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First Thoughts: Trading places - Romney comes out swinging; Gingrich didn't want fight

Romney was itching for fight, but Gingrich didn’t let the attacks get under his skin … Restore Our Future makes a massive buy … Gingrich gets a helping hand … Romney struggled talking about conservatism … Romney, Gingrich moderated their tone on immigration … Romney made more than $40 million the last two years, or $57,000 a day, and paid a 13.9% tax rate … Obama to focus on economic fairness in State of the Union.

*** Trading places – Romney comes out swinging…: Illustrating just how important Florida is to Mitt Romney’s candidacy, the one-time clear front-runner came out of the gate jabbing at rival New Gingrich at last night’s debate. It was the most aggressive he’s been this cycle. In just the first five minutes, Romney dumped nearly the entire oppo file (or their press shop’s “greatest” Newt hits over the last month), charging (twice) that Gingrich had “resigned in disgrace” as Speaker of the House and brought up Gingrich sitting on a “sofa with Nancy Pelosi.” Later, he hit his rival on Freddie Mac, accusing him of being a lobbyist again and for his stewardship of the party in the 1990s. Romney was clearly hoping to do two things: 1) Show Republicans, who have been upset that he lacks fire, that he actually has the juice, and 2) He hoped to draw out the “nasty” Newt, get under his skin.

*** …But Gingrich didn’t want the fight: It was almost a sedated Gingrich. He tried to let the attacks roll off, saying he didn’t want to chase Romney’s “misinformation.” “I don’t want to spend my time talking about Mitt,” he said later. It’s fascinating to contrast Gingrich’s approach last night with his victory speech in South Carolina, which was full of vinegar and even some venom. Gingrich clearly decided it was time to attempt to look presidential. As the New York Times wrote, “The new landscape of the Republican campaign came into sharp view, with Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich often seeming as though they had traded personalities for the evening.” Post-debate, it’s pretty clear the Gingrich folks are not happy with the candidate’s performance: they are complaining about the lack of audience participation. Perhaps Team Newt believes he needs to feed off a crowd and maybe he needed it even more last night because he did look a tad tired when the debate began. By the way, Rick Santorum, who didn’t get into the scrum with Newt and Romney early in the debate didn’t seem to find his sea legs until the end of the night when he built the case that neither is a true conservative. “When push came to shove, they got pushed,” Santorum said, adding, “They rejected conservatism when it was hard to stand.” And Ron Paul seems simply satisfied that he’s going to acquire enough delegates, so he can continue to push his message; it’s unclear whether he truly envisions himself as a potential nominee.

At Monday's Republican presidential debate in Florida, the showdown between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich erupted into a verbal slugfest. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

*** Gingrich gets a helping hand: Gingrich’s strategy last night carries some risk. Though he appears to be gaining in Florida, Gingrich still doesn’t have the money or infrastructure Romney has in the state. And it’s the debate moments in South Carolina that generated the “earned” media to keep his surge going. There was no South Carolina-like moment last night for him. That said, Gingrich got a helping hand once again from the casino magnate family, the Adelsons. Sheldon Adelson earlier donated $5 million to the pro-Gingrich Super Pac Winning Our Future. NBC’s Michael Isikoff reports that his wife Miriam has now cut another $5 million check. The money is desperately needed by Gingrich right now to stay even REMOTELY competitive in Florida. But the Adelson money comes with risk if it begins to sink in with some voters that this campaign is essentially being financed by one guy. Questions will start to be raised: Who is Sheldon Adelson, why does he do this, what does he want, and what would he want from a President Gingrich?

Here’s a check of the Florida ad spending so far, according to NBC Smart Media Delta, including a massive $4.4 million buy Restore Our Future, the Super PAC supporting Romney:

- Restore Our Future: $8.7 million
- Romney campaign: $5.7 million
- The labor union AFSCME: $931,000
- Winning Our Future PAC: $355,000
- Newt Gingrich: $145,000

