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First Thoughts: Shades of Hillary in late '07

Parallels between Romney’s campaign right now and Hillary Clinton’s in Dec. 2007… Romney’s silver lining: More than half of Gingrich’s supporters pick Romney as their second choice… Where the GOP race is right now: Romney’s caution vs. Gingrich’s bombast… Lindsey Graham warming up to Newt… Paul -- once again -- doesn’t rule out a third-party bid… And Obama and Maliki hold press conference at 11:35 am ET.

*** Shades of Hillary Clinton in late ’07? As one of us spent four days observing the GOP race in Iowa, it was hard not to see parallels between Mitt Romney’s campaign and Hillary Clinton’s four year ago. There’s a vulnerability in the air for Romney -- just as reporters began to sense for the Clinton campaign in Dec. 2007. There was Romney’s debate gaffe (the $10,000 bet), which went at the heart of one of his central negative narratives (that he’s out of touch with middle-class Americans) -- just like Hillary Clinton’s debate gaffe in Oct. 2007 (over drivers licenses for illegal immigrants) went at the heart of one of her central negative narratives. There’s a sense that Romney’s chief campaign message (he’s a businessman that can turn the economy around) isn’t as attractive with GOP primary voters as Gingrich’s -- just like Hillary’s chief message (experience and the Clinton brand) wasn’t as attractive as Barack Obama’s (hope and change). And, of course, there’s Romney’s health-care law vs. Clinton’s Iraq war vote. The good news for Romney is this: Gingrich, at least right now, doesn’t seem as well prepared to go the distance as Obama’s did four years ago.

*** Romney’s silver lining: And while another round of NBC-Marist polling data shows Gingrich with double-digit leads in South Carolina and Florida, there is a large silver lining for Romney: More than half of Gingrich’s supporters in both states picked the former Massachusetts governor as their second-choice pick. And only a fraction of likely GOP primary voters in South Carolina and Florida view Romney as an unacceptable candidate. This means that Romney has the potential to gain more support if his campaign is able to raise doubts about Gingrich. Bottom line: There are no more “not Mitt Romneys” for voters to turn to. If Gingrich blows this, Romney will be the nominee. And early this morning, the Romney campaign fired off an oppo email tying Gingrich with Nancy Pelosi with the tag: “Unreliable leader.” From the email: “[W]hile conservatives were fighting job-killing cap-and-trade schemes, Speaker Gingrich shared a loveseat with Nancy Pelosi and lent his name to Al Gore's environmental agenda.”

*** Romney’s caution vs. Gingrich’s bombast: The most important exchange at Saturday’s debate crystallizing the state of the GOP primary race wasn’t Romney’s $10,000 bet. And it wasn’t Gingrich’s Ted Kennedy line, either. Rather, it was the Gingrich-Romney exchange over Gingrich’s past remark that the Palestinians are invented people. “[If] I'm president of the United States, I will exercise sobriety, care, stability,” Romney said. “I'm not a bomb thrower, rhetorically or literally.” Gingrich fired back: “I think sometimes it is helpful to have a president of the United States with the courage to tell the truth... I will tell the truth, even if it's at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes with the timid.” So this is where the GOP race stands right now: Romney’s caution/sobriety vs. Gingrich’s bombast and hot rhetoric. And right now, one of those sides has a VERY big lead… 

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is under fire for challenging rival Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet during the last GOP presidential debate, a move that highlighted his huge wealth. NBC's Kristen Welker reports.

*** Lindsey Graham warming up to Newt: While some portions of the GOP establishment are fretting about Gingrich winning the Republican nomination -- and are trying to undermine the former House speaker -- don’t miss this quote from Sen. Lindsey Graham on “Meet the Press”: “I'm not going to endorse him, but I think he could beat President Obama, and I would certainly support him as president, if he won the nomination. I think we're in a good spot to win this election. It is our election to lose. The president's numbers are terrible, his policies are nowhere.” This is significant, because Graham wasn’t a Gingrich fan when he served in the U.S. House; in fact, Graham played a role in the aborted coup against Gingrich in the 1990s. And Graham said this about Gingrich to Politico last week: “He really does seem to have grown.” Graham could become an important validator for an establishment that’s really nervous about Gingrich. By the way, this also shows that Gingrich is doing more legwork with the establishment than folks may have thought. He’s making quiet phone calls to, at a minimum, at least cut down on the attacks. It’s worked with Graham.

*** Paul doesn’t rule out a third-party bid: Also on “Meet” yesterday, Ron Paul said two very interesting things. First, he once again didn’t rule out a third-party bid. “I'm not going to rule anything out or anything in,” he said. “I don't talk in absolutes.” And second, he was asked why he and his campaign don’t go after Romney as much as the other campaigns. His response: “I think Romney comes back a little more diplomatic.  I think that he handles himself a little differently than Newt. And, Newt, you know, … can rub people the wrong way… I think Mitt has a little bit of more diplomatic tone to his voice and the way he handles himself.” In a long GOP primary campaign, assuming Paul decides he’s staying to grab delegates (something his team seems prepared to do), the Texas congressman could become Romney’s secret weapon. Check out how he cuts the Gingrich lead in SC in the NBC/Marist poll between a two-way race and a three-way one.

*** Obama and Maliki: As the United States fully withdraws from Iraq by the end of the month, President Obama meets at the White House with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the two men hold a press conference at 11:35 am ET. And this story has become a controversy Obama and Maliki are dealing with: A detainee in Iraq, Ali Musa Daqduq “is accused of helping to orchestrate a January 2007 raid by Shiite militants that resulted in the death of five American soldiers,” the New York Times says. “The administration is wrestling with either turning him over to the Iraqi government — as the United States did with its other wartime prisoners — or seeking a way to take him with the military as it withdraws, according to interviews with officials familiar with the deliberations.”

*** On the 2012 trail: It’s a New Hampshire State of Mind: Gingrich, Romney, and Huntsman are all in New Hampshire, with Gingrich and Huntsman participating in a Lincoln-Douglas debate in Manchester… Romney also raises money in New Jersey with Gov. Chris Christie… And Santorum stumps in Iowa.

Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 22 days
Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 29 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 40 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 50 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 54 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 85 days
Countdown to Election Day: 332 days

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