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First Thoughts: The all-out brawl for Iowa begins

The all-out brawl for Iowa begins… Pro-Gingrich Super PAC to the rescue… Paul’s latest TV ad… Perry desperately trying to woo evangelical voters… Did 2011 hurt the GOP’s brand?... Fast facts about the Iowa caucuses: looking at turnout… Don’t lose sight of what’s happening in Iran… And Ben Nelson’s announcement yesterday really doesn’t change much.

*** The all-out brawl for Iowa begins: From all the activity on the campaign trail yesterday, it was almost as if the GOP candidates and their campaigns woke up from the Christmas holiday and realized that the Iowa caucuses are just a week away. We saw Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum blast Ron Paul, with Gingrich even saying that he wouldn’t vote for Paul if he becomes the GOP nominee. Text messages sent to Iowa Republicans questioned Mitt Romney’s anti-abortion bona fides, according to NBC’s Alex Moe. Romney, as NBC’s Jo Ling Kent reported, compared Gingrich’s inability to get on Virginia’s ballot to “Lucille Ball and the chocolate factory,” even as he focused most of his fire on President Obama. And late last night, we learned that a new pro-Gingrich Super PAC, Strong America Now, has sent direct mail pieces to Iowa Republicans calling Romney “the second-most dangerous man in America.” The all-out battle for Iowa is fully underway. 

*** A pro-Newt Super PAC to the rescue: In addition to the group Strong America Now, the primary pro-Gingrich Super PAC -- Winning Our Future -- is up with a new TV ad defending Gingrich and stating: “Don’t let the liberal Republican establishment pick our candidate.” But the $263,000 of airtime Winning Our Future has purchased in Iowa pales in comparison to the nearly $3 million that the pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future has spent in the Hawkeye State so far. (That’s more than a 10-to-1 difference.) Here’s the updated ad spending in Iowa: Perry $4.3 million, Restore Our Future $2.8 million, Paul $2.3 million, Make Us Great Again $1.6 million, Gingrich $840,000, Red, White, and Blue Fund $330,000, and Winning Our Future $263,000.

*** “Ron Paul, the one we’ve been looking for”: Meanwhile, Paul has a brand-new TV ad for Iowa and New Hampshire, according to his campaign. The ad criticizes Gingrich for being a serial hypocrite and Romney for being a flip-flopper. And it concludes with this line: “Consistent, incorruptible, guided by faith and principle -- Ron Paul, the one we’ve been looking for.”

*** Perry desperately wooing evangelical voters: Don’t miss how Rick Perry is trying to out-Huckabee Huckabee in Iowa. As NBC’s Carrie Dann reported last night, Perry said that he has reversed his acceptance of abortion in some circumstances and now opposes it even in cases of rape and incest. When you take this change in position and add it to his rhetoric on the campaign trail and in his TV ads, you see a Perry who’s making a desperate attempt to woo evangelical voters in Iowa.

*** Did 2011 hurt the GOP’s brand? In today’s Washington Post, Dan Balz raises a very important question as look ahead to next year’s general election: Have the events of 2011 -- in Congress, in the states (like Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin), and on the GOP presidential campaign trail -- hurt the Republican Party’s brand? “Republicans are united on many policy issues, but the tea party’s influence has pushed all the presidential candidates to the right. And Obama has seized the opportunity to argue to independent voters that, whatever their disappointment with his record, they should think twice before handing power to the Republicans.”

*** Fast facts about the Iowa caucuses: In our latest installment of facts you need to know about next week’s contest in the Hawkeye State, we look at the possible turnout. Bottom line: No one is quite sure how high turnout will be. On the one hand, Republican voters are fired up about the opportunity to defeat President Obama in 2012. On the other hand, the current field of GOP candidates is light on top-tier challengers. The question: Will it top the record-breaking turnout (nearly 120,000) from last cycle? Here are the past turnout numbers for the GOP Iowa caucuses:
2008: 118,411
2000: 85,761
1996 (last time Republicans were running against an incumbent Dem): 90,889
1988: 108,560
1980: 106,051

*** Don’t lose sight of what’s happening in Iran: The news coming out of Iran -- that it might block all oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz to retaliate against U.S. economic sanctions -- is a reminder for all politicos that next year’s issue matrix could change in the blink of an eye. After all, how many people in Dec. 2007 were talking about the perilous state of the U.S. economy? In Dec. 2009, who could believe that Republicans (with power from the Tea Party) were set to win back control of the House? And in Dec. 2010, was anyone talking about the Arab Spring? A U.S. military confrontation with Iran in the Strait of Hormuz would certainly change the landscape of the 2012 presidential election, no matter how high the unemployment rate is.

*** Nelson’s announcement doesn’t change much: While Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson’s announcement yesterday that he would not to seek re-election next year was a blow to Democrats, it really doesn’t change the math or outlook for control of the Senate. First, Republicans already have a very realistic chance of winning a Senate majority next year (they need to net four pick-ups if Obama wins re-election, three if he doesn’t). Two, polls had shown that Nelson faced a difficult challenge to hold on to his seat, and it was already one of the GOP’s top pick-up opportunities. Three, if Obama wins re-election and if Elizabeth Warren beats Scott Brown in Massachusetts -- both very possible outcomes -- then Democrats have a VERY realistic chance of holding the Senate. Why? Because Obama and Warren wins would push the number the GOP needs to take control of the Senate to five, meaning that Dems could afford losing in ND, NE, MT, and MO. And because an Obama win likely means that Dem Senate candidates win in VA, OH, and WI. Bottom line: Nothing changed yesterday…

Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 6 days
Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 13 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 24 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 34 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 38 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 69 days
Countdown to Election Day: 316 days

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