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Blog Home Page --> November 2007

Hostage Crisis At Clinton HQ

VIENNA, VIRGINIA -- Two campaign workers are being held hostage at Sen. Hillary Clinton's Rochester, New Hampshire campaign headquarters by a man with a bomb strapped to his chest, WMUR TV reports. The office is surrounded by police, who are negotiating with a suspect.

Clinton, in the Washington area to address the Democratic National Committee's winter meetings, has canceled her speech. Barack Obama's campaign also has an office in Rochester. It too has been evacuated, WMUR said.

Dems Seeing Iraq Progress

What if the big issue Democrats are counting on to bring them a bigger majority in 2008 isn't there? It's becoming a very real concern, as more members of the new majority are returning from Iraq with the opinion that something might just be working.

We reported this morning on Rep. John Murtha's comments, a sentiment that is sure to cause Speaker Nancy Pelosi some heartburn. Murtha's office released a clarification this morning, arguing that the surce "has created a window of opportunity for the Iraqi Government." But such a prominent war opponent saying positive things is going to lead a few papers tomorrow.

Murtha is not alone; several months ago, Rep. Brian Baird, a Washington State Democrat, came to the same conclusion. Baird headed home to his district, which stretches from Olympia to the Oregon border, to face angry crowds at town hall meetings, and he heard calls for his head from the liberal blogosphere.

Baird's neighbor, Rep. Norm Dicks, agrees with him, according to an interview with the Seattle Times. Dicks is also vice chair of Murtha's Defense Appropriations subcommittee.

Democrats are aware that shifting opinions could hurt their chances next year. In fact, some say the issue is fading from voters' minds, as the Politico writes today. The voting public still trusts Democrats on most issues much more than they do Republicans. But without Iraq as a top issue, and without homogeny of opinion on ending the war, Democrats are losing what might have been an issue potent enough to take back a dozen or more seats.

Read This

Looking for the perfect holiday gift for the political junkie in your life? Look no farther than the Almanac of American Politics, an 1800-page compendium of the national political landscape.

The editor, Charlie Mahtesian, is something of a mentor to Politics Nation, and because he just put together such a comprehensive look at the national political landscape, he knows more about every race around the country than virtually anyone out there.

Check out our extended sit-down interview with Mahtesian, in which he points to some of the freshman members of Congress who have the potential to lead their parties (Reps. Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, and Kathy Castor, D-FL), the hottest races to watch next year (Kansas' Nancy Boyda fighting for re-election, Washington and Missouri governors' races and some Senate Republicans who could be in trouble) and the lessons learned from 2006.

Morning Thoughts: Joe. Drip. Mud. Java.

Happy Friday morning. Here's what Washington is watching today:

-- The House is off until Tuesday, but the Senate is enjoying its last vacation day before coming back on Monday. The DNC meets in Vienna to hear from the presidential contenders today, and President Bush participates in World AIDS Day events in Mount Airy, Maryland.

-- Righty blogs are going insane over this week's CNN/YouTube debate, but they're about to go ape over another story: Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, whose transformation into a dove on the war merited massive news coverage and cult status among the liberal netroots, is just back from Iraq. Watch out, netroots: Murtha thinks there's progress in Iraq. "I think the surge is working," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The government remains dysfunctional, Murtha said, but he is encouraged by successes in Anbar province. Sit back and wait for conservative bloggers to jump all over this one.

-- Setting the media's tongues a-waggin', Barack Obama has already sat down with New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg over a cup of coffee this morning, Marc Ambinder reports. Hillary Clinton can't pick Bloomberg as a vice presidential nominee, given that the two are from the same state, but Mr. Obama of Illinois certainly can. Is Bloomberg's flirtation with everything presidential just ego or is it really some form of interest in a race? We doubt even Bloomberg aides know.

-- Obama's campaign is treading carefully around a PAC donation story that exploded this week, threatening to tarnish the candidate's goody two-shoes image on campaign finance reform. Now, John Solomon reports, Obama strategist Steve Hildebrand was consulted about donations the PAC was to make to politicians in early states, according to attorney Bob Bauer, who represents both the campaign and the PAC. Hildebrand worked for the PAC last year and is now Obama's deputy campaign manager. The mini-scandal isn't Watergate, but when a candidate sets him or herself up as above reproach, any reproach brings them back to earth hard and fast.

