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Good Friday morning and welcome back to the Starting Lineup. Here’s our take on the day’s political news.

A Polarization Problem: With all the focus on Pres. Obama‘s shift to the center in preparation for his reelection campaign, new numbers from Gallup shed light on an uncomfortable statistic for the president: He is one of the most polarizing presidents in recent history.

The Gallup survey, released Friday, found that the gap between the average Obama approval rating among Republicans (13 percent) and Democrats (81 percent) in the last year — 68 percent — is the highest for any president in his second year in office.

Now, part of the gap is a result of polarization throughout the country and parties becoming increasingly ideologically homogeneous. Gallup found that the span between Democratic and Republican approval ratings for president has grown significantly in recent years. It also isn’t the worst sign for his reelection prospects; Pres. George W. Bush, actually had a 76 point gap in 2004 when he was re-elected.

Obama’s recent move to the center — calling for an end of earmarks, his tax cut compromise — are clearly designed at appealing to independents and even some Republicans. And if that continues, it marks a different strategy from the one Obama used in 2008, when exciting the base and turning out new voters paved the way to the White House.

Off To The…Map Drawing: The redistricting process in Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia can officially begin, as the U.S. Census released its final numbers late Thursday. Those states go first because they have legislative elections in 2011.

The data shows the official population of each congressional district, which means map drawers now know which districts need to add people and which need to shed them. In Virginia, Loudoun County grew rapidly, necessitating more than one congressman to represent the area. And Louisiana, which will lose a congressional seat, continues to shed population post Hurricane Katrina. In fact, New Orleans has 29 percent fewer people than it did 10 years ago, with 11,000 less voters than it had just one year ago.

Don’t Miss: Speaking of redistricting, don’t miss the Cook Political Report‘s David Wasserman‘s breakdown of redistricting in two of the most complicated states: Florida, which is slated to gain two seats, and Texas, which will pick up four.

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Good Thursday morning and welcome back to the Starting Lineup. Here’s our take on the day’s political news.

Better Than Expected: Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson starts his 2012 reelection bid in better position than anticipated, according to a new Quinnipiac poll.

Nelson has a 45 percent job approval rating in the survey, while 21 percent disapprove. Those numbers are by no means stunning. But they are higher than freshman Sen. and Republican rising star Marco Rubio‘s marks. Forty-two percent said they approved of how Rubio is handling his early days on the job, while 20 percent said they didn’t. (Rubio does have better favorable/unfavorable numbers than Nelson while four in 10 still haven’t formed an opinion about Rubio.)

The Florida Democrat also posted solid numbers against a generic Republican, leading 41 percent to 36 percent. Another 43 percent said he deserves reelection, while 33 percent said he doesn’t.

Nelson would undoubtedly like to be closer to 50 percent on any of those questions. But coming off a cycle where Republicans made significant gains at every level of the Florida government, he’ll happily take the results. Nelson will be a top target for Republicans in 2012 and already several contenders are lining up to challenge him. State Senate Pres. Mike Haridopolos (R) is already in the race, while state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner (R), Rep. Connie Mack (R) and outgoing Sen. George LeMieux (R) are also considering the contest.

To put those Nelson numbers in greater context, look at Pres. Obama‘s results in the poll. His approval rating is upside down — 49 percent disapprove of his performance while 47 percent approve. Meanwhile, 42 percent said they would vote for a generic Republican against Obama in 2012, more than the 40 percent who said they’d back the president. And nearly half — 48 percent — said Obama does not deserve to be reelected.

That means that means that the Sunshine State is still looking like pretty Republican territory, but at this early point in the cycle Nelson has insulated himself to some degree.

Bachmann Goes Beyond Iowa: Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) continues to stoke the presidential speculation, planning a trip to South Carolina later this month.

The move is significant because it is the first time Bachmann has headed to an early presidential primary state besides Iowa, which neighbors her home state,was her birthplace and was where she funneled money during the 2010 campaign.

