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First Thoughts: Not the best night for the GOP

Was it that good of a night for the GOP?… We’ve moved from the stage where the attacks have been aimed at Obama, to the stage where they’re now directed at each other… Other impressions of last night’s debate: Romney emerged unscathed… Pawlenty might have helped himself, but did he go too far?… Bachmann knocked off her game a bit… Huntsman was a relative afterthought… Sarah Palin is today's State Fair shiny metal object… And the expectations game for Saturday’s Ames Straw Poll. 

AMES, IA -- It’s pretty obvious to say that Rick Perry has to feel good after last night’s GOP presidential debate here. And it’s obvious that Mitt Romney emerged unscathed. But our biggest takeaway from the debate: It wasn’t a good night for the entire Republican Party, especially since it was such an opportunity for the party as this debate took place in the midst of what happens to be President Obama’s worst week in the White House. Team Obama could not have asked for a better visual than every single GOP candidate raising their hand saying they’d refuse to support a debt deal that had a 10-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. What’s more, the highlights of the debate were about them attacking each other than criticizing the president. We have now officially moved from the stage of the GOP presidential cycle where they’re attacking Obama, to the stage where they’re attacking each other. And this is one of the reasons why defeating a sitting president -- who isn’t facing a primary challenge -- isn’t easy, even in an economy like this one

*** Romney emerges unscathed: As for the individual performances last night, Romney -- once again -- left the debate unscathed as the other candidates (first Bachmann vs. Pawlenty, then Santorum vs. Paul) focused their attention elsewhere. He talked about the issues he wanted to talk about: the economy, jobs, his business record. And the candidates and moderators allowed him to dodge two questions. One was on the increased revenues he touted to get Massachusetts’ Triple-A rating (Romney’s answer never once referred to those revenues or closed loopholes). Two, when he was asked about Massachusetts’ health-care law, he invoked the 10th amendment (but what he didn’t say: that he once said his state’s plan should be a model for other states, and that he endorsed John Chafee’s health-care legislation in the early 1990s, which had a federal individual mandate). The question for Romney is whether it will continue to be as easy in future debates. Remember, Hillary Clinton won almost every debate she participated in during the ’08 campaign, but it was just one slip-up (in Philly in Oct. ‘07) that gave Obama and the other Dems an opening.  

*** Did Pawlenty help himself? Meanwhile, in the debate before Saturday’s straw poll, you could argue that Pawlenty helped himself. He was VERY aggressive with Bachmann, who’s his biggest competition tomorrow. He questioned her record (“It's an undisputable fact that in Congress, her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent”) and criticized her misstatements (“she's got a record of misstating and making false statements”). He even had a stronger critique of Romney’s health-care, but it lacked the passion of his exchanges with Bachmann. But if he sometimes came across as a fighter, Pawlenty also might have gone a little too far (example: his joke about mowing just one acre of Romney’s lawn). Perhaps most significantly, Pawlenty helped the Republican Party, providing the playbook how you go after Bachmann. He exposed her weaknesses in a way that Romney and Perry will appreciate months from now -- or, for that matter, if Pawlenty is able to pull a surprise on Saturday and help himself.

*** Bachmann knocked off her game a bit: As for Bachmann, she started off strong and didn’t back down from her first back-and-forth with Pawlenty (hitting him for his past support for cap-and-trade, as well as his onetime endorsement of an individual mandate). She was well prepared for that. But after her second tussle with T-Paw -- over a cigarette tax hike in Minnesota -- she seemed knocked off her game a bit. Her second hour lacked the fire she displayed in the first hour. And her submission-means-respect answer was puzzling. Our question: Did the rough exchanges and tough questions end up hurting her, or did they possibly backfire on her male rivals and moderators? In fact, the “submission” question got plenty of boos from the audience. On “TODAY,” she doubled down on saying that she wouldn’t increase the debt ceiling. That position doesn’t help her with the GOP business community and has to create an opening for Perry to be the Tea Party candidate who is at least going to explain a way to raise the debt ceiling. 

