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First thoughts: Change, change, change

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
Six days to go: DES MOINES, Iowa -- With six days until the first nominating contest, all three Democratic front-runners are talking about change and about who can best deliver it. Yesterday, in his big closing argument speech -- overshadowed by Benazir Bhutto's assassination -- Obama said in words aimed directly at Hillary Clinton, "The real gamble in this election is playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expecting a different result." Clinton, meanwhile, says she's the one who can best bring out change. "Some people think you can bring about change by demanding it and some people think you can bring about change by hoping for it," she has said, referring to Edwards and Obama. "I think you bring about change by working hard for it." And today, Edwards gives his closing argument, in which he's expected say (in words aimed squarely at Obama), "Compromise and conciliation is the academic theory of change. It just doesn't work in the real world. Fighting for conviction is the historic reality of change." The AP's Ron Fournier nails it in his latest column: "Most voters want it. The candidates all promise it. The presidential race hinges on it. But nobody can quite agree on the meaning of the single most important word of the election: Change." And don't miss Obama's comment to Fournier calling Clinton a "caretaker" president.

VIDEO: NBC Political Director Chuck Todd offers his first read on how the death of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto will affect the presidential campaign efforts.

*** Bhutto fallout: The big political news yesterday, of course, was Bhutto's death and the candidates' reactions to it. Have we seen this movie before? Does it feel like this race has now fundamentally shifted, issues-wise, almost like it did when the bin Laden tape came out right before the 2004 general election? If the caucuses were set to take place in the next 48-72 hours, this could be correct. But the caucuses are six days away. Remember that a 24-hour news cycle can make a story like this seem HUGE in the moment -- and then it disappears soon after. Will anything else advance the story into the weekend? Better yet, will other campaigns (say Giuliani's or McCain's) try and keep this in the news? Or will this story fade faster than we realize because of the weekend and the New Year's holiday?

*** Here comes Richardson: Bill Richardson is definitely trying to keep the story in the news. Today, in Iowa, he gives a speech on Pakistan and the global threats the US faces. And, as he did yesterday, he will once again call for Musharraf to step down. "Yesterday, I called for President Musharraf to step down," he is expected to say. "Today, as a nation I am calling on the administration to stand firm for our ideals in the face of terrorism and in respect for the ideals Bhutto stood for. Anything less would send a dangerous signal to the world that terrorism alters our resolve."

*** Who benefited and who didn't: The obvious CW says that Clinton and Biden (on the Democratic side) and Giuliani and McCain (on the GOP side) perhaps benefit the most from Bhutto's death and the instability in Pakistan. Clinton, after all, was already on message pre-Bhutto, as she talked about the unexpected that could happen earlier this week. And Biden has a TV ad up that's focused on an empty chair in the Oval Office predicting that an unexpected moment will test the next president. McCain seemed the most comfortable yesterday, contrasting his experience with the rest of the field and singling out other candidates by name. And Giuliani was everywhere yesterday and today. On the "hurt" side of the equation, Huckabee seemed to be the candidate least comfortable talking about this issue. He even tied yesterday's assassination with immigration last night, which seemed, well, disjointed. Huck also slipped when he wondered whether there would still be martial law in Pakistan (martial law, however, was lifted in that country two weeks ago).

*** Politicize this: Edwards and Obama also seemed less sure-footed, though both attempted to prove their foreign policy credentials, with Edwards going so far to brag that he talked to Musharraf yesterday. By the way, imagine if Clinton had said that yesterday… Something tells us there would have been a lot of criticism of politicizing the incident. Of course, there was criticism of politicization: Obama strategist David Axelrod seemed to link Bhutto's killing and the instability in Pakistan to the Iraq war (and Clinton's vote for it), while Evan Bayh said the situation showed the need for electing a president with "seasoning." On CNN, Obama was pressed hard about Axelrod's comments, and he didn't back down from them completely.

*** TV ads everywhere: The TV ad barrage in Iowa really has to be experienced first-hand. You can't really understand it until you spend 30 minutes watching a local newscast here in Des Moines, where every single TV ad during the commercial breaks is from a presidential candidate or a group pushing a presidential candidate. Frankly, nothing breaks out -- we're guessing the Huckabee Christmas ad did have a real impact at the time, because it was far different than anything else on the air. Clinton has an ad in which no one speaks, and that stands out from the crowd. It's a real challenge to media consultants to come up with something that pops. And this may explain why Clinton is going with buying two minutes of ad time the day before the caucuses (something George Allen tried in 2006), because that could break through the clutter. It will be the first time any candidate has attempted to break out of the 30- or 60-second box. With all this money on both sides, isn't it surprising no one's tried the Ross Perot 30-minute paid town hall? Or something like that?

*** On the trail: Once again, almost everyone (Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain, Obama, Richardson, Romney, and Thompson) is in Iowa. Elsewhere, Giuliani -- before he heads to Iowa -- picks up an endorsement in Orlando, FL; McCain later travels to New Hampshire; and Paul also campaigns in the Granite State.

Countdown to Iowa: 6 days
Countdown to New Hampshire: 11 days
Countdown to Michigan: 18 days
Countdown to Nevada and SC GOP primary: 22 days
Countdown to SC Dem primary: 29 days
Countdown to Florida: 32 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 39 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 312 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 389 days

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