Bachmann’s Palmetto State trip suggests that she is taking a potential run seriously and that she may see an avenue among social conservatives now that Indiana Rep. Mike Pence (R) has passed on the race. Without Pence, who won the Values Voter Summit straw poll last year, the playing field to the far right is somewhat open in the 2012 potential playing field. Especially if former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) doesn’t run, former Pennsylvania Rep. Rick Santorum (R) would vie to occupy that ground, as would former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R). The state’s junior senator, Jim DeMint (R), who’s making his own trek to Iowa and could enter the mix, would also appeal to that faction.

We’ll get a very good idea of whether all the presidential speculation has raised Bachmann’s stock among conservatives next week in the CPAC straw poll.

Steelman, Martin Post Strong Numbers: With the Missouri Republican Senate primary now officially underway with Republican Ed Martin joining former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman in the race earlier this week, their year end campaign finance reports provide some insight into how competitive the race will be- and it’s likely to be a close one.

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Good Wednesday morning and welcome back to the Starting Lineup. Here’s our take on the day’s political news.

Taking Democrats’ Pulse: All eyes will be on the Senate Wednesday when the chamber will vote on an amendment that would repeal Democrats’ health care reform package. In a somewhat surprising move, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced Tuesday he’d bring the amendment, offered by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), to the floor.

The measure isn’t expected to get the 60 votes needed to proceed, but the vote puts pressure on Democrats to show unity. Will any Democrats up for reelection in 2012 vote for repeal? One of the Democrats’ biggest health care reform detractors, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D), has already said he will vote against the amendment. What will Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson (D), who is trailing one Republican opponent by double-digits in recent polling, do? Or Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D), who just got a serious challenge from Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.)?

The vote shows that the political debate over health care reform isn’t going anywhere as the measure marches toward the Supreme Court.

Republicans have a united front, as South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint (R) said earlier this week that all 47 Republican senators are backing repeal. That’ll help Republicans like Richard Lugar (Ind.), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) as they prepare for a Tea Party challenge from the right next year.

Ensign’s Fundraising Follies: If his end of the year fundraising is any indication, Nevada Sen. John Ensign (R) is heading toward retirement. Ensign raised less than $ 15,000 in the fourth quarter of last year and starts 2011 with less than $ 225,000 in his campaign account.

Ensign’s numbers are particularly striking because Nevada Republican sources insist that the reason Ensign is staying in the race is to see if he can raise enough money to be competitive in 2012. This performance, which comes the same day that the Senate Ethics Committee appointed a special counsel to investigate Ensign’s affair and alleged cover up, suggests he can’t. Ensign also held a meeting of his campaign steering committee on Tuesday and insisted he’d ramp up his fundraising next year.

But a quick look at the finances of Ensign’s potential challengers shows how deep a hole he is in. Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, who is actively “taking the pulse” of Nevada this week, has $ 1.1 million in her campaign account. Republican Rep. Dean Heller, who is considering a primary challenge to Ensign, ended the year with $ 814,000 in his campaign coffers.

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Good Tuesday morning and welcome back to the Starting Lineup. Here’s our take on the political news of the day.

Rehberg Running: Montana Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg will announce Saturday that he will challenge Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, according to Hotline sources with knowledge of Rehberg’s decision. Rehberg had said he was considering the race and gives national Republicans a top tier challenger for a seat that is a prime pick up opportunity for the GOP in 2012.

The announcement will occur at Montana’s Lincoln/Reagan dinner on Saturday in Helena.

Roll Call ‘s Kyle Trygstad first reported Rehberg’s intentions. The Capitol Hill publication also reported that businessman Steve Daines, who had already jumped in the Senate race, will run for Rehberg’s at large congressional seat instead.

