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First Thoughts: Writing on the wall

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Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigns at Ring Power Lift Trucks in Jacksonville, Fla., Monday, Jan. 30, 2012.

Romney up big in Florida – is the fat lady warming up? … Where does Gingrich go from here – “all the way to the convention”? … Does the Anti Establishment have any juice left? Three questions for Gingrich on his way forward … Four reasons why Romney’s winning. … If Santorum weren’t in the race, Romney’s lead would be even bigger … And ad spending tops $24 million. … And the five closest counties in Florida. … Gingrich and Romney in Florida, Santorum, back on the trail heads to Missouri, which holds its contest Feb. 7.


*** Writing on the wall: It appears Mitt Romney’s on his way to victory in Florida – a slew of polls are out showing him with a double-digit lead over Gingrich, including the NBC-Marist poll, which shows the widest spread, 15 points (42%-27%). What makes Romney’s lead even more insulated is early voting. About half a million people have already voted, about a quarter of the total turnout in 2008. And, in our poll, Romney leads among early voters, 49%-27%, which could account for about a 5-point edge, if all things are equal on Election Day, Marist polling Director Lee Miringoff said. Even if Sarah Palin endorsed Gingrich and showed up at a rally for him today, the best she could likely do would be to get Gingrich to single digits. It’s now just a question of how Gingrich reacts to his defeat and, frankly, how large or small it is.

*** ‘All the way to the convention’: A decisive Romney victory tomorrow means many folks will believe they know where this is headed. But the big question is does Gingrich fall into that camp? In the run up to Iowa, there was a slow Establishment rally around Romney, check that, a slow Establishment takedown of Gingrich. It led to Romney (almost) winning Iowa, then convincingly taking New Hampshire. But then the Anti-Establishment crowd rallied, and Gingrich won South Carolina. With the prospect of a Gingrich win in Florida looking very real seven days ago, the Establishment struck back and Romney now looks assured of victory tomorrow. Gingrich -- perhaps emboldened by the backing of Herman Cain and heavy air cover from Palin -- pledged on Saturday to take the nomination fight with Romney “all the way to the convention.”

*** Three questions for Gingrich: But there are three more questions going forward: (1) Is there any more Anti-Establishment juice left out there; (2) Is Sheldon Adelson going to kick in another check to Gingrich; and (3) How does Gingrich himself get his mojo back? He has a February problem. For the next three weeks, there are four caucuses and no debates. So where does he make his move? Can he make a stand in Adelson’s Nevada (not likely because the GOP primary was more than a quarter Mormon), Arizona, or Minnesota? Hillary Clinton ran into this after Super Tuesday when she was essentially tied with Obama on delegates and then he went on to rattle off a series of small-state victories in February. Clinton willed herself to Ohio, but, by then, in hindsight, the delegate match actually pointed to the fact it was closer to being over than maybe we all realized at the time. Gingrich desperately wants to get to March because there are a slew of Southern primaries that could give him some much-needed victories. That said, don’t expect the Romney campaign to make the same mistake they made after Iowa. Expect it not to let up on Gingrich this time like they did then.

Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich make their final push for Floridians' votes a day ahead of the state's crucial primary. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

*** Four reasons Romney’s winning: How did we get to the point that in less than seven days, Gingrich went from looking like he had the momentum in Florida to Romney looking like a sure thing. Here are four reasons: (1) Debates: Gingrich wasn't able to dominate at the debates last week like he had before South Carolina. (2) Ads: Perhaps most importantly, with Florida as large as it is, TV matters big time. Gingrich got eviscerated on TV -- outspent 4-to-1 ($16 million to $4 million) when you factor in outside groups. (3) The Establishment struck back: From Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio sticking up for Romney (though not endorsing) to Bob Dole's scathing letter about Gingrich’s time as speaker. And (4) Romney’s strategic shift: Romney re-trained his focus away from President Obama and onto Gingrich, not letting up with attack after attack, whether it was at debates or on the trail. The New York Times detailed that shift Sunday (though we’re not completely sure why the advisers would go on the record about this NOW and not wait until, say, after Tuesday, or even wait until after Gingrich got out). On TODAY, Romney defended the changed strategy, saying, “There’s no question that politics ain’t bean bag.” He added that Gingrich’s attacks have been “painful to watch.” By the way, was Romney annoyed by the story about his advisers? “I think you can expect advisers to think that the work of advisers is very, very important,” Romney said on TODAY. Then Romney went on to tout his OWN debate performances.

*** What if Santorum wasn’t in the race? Perhaps the most important number in the NBC-Marist poll was what happens when Santorum is removed from the race. Santorum’s vote splits off evenly if he’s removed, and Romney has an even WIDER lead over Gingrich, 49%-33%. So, Gingrich can’t make the argument that if conservatives weren’t divided he would win. The numbers just don’t bear that out. What’s really interesting -- Santorum probably could argue that if GINGRICH weren’t in the race, he’d have a better chance against Romney. Santorum’s image is as good as it’s been since the campaign began.

*** Santorum resumes campaign: Speaking from the hospital room where he said his ailing 3-year-old daughter is making a "miraculous turnaround," Rick Santorum said that he would resume his campaign on Monday with stops in western caucus states, NBC’s Andrew Rafferty reports.

*** Ad spending tops $24 million: The grand total spent in Florida during the Republican primary is $24.4 million with $19.9 million spent between the campaigns and outside-group supporters of Romney and Gingrich, according to NBC/Smart Media Group Delta. (*Winning Our Future promised to spend another $3.2 million statewide, but so far that hasn’t materialized):

- Total Pro-Romney: $15.9 million (Restore Our Future: $8.9 million, Romney $7 million)

- Total Pro-Gingrich: $4 million (Winning Our Future $2.8 million, Gingrich $1.2 million)

*** Elsewhere on your Sunday dial: Appearing on FOX News Sunday, Gingrich accused Romney of "carpetbombing" his opponents and called the former governor "a Massachusetts liberal" - sharpening that attack from his earlier "moderate" message. Obama strategist David Axelrod took aim at Romney's big bucks, saying, "If we’re going to solve this deficit, then everyone is going to have to give a little. And that includes people at the top." And your Sunday show shiny-object alert: Donald Trump to CBS's Bob Schieffer on whether or not he will eventually jump into the 2012 contest: "I hope I don’t have to. But I may -- absolutely."

*** What to watch tomorrow -- The five closest counties with more than 10,000 votes: NBC’s John Bailey reports that last cycle, Romney’s strongest counties geographically were in the state’s Northeast corner in and around Jacksonville. But an interesting indicator from last cycle could be large Florida counties that were close. Of the five closest counties with more than 10,000 voters in 2008, Romney won four: Romney won Indian River County by 22 votes (0.1%), Highlands County by 16 votes (0.2%), Lake County by 148 votes (0.3%), and Bay County by 241 votes (0.9%). The only exception was Orange County, which John McCain won by 447 votes (0.5%). Note the geographic diversity of these counties. None other than Lake County comes from the strong Romney counties in and around Jacksonville or northwest of Orlando. But just as important they also are not the GOP goldmine counties surrounding Tampa, which accounted for a large share of the Republican vote in 2008.

***On the trail: Gingrich holds five events, including a rally with Herman Cain in Tampa at 1:00 pm ET. … Romney holds three rallies … Santorum holds two events – in MISSOURI (!), including making a “major speech” on job and manufacturing at 3:30 pm ET and then a town hall at 8:30 pm ET.

Countdown to Florida primary: 1 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 5 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 36 days
Countdown to Election Day: 281 days

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