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First Thoughts: Five weeks to go

Five weeks (36 days!!!) to go until Iowa… Can Gingrich capitalize on the Union Leader’s endorsement?... Next up on Capitol Hill’s agenda this week: payroll tax cut… New tensions with Pakistan… DNC hits Romney in new TV ad… And Christmas break with Ron Paul.

*** Five weeks to go: Here’s where we stand in the GOP presidential race with five weeks (36 days!!!) to go until the Iowa caucuses: 1) Mitt Romney remains the overall favorite -- with his money, campaign staff, and poll position -- but he hasn’t been able to pull away from the field, and he’s a TV ad away from being all-in in Iowa; 2) Newt Gingrich, fresh off from his New Hampshire Union Leader endorsement, has emerged as the latest Romney alternative, but the question is whether he can survive the next 36 days; (none of the OTHER anti-Romneys has lasted longer); 3) Rick Perry’s campaign appears stuck in neutral, though he did receive an endorsement from controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio; 4) Ron Paul keeps on doing his thing, and is enlisting college students to help out his Iowa ground game; 5)  Herman Cain is trying to bounce back from his foreign-policy stumbles and those sexual-harassment allegations; and 6) with all the twists and turns that we’ve seen so far, the next five weeks (and beyond) promise to be a wild ride. Bottom line: We don’t know how Romney is denied the nomination, but we also don’t know how he gets there, yet.

Slideshow: Gingrich through the years

*** Can Gingrich capitalize on the Union Leader’s endorsement? As mentioned above, Gingrich won the conservative New Hampshire Union Leader’s endorsement, NBC’s Jo Ling Kent reported yesterday. “Newt Gingrich is by no means the perfect candidate. But Republican primary voters too often make the mistake of preferring an unattainable ideal to the best candidate who is actually running,” the paper said, never once mentioning New Hampshire front-runner Mitt Romney (though criticizing politicians who tell voters “what he thinks we want to hear”). “In this incredibly important election, that candidate is Newt Gingrich. He has the experience, the leadership qualities and the vision to lead this country in these trying times. He is worthy of your support on Jan. 10.” The endorsement is the latest evidence that Gingrich’s campaign is surging, despite the scrutiny over his past work for Freddie Mac and his comments on illegal question. Here’s the big question for Gingrich: Can he capitalize on this momentum -- to start airing TV ads and hiring more campaign staffers in the early states? The New York Times says his campaign has hired nine staffers in South Carolina and half a dozen in New Hampshire. But here’s another amazing stat: Gingrich hasn’t spent any money on paid ads in Iowa yet.

*** Track record vs. momentum: By the way, the Union Leader’s track record for picking NOMINEES is mixed, but its ability to generate momentum for a candidate in the state is worth a lot. The top story right now on the paper’s web site: “GOP candidates react to endorsement of Gingrich.”

*** A few “just askins” to ponder: Because Gingrich and Romney have “M.A.D.” (Mutually Assured Destruction)-type negatives, does it mean neither is ready to go nuclear on the other? And if that’s the case, who does end up doing the job on TV? Gingrich may have the “K Street” address, but does Team Romney want a compare/contrast with Gingrich going back to 1994? Gingrich on the trail in Oct. ’94 vs. Romney on the trail in Oct. ’94? How have the two candidates with the most traditional presidential candidate resumes (Santorum and Huntsman) not seen a boomlet of any kind? Or did we answer that question with the word “traditional”? While the goal first and foremost for Romney is to WIN the nomination any way he can, doesn’t he need to go long? If he wins early and ends the race, doesn’t the vacuum become a bigger problem as Romney actually won’t feel ready to pivot to the center too quickly? 

Newt Gingrich began the week with a boost, the endorsement of the conservative Manchester Union Leader. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** Next up on Capitol Hill’s agenda: payroll tax cut: Transitioning from the 2012 campaign trail to the nation’s capital, the Senate is set to vote this week on extending the payroll tax credit. On Wednesday, President Obama travels to Scranton, PA to press the Senate to pass the legislation, and he did the same last week in Manchester, NH. Roll Call: “Republicans in general have been divided about what to do about the payroll tax cut, with some preferring to let it expire and worrying about the long-term financing of the Social Security system. Other Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), are open to extending the cuts. Republicans have voted many times in the past for tax cuts — including last year in a December deal with the president — without paying for them.” By the way, don’t miss the Wall Street Journal’s excellent graphics and stats on presidential travel to swing states in the year BEFORE a re-election year. Obama has now surpassed George W. Bush for swing state travel (2011 vs. 2003).

