It's Getting Hot In Here: GOP Candidates Sharpen Knives (The Note)

By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone ) and AMY WALTER ( @amyewalter )

All the talk of hot kitchens on the campaign trail yesterday has us primed for a holiday feast.

Until then, Mitt Romney is charging ahead on the second day of his three-day bus tour through New Hampshire. He's looking and acting like a frontrunner. And he's sitting down with national and local media. He's making seven stops in Granite State today and got a great response at his events there yesterday.

He took on his main opponent, Newt Gingrich, who has been complaining about the negative ads coming from a super PACs backing Romney.

"I know that the speaker would like to say that we shouldn't have any negativity," Romney said in an interview with MSNBC yesterday. "But, look, if you can't handle the heat in this little kitchen, the heat that's going to come from Obama's Hell's kitchen is going to be a heck of a lot hotter.

Meanwhile, Gingrich is in Virginia "scrambling" (his words, not ours) to get on the ballot in that state and had his own sharp-knifed words to share with Romney.

"If he wants to test the heat, I'll meet him anywhere in Iowa next week one on one, 90 minutes, no moderator," Gingrich said yesterday. "Let's test this kitchen. I'm happy. I'll go in the kitchen. Go back and ask Gov. Romney, would he like to play in the kitchen?"

While the two contenders get ready for their cook-off, here's the fundamental issue to chew over as the clock ticks down to the first primary votes of 2012: Romney is running a campaign while Gingrich is running a mission.

Gingrich is a smart political pro. In fact, his pragmatism is what has caused him trouble among true ideologues (see, for example, his willingness to use earmarks to help save vulnerable colleagues).

Yet he's running a campaign that is more committed to pushing ideas and bucking conventional campaign rules than anything else. Maybe it'll work. Maybe it won't.

Either way, it's clear that Gingrich - as Frank Sinatra would say - is going to do things his way.

ABC's John Berman has more on yesterday's action on the campaign trail, including the pre-holiday emergence of three of the candidates' wives in television ads. WATCH:


NEWT SAYS HE'LL BE ON THE VIRGINIA BALLOT. Newt Gingrich said on Wednesday that his campaign has been "scrambling" to get his name on the ballot in Virginia and that he was prepared to "turn in vastly more signatures" than required by state law. The filing deadline to get a candidate's name on the Virginia ballot is today at 5 p.m. A candidate must submit 10,000 signatures of registered Virginia voters, including at least 400 from each of the state's 11 Congressional districts. Gingrich campaign aides said they have met all the necessary requirements to get their candidate's name on the ballot for the state's March 6 primary. "Once again, Virginia is going to disappoint the Republican establishment 'cause we're going to turn in vastly more signatures than they need," Gingrich said at a rally in Arlington. -ABC's Elicia Dover

HOUSE GOP FACES DWINDLING OPTIONS IN PAYROLL TAX FIGHT. "House Republicans have few options in the U.S. payroll tax cut fight as they face party pressure to accept the Senate's short-term reduction and Democrats dig in against immediate compromise on a longer extension," Bloomberg's Laura Litvan and James Rowley reports. "With the 2-percentage-point tax cut due to expire Dec. 31, President Barack Obama told House Speaker John Boehner yesterday the 'only option' is to allow a vote on the Senate's two-month extension to buy time for negotiations on a one-year tax cut. Senate Republicans, including John McCain of Arizona and Richard Lugar of Indiana, are calling on House Republicans to give up their insistence on a one-year extension now. …Take-home pay for 160 million Americans will decrease in January unless Congress approves some kind of extension of this year's cut in the payroll tax that funds Social Security. A worker earning $50,000 a year would see take-home pay drop by $1,000 over the year. For those paid biweekly, each paycheck would be $38.46 smaller."

JON KARL'S PREDICTION. ABC's Jonathan Karl, who has seen Capitol Hill standoffs come and go, looks into his crystal ball and sees House Republicans eventually caving in. "I base this on conversations with House Republicans who know they are losing the public relations battle and losing it badly. They know they are taking the blame for a stand-off that threatens to raise taxes on 160 million Americans. And they cannot let that happen. But this almost certainly goes until next week.  Here's what I heard from a key leadership aide: 'Our members expect us to spend some time explaining and defending what we did - even if we are playing from a disadvantageous position,' said the House Republican aide."


RON PAUL: OUCH. ABC's Jason Volack notes (per The Christian Science Monitor) that it's been a tough week for Ron Paul. It's not only his GOP rivals who are going after him, now it's also the conservative press. The Weekly Standard has a piece about the racist language contained in newsletters issued under Paul's name in the 1980s and 1990s. The blog RedState posted a piece titled, "Ron Paul Hates Republicans and Everything They Stand For." Written by contributing editor Leon Wolf, the piece focuses on Paul's refusal to endorse GOP presidential candidate John McCain in the 2008 election. And not to be outdone, the conservative National Review has been running a discussion on Paul on its blog, The Corner, titled, "The Fringe Frontrunner. Editor Rich Lowry notes that Paul "has never been able to distinguish between fringy cranks and above-board purists" and thus has at times associated himself with "loons and bigots."

