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First Thoughts: Final debate before the caucuses

Tonight’s the 13th and final debate before Iowa caucuses… Can Newt hold on?… Romney calls him “zany” and plays the Tiffany’s card… The GOP establishment strikes back at Gingrich… Ohio moves its primary from June to Super Tuesday… Paul Ryan changes his Medicare plan… And McCain rails against Obama’s Iraq speech/plans. 

*** Final debate before the caucuses: For the 13th (and most likely final) time before the Iowa caucuses, the Republican candidates will gather on the debate stage tonight in Sioux City, IA. And given the timing, the stakes couldn't be higher. Amid chatter that his poll numbers might be slipping in Iowa, can Newt Gingrich make the sale to GOP caucus-goers? After a rough past debate for Mitt Romney (by Romney standards, not Rick Perry ones) can he convince Iowans that he's their guy? With buzz now surrounding his campaign, can Ron Paul persuade the state's conservatives that his brand of pure libertarianism is what they're looking for? Can Michele Bachmann and Perry pull off a second-straight solid performance? And can Jon Huntsman -- who has been invited to this debate, unlike last week’s -- make even dent with these voters, since he's not competing in the state? The debate, which airs on FOX and is moderated by Bret Baier, begins at 9:00 pm ET.

*** Can Newt hold on? But Gingrich -- who leads the Iowa contest, according to the polls -- is the candidate who has perhaps the most riding on the debate. As Politico’s Martin writes, Gingrich is trying to hold on lead after being besieged by negative TV ads and attacks from his GOP rivals. He “is getting pounded on Iowa TV by both a pro-Mitt Romney super PAC and Ron Paul’s campaign and is doing little to fight back against ads which take direct aim at him. Less than three weeks before the caucuses, the former speaker is airing a single commercial with little money behind it.” But former Cain backer Steve Grubbs makes an important point to Martin (which he also said last week): “If in the next seven or eight days, between the Romney super PAC and Ron Paul, he absorbs thousands of points of negative TV and is still standing, then I don’t see what could take him down between Christmas and Jan. 3rd.”

*** “Zany” and “Tiffany’s”: In perhaps a preview of his line of attack in tonight’s debate, Romney told the New York Times that Gingrich is “zany.” “Zany is not what we need in a president,” Romney said. “Zany is great in a campaign. It’s great on talk radio. It’s great in print, it makes for fun reading, but in terms of a president, we need a leader, and a leader needs to be someone who can bring Americans together.” And Romney gave this line to Sean Hannity: "As for [Gingrich] trying to reference a $10,000 rhetorical bet, the Speaker, as I recall, probably shouldn't be talking about that given a $500,000 bill at Tiffany's." (But is Romney the best messenger here to ding Gingrich on wealth/spending excess?)

*** The GOP establishment strikes back: It isn’t just Gingrich’s Republican rivals who are going on the attack against Newt. National Review pens an editorial arguing that Gingrich should NOT be the party’s nominee. “He appears unable to transform, or even govern, himself. He should be an adviser to the Republican Party, but not again its head.” Ouch. Meanwhile, the conservative Washington Examiner has endorsed Romney over Gingrich, saying that -- per the new NBC/WSJ poll -- the former Massachusetts governor can beat Obama in 2012 while Gingrich can’t. And earlier this week, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza compiled some of the more stinging/incendiary columns by elite conservative writers (including George Will, Michael Gerson, Kathleen Parker, and Jonah Goldberg) that attack Gingrich. Gingrich sure seems to be getting the Howard Dean treatment, circa late 2003…

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is showing no signs of slowing down his attacks on rival Newt Gingrich. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** On the 2012 trail: Before tonight’s debate in Iowa, almost all of the candidates have campaign events in the Hawkeye State: Santorum stumps in Rockwell City, Sac City, and Holstein… Perry continues on his bus tour through Iowa, hitting Le Mars… And Gingrich holds a meet-and-greet event in Dodge.

*** Ohio moves its primary to Super Tuesday: By the way, it looks like Ohio is moving its presidential primary from June to Super Tuesday (March 6). The Columbus Dispatch: “Democratic and Republican House leaders worked out a deal today on a new congressional map and a single 2012 primary on March 6, instead of the current split primary that moves presidential and congressional races to June. The House passed the bill 77-17 tonight, and Senate action is expected later this evening.”

*** Paul Ryan changes his Medicare plan: “Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan on Thursday plan to introduce a new Medicare reform plan that would allow seniors to choose between traditional Medicare and new private insurance programs,” Politico writes “The plan has some key differences from the Ryan blueprint that Republicans had rallied around earlier this year — and which Democrats had been united in pummeling in Congress and on the campaign trail as the beginning of the end of Medicare. The biggest difference is that seniors would have a choice between staying in traditional Medicare, or opting into new private plan alternatives.” This change – with bipartisan support – potentially has big implications when it comes to 2012, the White House, and Mitt Romney (who has pretty much already adopted this choice plan).

*** McCain rails against Obama: As you probably saw or heard yesterday, Sen. John McCain railed against President Obama’s speech yesterday announcing the end of the U.S. presence in Iraq. "I believe that history will judge this president’s leadership with the scorn and disdain it deserves.” Yet it’s worth noting that the November NBC/WSJ poll showed 71% of the country agreeing with the president’s decision.

Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 19 days
Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 26 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 37 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 47 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 51 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 82 days
Countdown to Election Day: 329 days
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