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First thoughts: Romney vs. Santorum

The GOP race in Iowa increasingly looks like Romney vs. Santorum… Inauthentic conservative vs. Washington insider… Remembering the Oct. 18 debate exchange between Romney and Santorum… Why Santorum is surging… Team Obama doesn’t think Santorum can do the distance… Second-guessing Paul’s weekend in Texas… And Romney still up in New Hampshire in new poll.

DES MOINES, IA – With one day to go before the Iowa caucuses, the Republican presidential contest looks increasingly like a battle between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. And yesterday, the two men began to draw contrasts with each other, albeit mildly. Campaigning in Atlantic, Romney opened the same playbook he used against Newt Gingrich -- portraying the former Pennsylvania senator as a Washington insider. “Like Speaker Gingrich, Sen. Santorum has spent his career in government, in Washington,” Romney said yesterday, per NBC’s Garrett Haake. “Nothing wrong with that, but it is a very different background than I have.” Romney also made this playful dig at Santorum. “Sen. Santorum was kind enough to endorse me last time around. I appreciate that.” (On “Meet the Press” yesterday, Santorum responded that his ’08 endorsement of Romney was “the best chance to stop John McCain… It's not like I was an early supporter of Romney. I endorsed him actually seven days before he dropped out of the race.”

*** Inauthentic conservative vs. Washington insider: For his part, Santorum cast Romney as an unreliable conservative. While acknowledging on “Meet the Press” that every GOP presidential candidate is more conservative than President Obama, Santorum said, “The question is: Are those values ones that you can trust when they become president of the United States? Is it someone who you know is going to fight not just for certainly things, but for the entire Republican platform?” Later in the day, in Sioux City, Santorum took this implicit shot at Romney. “Don’t put forward somebody who isn’t good enough to do what’s necessary to change this country,” he said, according to the New York Times. “Put forward someone that you know has the vision, the trust, the authenticity, the background, the record to make that happen.”

*** Remembering their Oct. 18 debate exchange: If the race turns into Romney vs. Santorum (along with Paul), it’s worth remembering the former Massachusetts governor and former Pennsylvania senator sparring over health care at the feisty Oct. 18 debate in Las Vegas -- the same debate where Romney put his hand on Rick Perry. Santorum said, “You just don't have credibility, Mitt, when it comes to repealing ‘Obamacare.’ Your plan was the basis for ‘Obamacare.’ Your consultants helped Obama craft Obamacare. And to say that you're going to repeal it, you have no track record on that -- that we can trust you that you're going to do that.” Later in the exchange, Romney said, “Rick, you had your chance. Let me speak.” Santorum fired back, “You can’t change the facts.” Romney: “Rick, you had your chance. Let me speak.” Santorum: “You’re out of time. You’re out of time.” Is this possibly a preview for the next month?

The three front-runners in tomorrow's Iowa caucus, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul all face uncertainty at the polls and Santorum and Romney look to galvanize the same undecided voters. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** Why Santorum’s surging: If you’re looking for a reason why Rick Santorum is surging, look no further than the enthusiasm that greeted him at two events yesterday in the most conservative part of the state, as one of us observed first hand. More than 150 people packed into a coffee house in Sioux City, and then about 200 people packed into a bank basement in Orange City, home to a significant share of the religious voters that propelled Mike Huckabee to victory in 2008. And there were very few undecideds in these crowds -- they were with Santorum. Many had liked Michele Bachmann, even Newt Gingrich. But they made up their minds in the past week to go with Santorum, who, they said, has "conservative convictions," is a "hard worker," was more electable, and didn't have the "baggage." If, in fact, Santorum has locked up evangelical voters, he stands a good chance of winning Iowa here tomorrow night.

*** Team Obama doesn’t think Santorum can go the distance (or even survive into next month): However, in chatting with some of the Team Obama folks who have come here to Des Moines, they don’t believe that Santorum has the ability to go toe to toe with Romney -- the same way that Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry potentially could. Even if Santorum wins Iowa tomorrow, it’s quite likely that Romney -- with his resources -- can lap the former Pennsylvania senator by the end of the month. On one hand, they are happy Romney still has base problems and hasn't used his time in Iowa to fix them. On the other hand, they are disappointed that it's Santorum and not Newt or Perry who is rising. After all, Team Obama has dreamed about Romney having to struggle and keep courting the right for the next six MONTHS, not six WEEKS.

*** Second-guessing Paul’s weekend in Texas: If Ron Paul ends up out of first and second -- and instead finishes third in Iowa -- the Paul supporters might second-guess why Paul was back home in Texas over the weekend rather than campaigning in Iowa. Just some food for thought…

*** On Perry, Gingrich, and Bachmann: As for the other candidates, Perry was on “TODAY” this morning, accusing Santorum of voting to raise the debt ceiling eight times and calling him a “serial earmarker.” Then, in an interview that will air on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” later this morning, Perry questioned whether Santorum had the resources to wage a successful campaign against Romney. Meanwhile, per NBC’s Alex Moe, Gingrich yesterday claimed that he had been “Romney-boated” -- a variation to the phrase “Swift-boated.” And yesterday in Iowa, Bachmann delivered a narrative of her coming into her Christian faith to about 100 people at Jubilee Family Church in Oskaloosa, NBC’s Jamie Novogrod reports.

*** Matthews and Gingrich: Also yesterday, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews asked Gingrich some questions while the former speaker was campaigning in Iowa. On the pro-Romney Super PAC ads hitting him, Gingrich told Matthews: “So part of the question you have to ask yourself is, he's assuming the American people are stupid. I don't think the American people are stupid. I am sure…” Matthews: “But the polls are responding, the polls are reacting…” Gingrich: “I am sure within a few weeks every American will know this is his PAC with his staff.” Be sure to watch MSNBC’s “Hardball” for all of Gingrich’s answers.

*** Poll: Romney still up in NH: Turning from the race in Iowa to next week’s contest in New Hampshire, NBC’s Jo Ling Kent reports that Romney maintains his commanding lead in the Granite State, according to a new Suffolk poll. The survey has Romney at 41% among likely Republican voters -- followed by Paul at 15%, Gingrich at 11%, and Huntsman at 9%. Also, per a campaign press release this morning, Santorum is heading to New Hampshire the day after the caucuses, while Bachmann has decided to travel straight to South Carolina.

*** White House vs. Congress: Just asking, but did the Obama White House go a bit too far in telling reporters in Hawaii that it would contrast itself with Congress in 2012? For one thing, it produced this headline in the New York Times: “Obama to Turn Up Attacks on Congress in Campaign.” Is that what the White House really wants voters to see? Second, there’s no doubt the White House wants to distance itself -- and contrast itself -- from Congress. So why say it?

Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 1 day
Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 8 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 19 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 29 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 33 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 64 days
Countdown to Election Day: 311 days

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