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First Thoughts: Caucus Day

NBC's Chuck Todd and David Gregory discuss why the Iowa caucuses matter and which Republican presidential hopeful will come out on top in Tuesday's race.

It’s Caucus Day in Iowa… Romney yesterday: “We’re going to win this thing”… Gingrich yesterday: “I don’t think I’m going to win”… Gingrich also calls Romney a liar… What to watch tonight… What happens (process begins at 8:00 pm ET, results start coming in at 8:30 pm ET)… What the individual campaigns are doing to turn out their vote… Breaking down the total ad spending in Iowa… And breaking down the future ad spending in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida… And Obama to address Democratic caucus-goers, via video conference, at 8:15 pm ET.

DES MOINES, IA -- In a Republican presidential contest marked by such volatility -- with seven different GOP candidates who have stood at or near the top of the polls in Iowa -- it would be only fitting for steady Mitt Romney to come out on top at tonight’s Iowa caucuses. Or Rick Santorum, who has become the latest (and final?) conservative candidate to surge in the polls. Or Ron Paul, whose supporters aren’t your traditional Republicans and GOP caucus-goers. Those three Republicans, according to the polls, are the front-runners heading into tonight’s caucuses in Iowa, and it’s possible that any of the three could win.

*** Romney: “We’re going to win this thing”: Campaigning in Marion yesterday, Romney declared that he would win the caucuses, NBC’s Garrett Haake reports. "I need every single vote in this room, and I need you to get a couple of other votes from yours in your neighborhood and get to your caucus… We’re going to win this thing with all of our passion and strength and do everything we can to get this campaign on the right track.” After the rally, Haake adds, a Romney spokesperson told reporters that the candidate was saying he would win the nomination, not predicting a caucus victory (though the quote makes it pretty clear he was talking about Iowa). In an interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, Romney simply said, “We’re probably going to do pretty well.” Taking the opposite approach, Newt Gingrich yesterday observed, “I don’t think I’m going to win” in Iowa. Per NBC’s Alex Moe, Gingrich later said that was a mistake. “I got chewed out a little bit by one of our precinct captains who said to me I should not under any circumstance expect to do anything except to potentially win tomorrow night.”

*** Gingrich calls Romney a liar: Speaking of Gingrich, he appeared channel his inner Bob Dole from 1988 by calling Romney a liar. In an interview on CBS this morning, Gingrich was asked if he was calling Romney a liar, and he answered in the affirmative. “This is a man whose staff created the PAC (Restore Our Future), his friends fund the PAC, he pretends he has nothing to do with the PAC. It’s baloney. He’s not telling the American people the truth.”

*** What to watch: As always in politics, the race probably hinges on turnout. If it’s similar to four years ago -- about 120,000 participants, 60% of whom are self-described evangelicals, and a combined 78% thinking that values and saying what you believe are the most important qualities -- then Santorum has a VERY good chance of winning. Under those circumstances, he becomes a mini-Huckabee. On the other hand, a much higher turnout -- so a smaller percentage of evangelicals and more thinking that electability and experience are the most important things -- would be VERY good news for Romney. A caveat on tonight’s entrance polls, though: ENTRANCE polls are less predictive than EXIT polls, so be cautious when the first wave comes out. Romney, in fact, led the first wave four years ago.

*** What happens: Republicans gather at more than 1,700 precinct locations across the Hawkeye State. The process -- at 8:00 pm ET -- starts with the election of a caucus chairman and caucus secretary. Shortly thereafter, the caucus leadership conducts a presidential preference straw poll. In most precincts, the poll is a simple, secret-ballot vote. Beforehand, each campaign is allowed to have one surrogate or volunteer speak on behalf of his or her candidate. The results begin coming in around 8:30 pm ET, and they will be available on the Iowa GOP’s web site. Note: The GOP caucusing is different from how Democrats do it. There is no shuffling from one corner to the next, or a need for 15% viability; it’s just a simple straw poll.

*** What the campaigns are doing: Here’s a round-up from NBC’s team of embed reporters on how what the different campaigns are doing to turn out their vote. The Paul campaign, per NBC’s Anthony Terrell, is asking its supporters to arrive to the precincts at 6:30 pm ET and it’s providing transportation. "If a senior or person with a disability calls and asks for a ride, we happily accommodate them," a campaign official says. Team Bachmann, according to NBC’s Jamie Novogrod, is asking its supporters to show up at 7:30 pm ET, and it’s not providing transportation. The Santorum campaign, per NBC’s Andrew Rafferty, is asking its supporters to show up around 7:00 pm ET and isn’t providing transportation. The Perry camp, per NBC’s Carrie Dann, is asking its supporters to arrive between 7:00 pm and 7:30 pm ET, and it is providing transportation. Team Romney, according to NBC’s Garrett Haake, is asking its supporters to arrive 10 minutes early and is providing transportation only for special circumstances. And the Gingrich campaign, per NBC’s Alex Moe, is asking its supporters to arrive before the caucusing, and it isn’t providing transportation.

*** Total ad spending in Iowa: By the way, the campaigns and various Super PACs spent more than $16 million in advertising in Iowa. The breakdown for the major players: Perry $4.3 million, Paul $2.8 million, Restore Our Future (pro-Romney) $2.8 million, Make Us Great Again (pro-Perry) $1.6 million, Romney $1.5 million, Gingrich $980,000, Red White and Blue Fund (pro-Santorum) $530,000, Winning Our Future (pro-Gingrich) $264,000, Bachmann $180,000, and Santorum $30,000.

Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney tells TODAY's Savannah Guthrie he thinks he'll do well in Iowa but says he's "not predicting a win" in the state's caucuses. 

*** Future ad spending: And here’s what’s slated to run after today: In New Hampshire, Romney, Paul, and the pro-Huntsman Our Destiny PAC are all booked to run TV ads between tomorrow and the Jan. 9 primary. In South Carolina, Romney, Paul, and the pro-Romney Restore Our Future are booked. And in Florida, Restore Our Future is booked on broadcast advertising until Jan. 9.   

*** Obama to address Democratic caucus-goers: And while the focus is on tonight’s Republican caucuses in Iowa, Democrats hold theirs as well. And President Obama -- just back from his Christmas vacation in Hawaii -- is slated to address Iowa Democratic caucus-goers, via video teleconference, at 8:15 pm ET. And tomorrow, he goes to the important battleground state of Ohio, where he speaks in Cleveland.

Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 7 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 18 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 28 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 32 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 63 days
Countdown to Election Day: 308 days

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