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Tom Steyer surprises in the polls

Here are the stories our panel of top political reporters have on their radar, in this week’s “Inside Politics” forecast.

1. Steyer surprises

Two sitting senators, a congresswoman and a former governor didn’t qualify for the next Democratic debate — but after spending more than $116 million on TV ads, billionaire businessman Tom Steyer did.

“Every presidential election seems to feature a surprise, and Tom Steyer is making the case that it’s going to be him in 2020,” said Associated Press Washington bureau chief Julie Pace.

“He’s really surprised a lot of people with his showing in the polls last week in Nevada and South Carolina,” Pace said, thanks in large part to all that money. “In some of the states where he’s on the air, he’s basically the only candidate who’s spending on advertising. And he can keep spending more, he’s worth $1.6 billion.”

One problem: the other billionaire in the race.

“Michael Bloomberg is worth 40 times as much as Steyer, and has already vastly outspent him in advertising,” Pace said.

2. Second choice matters

With just three weeks left until the Iowa caucuses, the battle is on to be the second choice of every voter who doesn’t pick you first.

That’s because according to the Iowa rules, the second round of voting only includes candidates who hit a 15% threshold in the first round. If you support someone who doesn’t meet that mark, you pick someone else.

“Cory Booker, Andrew Yang, even Michael Bennet and John Delaney and others who are asterisks in the polls are suddenly incredibly important,” CNN senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny said. That’s because the frontrunners want to identify their voters ahead of time and win them over for Round 2.

“On caucus night, the precinct leaders and captains can pull them over to their side, and so it’s all about organization. The Warren campaign has been building organizations since the beginning, much sooner than the others,” Zeleny said. “Getting the second choice is so key to winning.”

3. Europe & Iran

The US and Iran seem to have backed off the brink of war, at least for now. But one big question now is how aggressively the Islamic Republic will move to restart its nuclear program now that its deal with the West is effectively dead.

“The Europeans are now in the middle and watching everything,” Washington Post congressional correspondent Karoun Demirjian said. “They may be the decision-makers and power-brokers that we don’t usually give them credit for. Europe is going to be critical as the focus moves not just to what the next steps are on proliferation, but also the arms embargo that’s supposed to be expiring later this year. The United States is not the only decision-maker.”

4. China trade deal & 2020

Top Chinese officials will be in Washington this week to sign “phase one” of a trade deal with President Donald Trump. It doesn’t end the trade war, but it may serve effectively as a truce.

“The deal is going to include tariff relief, which is critical, as well as an increase of the Chinese purchases of US agricultural products, as well as some changes to rules on technology and intellectual property,” Wall Street Journal White House correspondent Vivian Salama said.

“This is really critical going into the 2020 campaign, because a lot of farmers in states that are critical for the President’s reelection were hit hard by the tariffs, and so they’re going to be looking for some relief.”

In another sign of reduced tensions, Washington and Beijing agreed to hold new bi-annual meetings to talk about trade and economic reforms, Salama said.

5. Trump 2016 vs. Trump 2020

And from CNN Chief National Correspondent John King:

Incumbent presidents have an advantage: the “Rose Garden strategy.” They can use their powers to shape policy debates in a way they believe helps them on the reelection campaign trail.

Just Friday we saw three glimpses of this from the Trump administration. And they offered clear evidence of where the President’s 2020 strategy will hew closely to his 2016 approach, and where it will be different.

Two of the examples relate to immigration, which clearly will again be a major campaign theme. Remember the 2016 firestorm over the so-called Muslim ban? The Associated Press reported Friday it had obtained administration documents detailing a significant planned expansion of the travel ban.

That same day, the acting chief of the Department of Homeland Security traveled to Arizona to highlight border wall construction, insisting the administration had reached the 100-mile mark in terms of building the border wall across new locations, even though the site of his news conference was one of the places newly constructed wall is replacing older border barriers. The President is pushing for more construction progress, and you can be certain his election-year travels will include a border wall visit.

The big shift made clear Friday? Health care.

Remember in 2016, then-candidate Trump promised to quickly repeal Obamacare. His efforts floundered in Congress as Republicans could not get legislation to final passage even when they had majorities in both the House and Senate the first two years of the Trump administration.

But there is another opportunity now: a federal challenge to Obamacare initiated by Republican governors and attorneys general and supported in legal filings by the Trump administration.

Democratic groups are asking the Supreme Court to fast track consideration of the Obamacare challenge, hoping the nation’s highest court decides whether to uphold or invalidate the Affordable Care Act before Election Day.

But Trump’s Justice Department asked the high court in a filing Friday to take a go-slow approach, arguing there was no emergency and the issue could be dealt with in the next term in 2021.

So why would the President want to stall a chance to get a ruling that could allow him to claim he is keeping a major 2016 promise?

Look no further than the 2018 election results.

Protecting Obamacare was the lead Democratic issue in a midterm campaign strategy that resulted in giant gains, including the House sweep that created the new Democratic House majority.

The administration says it still supports the Obamacare challenge. But asking the Supreme Court to wait until next year to consider the case is clear proof Team Trump does not want to risk winning this year, and disrupting health care for millions of Americans just before they decide whether the President deserves four more years.

CNN