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First thoughts: A new front-runner

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
MANCHESTER, NH -- The biggest single change from yesterday to today is this: Barack Obama is the new front-runner. And with that distinction comes a lot, including: increased scrutiny, higher expectations, and a big fat bullseye on his back. Obama thought he was under a microscope before? He ain't seen nothing yet. But as recent history has shown, being the front-runner after Iowa isn't a bad place to be. Four years ago, John Kerry took a single victory in Iowa, added a scoop of Dean scream, and turned it into a rout for the nomination. Team Obama hopes to ride this same wave, which may be bigger and stronger since he appears to be the first serious movement candidate with a shot at the nomination since McGovern. The calendar is certainly on his side. By the way, a few months back, we had an Obama partisan tell us that if Obama won Iowa substantially, the endorsements would start rolling in. How many reporters have already emailed Kalee Kreider asking her Al Gore's whereabouts?

*** More than an eight-point win: The Clinton campaign late last night was dismissing Obama's victory as an eight-point win. "Judging the entire nominating process on eight percent of one state is a dubious exercise," said Clinton spokesman Jay Carson. But if not for the arcane caucus process, Obama's win would have been MUCH larger. If it had been a normal primary, Obama's margin of victory might have been 15-20 points. It wasn't close. And remember that Kerry beat Edwards in 2004 by just six points, 38%-32%.

*** The referendum on Bush: Obama and Huckabee, of course, are the big headlines from last night. But the person who had perhaps as great an influence on the outcome was the guy who -- it was joked -- wasn't even going to watch the results: President Bush. ("What time do all the results start coming in?" White House spokeswoman Dana Perino asked yesterday. "Because he goes to bed early." Perino today told NBC's Savannah Guthrie that Bush DID watch the results.) After all, would a message of hope from someone who hadn't even served in the US Senate for one full term would be resonating right now if Bush's approval rating wasn't in the 30s? Or what about the appeal of an easygoing, likeable former Arkansas governor who seems the farthest removed from the Beltway Establishment and who also hasn't always said kind things about Bush? Yet the biggest sign of Bush's influence last night was this result: a whopping 239,000 people participated in the Democratic caucuses, compared with 116,000 for the GOP. 

*** Reinventing Hillary: Clinton's classy concession speech should buy her some time from some of the media vultures that are circling. The campaign has to deal with a couple of things that may be hard to control: 1) Keep Clinton staffers from talking on background (at least until New Hampshire's over). By the way, should we read much into the fact that Mark Penn was NOT with the candidate this morning but was with the press? Does the candidate want Penn around right now or not? 2) Try and tamp down expectations here in New Hampshire. Was she ahead in this state as of yesterday, and if that's the case, does that skew her expectations making second place a disappointment? A few weeks ago, we got the impression New Hampshire was already a dead heat, but a number of public polls had her ahead as of yesterday. Also, just how does the campaign pivot on message? Stick with the experience to bring change mantra, and hope that Obama makes a rookie mistake so that voters decide that experience matters more again? What about women? The fact that there was such a generational divide in her support in Iowa is something the campaign needs to avoid here.

*** Single elimination: Can either Romney or McCain survive in this race if they don't win New Hampshire? Probably not. In fact, one might say New Hampshire is a single elimination tournament for the two one-time frontrunners. Romney, in particular, can't afford to go 0-2, and McCain can't keep his media base buying into the comeback story if he doesn't produce a win. McCain was a disappointing 4th in Iowa. And he seems ready to get into a brawl with Romney but is that something either candidate wants? See below…

*** Brand equity: The one thing the two winners of Iowa have in common was their ability to create, keep, and strengthen the brands they set out to develop when this campaign began. Both Huckabee and Obama set out to change the tone of their respective primary campaigns, and while both almost got tempted to get into a brawl when things appeared darkest, the two resisted and the gamble paid off. It's a stark contrast to Clinton and Romney, the two one-time front-runners, who seemed to change their message every six weeks to respond to a new challenge or challenger.

*** Other winners and losers: The other winners from last night: Des Moines Register pollster Ann Selzer, Obama Iowa aides Paul Tewes and Steve Hildebrand, grassroots evangelicals, and Clinton deputy campaign manager Mike Henry (who famously argued that the Clinton camp should skip Iowa). Among the losers were the pro-Clinton Emily's List (Obama won the female vote), pro-Clinton AFSCME, pro-Edwards SEIU locals (which ran those 527 ads helping the former North Carolina senator); and the Club for Growth (which inundated Iowan airwaves with ads trying to stop Huckabee and didn't). This is the second-straight cycle in which AFSCME and SEIU -- which then backed Dean -- didn't fare well in Iowa. And just asking: When is Club for Growth going to start actually winning some big battles? While the group can point to some recent congressional wins, Steve Laffey's loss last year in Rhode Island (wounding Lincoln Chafee in the process) and Pat Toomey's defeat to Arlen Specter seem to overshadow those victories. And now they can't take down Huckabee in Iowa...

*** On the trail: The game now moves to New Hampshire… Clinton has already attended a rally with her husband in Nashua and hits the New Hampshire 100 Club Dinner in Milford; Edwards already held a rally in Manchester and campaigns there and then in Portsmouth; Huckabee plays with a local musical band in Henniker; McCain stumps in Hollis, Hudson, and Nashua; Obama, as of this writing, is rallying in Portsmouth and later rallies in Concord before attending the 100 Club Dinner; Richardson also does the dinner, as well as campaign across the state; and Romney has already stumped in Portsmouth and travels to Concord and Manchester.

Countdown to New Hampshire: 4 days
Countdown to Michigan: 11 days
Countdown to Nevada and SC GOP primary: 15 days
Countdown to SC Dem primary: 22 days
Countdown to Florida: 25 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 32 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 305 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 382 days

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