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First Thoughts: Newt's moment of truth

Can Gingrich survive the scrutiny, negative attacks to come? In one week, there will be two debates, in which Gingrich be the target. They’ll test his mettle and discipline. … The risk for Romney in using Paul Ryan to go after Gingrich … The ad-spending picture … Romney makes his fifth trip to Iowa … Meet the Press has Ron Paul, plus Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham.

*** Newt’s moment of truth: With the pro-Romney Super PAC airing a HUGE TV ad buy in Iowa -- and with it about to go negative against Newt Gingrich -- the next week will serve as a moment of truth for the former House speaker. If he survives it, as Herman Cain’s Iowa chair Steve Grubbs said, Gingrich is going to be tough to beat in Iowa. And if he doesn’t, this ad blitz will be a major reason why. The same can be said of tomorrow night’s debate in Des Moines and Thursday’s debate in Sioux City. In both debates, Gingrich will be in the spotlight and most likely in the hot seat. Each time a non-Romney alternative has soared in the polls -- first Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, and then Herman Cain -- they’ve come crashing down the Earth. Will Newt follow in their footsteps? Or, with the Christmas holidays and the Iowa Hawkeyes’ and Iowa State Cyclones’ bowl games (on Dec. 30) quickly approaching, did Newt pick the right time to begin his surge? We’ll begin to have an answer a week from now.

*** Does Money Matter? Indeed, the next week or so will determine if money (which Romney has in spades over Gingrich) still matters. And we will see if Team Romney -- by raising questions about Gingrich’s leadership and by making marriage an issue -- can get under Newt’s skin. Make no mistake: This is what the Romney camp is trying to achieve. They want the acerbic Newt to come out. Here’s why: the attacks themselves on Gingrich are not easy to sell. Why? Because he has one golden ticket with most conservative Republicans: he did it; he led conservative Republicans out of a 40-year desert. So no ONE thing (Freddie Mac, three marriages, health-care mandate, Pelosi/global warming, criticizing Paul Ryan) will take him down like it could for another politician. But the hope among Romney folks (or, to put it more accurately) the anti-Newt folks is that the accumulation will do it. “Kitchen Sink” strategies are tough. Sometimes there’s TOO much to attack. If it looks to scattershot, then it comes across as desperate.

*** How Newt Survives: Gingrich has had one powerful response to attacks from ex-colleagues so far -- when he acknowledged, yes, he’s stepped on some toes, but changing the culture in D.C. isn’t easy. A lot of voters, in this current environment will believe that. By the way, one other advantage Newt has to POTENTIALLY survive this Romney onslaught: Romney’s own issues with the conservative base. And if conservatives feel like they have to “hold their noses,” they just might pick the guy who they feel was with them from the beginning. Also, keep in mind, when you talk to voters, particularly base Republicans, you get the sense they want a fighter as their nominee; they don’t want someone who stylistically comes across as too much like the current president. Stylistically, Romney and Obama have more in common. Then again, if Romney folks can push the “professorial” narrative on Newt…

Just three-and-a-half weeks from the Iowa caucuses, the battle for the Republican presidential nomination appears to be shaping up into a two-man race. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** Keeping His Cool: Yesterday wasn’t easy for Gingrich, either. First, top Romney surrogates held a conference call to blast the former speaker’s record. "I don't think Newt Gingrich cares about conservative principles. He cares about Newt Gingrich," former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu said on the call. Perry made a not-so-subtle dig at Gingrich’s marriages. "I didn't make an oath just to my wife," Perry said. "I made an oath to God when I married my wife. I think it's an important issue. Politico notes the “pile-on” that’s begun. The Wall Street Journal editorial page ran a tough piece on Gingrich. And a pastor, who has endorsed Santorum, lobs this grenade of a video, labeling Gingrich “untrustworthy” and “unfaithful,” and calling him the “Kim Kardashian of the GOP.” “Newt respects marriage about as much as Kim Kardashian.” And: “I don’t like Barack Obama but at least he doesn’t trade in his wives like used cars.” And: “If Newt Gingrich can betray a woman who has sworn her love and loyalty to him for the rest of her life, not once, but twice, what makes you think he won’t betray you, the faceless voter in a sea of faceless voters.” No one ever said it was easy being the front-runner.

*** A final note on Romney vs. Gingrich: It’s an eyebrow-raising decision for Team Romney to go after Gingrich on Paul Ryan’s budget plan. In fact, on that surrogate call yesterday, both Sununu and former Sen. Jim Talent whacked Gingrich over the Ryan plan. And they hit him on it in a new Web video out this morning. Yes, that’s a big vulnerability for Gingrich, given what we saw happen to him last spring/summer. But is it the wisest approach for Romney, especially when you begin to map out a general election? (After all, Romney’s own Medicare plan isn’t 100% Paul Ryan.) Here’s what the White House/Obama re-election campaign is noticing: Romney is going after Gingrich by questioning Newt’s conservatism, which pushes Romney farther to the right…In other words: Team Obama believes this is the single best week for their own campaign to date.

