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First thoughts

From Chuck Todd and Mark Murray in Orangeburg, SC
*** Let's Get Ready to Rumble: Tonight, all eight Democratic presidential candidates -- Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, Gravel, Kucinich, Obama, and Richardson -- assemble on the stage of the Martin Luther King Jr. auditorium at South Carolina State University to participate in the first debate of the 2008 campaign. Moderated by NBC's Brian Williams, the debate airs live on MSNBC and South Carolina NBC affiliates at 7:00 pm ET. Who will throw the first punch? How will Clinton and Obama fare? Which non-frontrunner will impress the most? Or the least? Tune in for the answers. We already know who's winning the sign war… We saw Obama's folks outside at 6:45 am placing Obama signs on the road outside the auditorium.

*** Gaining Ground: Just in time for the debate, a new NBC/WSJ poll shows that Obama has cut into Clinton's lead -- from 12 points in March (40%-28%) to 5 points now (36%-31%). Edwards is in third at 20% (up 5 points since March), while no other Democrat gets more than 3%. Democrats also appear to be in good shape for the general election. In head-to-head match ups, Clinton beats Fred Thompson (46%-40%), while Obama tops McCain (45%-39%). What's more, a generic Democratic candidate bests the generic GOP one, 49%-31%. And more than three-quarters of Democrats say they are satisfied with their presidential candidates, while just more than half of Republicans say this about their field.

*** The More You Know...: Going inside the numbers of our poll, there's even more bad news for Clinton and McCain. Among those who are "very closely" watching the presidential campaign (about a quarter of each primary sample), Obama actually leads Clinton, 38%-31%, with Edwards at 20%. Among those "very closely" following the GOP primary (again, a quarter of the sample), Giuliani's lead shrinks to almost nothing, but the second place candidate is Thompson. In fact, among these voters, Giuliani nabs 30%, Thompson gets 28%, Romney gets 20% and -- here's the shocker -- McCain is in single digits at 9%. Does this mean that the more voters learn about the candidates, the more Clinton and McCain see their support erode? Are all their poll numbers artificially high because of name I.D. from campaigns past?

*** Harry Reid's America? Last night, the House narrowly passed the Iraq supplemental that would begin to bring home US troops in Iraq beginning in October; it goes to the Senate today. And in the NBC/WSJ poll, a majority agrees with the Democrats -- 56% say they agree with the Democrats in Congress who want to set a deadline for troop withdrawal from Iraq, compared with just 37% who agree with Bush that there shouldn't be a deadline. In addition, 67% are less confident the war will come to a successful conclusion, 57% believe stabilizing Iraq isn't even possible, and only 12% believe the situation there has gotten better in the past three months. But are Democrats going far enough? Just 31% say they are concerned that Congress will go too far on Iraq -- versus 61% who are more worried that Bush will not make enough changes. And a paltry 20% think the new Congress has brought the right kind of change.

*** Like Father, Like Son? Perhaps the most striking finding in the NBC/WSJ poll is that only 22% believe the country is on the right track. It's the lowest number on that poll since October 1992 when -- you guessed it -- Bush's father was running for re-election (and later lost). Elsewhere in the poll, Bush's job approval remains at 35% for the third consecutive poll, just 27% approve of his handling of Iraq, and only 31% approve of Congress' job.

*** Back to the Center? McCain begins the second leg of his announcement tour in South Carolina, joining the Democrats in the state. As we mentioned yesterday, the NBC/WSJ poll has McCain on top (although within the margin of error) when GOP voters are asked which candidate would follow Bush's policies closely. So maybe it isn't surprising that he used his announcement speech yesterday to criticize the Bush Administration -- implicitly -- on Iraq, Katrina, and Walter Reed.

*** On the Trail: Elsewhere, Gilmore announces he's running for president via a live webcast from the Iowa Republican Party's headquarters, and Romney is in New Hampshire for some smaller-scaled meetings with local residents.