Rehberg brings a strong statewide profile to the race and has long been considered the GOP’s best candidate to unseat Tester, though his 2006 Senate bid fizzled. He also starts the race on the same financial footing as Tester. Rehberg ended 2010 with $ 553,000 in his FEC account, while Tester had $ 562,000.

Most troubling for national Democrats, however, is that Rehberg gives Republicans another top tier contender. Even though it’s only the beginning of February, Republicans have strong recruits running against sitting senators in Montana (Rehberg), Virginia (George Allen), and Nebraska (Jon Bruning) with solid Republican fields forming in Missouri and Florida. Sen. Kent Conrad’s retirement gives Republicans another great pickup opportunity in North Dakota.

It is still very early in the cycle — and some of those contenders are likely to face difficult primaries and Tea Party opposition — but that lineup underscores the uphill battle Democrats face in defending their Senate majority in 2012.

Bachmann’s Bucks: In spite of all the presidential speculation, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann‘s breakneck fundraising pace appears to have tapered off at the end of last year, according to FEC reports. Bachmann, you’ll recall, raised sizable sums of money during her re-election campaign, which in turn fueled the discussion of a White House run.

Bachmann raised $ 73,000 from Nov. 23 to Jan. 31, far less than her pace in the run up to the election. Her PAC, Michele PAC, only hauled in nearly $ 12,000.

But Bachmann still performed better than many of the second tier presidential candidates during that time period. Bachmann has nearly $ 2 million in her House account and another $ 200,000 in her PAC’s. That’s more than Republicans Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee at this early point in the race.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune‘s PAC matched Bachmann’s fundraising and, according to reports filed at the end of November, has $ 7 million in his FEC account and another $ 182,000 in his PAC.

A Tale Of Two Committees: Democrats start out the 2012 cycle on strong financial footing at the Democratic National Committee, but in poor position at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The DNC’s finances — it raised $ 2.9 million from Nov. 23 to Dec. 31 and ended the year with $ 6.1 million in the bank — look particularly good compared to the Republican National Committee’s. The RNC starts 2012 with a whopping $ 23 million of debt. Wow.

The situation is reversed among the House campaign committees, where Democrats start their 2012 effort to retake the chamber in a deep financial hole. The DCCC reported ending the year with $ 805,000 in its coffers, compared to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s $ 2.54 million. The DCCC also has $ 19 million in debt, while the NRCC has $ 10.5 million.

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Good Monday morning and welcome back to the Starting Lineup. Here’s our take on the day’s political news.

Huntsman Getting Serious: Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) looks like he’ s getting serious about a 2012 White House bid.

Politico reports that the White House expects Huntsman to resign from his post as Chinese ambassador in the spring and he already has a political team beginning to take shape. “Horizon PAC” has been formed to house his political team and is being led by Susie Wiles, a Florida Republican strategist.

If he does resign, Huntsman would immediately catapult as a serious contender in a Republican primary field. Huntsman would immediately share some of the same turf as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who is considered the front runner for the nomination at this early point in the cycle. Both are Mormon, both have considerable wealth and both tout their records as effective managers.

But Huntsman also faces some obvious and significant hurdles, if he wants to be a viable presidential contender. He’s a moderate on some of the most hot-button issues in a Republican electorate - immigration, climate change and China, among them - nevermind the fact he served in the Obama administration. And he shares many of the same strengths (and weaknesses) as Romney, without the fundraising and organizational know-how - making a Huntsman campaign appear like Romney Lite.

Rubio Part Deux? Republican Adam Hasner, the former Florida House Majority Leader, appears to be moving toward a Senate run against Sen. Bill Nelson (D). And, if he pulls the trigger, he’ll do it through a conservative grassroots network he’s spent years developing.

Per Adam Smith in the St. Petersburg Times: ” [F]or years the Boca Raton lawyer has built a conservative network and in recent weeks he’s met with activists, money-raisers and political operatives in every corner of the state.”

