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First Thoughts: Fight night

AP

It's usually a debate no-no to touch an opponent. But Mitt Romney (left) did so at Tuesday night's debate, when he put his hand on Rick Perry's (right) shoulder and arm.

Boy, that escalated quickly: Last night’s debate was the most combative yet… Who was more damaged between Perry and Romney? We’ll find out in the next couple of days… Romney channels his inner Chris Christie. Did it play well?... Did Cain improve his standing?... New NBC-Marist polls: Cain leads in SC and runs neck and neck with Romney in FL… Breaking down the Cain vs. Romney divide in the polls… And measuring Obama’s standing in both FL and SC.

 ***  Fight night :  Boy, that escalated quickly  . I mean, that really got out of hand fast. In fact, we swear we saw a man on fire and someone stab another person with a trident. “Anchorman” lines aside, it was only fitting that last night’s GOP presidential debate took place in Las Vegas, because it looked more like a prizefight -- or even tag-team wrestling match -- than a debate. (“Let’s get ready to rumble,” indeed.) Not only was it the most combative debate yet, it was the first time that one candidate (Mitt Romney) actually touched another candidate (Rick Perry). It also was the first time that Romney found himself on the defensive on multiple fronts, namely over his Massachusetts health-care law and the fact Romney had hired a landscaping firm employing illegal immigrants. And while we’ve written before the last few debates that Perry was facing a do-or-die  moment, the Texas governor last night truly acted like someone fighting for his survival, willing to do anything to stay alive. The debate was a war of words between the two candidates everyone expected to war -- Romney and Perry -- even as polls (including our new ones in SC and FL) continue to show that Perry’s not polling as a front-runner anymore.     

***  What’s the post-debate storyline?  The biggest question we have: What’s the post-debate storyline over the next few days? Is it an examination of the Massachusetts health law or that landscaping firm? Is it a look at the truthfulness of Romney’s denials? Perry’s desperation? Or is it something else? What proved to be especially damaging to Perry in past debates -- besides his lethargic performances -- were the later stories about HPV and in-state tuition for  illegal immigrants. That’s the challenge for both Perry and Romney, as well as (to a lesser extent) Herman Cain: trying to guide the post-debate stories.   

***  Romney channeled his inner Chris Christie : Over the last few months on the campaign trail, we’ve noticed a more combative Romney when he was challenged in town halls or at that Des Moines Register soapbox in Iowa. But last night, Romney channeled his inner Chris Christie to respond to the attacks on him. “ I'll tell you what. Why don't you let me speak? Why don't you let me speak?” Romney snapped to Rick  Santorum on the subject of health care. “Are you just going to keep talking, or are you going to let me finish with my -- what I have to say?” he asked to Perry on illegal immigration. Romney even snapped at Gingrich when he didn’t like that Newt didn’t own up quicker to supporting the idea of a mandate. There are two schools of thought on Romney’s performance here. One: He was aggressive, didn’t back down when challenged, and showed that he was strong . Two: He was over the top, violated his opponent’s space, and sounded condescending. New York Times critic  Alessandra Stanley   opted for No. 2: “Mr. Romney looked a little like a country club tennis player dealing with a nonmember guest who gauchely calls a ball in that was obviously out.”

***  Did Cain improve his standing?  Bottom line: It’s hard to believe that any of the GOP candidates last night improved their standing after last night’s combative debate. Perhaps there was one exception: Herman Cain. Yes, his rivals sliced and diced his 9-9-9 plan. And yes, his apples/oranges defense didn’t make much  sense. But if the final memory of last night’s debate was Perry getting personal with Romney, and Romney getting testy with Perry. Remember the rule of multi-candidate fields: When A attacks B and B attacks A, it’s usually C who benefits. Then again, Cain didn’t do himself any favors when he denied that he said he could see himself authorizing the release of a U.S. soldier from al Qaeda captivity if the U.S. released all Gitmo prisoners. It turns out, he said it in a previous interview. In the post-debate spin room, Cain admitted he misspoke, per NBC’s Carrie Dann. "Mea culpa.” Cain didn’t help himself with those voters who may have warm feelings toward him, but have doubts he has the depth on non-tax issues to actually be a competitive nominee.   

***  Cain leads in SC, runs neck and neck with Romney in FL : Speaking of Cain, he holds a narrow lead in South Carolina’s Republican primary, and he’s running neck and neck in Florida with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, according to  two new NBC News-Marist polls  . In  South Carolina  , Cain gets the support of 30% of likely GOP primary voters — determined by past participation, interest and chance of vote — and Romney gets 26%. They’re followed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry at 9%, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 6% and Reps. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul at 5% each; 15% of likely primary voters are undecided. In  Florida  , Cain is at 32% among likely voters, Romney at 31%, Perry at 8% and Paul and Gingrich are at 6%; 11% say they are undecided.

***  Breaking down the Cain vs. Romney divide : What is particularly striking is that these NBC-Marist polls mirror what we saw in last week’s national NBC/WSJ poll. In both Florida and South Carolina, Cain performs better among Tea Party backers, very conservative voters, evangelical Christians, and Republicans who have viewed the past GOP debates. In fact, among those who are combined Tea Party-conservative-evangelical, Cain leads Romney in Florida, 34%-23% and he leads him in South Carolina, 36%-25%. Romney, by contrast, over-performs in both states among Republicans who don’t identify with the Tea Party, as well as those who consider themselves liberals and moderates.

***  Measuring Obama in both states : Per the polls, President Obama’s approval rating in Florida stands at 41%, with 49% disapproving of his job performance. In a hypothetical general-election match up in the Sunshine State, the president is up two points on Romney, 45%-43%. He leads Cain by six points, 47%-41%. And he’s ahead of Perry by eight points, 47%-39%. In South Carolina, Obama’s job-approval rating stands at 40%, and he trails Romney, Cain and Perry in head-to-head match ups in the Palmetto State.

***  Anti-DC sentiment in a nutshell: If you need any more evidence as to why the anti-Washington and even anti-government resentment has resonance, look no further than this piece in Bloomberg News about DC passing up Silicon Valley as the richest metro area. "The U.S. capital has swapped top spots with Silicon Valley, according to recent Census Bureau figures, with the typical household in the Washington metro area earning $84,523 last year. The national median income for 2010 was $50,046."

*** On the 2012 trail: A day after last night’s debate, Perry (as 12:20 pm ET), Cain (7:00 pm ET), and Paul (8:10 pm ET) stay in Vegas to address the Western Republican Leadership Conference… Romney, in South Dakota, addresses Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce… And Buddy Roemer files his candidacy papers in New Hampshire.

*** Wednesday’s “Daily Rundown” line-up: Former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, R-NJ, on last night’s debate and the field going forward… More on the new NBC/Marist numbers in South Carolina and Florida with Marist University’s Lee Miringoff… Former Gov. Doug Wilder, D-VA, on President Obama’s bus tour rolling through Virginia… And more 2012 news with National Review’s Robert Costa, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and the Washington Post’s Nia-Malika Henderson.

*** Wednesday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell interviews NBC’s Chuck Todd and the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza (on the NBC-Marist polls and last night’s debate), Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom, the New York Times’ David Leonhardt, and Anita McBride (on Michelle Obama on the campaign trail).

Countdown to Election Day 2011: 20 days
Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 76 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 87 days

Countdown to South Carolina primary: 94 days

Countdown to Super Tuesday: 139 days

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