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One former White House press secretary versus seven Republican presidential candidates? Robert GIbbs will take those odds.

President Obama's ex-spokesman is expected to hit the local and national airwaves tonight in New Hampshire after the Republican debate, the first to feature frontrunner Mitt Romney, freefalling Newt Gingrich, and Tea Party rabble-rouser Michele Bachmann. According to the Associated Press, his mission will be to defend the President from the inevitable spate of high-profile attacks from the 2012 field, getting in the White House's point of view on issues like the economy, health care, and Libya.

The appearance fits a broader reported strategy of maintaining a high profile and strong grassroots operation in early primary and caucus states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, in order to prevent the GOP from scoring an organizational advantage over the course of the long nominating process and to make sure the GOP attacks on Obama are consistently rebutted.

Last week, Tim Pawlenty unveiled a plan to overhaul the tax code that would make Paul Ryan wince. But as radical as his proposal is, it could easily become the baseline for what it takes to pass muster in the GOP presidential primary. And that would carry enormous consequences for the general election and beyond.

We'll get a first glimpse of how Pawlenty's GOP rivals react to his proposal at tonight's debate. Do they embrace the underlying principles of the plan so that Pawlenty doesn't outflank them on the right? Or do they try to one up him with even more dramatic overhauls of the tax code?

Pawlenty proposes to reduce the top individual income tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent, cut the top corporate rate from 25 percent to 15 percent, and allow pass-through corporations to pay taxes at the corporate rate. He also wants to completely eliminate capital gains taxes, taxes on dividends and interest, and the estate tax.

Altogether, according to the Tax Policy Center, it would cost the Treasury over $11 trillion over the course of a decade -- most of which would benefit the wealthiest Americans. It's a recipe for either a catastrophic budget crisis, or a fundamental dismantling of the public sector's role in American life, or both.

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Not since the first head-to-CPU contest between Gary Kasparov and Deep Blue has the world waited so breathlessly for the kind of battle of the minds we're likely to witness Monday evening.

For the first time this primary season, seven of the top contenders for the GOP presidential nomination will field tough questions, pitch Republican voters, and take on each others' foibles and apostasies during an 8 pm ET, CNN/WMUR/New Hampshire Union Leader-sponsored debate in Manchester, New Hampshire.

On hand will be Herman Cain, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) -- all of whom participated in the first GOP debate last month. They'll be joined on stage by three big names in Republican politics: Newt Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Like every primary debate since the advent of cable television, the forum will be marked by predictable talking points, unctuous spells of self-flattery, and reflexive attacks on the incumbent president.

But as the GOP field takes shape, it will also be one of the first opportunities for the contenders to stake out or clarify their positions on the issues defining this race. Here are the five key things to be on the look out for.

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The Republicans who gather on stage in New Hampshire Monday night for their first major presidential primary debate are all scrambling to position themselves on Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-WI) plan to replace Medicare with a voucher system.

And thanks to a blanket of advertising in New Hampshire by progressive groups, primary voters in the Granite State watching tonight's debate will be confronted with the Democratic view of Ryan's budget -- namely, that it forces seniors and the poor to bear the burden of the federal budget woes while making life easier on the rich.

Major progressive groups are flooding New Hampshire with Medicare messaging, previewing the fight for Medicare they hope to have with the GOP next year. Online or on the air, it will be hard for primary voters tuning in to the debate to avoid the progressive position on the Ryan budget, providing contrast for the Republicans on stage who are expected to heap praise on Ryan, even while the big names try to put at least some distance between them and Ryan's unpopular proposal.

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The Tea Party made its name rallying Republican voters in primaries and general elections around the country, but one influential leader is calling on the movement to turn its sights on the other side of the aisle in 2012.

Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, surprised attendees at this month's ultra-partisan Faith and Freedom Convention in Washington by insisting that there were Democrats deserving of the group's backing as well.

"There are Democrats out there who are our kind of Democrats," Meckler said. "There are Democrats out there who think what we think and it's our to job to find -- yes, sacrilege -- Democratic Tea Party candidates."

He went so far as to advise Republicans in Democratic districts to switch their affiliation and vote in the party primary in order to maximize their effect on the race. "It's your job to find the right kind of Democrat," he recalled telling one Tea Party voter frustrated with his Democratic-leaning district.

