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First thoughts: Duel at Dartmouth

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Julia Steers
HANOVER, NH -- Tonight, the eight Democratic presidential candidates -- Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, Gravel, Kucinich, Obama, and Richardson -- participate in a debate here at Dartmouth College at 9:00 pm ET. The Duel at Dartmouth, which airs on MSNBC and is moderated by NBC's Tim Russert, marks the sixth full-fledged Democratic debate of this campaign season (or seventh, if you count the boisterous AFL-CIO forum at Soldier Field), and the third one sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. It also happens to be the first Democratic debate of the fall, and it comes as Clinton has widened her lead nationally and also in this state. A brand-new CNN/WMUR poll finds her with a 23-point lead over Obama in New Hampshire (43%-20%). Back in July, her lead was nine points (36%-27%). With that kind of advantage, and with about three months until the early nominating contests begin, doesn't each debate become more and more important for the candidates chasing her?

VIDEO: NBC Political Director Chuck Todd offers his first read on what Barack Obama can do, going into tonight's Democratic debate, to stop Hillary Clinton from walking away with the Democratic nomination.

*** A Lot Has Happened In The Past Month: The last Democratic debate took place in mid-August, and much has happened since then. The Petraeus report. The MoveOn ad that overshadowed it. The 9/11 anniversary. The strange Norman Hsu story. Clinton's health-care rollout. And the candidates' pledge not to campaign in Florida and Michigan. Will those be the big storylines tonight? Or will they be other issues? Speaking of, don't miss today's front-page Wall Street Journal report of a Bill Clinton-connected business dealing gone bad, or Adam Nagourney's piece on how the front-runner doesn't always become the nominee.

*** Three Things To Watch For: 1) How many times will Clinton laugh? We've noticed an interesting pattern: Whenever Clinton gets a tough question or is attacked by an opponent directly, she deflects the criticism with laughter. So, if Clinton's doubled-over in laughter most of the night, we'll know she's the target. 2) How many times have we believed THIS would be the debate that Obama goes after Clinton? With just a handful of debates left for him (since he's skipping any of them not sanctioned by the DNC), he doesn't have too many more opportunities to go after her. 3) There's an expectation that Edwards will take direct aim at Clinton, but what if he decides to attempt to show distinction more with Obama? One can argue that he needs to send a message to the MSM that he -- and not Obama -- is the chief Clinton alternative.

*** Other Questions: As for the others in the field, will Richardson make it through one debate without having a head-scratching moment? Will Biden continue stick up for Clinton (as he's done in the past) or will he take aim at her (as he did at the AARP forum)? And then there's Dodd. He seems comfortable going after everyone ahead of him. Will he go more after Clinton or, say, an Edwards, who arguably is running the type of populist campaign that Dodd would like to run?

*** Trouble For The Dems? For the final installment of First Read's look at the Democratic Party and its potential problems heading into 2008 -- despite everything going right for it at the moment -- we examine national security. Thanks largely to the Iraq war, Democrats today are in a stronger position on this issue than they've ever been. In the July NBC/WSJ poll, Democrats held a 15-point advantage over Republicans on the Iraq, and were even with the GOP on terrorism. (For a bit of perspective, Republicans had a whopping 36-point lead on terrorism back in October 2002.) But there is no doubt that the Republican Party pouncing on MoveOn's anti-Petraeus ad -- and then the Democrats backing away from it -- exposed a hole in the Dems' armor: They are still wary of any GOP effort to portray them as not supporting the troops.

*** MoveOn-ed? Indeed, with the Democratic candidates vowing not to vote for any war-funding bill unless it comes with a timetable for withdrawal, are they setting themselves up to be MoveOn-ed? Also, don't forget this comment from Hillary Clinton back in late August: "If certain things happen between now and the election, particularly with respect to terrorism, that will automatically give the Republicans an advantage again, no matter how badly they have mishandled it, no matter how much more dangerous they have made the world." Is she right?

*** On The Trail: Elsewhere today, there are (or were) a couple of interesting events. Edwards was supposed to be in Buffalo rallying with striking United Auto Workers members, but now has cancelled the event due to a settlement between the UAW and GM. And Giuliani, in another high-profile meeting with world leaders, meets with Iraqi President Talabani at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

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