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First Thoughts: Showdown in South Carolina

Previewing tomorrow’s showdown in South Carolina… A Romney win would essentially end the GOP race… But a Gingrich victory extends it… Polls close tomorrow night at 7:00 pm ET… Bob McDonnell endorses Romney… A salute to Jan. 19!... Breaking down last night’s debate: Gingrich deflects the question about his baggage (his failed 2nd marriage)… Romney raises even more questions about his baggage (those tax returns)… And Santorum has a very strong performance.

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*** Showdown in South Carolina: Tomorrow’s Republican presidential primary in South Carolina will determine -- as Politico’s Martin put it yesterday -- if the GOP contest essentially ends or if it continues for the next several weeks or even months. A Romney win in a state where he finished fourth four years ago would make him the de facto nominee, proving that he can win in a conservative-dominated state, even if he benefits from a divided conservative vote. But with Newt Gingrich’s newfound momentum (his climbing poll numbers in South Carolina, his strong debate performances, the Perry endorsement), he finds himself in position to win this primary. And if that happens, the Republican presidential race will move on to Florida on Jan. 31 and beyond. Forty-eight hours ago, we all believed that Romney was about to make history, going 3-for-3 in the first three contests. But come Saturday, there’s the potential for another kind of history -- having three different Republican winners in the first three contests. That has never happened before.

*** Big stakes for Romney: As we wrote several days ago, Romney’s fundamental problem is this: He’s been unable so far to win over conservatives in a conservative state. And if he’s unable to beat Gingrich and Rick Santorum in South Carolina -- both of whom have their shortcomings -- it would send a flashing warning signal to party leaders. What’s more, it would produce chatter, fair or not, that the party needs to find someone else, just as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is set to deliver the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union on Tuesday night. And chew on this: Did Team Romney make a mistake by playing so hard in South Carolina? As soon as his campaign gladly accepted Gov. Nikki Haley’s endorsement, it raised the stakes of a contest that was never going to be easy for him. In fact, it reminds us of what happened to Hillary Clinton there four years ago, when Bill Clinton was certain he was going to be able to help his wife in South Carolina and the Clinton campaign went all in. To paraphrase the immortal Admiral Ackbar, South Carolina can be a trap. Polls close tomorrow at 7:00 pm ET, and the GOP turnout in the 2008 primary there was 445,000.

The Republican presidential field may be smaller, with Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry recently dropping out, but that's not stopping the fireworks on the campaign trail ahead of South Carolina's primary on Saturday. NBC's Chuck Todd takes a look at what may be next.

*** Romney gets McDonnell’s endorsement: That said, Romney’s conservative -- and inevitability -- credentials got a major boost this morning when his campaign picked up an endorsement from Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who’s a potential VP pick. Note that McDonnell’s endorsement comes a day after a fellow conservative governor, Rick Perry, dropped out of the GOP race. And do note that there are just two Republicans on Virginia’s primary ballot: Romney and Ron Paul. NBC’s Garrett Haake reports that McDonnell will appear with Romney on the campaign trail today in South Carolina.

*** A salute to Jan. 19: What a day in American politics yesterday turned out to be! First came the poll numbers showing Gingrich gaining on Romney in South Carolina. Then we found out that Rick Santorum -- and not Romney -- had won Iowa. Then Rick Perry dropped out of the GOP race and endorsed Gingrich. After that, ABC published its Marianne Gingrich story online. President Obama was in Disney World (!!!). The Republicans participated in their 17th debate, which produced some fireworks (more on that below). And the day ended with Obama signing “Let’s Stay Together” at a New York City fundraiser.

*** Gingrich deflects the question about his baggage… : Speaking of last night’s debate, our biggest takeaway was this: Gingrich did a much better job of dealing with his baggage (Marianne Gingrich and her charge of Newt wanting an open marriage) than Romney dealing with his (those tax returns). Gingrich used the media as foil to deflect the issue -- “I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that” -- and the crowd ate it up. As MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough has noted, Gingrich channels resentment better than Romney does, and the politics of resentment can be a winner in Republican primaries, especially in the South.

*** ... while Romney raises even more questions about his: Meanwhile, for a second-straight debate, Romney struggled to explain why he hasn’t yet released his tax returns. When he was asked why he won’t release his taxes now, Romney gave this striking answer: Because I want to win. “I want to make sure that I beat President Obama. And every time we release things drip by drip, the Democrats go out with another array of attacks.” (Just asking, but doesn’t that suggest there’s something there? If he’s worried about attacks, then there is something to hide, right?) Romney also looked uncomfortable when he was told that his father released 12 years of his taxes in 1967. Folks, this issue isn’t going away. And whenever these tax returns come out -- if they do -- Romney and his campaign team have now guaranteed it to be a BIG moment in the GOP race. And it’s an unforced error by the campaign.

*** Santorum’s strong performance: Perhaps the best news for Romney at last night’s debate was Santorum’s VERY strong performance. As he’s done before -- but not as well as he did last night -- Santorum made the case that he’s the true conservative in the contest (on health care and social issues like abortion). And he was very aggressive; a man on a mission. Why was it good news for Romney? Because a strong performance by Santorum on Saturday has the potential of bringing down Gingrich’s numbers. The higher Santorum’s vote percentage, the better chance Romney has to win in South Carolina.

*** Other thoughts on the debate: Romney had a strong moment dressing down Gingrich’s tenure in Congress… Outside of Gingrich’s first five minutes responding to the Marianne Gingrich interview, he seemed to disappear for large stretches of the debate… The Romney campaign eagerly seized on Gingrich’s line about “grandiose thoughts”… And Ron Paul struggled to break through and get questions.

***On the trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: One day before South Carolina’s primary, Gingrich stumps in Charleston, Hartsville, and Mount Pleasant…Santorum hits Lexington, Fort Mill, Boiling Springs, and Charleston...Romney campaigns in Gilbert, Charleston, and Greenville…And Herman Cain (who dropped out of the presidential race) and Colbert (who is not on the ballot) will co-host a rally in Charleston.

*** Christie on “Meet”: NBC’s David Gregory will interview New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Sunday’s “Meet the Press.” 

Countdown to South Carolina primary: 1 day
Countdown to Florida primary: 11 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 15 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 46 days
Countdown to Election Day: 291 days

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