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First Thoughts: A New Hampshire surprise?

A New Hampshire surprise?... The battle for second place… The battle over Bain Capital… A new negative narrative emerges for Romney: his struggles with revising history… Revenge on Valerie Jarrett… And a busy day in New Hampshire.

MANCHESTER, NH -- The New Hampshire primary has often been the place for surprises. In 1964, a write-in candidate actually won the GOP primary here (Lodge). In 1996, Pat Buchanan upset Bob Dole. In 2000, John McCain didn't just win -- but shocked most pollsters when he blew out front-runner George W. Bush. And on the Democratic side in 2008, Hillary Clinton pulled one of the biggest surprises in primary politics when she defeated Barack Obama. Yet with Mitt Romney leading in New Hampshire by 20 points or more in most polls -- a new WMUR survey has him leading Ron Paul by 24 points, 41%-17% -- this year’s New Hampshire surprise will probably be for second place. Right now, we’re seeing Paul and Jon Huntsman battle for independents. And we’re seeing Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum battle for conservatives. Whoever best consolidates one of those groups (either indies or conservatives) could emerge as this cycle’s surprise and “Comeback Kid.” By the way, only three campaigns are really up on the air in the NH/Boston market right now in New Hampshire: Romney, Paul, and Huntsman.

*** The battle over Bain: There’s also another battle going on in the GOP presidential contest: the battle to define Bain Capital. We saw it emerge as a topic in yesterday’s debate. We’re about to see it emerge in South Carolina, as the pro-Gingrich Super PAC Winning Our Future is planning to air advertisements in the Palmetto State. “Thanks to a $5 million donation from a wealthy casino owner [Sheldon Adelson], a group supporting Newt Gingrich plans to place advertisements in South Carolina this week attacking Mitt Romney as a predatory capitalist who destroyed jobs and communities, “the New York Times reports. NBC’s Michael Isikoff adds that Winning Our Future’s ad buy in South Carolina is $3.4 million, a huge sum for that state. And the DNC is out with a new video questioning Romney’s claim that Bain created a net 100,000 jobs. The issue of Bain is becoming enough of a concern for the Romney campaign that NBC's Garrett Haake reports that yesterday, Romney – for the first time -- brought up Bain to DEFINE his time there.

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich tells TODAY's Matt Lauer that if frontrunner Mitt Romney were not to win New Hampshire or if it's a very close race, it would be a "defeat" for the former Massachusetts governor.

*** “You can’t handle the truth”: Besides Bain and also the flip-flopping charges that could carry over to the general election, a new negative narrative on Romney has begun to emerge: accusations that he’s not always telling the truth or that he’s revising history. One obvious example came at yesterday’s NBC/Facebook debate, when he maintained he had not seen the pro-Romney Super PAC ads hitting Gingrich. “With regards to their ads, I haven't seen them,” Romney said. Then moments later, he repeated the ads’ attacks -- almost word for word. “The ad I saw said that you'd been forced out of the speakership. That was correct. It said that you had sat down with Nancy Pelosi and argued for a climate change bill. That was correct.”  The DNC also has produced another new video, entitled “Mitt, why not just tell the truth,” seizing on that exchange at yesterday’s debate.

*** Revising history: Stumping in New Hampshire yesterday, Romney also mentioned that he can relate to people who know what it’s like to worry about getting fired. “There were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.” But as the New York Times notes, his campaign could not cite specific examples of Romney almost getting a pink slip, although a spokesman said that “as a young person just out of college, [Romney] worked his way up the career ladder knowing that his continued employment was by no means guaranteed.” And as an example of possibly revising history, Romney said at yesterday’s debate, “I went to Massachusetts to make a difference. I didn't go there to begin a political career, running time and time again.” Yet Gingrich later called that line “pious baloney,” pointing out that Romney had run for Massachusetts senator in ’94, then for governor in ’02, and then began making plans for a presidential bid in ’06.

*** Romney opens up a big lead in Florida: Remember when Newt Gingrich had a sizable lead in the Sunshine State? Well, that appears long gone. Per a new Quinnipiac poll, Romney has opened up a double-digit edge over Gingrich among likely Republican primary voters in Florida, 36%-24%, with Santorum in third at 16%.

*** Revenge on Jarrett? The new Jodi Kantor book about the Obamas, as a couple, is the type of book that at another point in the calendar would be getting a LOT more buzz in the political world. But because of the New Hampshire primary, it's not getting the attention that it might deserve. While the book is supposed to focus on the relationship of the Obamas to each other and to Washington, there's a fascinating subplot to what is clearly the sourcing on the book: it's the revenge of the senior Obama staff on the longtime personal friend to the Obamas, Valerie Jarrett. Senior Obama folks we've talked to were actually surprised by how many fappeared to talk to the author and the theme, when it comes to how the White House has worked, revolves around one LARGER narrative: Jarrett's use of her personal access to sometimes drive a wedge within the senior West Wing staff. The grumbling about Jarrett by Obama folks started the day she showed up on the campaign trail in late 2007. Back then, she was perceived as Michelle Obama's "eyes and ears." And for better or worse, neither the senior political folks (or the White House senior staff) never seemed embrace Jarrett nor does it appear she tried as well as she could have to ingratiate herself. Either way, this book is exposing a riff that the White House current and former senior aides have tried to keep under wraps. Not anymore.

*** On the trail: On the final day before the new Hampshire primary, almost all the campaign activity is in the Granite State: Santorum stumps in Nashua, Salem, Derry, Somersworth, and Manchester… Gingrich hits Dover, Manchester, Nashua, Hudson, and Concord… Huntsman is in Lebanon, Claremont, Henniker, Concord, Dover, Nashua, and Exeter… Romney campaigns in Nashua, Hudson, and Bedford… And Paul visits Manchester, Hollis, and Stratham… Meanwhile, Perry remains in South Carolina, stumping in Pickens and Greenville.

Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 1 day
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 12 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 22 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 26 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 57 days
Countdown to Election Day: 302 days

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