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First Thoughts: Iowa's risk, reward for Romney

Iowa presents a risk and reward for Romney… Another foreign-policy success for Obama?... The post-debate storyline: Perry vs. Romney… Cain: In it to win it?... Perry to unveil flat tax… Raising Cain in Kabul… Paul’s two new TV ads… And Biden files Obama’s New Hampshire candidacy paperwork, and Santorum files today, too.

*** Iowa’s risk and reward for Romney: Mitt Romney today returns to Iowa -- for the first time since August -- making stops in Sioux City, Treynor, and Council Bluffs. And his visit once again raises this question: Given the current polls (which show him leading in Iowa) and given Rick Perry’s reversal of fortune, does he make a stronger play for the Hawkeye State? The reward: If he heavily competes and wins, he could wrap up the nomination VERY early, a la John Kerry in ’04. “He could come out here and campaign aggressively and win in Iowa, beat all expectations, and frankly I think put it all away in the first state," Doug Gross, Romney’s 2008 Iowa state chair (who is unaffiliated this cycle) told NBC’s Alex Moe. The risk: If he makes a strong play but loses, it could devastate his campaign and give Perry (or someone else) a real boost, leaving Romney in a situation similar to Hillary in ’08. So right now, Romney is trying to have it both ways, occasionally dipping his toes in the Iowa waters (like today) but only employing four full-time staffers there. But with 75 days until the caucuses, Romney will soon have to make a choice.

*** Another foreign-policy success for Obama? Far away from the 2012 campaign trail, some news sources are reporting that Khaddafy has either been captured or killed in Libya, although NBC News hasn’t confirmed the news. If true, it would give President Obama yet another foreign-policy success. Yes, the administration’s handling of the Libyan situation with Congress was less than desired. And yes, it took longer than some had expected, especially in our 24-7 media environment. But in retrospect, the critics (in Congress, on the ’12 trail, and us in the media) have egg on their faces regarding a conflict that got resolved in months and with no U.S. troops on the ground. And as critics continue to question the president’s leadership, Obama now has this counter-argument to make: When he doesn’t need Congress to act (on things like foreign policy), his leadership track record is pretty hefty so far. One more talking point making early rounds re: Iraq vs. Libya. It cost more than $1 trillion and many U.S. troops’ lives to topple Saddam and about a $1 billion to topple Khaddafy without the loss of a single U.S. soldier.

*** Perry vs. Romney: After Tuesday’s combative debate, the main 2012 storyline has turned into Perry vs. Romney. Here’s the New York Times: “Bad Blood Between Perry and Romney Is Longstanding.” And here’s the Washington Post: “Mitt Romney and Rick Perry’s longtime rivalry resurfaces at debate.” Furthering this storyline, the Romney campaign yesterday released a web video -- entitled “Ready to Lead?” -- hitting Perry. (Interestingly, the video is no longer available on YouTube.) And the Perry campaign has countered with its own video knocking Romney on health care and immigration.

*** In it to win it? Businessweek’s Josh Green is the latest to suggest that Herman Cain’s presidential campaign appears to be more concerned with selling books and transforming himself into a political celebrity than actually winning. A nugget in the story: Cain is still giving motivational speeches at $25,000 a pop. (“But I have not raised my prices,” Cain says.) From Green’s piece: “Running for president has been good to him, even if no one is certain that the White House is his most coveted destination. Opponents, reporters, and many of his own aides are skeptical. In June, four of his top staffers in Iowa and New Hampshire quit because, as one of them put it, Cain ‘wasn’t willing to make the commitment to Iowa necessary to win.’ Over the past few months, as his popularity has swelled, he has turned his back on the early primary states he once courted diligently and set off on a national book tour to promote This is Herman Cain! He has a bare-bones staff, a thin calendar, and hasn’t registered his name on the ballot in numerous primary states, although he has registered appearances on the Today show and dozens of others to pitch his book.”

*** Perry’s flat tax: Yet no matter how serious Cain’s candidacy is, he certainly has had an impact on the race. The latest example: Perry is about to unveil a flat-tax proposal. "It starts with ... scrapping the three million words of the current tax code, starting over with something simple: A flat tax," he told an audience at the Western Republican Leadership Conference yesterday, per NBC’s Carrie Dann. Perry added, "I want to make the tax code to so simple that even Timothy Geithner can file his taxes on time.” Dann notes that Perry is expected to unveil this flat-tax proposal on Tuesday in South Carolina.

*** Raising Cain in Kabul: And here’s another example of Cain’s influence: In Kabul yesterday, Afghan President Karzai and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO. “At the start of a meeting in Kabul, Clinton said Karzai had seen a news clip in which Cain said he didn't ‘even know the names of all these presidents of all these countries,’” the AP writes. “Karzai chipped in Thursday that Cain was referring to ‘all the “stans,”’ a reference to Central Asian countries. Clinton laughed and, gesticulating with her hands, said, ‘All the “stans places.”’”

*** Paul’s two new TV ads: Ron Paul’s campaign this morning announced the release of two new TV ads as part of a “major” ad buy in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. One ad features his economic plan, which would balance the budget (by cutting $1 trillion in the first year) and which eliminates five federal departments. The other ad knocks his rivals (Cain, Romney, Perry) and highlights Paul’s consistency.

*** On the 2012 trail: In addition to Romney’s day in Iowa, Vice President Biden files Obama’s candidacy papers in New Hampshire at 4:00 pm ET (and also speaks on the jobs bill in Plymouth, NH earlier in the day)… Rick Santorum also files his New Hampshire candidacy papers at 1:00 pm ET… And Bachmann’s in California, while Gingrich is in Texas.

*** Thursday’s “Daily Rundown” line-up: Latest from Libya… And Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) on jobs/debt fights, Iowa and 2012.

*** Thursday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell interviews Richard Haass (on Libya) and Sen. Dick Durbin (on Obama’s jobs plan).

Countdown to Election Day 2011: 19 days
Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 75 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 86 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 93 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 138 days

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