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First Thoughts: Is Romney a sure thing?

Is Romney a sure thing? All signs point in that direction, but the numbers tell a different story… Recapping last night’s debate: Another missed opportunity for Perry… Another strong performance by Romney… Cain gets in the spotlight (with 9-9-9 mentioned 24 times!)… And Obama’s jobs bill stalls in the Senate.

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Herman Cain (left) and Mitt Romney (right) at last night's debate at Dartmouth College.

*** Is Romney a sure thing? All of the signs continue to point to Mitt Romney being the man to beat for the Republican presidential nomination. He had another strong debate performance last night; he picked up Chris Christie’s endorsement yesterday; and more and more members of the GOP establishment continue to break for him (today he gets the endorsements of Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and former House Speaker Denny Hastert). But the data -- especially when you look inside the numbers -- still suggest that Romney is far from a sure thing. As our NBC-Marist poll of Iowa showed, Tea Party supporters and conservatives aren’t coming around to Romney, preferring Herman Cain instead by a 2-to-1 margin. In addition, when you add the Cain-Perry-Bachmann percentages in national polls, they outscore Romney’s percentage. And even though everything appears to be going Romney’s way right now, his numbers have remained pretty stagnant. So while all signs point to the GOP race being over, somebody forgot to tell the electorate -- at least for now. Note: Our new NBC/WSJ poll comes out tonight at 6:30 pm ET. Click here to see a slideshow of the leading GOP presidential contender.

*** Another missed opportunity for Perry: But while Romney might not be a sure thing, Rick Perry -- at least based on his debate performances -- isn’t making it easy to convince conservative voters that he’s their guy. Last night was yet another rough debate for Perry, even though the economic-focused format was much friendlier for him (no questions on immigration or HPV, for example). Somehow, he found himself on the defensive in his question to Romney on health care (as Romney countered by noting all the uninsured in Texas). Another important debate for Perry, another missed opportunity for him. The silver lining: He didn’t have a massive flub, so there’s no bad YouTube moment like he had from the last debate. Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

*** Another strong performance by Romney: Meanwhile, Romney continued to prove that he’s head and shoulders above the competition at these debates. (As John Podhoretz tweeted, it’s like watching the Harlem Globetrotters “debate” the Washington Generals.) He was strong and confident in his answers. The one part that could give him future trouble among conservatives was his essential endorsement of the TARP legislation. “There's no question but that the action that President Bush and that Secretary Paulson took was designed to keep not just a collapse of individual banking institutions but to keep the entire currency of the country worth something and to keep all the banks from closing and to make sure we didn't all lose our jobs,” he said. “My experience tells me that we were on the precipice and we could have had a complete meltdown of our entire financial system, wiping out all the savings of the American people. So action had to be taken.” What’s more, he took a dig at the Obama administration for using TARP to bail out the auto industry. Maybe that’s decent primary politics, but that’s one way NOT to put Michigan in play.

*** Cain in the spotlight: So much of last night’s debate seemed like a re-run. Romney was strong. Perry wasn’t. Newt Gingrich was provocative to the point of looking like the “Bulworth” character (suggesting that Barney Frank and Chris Dodd should be jailed). Michele Bachmann was Michele Bachmann. Rick Santorum tried to make the most of his limited questions. Ron Paul railed against the Fed. And Huntsman was virtually an afterthought. But the biggest difference between the previous debates and last night’s was the ascendency of Herman Cain. Not only was he seated in the middle of the action, Cain and his 9-9-9 economic plan dominated the debate; in fact, “9-9-9” was mentioned 24 times during the two-hour event, per NBC’s Anna Tuman. And his conservative rivals -- like Bachmann and Santorum -- tried to criticize 9-9-9. When a co-moderator told Cain that an analysis showed that the plan would add to the deficit, he replied, “The problem with that analysis is that it is incorrect.” Cain will once again be in the spotlight this morning when he’s interviewed on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown with Chuck Todd.” Click here to see a slideshow of the Georgia businessman.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney solidified his status as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination at Tuesday's GOP debate. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** On the 2012 trail: A day after last night’s debate in New Hampshire, most of the candidates remain in the Granite State: Santorum holds events in Concord… Paul makes numerous stops in the state… Huntsman holds town halls in Keene and Marlow… Gingrich hits Manchester… And Bachmann is in Concord… Outside of New Hampshire, Perry participates in a forum in Indianapolis, IN.

*** Obama’s jobs bill stalls in the Senate: As expected, President Obama’s jobs bill was unable to get the 60 votes needed to clear a procedural hurdle. Per NBC’s Libby Leist, the final vote was 50-49, with Dem Sens. Ben Nelson and Jon Tester joining all Republicans against ending debate. (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also changed his vote from yes to no, to enable him to bring up the measure again.) Obama released this statement in response: “[A] majority of United States senators voted to advance the American Jobs Act. But even though this bill contains the kind of proposals Republicans have supported in the past, their party obstructed the Senate from moving forward on this jobs bill,” he said. “Tonight's vote is by no means the end of this fight. Independent economists have said that the American Jobs Act would grow the economy and lead to nearly two million jobs, which is why the majority of the American people support these bipartisan, common-sense proposals. And we will now work with Sen. Reid to make sure that the individual proposals in this jobs bill get a vote as soon as possible.” 

*** Wednesday’s “Daily Rundown” line-up: Herman Cain live from Dartmouth College…Mmore from NBC News' interview with Christie and Romney… Sen. Roy Blunt, R-MO, on the Senate rejecting the president's jobs bill and his efforts to court Capitol Hill lawmakers for the Romney campaign… NBC News terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann on the foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S… And more 2012 news and debate analysis with the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus, National Review/Bloomberg View's Ramesh Ponnuru and Democratic strategist Mike Feldman.

*** Wednesday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell interviews Anita Hill, NBC’s Chuck Todd, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, NBC’s Ali Arouzi, and New Hampshire GOP Chair Wayne MacDonald.

Countdown to Election Day 2011: 27 days

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