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First thoughts: the battle for Iowa

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Julia Steers
*** The battle for Iowa:

For the next 45 days, until the caucuses take place there, the Democratic presidential race will be all about Iowa. Their campaigns will spend millions of dollars, air countless TV ads, campaign for hundreds of hours, and knock on thousands of doors -- in a state with a population of less than 3 million and where 93% of the residents are white. Indeed, the top Democrats are all in Iowa today. Clinton campaigns in Knoxville, Waterloo, and Vinton; Edwards stumps with Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt in Davenport, Iowa City, and Cedar Rapids; and Obama visits Clarion and Fort Dodge.

*** Stepping it up: The reason this has become the central battleground in the Dem contest: It's the only place where Clinton isn't leading by a substantial margin. And her campaign, as the New York Times wrote over the weekend, seems to be worried: It has doubled its staff, is increasing its advertising in the state, and promises that rarely a day will go by without either Clinton or that OTHER Clinton stumping in the state. One of two things will happen in Iowa on January 3: Either Clinton wins, and she steamrolls through the primaries on the way to the nomination. Or she doesn't, and the candidate with a majority of the advantages -- in polls, in endorsements, and with the most famous last name in the Democratic Party -- looks vulnerable and it becomes a two-person fight to the finish with the candidate who wins Iowa.

*** Rudy's new focus on Iowa:

Clinton isn't the only New Yorker who is stepping things up in the Hawkeye State. So is Giuliani. Is it now two races in the GOP contest for Iowa: Romney versus Huckabee for first, and Giuliani versus Thompson versus McCain for third? What is Rudy up to here? Is this about killing off Thompson in Iowa to get him out of the way in South Carolina, a state the Giuliani folks believe they can win if Thompson isn't a factor? Remember, Dukakis used a third-place finish in the '88 caucuses to claim "victory" and prove viability outside of the Northeast. There is good news for Romney in Giuliani's stepped-up activity -- it'll make a victory there worth more. But it also puts more pressure on him to win.

*** Is Obama letting folks see him sweat? What a difference a week makes. Last Monday, everyone was buzzing about Obama's stellar J-J performance. But after Obama's less-than-stellar debate performance late last week, one can sense another one of those momentum switches. His campaign screamed to the top of its lungs after Bob Novak reported that the Clinton campaign was sitting on allegedly scandalous material on Obama. Then Obama got into a spat with an Iowa voter -- which he rarely does -- over national security and illegal immigration, which is one of those "looks worse on video than in print" stories.  About the only good news for Obama this weekend is that the spat over the Novak story did appear to change the subject from the debate. That debate (at least for now) looks like a three-day story. By comparison, the Philly debate turned into a two-week-plus story. By the way, there's no truth to the rumor that the Clinton research shop has nicknamed its Obama war room: "The Barack Study Group." But it is a joke making the rounds of unaffiliated Dems...

*** Huck's Delta Force:

So you're Mike Huckabee. Your poll numbers begin to soar in Iowa, and the media start paying attention to your campaign. What do you do? You air your first TV ad in Iowa (at a buy of $60,000), and it features Chuck Norris. The ad is certainly buzz-worthy; after all, no one represents toughness -- and fitness -- better than Chuck Norris. But for a candidate desperately trying to be taken seriously as a potential president, does using Norris in your FIRST TV ad, convey enough seriousness? 

*** Roger and me: NBC/NJ's Matt Berger reports Giuliani gave a hearty laugh on Sunday when asked if his campaign is receiving preferential treatment from FOX. "Roger [Ailes] is a close friend of mine, he's been a close friend of mine for a very, very long time," Giuliani said. "I don't receive -- gosh, all you have to do is look at it and you can figure out I don't receive any different treatment there than any place else. The reality is that you have a lot of friendships, and to suggest you get preferential treatment because of them is just not right." Interesting that Giuliani didn't dispute the closer relationship he has with Ailes. Is that something that will bug the rest of the GOP field? If Ailes is providing even "Kitchen Cabinet" type of advice, it's more advice than he's giving any of Rudy's opponents.

*** Rove the writer:

Nothing is going to be more fun than attempting to read between the lines of Karl Rove's Newsweek columns. His inaugural piece has a fascinating anecdote about Hillary Clinton and a West Wing mirror, and he uses it to paint her toughness and make the case that Republicans shouldn't just assume that simply running against her is a campaign message. What is Rove proposing exactly? Run on issues that Democrats usually run on, including the economy and health care. But the most fascinating thing about Rove's column is what he didn't write about: Bush. Not a single mention of his former boss's name. An accident? Unlikely. The subtle message? The GOP nominee cannot run on Bush (but it appears Rove isn't ready to concede that the Republican has to run against Bush). Or is that for a later column?

*** On the trail: Elsewhere today, Giuliani holds a fundraiser and press conference in McAllen, TX; Huckabee raises money in Ohio; Kucinich, in New York, also raises money; McCain delivers a speech in New Hampshire and then holds a press conference in Boston before heading to Philadelphia; Paul is in Nevada; Richardson campaigns in New Hampshire; Romney is in Boise, ID before traveling to Seattle; Tancredo hits a fundraiser in the Dallas, TX area; and Thompson is in Mississippi.

Countdown to Iowa: 45 days
Countdown to New Hampshire: 50 days
Countdown to Michigan: 57 days
Countdown to Nevada and SC GOP primary: 61 days
Countdown to SC Dem primary: 68 days
Countdown to Florida: 71 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 78 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 351 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 428 days