-- On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani is undergoing some of the same scrutiny Obama faces. After a report from Politico's Ben Smith highlighting police bills paid by obscure New York agencies in order to protect Giuliani, the candidate has gone out of his way to push back. Giuliani called the report a "political hit job," though Politico chief John Harris points out the candidate has not disputed any major part of the story. The mayor's aides blamed faceless bureaucrats for any improper billing, Smith reports today, but why have the candidate himself get so worked up? Sensitivity to attack breeds suspicion. Oh, and the New York Times hits Rudy for flubbing statistics, a charge Mitt Romney and Democrats have made repeatedly.

-- Morning coverage of coffee with Obama and Bloomberg is bordering on obsessive on MSNBC, but the man of the moment is still Mike Huckabee (actually, this is his second or third moment by now, isn't it?). Huckabee heads to New Hampshire today to play guitar with a school band and work some of the magic he's used in Iowa. John DiStaso's headline says it all: "Iowa's 'hot ticket' headed here." How rare is it for New Hampshire voters to actually be excited to see a presidential candidate? Then again, maybe they just fear Chuck Norris. In all seriousness, few think Huckabee can do well anywhere beyond Iowa. If he catches fire in the Granite State, his stock could rise very quickly.

-- No one likes Mitt Romney. We're not talking about voters, plenty of them like him. But other candidates aim their shots at Romney all the time, and even the Log Cabin Republicans are going after him. The group has ads on television hitting Romney, and in the run-up to New Hampshire, where Romney still has a big lead, they're on radio, NBC/NJ's Erin McPike reports. Why go after someone who's not terribly vitriolic about gays? LCR thinks Romney's conversion to an anti-gay rights position does their cause more harm than nominating someone who's always been anti-gay. Romney picked up a big endorsement yesterday, winning over David Keene of the American Conservative Union, but his enemies are by no means staying silent.

-- Head-Scratcher Of The Day: The NRCC is spending a reasonable amount of money to defend open seats in Ohio and Virginia, both of which are up in special elections. The race to replace the late Rep. Paul Gillmor, in Ohio, is taking place in a district that voted for President Bush by 21 points, and the NRCC has cut an ad and funded a poll, to the tune of about $11,000. In Virginia's First District, the NRCC has spent about $39,000 to hold the seat of the late Rep. Jo Ann Davis. The committee is seriously in the hole financially, and Democrats aren't making a huge play for either seat. So why spend the money? Do Republicans worry about a closer than expected contest that only fans the "GOP dead in the water" stories?

-- Today On The Trail: Mitt Romney holds meetings in Cedar Rapids and Dubuque while Rudy GIuliani campaigns in Okatie, South Carolina and Boca Raton. Mike Huckabee gives a speech in Concord then plays guitar with the Tilton school rock band before meeting voters in Bow. Tom Tancredo is in New Hampshire, while Duncan Hunter is in South Carolina, and Fred Thompson, along with wife Jeri, will appear on Larry King Live. John McCain campaigns in North Myrtle Beach and Seabrook, South Carolina.

-- On the Democratic side, six candidates are in Vienna for the DNC meeting, while Obama gets his photo op with Bloomberg. Edwards and Chris Dodd attend the first annual Culver-Judge holiday party in West Des Moines tonight.

Dems Heed Cattle Calls

Most Democratic candidates are going where others tell them to for the next two days in some of the final cattle call candidate events of the year. The Democratic National Committee, meeting in Vienna, Virginia for the final time before their August convention, will hear from six of their candidates tomorrow.

On Saturday, candidates head to Des Moines for the Heartland Presidential Forum, held by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and other local groups. Organizers expect up to 5,000 attendees at the HyVee Hall in downtown Des Moines for the event.

Candidates are unlikely to make significant news at the events, but previous years' DNC meetings have helped, and any chance a candidate gets to address 5,000 Iowans is a huge opportunity. Plus, in Vienna, Democrats will have a chance to say hello to an important part of their 2008 strategy: One session is being keynoted by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who will host the August convention and who Democrats hope can deliver his increasingly purple state to their party.

