By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone )
ABC's JEFF ZELENY: As the Republican National Committee gathers in Washington for its annual winter meeting, the mood is considerably brighter for party activists than it was only a year ago when President Obama was opening his second term and the GOP was licking its wounds. Party leaders believe this mid-term election year will be a good one for Republicans. They know they will hold their House majority and feel bullish about their chances of winning the six seats needed to take control of the Senate. There is a consensus that the biggest obstacle is the internal strife still smoldering inside the party, where one or two off-message candidates can topple others. The RNC has always tried to steer clear of refereeing these fights, but they will try to impose discipline to the degree that they can. One state chairman, echoing the sentiment of others, told me: "Only we can screw this up this time."
ABC's RICK KLEIN: The first mechanical pieces of the 2016 presidential campaign fall into place today in Washington, at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting. The focus will be compressing the primary calendar and moving up the convention date - decisions with big consequences for what outside groups can spend money on and when, and that could impact the contours of the GOP presidential field itself. For a party still grappling with internal divisions, any changes will be viewed skeptically by those outside the establishment (and therefore mostly far from the Renaissance hotel this week). This week's changes, though, will be easy to digest compared to efforts to limit and control the primary debates. That has the potential to blow up into something far bigger - and, of course, to again force the eventual Republican nominee into tough places far in advance of the next convention.
TODAY AT THE WHITE HOUSE: President Obama has a light schedule today. He will deliver remarks at a reception with U.S. Mayors this evening, ABC's ARLETTE SAENZ notes. Vice President Joe Biden will deliver keynote remarks at Families USA's 19th Annual Health Action Conference this morning. He will also meet with members of the County Sheriffs'Association and the National Sheriffs' Association later in the morning and with U.S. Mayors in the afternoon. First Lady Michelle Obama will announce a new partnership with Subway this morning to offer healthier food items for children. As the AP reports, their children's menu will mirror federal lunch standards, offering apples on the side and setting water and non-fat milk as the default beverages.
OBAMA TACKLES COLLEGE SEX ASSAULTS AS DAD, PRESIDENT. For President Obama, combating sexual assault in the U.S., particularly in college communities, isn't just part of his job as president. It's also one of his top priorities as a dad, ABC's ARLETTE SAENZ reports. "This is a priority for me, not only as president and commander in chief but as a husband and a father of two extraordinary girls," the president said at the White House Wednesday. "You can judge a nation and how successful it will be based on how it treats its women and its girls. Those nations that are successful, they're successful in part because women and girls are valued," he said. "I'm determined that by that measure, the United States of America will be the global leader." President Obama signed a memorandum Wednesday to establish the White House Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault, an effort to curb the number of sexual assaults on college campuses. A report from the White House Council on Women and Girls says that one in five women is sexually assaulted while they attend college. "I want every young man in America to feel some strong peer pressure in terms of how they are supposed to behave and treat women," the president said. "We need to encourage young people, men and women, to realize that sexual assault is simply unacceptable, and they're going to have to summon the bravery to stand up and say so, especially when the social pressure to keep quiet or to go along can be very intense." http://abcn.ws/1eBsnvk
THOUSANDS MARCH THROUGH SNOWY WASHINGTON FOR ANTI-ABORTION RIGHT RALLY. Numbing cold didn't stop thousands of anti-abortion activists from descending on the nation's capital today for their annual "March for Life." The demonstration falls each year on the anniversary of the Supreme Court's 1973 decision to legalize abortion in Roe v. Wade, ABC's MATTHEW LAROTONDA notes. But with unusually frigid temperatures hovering between 14 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit today, picketing through D.C.'s slushy streets from the National Mall to the judiciary was more like a trudge. Hoisted signs with slogans like "Defend Life" and "Equal Rights 4 Unborn Women" were held aloft by gloves concealing hand warmers. Speaking with the snowy U.S. Capitol behind her, March for Life president Jeanne Monahan spoke on this year's theme of adoption as an alternative to abortion. "When a woman is facing an unexpected pregnancy and she makes the choice to be a birthmother, she is being a heroic mother in the truest sense because she is making the ultimate sacrifice out of love for her child. In doing so she also helps another family embrace life," she said. http://abcn.ws/1eeyjYh
PRESIDENTIAL PANEL SETS GOAL FOR FUTURE ELECTIONS: WAIT 30 MINUTES OR LESS TO VOTE. The election commission appointed by President Obama revealed new recommendations Wednesday to reform the voting process and shorten lines at polling locations, specifically concluding that every American voter should not have to wait longer than 30 minutes to vote, according to ABC's ARLETTE SAENZ. The Presidential Election Commission Administration's recommendations include an expansion of online voter registration; updating and coordinating voter registration lists between states to increase accuracy; expansion of early voting by mail ballots or in person; improving the ability of military and voters overseas to access ballots; and using schools as polling places. The commission also called for an examination and update of aging equipment used by voters to cast their ballots. The president praised the commission's findings, saying they have set "an important goal which is that no American should have to wait more than half an hour to vote, and they should know, they should be confident that their vote is being properly counted and is secure." http://abcn.ws/1mGMYTk
ADDING UP BOB AND MAUREEN MCDONNELL'S VIRGINIA SHOPPING SPREE. Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has already admitted to receiving and not disclosing gifts from former Star Scientific CEO and donor Jonnie Williams over the course of several years. But the federal indictment slapping McDonnell and wife Maureen with corruption charges provides some eye-popping details on just how much of an extravagant lifestyle the McDonnell's allegedly leaned on Williams to pay for. From shopping sprees at high-priced designer stores to thousands in golf expenses and merchandise, the amount Williams eagerly shelled out to the couple and their family is impressive. Here's ABC's ABBY PHILLIPS' handy guide to some of the tens of thousands in goodies, gifts, checks and leisure the McDonnell family allegedly enjoyed courtesy of one very wealthy businessman: http://abcn.ws/1dVsQsT
WHAT WE'RE WATCHING
GAY CONSERVATIVE ACTIVIST: 'NO HOPE FOR THE REPUBLICAN PARTY.' Gay political activist Jimmy LaSalvia is having a loud and public breakup with the GOP. Before announcing last week that he is leaving the Republican Party to become an independent -pointing to "tolerance of bigotry" within the GOP in his parting blog post - LaSalvia was a veteran GOP operative and activist, known for co-founding the conservative gay rights group GOProud. LaSalvia sat down with "Top Line" to discuss his dramatic departure and explained that he has "no hope for the Republican Party." "No matter how good your autopsy … the changes the Republican Party is implementing really amount to nothing more than lipstick on a pig," he said. "It was the Romney campaign that really got me to understand just how severe the problem is. … It's a culture of intolerance that I don't think any amount of messaging or policy changes can fix." For more on LaSalvia's split from the GOP, check out this episode of "Top Line" with ABC's RICK KLEIN and OLIVIER KNOX: http://yhoo.it/1aLQcQz
@AlexPappas: Potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates to speak at conservative gathering http://bit.ly/1c6F0yL
@CoryBooker: "The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention." - Oscar Wilde http://ow.ly/i/4n8c6
@mlcalderone: If 16,000-word profile wasn't enough, some outtakes from Remnick's interviews with Obama: http://nyr.kr/1l1dvMN
@daveweigel: Free Justin Bieber and all political prisoners