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First thoughts: Caucus Day

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
DES MOINES, IA -- This long journey actually began in earnest two days after the 2006 midterm elections, when Tom Vilsack jumped into the presidential race (though he later dropped out in February). It continued to Clinton's January declaration, "I'm in, and I'm in it to win"; to Springfield, IL, where Obama made his announcement; to Dearborn, MI, where Romney made his; and even to this September, when Thompson officially got into the GOP race. (By the way, it is true that Rudy never actually announced.) It took us to more debates than we can remember (the Fight in Philly, the YouTubes, the widely panned Des Moines Register ones, where even Alan Keyes showed up). We witnessed discussions and disputes over serious issues (Iraq, Pakistan, health care, immigration) and not so serious ones (Rudy's support for the Red Sox, kindergarten ambitions, teenage cocaine use, cleavage, UFO sightings). And we can't forget Bill Clinton back on the campaign trail, the return of Elizabeth Edwards' cancer, the $400 haircut, Norman Hsu and Tony Rezko, Oprah and Chuck Norris, the Ron Paul Revolution, Mitt's speech on faith, Angry Edwards vs. Nice Edwards, Rudy's rise and fall (?), McCain's fall and rise (?), and Huckaboom to Huckabust (?).

VIDEO: NBC Politics Director Chuck Todd offers his first read on undecided Iowa voters and last minute efforts by candidates to get voters to the caucuses.

*** A guide to the post-caucus spin: That's the prologue to the first presidential contest, which -- finally -- begins tonight in Iowa. And no matter the results, (win, lose, or tie), the post-caucuses spin will be overwhelming. But here is a quick guide beforehand: No one HAS to win more than Edwards. A victory over two celebrity candidates will be a significant feat, but a loss (or even a tie) will be hard to overcome. If Clinton wins, strike the inevitability pose; a tie, and she lives for another day (although her campaign will have to defend having 60%-plus voting against her); a second-place loss is recoverable, and third place would be a near disaster, especially if Obama comes in first. Speaking of, we can't imagine a scenario in which Obama wins the Democratic nomination but loses Iowa. Movements need victories, and no one may be better equipped to feed off a victory than Obama. "We do have to do well in Iowa," he admitted on TODAY. But movement candidacies have to have victories; they die quick deaths if they lose. Just ask Howard Dean.

*** The GOP side: Spending as little as he has, a Huckabee win will be seen as a tremendous upset. But for Iowa to catapult him into New Hampshire and beyond, the win needs to be big. A loss and Huckabee is like George Mason in the NCAA tournament a few years back -- a great story until they lose, and once they do, everyone forgets about them. For Romney, Huckabee actually gave him a gift: He made Iowa relevant again on the GOP side. A Romney win will mean something. But he can't afford to go 0-2 in the first two contests. The campaign swears they can still win in Michigan if they lose the first two. But that seems like a stretch -- right now. In the race for third, McCain (or even a surprise Giuliani) finishing in that place would probably resonate the loudest. But woe unto any GOP front-runner finishing behind Paul. For more on the likely post-caucus spin, click here.

*** A caucus primer: The caucuses will be called to order at 7:30 pm ET (6:30 pm local time) on the Democratic side, and they begin at 8:00 pm ET (7:00 pm local time) on the GOP side. Democratic candidates have to hit a 15% threshold of support in each precinct caucus to win delegate equivalents, and supporters of candidates who don't attain viability can realign with other candidates. By comparison, there is not a second-choice aspect on the GOP side; the Republican results are simply a "straw vote" of everyone who attends. Anyone can caucus in either party: A participant simply has to prove residency and register to vote in that party that night. So independents can caucus on either side, and Republicans can re-register as Democrats that night and caucus, and vice versa. The turnout on the Dem side could be anywhere from 125,000 (what it was in 2004) to 150,000-160,000 (and perhaps even higher). Since two of the major GOP candidates -- Giuliani and McCain -- aren't spending a ton of resources in the state, Republican turnout is likely to be lower than the Democrats; figures being tossed around are 60,000 to 80,000.

*** Some final caucus thoughts: Support spread out is never as powerful as it is clustered. One campaign manager told First Read to look for Biden to beat Richardson on delegates, even though Richardson will probably have more supporters statewide. And this is something that could occur in general: It's possible, in a very close caucus vote, for a candidate to win without having the most supporters statewide. Also, if a slew of independents do participate in the Democratic caucuses tonight, it will be a continuation in the trend of indie voters leaning to the Democrats. Will Democrats end up with a 2-1-turnout advantage over the GOP tonight? Could it be more? 3-1? This is one of the more important stories that won't get as much attention tonight. And finally, not to sound too cynical, but when the average voter who is tuning in for the first time tonight -- and they see Giuliani doing his post-caucus TV interviews from Miami -- will they realize he's there for the Jan. 29 primary or will they think he's still vacationing?

*** Weather update: As of this writing, it is 9 degrees in the Des Moines area, but the day is supposed to be partly sunny, with a high of 28 degrees. Per NBC affiliate WHO-TV, the temperature at 7:00 pm ET (right before Caucus Time) will be 24 degrees, a bit warmer than it has been the past few days. The weather is expected to be similar across the state.

*** Caucus party locations: All are in the Des Moines area… Biden has his at the Science Center; Clinton's is at the Hotel Fort Des Moines; Dodd, the Temple for Performing Arts; Edwards, the Savery Renaissance; Huckabee, the Embassy Suites Downtown; Obama, Hyvee Hall; Richardson, the Quality Inn; Romney, the Sheraton West Des Moines; and Thompson, the Marriott Downtown.

*** On the trail: Elsewhere in Iowa, Biden stops in Waterloo, Dubuque, and Davenport; Dodd is in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, and Des Moines; Edwards visits volunteers in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Davenport; Huckabee stops in Burlington and Grinnell; McCain stops by four Iowa cities/towns before traveling to New Hampshire, where he holds a media avail; Romney hits Des Moines and West Des Moines; and Thompson visits West Des Moines and Council Bluffs. Also, Giuliani campaigns in New Hampshire.

Countdown to New Hampshire: 5 days
Countdown to Michigan: 12 days
Countdown to Nevada and SC GOP primary: 16 days
Countdown to SC Dem primary: 23 days
Countdown to Florida: 26 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 33 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 306 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 383 days

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