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First thoughts

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Bill (Lacy) and Fred's Excellent Adventure: More than 90 days have passed since Fred Thompson established his "testing the waters" committee. And in those three months, nothing seemed to go right for the budding campaign. Critics panned Thompson's speeches; key staffers departed; the newspapers uncovered that he once lobbied for a pro-choice group (and the campaign flopped on the initial response to those stories); wife Jeri became a household name (and not necessarily in a good way); and everyone wondered out loud: "When is he going to in?" Well, he answered that last night on Leno, when he officially declared his candidacy. And his official announcement tour -- which begins today in Iowa and also includes a new campaign video -- allows him to start over and earn some positive press. It's his time to shine, and if there was ever an opening for someone to virtually come out of nowhere and win the GOP nod, this is it. But those rough three months have left him with little margin for error here on out.

*** Last night's winners: There were three clear winners last night: Giuliani, Huckabee, and Thompson. Yes, Thompson -- he came out a winner within the first five minutes, thanks to the moderator's opening question about the candidate-to-be's decision to go on Leno instead of showing up for this debate. The fact that every candidate (including Giuliani, Romney, Huckabee, and even McCain) took potshots reinforced the idea that the entire GOP field views him as a major candidate. In fact, most of the debate leads this morning included the Thompson shots. The Thompson folks could not have asked for a better setup. As for the winners who actually participated, Giuliani's performance was particularly strong -- perhaps his best debate to date. He's clearly comfortable being the front-runner; he absorbs the attacks from opponents without looking as if that opponent matters. His strongest answers were in defense of NOT signing the no-tax pledge and on guns, but his roughest moment was his shaky answer to the family-values questioner. Meanwhile, Huckabee doing well at a debate is about as common as the sun rising in the east. In particular, the exchange with Ron Paul where Huckabee got to defend McCain, defend the surge, and also call Iraq a mistake was, we dare say, a mix of Reagan and Clinton.

*** The Loser? From our perspective, it was Romney. He certainly didn't have any friends among the debate questioners and the diner patrons, and that kept him on the defensive all night. Romney's got to figure out how to turn all these attacks into a positive; Wednesday night was not a great night for the candidate who's ahead (per the polls) in the early states. As for the rest, McCain won Luntz's focus group and was praised in several post-debate analyses. But to us, his performance was not dominating, though his lecturing of Romney about the surge was a TV scene-stealer. At times, he was funny and loose; at other times, he was overly serious and a bit tight. Brownback seems less and less relevant (why did he stay in after his poor Ames Straw poll showing?); Tancredo seemed almost a non-factor; Hunter is very good at playing the Patriot card (but what part of the party does he represent that the front-runners don't?); Paul was as angry as he's been -- at one point, we wondered why he just didn't scream, "Hey kids, GET OFF MY LAWN!"

*** Snake I's? Today, Biden finds himself in Iraq, just days after he declared that he needs to finish second or third in Iowa. In fact, it's all about the "I"s with Biden: Iraq and Iowa. No one seems to come across more credibly on Iraq than Biden does, but he can't seem to get traction. Perhaps it's that he doesn't seem "new," or that what folks do know of him isn't presidential. He's certainly done nothing to hurt his chances of becoming a key cog in a future Dem administration, but he can't seem to gain traction among the Democratic elite: from trial lawyers to labor (two constituencies that would have been with him under other circumstances). All in all, Biden is a candidate who is performing well at the big events (i.e. debates, key TV interviews), but isn't breaking through in the early states. No wonder he decided to go Iowa or bust.

*** On The Trail: The day after the GOP debate, Giuliani travels to Minnesota and Illinois; Huckabee campaigns in New Hampshire and appears on FOX and Friends in the morning; McCain is in DC then raises money in California; Romney fundraises in New York; and Tancredo holds a town hall meeting in Merrimack, NH. On the Democratic side, Dodd holds a conference call with reporters to discuss his legislation to reform sub-prime lending practices; Edwards picks up the Transport Workers Union's endorsement in New York; and Obama holds a town hall in Las Vegas before heading to San Francisco.

Countdown to LA GOV election: 44 days
Countdown to Election Day 2007: 61 days
Countdown to LA GOV run-off (if necessary): 72 days
Countdown to Iowa: 130 days
Countdown to SC GOP primary: 135 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 152 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 425 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 502 days