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First Thoughts: Eight is enough

Republicans gather in Vegas at 8:00 pm ET for eighth debate of cycle… What we've learned from the debates so far… The importance of the West… Huntsman boycotts the debate (and four other GOPers are boycotting the NV caucuses)… The Road Warrior: Obama begins second day of his bus tour through NC and VA… He tells a NC affiliate: "My intention is to win North Carolina again”… Iowa officially sets its caucus date for Jan. 3… And we’re still waiting on Bill Gardner and NH.

*** Eight is Enough: At 8:00 pm ET, the GOP candidates -- sans Jon Huntsman -- gather at the Venetian (the most notable REPUBLICAN hotel on the Strip, by the way) in Las Vegas for their eighth debate so far. And it’s the fifth debate since Labor Day. So what have learned from all of these debates? Rick Perry, who now has participated in more debates as a presidential candidate than as a Texas politician, isn’t a good debater… The 2012 field, unlike the 2008 one, doesn’t gang up on Mitt Romney, which has allowed him to stay on message… The debates have provided the candidates an opportunity to gain traction (where would Cain be today without them?)… Experience matters (Romney is so much better than he was in ’08)… And, overall, these debates have had a huge impact on the race, because GOP primary voters are paying attention. Deep down, that has to concern Team Romney somewhat. Yes, his debate performances have impressed the GOP establishment and news media. But they haven’t moved the needle with GOP voters -- at least not yet.  (Visit First Read during tonight’s debate, airing on CNN, for a live Twitter feed of the NBC News political unit and campaign embeds). 

Republican presidential candidates at the NBC-Politico debate at the Reagan Library, Sept. 7, 2011.

*** Go west, young men (and women): Besides the NBC-Politico debate at the Reagan Library back in September, tonight’s debate is the only other one to take place west of the Mississippi River. And while the current presidential action has occurred in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, the West could end up being the most important region come Nov. 2012. After all, since 2004, there hasn’t been another region in the country where Republicans have struggled more (just see last year’s GOP Senate losses in CO and NV). There’s not another region in the country that is more essential and doable to Obama’s path to 270 electoral votes (see CO, NV, and NM). And there’s not another region in the country that’s chock-full of the Latino voters the GOP needs to win over.

*** Boycott! About the same time that the other GOP candidates are debating in Las Vegas, Huntsman holds a town hall in Hopkinton, NH. And he holds another town hall in Manchester, NH earlier in the afternoon. Huntsman is boycotting tonight’s debate because Nevada’s Jan. 14 caucus date is putting pressure on New Hampshire’s calendar decision. Four other GOP candidates (Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, an Santorum) say they are boycotting the Nevada caucuses, although they’re still participating in tonight’s debate. The conservative New Hampshire Union Leader editorial page is now urging Romney, the New Hampshire front-runner, to boycott the Nevada caucuses: “Romney could put New Hampshire voters’ minds at ease about his commitment to the primary and the value of selecting candidates the old-fashioned way. He could join the Nevada boycott. Or not. Either way, New Hampshire is watching.” Our question though: What evidence is there that the Nevada caucuses will be competitive or that impactful? Romney won them going away in 2008, and he wasn’t the front-runner after losing in Iowa and New Hampshire. One gets the sense the other Republicans running realize this and figure: Why not boycott and devalue an easy victory state for Romney?

NBC's Domenico Montanaro reports on President Obama's bus tour, Republican criticism of it, and the importance of battleground states Virginia and North Carolina.

AP

President Obama at West Wilkes High School in Millers Creek, N.C., Monday, Oct. 17, 2011.

*** The Road Warrior: On the second day of his “don’t call this a campaign” bus tour, President Obama holds a roundtable meeting at 9:50 am ET with educators at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, NC. He then delivers remarks there at 11:20 pm. And after that, his bus tour heads to Virginia, where he gives a speech at Greensville County High School in Emporia, VA at 5:00 pm. One of the biggest differences between this bus tour and the one he took through Minnesota and Iowa is the subject matter. That August tour was all about the aftermath of the bruising debt-ceiling fight, which wasn’t a good story for him to tell. This time? It’s about jobs and jobs legislation, which is friendlier terrain for Democrats. And you can sense it in the president’s demeanor. In August, in the Midwest, he was on the defensive; this time, he feels more comfortable selling something.

*** Carolina in my mind: Per MSNBC's Dave Murphy, President Obama, Vice President Biden, and First Lady Michelle Obama have made -- combined -- at least 13 official visits to North Carolina during the Obama presidency. And don't miss what Obama told a North Carolina affiliate yesterday, per NBC's Sarah Blackwill: "My intention is to win North Carolina again. like we did last time. And it'll be close, because obviously folks are frustrated with the challenges we still face in the economy. But I think, ultimately, people in North Carolina, they know we're not going to just be able to go back to the old ways of doing things if we're going to meet the competitive needs of the 21st century. We need to shoot for the future." North Carolina is the ultimate organization state that plays into what may be the strength of the Obama campaign operation. It’s an early voting state, where Obama over-performed all over the country in 2008. In fact, in 2010, check out the states where Democrats over-performed, it was in states where there was early voting or easy absentee ballot rules (see Nevada and Colorado, specifically). And then there are the demographic advantages: North Carolina’s growth are among groups who have voted more Democratic than Republican over the last few years.

*** Iowa officially schedules caucuses for Jan. 3: Last night, Iowa Republicans made it official: Their caucuses will take place on Jan.3 at 8:00 pm ET, NBC’s Alex Moe reports. "A Jan. 3 date provides certainty to the voters, to our presidential candidates, and to the thousands of statewide volunteers who make the Caucus process a reflection of the very best of our representative democracy," said Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn. Typically, Iowa waits to set the caucus date until the New Hampshire primary is set. But last night, the committee voted unanimously to select the first available date in January for the caucus. “We came to the conclusion that we definitely wanted to have a January start to the process,” State Central Committee member Wes Enos told NBC’s Moe. In 2008, Iowa was on Jan. 3 Jan. 5, and while that’s just a two-day difference, it’s a HUGE psychological shift given that Jan. 3 is the FIRST day after the government recognizes New Year’s Day.

In fact, realize, Jan. 1, 2012 is a Sunday, meaning the New Year’s Day bowl games are ALL being held on Jan. 2. So first business day of the year is Jan. 3, the day of the caucuses… that’s early folks.

*** Still waiting on Gardner: After Iowa made its news, NBC’s Jo Ling Kent got reaction from New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner. “That's not going to make me set the date any sooner. I'm not going to set the date this week." He also said he’s waiting for the results of a Nevada meeting the weekend of Oct. 22 to see if the state would move back from its Jan. 14 date. "Once Iowa has set its date, it doesn't really matter to them when we have our date."

*** Tuesday’s “Daily Rundown” line-up: Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) on the president's bus trip, jobs pitch, and 2012 outlook… Variety's Ted Johnson on how some conservative celebrities are still sitting on the sidelines with 2012 endorsements… Las Vegas Sun's Jon Ralston on all things Nevada 2012… One of us (!!!) on how primary debates can shape the race… Plus more 2012 news with NBC's Kelly O'Donnell, Democratic pollster Fred Yang and Michelle Bernard.

*** Tuesday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: NBC's Andrea Mitchell interviews Jon Huntsman, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, as well as GOP strategist Ed Rollins and Dem strategist Tad Devine.

Countdown to Election Day 2011: 21 days

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