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First Thoughts: Super Tuesday

Happy Super Tuesday!... All eyes on Ohio The pressures on Santorum The skinny on todays 11 contests: the delegates at stake, the expectations for a good night, the poll closings, and the ad spending Obama holds presser on Super Tuesday at 1:15 pm ET And the public, per NBC/WSJ poll, differs with McCain on Syria.

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves to supporters after speaking at a rally in Zanesville, Ohio, March 5, 2012, ahead of voting on Super Tuesday.

*** Super Tuesday: How things have changed in just one week. Exactly seven days ago, Mitt Romney was fighting for his political life in Michigan; a loss in his native state could very well have cost him the GOP presidential nomination. But after his very narrow victory there, plus his win in Arizona, the narrative has suddenly changed: Romney -- with wins in Ohio, maybe Tennessee, too -- could very well become the de facto nominee after tonights Super Tuesday contests. The marquee race in Ohio is particularly significant for both Romney and Rick Santorum. A Romney win there would keep him on his path (no matter how rocky its been) toward capturing the GOP nomination. But a Santorum victory there would signal that his close second-place finish in Michigan wasnt a fluke, and would likely ensure that this primary season remains competitive, perhaps through April and possibly June. But something to keep in mind: Every time it seems that Romney has been on the ropes (after South Carolina, before Michigan), he pulls off a big win. And every time we think hes wrapped up this race (after New Hampshire, after Florida/Nevada), we discover its not over. 

*** The pressures on Santorum: But make no mistake: The pressure is on Santorum tonight. Romney could lose Ohio and still win the GOP nomination. But if Santorum loses the popular vote in the Buckeye State, its hard to see how hell be a factor come April or May. And no matter what, Romney is going to win the math race tonight -- by virtue of Santorum and Gingrich not being on the ballot in Virginia, and because he didnt file a full slate of delegates in some Ohio congressional districts. Chew on this: It is possible that Santorum could win in both Ohio and Tennessee, but Romney could win a majority of tonights delegates (213 out of 424). That outcome would create a math problem for Santorum and a perception problem for Romney. And given how this campaign season has gone so far, isn't this the most LIKELY outcome?

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd previews the high stakes of Super Tuesday and what needs to happen for a one candidate to become the big winner.

*** The more things change, the more they stay the same: Indeed, no matter what happens tonight, the overall story remains the same. Romney has a lead in delegates; it will be difficult for his less-organized rivals to catch up to him; no one, including Romney, is likely to wrap up the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination until late May; and the GOP primary season, as our NBC/WSJ poll shows, has taken a toll on the partys brand and its candidates. Here is NBCs official delegate count heading into tonight: Romney 119, Gingrich 30, Santorum 17, Paul 8. Note: NBC News does not allocate delegates from many of the non-binding caucus results (like Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota, Maine, and Washington state; in most of these cases, these results don't even LOOSELY guide the actual delegate allocation process in these states so be careful of some of the various counts circulating.)

*** The skinny on todays races: Eleven states across the country will hold contests awarding a combined 424 delegates. Here are the 11 contests, plus the delegates at stake in each: Alaska caucus (24), Georgia primary (76), Idaho caucus (32), Massachusetts primary (38), North Dakota caucus (28), Ohio primary (63), Oklahoma primary (40), Tennessee primary (55), Vermont primary (17), Virginia primary (46), and Wyoming caucus (5 of its 26 are elected tonight). The GOP presidential candidates have different strategies and strongholds in these 11 races. Romney hopes to lock down his home state of Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia (where only he and Paul are on the ballot), and Idaho. Santorum is expecting wins in Oklahoma and Tennessee. Gingrich has focused on his home state of Georgia. And Paul has concentrated on the caucuses in Alaska, Idaho, and North Dakota, as well as the primary in Vermont.

*** What would be a good night for the candidates, delegate-wise: Heres what the NBC Political Unit would see as a good or better-than-expected night for all the candidates. For Romney, it would be winning between 200-220 delegates (with 35-plus in OH, 20-plus in GA, 15-plus in TN, and 10-plus in OK) For Santorum, it would 115-130 (with 30-plus in OH, 20-plus in GA, 25-plus in TN, and 25-plus in OK) For Gingrich, it would be 70-80 delegates (with 20-plus in TN, 35-plus in GA, 10-plus in OK, and any delegate from Ohio). 

*** Poll closings: Here are the final poll closing times in each state:
7:00 pm ET: Georgia, Virginia, Vermont
7:30 pm ET: North Dakota, Ohio
8:00 pm ET: Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee
9:00 pm ET: Wyoming
10:00 pm ET: Idaho
Midnight ET: Alaska

*** Romney enjoys big ad-spending advantage: By the way, its worth noting that Romney and his Super PAC allies have more than a 4-to-1 ad-spending advantage over Santorum and his allies in the pivotal state of Ohio. And overall, its nearly a 5-to-1 advantage. Here are the most up-to-date numbers for ad spending in the Super Tuesday states:
Ohio: pro-Romney $4 million, pro-Gingrich $739,000, pro-Santorum $950,000
Georgia: pro-Romney $1.5 million, pro-Gingrich $950,000, pro-Santorum $214,000
Tennessee: pro-Romney $1.3 million, pro-Gingrich $664,000, pro-Santorum $247,000
Oklahoma: pro-Romney $576,000, pro-Gingrich $422,000, pro-Santorum $182,000
Idaho: pro-Romney $126,000, pro-Santorum $3,000, pro-Paul $47,000
Vermont: pro-Romney $61,000, pro-Paul $55,000

*** On the trail, per NBCs Adam Perez: The candidates are all in different parts of the country today: Romney is in Massachusetts, where he casts his vote in that states primary at 5:15 pm ET Gingrich gives a speech in Georgia before campaigning in Alabama Santorum is delivering a speech at the AIPAC conference in DC And Paul stumps in Idaho and North Dakota. Note: As NBCs Alex Moe reported last night, Newt and Callista Gingrich WILL NOT be voting in Virginia, since Gingrich isnt on the ballot in the state.

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*** Obama holds presser on Super Tuesday at 1:15 pm ET: To make sure that he isnt an afterthought on this Super Tuesday, President Obama is holding a White House news conference at 1:15 pm ET. As NBCs Shawna Thomas has noted, he hasnt held a presser since last year (a short one in December on Richard Cordrays nomination and a longer one back in November in Hawaii). While were sure that Obama gets plenty of questions on the GOP primary race and 2012, dont be surprised if he also gets some tough questions on Syria, Israel and Iran, whether hes evolved more on gay marriage (see our NBC/WSJ poll), GM halting production of the Obama-touted Chevy Volt, and the administrations hiring of former lobbyist Steve Ricchetti, whom the Obama campaign had singled out in 07 as a lobbyist bundler for the Hillary Clinton campaign

*** U.S. public differs with McCain on Syria: Speaking of Syria, yesterday Sen. John McCain called for U.S.-led airstrikes against government forces in Syria the first such call from the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, NBCs Frank Thorp notes. But our new NBC/WSJ poll shows that McCains call is VERY unpopular with the country. Just 13% say the U.S. should take military action to stop the killings there; 11% want to provide arms to the opposition; 48% want to give only humanitarian assistance; and 25% want to take no action.

Countdown to Alabama, Hawaii, and Mississippi: 7 days
Countdown to Election Day: 245 days

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