By MICHAEL FALCONE and AMY WALTER
Less than a year away from the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary and the best known and most experienced Republican presidential candidates are still coy about their 2012 intentions.
But in conversations with sources close to the campaigns this week, it’s becoming clear that there are essentially three categories of potential candidates. The first is the “almost certain to run” category. In this camp you’ll find Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum.
As ABC’s Jonathan Karl reported on “Good Morning America” today, sources close to Gingrich say he’s likely to take the first steps toward a presidential run within the next two weeks. (Watch his full report: http://abcn.ws/gQe6Al)
Sarah Palin, meanwhile, gets her very own category. With almost universal name recognition and access to a national fundraising base, Palin is almost certain to wait until the last minute to make any sort of decision. But, as Karl notes, polls in early primary states have not looked particularly good for her. In recent New Hampshire WMUR/UNH poll, Palin wound up tied for fifth place with 6 percent of the vote.
The second is the “very serious, but still undecided” category. This includes: Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, and Mike Huckabee. All but Huntsman and Daniels have visited the early primary states. However, an adviser to Huntsman told ABC News that he is “strongly leaning” toward a run and he’s already planning an “aggressive campaign.”
And what about Bachmann? Does she spot an opening if, for example, Palin decides not to run?
“I’m not there yet,” Bachmann told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America” today. “We’ll see, I really want to just talk to the people that are in these early primary states and listen to them.” http://abcn.ws/fMAjwx
And listen she will. Bachmann has traveled to Iowa several times over the past year, she’s heading to South Carolina this weekend and will go to New Hampshire next month.
“I want to make sure in the midst of looking at all of the individual candidates, which must be done, that we continue to focus on the issues of overspending, debt, national security,” Bachmann said. “I’m trying to set the table, if you will, because these voters are vital in these early states. They’re going to make a very important decision about our nominee.”
And there are other wildcards like South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune who vowed in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody that if he decides to run for president, he "will have the passion.”
“If I focus on this, we will be all in,” Thune said in the interview posted online this morning. “But the question that I have to come to grips with right now is can I get to that point where I’m all in? You have to be 100% there. I don’t think you can go into this. I don’t think you can be 90%, I think you have to be totally committed to it."
We’re keeping a close eye on the travel schedules of the potential presidential candidates. And here’s another clue: Barbour, the Mississippi governor, heads to New Hampshire on Feb. 26. Check out moe of their stops on The Note’s Futures Calendar: http://abcn.ws/ZI9gV
BOTTOM LINE: So far, only businessman and radio talk show host Herman Cain has actually formed a presidential exploratory committee. The other potential 2012ers aren’t ready to say that they are 100 percent in this thing. But, some of them have the building blocks of a campaign in place including a coterie of experienced staffers, a calendar chocked full of trips to early primary states and a fundraising base. But, if there’s one thing that almost every person we’ve talked to agreed with it’s that this nomination contest was the most wide-open that they’d seen in their political lifetimes. http://abcn.ws/gqpaOX
NOTABLE: DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT… Lady Gaga and Rep. Michele Bachmann both appeared on “Good Morning America” today, so George Stephanopoulos took the opportunity to ask the Tea Party favorite if she’s a fan of the “little monsters” heroine. “You know, I don’t really know that much about Lady Gaga,” the Minnesota Republican told me. “I hate to say it, I have a lot of children, but I don’t know that much about Lady Gaga.” http://abcn.ws/epMt5F
ON TODAY’S “TOP LINE.” ABC’s Rick Klein and Jonathan Karl interview Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, who has been sharply critical of President Obama’s budget proposal. Cleaver, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, issued a statement this week saying: “Cutting funding to programs that assist hard-working Americans, help families heat their homes, and expand access to graduate-level education seems to conflict with the notion of winning the future.” Also on the show: Carl Hulse, long-time Congressional reporter for The New York Times. Watch “Top Line” LIVE at 12:00 p.m. Eastern. http://bit.ly/ABCTopLine
MIDEAST UNREST SPREADS TO BAHRAIN. ABC’s Jake Tapper reports that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior administration officials will be calling their Bahraini counterparts today to urge restraint and to advise this U.S. ally on how best to proceed. "The United States strongly opposes the use of violence in Bahrain," an administration official told ABC News. "Wherever they are, people have certain universal rights – including the right to peaceful assembly. We continue to urge the government of Bahrain to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests." Bahrain is home to the 5th Fleet, a major US Naval Base that shares a commander and headquarters with U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, a component part of CENTCOM, and roughly 2,300 US military personnel. The base is essentially a port at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. http://abcn.ws/iii1Os More on the situation in Bahrain from ABC’s Ned Potter and Miguel Marquez: http://abcn.ws/h4D48l
