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First Thoughts: High stakes

High stakes at tonight’s NBC/National Journal/Tampa Bay Times debate, especially for Romney and Gingrich… Debate airs beginning at 9:00 pm ET on NBC’s “Rock Center,” and it’s moderated by NBC’s Brian Williams… Romney comes out swinging against Gingrich… But Romney has more than a Newt problem; he has a Mitt problem -- and it now includes electability… Team Obama’s role in stoking the negative narratives about Romney… And Giffords to resign from Congress.

*** High stakes: When the remaining four presidential candidates gather for the 18th debate of the cycle tonight in Tampa, FL, the stakes couldn’t be any higher, especially for Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. For Romney -- fresh off his double-digit defeat in South Carolina and after uneven performances in his last two debates -- tonight’s debate is a crucial moment for his campaign. Either he rises to the occasion (by providing sharper answers, by disqualifying Gingrich, and by proving to GOP voters the confidence he can be their guy in November), or he struggles again, giving Gingrich a path to overtake him in Florida. For Gingrich, tonight’s debate will prove if he can withstand the attacks (because they’re coming), and if he can pull off another strong performance. And don’t lose sight of Rick Santorum (who has leveled pointed criticism at both Romney and Gingrich in past debates) or Ron Paul (who has sometimes has served as Romney’s wingman). If we learned anything from South Carolina, it’s that the debates have mattered, and tonight’s debate likely won’t be any different. By the way, this is the first debate where, based on ACTUAL results, it's clear there's no real front-runner right now.

Mitt Romney slideshow

Newt Gingrich slideshow

*** The skinny on tonight’s debate: Tonight’s NBC/National Journal/Tampa Bay Times debate airs beginning at 9:00 pm ET on NBC’s “Rock Center.” It’s moderated by NBC’s Brian Williams, and will also feature questions by National Journal’s Beth Reinhard (a former Miami Herald reporter), and the Tampa Bay Times’ veteran political reporter Adam Smith.  You can also watch the debate live on NBCPolitics.com and follow the Twitter stream of our political experts.

Just hours before the NBC News Republican presidential debate in Florida, NBC's Chuck Todd and David Gregory discuss whether Newt Gingrich will continue his momentum into the Florida primary.

*** Romney comes out swinging: If yesterday was any indication, expect Romney to come after Gingrich hard. Campaigning last night in front of more than 700 voters, NBC’s Garrett Haake reported, Romney hit the former House speaker on two fronts. The first: his leadership in the 1990s. “He was a leader for four years as speaker of the House," Romney said. "And at the end of four years it was proven he was a failed leader. And he had to resign in disgrace. I don't know if you knew that.” The second: Gingrich’s past work at Freddie Mac: “He has been working as a lobbyist, he was working as a lobbyist and selling influence around Washington," Romney added. "He was working for Freddie Mac, heard of those guys?” And in an interview with NBC’s Peter Alexander, Romney made more digs at Gingrich. “The people who knew him best, where he was responsible for leading, actually rejecting him, reprimanded him and he left in shame."

*** Romney’s electability problem: So Romney has signaled that he’s loaded for bear. His problem: that strategy didn’t work for him -- especially in Florida -- four years ago. He didn't wear well in 2008 with voters when he became an attack dog at debates against McCain and Huckabee. But more importantly for Romney, he doesn’t have a Newt problem; he has a Mitt problem. Over the past several months, his message has been electability. But the last couple of debates, the evasive answers on his tax returns (even though he’s releasing his 2010 ones tomorrow), all the Bain scrutiny, and Obama’s positioning over the last six months (see tomorrow’s State of the Union address) have all poked holes into that electability argument. Bottom line: What he has projected as strength can now be viewed as a weakness. What’s more, it appears that Romney has run out of ideas. What is the quintessential Romney plan? The new idea he’s offering? So right now, Romney has a message problem, an ideas problem, and -- yes -- an electability problem. Newt is simply the latest vehicle for primary voters to express their angst about Romney. 

*** Team Obama’s role in the anti-Romney narratives: And don’t overlook the role that the Obama campaign has had in the negative narratives on Bain Capital and Romney’s wealth; in fact, Campaign Manager Jim Messina today has penned a memo furthering these narratives. Of course, Gingrich picked up on them, and they’ve become more potent in a GOP primary than even Team Obama thought they would be. What these narratives have done is put Romney on the defensive and made him look uncomfortable with his wealth. Why else do you tweet a pic of him doing laundry (with powdered Tide no less) if you aren't overly-concerned about his "every man" image. One thing about Gingrich: He knows who he is, and he's comfortable in his skin. Can the same be said right now for Romney?

*** Giffords to resign from Congress: “Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) will resign from Congress this week, she announced in a video message posted” yesterday, NBCPolitics.com’s Mike O’Brien reported. “Giffords, the victim of a gunshot wound to the head in an attack a year ago in her Arizona district, cited her continued work toward recovery as a reason for stepping down from her seat.  ‘I have more work to do on my recovery, so to do what is best for Arizona I will step down this week,’ she said in a video message posted to YouTube. ‘I will return and we will work together for Arizona and this great country.’” Giffords will attend Tuesday’s State of the Union address before submitting her resignation letter. And, before she leaves office, Giffords plans to finish the “Congress on your Corner” event where the tragic shooting occurred a year.

*** On the trail: Before tonight’s 9:00 pm ET debate in Tampa, Romney holds a roundtable on housing issues in Tampa… Santorum, in North Venice, tours a manufacturing company and later holds a town hall in Lady Lake… And Gingrich holds an event in Tampa at 2:00 pm ET.

Countdown to Florida primary: 8 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 12 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 43 days
Countdown to Election Day: 288 days

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The GOP fight for Florida, which holds its presidential primary on Jan. 31, is heating up on the heels of Newt Gingrich's decisive win in South Carolina. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.