Discuss as:

First Thoughts: Split decision

Last night’s GOP debate summed up the entire contest so far: Despite Romney showing some vulnerabilities, no ONE alterative owned the night… Breaking down Romney’s uneven performance, the others, and that rowdy crowd… New Washington Post/ABC poll: Mr. 25% becomes Mr. 35%... Opponents of Gov. Scott Walker (R) to formally submit their recall petitions today… And Obama will try to replicate his Mile High magic by delivering convention speech at Carolina Panther stadium.

*** Split decision: Last night’s Republican debate summed up the upcoming South Carolina primary, if not the entire GOP nominating race: Despite front-runner Mitt Romney showing some real vulnerabilities -- in fact, it might have been his most uneven debate performance to date -- none of his conservative alternatives owned the night. Why? All of them (Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum) had their strong moments and received plenty of applause from the rowdy audience. And given the evangelical endorsement of Santorum over the weekend, that’s only good news for Romney. After last night’s debate, the conservative vote might be more splintered than it was going into the debate. The only way that Romney will lose Saturday’s South Carolina primary is if one of the candidates consolidates the conservative vote. And last night, we didn’t see ONE of them emerge.

*** Romney’s uneven performance: Romney had a rough evening last night, at least according to the standards he’s set from his past strong performances. The positive for him: He easily deflected questions about Bain and his issue flip-flops by finding ways to turn the subject to President Obama. But the negatives: First, Santorum rattled Romney during the exchange over felons’ voting rights. Then his announcement that he MIGHT release his tax records in April was a statement of parsing that would have made Bill Clinton proud. “Time will tell. But I anticipate that most likely I'm going to get asked to do that around the April time period, and I'll keep that open.” Read those two sentences again: Did he really pledge to release his taxes? If so, what kind of information? How uncomfortable he looked giving that answer seems to confirm that this issue isn’t going away. Lastly, Romney’s answer about his hunting -- “I'm delighted to be able to go hunting” -- was cringe-worthy, though it was an improvement from what he said about the matter in 2007. The DNC is already up with a video hitting Romney’s responses from last night, including the hunting one.

Karl Rove, the chief strategist for George W. Bush's presidential campaigns, tells TODAY's Matt Lauer that GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney "solidified his hold on first place" at Monday's debate in South Carolina.

*** Breaking down the rest: If Romney’s performance was uneven, then Gingrich owned the room. He returned to the debate form we saw in November and December; he seemed to know how to push the audience’s buttons and gave the primary voters what they wanted. Perry was much more engaged than usual, but his declaration that Turkey is ruled “by what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists” once again displayed lack of knowledge when it comes to foreign affairs. (For the record: Turkey isn’t run by Islamic terrorists.) Santorum also started off strong, knocking Romney off balance on voting rights for felons. But he later disappeared for large chunks of the debate. As for Ron Paul, we think that some of his supporters might disagree with his suggestion that Osama bin Laden should have been captured and tried -- and not taken out by Navy SEALs. Even if they don’t disagree, the hawkish debate crowd certainly did.

*** About that rowdy crowd: And speaking of that rowdy crowd, it might have made Romney -- who envisions himself as the ultimate nominee of the Republican Party -- cringe a bit in retrospect. In a debate on MLK Day, the nearly all-white audience cheered when Perry said that “South Carolina is at war with this federal government and with this administration” over the Voting Rights Act, reminding some of us of another war that occurred some 150 years ago between the federal government and South Carolina. The audience also booed co-moderator Juan Williams when he asked Gingrich if some of his talk (about food stamps and janitorial work for poor children) was racially insensitive. And it cheered Gingrich when he fired back at Williams: “If that makes liberals unhappy, I'm going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn someday to own the job.”

*** Mr. 25% becomes Mr. 35%: Yet turning away from South Carolina, a brand-new Washington Post/ABC poll shows Romney with a large national lead over his GOP competitors. Per the Post, “Romney wins the support of 35 percent of all Republicans and GOP-leaners nationwide, with former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) neck and neck with about half the support Romney enjoys. Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), who surged to a second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, checks in at 13 percent, his highest level of the campaign. Texas Gov. Rick Perry runs fifth, at 9 percent.” Meanwhile, a new national Gallup poll has Romney at 37%, with Santorum and Gingrich both at 14%.

*** Walker opponents to formally submit their recall petitions today: Today, the Chicago Tribune reports, opponents of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) “will submit a mountain of petition signatures demanding his recall, and in anticipation the embattled Republican has flooded airwaves with ads highlighting his stewardship in creating ‘thousands of new jobs.’” More: “A month ago, organizers said they were close to gathering the minimum of 540,208 signatures needed to force a vote — a number equal to a fourth of all votes cast in the 2010 election that put Walker in office and enough to signal broad misgivings about that result. Tuesday's formal submission of petitions to the state's election agency is expected to include a healthy cushion. Election officials say it could take two months to vet the validity of the signatures, and Republicans say they have fielded thousands of volunteers to scour them for flaws. Walker, nonetheless, seems resigned to having to face a vote and has predicted it might take place by June.”

*** Trying to replicate that Mile High magic: And here is some news about September’s Democratic convention in Charlotte: “On the final night of this fall's Democratic National Convention, President Barack Obama will deliver his acceptance speech at Bank of America stadium,” the Charlotte Observer reports. “The move to the Carolina Panthers' 74,000-seat stadium would replicate the 2008 convention, where Obama accepted the nomination at a packed Invesco Field in Denver. The move, which would open the speech to the public, is designed to help mobilize voters in North Carolina, a key swing state.” Then again, the corporate symbol of “Bank of America” stadium might not be one that Democrats want.

Countdown to South Carolina primary: 4 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 14 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 18 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 49 days
Countdown to Election Day: 294 days

Click here to sign up for First Read emails.

Text FIRST to 622639, to sign up for First Read alerts to your mobile phone.
Check us out on Facebook and also on Twitter. Follow us @chucktodd, @mmurraypolitics, @DomenicoNBC, @brookebrower