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First thoughts: Eight days out

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Eight days out: With the caucuses just eight days away, almost every candidate -- Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Huckabee, McCain, Obama, Richardson, and Thompson, as well as Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama -- is in Iowa today. The exceptions are Edwards and Romney (who are in New Hampshire) and Giuliani (who is in Florida). Just asking: Does anyone go negative on TV today? And how much negative direct mail will be buried in those post-Christmas circulars?

*** Playing the experience card: Hillary Clinton channels John Kerry in a way (or at least hopes to) with the launch of her final tour designed to appeal to Iowans on the idea that it's now time to pick a president. Officially, it's called  "Big Challenges, Real Solutions -- Time To Pick A President" tour. Per a memo the campaign just released, "America faces a war abroad and a troubled economy at home -- critical moments that demand a President who is tested, ready to lead on Day 1 and offers real solutions to the big challenges we face. And that person is Hillary Clinton." But on the very day that Clinton highlights her experience comes a front-page New York Times piece, which isn't that flattering about that experience, especially relating to foreign policy. From the piece: "Mrs. Clinton did not hold a security clearance. She did not attend National Security Council meetings. She was not given a copy of the president's daily intelligence briefing. She did not assert herself on the crises in Somalia, Haiti and Rwanda."

*** Dueling tours: By the way, "Big Challenges, Real Solutions -- Time To Pick A President" is a long name for a tour. Clinton's campaign, in fact, has a habit of naming a lot of its Iowa tours. If she goes on to lose Iowa, many will look back at the series of different tour names and use that as an example of Clinton struggling to find the right message. Meanwhile, Obama is sticking to the change message with his "Stand for Change" tour, which also begins today. The two tours are very much cooperative with big media by making the final eight-day contrast between Clinton and Obama become experience vs. change. But remember, it's not that simple… There's another change candidate in the field who has every chance of winning Iowa, and that's John Edwards. In fact, what does the weight of two change messages vs. one experience message do to Clinton?

*** Look who else is in Iowa today… :  Also in Iowa today is McCain, who is apparently making a real push in the state as he spends the next three days in Iowa with a very full schedule. Will he stay in Iowa through January 3 -- or will he pop back into New Hampshire? With the media looking to write those McCain-is-back stories, a third-place finish in Iowa could be a big Mo boost for the Arizona senator. Would McCain finishing third in Iowa hurt Romney when we get to New Hampshire? Romney may be trying to stop Huckabee in Iowa, and clearly a Mitt victory over Huck would be a big boost. But losing to Huckabee wouldn't be nearly as harmful in New Hampshire as finishing just ahead of McCain in Iowa. Can any other Republican slingshot as well out of Iowa right now than McCain, thanks to expectations and the length of time it appears that Huckabee's been in the lead? The burden of expectations...

*** … And look who isn't: Giuliani's schedule this week shows how he hopes to have the race start for him in Florida. He spends 2 1/2 days in the Sunshine State, a day and half in Iowa, and he then ends the week in New Hampshire. Where to next? Does he spend New Year's in Iowa or New Hampshire? Does he spend any of the final week in a state other than those two? Giuliani's Iowa stops this week will be scrutinized closely for crowd size and enthusiasm.

Countdown to Iowa: 8 days
Countdown to New Hampshire: 13 days
Countdown to Michigan: 20 days
Countdown to Nevada and SC GOP primary: 24 days
Countdown to SC Dem primary: 31 days
Countdown to Florida: 34 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 41 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 314 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 391 days

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