*** Where the ad spending stands: By the way, with that new ad buy by the pro-Romney Super PAC, Restore Our Future, here is where the spending race stands, according to ad-tracking data First Read has obtained:

TOTAL: Perry $5.6 million, Make Us Great Again (pro-Perry) $3.1 million, Paul $2.6 million, Our Destiny (pro-Huntsman) $1.4 million, Restore Our Future (pro-Romney) $790,000, Romney $688,000, Gingrich $233,000, Bachmann $166,000, and Santorum $23,000. (Note: While Restore Our Future says it will buy $3.1 million over the next three weeks, the data show it will a purchase of $790,000 for one week.)

IOWA: Perry $4.4 million, Make Us Great Again $1.3 million, Paul $1.2 million, Restore Our Future $790,000, Romney $323,000, Gingrich $233,000, and Santorum $17,000.

NEW HAMPSHIRE: Our Destiny $1.4 million, Paul $430,000, Romney $365,000, and Perry $234,000.

*** On the 2012 trail: One day before tomorrow’s GOP debate and 25 days until the caucuses, almost all the activity is in the Hawkeye State: Romney stumps in Cedar Rapids, while his wife Ann holds a “Women for Mitt” event in West Des Moines… Santorum stumps in Cedar Falls and Des Moines… Paul hits Webster City, Mason City, Waverly, and Cedar Falls… And Bachmann holds a town hall in Des Moines… Outside of Iowa, Newt and Callista Gingrich attend a book signing in DC… And Newark Mayor Corey Booker campaigns for Obama in New Hampshire.

***Friday's "The Daily Rundown" line-up: Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) on 2012 and the budget fight… Politico's Jonathan Martin and the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza on the raucous lead-up to Iowa… more 2012 news with the Washington Post's Nia-Malika Henderson, TheGrio.com's Jeff Johnson and former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-NY).

*** Friday’s “Jansing & Co. line-up: Chris Jansing welcomes SEIU President Mary Kay Henry to discuss payroll tax plan implications; Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel, and Comcast’s Robert Traynham on President Obama’s standing firm on the payroll tax cut, the Cordray appointment and more, including, the NAACP’s Ben Jealous previewing Voter ID rallies.

*** Friday's "News Nation with Tamron Hall" line-up: Joining Tameron is Col. Jack Jacobs on the Dover remains investigation and deadline, a political panel of Nia Malika Henderson, Steve Schmidt, and Jamal Simmons; Keith Morrison for a preview of what's coming up on Dateline; and Zachary Karabell on Insider trading, as well as, NBC's Mara Schiavocampo on Voter ID laws.  She is in South Carolina, profiling a woman whose job it is to make sure the elderly have the proper IDs.

*** Friday’s “Live with Thomas Roberts” line-up: MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts interviews former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and Susan Del Percio on Romney vs. Gingrich, plus Time's Michael Steele discusses Obama's Political "Guerrilla War."

*** Friday’s “NOW with Alex Wagner” line-up: Alex Wagner’s guests include The Wall Street Journal’s Steve Moore, the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart; the National Review’s Robert Costa, Lady Lynn de Rothschild, Vanity Fair’s Bryan Burrough, and MSNBC’s Al Sharpton.

*** Friday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: Andrea Mitchell talks with Iowa GOP Party Chairman Matt Strawn, Pollster Ann Selzer, NBC News analyst Ed Rendell (former Pennsylvania governor), Charlie Cook, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the New York Times’ David Leonhardt, Chris Cillizza, and Judy Gross, wife of jailed American in Cuba Alan Gross.

*** Workin’ for the Weekend: Saturday’s (and Sunday’s) “Up with Chris Hayes” line-up: MSNBC’s Chris Hayes interviews Buddy Roemer and NAACP Ben Jealous (on Saturday) and Sen. Bob Casey (on Sunday). And “Weekends with Alex Witt” has former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and Last Word host Lawrence O’Donnell.

*** Sunday’s “Meet the Press” line-up: NBC’s David Gregory interviews Ron Paul, Sens. Dick Durbin (D) and Lindsey Graham (R), and the roundtable consists of NBC’s Ted Koppel, NBC’s Lisa Myers, GOP ad an Alex Castellanos, NBC’s Chuck Todd, and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.

Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 25 days
Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 32 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 43 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 53 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 57 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 88 days
Countdown to Election Day: 335 days 

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