@ HowardKurtz : Ron  Paul gets annoyed at  Gloria  Borger's questions about his past racist newsletters, blames "people like you"


OBAMA REFLECTS ON HIS FIRST TERM. "As his third year in the White House draws to a close, President Obama offered a candid assessment of his presidency in an exclusive interview with ABC News' Barbara Walters, accepting some responsibility for the gridlock in Washington while projecting a sense of optimism for his re-election and America's future," ABC's Devin Dwyer notes. "Taking stock three years on, Obama admits he's come up short on cultivating a spirit of bipartisan cooperation and unity of purpose and needs more time.  'That mindset doesn't exist in Washington right now, and I do take some responsibility for making sure that that spirit which I think the country longs for, that we can somehow get that in the Congress as well,' Obama said. 'But that seems to be a longer than one-term project.' 'Can you admit to any mistakes that you've made?' Walters asked. 'Oh, I think probably once a day, I look back and I say, you know, I could have done that a little bit better,' Obama said." Watch the full interview during a " 20/20 " holiday special on Friday, Dec. 23, 10 p.m. ET on ABC stations.

President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama Tackle 10 Personal Questions:



MITT ROMNEY'S CARBO-LOADED BUS TOUR. A dispatch from ABC's Emily Friedman, on the Mitt Express through the Granite State: The Mitt Romney campaign weaved through New Hampshire Wednesday on its first day of a three-day bus tour, keeping to a busy schedule that included stops at a breakfast joint, a pizza parlor, a steel cutting factory and a spaghetti dinner. … At Village Pizza in Newport, N.H., Romney ordered a small Hawaiian pizza - with olives - to go, for him and his wife, Ann, before serving more traditional pies to patrons who backed the booths during his drop by. The next stop was a speech at Hypertherm, a plasma cutting manufacturer in Hanover, N.H., where Romney tried his hand at the tools, carving his initials into a piece of steel. He turned for approval to his wife, who told him, "It's cute," to which Romney responded, "Cute is not what I was looking for. Impressive! Dynamic!"

RICK PERRY SUPER PAC GOES NEGATIVE ON NEWT. "Makes Us Great Again, the super PAC supporting Texas Gov. Rick Perry's presidential bid, went negative for the first time today, releasing a television ad in Iowa and South Carolina blasting Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney," ABC's Arlette Saenz reports. "Titled 'Newsreel,' the 30-second TV spot provides a tick-tock of some of the two candidates' most controversial stances from years past. 'Decades ago, Gingrich goes to Washington. Romney runs pro-choice campaign for Senate,' a voice says in an old newsreader's tone as black-and-white video of each candidates appears along a strip of film. 'Gingrich found guilty of ethics violations. Mitt creates Romneycare. Gingrich joins Pelosi in support of global warming, supports TARP and bailout. Collects big bucks from Freddie Mac.' … A source with knowledge of the ad buy said this advertisement will be the sole Make Us Great Again ad running in Iowa and South Carolina, and today the campaign's ad buy in Iowa increased by $175,000 in order to run this advertisement." WATCH:

PERRY'S BUS COMES TO A STOP (FOR NOW) Rick Perry is on his eighth and final day of the first leg of his Iowa bus tour, starting out with a breakfast meet and greet at a restaurnant in Burlington, Iowa followed by two other events. By the end of the day, he will have made 30 stops in 25 cities in his first eight days of the bus tour, according to ABC's Arlette Saenz. At The Button Factory in Muscatine Wednesday, Perry was introduced by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Perry was at ease with the crowd of 150 people, mixing in jokes into his serious stump speech.  Asked by a voter how often he prays, Perry admitted he often prays he won't make another gaffe which will end up on national TV.  "I prayed right before I walked over here that I wouldn't make any mistakes that my friends in the media would be able to put on television," Perry said as he stared down the back row of reporters at a campaign event here while the crowd laughed. "I pray a lot because I'm prone to make a lot of mistakes."

BEHIND THE NUMBERS: RNC BOASTS OF FUNDRAISING HAUL. "The Republican National Committee is boasting of its latest fundraising total, and Democrats aren't showing signs that they're scared. In a note to the press, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus touted his effort to pay off $11 million in debt while having $14.1 million in the bank," ABC's Matt Negrin notes. "The Democratic National Committee has $10.5 million in comparison, and the DNC raised $6.7 million in November while the RNC grabbed $7.1 million. That $6.7 million includes almost $3 million from a fundraising account run by the DNC and President Obama's campaign. But it doesn't reflect money raised in the parties' committees for congressional candidates. … But is measuring a party's financial strength by the amount of money its committees have still relevant? So-called super PACs have changed the game, said Meredith McGehee, the policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that focuses on campaign finance disclosures and ethics. 'The party committees still raise and want the money so they can control it, but like candidates, the rise of outside money fueled by corporate funds threatens to make them bit players in their own campaigns,' she said."

