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First Thoughts: A stop to Romney's coronation?

A stop to Romney’s coronation?... With certified results from Iowa (though eight missing precincts), Santorum ended up with a 34-vote advantage over Romney… And a new NBC/Marist poll shows Gingrich gaining ground on Santorum in South Carolina… What’s clear from our poll: Debates matter, and there’s another one tonight… Also in the poll: The Bain dog doesn’t bite -- at least for now… But will Marianne Gingrich bite Newt?... How things have changed for the Gingrich camp in a month… And how they’ve remained the same for Team Romney… And breaking down the Obama campaign’s first TV ad.

*** A stop to Romney’s coronation? Just two days ago, it appeared Mitt Romney was well on his way to wrapping up the GOP presidential nomination by the end of the weekend, going 3-for-3 in the first three GOP contests -- something that’s never been done before by a non-incumbent Republican. But breaking news and brand-new polls out of South Carolina suggest that Romney’s coronation might have been premature. First, the breaking news: The Des Moines Register reports that after the certified totals from the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum ended up with a 34-vote advantage over Romney with eight precincts’ numbers missing (which will never be certified). The Iowa Republican Party and the Romney campaign are calling the certified results a tie, and NBC News will not declare a winner in the contest (due to the missing precincts). But make no mistake: Santorum came out ahead. Second, brand-new polls out of South Carolina -- including our new NBC/Marist survey -- show Gingrich gaining considerable ground on Romney in the Palmetto State. Now think about it: On Saturday night, it is POSSIBLE that instead of 3-and-0, Romney could be 1-and-2, with that one victory coming in his backyard of New Hampshire.

*** A thought exercise: You’ve got to wonder: Had the headlines coming out of Iowa on Jan. 4 been “Rick Santorum wins Iowa” instead of “Mitt Romney wins…,” what would have been the impact in New Hampshire? Would the race have been closer? Ironically, the change in outcome doesn’t help Santorum, whose campaign has noticeably run out of gas in the last few days -- despite that evangelical endorsement over the weekend. Instead, this news hurts Romney -- and by extension benefits Gingrich.

*** Debates matter: If there’s one lesson we’ve learned in this Republican presidential contest, it is this: The 16 debates -- and counting -- have mattered. A lot. And our new NBC/Marist poll of South Carolina provides even more evidence of that. Overall in the two-day survey (conducted Monday Jan. 16 and Tuesday Jan. 17), Romney gets the support of 34% of likely GOP primary voters, while Gingrich is at 24%, Ron Paul at 16%, Rick Santorum at 14%, and Perry at 4%. But the numbers are strikingly different before and after the debate on Monday, when Romney had an uneven performance and Gingrich had a strong one. On Monday, Romney led Gingrich by a whopping 15 points in the poll, 37%-22%. But on the Tuesday after the debate, that advantage narrowed to just five points, 31%-26%, putting Gingrich in striking distance. In particular, the most conservative parts of the GOP electorate (Tea Party supporters, “very conservative” voters, and evangelicals) broke toward Gingrich in the day after the debate. And guess what: Tonight, we have another debate, the 17th of the cycle.

*** The Bain dog doesn’t bite -- at least for now: While Gingrich gained ground on Romney the day after Monday’s GOP debate, the former Massachusetts governor can take comfort with this finding from the poll: His past work at Bain Capital doesn’t seem to bother South Carolina Republicans. Per the survey, 61% of GOP primary voters (as well as 42% of all registered voters in the state) agree with the statement that investment firms like Bain help the U.S. economy, and they agree that while some companies fail or are restructured, others succeed and that’s how the free market works. By comparison, just a quarter of like GOP voters (and a third of all registered voters) agree with the statement that investment firms like Bain hurt the economy when they take over a company and lay off workers and reduce their pay and when they make money for the firm whether or not the company succeeds.

*** But will Marianne Gingrich bite Newt? And here’s another thing where Romney can take some comfort: Today’s political story -- as well as tonight’s debate -- is going to include a discussion about Gingrich’s second failed marriage. Matt Drudge yesterday revealed that ABC got an interview with ex-wife Marianne Gingrich, who had criticized the former House speaker in a 2010 Esquire interview. Last night, the Gingrich camp responded to the upcoming interview with a letter from Gingrich’s two daughters: “We will not say anything negative about our father’s ex-wife.  He has said before, privately and publicly, that he regrets any pain he may have caused in the past to people he loves. ABC News or other campaigns may want to talk about the past, just days before an important primary election.  But Newt is going to talk to the people of South Carolina about the future.” In an interview on “TODAY” this morning, Gingrich invoked his daughters and refused to say anything negative about Marianne. But do remember: In an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, Gingrich declared that he didn’t have a relationship with his second ex-wife.

*** How things change… : Given how the Gingrich campaign has responded so far -- with a quick statement from his two daughters -- it’s striking how much has changed in a month. And it hasn’t been just this story; it’s how the campaign has responded to the Romney camp in recent days. A month ago, heading into the Iowa contest, the Gingrich camp looked haphazard and unable to respond to the attacks hitting them. Now? They look much more sophisticated.

*** … and how they remain the same: And while things appeared to have changed for the Gingrich candidate, NBC’s Garrett Haake observes how similar things have been for Romney – and how history might be repeating itself. In early December, Haake explains, Herman Cain had just dropped out of the presidential race; Mitt Romney was trying to recover from a rough interview with Fox's Brett Baier; and Newt Gingrich's surge was being battled back by Romney surrogates. Now in the final days before the South Carolina primary, Jon Huntsman has just dropped out of the presidential race; Mitt Romney is trying to recover from a rough debate outing (moderated by Baier); and Newt Gingrich's (latest) surge is being battled back by Romney surrogates.

*** Obama campaign plays defense with first ad: So President Obama’s campaign is up with its first TV ad of the cycle -- at a buy of $1.3 million and counting, per Smart Media Group Delta -- and it turns out to be a response to a $6 million blitz by the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity that hits Obama on Solyndra. It’s a very defensive ad, something that the RNC made clear to reporters last night. The Obama camp tells First Read that the objective of their response to make clear that the attack ad is funded by oil executives -- i.e., the Koch brothers -- who want to keep America running on oil, not clean energy. And it believes such a response makes the attack less credible to viewers. A few points on this Obama ad. One, it’s clear that the Solyndra ad was having an effect. Two, this just demonstrates again how important outside groups will be to this campaign. And three, this is just more evidence that 2012 is going to be a negative campaign – full of attacks and responses..

***On the trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: Two days before Saturday’s primary, all the candidates remain in South Carolina: Gingrich stumps in Bluffton, Beaufort, and Walterboro… Romney visits Charleston… Santorum rallies in Charleston… And all candidates (Romney, Paul, Gingrich, and Santorum) will be in North Charleston for the CNN debate, which begins at 8:00 pm ET. 

Countdown to South Carolina primary: 2 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 12 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 16 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 47 days
Countdown to Election Day: 292 days

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