Hotline On Call reported almost two months ago that Hasner, whose wife is a former aide to Jeb Bush and ran Meg Whitman‘s 2010 California gubernatorial bid, was looking at the race. Since then, sources say he has only gotten more serious about a run. Hasner would position himself to the right in a primary against state Senate Pres. Mike Haridopolos (R) — who is already in the race — as well as outgoing Sen. George LeMieux (R) and Rep. Connie Mack (R) — who are both seriously looking at it.

Hasner’s biggest asset in the primary would be his record of opposition to Gov. Charlie Crist (I), who is deeply unpopular among conservative Republicans, and his relationship with Sen. Marco Rubio (R), whose path from near obscurity to political stardom would be one Hasner would try to replicate. Hasner’s biggest challenge will be raising his statewide profile, but is considered politically savvy and, according to sources in the state, there are a lot of big name Republican players who still haven’t lined up behind a candidate.

Rivera In Hot Water: Speaking of Florida, the investigation into freshman Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) is deepening, putting the House Republican leadership in a difficult position.

The AP reported over the weekend that Rivera allegedly paid himself $ 60,000 from his campaign account for unexplained activities dating back to 2002, according to a survey of campaign finance records. That is in addition to previous reports that the investigation has now subpoenaed a Rivera aide regarding the congressman’s relationship with a dog track.

The controversy has made its way to Washington. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was asked about it at a press conference late last week. More, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has said that there will be zero tolerance for ethics violations in the new Republican majority and the Miami Herald reports that “House Republicans have said privately they’re frustrated with the drumbeat of media attention surrounding the freshman lawmaker.”

One thing looks like it’s for sure: This headache isn’t going away for the Republican leadership. Could we be seeing a 2011 special election for Rivera’s seat (a fairly competitive district, that Democrats have contested two cycles in a row)?

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Good Thursday morning and welcome back to the Starting Lineup. Here’s our take on the day’s political news.

Romney v. Obama: Mitt Romney offered tough criticism of Pres. Obama‘s leadership Wednesday night in remarks that were sharper than usual from the former Massachusetts governor.

“He’s trying awfully hard,” Romney said on Sean Hannity‘s Fox News show. “The problem is, he just doesn’t know what to do.”

Romney went on to sharply attack Obama’s approach to the economy, calling it “sad.”

“It’s sad to watch in some respects because obviously we care very deeply with what’s happening with the country, we want people to get back to work,” he said. “But he just doesn’t know what the right things are that he’s got to do to make that happen. He’s really put in place over the last two years about the most anti-investment, anti-business, anti-jobs regimen that we’ve seen probably in the past couple decades.”

It was a rare television appearance for Romney, who has been much more selective about his public appearances than many of his presidential rivals, some of whom are paid contributors on FOX News and are seen frequently on the channel.

And as Reid Wilson points out in today’s “On The Trail” column, Romney has been relatively quiet on the campaign trail as well, not holding a public event in New Hampshire since last October - with the next Granite State stop not until March.

Speaking Of The Invisible Primary: While meeting with local activists in South Carolina on Wednesday, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) said he is “seriously thinking” about a White House bid but he “won’t make a decision until April.

From the Spartanburg Herald-Journal: “Barbour was in the Upstate for two private meetings with Republican activists, community leaders and donors in Greenville and Spartanburg -key areas for any GOP candidate hoping to claim the primary in a state that historically has played kingmaker in the Republican presidential nominating process.”

Stabenow Under 50: New Republican polling shows Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) could face a difficult reelection campaign if a serious challenger emerges.

The Wilson Research Strategies poll found that only 33 percent said they would vote to reelect Stabenow. Another 23 percent said they would definitely vote for Stabenow’s opponent, regardless of who it is.

In hypothetical match ups, former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land trails Stabenow 46 percent to 41 percent. Former Rep. and 2010 gubernatorial contender Pete Hoekstra trails by a similar margin — 47 percent to 41 percent.

