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First Thoughts: Why Romney might not be following Hillary's footsteps

Three differences between Romney’s and Hillary’s campaigns … Newt vs. Mitt turns negative, but Gingrich pens letter to staff, surrogates urging them to stay positive, but he reserves the right to respond to fire with fire (like hitting Romney over Bain) … Obama trails in swing states … a new NBC-WSJ poll out tonight.

*** Why Romney might not be following in Hillary’s footsteps: Yesterday, we wrote about the some of the parallels -- right now -- between Mitt Romney’s campaign and Hillary Clinton’s, circa mid- to late-December 2007. (Politico follows up today with some interesting interviews with ex-Clinton staffers.) But it’s also important to point out three key differences: (1) Romney doesn’t appear to be spending the amount of money that Clinton did. Remember, after Super Tuesday, the Clinton campaign essentially ran out of money (in large part, because it didn’t anticipate a contest past then). But Romney’s team has hoarded much of its cash. In fact, the main entity bombarding Iowa airwaves is the pro-Romney Super PAC, not the campaign. Team Romney has LONG planned for the LONG nomination fight; (2) Romney’s camp isn’t “all in” in Iowa, the same way Clinton’s was four years ago. That’s why Clinton’s loss in the Hawkeye State was so devastating and why her victory in New Hampshire a week later was so surprising; And (3) As we mentioned yesterday, Newt Gingrich’s operation isn’t Obama’s from 2007-2008, whether it’s in fundraising or organizing. 

*** The GOP race turns negative: But one comparison is certainly true: Romney and Gingrich are engaging each other like Clinton and Obama did in the winter and spring of 2008. Romney started it; He hit Gingrich on a number of fronts. But the first response from Gingrich elevated the spat and created this narrative. As Politico writes, “Presaging a brutal final stretch before voting begins, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich traded mocking insults Monday that veered into the personal and made clear that any restraint between the two was all but gone. In the sharpest and most personal negative turn yet of the Republican presidential campaign, the two leading contenders jabbed one another over how each got rich. Romney portrayed Gingrich as a Beltway fixer who cashed in on his access. The former House speaker returned fire by painting the one-time Bain executive as a reckless corporate titan who lined his pockets by killing jobs -- the first time a Republican opponent of Romney has [hit] him that hard for his private-sector work.” And it continues today from Team Romney. In the first attack of the day, the campaign released an email once again hitting Gingrich over Freddie Mac (something it did yesterday also). This close to actual votes taking place, the Romney camp knows it has to blunt any momentum Gingrich might gain from the early states. And Romney yesterday acknowledged that Gingrich “right now” is the front runner.

The Iowa caucuses are less than a month away, and the Republican presidential frontrunners are stepping up their attacks on one another. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** Newt pledges to stay positive, but…: But Gingrich, who everyone knows has a thick and dusty oppo file on him, is trying to guilt Romney into not attacking him. Gingrich late last night issued a letter to staffers and surrogates, urging them to remain positive and notes that both sides should run a “positive solutions-based campaign,” because, “It is critical the Republican nominee emerge from this primary campaign un-bloodied, so that he or she can make the case against President Obama from a position of strength.” And Gingrich used a quote from Romney that seemed more like a throw-away line to us: “I’m not going to say outrageous things that can be used to hang [a GOP opponent] down the road.” But that doesn’t mean we’re suddenly going to enter a kumbaya mode of this primary. Gingrich did, after all, write in a self-defense clause: “I have reserved the right to respond when my record has been distorted.” This little move by Gingrich has all but guaranteed Romney will have to own the idea that “he went negative first” something Gingrich is counting on backfiring with primary voters.

*** It don't mean a thing if you ain't got that swing-state strength: Turning the general election, a new USA Today/Gallup poll of swing states “finds the number of voters who identify themselves as Democratic or Democratic-leaning in these key states has eroded, down by 4 percentage points, while the ranks of Republicans have climbed by 5 points. Republican voters also are more attentive to the campaign, more enthusiastic about the election and more convinced that the outcome matters.” More from the poll: “In the swing states, Obama now trails former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney among registered voters by 5 points, 43% vs. 48%, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich by 3, 45% vs. 48%. That's a bit worse than the president fares nationwide, where he leads Gingrich 50%-44% and edges Romney 47%-46%.” Caveat: It’s striking to see this kind of discrepancy between the swing-state and nationwide numbers. So a bit of caution… By the way, today President Obama does a round of local news interviews -- three of four in swing states -- in Norfolk, VA, Pensacola, FL, Colorado Springs, CO, and Seattle.

*** NBC/WSJ poll day! Meanwhile, our national NBC/WSJ poll is released beginning at 6:30 pm ET. Who is leading the GOP horserace? What are the general election head-to-head numbers? How do Americans view Congress? Be sure to tune into NBC’s “Nightly News,” or click on to msnbc.com, starting at 6:30 pm.

*** On the 2012 trail: Romney raises money in Massachusetts… Paul holds a town hall in New Hampshire… Santorum makes multiple stops in Iowa… Huntsman appears on “The View”… And while Gingrich is down today, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal holds a press conference to unveil Gingrich supporters.

Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 21 days
Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 28 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 39 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 49 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 53 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 84 days
Countdown to Election Day: 331 days

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