From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
LAS VEGAS -- Last night's debate didn't feature any fireworks, as all three candidates seemed shellshocked from the last 72 hours, and they came with -- as Journey might put it -- open arms. After the polite discussions on race and gender, there were a few light jabs (over Yucca and energy, Obama on Hillary invoking Al Qaeda, Hillary's Iraq question to Obama), but they were just that: light jabs.Clinton dominated the Yucca and energy section of the debate; she came armed on the issue and made sure that viewers knew the positions of both Edwards and Obama. They were the type of precise strikes that makes us think we'll see these hits in paid mailers in the next, well, day -- since the Nevada caucuses are Saturday. Any thought that Clinton wasn't going to compete in Nevada was washed away with her debate performance. She's in. The question is who is going to turn out on Saturday. We don't think anyone knows how Nevada will play out.
*** A feelgood debate for everyone: On the perception front, Edwards might have given the best presentation. He may have been a little light on speaking time, but in this intimate forum, his skill of making every one of his answers personal to the viewers shined through very well. As for Obama, he was fine but he just wasn't as commanding as he can be when he's standing up. Perhaps the seated format took away his height advantage. Still, the civil tone of the debate ultimately was a good thing for him -- it played into his message as a unifier and, frankly, he hasn't done as well in debates when they've been contentious. All three candidates will feel good about this debate; Clinton seemed to come prepared with a "Nevada" plan; Edwards had a "I'm still relevant" plan, and Obama had a "I am presidential" plan. They may have all made progress.
*** Romney's gold medal: His back up against the wall, Romney finally won the gold in Michigan after his disappointing silvers in Iowa and New Hampshire. But more than keeping Romney's White House hopes alive, what Michigan did last night was muddle the GOP field even more. After winning in New Hampshire last week, McCain is suddenly in trouble and needs a South Carolina win to keep money flowing into his cash-strapped campaign. If the Republican race is going to turn into a last-man-standing contest, does Mitt now hold the advantage (given the millions more of his own fortune he's prepared to spend)? We'll find out after South Carolina, where a win by Huckabee or even Thompson could make the GOP race even more wide open. And by the way, Rudy is still alive…
*** What next? Will Romney get a bump into South Carolina or will the campaign decide that its real goal is to win Florida? There's some evidence that while Romney will compete in the Palmetto State, he may not make the state a make-or-break contest -- instead hoping that pressure falls on McCain. Another thought: Last night was also bad for Huckabee. His lackluster third in a state that had a decent base of evangelicals, as well as an openness to a populist economic message, might make it harder for his folks to convince the GOP establishment that he can be something other than the cool evangelical candidate.
*** Heading for the exits: A look inside the numbers of the exit polls tells us why Romney won, NBC's Adam Verdugo and Norah O'Donnell reported last night. First, Republicans turned out in big numbers: 68% of the electorate in the primary identified themselves as Republican, while only 25% identified themselves as independents and 7% as crossover Democrats. Bottom line: Democrats and independents were just not the factor they had been for John McCain in New Hamphire -- or for that matter, eight years ago in Michigan. There was also the favorite-son factor: Romney benefited from his roots in this state where he was born and where his father was governor and chairman of American Motors. Of the 41% that said that Romney's ties to Michigan were at least somewhat important in their vote, Romney won more than half -- 58% -- while McCain only received 17%. Lastly, Romney also benefited because 44% of Republicans in this primary felt the most important quality was to have a candidate who shared their values. Of those who said this, Romney received 37%, Huckabee 26%, and McCain 17%.
*** On the trail: After last night's debate, Clinton and Edwards spend their day campaigning in Nevada; Giuliani is in Florida; Huckabee stumps in South Carolina; so does McCain, who picks up an endorsement from Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn (R), per NBC's Bethany Thomas; Obama holds a town hall in Henderson, NV before heading to California to do an economic roundtable; and Romney and Thompson spend their days in South Carolina. Also, Ann Romney campaigns on her husband's behalf in Las Vegas.
Countdown to Nevada and SC GOP primary: 3 days
Countdown to SC Dem primary: 10 days
Countdown to Florida: 13 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 20 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 293 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 370 days
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