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First thoughts: Debate double-header

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
MANCHESTER, NH -- Just when you thought there wouldn't be more debates this cycle, ABC/WMUR/Facebook host back-to-back Republican and Democratic ones here tonight. The GOP debate (featuring Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain, Romney, and Thompson) begins at 7:00 pm ET and ends at 8:30 pm ET, and it's followed immediately by the Dem one (Clinton, Edwards, Obama, and Richardson) that goes until 10:15 pm ET. They're both moderated by ABC's Charlie Gibson, with additional questions coming from WMUR's Scott Spradling. The last time the Democrats and Republicans debated was more than three weeks ago, when they took part in those Des Moines Register snooze-fests. Because the DMR moderator didn't bother asking questions on matters in which the candidates actually disagreed, tonight's debate provides the opportunity to cover nearly two months worth of issues.

*** What to watch for: On the Democratic side, where does Hillary go after Obama? (On health care? The netroots' charge that he sometimes uses GOP talking points? Rezko?) Or does Edwards -- like he did in Philly -- actually do the dirty work on the front-runner? (On past lobbyist money? Trade?) On the GOP side, just how heated will McCain vs. Romney be? These guys don't like each other. Neither do Romney and Huck. And where are't thou, Rudy? Can he break through after being outside the story for the past month? Given the worries the Clinton folks apparently have with how voters may respond to negativity, we're guessing the Dem side could be tamer than the GOP debate where -- in the words of Huckabee's campaign chair Ed Rollins -- "nobody likes Romney." Forget Clinton, there's no candidate with more on the line today than Romney. He hasn't had a great debate performance yet, and he's never needed one more than now.

*** Where have all the negative ads gone? By the way, we didn't see one negative ad this morning on the local news. Not one from an outside group, nothing... In fact, Romney -- who had no problem with running contrast ads heading into the caucuses -- is now up with a new TV ad that emphasizes strength, growth, and prosperity. Are campaigns petrified to go negative with such a short time between now and Tuesday?


*** Did you know that Wyoming was awarding delegates today? It should be a big day for Romney because he will be the first candidate on either side to win actual convention delegates. The Wyoming GOP is holding its "conventions" (we assume they are like caucuses), which will award delegates today; Only Romney's spent real money here and the state has a 14% Mormon population so he had the advantage going in.

*** Dodd's farewell: Also today, Dodd -- who dropped out of the Dem race on Thursday night -- holds a press conference at noon in Connecticut to thank his family, friends, and supporters. We weren't able to write much yesterday about Dodd's and Biden's departures (mainly because there was too much else going on), but it's important to say this about both men: Their campaigns did nothing to blemish the respect and stature they hold. And that's something that can't always be said of presidential candidates. One other thing: If Obama goes on to win the Democratic nomination, he can in part thank Dodd. Without him jumping into the discussion on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, the Philly debate would not have turned into the story it eventually became.

*** Just askin's: After the Des Moines Register invited him to its debate, did a single soul see Alan Keyes in Iowa last week? We sure didn't.... Also, where is Duncan Hunter? Is he still an official candidate? Now that he's not getting debate invites, does that end his bid? A Hunter spokesman emails First Read that Hunter has been campaigning non-stop in New Hampshire since December 28, and that he was in Wyoming earlier; his wife has been there since January 1.

*** On the trail: Elsewhere today, Clinton has already campaigned in Penacook and then heads to Durham; Edwards was in Portsmouth and goes to Concord and Lebanon; Giuliani hits a house party in Litchfield; Huckabee holds a "Huck & Chuck" rally in Londonderry with Chuck Norris; McCain attends a town hall in Peterborough; Obama, as of this writing, is having a rally in Nashua; Richardson was in in Hooksett and Concord; and Romney has already been to Derry and later visits Hampstead and Bedford.

Countdown to New Hampshire: 3 days
Countdown to Michigan: 10 days
Countdown to Nevada and SC GOP primary: 14 days
Countdown to SC Dem primary: 21 days
Countdown to Florida: 24 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 31 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 304 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 381 days

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