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Despite two years of Tea Party-fueled Republican internal upheaval, one of the leading establishment GOP voices on Capitol Hill says the man leading the Republican presidential nomination race is the guy who came in second to John McCain last time around.

Asked on Meet The Press yesterday who's ahead in the nascent GOP nomination fight, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was pretty direct.

"Probably Romney," Graham said, referring to former Massachusetts Gov. and American exceptionalist Mitt Romney.

Like most of the names being bandied about as potential Obama opponents, Romney has yet to officially declare his 2012 intentions. But Romney is widely seen as laying a frontrunner's foundation for a second presidential campaign, building on the name ID (and Democratic fears) he built in the 2008 nomination fight, which he lost to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

Two years ago, many said that Romney would have been the stronger nominee to face Obama, what with his central-casting presidential looks and history of winning over blue state voters with moderate stances. But before he can attempt to prove that theory right, Romney has to make it past tea party voters who don't seem too interested in him and social conservatives who seem to have moved on. But Romney's got the infrastructure and, Graham says, the early momentum.

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Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ), who was on vacation in Disney World during last weeks' big snowstorm, returned to the state on Friday to defend his absence -- and to blast the local mayors' handling of the situation.

"I wouldn't change the decision even if I could do it right now," Christie told reporters on New Year's Eve, the Star Ledger reports. "I had a great five days with my children. I promised that." He also added that his wife Mary Pat told him to not "even think about" canceling the trip.

"I would have been doing the same thing here as I was there," Christie said. "I would not have been out driving a plow. I would be in a room somewhere on a telephone. That's exactly the same thing I was doing in Florida."

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Face The Nation yesterday featured some, er, spirited debate from Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Anthony Weiner (D-NY), Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL), and Rep.-Elect Mike Kelly (R-PA) over the debt ceiling.

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We're now less than two years away from the next presidential election, which means it's time for 2012 presidential speculation to begin! The first This Week of the year kicked off the talk with some of the biggest names on the Republican side, and George Will seems to have found through the litany of names what he called "the President's secret weapon": Sarah Palin's inability to be elected.

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With the clock ticking down until the next Republican National Committee chair is selected (and time seemingly running out for current chair Michael Steele), some of the committee's highest-profile staff members are heading for the exits.

From an email sent this morning by RNC Communications Director Doug Heye:

I wanted to let you know that I've decided to leave the Republican National Committee following our Winter Meeting next week. At the Winter Meeting, the committee will be electing a Chair and I want to give whomever that might be the opportunity to choose their own staff without any complications.

Heye's not the only one, according to Politico. The committee's Chief of Staff, Mike Leavitt, is also heading out the door this month.

The RNC's 168 voting members will meet later this month to determine who will helm the RNC through the 2012 presidential election.

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The House ethics committee has ended an investigation into six members of Congress over allegations that they kept the remainder of per diem payments they receive when traveling overseas.

Reps. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), Eliot Engel (D-NY), Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Solomon Ortiz (D-TX) and Joe Wilson (R-SC) are now no longer under investigation in the case.

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Today: The RNC Chair Debate The candidates for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee will meet for a debate today at 1 p.m. ET, hosted by the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform. The debate will be streamed at the organizers' website here.

Boehner To Skip Welcome Party The Washington Post reports: "Austerity is the theme of Boehner's ascendancy to House speaker this week, placing the start of this new Congress in stark contrast to the more lavish festivities that accompanied Democrat Pelosi's swearing-in four years ago."

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On the eve of Monday's debate for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, one of the candidates has now dropped out: Former RNC political director Gentry Collins who quit his post in November, and publicly attacked incumbent Chairman Michael Steele in a scathing letter.

Collins launched his RNC chair bid shortly afterward, but ultimately garnered the public support of only three committee members so far, out of a pool of 168 voters.

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Alaska Republican Senate nominee Joe Miller, the Tea Party-backed (and Sarah Palin-backed) insurgent who defeated incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary, only to then lose to Murkowski's write-in campaign for the general election, has now announced that he is ending his legal challenge to Murkowski's victory -- effectively conceding the race and ending the 2010 election right on New Year's Eve.

As the Anchorage Daily News reports:

Miller thanked his supporters and said the time has come to accept the "practical realities" of court decisions that have been unanimous in ruling against his challenge. He said he would remain a voice for smaller government, less federal spending and other issues favored by the tea party.


Miller, a self-proclaimed expert in Constitutional law, had his challenges to Murkowski's election thrown out by an Alaska Superior Court judge from Ketchikan, a unanimous Alaska Supreme Court, and a U.S. District Court judge in Anchorage. The federal judge, Ralph Beistline, said the case against Miller was so overwhelming that he ruled before the state even filed all its arguments opposing Miller's claims.