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It's a far cry from the near 70% approval rating Obama enjoyed at the start of his presidency, but for the first time since last May, half of the country approves of of how he's doing as president, according to Gallup.

In the latest Gallup poll, 50% of respondents said they approved of Obama's job performance, versus 43% who said they disapproved. In results released yesterday, that split was a tad better for Obama, 50%-42%. Those findings mark the first time Obama's approval has reached the symbolic 50% mark in Gallup's poll since the end of May 2010.

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Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele says a growing call by conservatives to purify the GOP from views that differ from their own could make life a lot easier for President Obama in 2012.

Steele was the star attraction at today's RNC chair debate sponsored by Grover Norquist's Americans For Tax Reform group, the Daily Caller and the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List. For about 90 minutes, Steele joined a panel of four others intent on taking his job when the RNC's 168 voting members convene later this month for their annual winter meeting. As expected, much of the talk was about fundraising, with each candidate in turn promising to rake in the gobs of cash the party will need to take on Obama (and try to flip the Senate while they're at it) in two years. But there was a surprising amount of philosophizing mixed in with the money talk. Candidates weighed in on what a Republican is, who counts as a Republican and what role the RNC should take in enforcing Republicanism.

[TPM SLIDESHOW: Michael Steele's Summer Vacation: Elect Republicans, Then Reelect Me!]

All the candidates were willing to say that being a Republican is more than just saying "I'm Republican." But while the challengers seemed to agree that some kind of litmus test was not only possible but probably necessary to keep the GOP from wasting money on candidates who weren't with the program, Steele implored his party to keep the tent doors flung open to all comers. Steele, who was one of the establishment figures on the inside taking fire from conservatives as Washington leaders attempted to select candidates in primaries last year, called talk of a litmus test "very dangerous" and suggested that closing the tent doors at the GOP was the first step toward political oblivion for Republicans.

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The candidates for chairman of the Republican National Committee are a literate bunch. And when asked to name their favorite book, their answers were revealing, to say the least.

Maria Cino's favorite is the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Reince Priebus named The Reagan Diaries as his first choice. And current RNC Chairman Michael Steele's favorite is War and Peace.

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This afternoon's RNC chairmanship debate saw the candidates being asked what they would do about a perennial issue that is near and dear to GOP hearts: The threat of alleged Democratic voter fraud.

As you probably know, voter fraud is a frequent complaint among Republicans, motivating their efforts to enact laws such as voter-identification, and to dispatch poll-watchers to precincts in (heavily Democratic) urban areas. At the other end of the spectrum, Democrats are quick to point out that very few voter-fraud prosecutions ever actually take place, and that the GOP's efforts would have a great impact of making it harder for lower-class and minority demographics to vote.

[TPM SLIDESHOW: Michael Steele's Summer Vacation: Elect Republicans, Then Reelect Me!]

Reince Priebus was first. "Well that's a good question for me, because I was chairman when we sued our Government Accountability Board in the state of Wisconsin over our non-compliance with an eight-year-old HAVA [Help America Vote Act] law," said Priebus, who then criticized the very open voting system in his state. "We are one of the few states in the entire country, in Wisconsin, where you can actually vote on Election Day without registering. And you can also vote without any picture identification at all. So our challenges in Wisconsin are astronomical."

He also added: "I think we need to win more races in the legislature so we can pass photo ID in all states, and make sure that we either have photo ID or real ID, or some method of protecting our constitutional right to vote in this country. And I think it has to be a top priority of the next chairman."

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In a fun moment at the RNC chairmanship debate, incumbent Chairman Michael Steele and Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus took very different positions on whether the party should have issue litmus tests for candidates -- and both got some good applause for their position.

The candidates were asked a question about what sort of non-conservative issue position a candidate could have which would cause them to not be welcomed as a Republican. Ann Wagner and Maria Cino both gave more general answers about how candidates should uphold all the party's core beliefs, while Saul Anuzis was a bit more open to differences -- though he said that a prospective GOP candidate should be with the party 80 percent of the time or more.

[TPM SLIDESHOW: Michael Steele's Summer Vacation: Elect Republicans, Then Reelect Me!]

Then Steele chimed in, coming out strongly against drawing such a hard line.

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by Dafna Linzer, ProPublica

Obama administration officials say they plan to reject Congressional efforts to limit the president's options on Guantanamo, setting the stage for a confrontation between the president and the new Congress on an issue that has been politically divisive since Inauguration Day.

The Guantanamo provisions, which include limits on where and how prisoners can be tried, were attached to a spending bill for military pay and benefits approved by Congress late last year. White House aides are recommending that President Obama sign the spending bill and then issue a "signing statement" challenging at least some of the Guantanamo provisions as intrusions on his constitutional authority.

The statement, officials said, would likely be released along with a new executive order that outlined review procedures for some -- but not all -- of the 174 Guantanamo prisoners still held without charge or trial.

Obama has used signing statements in the past, but this one would carry political significance as the first test of his relationship with a Congress in which the House is firmly in Republican control.

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