions. More is-she-or-isn’t-she parsing on tap: “The meeting in New Orleans provides ample opportunity for speculation about the next presidential campaign — and especially about Palin, who has proved an endless source of intrigue since running as the GOP's 2008 vice presidential nominee,” Mark Barabak writes in the Los Angeles Times. “The question is whether Friday's appearance is a step toward a White House run, or simply another marketing effort — not that one necessarily precludes the other.” Chances for others to break through? “The event will be dominated by the rest of what may become the GOP field,” The Hotline’s Reid Wilson reports. “Today, ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich has a major speaking role. On Friday, ex-AK Gov. Sarah Palin (R), LA Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and TX Gov. Rick Perry (R) get a chance to woo activists. On Saturday, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), ex-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), MS Gov. Haley Barbour (R) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) will hold the spotlight.” (And what happens if Ron Paul wins another straw poll? Time to burn the straw? “If that happens, look for some within the party — including the leading 2012 candidates — to push for an end to these sorts of straw polls,” Chris Cillizza writes at The Fix blog.) Making headlines — Palin Wednesday night on nukes, to Sean Hannity: “No administration in America's history would, I think, ever have considered such a step that we just found out President Obama is supporting today. It's kinda like getting out there on a playground, a bunch of kids, getting ready to fight, and one of the kids saying, 'Go ahead, punch me in the face and I'm not going to retaliate. Go ahead and do what you want to with me.'” And on Michael Steele: “I support Michael Steele. I'm glad he is the leader of the party, administratively,” she told Hannity. “I think he's doing a great job. Michael Steele is an outsider. The machine is tough to penetrate. I know Michele [Bachmann] and I both have felt that in our careers. I think it has been good to have an independent outsider find — kind of create some change in the Republican Party.” Meanwhile — President Obama is in Prague, where the new nuclear treaty was signed with Russia Thursday morning. “They are here first and foremost to make history — by signing the most significant arms-reduction treaty in two decades,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos reported Thursday morning from Prague, on “Good Morning America.” Stephanopoulos sits down with President Obama in Prague Thursday — watch for a first piece of that interview on Thursday’s “World News,” with more to come on “Good Morning America” Friday. And Stephanopoulos will be in Russia Friday, interviewing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and anchoring “GMA” from Moscow on Monday. President Obama, alongside Medvedev on Thursday: “Together, we have stopped the drift, and proven the benefits of cooperation. Today is an important milestone for nuclear security and non-proliferation, and for U.S.-Russia relations.” “As I said last year in Prague, this treaty will set the stage for further cuts. And going forward, we hope to pursue discussions with Russia on reducing both our strategic and tactical weapons, including non-deployed weapons.” And on Iran: “My expectation is that we are going to be able to secure strong, tough sanctions on Iran this spring,” the president said. “Russia has been a very strong partner.” He’s been here before: “The tension between promise and pragmatism came through in the so-called Nuclear Posture Review document Mr. Obama released this week. While it narrows first-strike policy, renounces development of new nuclear warheads and expresses an intent to further cut stockpiles, it lays out few specifics of how to do that. Further reductions will be contingent on new negotiations,” The New York Times’ Peter Baker writes. On the flip side: “As President Obama prepares to sign a landmark arms-control treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a chorus of skeptics here is quietly expressing concerns that Moscow has conceded too much in the deal,” The Washington Post’s Philip P. Pan reports. More of what’s crammed into a busy trip: “President Barack Obama’s meeting with his Russian counterpart Thursday to sign a nuclear arms treaty in Prague marks the first substantive step in his administration’s efforts to ‘reset’ relations with its former Cold War adversary,” Politico’s Carol E. Lee reports. “Yet it’s Obama’s packed diplomatic agenda in Prague that really begins to test the U.S.-Russia reset. Already there are signs of how gingerly Obama has to tread over the next few days.”
