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First thoughts: Hillary Meets the Press

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Hillary Meets the Press: Clinton's retool, it seems, is now complete after New Hampshire: She has become Hillary The Accessible. Yesterday, there she was canvassing with voters. Then she held a press avail. And more evidence of the more accessible Clinton? She's appearing on Meet the Press with Tim Russert this coming Sunday for the full hour -- the first time EVER she has agreed to sit down with Russert for the entire show. The program this Sunday will originate from Columbia, SC. Critics and cynics, of course, are probably thinking this: Why did it take so long? And why didn't she do it before Iowa, a state that demands accessibility? But New Hampshire delivered her a second chance, and she's trying to seize it.

*** Fred's not dead, baby… Fred's not dead -- but he does have his own chopper: In last night's GOP debate from South Carolina, Thompson was funny, biting, and energetic. It was easily his smoothest performance, but it wasn't necessarily presidential -- it was Jack Cafferty-esque or Paul Harvey-like. In short, he sounded like a smart (and cranky) pundit. By the way, Thompson did McCain a big favor by softening up Huckabee. Speaking of Huck, he was more on the defensive last night than any debate we can remember. It seemed like he was taking incoming from numerous candidates, particularly Thompson. He handled himself pretty well, but the message to conservatives was clear: He may be a social conservative, but he's no small-government economic conservative. (Then again, perhaps in this kind of economic climate, small-government conservatism isn't a winner…) Still, give Huckabee credit: He answered the criticisms with his usual wit and probably did well on the likeability front.

VIDEO: NBC's Political Director Chuck Todd offers his first read on Fred Thompson's performance in last night's GOP debate.

*** Mitt targets McCain: Romney did well early on, though there seemed to be an air of desperation in his answers. He quickly targeted McCain, the man standing in the way of victory in Michigan. Romney gave one of the best change rationales we've ever heard him give. Why did it take Romney nearly a year to become this guy? Meanwhile, McCain was fine -- a typical sober performance. But he needs a bit more energy; there wasn't the same fire as we saw in previous debates. Giuliani did better than he did at the last two debates. He was more involved, but it is interesting to watch the candidates and moderators ignore Rudy somewhat. And then there was Ron Paul. Why didn't Fox stick to its guns and keep him out? He was a distraction for a good portion of the debate and took away from the candidates who have a real shot at the nomination. Then again, we know what it's like to have our comment boards and email boxes flooded with upset Paul supporters.

*** The GOP swings and misses on the economy: It also needs to be mentioned that the first 20 minutes of the debate was not good for the entire Republican Party. All of the candidates struggled on the economy -- an issue that is becoming more and more important as we head into November. Their answers may have been fine for a primary audience, but don't expect swing voters or indie voters to like what these guys said. They tried to sound in touch, but their collective hesitance for government involvement explains why voters tend to want Democrats in economic down times -- that's when folks look to government. The middle class doesn't like government involved when the economy is good.

*** Gloria Molina and Jim Clyburn: Get to know the name Gloria Molina. She is a Los Angeles County supervisor, and she had endorsed Bill Richardson. Now that Richardson is out of the race, First Read called her office yesterday to see if she had made up her mind if she would be backing Clinton or Obama, and her office replied that she's still mulling her options. How Molina goes could be a key sign of how other Richardson backers -- and the Latino vote in California in general -- could break. And also don't miss today's New York Times piece, which notes that Jim Clyburn -- the biggest Dem get in South Carolina -- is angry with some of the things the Clintons said in New Hampshire, particularly when they referenced MLK Jr. Is Clyburn leaning Obama's way? It wouldn't be a big issue for the Clintons to lose Clyburn's support to Obama. But if he endorses him and then also lectures the Clintons on their treatment of Obama, that would sting.
*** On the trail: Clinton is in California, where she gives a speech on the economy; Edwards is in South Carolina; Giuliani heads back to Florida; Huckabee and Hunter, and Kucinich are in Michigan; McCain campaigns in South Carolina; Obama, in Nevada, rallies with the Culinary Workers and later holds a town hall there; and Romney stumps in Michigan.

Countdown to Michigan: 4 days
Countdown to Nevada and SC GOP primary: 8 days
Countdown to SC Dem primary: 15 days
Countdown to Florida: 18 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 25 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 298 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 375 days

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