BOEHNER LAYS DOWN THE LAW ON SPENDING. “For Speaker John A. Boehner, the budget-cutting frenzy taking place on the House floor merges two of his animating political passions — the need to shrink federal spending and the willingness to risk a free-flowing debate,” The New York Times’ Carl Hulse (today’s ABC “Top Line” guest) reports. “Throw in a new conservative Republican majority and Mr. Boehner is confident of the outcome. ‘I have no doubts in the coming weeks and months that people will see our resolve around solving our deficit problem,’ Mr. Boehner said in an interview. ‘We are going to cut spending. There aren’t any ifs, ands or buts about it.’ Just six weeks into the takeover of the House, Mr. Boehner said Republicans had transformed the way Washington thinks about federal dollars, provoking a shift that has all sides — Republicans, Democrats and the White House — talking about less spending, even though they may differ on the total amount and exactly what gets cut. ‘There has never been a cultural change so quickly,’ Mr. Boehner said as House members on Wednesday upped the ante, making further reductions to the $61 billion in cuts that Republicans hope to make in what federal agencies are now spending. ‘Compare that with the last couple of years. There was no limit to the money that was rolling out of here.’” http://nyti.ms/e9d7aC
SCOTT BROWN’S REVELATIONS. Sen. Scott Brown, R-MA, has revealed that he was sexually abused multiple times at the age of 10. Brown told CBS News in an interview for “60 Minutes” that the abuse came at the hands of a camp counselor. “Fortunately nothing was ever fully consummated, so to speak, but it was certainly back then very traumatic. He said, ‘If you tell anybody then I’ll kill you, you know, I will make sure no one believes you.’ And that’s the biggest thing — when people find people like me at that young vulnerable age who are basically lost, the thing that they have over you is they make you believe that no one will believe you,” Brown said in the interview. Brown also said that as a boy growing up in Wakefield, Mass., he also had to deal with physical and psychological abuse by his multiple step-fathers. Each of his parents were married four times and he has said that his father was not around very much. http://abcn.ws/eLJlkc
WILL LAWMAKERS TAKE ON THE ‘SACRED COWS’? “With all the finger-pointing in Washington this week over the need to reform Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, one thing is clear: it might just be Americans' very sense of entitlement to those programs that's the biggest barrier to getting something done,” ABC’s Devin Dwyer reports. “The three programs have ballooned to 57 percent of the government budget this year and are widely cited as the most significant contributors to the federal deficit, something nearly all Americans want to see aggressively brought under control. Fifty-six percent of Americans oppose changes to Medicare benefits and 64 percent oppose changes to Social Security benefits, according to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University School of Public Health. At the same time, a majority of Americans oppose tax increases to pay to keep the programs operating at their current levels” http://abcn.ws/gL5iaP
SESSIONS ACCUSES OBAMA OF ‘DELIBERATELY MISLEADING’ AMERICANS. “On Tuesday the Senate Budget Committee’s top Republican Jeff Sessions ripped President Obama’s budget director Jack Lew for stating that the administration’s new fiscal year 2012 budget proposal — if enacted — would mean that the nation would stop adding to its debt in the middle of the decade,” ABC’s Matthew Jaffe notes. A day later, the Alabama Republican is still fuming about the administration’s claims. ‘They’re deliberately misleading the American people. I hate to say that. I’m talking about the president of the United States, the director of OMB, and then they come in with this cockamamie idea of some primary balance,’ Sessions told ABC News in a phone interview. That idea of primary balance was touted repeatedly by both Lew and the president in recent days.” http://abcn.ws/epKSLZ
WHITE HOUSE WATCH. A very full day for President Obama today: First, the president will convene a bicameral, bipartisan group of legislators to discuss the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, in the Roosevelt Room this morning. Meeting participants include Senators Tom Harkin, Mike Enzi, Jeff Bingaman, Lamar Alexander and Representatives John Kline, George Miller, Duncan Hunter, and Dale Kilde, in addition to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. This afternoon, the president and the vice president will meet with House Democratic Leadership for lunch in the Oval Office. White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn will attend. Afterward, the president will sign into law a bill naming a new federal courthouse in Yuma, Ariz. after slain federal Judge John M. Roll — one of 13 people shot and six killed during the Tucson tragedy in January.
In the afternoon, the president will travel to San Francisco, Calif. The president will meet with a number of business leaders in technology and innovation at a private residence including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, whom last month President Obama named as chair to the new White House Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who recently took a medical leave of absence and Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt will be in attendance among others. The president will spend the night in San Francisco, Calif. in advance of his visit Friday to Intel in Oregon. (h/t ABC’s Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller) http://abcn.ws/fcOJSO
@mikememoli: Mitch Daniels recovering from rotator cuff surgery. Should be back on the mound in 2012
@ElBaradei: Egyptians awaiting list of those banned from leaving the country and are under investigation. Transparency is essential !
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