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First Thoughts: Three days to go

Special weekend edition of First Thoughts… The moving parts we’re watching: Des Moines Register poll unveiled at 8:00 pm ET, and candidates campaign in IA and NH… Observations from the ground in Iowa… And observations from watching Santorum’s surge… Divided conservative endorsements… The Perry blame game begins… Obama White House wants to keep its distance from Congress… Santorum to appear on “Meet” tomorrow… And Happy New Year!

DES MOINES, IA -- Good morning and welcome to our weekend edition of First Thoughts. With three days until the Iowa caucuses, here are all the moving parts we’re watching today: The Des Moines Register, which nailed the eventual Dem outcome in ’08, is set to release its final poll before the caucuses at 8:00 pm ET. (Will it show the same results as the last two Iowa polls, or something different?) On the campaign trail, all the GOP presidential candidates are spending their entire day in Iowa with three exceptions -- Ron Paul is in Texas for the holiday weekend, Mitt Romney begins his day in New Hampshire before heading back to Iowa, and Jon Huntsman spends his whole day in the Granite State.

*** Observations from the ground: After talking to Iowa Republicans at Romney and Rick Perry events in the Hawkeye State, you realize that there are still A LOT of undecided voters. They like many of the candidates, and wish they could take the good aspects of each and make into the perfect nominee -- Romney’s business experience, Perry’s straight-talking persona, Santorum’s strong conservatism, Bachmann’s fighting spirit, and Gingrich’s intellect and grasp of history. Most of those who spoke with First Read have it down to two or three. Those thinking about voting for Romney are concerned about a Paul win or the chances of beating Obama in November, but there isn’t a lot of enthusiasm for him (even though he’s getting big crowds). For those thinking about Perry or Santorum, they like their values. And for the people who were once leaning toward Gingrich, they are now pushing away. At both the Perry and Romney events, Iowans said he has too much “baggage” and has “spent too much time in Washington.” (Sounds like those attack ads resonated, no?)

*** Observations from watching Santorum’s surge: As one of us spent the day with Santorum yesterday, it was fascinating to watch. He was clearly relishing the moment with the media throng now following him and the Iowa voters turning up to see him. And just look at the coverage he is now receiving. From the Washington Post: “In politics as in life, timing is everything. And if the former senator from Pennsylvania is finally having his moment, it couldn’t have come at a better time.” The Boston Globe: “Rick Santorum, riding a late tailwind that has moved him up in the polls, is suddenly a hot commodity on the campaign trail.” And Time: “Surging in Iowa, Santorum Revels in Newfound Attention.” 

*** Divided conservative endorsements: Yesterday’s NBC-Marist poll wasn’t the only evidence of how Iowa conservatives are divided -- creating the path for a Romney victory here in the Hawkeye State. So were yesterday’s endorsements. Last night, per NBC’s Alex Moe, conservative radio host Steve Deace announced he was backing Gingrich. “It is my prayer that next year that for once we actually have something to vote for, and not just something to vote against. I am making this endorsement in the hopes that will be the case,” Deace wrote. Earlier in the day, however, Iowa radio host Simon Conway announced that he will support Perry, citing his leadership during 11 years as the governor of Texas, NBC’s Carrie Dann reports. "It's his executive experience that put him over the top for me," Conway said on his program on popular conservative talk station WHO-AM.

*** The Perry blame game begins: While Perry has moved up in the latest NBC-Marist poll of Iowa, Politico writes that the new team of Perry advisers and consultants are blaming the old team for Perry’s stumbles. “Perry’s steep plunge from frontrunner to butt of jokes was chiefly the result of his own embarrassing verbal stumbles, most notably his insta-classic ‘oops’ moment when he couldn’t recall the names of the cabinet departments he wants to eliminate. Yet the view of the outsiders who took over Perry’s campaign is that the candidate was set up for failure by an insular group led by Dave Carney, the governor’s longtime political guru, which thought they could run a presidential campaign like a larger version of a gubernatorial race and didn’t take the basic steps needed to professionalize the operation until the candidate was already sinking.” Ouch.

*** Obama in 2012: Keeping his distance from Congress: And turning away from Iowa and to the team at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (or in Hawaii), NBC’s Kristen Welker reports that the Obama White House is in the process of distancing itself -- and contrasting itself -- from Congress. Speaking from Honolulu, where the president is vacationing, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “We ended 2011 with the president basically rolling out, over the course of the last two months of the year about 20 different "We Can't Wait" initiatives,” he said, referring to the small-scale initiatives aimed at jumpstarting the economy. “You have an image of a gridlocked, dysfunctional Congress, [versus] a president who's leaving no stone unturned.” Earnest also said, "In terms of the president's relationship with Congress in 2012 … the president is no longer tied to Washington, D.C."  

*** Obama next week: Welker adds that Obama is planning to address his supporters -- via video-conference -- on the night of the Iowa caucuses and will travel to the battleground state of Ohio the very next day, a clear indication that he will not be sitting on the sidelines during the Republican primary contests.

*** Santorum on “Meet the Press”: A reminder that Rick Santorum will sit down with NBC’s David Gregory tomorrow on “Meet the Press.” 

*** Happy New Year! Whether you’re in Iowa, in New Hampshire, or at home with family and friends, have a happy and safe New Year!

Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 3 days
Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 10 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 21 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 31 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 35 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 66 days
Countdown to Election Day: 313 days

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