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First Thoughts: It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Romney's Super PAC

It’s a bird; it’s a plane; it’s Romney’s Super PAC!... Restore Our Future is playing a large role in the battle for Iowa… Breaking down the Iowa and Super PAC spending… Breaking down last night’s debate… Wyden gives Romney lots of cover on Medicare… Why? It’s a bipartisan stamp of approval… Romney officially picks up Nikki Haley endorsement in SC today… Government shutdown averted, again… And “Meet the Press” has Bachmann on Sunday.

*** It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Romney’s Super PAC: At last night’s GOP presidential debate, Mitt Romney -- after spending the past week attacking Newt Gingrich in some brutally personal ways in interviews -- didn’t lay a single hand on the former House speaker. And he didn’t have to, thanks to the pro-Romney Super PAC that’s hammering Gingrich with negative TV ads in Iowa (here and here). So far, the Super PAC, Restore Our Future, has spent $2.7 million in Iowa and $2.9 million overall on the airwaves to help Romney and to hurt Gingrich. Looking at it another way, the Super PAC is spending 1,200-plus points of advertising in the Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Sioux City. Folks, that’s a TON of advertising. If Gingrich’s poll numbers in Iowa are dropping -- as some of the less reliable robo polls and anecdotal evidence suggest -- Restore Our Future has to be a chief reason. And get this: Romney’s campaign has yet to spend a single cent on a negative TV ad hitting Gingrich. We always knew that the Super PACs would play a large role in this presidential contest, and now they are.  

*** By the numbers: Here is the total ad spending in Iowa to date: Perry $4.3 million, Restore Our Future $2.7 million, Make Us Great Again (pro-Perry group) $1.3 million, Ron Paul $1.3 million, Romney $536,000, Gingrich $233,000, and Red White and Blue Fund (pro-Santorum group) $200,000. And here is the total Super PAC spending: Make Us Great Again $3 million, Restore Our Future $2.9 million, Our Destiny PAC (pro-Huntsman) $1.5 million, and Red White and Blue Fund $200,000. Some more perspective on Romney’s TV ad spending: The ACTUAL campaign has barely spent over $1 million; four years ago at this SAME POINT in the campaign, Romney had already spent more than $10 million on the air… What a difference a Supreme Court decision makes.

*** Breaking down the debate: As far as last night’s debate, Romney perhaps had the best night because he didn’t have to engage with Gingrich and allowed Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann to do that work for him. However, Romney did struggle when talking about his changing positions on social issues (like gay rights and guns). Gingrich had a difficult time fending off the attacks on his Freddie Mac work, but he did get stronger as the night went on. (In fact, it’s probably another reason why Romney didn’t engage; Gingrich actually thrives in political combat, and Romney’s worst debate moments all year after been when he’s engaged in verbal combat.) We wonder if the several minutes that were spent on Paul’s stance toward Iran could end up hurting him with GOP caucus-goers and slow his momentum. Perry had another solid debate performance, and so did Bachmann. But she might have summed up her entire rational for running when she said, in a somewhat defensive tone, “I'm a serious candidate for president of the United States.”

NBC's David Gregory talks to TODAY's Matt Lauer about Thursday's Republican debate, a final chance for the candidates to connect with Iowa voters before they cast the first crucial votes in the GOP contest.

*** Wyden gives Romney cover: When he was asked about the new Paul Ryan (R)/Ron Wyden (D) Medicare proposal at last night’s debate, Romney said, “I hope people understand just how big today is for this country.” And if he’s the nominee, he won’t be kidding. Wyden partnering with Ryan on a plan to give seniors a choice between Medicare and a privatized system -- which just happens to be Romney’s own plan -- gives the former Massachusetts governor LOTS of cover on Medicare. Earlier this week, we mentioned that President Obama hasn’t been performing well among seniors, and that Democrats are hoping that the Paul Ryan plan would help them narrow that margin. Consider this: At a time when Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins is hesitant to partner with the White House on any kind of legislation, specifically health care, here comes Ron Wyden embracing Paul Ryan. We know in political circles (especially in Chicago) Democrats have to be furious right now.

*** Why? The bipartisan stamp of approval: This is a potentially gigantic move. We know some Democrats think they can STILL run against the Romney-Ryan plan, but the bipartisan stamp of approval in push-backs from someone that isn’t viewed as someone who is simply a centrist Democrat trying to survive in a red state, is a pretty good response. And get this: Democrats are trying to win a special congressional election -- on Medicare! -- in Wyden’s home state of Oregon….

*** Romney wins Nikki Haley endorsement: As Romney heads to South Carolina today, he will pick up the key endorsement of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), NBC’s Garrett Haake and Ali Weinberg report. An endorsement that means Romney is playing seriously in South Carolina. Up until yesterday, it wasn’t very clear. Also on the trail today: Romney stumps in Sioux City, IA before traveling to South Carolina… Bachmann makes numerous stops in the state… Perry remains on his bus tour through Iowa… And Santorum holds one event in the Hawkeye State.

*** Government shutdown averted, again: “Congressional negotiators signed off Thursday evening on a $1 trillion spending agreement for 2012 for federal agencies, barely 27 hours before a deadline that could have led to a government shutdown,” the Washington Post reports. “After dropping minor policy prescriptions that President Obama opposed, members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees gave final approval to the plan after a four-day standoff related to Obama’s demands to extend the payroll tax holiday for 160 million workers. That negotiation, lawmakers and aides said, also could be headed toward an agreement, with lawmakers considering extending the $120 billion tax break for two months to buy more time to determine how they offset the benefit’s cost so it does not add to the federal deficit.”

Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 18 days
Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 25 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 36 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 46 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 50 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 81 days
Countdown to Election Day: 328 days

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