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First thoughts: Focusing on the GOPers

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
RICHMOND, VA -- With the intense focus on the Democratic presidential contest -- the latest chapter is Obama's New York Times interview on Iran -- it's safe to say that not as much attention so far has been devoted to the GOP race. That's why a focus group here last night of 12 Republican voters, conducted by pollster Peter Hart (D), was so illuminating. For the most part, these voters -- seven men, five women, all of the white, all of them Bush voters in 2004 -- are disappointed with the president, fairly undecided about the GOP field, and pessimistic about the nation's direction. How pessimistic? Not a single one thought that the next generation would be better off, which is a striking attitude.

*** Still undecided: Turning to the GOP horserace, four of the 12 said they would vote (or

were leaning to vote) for Giuliani, another three picked Thompson, two chose Romney, two went with McCain, and one said both Thompson and Huckabee. Interestingly, just one of the 12 -- a Giuliani voter -- said he was solid with his pick. Not surprisingly, the Rudy supporters cited his leadership and 9/11; the Thompson people pointed to his personality; the Romney supporters talked about his experience and presidential looks; and the McCain folks mentioned his experience and heroism. On the flip side, five of the 12 said they had reservations about Romney's Mormon faith, although two of them said that they could change their mind if Romney tried to persuade them. (On that subject, per the Politico's Mike Allen, Huckabee

won't call Mormonism Christianity in a CBS interview.) A couple cited problems with Rudy's personal life and multiple marriages -- although some of the more socially conservative group members said it wasn't fair to judge him -- but more were troubled by his position on social issues. Asked to choose between Romney and Rudy, Giuliani won, 7-5, (but much of the support wasn't solid).

*** But ready for the general? While these Republicans were divided on the GOP candidates, they weren't divided on the Democrats. None of them said they'd vote for any of the Democratic front-runners. "Anybody but Hillary," said one. Even those who expressed concerns about Romney's Mormon faith said they'd have no problem voting for him in the general election. "Being a Democrat is worse than being a Mormon," said another. For Democrats, this suggests that their eventual nominee would face stiff opposition, no matter the perceived flaws with the GOP nominee. That said, despite the focus group's low opinion of Hillary Clinton, none of them doubted that she was strong or competent. That was a revealing finding to Hart, who said it was akin to Democrats in 1964 admitting that Barry Goldwater had a meaningful national defense policy.

*** Gender card backfiring? Speaking of Hillary, NBC's Andrea Mitchell on TODAY looked at Clinton playing the gender card after her less-than-impressive debate performance on Tuesday. Indeed, there's lots of chatter today about whether the Clinton campaign is hurting itself in a general election with this talk of the men in the race ganging up on the lone woman. Asked on TODAY if Hillary was being ganged up on, Obama harked back to the tough questions and criticism he received (over Pakistan and world leaders) at the ABC debate in August, and remarked that he didn't complain that he was receiving tough questions "because I look different than the other folks on the stage."

Why did Obama change the subject? Today's front-page headline in the New York Times: "Obama Envisions New Relationship With Iran." With all the attention on Hillary --

much of it not that positive -- why did Obama seek out the Times and change the subject to Iran? Whatever the reason, the Obama campaign seems proud of the article, given that it emailed reporters a copy of the article, as well as an AP piece about a Senate resolution Obama introduced last night saying that Bush "does not have authority to use military force against Iran." Of course, Obama's folks know that they can't debate process forever, and with Iraq no longer a divisive foreign policy issue, he needs a new issue. Iran it is…

*** On the trail: Biden and Obama speak at the Greenville NAACP banquet in South Carolina. Elsewhere today, Clinton files to be on the New Hampshire ballot; Edwards campaigns with actor Danny Glover in South Carolina; Giuliani picks up an endorsement in DC and then heads to New Hampshire; Huckabee speaks at the South Carolina Renewal Project Pastors' Policy Briefing; McCain also campaigns in South Carolina and speaks at an event honoring a Marine who died in Iraq; Richardson stumps in Iowa; and Romney raises money in Cleveland and Connecticut. Also, Michelle Obama campaigns in Iowa.

Countdown to Election Day 2007: 4 days
Countdown to Iowa: 62 days
Countdown to New Hampshire: 67 days
Countdown to Michigan: 74 days
Countdown to Nevada and SC GOP primary: 78 days
Countdown to SC Dem primary: 85 days
Countdown to Florida: 88 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 95 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 368 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 445 days

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