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First Thoughts: Romney's rocky last 48 hours

Just before his expected big win tonight in NH, Romney experiences toughest 48 hours of his presidential bid so far… What’s potentially damaging about the Bain attacks: They turn strength into weakness… And these attacks are coming from the right… Breaking down tonight’s race for 1st place (and 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th)… What you need to know: Most polling places close at 7:00 pm ET, but the final ones close at 8:00 pm ET; turnout is expected to be 250,000; and independents can vote in either party’s primary… The early returns from Dixville Notch: Romney 2, Huntsman 2, Paul 1, Obama 3… Looking ahead to South Carolina… Good timing and bad timing on Daley’s departure… And Obama four years ago.

MANCHESTER, NH -- Just before what’s expected to be a double-digit victory for Mitt Romney in tonight’s New Hampshire primary -- which would make him 2 for 2 in the first two contests -- might have been the rockiest past 48 hours during his presidential bid. It started at Sunday morning’s NBC/Facebook debate, where Romney’s rivals piled on the former Massachusetts governor. Later on the campaign trail, Romney stepped in it twice, first saying he had once worried about receiving a pink slip (though his campaign couldn’t cite specific examples) and second uttering the words “I like being able to fire people” (even though he was talking about health-insurance services). And then came the scrutiny on his record at Bain Capital, with a pro-Gingrich Super PAC releasing a movie trailer that slams Romney for being a corporate “raider” and planning to air Bain-themed attack ads in South Carolina.

*** Turning strength into weakness: What makes the Bain scrutiny -- in combination with the “pink slip” and “I like being able to fire people” lines -- so potentially damaging is that goes at the heart of the central rationale of his candidacy: private-sector experience. If you turn that strength into a weakness, then what’s left? The equivalent for Obama in early 2008 would have been revelations that he supported and planned the Iraq surge, turning his strength (opposition of the Iraq war) into a weakness. (However, all the Rezko scrutiny had the potential to dent Obama’s “change” message.) And what has been particularly surprising is that these Bain attacks have been coming from the right. Just think if fellow Democrats had begun to scrutinize John Kerry’s military record in Jan. 2004. Democrats are sitting back and enjoying this fight. But a Romney ally tells First Read 1) that the attacks give Team Romney a head start to parry these charges in a general election, and 2) that conservatives have been rallying to Romney’s defense (example: Jay Nordlinger in National Review). Also, Rick Santorum has taken a pass hitting Romney on Bain.

*** The race for 1st (and 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th): As for today’s New Hampshire primary, we pretty much know who will finish first -- Romney, who owns a home in the state, who is the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, but who also has done everything he can (like announce his presidential bid there) to ensure that New Hampshire was a firewall for him. The most interesting thing to watch tonight is to see who finishes second. In fact, you could argue that Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich could all finish in slots No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5. As we mentioned yesterday, New Hampshire has produced plenty of surprises in past primaries. And the best guess is that tonight’s surprise be for second place. 

*** What you need to know: Most polls in New Hampshire are open from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm ET, but each municipality sets its own time, and the last polls close in the state at 8:00 pm ET. And tiny Dixville Notch already voted at midnight, and here are the results: Romney two votes, Huntsman two, Paul one, and Barack Obama three. As far as turnout goes, Secretary of State Bill Gardner is expecting 250,000 to participate in the GOP primary (a slight increase from the nearly 240,000 in 2000 and 2008). And who gets to vote? The New Hampshire primary is a “semi-open” primary, meaning that voters without a declared party can vote in either primary, but registered Democrats and Republicans must vote in their own party’s contest. Independents account for about 40% of New Hampshire voters, and due to the fact that there is essentially no real contest on the Democrats’ side, independents could play a large role in the Republican primary.

*** Wrapping up the ad spending in New Hampshire: Our Destiny PAC (pro-Huntsman) $2 million, Paul $1.5 million, Romney $1.3 million, Perry $234,000, Revolution PAC (pro-Paul) $87,000, Huntsman $70,000, Santorum $30,000, and Gingrich $10,000. As we mentioned yesterday, there are really only three campaigns -- and their supporters -- spending in the Granite State: Romney, Paul, and Huntsman.

*** Looking ahead to South Carolina: Beginning tomorrow, the race turns to South Carolina, and we can one thing with certainty: The contest will get nasty there. Already, the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future is prepared to spend millions on TV ads hitting Romney on Bain (in what happens to be the most economically distressed early state); Rick Perry has retreated there; and conservatives view the race there as a last stand to defeat Romney. Fasten your seatbelts. By the way, here’s the ad spending so far in South Carolina: Make Us Great Again (pro-Perry) $1.8 million, Restore Our Future (pro-Romney) $1.5 million, Romney $720,000, Perry $517,000, Paul $467,000, Santorum $408,000, Santa Rita PAC (pro-Paul) $324,000, Gingrich $238,000, Red White and Blue Fund (pro-Santorum) $164,000, and Our Destiny PAC $36,500. So as you can see, there’s A LOT more ad spending going on in South Carolina than in New Hampshire.

*** Good timing and bad timing on Daley’s departure: Turning to the White House, yesterday’s Bill Daley news was good timing and bad timing for Team Obama. Good: With all the focus on New Hampshire, it didn’t get the attention that it ordinarily would. Bad: Timed with the release of the new Jodi Kantor book, it furthered the perception that there’s a bit of tension and dysfunction at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (though that’s typical for all the administrations we’ve covered). The one lesson that Team Obama might take away from the Kantor book and the Daley resignation: It needs to learn to let more folks into the inner circle. When people leave the West Wing, the one constant theme we hear is how hard it is to break into that inner circle formed during the early days of the ’08 campaign. Strikingly, the White House has used the past two weeks focused on the GOP race to bury some news – Daley, the detention deal, the recess appointments – that would have been DOMINANT stories without all the attention on the Republicans. Just some food for thought…

*** Obama four years ago: Meanwhile, the RNC is up with a new web video noting some of the unfulfilled promises from President Obama’s New Hampshire primary speech four years ago. (Then again, when you watch the speech, you do see he accomplished many of the promises he set -- end the Iraq war, reform the health-care system, take the fight to Al Qaeda.) On the Democratic side, Obama for America says it’s holding events in New Hampshire tied to tonight’s primary, and Vice President Biden will speak, via videoconference, to supporters.

Countdown to South Carolina primary: 11 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 21 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 25 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 56 days
Countdown to Election Day: 301 days

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