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First thoughts: McCain plays hardball

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** McCain plays hardball: There were a few moments where it appeared McCain and Romney would really start tangling in last night's GOP debate -- but it was just that, a precious few moments. Romney wasn't happy about the criticism McCain leveled at him about timetables in Iraq. He said it was a dirty trick because it came days before Florida. Well, maybe so, but it should also serve as a comfort to nervous Republicans about McCain's ability to play hardball in the general. McCain may seem like a guy who likes to reach across the aisle, but he's not afraid to get dirty. McCain will be a very clever general-election candidate; it won't all be kumbaya with Clinton or Obama. Meanwhile, Romney's pushback -- if this was an issue, then why didn't he raise it earlier -- wasn't a great debate comeback moment. As we've noted before, Romney just doesn't come across well when he's angry. Overall, Romney seemed simply ticked off the entire night. It was as if he realized the end was near and he didn't know how to stop it. He tried to go after McCain, politely mind you, but didn't trip the newly crowned front-runner up.

Video: NBC Political Director Chuck Todd offers his first read on how things seem to be coming together quickly for John McCain.

*** But he needs to brush up on domestic issues: Playing the role of front-runner at a debate for the first time (or at least since the last time these guys met at the Reagan Library), McCain proved to be more well spoken on domestic issues than he was at the last debate. But going forward, assuming he's the GOP nominee, the Arizona Republican is going to have to get more comfortable talking about domestic issues or he will face much bigger problems in the general. He was better last night on the domestic front, but he's still got a ways to go. By the way, it shouldn't be overlooked at how McCain took every opportunity he could to take a dig at Romney; he seemed almost gleeful about it.

*** Winning the debate before it started: Perhaps the most difficult thing for many of us watching these debates for a living is that we're having a hard time finding new things to say -- just as the candidates are having a hard time saying anything new. For instance, how many times have we said some version of the following: Mike Huckabee probably stuck out a bit (and only a bit) for his humor and seemingly straight talk. Yet again, Huckabee got to play Mr. Nice Guy and it will probably be enough to siphon off conservative vote from Romney in order to deliver McCain a few more delegates than he should be winning if this were a pure one-on-one contest. (And on Morning Joe, Huck took this shot at Romney, saying he "didn't hit puberty" in the conservative movement until he was 60. Whoa.) But McCain may have won the debate before it ever started, because the Giuliani endorsement yesterday and the Schwarzenegger endorsement today appear to be trumping anything that happened last night.

*** Time for a little one-on-one: Now it's the Democrats' turn to debate in California, and for the first time, there will be just two people on the stage: Clinton and Obama. The debate takes place at 8:00 pm ET. We're betting that tonight's debate is a bit more civilized than last week's was. A few days after her loss in South Carolina, Clinton really appears to be playing Ms. Nice. On the trail yesterday, Clinton passed on chances to fire back at Obama. Also yesterday, her campaign held a conference call with reporters to stress how Clinton is eager to listen to voters' voices -- like with their national town hall on the eve of Tsunami Tuesday -- while at the same time calling out Obama for being negative. And now even Bill has become subdued. It's a dramatic shift from South Carolina.

*** Will these things come up at the debate? On Nightline last night, Clinton seemed to admit that her husband's presidency was a co-presidency. It was a pretty striking admission. "MCFADDEN: Here's what a lot of people want to know. Can you control [Bill]? SEN. CLINTON: Oh, of course. … MCFADDEN: Newsweek magazine says flatly, if you're elected, it will be a co-presidency… Maybe it's a good idea? SEN. CLINTON: It's not. I learned that. I learned that the hard way." She learned that the hard way? Interestingly, at the time of course, the Clinton White House vigorously denied the idea of a co-presidency because it wasn't politically prudent. Now is history being rewritten a bit? Meanwhile, the dreaded "Van Natta" byline is in today's New York Times. It's an investigative piece, which suggests that Bill Clinton was used by a Canadian mining financier to help secure a contract in Kazakhstan. In exchange, Clinton raised a significant chunk of change from this guy for various philanthropic activities. No wonder the Clinton folks don't want these donors going public anytime soon. This is not a good story, but how much play will it get? We'll find out at tonight's debate. 

*** Feb. 5th strategies: We're starting to learn about the diverging February 5 strategies through the candidates' schedules. Suddenly, these schedule emails are the single most important thing we receive each day. For the next few days, for instance, we're finding out that Hillary Clinton is camping out in California, while Obama is barely spending 12 hours in the state.  Meanwhile, it appears Bill Clinton will be stumping in more February 5 states than his wife will. Clinton travels to California for today's debate and won't leave the state until Saturday. By the way, Obama is getting some HUGE crowds. He got over 10,000 in both Denver and Phoenix.

*** Pointless money numbers: Today is the day the candidates have to file their 4th quarter FEC reports, and we'll find out how much the candidates raised and spent through December 31 which, frankly, seems more than a lifetime ago. For instance, how much of his own money did Romney spend after Dec. 31? We won't find out until April 15. How much did Clinton and Obama raise in the last month? Again, we won't find out until April 15… Today's fundraising numbers are something for the historians to pore over, not the on-the-news press corps right now.

*** On the trail: In addition to Clinton and Obama, everyone seems to be in California… A day after last night's GOP debate, Huckabee makes two stops in the Golden State; McCain makes five, including three fundraisers and a taping of The Tonight Show; and Romney makes five, too. Among the surrogates, Bill Clinton stumps in Albuquerque, NM, and Tempe, AZ, while Ted Kennedy campaigns for Obama in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, NM

Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 5 days
Countdown to Chesapeake Tuesday: 12 days
Countdown to Ohio and Texas: 33 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 278 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 355 days

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