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First Thoughts: Manchester United

Second GOP presidential debate tonight presents us with a few firsts… Pay attention to the topic of health care, after Pawlenty’s “ObamneyCare” broadside yesterday… Debate starts at 8:00 pm ET from Manchester, NH… New Hampshire Dem Party pre-buts the debate with noon ET press conference… Obama’s next two (very political) days in NC, FL, and Puerto Rico… Weiner’s distraction for Democrats… Santorum’s “Meet” appearance… And 2012 GOP presidential candidates embrace the Tea Party’s language.

*** Manchester United: Although tonight's GOP presidential debate in Manchester, NH is the second debate of the primary season, it presents us with a few firsts. It’s the first debate featuring Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Michele Bachmann, none of whom participated at last month’s GOP debate in South Carolina. It’s the first debate after last week’s Gingrich “Newtiny.” It’s the first debate since much of the economic news turned south. (By contrast, the South Carolina debate was right after Osama bin Laden’s death). And it’s the first debate since Tim Pawlenty took his first true jab at Romney on health care, telling FOX yesterday: “President Obama said that he designed ObamaCare after RomneyCare, and basically made it ObamneyCare.”

*** Pay attention to the topic of health care: It’s a legitimate question to ask: Who will come under more fire at tonight’s debate -- President Obama or Romney? Early presidential debates rarely include direct attacks or heated exchanges, because the candidates all are trying to make a good first (or second) impression. That said, time is a-wastin’, and Pawlenty yesterday telegraphed what could be a more aggressive debate strategy than we're used to seeing this early in the process. If Pawlenty starts in on him, will the rest of the field pile on? As we learned in the ’08 cycle (think that famous Philly debate when the issue of drivers licenses for illegal immigrants came up), the pile-on is the only effective way to stop a front-runner. What’s more, Pawlenty makes a health-care-related stop before the debate at Next Step Orthotics & Prosthetics, Inc. in Manchester at 11:00 am ET. And the liberal Dem Super PAC group Protect Your Care is airing a TV ad (being broadcast in the Boston market and on WMUR in New Hampshire) hitting the Ryan budget’s plan on Medicare. Pawlenty, of course, has his own challenges heading into this debate, including making sure he's not overshadowed by the other candidate from Minnesota making her OWN debate debut: Bachmann.

*** Debate 411: Tonight’s two-hour debate starts at 8:00 pm ET, and it’s co-hosted by CNN, WMUR, and the New Hampshire Union Leader. It takes place from St. Anselm College in Manchester. The moderator is CNN’s John King. The seven Republicans participating at the debate: Bachmann, Herman Cain, Gingrich, Ron Paul, Pawlenty, Romney, and Rick Santorum. Jon Huntsman, who has not yet announced his presidential bid, is NOT participating. The New Hampshire Democratic Party pre-buts today’s with a news conference near St. Anselm at noon ET.

*** Obama’s next two (very political) days in NC, FL, and Puerto Rico: President Obama’s visits to North Carolina, Florida, and Puerto Rico over the next two days is all about presidential politics in NC and FL, even the trip to Puerto Rico. At 1:45 pm ET, Obama delivers remarks at Cree Inc. in Durham, NC. Per the White House, Cree Inc. is a “leading manufacturer of energy-efficient LED lighting.” Then he heads to Miami to attend two DNC fundraisers and overnights down there. On Tuesday, the president travels to Puerto Rico, the native land of plenty of Latino voters who live (and vote in) the Sunshine State. By the way, NBC’s Ann Curry interviews the president today in North Carolina, and the interview will air on “TODAY” tomorrow morning. For those who love looking at the electoral map, realize that Team Obama views FL and NC as their OH insurance policy. Privately, more and more Democrats are nervous about holding Ohio and most of the strategic decisions by the Obama campaign involve making sure they don't get fall into the Kerry trap from 2004 where it's Ohio or bust.

*** Weiner’s distraction: Want to know why Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D) decision not to resign from Congress -- after calls by top party leaders to do so -- has become a distraction for Democrats? David Gregory’s first 10 questions in yesterday’s “Meet the Press” debate between DNC Chair Debbie Wassermann Schultz and RNC Chair Reince Priebus were about Weiner. Not the Ryan budget plan. Not the economy. Not the war in Afghanistan. “At the end of the day, a member of Congress makes their own decision,” Wasserman Schultz said. And that's certainly going to be up to Anthony Weiner. But we have made clear that he needs to resign.” The Weiner news also led “TODAY” this morning. Weiner has perhaps one friend left in the New York delegation who isn't calling for him publicly to resign. Other than that, he's politically as alone as ever.

*** On Santorum’s “Meet” appearance: Rick Santorum also appeared on “Meet” yesterday as part of the program’s “Meet the Candidates” series. Santorum said, if elected president, he would repeal the health-care law, even its provisions prohibiting denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. About his 18-point Senate loss in ’06, he said: “I learned from that race is that losing isn't the worst thing that can happen to you.” He said he favors raising Social Security’s retirement age, and he agreed with the characterization that he’s the true conservative in the GOP field. “I'm someone who's been out there for 16 years, having the courage to lead on a variety of conservative issues when they weren't popular.” When asked if Romney and Huntsman are true conservatives, Santorum replied, “I think they have held positions in the past that have not been conservative. And I think they have to account for those.”

*** The GOP and the Tea Party: As one of us will report on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” this morning, the early GOP rhetoric on the 2012 presidential campaign trail has been dominated by language associated with the Tea Party. “Conservative values had come to dominate Republican presidential primaries in recent years. But after the election of 2010, on the Republican side, EVERYONE'S Tea Party now.” Roll Call also runs with this theme today: “2012 Race Steeped in Tea Party.”

Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 61 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 92 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 148 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 238 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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