Though it is still very early in the cycle, the big question in the race is who will run against Stabenow. There has been radio silence from Hoekstra and Land, while businessman Tim Leuliette continues to consider the race along with former Michigan Republican party chairman Saul Anuzis.

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Good Wednesday morning and welcome back to the Starting Lineup. Here’s our take on the day’s political news.

Obama Gets High Marks: Pres. Obama‘s State of the Union appears to be playing very well outside the Beltway, according to instant polling following the speech.

The address earned high marks in CNN’s post speech poll. The Opinion Research survey of 475 viewers found that 52 percent had a very positive reaction to the speech while another 32 percent had a somewhat positive response.

The CNN numbers also show Obama’s speech last night played better than his 2010 State of the Union, when 78 percent had either a very or somewhat positive response. Keep in mind, though, that State of the Union addresses rarely make a dent in a president’s approval, even with the national attention focused on the speech.

More importantly for Obama is that he has continued his centrist pivot on several issues, including offering a five-year spending freeze and calling for medical malpractice reform. He called for more targeted spending by framing the spending as “investments.” Despite his lack of specifics, more than two-thirds of voters said Obama’s plan for the economy will succeed, while 57 percent said he will reduce the deficit. Another six in 10 said Obama will create or save jobs and increase cooperation between Democrats and Republicans.

It’s that kind of optimism in the face of persistent 9.4 percent unemployment that’s necessary for the president heading into his reelection campaign.

Don’t Miss: National Journal‘s analysis of the State of the Union here. And here’s a handy breakdown of which lines drew applause.

Dueling Connecticut Polls: Who is the early leader in the Connecticut Senate Democratic primary? Depends on which poll you believe. Rep. Chris Murphy (D), who announced last week that he’s running for retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman‘s (I) seat, released an internal poll from the Gotham Research Group on Tuesday that shows him leading former Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz 40 percent to 31 percent among Democratic voters. The poll was conducted in early January, before he made his campaign official (and before Lieberman announced his retirement).

Those numbers contrast with a Bysiewicz poll that she released after getting in the race, which was conducted a month earlier (in December). That Bennett, Petts & Normington survey showed Bysiewicz leading Murphy 32 percent to 26 percent.

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Good Tuesday morning and welcome to the Starting Lineup. Here’s our take on the day’s political news.

Obama’s Reelection Kicks Off: All eyes will be on Pres. Obama Tuesday night when he delivers his second State of the Union address (that first one in 2009 technically wasn’t a State of the Union.)

A few things to watch for: This speech is the beginning of Obama’s reelection campaign. We know that Obama will try to do what he does best — hit broad themes. And we know that he’ll mention issues like job creation, creating pro-business solutions to the recession, seeking bipartisan common ground — all signs that Obama is positioning himself as more of a moderate for the last two years of his first term.

But will there be specific policy proposals and what issues will he weigh in on? Will he discuss Republican efforts to repeal his health care reform — a highly divisive topic?

Will he discuss cap-and-trade — as he did last year — which ultimately failed in Congress and likely won’t get anywhere this year? (The failure of that policy also appears to have forced Carol Browner to leave the administration.) The New York Times reports that Obama will mention energy policy.

One issue you can bet on Obama mentioning is the potential U.S.-Korea Free Trade agreement — where Obama and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce appear to be on the same page.

New polling shows Obama is delivering his speech on his most solid footing in months. A CNN/Opinion Research survey found Obama holding a 55 percent approval rating. However, 54 percent disapprove of how is handling the economy, 55 percent disapprove how he has handled health care and 60 percent disapprove of his handling of the deficit.

Ryan’s Rebuttal: House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will also step into the limelight Tuesday night when he delivers the Republican response. Expectations are likely to be pretty low, considering most recent responses have been flubs (see: Jindal, Bobby and Kaine, Tim). And Ryan has also come under intense scrutiny from Democrats lately for his budget road map.

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