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First Thoughts: Another positive jobs report

Another positive jobs report… A Tale of Two Santorums… Did Romney really win the Iowa caucuses? Or did Santorum?... Boston Globe backs Huntsman over Romney… The Tax Policy Center weighs in on Romney’s tax plan: big cuts for the wealthy, small cuts for middle class… Upcoming today and this weekend: new NBC-Marist poll on NH and Gop debate moderated by NBC's David Gregory… And Paul returns to the campaign trail.

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*** Another positive jobs report: When it comes to the 2012 presidential race, there’s a story this morning that’s more important than the latest back-and-forth on the campaign trail, more important than who actually won Iowa (and there’s now some question if Romney really won), and more important than whom the Boston Globe endorsed. That story? The December job figures. And here they are, and they’re good news for President Obama: Employers added 200,000 jobs last month, and the unemployment rate declined once again, this time to 8.5%. The AP: “A burst of hiring in December pushed the unemployment rate to its lowest level in nearly three years, giving the economy a boost at the end of 2011. The Labor Department says employers added a net 200,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent, the lowest since February 2009. The rate has dropped for four straight months. The hiring gains cap a six-month stretch in which the economy generated 100,000 jobs or more in each month. That hasn't happened since April 2006.”

*** A Tale of Two Santorums: While he was campaigning yesterday in New Hampshire, we captured a glimpse of both the Santorum who can catch fire and move on in this GOP primary fight, and the Santorum who can get marginalized and thrown off message. The catching fire part: When, earlier in the morning, he talked about his family, faith, and hard work. “The question is how did I get to where I am standing here before you, what  motivates to be here where I am and is there one event or a series of events, I would argue that it was a series of different events,” he said, per NBC’s Matt Loffman. It was very personal, like his speech after the Iowa caucuses were. It was the type of personal narrative that Romney just doesn't have: grandson of immigrants, a coal-miner grandfather, memories of strict Catholic school nuns, etc. The thrown off message part: When, later in the day, he debated college students over gay marriage, comparing it to polygamy. It was Santorum the snark with the college kids; the guy who could easily lose his cool.

On Thursday, we saw both the Rick Santorum who has a serious shot to challenge Mitt Romney for the party's nomination and the Rick Santorum who can be marginalized and thrown off message. Msnbc's Chuck Todd reports.

*** Did Romney really win the Iowa caucuses? NBC’s Jamie Novogrod and Alex Moe report that the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, Matt Strawn, issued a statement last night responding to a story from the Des Moines CBS affiliate story noting that there was a 20-vote discrepancy in rural Appanoose county, which is located along the Missouri line. Citing an interview with the vote counter, who asserts that 20 votes were mistakenly recorded for Romney, the story raises the question of whether the results of Tuesday's caucus might have been different -- and whether Santorum should have won. Said Strawn: "Iowa GOP rules provide for a two-week certification process for each of the 1,774 precincts. The Iowa GOP will announce the final, certified results of the 2012 Iowa caucuses following this process… Iowa GOP officials have been in contact with Appanoose County Republican officials tonight and do not have any reason to believe the final, certified results of Appanoose County will change the outcome of Tuesday's vote." But what if Santorum really won?

*** Boston Globe backs Huntsman over Romney: Last night, Jon Huntsman got a boost when he picked up an endorsement from the Boston Globe, which passed over hometown reader Mitt Romney. And the endorsement was as much an indictment of Romney as it was an endorsement of Huntsman. “[W]hile Romney proceeds cautiously, strategically, trying to appease enough constituencies to get himself the nomination, Huntsman has been bold. Rather than merely sketch out policies, he articulates goals and ideals.” It’s worth noting that the Globe endorsed John McCain over Romney in the ’08 race, and that Boston’s other newspaper -- the Herald -- supports Romney in this contest. Yet we do have to ask: How influential is the liberal-leaning Boston Globe editorial page with nearby New Hampshire GOP primary voters?

*** Tax Policy Center on Romney’s plan: Big cuts for the wealthy, small ones for middle class: Romney got some more bad news yesterday when the non-partisan Tax Policy Center weighed in on his economic/tax plan. The verdict, according to the Wall Street Journal: “The analysis … concluded that Mr. Romney’s plan would reduce taxes significantly for high-income earners (by 6.9% or $146,000 for households making more than $1 million), and increase federal deficits by $180 billion in 2015 compared to current tax levels.” More: “The TPC analysis also concluded Mr. Romney’s plan would raise taxes slightly for low-income families, largely because the former Massachusetts governor would allow some Obama-era tax breaks to expire.” The AP puts it this way: “Households making between $50,000 and $75,000 would get small tax cuts, averaging 2.2 percent, or about $250, the study said. People making more than $1 million would get tax cuts averaging 15 percent, or about $146,000.” According to the Tax Policy Center’s table, everyone who makes less than $40,000 a year would see a tax increase. The more you make, the better you do.

With the New Hampshire presidential primary just four days away, front-runner Mitt Romney is already setting his sights on the next big prize, South Carolina. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

*** Paul returns to the campaign trail: By the way, it’s worth noting that Ron Paul – after his absence on Wednesday and Thursday -- returns to the campaign trail today, holding events in Nashua, NH and Durham, NH. Just as we asked when Paul left the Iowa campaign trail last weekend, we wonder: If he doesn’t finish in second place on Tuesday, will his absence be a reason why?

*** Things to watch today and this weekend: Tonight, we will have a new NBC-Marist poll on the state of the New Hampshire race… And this weekend, we’ll see two GOP debates, including one on Sunday moderated by NBC’s David Gregory.

*** On the trail: Elsewhere in New Hampshire today, Santorum stumps in Keene, Jaffrey, Dublin, Manchester, and Nashua… Huntsman hits Concord, Randolph, and Bretton Woods… And Gingrich campaigns in Levanon and Salem… And Romney this morning remains in South Carolina, where he campaigns in Conway with Sen. John McCain and Gov. Nikki Haley, and then he and Haley head to Tilton, NH.

Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 4 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 15 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 25 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 29 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 60 daysCountdown to Election Day: 305 days

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