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A new Rasmussen poll suggests that Republicans may be regaining the confidence of the Tea Party crowd, and that the appeal of a third-party political force could be wearing off.

Rasmussen asked this question, which was previously done in December: "Suppose the Tea Party organized itself as a political party. When thinking about the next election for Congress, would you vote for the Republican candidate from your district, the Democratic candidate from your district or the Tea Party candidate from your district?"

Two months ago, the result was Democrats 36%, Tea Party 23%, Republicans 18%. The answer this time around is Democrats 36%, Republicans 25%, and Tea Party 17%.

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In the days immediately following President Obama's Jan. 27 State of the Union address, pollsters reported a surge in support for Obama's policies and the way he's handling his job as president. At the time, pollsters said we should check back in a week to get the real story on what Obama's speech and his subsequent appearance at a GOP Q&A session has meant to the national perception of the president's job performance.

The answer, according to the polls? Mixed. Obama's approval numbers have slipped back to their pre-address levels in the Rasmussen daily tracking poll, but remain slightly up in Gallup's polling. Rasmussen stands by his numbers, but says that they don't take into account the effect the speech has had in Washington, where Obama's post-State of the Union tough guy persona is markedly different from the Democratic hand-wringing over Obama that came after the Senate special election in Massachusetts.

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Former Rep. Jim Nussle, the architect of Republican budgets under President George W. Bush, says the GOP should spend political capital and embrace a plan that privatizes Social Security and ends Medicare. In an interview with TPMDC, Nussle said that even though Republican leadership isn't publicly jumping on board to Rep. Paul Ryan's budget "roadmap," it is a fiscally responsible framework that will guide the Republicans into the campaign season.

"Even if they don't go exactly the way he wants them to with the roadmap he gives them a lot of good ideas to pick and choose from," Nussle told me today.

And Nussle (R-IA) knows something about writing Republican spending plans, since he led the Budget Committee during Bush's first term. He most recently served as Bush's Office of Management and Budget director, lost the Iowa governor's race in 2006 and now leads a consulting firm.

Nussle compares the early reaction to the Ryan roadmap to when he and Rep. John Boehner (now minority leader) wrote the Contract with America in 1994.

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In an interview with Washingtonian magazine, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele suggests that press coverage of his troubled tenure has less to do with his verbal gaffes and paid speeches, and more to do with his race.

Greg Sargent has the relevant passage:

But there's an edge to his voice when he talks about a double standard that he believes has been applied by his critics, and he posits racism as the cause: "I don't see stories about the internal operations of the DNC that I see about this operation. Why? Is it because Michael Steele is the chairman, or is it because a black man is chairman?"

It's unclear whether Steele is saying racism is behind leaks from the GOP about his troubles, or the press coverage thereof.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has declared that America has a serious obligation to support Israel -- and if not, God will curse the United States, and it will be the end of this country.

The Minnesota Independent reports that Bachmann told the Republican Jewish Coalition, at an event last week in Los Angeles:

"I am convinced in my heart and in my mind that if the United States fails to stand with Israel, that is the end of the United States . . . [W]e have to show that we are inextricably entwined, that as a nation we have been blessed because of our relationship with Israel, and if we reject Israel, then there is a curse that comes into play. And my husband and I are both Christians, and we believe very strongly the verse from Genesis [Genesis 12:3], we believe very strongly that nations also receive blessings as they bless Israel. It is a strong and beautiful principle."

The new survey of the Texas gubernatorial race by Public Policy Polling (D) has some bad news for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is challenging incumbent Gov. Rick Perry in the Republican primary. Hutchison is now just barely holding on to second place, and could be overtaken for a spot in the primary runoff by businesswoman and conservative activist Debra Medina.

The numbers: Perry 39%, Hutchison 28%, Medina 24%, with a ±4.8% margin of error. If no candidate gets over 50% of the vote in the primary on March 2, a runoff will be held on April 13. Hutchison has previously discussed this possibility -- but this poll suggests that there's a chance that she has to work hard to get into the runoff itself.

From the pollster's analysis: "Perry is at 39% to 28% for Kay Bailey Hutchison and 24% for Medina. There are major splits within the race along ideological lines. Perry is at 42% with conservatives, and Medina is now outpolling Hutchison with them by a 25-23 margin. Hutchison cleans up with moderates, leading Perry 49-29, but unfortunately for her prospects they account for only 20% of GOP primary voters."

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On Friday, Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota gave a speech to Republican Party activists in Montgomery, Alabama. But Pawlenty, who's seen as a top GOP presidential contender for 2012, brought something with him besides his notes, reports Minnesota Public Radio: a $100,000 check for the Alabama Republican Party, from an anonymous donor.

The existence of the check -- said to be earmarked to help Alabama GOPers win control of the state legislature -- was announced, before Pawlenty's speech, by Alabama Republican chair Mike Hubbard. (You can listen to the audio of Hubbard's announcement here)

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The passing of Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) has triggered a special election that could have national implications for both parties.

Murtha's district is a swing seat, in general terms. It always returned Murtha by comfortable margins, but underneath that were some close races. John Kerry carried it with 51% in 2004, but it gave John McCain a very narrow 49% plurality in 2008 -- the only district in the whole country to actually cross the line from Kerry in 2004 to McCain in 2008.

Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell has 10 days to select a date for the election, which could occur at the same time as the regular Pennsylvania primary, May 18, in order to save the substantial money that a separate election would require. Under Pennsylvania laws, there would not be primaries for the special election -- instead, the parties would select candidates through their own internal processes. Whoever wins the special election would then face the voters again in the regular 2010 general election.

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