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First thoughts: Classifying the candidates

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
DES MOINES, IA -- After the last four days of watching the top three Democrats on the stump, we think we can categorize their sales pitches more succinctly. Clinton is the steady hand, Obama is the unifying change agent, and Edwards is the crusader. For months, the chattering class has struggled to classify Edwards. Was he a change agent or a populist? Well, after listening to him use a variation of the word "fight" more than "change" (39 times versus 10 at one stop yesterday, per NBC/NJ's Tricia Miller), it's fair to say we know what he is: He's playing the role of crusader. Which message will ultimately work? The most tried and true method is the Clinton tactic (though it does put her in the position of being the "incumbent"). Crusader candidates usually hit a wall at some point because normally they have a hard time bring in new supporters (though Edwards does have ENORMOUS fav ratings). And change agents can do well in two-ways against the steady hand, but how much is Edwards hurting Obama in these closing days?

*** Huck's big test: Has Huckabee waited too long to respond? He appears to have let Romney get under his skin and he seems to be complaining very publicly about the attacks in a much less humorous way than he has in the past. Example: He tells the Politico that Romney owes him an apology. Will this style change cost him? Will voters look at the complaints at face value, or see him as weak for taking too long to respond? It's a major presidential leadership test for him.

*** Forget ringing in the New Year with a ball drop: While campaigns are spending New Year's here in the Hawkeye State, they will all hold off on any champagne until the hit refresh on their Web browsers waiting for the final Des Moines Register poll to be posted late tonight. The poll is set to appear in tomorrow's editions of the paper, meaning the poll will begin circulating late tonight. The poll, the most respected of any when it comes to Iowa, will have an effect on how the chattering class sets up the final days of the campaign.

*** Enter Bloomberg? So Bloomberg -- as today's New York Times suggests -- is closer to running, right? Well, remember he has to if he's even 20% thinking he'll run. The process for getting on ballots starts early, and he has to start the grunt work. What we don't know if whether there are any indie voters or voters in either primary who will use the Bloomberg threat to vote for the most electable candidate. The other thing to keep in mind is that while Bloomberg fascinates the Amtrak East Coast corridor, does the idea play in the rest of America?

*** Pulling a Dean? Did Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D), a key Clinton endorser and surrogate, pull a Howard Dean? "Beginning the presidential nominating process in Iowa, as will occur this week, 'makes no sense,' says Gov. Ted Strickland, who recently campaigned there for Sen. Hillary Clinton," the Columbus Dispatch writes. "'I'd like to see both parties say, "We're going to bring this to an end,"' he said." Well, remember the firestorm that engulfed Dean in January 2004, when NBC reported on unflattering statements he had made about the Iowa caucuses and the caucus system? Of course, there is a big difference of having a candidate (a la Dean) say something like this and a surrogate (like Strickland). But the Ohio governor has become one of Bill Clinton's standard stump mentions. Does that continue?

*** On the trail: Iowa remains the place to be this New Year's Eve… Biden visits Fort Dodge, Ames, and Newton; Clinton travels to Keokuk, Fort Madison, Muscatine, Waterloo, and Des Moines (the last three events billed as New Year's celebrations); Dodd visits the Niman ranch in Thornton; Edwards is in Storm Lake, Spence, Emmetsburg, Algona, and Mason City (for his New Year's Eve party); Huckabee spends his entire day in Des Moines, which includes a jog, haircut, and news conference; Obama goes to Perry, Jefferson, Boone, Iowa Falls, and Ames; Richardson campaigns in Ames, Perry, Winterset, Knoxville, and winds up in Des Moines for his NYE party; Romney stumps in Clinton, Bellevue, Dubuque, Manchester, Independence, and Waterloo; and Bill Clinton attends his own NYE parties in Missouri Valley and Ottumwa before joining his wife in Des Moines. Elsewhere, Giuliani is down, and Kucinich and McCain are in New Hampshire.

Countdown to Iowa: 3 days
Countdown to New Hampshire: 8 days
Countdown to Michigan: 15 days
Countdown to Nevada and SC GOP primary: 19 days
Countdown to SC Dem primary: 26 days
Countdown to Florida: 29 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 36 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 309 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 386 days

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