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First Thoughts: Can anyone stop Romney?

Can anyone stop Romney?... We’ll find out with two debates -- including the NBC/Facebook one -- taking place in the next 24 hours… Breaking down the new NBC/Marist poll… Electability and ideology helping Romney in NH… Paul’s low ceiling and Santorum’s higher one... How Paul is hurting Huntsman… Last night’s campaign developments… And Gingrich hires two former Bachmann staffers in SC.

*** Can anyone stop Romney? With a new round of polls, including our NBC/Marist survey, showing Mitt Romney with a substantial lead in New Hampshire -- and another poll showing him up big in South Carolina -- the question becomes: Can anyone stop Romney? We’ll get an early answer to that question from the two GOP presidential debates we’ll see in the next 24 hours. At 9:00 pm ET tonight, the six remaining Republican candidates square off at an ABC/WMUR debate in Manchester. And then, at 9:00 am ET on Sunday, they’ll participate in the NBC/Meet the Press/Facebook debate moderated by NBC’s David Gregory in Concord. In case anyone has forgotten, the debates -- these next two will be Nos. 14 and 15 of the cycle, respectively -- have mattered. A lot. Indeed, the new NBC/Marist poll shows a combined 45% of likely New Hampshire voters believe the debates have helped decide their vote a “great deal” or a “good amount.” That’s compared with 10% who say the same about the results from the Iowa caucuses, and 20% who say the same about seeing the candidates in person.

*** Electability and ideology helping Romney in NH: The horserace numbers from our new NBC/Marist poll among likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters are Romney 42% (up three points from our last NH poll), Ron Paul 22% (up six), Rick Santorum 13% (up 11), Jon Huntsman (unchanged) and Newt Gingrich (down 15) at 9%, and Perry at 1% (down 1). The survey also shows that electability and the state’s ideological makeup are helping Romney in the Granite State. For instance, 65% of these voters think the former Massachusetts governor has the best chance of beating President Obama in November, and a strong majority prefers an electable nominee to a true conservative. What’s more, Romney performs better among the very conservative voters (beating Santorum among them, 30%-27%), Tea Party supporters (beating Paul 35%-25%), and evangelicals (leading Santorum, 31%-30%) than he did in Iowa. And helping him even more is the fact that there are fewer of these conservative/Tea Party/evangelical voters in New Hampshire than there were in Iowa. “New Hampshire is a very different ballgame than Iowa,” said Marist pollster Lee Miringoff.

*** Paul’s low ceiling and Santorum’s higher one: Can anyone catch Romney in New Hampshire? Well, while Paul sits in second place in our poll, he has a fairly low ceiling: 43% of likely voters find him unacceptable. That’s compared with 25% who say the same about Santorum and 16% who say that about Romney. (The most unacceptable in the poll? Perry’s at 54% and Gingrich is at 44%.) Those numbers suggest that Santorum can increase his poll position in New Hampshire. But can he overtake Paul with just three days to go until the primary?

*** How Paul is hurting Huntsman: That said, the NBC/Marist poll shows that Paul has become a thorn in Huntsman’s side, and it explains why Huntsman’s campaign has gone after the Texas congressman in recent days. Among the 38% of likely New Hampshire primary voters who identify themselves as independents -- the same folks Huntsman is trying to court -- Romney gets 35%, Paul 28%, and Huntsman 13%. And among self-described moderates and liberals, it’s Romney 46%, Paul 22%, and Huntsman 15%. In addition, the poll shows that Santorum has consolidated the “very conservative” vote, as well as evangelical Christians.

*** Last night’s developments: Here are some of the campaign stories from last night: Romney, in New Hampshire, blasted Obama over the economy and said the president doesn’t deserve credit for the improving job/unemployment numbers. “He doesn't deserve it because everything that's been done has hurt this recovery, everything done by this president." (Numbers from the Congressional Budget Office and other independent economics would disagree.)… Yesterday, Newt Gingrich slammed Mitt Romney’s gubernatorial resume (including his health-care law) during a tele-town hall, an indication of how the former House speaker may try to go after the Republican front-runner in the coming days… And Gingrich, stumping in New Hampshire, was forced to answer many questions that have been looming over his campaign (like the $1.6 million he made for Freddie Mac).

*** Gingrich hires two former Bachmann staffers in SC: NBC’s Ali Weinberg reports that the Gingrich campaign has hired two of Michele Bachmann’s South Carolina staffers. Taylor Mason, who was Bachmann’s Lowcountry field coordinator, and Gavin Smith, who was the assistant to Bachmann state chairman Sheri Few, will both serve as Lowcountry and Midlands field directors respectively. “Michele Bachmann had some very good grassroots support here in South Carolina and they built a lot of great relationships with voters here, whether they be traditional republicans or Tea Partiers,” said Gingrich South Carolina director Adam Waldeck. “With Bachmann’s campaign ending, it made sense for them to come to another conservative’s campaign and so we’re happy to have them helping out and looking forward to working with them to win on the 21st.” These additions, Weinberg says, bring Gingrich’s staff to a total of 14.

*** On the trail: It’s a busy day before tonight’s debate: Romney already held a rally in Derry (which NBC’s Garrett Haake says got interrupted by Occupy protesters)… Huntsman stumps in Littleton, North Haverhill, Plymouth, and Manchester… Paul hits Concord and Windham… Santorum holds events in Manchester, Amherst, and Hollis… And Gingrich stumps in Wolfeboro.

Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 3 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 14 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 24 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 28 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 59 days
Countdown to Election Day: 304 days

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