*** New tensions with Pakistan: Yet the trickiest news the Obama White House is dealing is in Pakistan, where “a NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers remained in dispute and Pakistan threatened to boycott an international conference on Afghanistan’s future,” the Washington Post says. “The military coalition in Kabul said it was still investigating the Saturday morning incident, but a spokesman suggested a joint U.S.-Afghan operation had called in the NATO helicopters for support after coming under fire. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasumussen called it a ‘tragic unintended accident.’ But Pakistani officials maintained that the air assault was unprovoked.” This feels like the typical Pakistan response -- at least for now -- where domestic political concerns on their end mean they have to react as negatively as possible in public to what the U.S./NATO may have done.

*** DNC hits Romney in TV ad: Turning back to the 2012 race, the Democratic National Committee says it’s going up with a new TV ad hitting Romney in six media markets: Albuquerque, NM; Raleigh-Durham, NC; Columbus, OH; Pittsburgh, PA; Washington, DC; and, Milwaukee, WI. The DNC’s charge in the ad: Romney is a serial flip-flopper. From the creator of "I'm running for office for Pete's sake" comes the story of two men trapped in one body," the narrator says. "Mitt vs. Mitt." It captures Romney saying, "I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose." Then he says: "The right next step... is to see Roe v. Wade overturned." On health care, Romney says, "We put together an exchange, and the president’s copying that idea. I'm glad to hear that." Then: "Obamacare is bad news." Warning: We’re not sure how big the DNC’s buy is; right now, it looks more like a press-release advertisement. And we do know this: Every day that Team Obama and Democrats take a shot at Romney, the folks in Boston consider that a good day for them. Perhaps the ONLY way Romney wins over skeptical conservatives is to show he’s the candidate the White House fears the most.

*** Christmas break with Ron Paul: Over the weekend, NBC’s Anthony Terrell reported that the Paul campaign is increasing its efforts in early voting states by recruiting college-aged supporters to spend "Christmas Vacation with Ron Paul" as part of its get-out-the-vote program.  The campaign is asking students to spend their Christmas break working for the campaign in Iowa (Dec. 27, 2011 to Jan. 4, 2012) and New Hampshire (Jan. 2, 2012 to Jan. 11, 2012) while providing meals, lodging and transportation. A fundraising email calls the campaign's official youth effort -- "Youth for Ron Paul" -- its "Secret Weapon,” one that it says "no other campaign will be able to duplicate. That's because no other campaign has the level of support and enthusiasm among young people that our campaign has."

*** On the 2012 trail: Gingrich stumps in South Carolina, and so does Anita Perry… Santorum and Huntsman are in New Hampshire… Romney raises money in Florida…And Cain hits a fundraiser in McLean, VA.

*** Monday’s “Daily Rundown” line-up: Union Leader Publisher Joe McQuaid on backing Gingrich… L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on what’s happening with Occupy L.A… The latest on Egypt and Syria with NBC’s Aymen Mohyledin and TIME’s Bobby Ghosh… And more 2012 news with the Washington Post’s Dan Balz, former DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney and former RNC chairman Michael Steele.

*** Monday’s “Jansing & Co.” line-up: MSNBC’s Chris Jansing interviews Charles Arlinghaus of the New Hampshire Union Leader (on the paper’s endorsement of Gingrich), the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, the Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page, and the New York Times’ Charles Blow.

*** Monday’s “MSNBC Live with Thomas Roberts” line-up: MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts interviews the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty and Anne Kornblut, as well as Jamal Simmons and Susan Del Percio.

*** Monday’s “NOW with Alex Wagner” line-up: Alex Wagner’s panel includes actor and former Obama White House aide Kal Penn, New York Magazine’s John Heilemann, Politico’s Joe Williams, and Meghan McCain.

*** Monday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell interviews the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, the DNC’s Brad Woodhouse (on its new ad hitting Romney), Andrew Hemingway of the Gingrich campaign, and Dem Rep. Chris Van Hollen.

Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 36 days
Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 43 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 54 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 64 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 68 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 99 days
Countdown to Election Day: 346 days

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