There's a certain pragmatic logic to Meckler's plan. With the GOP majority close to its high water mark following the 2010 wave, there may be few possibilities to expand the map any further into Democratic territory. And a more conservative Democrat in a safe seat is better than nothing.

"We've looked at the map, we know the numbers," he told TPM in an interview.

Meckler conceded that there are yet few examples of Tea Party activists influencing a Democratic primary. He said he was heartened, however, by the recent nonpartisan special election primary in CA-36, which unexpectedly saw a Republican advance to the general election in the heavily Democratic district. While the GOP candidate is unlikely to win, the results demonstrated that activists were willing to put in hard work even in a solid Democratic race.

For now, it's unclear the movement can ever be convinced to put the same effort into electing Democrats, let alone one who may hold individual positions anathema to conservative activists. To many observers, the movement is virtually indistinguishable from the Republican base. Nonetheless, there have been rare instances in which Tea Party groups crossed party lines. The Patriots' rival group, Tea Party Express, endorsed Democratic Rep. Walter Minnick in Idaho last year, for example, citing his votes against his party's leaders in Congress.

Wisconsin Democrats have now arrived at a novel solution to the problem of Republicans planting fake Democratic candidates in the recalls against Republican state senators, in order to force primaries and thus delay the general elections for some of the races: The Dems are now going to plant their own extra Democratic candidates -- now dubbed "placeholder" candidates by the Dems -- in order to delay all the targeted recalls to August.

Don't worry if this sounds a bit confusing -- because it is. This whole mess began when Republicans declared a strategy to plant fake candidates in the Democratic primaries -- in order to delay the general elections from July to August, and make trouble in the Dem primaries while the GOP incumbents run unopposed. (Examples of the fake Democratic candidates include an 82-year old former Republican state legislator, and a 25-year old GOP activist, among others.)

The key here is that recalls are now tentatively scheduled for July 12, under the state election officials' proposed timelines, targeting six Republicans. (Three more recalls have been scheduled against Democrats, for July 19.) If there were only one Democrat against each one Republican, then the July 12 date would be the general election. But if there were additional Democrats, the July 12 date would then become the primary, giving the incumbents more time to campaign for a general election on August 9.

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The office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who has been undergoing medical treatment since she was shot in the head at a district event this past January, has now released onto Facebook the first official photos of the Congresswoman since the incident.

The photos were taken on May 17, the day after the launch of the space Shuttle Endeavour commanded by her husband Mark Kelly, and the day before she underwent a cranioplasty surgery to replace part of her skull with a plastic implant. One of the photos is a solo picture of Giffords, facing the camera and smiling. The other shows the Congresswoman accompanied by her mother, Gloria Giffords, and both smiling.

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Rep Anthony Weiner (D-NY) will leave Congress temporarily to tend to his personal life, a spokeswoman for the Congressman, Risa Heller told TPM on Saturday. The move falls short of a resignation, which Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and a group of top Democratic officials publicly demanded earlier the same day.

"Congressman Weiner departed this morning to seek professional treatment to focus on becoming a better husband and healthier person," the statement reads. "In light of that, he will request a short leave of absence from the House of Representatives so that he can get evaluated and map out a course of treatment to make himself well. Congressman Weiner takes the views of his colleagues very seriously and has determined that he needs this time to get healthy and make the best decision possible for himself, his family and his constituents."

If his goal was to head off the calls for his resignation from Democratic leadership, he did not succeed. "At the time of her statement this afternoon, Leader Pelosi was already aware of Congressman Weiner's intention to take a leave of absence in order to seek treatment," an aide to Pelosi told TPM in an e-mail.

Weiner's announcement came shortly after his office confirmed that the Congressman exchanged messages online with a 17-year old female high school student in Delaware, although he and the family of the girl in question both say that nothing inappropriate occurred.

According to House rules, members can request a formal "leave of absence," but the term has no actual legal or constitutional significance. The Congressional Record often notes leaves of absence on individual votes with explanations like illness, official business, or family matters, with their inclusion approved by unanimous consent, but a substantial leave may fall under a separate procedure. A Democratic aide told TPM that members' requests for a leave of absence over an extended period are approved automatically, but Speaker Boehner's office is reportedly still consulting the rules to determine whether that's correct.

Update 6/12/11: Leaves of absence do not require approval from Speaker Boehner and are handled within Weiner's caucus, according to a Republican aide.