FOR DEMOCRATS, TROUBLE IN PARADISE. "Hawaii should be a happy outpost for the Democratic Party. It has a Democratic governor. Democrats overwhelmingly control the Legislature. It has Barack Obama in the White House and all the prestige that brings, most recently an Asia-Pacific economic summit meeting with the president as its host, packing this city's streets, restaurants and hotels with international leaders. Yet these are hardly happy days for Hawaii Democrats," The New York Times' Adam Nagourney reports under a Honolulu dateline. "The governor, Neil Abercrombie, is ending his first year under a storm of criticism; he referred to himself the other evening as 'the most unpopular governor in America.' Mr. Obama's struggles in Washington have cast a bit of a pall here. And the Republican Party suddenly has a shot of picking up a United States Senate seat that has been in Democratic hands for more than 30 years, with the announcement by Linda Lingle, a Republican former governor, that she will seek the seat held by Senator Daniel K. Akaka, the retiring Democrat. A Republican victory here would be a serious embarrassment to Mr. Obama (though that could be the least of his problems on election night) and would make it that much more likely that Republicans take back the Senate."

KANSAS: A TEA PARTY PROVING GROUND. "If you want to know what a Tea Party America might look like, there is no place like Kansas," writes the Washington Post's Annie Gowen. "In the past year, three state agencies have been abolished and 2,050 jobs have been cut. Funding for schools, social services and the arts have been slashed. The new Republican governor rejected a $31.5 million federal grant for a new health-insurance exchange because he opposes President Obama's health-care law. And that's just the small stuff. A new 'Office of the Repealer' has been created to reduce the number of laws and regulations, and the Repealer is canvassing the state for more cut suggestions. In the upcoming legislative session, Gov. Sam Brownback (R) plans to roll out proposals to change the way schools are funded, taxes are levied and state pensions are administered. … 'It's a revolution in a cornfield,' said Arthur Laffer, the 71-year-old architect of supply-side economic theory and former economic adviser for President Ronald Reagan who is now working with the governor. 'Brownback and his whole group there, it's an amazing thing they're doing. Truly revolutionary.'"

NOTABLE: " How Democrats Fooled California's Redistricting Commission," by Pro Publica's Olga Pierce and Jeff Larson. "As part of a national look at redistricting, ProPublica reconstructed the Democrats' stealth success in California, drawing on internal memos, emails, interviews with participants and map analysis. What emerges is a portrait of skilled political professionals armed with modern mapping software and detailed voter information who managed to replicate the results of the smoked-filled rooms of old."

VIDEO OF THE DAY: NEWT AMBUSHED BY PROTESTERS. Protesters ambushed  Newt Gingrich in the middle of the former Speaker's speech yesterday in Iowa  in an attempt to have their message about big corporations heard. As Gingrich stepped up the mic to speak, one man leapt from his chair toward Gingrich, and was able to get very close to Gingrich before the protestor was pushed toward the wall by Gingrich's security team, knocking over the American flag behind them. He was escorted out with force immediately. "Mic check! We're taking over this press conference!" ACB's Elicia Dover captured the incident. WATCH:


@ benpolitico : Rand Paul cuts an ad for dad. No evident worry about his own brand

@ mboyle1 : . @RNC chair  @ReincePriebus: If Obama doesn't fire Eric Holder,  #FastandFurious will be major 2012 election theme:

@ BenLeubsdorf : Huntsman this week talked North Korea, big banks, tax reform and his chances in NH with Monitor editors  #FITN

@ ByronYork : ICYMI: Romney changes stance on Iraq invasion.

@ nytjim : Very bad day in Baghdad; 63 killed in series of blasts. Follow @JackHealyNYT's feed for details.

NOTED: The Note is taking a brief holiday hiatus. We will return on Tuesday Dec. 27 from Des Moines, Iowa - exactly one week before the Iowa caucuses. See you then.



-Mitt Romney will continue on the second day of his bus tour through New Hampshire with stops in Bethlehem, Lancaster, Berlin and North Conway and even more drop-bys in between.

-Newt Gingrich will be in Richmond, Va. today, where he will attend a breakfast with supporters in the morning and "Virginians with Newt" rally. He will also hit the airwaves with interviews on several national and local radio programs, including Bill Bennett's show.

-Ron Paul will hold town halls meetings throughout Iowa, with stops in Maquoketa, Dubuque, Manchester and Cedar Rapids.

-Rick Perry will take his bus tour through Burlington, Ottumwa, and Newton, IA.

-Michele Bachmann continues her bus tour through Iowa's 99 counties with stops scheduled in Anamosa, Vinton, Tama, Brooklyn, Marengo, Iowa City, Sigourney, Oskaloosa, Albia and Ottumwa.

-ABC's Joanna Suarez


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