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First thoughts: Mitt's big day

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro

*** Mitt's big day: Twenty-eight days until Iowa… When Romney delivers his "Faith in America" speech from College Station, TX at 10:30 am ET, it will be the first time since he formally announced his presidential bid on February 13 that the political spotlight will shine solely on him. By many accounts, that announcement speech from Dearborn, MI fell flat, especially compared to the one Obama gave from Springfield, IL just days before. With all eyes on him today -- and with Huckabee now leading him in Iowa -- will Romney's speech live up to the hype? Indeed, this is an opportunity to re-launch his campaign. Not every candidate gets a second announcement. McCain would like one; so would Huckabee and maybe even Giuliani.

*** A speech JFK wouldn't have given: As Romney himself said earlier in the week, the speech will not be a JFK-esque address; rather, he'll talk about the role of religion in society and it's importance in American culture. In fact, according to excerpts his campaign released this morning, Romney will essentially downplay his own religion but play up the inclusion of religion in public life -- which isn't something JFK would have said in 1960. "There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines," Romney will say. "To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes President he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths."

More: "[I]n recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God… They are wrong."

*** Faith, strategy, and Phil Gramm: But is Romney's own faith a bigger problem for him than he might admit publicly? In last month's NBC/WSJ poll, 50% said that voters in this country aren't ready to elect a Mormon as president -- compared with 24% who said this of a woman, 27% of an African American, and 46% of a Hispanic. The poll also found that 33% of Republicans and 45% of evangelicals are uncomfortable or have reservations about Romney possibly being the country's first Mormon president. But as one of us has written, faith could be the least of his problems. "More than any other major candidate, [Romney's] path to the nomination is tied to an early state strategy… But lose both Iowa and New Hampshire? Suddenly his chances plummet." Indeed, given the speech's venue at Texas A&M University, is Romney in danger of being compared to the Aggie economics professor Phil Gramm? Gramm "wowed the Republican establishment in '95-96 with his great fundraising. He used that money to build what some thought would be a juggernaut organization in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond. But the minute the spotlight came on, he melted."

*** Sluggish response: While today's focus is on Romney, the guy who's challenging him in Iowa -- Mike Huckabee -- still gets a lot of attention today. He's on the front page of the New York Times, and he also made appearances on TODAY and Morning Joe. In his interview on TODAY, Huckabee promised to have a statement from a former member of the Arkansas parole board that would rebut some of the allegations made in the Huffington Post regarding the Wayne Dumond story. What's interesting about the promise he made is just how slow his campaign is right now with the response. Huckabee may be a first-tier candidate in the polls, but does he have the first-tier organization (like a rapid response team) to take advantage of all this extra attention?

*** Pot meet kettle? The news yesterday that a Clinton volunteer in Iowa was passing along the Obama-is-a-Muslim email doesn't seem to be the HUGE news it was when it first surfaced. After all, this person wasn't a high-ranking official doing this, and the campaign quickly denounced and dismissed the activity. What it does, however, is make it more difficult for Team Clinton in the future to complain about dirty tricks coming from the Obama camp, as it did on Tuesday. It's also another lesson in the fact nothing is underground in Iowa. There are too many activists who are wannabe pundits and journalists -- and who just love being media sources in Iowa.

*** Good news, bad bews for Hillary in NH: Perhaps the biggest news this morning on the Democratic side is the new Washington Post/ABC poll that has Obama trailing Clinton in New Hampshire by just six points (35%-29%). Do we need any more proof that Obama has momentum right now? It seems a poll has come out every day in the last two weeks adding to the pro-Obama noise. The good news for Clinton: Her support appears to be more firm than Obama's, which makes sense since Obama's base of support is independents, while Clinton's been stronger with rank-and-file Democrats. Polls are going to be VERY tricky in New Hampshire because of how hard it'll be to estimate the independent split. In fact, a new Marist poll has Clinton with a 14-point lead over Obama.

*** On the trail: Elsewhere today, Clinton campaigns in New Hampshire before heading back to DC to attend a "Holidays with Hillary" reception in DC; Dodd stumps in Iowa; Edwards is in South Carolina; Giuliani, in Florida, raises money and holds a media avail; Huckabee chats with the press in Greensboro, NC and then hits a fundraiser afterwards; McCain campaigns throughout New Hampshire; Richardson is in Florida; and Thompson is in DC.

Countdown to Iowa: 28 days
Countdown to New Hampshire: 33 days
Countdown to Michigan: 40 days
Countdown to Nevada and SC GOP primary: 44 days
Countdown to SC Dem primary: 51 days
Countdown to Florida: 54 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 61 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 334 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 411 days

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