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First Thoughts: Next up: The last stand

Next up: The last stand of South Carolina… And it’s likely to get nasty there… How will Romney emerge 10 days for now: battered or the de facto nominee?... The message that could take on Romney (but is there a messenger to deliver it?)… About last night: breaking down the results and the exit polls… Paul’s second-place finish was a gift to Romney… Huntsman’s third-place finish was “meh”… Once again, GOP turnout wasn’t a “wow” figure… And Obama’s 82% was less than Clinton’s in ’96 but greater than Bush’s in ’04.

*** Next up: The last stand: After Mitt Romney’s decisive and expected victory in New Hampshire last night, the Republican presidential contest now turns to the Jan. 21 race in South Carolina, which will serve as a moment of truth for all the GOP candidates. For Romney, South Carolina -- where he finished fourth four years ago -- will prove if he can finally get conservatives in a non-New England state to put him over the top, essentially wrapping up the Republican nomination. For the conservative alternatives in the field (particularly Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum), it will prove if one of them can finally consolidate the conservative vote to decisively beat Romney in a race. For the conservative movement and the Tea Party, it will prove if they can stop the potential nomination of a man who implemented a health-care mandate in his state and who supported abortion rights about six years ago. For Rick Perry, who retreated to South Carolina after Iowa, it will prove if his decision to stay in the race was wise after his fifth-place finish in the Hawkeye State. And for Jon Huntsman, who is vowing to stay in, it will prove if his bronze metal can generate any additional life in his campaign. Bottom line: For everyone not named Mitt Romney or Ron Paul, South Carolina has become a last stand.

Slideshow: Mitt Romney

*** Things are going to get nasty: And that fact makes the race a compelling story, because it looks like things are going to get nasty in South Carolina. Already, the Gingrich campaign is up with a TV ad in the state hitting Romney on the subject of abortion, and the pro-Gingrich Super PAC Winning Our Future is supposed to be airing its anti-Bain ads and movie soon, too. And at 9:00 am ET today in Rock Hill, SC, NBC’s Alex Moe reports, Gingrich is expected to deliver a “defining” speech. "Bottom line here is you are seeing the single-most authentic candidate who has run for president who is not worried about what the consequences will be, who will put forth truth as people see it in their lives every day," Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond told reporters last night. "A 68-year-old man is stepping forward, who wants to see the same kind of country for his grandchildren as he had," Hammond added.

NBC's David Gregory and Chuck Todd analyze the results from New Hampshire's GOP primary and look ahead to the race in South Carolina.

*** How will Romney emerge 10 days from now -- beaten and battered or the de facto nominee? So South Carolina promises to be the first time that Romney will come under sustained fire -- particularly over the TV airwaves -- in this GOP race. And it will come after Romney’s rocky 48 hours leading up to the New Hampshire primary, particularly over the subject of Bain Capital. So, 10 days from now, it will be interesting to see what Romney looks like after this barrage. Yet consider this about Romney: He went into Iowa as the weak front-runner; he came out of it as the front-runner; and after last night’s victory, he’s emerged as the strong front-runner. And if he wins South Carolina, he will become the de facto nominee. It’s as simple as that.

*** The message to take on Romney: Yet while there might not be a viable GOP messenger to take on Romney in South Carolina and beyond, there is a conservative message: You’ve gotten a raw deal from Washington and a greedy Wall Street. It’s a populism argument from the conservative side. And Gingrich was trying to articulate it in an interview with NBC News yesterday. “There's a big difference between financial manipulation and capitalism,” he said. “Capitalism is when entrepreneurs go out and investors go out. They start something real. They grow something. And it has real impact. And remember, the workers are contributing, too. This isn't just three rich guys at the top. These are everybody in the company's trying to do something good.  And I really do represent a middle-class kind of approach to conservatism.  I think that you want everybody to succeed.” There’s a message out there, but is there a messenger to deliver it? Meanwhile, on “TODAY” this morning, NBC’s Matt Lauer asked Romney an intriguing question: Are questions about Wall Street greed and excess about envy or about fairness? Romney’s answer: “I think it’s about envy. It’s about class warfare.”

*** About last night: Here are the results from last night (with 95% precincts reporting): Romney 39% (exceeding John McCain’s winning 37% in ’08), Paul 23%, Huntsman 17%, Gingrich 9%, and Santorum 9%. Looking at the exit polls, Romney did a MUCH better job among conservatives, Tea Party supporters, and evangelicals than he did in Iowa. (Remember, though, New Hampshire is a much different place than Iowa or South Carolina; in fact, a combined 62% of New Hampshire primary voters considered themselves liberal or moderate on social issues.) Yet he underperformed among low- and middle-income GOP voters, getting 51% from those making $200,000 or more but getting just 31% among those making less than $30,000. Also, he didn’t fare as well among independents as you might have expected earlier, capturing 29% of that vote (versus 32% for Paul). Those are flashing yellow lights for his campaign.

*** Paul’s gift to Romney: Make no mistake: Paul’s second-place finish last night in New Hampshire was a gift to Romney. Anyone else finishing second in the state (Huntsman or Newt or Santorum) would have provided that candidate with some potential momentum heading into South Carolina.

Slideshow: Ron Paul

*** Huntsman’s “meh” performance: Meanwhile, Huntsman’s third-place showing pretty much summed up his candidacy thus far: not awful but not great, either. Look at the groups he over-performed with: Democrats, independents, and those satisfied with the Obama administration. That’s not a coalition that will win you the GOP nomination in 2012. Huntsman is now taking his campaign to South Carolina, and the campaign tells us the strategy is to peel moderates away from Romney there. Unfortunately for him, the electorate there looks MUCH different than the electorate in New Hampshire.

Slideshow: Jon Huntsman

*** Once again, GOP turnout wasn’t a “wow” figure: Here is something that might start to concern Republicans: For the second-straight contest, GOP turnout was pretty pedestrian, especially given the party’s supposed enthusiasm about defeating Obama in November. With 95% of precincts in, turnout in last night’s Republican primary in New Hampshire was slightly under 240,000, which is about the same as it was it was in 2000 and 2008. While turnout will increase once the other 5% comes in -- setting a record just like it did in Iowa -- it won’t be a WOW figure like we saw on the Democratic side in ’08.

*** Obama’s performance in NH: And don’t forget that President Obama was on the ballot last night, too, in New Hampshire. With 95% of precincts reporting, he got 82% of the vote (and nearly 47,000 votes) in the Democratic primary. That percentage is less than Bill Clinton’s 92% in 1996, but it’s greater than George W. Bush’s 80% in 2004. That said, the Dem primary turnout last night (53,000-plus) was less than the Dem turnout in ’96 (90,000-plus) and the GOP turnout in ’04 (67,000-plus).

*** CORRECTION *** Our percentage for Clinton above was slightly off. In 1996, Clinton -- who, like Obama, was essentially running un-opposed for his party's re-nomination -- grabbed 84.4% of the vote in New Hampshire. And in 2004, Bush got 80% of the vote in the Republican New Hampshire primary.

Countdown to South Carolina primary: 10 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 20 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 24 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 55 days
Countdown to Election Day: 300 days

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