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First thoughts: Special Saturday edition

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
DES MOINES, IA -- How crazy has the presidential contest become with now just five days until the Iowa caucuses? Well, yesterday, Romney and McCain were locked in the political equivalent of a steel-cage match over their sparring TV ads; the once pro-immigrant Huckabee was standing by his (incorrect) claim that there are more illegal immigrants from Pakistan than any other country south of the US border; the Clinton and Obama campaigns were scuffling over Obama's use of the word "tea"; the Obama and Edwards camps -- once friendly to one another -- were again going at it; and as of 7:00 pm ET last night, six campaigns unveiled a total of 10 new TV ads, per NBC's Lauren Appelbaum (one from Clinton, two from Edwards, two from McCain, two from Obama, two from Romney, and one from Thompson). Thursday can't get here soon enough…

*** McCain vs. Romney: It's not as red hot as we thought it would be back when McCain was a front-runner. But it's getting there. It all started when Romney tried to do a soft negative on the Arizona senator -- similar how Romney's been going negative on Huckabee here in Iowa. Well, McCain's camp decided to bring a gun to a knife fight and unloaded on Romney with a TV that quotes those two devastating editorials from the Concord Monitor and New Hampshire Union Leader. Romney's favorables may not be high enough in either Iowa or New Hampshire to sustain massive negative hits. That said, Romney got into this bash-fest first, which means his paid response to McCain is likely to be harder. To reporters, Romney hinted at how he'll fight back against McCain: questioning his temperament.

*** Is Huck ready? On TODAY this morning, Huckabee attempted to re-explain his immigration-Pakistani claim that he made Friday morning. While he proved once again to be very good at talking his way out of a potential controversy, the misstep is a reminder that he's still a rookie candidate prone to mistakes. Also, while the McCain-Romney exchanges are hot right now, don't overlook the onslaught of negatives being dumped on Huckabee by Romney and the Club for Growth. In fact, the Huck folks -- worried about his momentum going from Huckaboom to Huckabust -- seem poised to fight back against Romney. For the first time last night, Huckabee brought up Romney by name at a campaign stop, NBC/NJ's Adam Aigner-Treworgy notes. And the campaign is not ruling out a paid response, say, by Monday.

*** Phone home: Speaking of gaffes, did Edwards duck one? Yesterday, we noted Edwards' phone call to Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, which was dutifully returned. Seemed like a good gambit, right? Well, what if Musharraf ends up being implicated in Bhutto's assassination? As we noted yesterday, had either Clinton or Obama done this, they would have been killed by the Chattering Class (and their rivals). Edwards' folks may complain that they don't get the same treatment from the media as Clinton and Obama do, but sometimes that may be a good thing.

*** Now or never? This didn't get the play it deserved yesterday: Obama told his supporters if he doesn't win in 2008, he won't try again later on. "My wife and I were talking the other day, and she said we're not doing this again," he said. It's a fascinating closing argument. Will he say it again?

*** First Read weather update: Between now and Caucus Day, we'll be mentioning the Iowa weather forecast for January 3. Bottom line: It's looking like it will be clear and cold. Per weather.com, the day is expected to be mostly sunny with a high of 28 in the day and partly cloudy and 22 at night in Des Moines; in the west in Council Bluffs, the forecast is for 34 and windy in the daytime and partly cloudy and 22 at night; and in the east in Dubuque, they are looking at a much colder day/night -- with a high of 25 and windy in the daytime and 23 and mostly cloudy at night.

*** Some just askin's: As the hours wind down here in Iowa, we figured we'd close each First Thoughts with a few questions to ponder: Is there a Ron Paul "Mendoza" line, meaning that candidates that finish below Paul in the caucuses (Rudy? Fred?) have MAJOR problems? What about this enthusiasm gap? Huckabee and Giuliani yesterday had decent turnouts -- but they were on a scale of what Joe Biden gets, and about a third of what Obama or Clinton receive.

*** On the trail: Once again, almost everyone is in Iowa today: Biden hits Independence, Manchester, Elkader, and Dubuque; Clinton stops in Eldridge, Clinton, Maquoketa, and Manchester; Edwards is in Muscatine, Washington, Knoxville, and Des Moines (where he holds a rally in the evening); Giuliani goes to Clive, Indianola, and Pleasant; Huckabee campaigns in Osceola, Indianola, and Perry; Obama travels to Burlington, Madison, Keokuk, Mt. Pleasant, and Ottumwa; Richardson stumps in West Liberty, Iowa City, and Cedar Rapids; and Romney is in Altoona, Newton, Pella, Oskaloosa, Ottumwa, and Burlington. Elsewhere, McCain campaigns in New Hampshire, as does Bill Clinton, who hits Nashua, Dover, and Portsmouth.

Countdown to Iowa: 5 days
Countdown to New Hampshire: 10 days
Countdown to Michigan: 17 days
Countdown to Nevada and SC GOP primary: 21 days
Countdown to SC Dem primary: 28 days
Countdown to Florida: 31 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 38 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 311 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 388 days

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