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First Thoughts: Breaking down the final Iowa poll

Surging in the polls, former Sen. Rick Santorum talks Tuesday's Iowa caucuses, President Obama and foreign policy.

NBC's Domenico Montanaro reports on the ad race in Iowa, why Santorum's making his move, and how undecided voters might break on Election Night.

Breaking down the Des Moines Register poll… How Santorum and Romney could end up winning Tuesday’s caucuses… Santorum’s appearance on “Meet the Press”… Paul’s appearance on CNN… The campaigning continues, even on New Year’s Day… And DNC tries to seize on the Bain Capital issue.

DES MOINES, IA -- The Des Moines Register’s poll last night became the third-straight survey in the past week to show the same storylines in the GOP presidential contest in Iowa -- Mitt Romney in the lead (but not above 25%), Ron Paul a close second, and Rick Santorum surging in third place. The numbers from the poll conducted Dec. 27-30 of 602 likely caucus-goers: Romney 24%, Paul 22%, Santorum 15%, Gingrich 12%, Perry 11%, and Bachmann 7%. But get this about Santorum’s surge: In the Des Moines Register’s final two days in the field, he jumped into second place and was running neck and neck with Romney. “[Santorum] averaged 10 points after the first two nights of polling, but doubled that during the second two nights. Looking just at the final day of polling, he was just one point down from Romney’s 23 percent on Friday.”

*** How Santorum and Romney can win: Bottom line: You can see how Santorum might be able to win this thing, especially if Perry and Gingrich supporters decide to go with the former Pennsylvania senator. What’s more, Santorum appears to have crossed a viability threshold, with just 6% of likely caucus-goers in the poll finding him the least electable in a general election. Indeed, Santorum’s closing TV ad in Iowa plays up his electability, calling him the “trusted conservative who gives us the best chance to take back America.” On the other hand, you once again see how Romney can win the Iowa caucuses -- with 25% or less -- because the conservative vote gets divided up.

*** Other numbers in the poll: 51% of likely caucus-goers surveyed in the poll said their minds were made up, while 41% said they could still be persuaded. Also, Gingrich was seen as the most knowledgeable (41% said that) and Bachmann the least knowledgeable (26%); Ron Paul was the most consistent (35%), and Gingrich and Romney the least consistent (36% and 24%, respectively); Romney the most electable in a general election (48%), Paul and Bachmann the least electable (29% and 28%); and Bachmann, Paul, and Santorum the best able to relate to Iowans (all tied at 20%), and Romney and Gingrich the least able to relate to Iowans (26% each).

*** Santorum on “Meet the Press”: One of the more fascinating parts of Rick Santorum’s appearance on “Meet the Press” this morning was his talk about having to accept compromise -- for example on abortion -- to get where you want to go. “I supported the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act," he said. "Now does that ban all abortions? No. But it moves the country in the right direction. And so what I've said in the past consistently is I'll support laws that move the ball forward.” He went on to say, “Of course my background is to find compromise. That's what you have to do in order to get things done. You don't compromise on your principles.” The word “compromise” might not sit well with some conservatives; then again, it highlights a sense of pragmatism not often associated with Santorum. NBC’s David Gregory also asked Santorum about his endorsement for Romney in 2008 and what has changed since then. His answer: “Well, what changed was who he's running against... I made the political judgment, right or wrong, that the best chance to stop John McCain, which was what my concern was, I had served 12 years with John McCain.”

*** Paul talks Civil Rights Act, Iran, and third-party bid: Meanwhile, on CNN this morning, Paul was asked about his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He said the country was better off without Jim Crow laws, but said the Civil Rights Act “destroyed the principle of private property and private choices.” He added that it creates the slippery slope of the government coming into people’s bedrooms. “It is the government that causes so much of the racial tensions,” he said. On Iran and it acquiring nuclear weapons: “I don’t want them to have a weapon… We just need to be more cautious… We don’t need a war in Iran carelessly.” And Paul once again didn’t rule out a third-party presidential bid, if he doesn’t become the GOP nominee. “I don’t like absolutes,” he said. “I have no plans on doing it.” Paul added, “On Tuesday, we’ll find out a lot more on the future of this election.” *** EDITOR'S NOTE *** This item mistakenly said earlier today that Paul had said the country was better "with" Jim Crow laws. That was a typo and has since been fixed. He said that the country was better off "without" Jim Crow laws.

*** On the trail: With two days until the caucuses, all of today’s New Year’s Day activity is in Iowa: Bachmann attends church in Oskaloosa… Gingrich holds events in Ames, Marshalltown, and Waterloo… Perry attends church in West Des Moines… Romney stumps in Atlantic and Council Bluffs… And Santorum holds rallies in Sioux City and Rock Rapids… Meanwhile, Jon Huntsman continues to campaign in New Hampshire… And Ron Paul, at home in Texas, is off the campaign trail.

*** DNC seizes on Bain: Also in Des Moines, IA today at 4:00 pm ET, the DNC is holding a press conference with a worker -- Randy Johnson -- who was laid off from his job at an American Pad and Paper plant in Indiana that Romney’s Bain Capital took over in 1992.

Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 2 days
Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 9 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 20 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 30 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 34 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 65 days
Countdown to Election Day: 312 days

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