Broader (or narrower) impact: “President Barack Obama signs a nuclear-arms treaty with Russia today that he will try to use to build international support for increasing pressure on Iran and preventing terrorists from getting atomic material,” Bloomberg’s Julianna Goldman reports. In Virginia — a governor digs out of a self-created mess. “Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) issued a mea culpa on Wednesday evening, telling his fellow citizens that it was a ‘mistake’ and ‘major omission’ not to discuss slavery in his proclamation designating April as ‘Confederate History Month,’ ” ABC’s Teddy Davis reports. The context: “McDonnell, who tried to tailor his campaign to practical, kitchen-table issues, was bombarded with outrage over what has become a flash point in Virginia politics and a headache for previous governors,” Olympia Meola and Tyler Whitney report in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Despite McDonnell's attempt to calm the waters, his apology didn't quell the anger among Democrats.” “A social conservative, the Pennsylvania-born and Alexandria-bred McDonnell has never been known for using racial appeals during a career in Virginia politics that began when he won a state House seat in the commonwealth’s transient Tidewater region in 1992,” Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Seung Min Kim report. “In fact, his victory in November, after years of GOP losses in the moderate-conservative state, was held up by establishment Republicans as a model for how the party could win in competitive parts of the country in the Obama era – by focusing on kitchen-table issues, downplaying divisive social matters and offering only respect for the nation’s first black president.” In RNC land — Katon Dawson, getting calls: “Katon Dawson, who early last year narrowly lost his bid for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, said Wednesday that he's received numerous calls from prominent Republicans concerned by a string of recent controversies tied to the man who beat him, Michael Steele,” McClatchy’s James Rosen reports. “I can tell you that the RNC is going to have to be scandal-free from now on,” Dawson said. “The membership is just not going to take much more. I don't think there's a lot of room for error coming out of Washington from now until November.” In Florida — looking like a Lieberman … Gov. Charlie Crist, R-Fla., asked whether he’s considering running as an independent: “I'm focused on the session,” Crist said. “I'm focused on these bills that are pending and coming up shortly. That's where my focus is, there will be time for other things later.” Adam C. Smith of the St. Petersburg Times tallies up the clues: “When Marco Rubio announced Wednesday that he raised a whopping $3.6 million over the past 90 days, it was another game-changer in the Republican U.S. Senate primary. This just a day after Gov. Charlie Crist bucked fellow Republicans and vetoed an elections bill he was expected to sign — and the same day he reversed course and hinted he might veto a teacher tenure bill favored by Jeb Bush and other Republican leaders. On top of that, Crist plans to call the Legislature into special session this summer to overhaul state ethics laws — an issue Republican leadership has avoided this year.” “It all fed a surge in speculation that Crist is positioning himself to drop out of the Republican primary and run instead as an independent. Under Florida law, Crist has to declare whether he's running for the Republican nomination or as an independent by April 30,” Smith writes. In New York — Eliot Spitzer, not closing doors. “I've never said I would never consider running for office again,” the former New York governor tells Fortune’s Peter Elkind, adding that he’s in “unceasing agony” over the fact that he’s no longer in office. “I'm all in favor of rehabilitation.” Retirement watch: “The two top-ranking Democrats in the U.S. House fear Rep. Bart Stupak may retire after drawing fierce criticism during the health care debate and have urged him to seek re-election, congressional aides told The Associated Press on Wednesday,” the AP’s John Flesher reports. “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer phoned Stupak recently and encouraged the Michigan Democrat to run for a 10th term.” Pushing … “Tea Party activists started an advertising campaign against Representative Bart Stupak yesterday for backing President Barack Obama’s health-care bill when it was passed by the House last month,” Bloomberg’s Patrick O’Connor writes. Overnight scare: “FBI agents say no explosives were found in the shoes of a Qatar diplomat who was subdued by federal air marshals on a United flight to Denver Wednesday night after allegedly telling the marshals, ‘I'm lighting my shoes on fire,’” ABC’s Rhonda Schwartz, Richard Esposito and Brian Ross report. “A US security official said, ‘it may have been a massive misunderstanding’ and the diplomat's statement may have been a ‘sarcastic’ comment when he was confronted by two air marshals who had been told by flight attendants that smoke was coming from the lavatory.” San Francisco scare: “The San Francisco man arrested Wednesday for allegedly threatening House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over her support for health care reform spent five years harassing a local church – until its custodian helped break the case involving Pelosi, the church's lawyer said,” Jaxon Van Derbeken and Jill Tucker report in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Gregory Lee Giusti, 48, made at least four dozen harassing and threatening phone calls to Pelosi's homes in St. Helena and Washington as well as her husband's San Francisco office, authorities said. The torrent of calls, they said, occurred from Feb. 6 to March 25, with Giusti telling Pelosi that if she wanted to see her home again, she would vote against the pending health care reform bill.” Lawrence Tribe, “invisible”: “Mr. Tribe has been asked to suggest ways to improve legal services for the poor, find alternatives to court-intensive litigation and strengthen the fairness and independence of domestic courts. But Mr. Tribe has a small staff, a limited budget, little concrete authority and a portfolio far less sweeping than the one he told friends he had hoped to take on in Washington,” The New York Times’ Charlie Savage reports. “He is also largely invisible. The Justice Department is not allowing him to give interviews, apparently in part because of nervousness in the administration that his unabashedly liberal views might draw criticism or that Mr. Tribe, described by friends as having a big intellect and a healthy ego, might stray from his assigned lane.”
The Kicker: “That was palm-worthy — I had to write that one on my hand.” — Sarah Palin, “kicking it old-school” by noting on her hand that Rep. Michele Bachmann has fostered 23 children. “I’m proud to have been endorsed by the College Republicans.” — Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., in an old habit.
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