*** Huntsman was a relative afterthought: In his first debate, Huntsman turned out to be more of an afterthought than you would have expected, and that might be a kind way to put it. Indeed, when he was in the spotlight, the focus was his moderate-leaning positions -- on the stimulus (backed a larger stimulus, with more tax cuts), on gay rights (favors civil unions), and on immigration (once backed comprehensive immigration reform). You’ve got to give credit to Huntsman for not disavowing those positions in front of the largely socially conservative audience. But you also realize why Huntsman is headed to New Hampshire today… 

*** The rest: As for the rest, Gingrich turned out to be the Newt we all expected (engaging, argumentative), but a question about his staff defections wasn’t a “gotcha” question; it's a question about whether he can be run actually run the largest enterprise in the world: the U.S. government… Santorum didn’t have anything to lose and laid it all out there, but his one true moment came in his sparring with Ron Paul over Iran, reprising Rudy Giuliani’s role in ’07-’08 of hitting the Texas congressman on matters of foreign policy… And for Paul, he once again showed that his views – especially on foreign policy – are shared by just a sliver of the GOP electorate. Yes, he’s a godfather of the Tea Party, but most Republicans view Iran as a  threat (especially to Israel)…. And Herman Cain? He didn’t have real moment to shine. 

The gloves came off at Thursday's Republican presidential debate in Iowa. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** The expectations game for Saturday’s straw poll: And now we move from last night’s debate to Saturday’s Ames Straw Poll. Here’s what we wrote when we handicapped the straw poll last week. One, Pawlenty needs a strong showing -- it’s hard to envision him winning the GOP nomination without finishing first or a very strong second on Saturday. Two, if Pawlenty has a lot riding on Ames, so does Bachmann, who’s looking to keep her front-runner status in the Hawkeye State, particularly with Perry now entering the field, too. Three, don’t overlook Romney; even though he’s not making a major play in Ames (in fact, he’s in New Hampshire today), he’s had the ability to pull off strong straw poll showings in past. And four, don’t forget about Ron Paul, who expects to finish no worse than third (Herman Cain also has said he’s expecting a top-three showing). Every major unaffiliated veteran Iowa Republican strategist believes Bachmann, Pawlenty, and Paul will be the top 3, just unclear of order. The chatter we hear out here goes like this: Bachmann's organization may be too Des Moines-centric; Pawlenty has the best organization, but there's been little passion on the trail and he's struggled to get folks to show up at events; Paul's campaign is much more sophisticated than it was four years. Also, many smart Iowa GOPers tell us: keep an eye on Santorum: he's been TIRELESS; If there is a surprise top-3 finisher, it could be him.

*** Our Glengarry Glen Ross rule: But as we also wrote last week, under the Ames Straw Poll’s Glengarry Glen Ross rule, third place isn’t a good place to be: First place gets you a Cadillac El Dorado; second place gets you a set of steak knives; and third place -- you're fired. In fact, per NBC's John Bailey, the last two third-place finishers in Ames (Sam Brownback in '07 and Liddy Dole in '99) dropped out two months after the straw poll. 

*** Obama’s day: The president meets with business leaders at the White House to discuss the economy at 1:20 pm ET (it’s closed to the press). And then, at 2:35 pm, he welcomes the greatest NFL franchise in the land, the Green Bay Packers to the White House to celebrate their remarkable Super Bowl win earlier this year. Hey Bill Daley or David Plouffe, looking forward to the Aaron Rodgers autographed football (or baseball) that you'll be leaving in the NBC WH booth.

*** Obama’s day: The president meets with business leaders at the White House to discuss the economy at 1:20 pm ET (it’s closed to the press). And then, at 2:35 pm, he welcomes the Green Bay Packers to the White House to celebrate their Super Bowl win earlier this year. 

 *** Friday’s “Daily Rundown” line-up (live from Java Joes in Des Moines!): Debate reaction and straw poll predictions with Pawlenty 2012 Campaign Manager Nick Ayers, Obama 2012 Senior Strategist David Axelrod and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA)… More 2012 with the Washington Post's Dan Balz, National Journal's Beth Reinhard, Roll Call's Shira Toeplitz and Des Moines Register alumnus David Yepsen of Southern Illinois University… Plus a preview of msnbc's "Making the Grade" special (12 pm ET on Sunday) with msnbc's Tamron Hall and TheGrio.com's Jeff Johnson.

Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 1 day 
Countdown to Wisconsin recall general for Dem senators: 4 days
Countdown to NV-2 and NY-9 special elections: 32 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 88 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 178 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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