*** Tough moments for Romney on conservatism and immigration: If there is one negative moment that has more of a shelf life than the Romney campaign would like, it was his answer late in the debate about what he did to advance the conservative movement’s cause. “Well, number one, I've raised a family,” he said. “And I've -- I've -- with my wife, we've raised five wonderful sons, and we have 16 wonderful grandkids. Number two, I've worked in the private sector. The idea that somehow everything important for conservativism or for America happens in government is simply wrong.” He went on to cite work as governor of Massachusetts. But that’s not exactly the answer conservatives are looking for. That he can’t answer that question very well is one reason the base hasn’t rallied around him. He also delivered this head scratcher when asked to square his stance that he wouldn’t round up 11 million illegal immigrants, but require them to go home: “Well, the answer is self-deportation,” he said. Romney has always tried to straddle a very fine line on immigration with one foot in the primary and one in the general election. And “self-deportation” has the potential to feed into the “Romney’s always looking to have it both ways” narrative. By the way, with the debate in Florida, there was clearly a moderated TONE on immigration from Romney and Gingrich. Notice that on the DREAM Act, Gingrich said he would not veto it, but try to change it slightly. Romney jumped in and tried to co-opt the stance. “[T]hat's the same position that I have,” Romney interjected. Except that Romney did use the “V” word.

*** Romney releases his taxes: Hours after the debate (and hours before President Obama delivers the State of the Union), he released advance copies of his taxes to the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. They show he made $42.6 million in the past two years ($21.7 million in 2010 and $20.9 million in 2011) “virtually all of it profits, dividends or interest from investments,” the Washington Post writes. (Here they are.) In other words, he made more than $40 million not because of a job, but while he was preparing his run for president. The Romneys paid a 13.9% tax rate, $6.2 million in taxes, and they made $7 million in charitable contributions, “including at least $4.1 million” to the Mormon church. By the way, according to our math, Romney made $57,000 a day for the past two years. That’s higher than the median household income in this country of $50,221.

*** Timing is everything: Could team Obama have picked a better time for THEM politically for Romney to release his taxes -- than right before the president talks about the unfairness of the tax code during the State of the Union? For many people, the picture will be fresh in their minds of what Romney made -- and the rate he paid -- as the president makes these points of economic fairness. There will be plenty, by the way, in Romney’s taxes for opponents to pick over (not many people have every had a Swiss bank account, for example.) But most of all, Romney’s taxes paint a picture of something a lot of people may not be able to connect with; earning millions without working full-time. By the way, given Romney’s predicament in Florida right, there will be lot of curious and nervous Republicans watching Mitch Daniels’ Republican response to see if he shows them something that might make them pine for him yet again. It’s a tough spot to be in for ANY politician: perhaps the most thankless high-profile speaking slot in American politics.

*** What’s fair is fair: The other big news that will dominate tonight is the president’s State of the Union address. He’s expected to draw on a lot of themes from his speech in Osawatomie, KS, speech, which focused on economic fairness. In a preview of his speech, per NBC’s Kristen Welker, he said, “I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules.” Though the speech could have a short shelf life, this is what the election is going to be about – fairness, inequality, the middle class -- and that message gets kicked off tonight. Obama senior adviser David Plouffe was on TODAY and noted that the president will focus on, “How do we build an economy that it built to last” He talked about “American manufacturing” and “American energy” and “a renewal of American values.” He acknowledged, “The economy is far too weak; the hole is far too deep. … We want an economy based on everyone paying their fair share … and everyone getting a fair shake.” He also said the president will lay out specifics Buffett Rule, noting as it relates to Romney’s taxes that the “tax code that’s far top complex” and reminding of the unfairness of people making lots of money and paying a lower tax rate than those making less. By the way, notice that Plouffe said there are 47 more GOP primaries and caucuses. Someone’s paying pretty close attention to the GOP primary fight. 

*** On the trail and Paul to skip out on Florida, focus on caucuses: The Romney campaign began a conference call on the tax returns at 8:30 am ET, then another on “Gingrich’s Failed Leadership” at 9:20 am ET. Romney delivers what his campaign is calling a pre-buttal to the State of the Union from Tampa at 10:30 am ET. He holds a housing event at 3:20 pm ET. Gingrich holds four events, including rallies and a bus tour stop. Santorum makes three stops. NBC’s Anthony Terrell reports that Paul will essentially skip out on Florida, where it’s winner-take-all, after Thursday’s debate and focus on winning delegates out of the next several caucus states. He’ll campaign in Maine Friday and Saturday. On Tuesday, when Floridians head to the polls, Paul will fly west, campaigning in Colorado.  From Feb. 1-4, he’ll campaign in Nevada, and then head to Minnesota, where he will remain until Feb. 7, when they go to the polls.

Countdown to Florida primary: 7 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 11 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 42 days
Countdown to Election Day: 287 days

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