While candidates are out in Iowa, a DNC panel is expected to formally strip Michigan of its convention delegates when they meet early Saturday morning. Politics Nation, which is completely obsessed with the calendar crisis, will be there both days to bring you the news as it happens, even as it means waking up for an 8:30 meeting on a Saturday.

Two Big Recruits For GOP

It's a rare day when Republicans get good news. Today, though, they scored big, as campaign committees on both sides of the Hill recruited strong candidates for next year.

In Louisiana, state Treasurer John Kennedy announced he will challenge incumbent Mary Landrieu for her Senate seat next year and released an initial benchmark poll showing him well ahead. Kennedy, a former Democrat, had been heavily wooed by NRSC chief John Ensign and former White House political guru Karl Rove, and with the results of the poll, it's no wonder he got in.

Conducted early last month, from 10/10-14, the survey contacted 1001 Louisianans for a margin of error of +/- 3.2 points. Zogby International made the calls on behalf of Kennedy's campaign.

General Election Matchup
Kennedy 45
Landrieu 38

Landrieu was forced into a run-off during her initial re-election bid five years ago, and many believe that Hurricane Katrina, which chased hundreds of thousands of residents from the state, dramatically reduced New Orleans' African American population. Landrieu's father was the popular mayor of New Orleans, and she has relied on the city as a base from which to launch her successful statewide campaigns. The loss of thousands of black voters hurts Landrieu's re-election chances.

Whether she can overcome a well-financed challenger depends heavily on Landrieu's ability to expand her base beyond traditional Democratic strongholds in the cities. Louisianans vote Democratic for state legislative seats in more rural areas, but those areas have not favored federal Democrats in the same proportion.

Senate Republicans did not win a single Democratic seat in 2006, and 2008 doesn't look much better. Louisiana presents them with a very rare opportunity, and it is likely that the party will do everything in its power to help Kennedy go after Landrieu. The NRSC lags sorely behind its Democratic counterpart in fundraising, but one has to expect a significant investment in Louisiana.

In other good recruiting news for the GOP, when House Republicans unexpectedly lost Rep. Mike Ferguson to retirement this month, the party scrambled to find a suitable replacement, and quickly. Ferguson's 2006 opponent, Assemblywoman Linda Stender, is raising money quickly, and after her closer-than-expected finish last year, Republicans needed to act quickly to find a replacement who could take her on.

The obvious choice: State Senator Tom Kean Jr., who last year lost a bid for Senate but maintained the financial ties and good will among the GOP base to mount a strong bid. In fact, his candidacy would likely have been greeted with front-runner status. Kean, though, was just elected Senate Republican Whip, and as quickly as his name was floated, he announced he wouldn't run. The candidate Kean said he would back also pulled out, leaving the GOP temporarily in the lurch.

Now, the party has recruited State Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance, whose Senate district covers part of the 7th Congressional. But Lance's path to the nomination isn't clear, and in a state with two prominent Republican dynasties, the other candidate hopes to trade on her family's good name to create a third. Kean's father served as governor before his son got into politics.

The next GOP governor, Christine Todd Whitman, apparently also passed on the political gene. Her daughter, businesswoman Kate Whitman, announced today that she will run against Lance for the right to face Stender in November. The younger Whitman gets a big boost with former RNC finance chief Lew Eisenberg on her finance committee, and though both Lance and Whitman would make good candidates, the GOP is clearly more excited about Whitman.

Gichrest Faces Primary Fight

The scenic Eastern shore of Maryland has faced some of the biggest environmental challenges in the country, as centuries of pollution has flowed through the Chesapeake Bay. It is little wonder, then, that the congressman representing the district is one of the biggest environmentalists in Congress. It is somewhat more surprising that the congressman, Wayne Gilchrest, is a Republican.

First elected in 1990, Gilchrest represents a heavily Republican district that voted solidly for President Bush in 2000 and 2004. But Gilchrest is no traditional Republican; along with his environmental streak (he co-chairs the Congressional Climate Change Caucus), he is pro-choice and has backed campaign finance reform efforts. A member of the Republican Main Street Partnership and other moderate groups, Gilchrest has made a habit of trying to drag his party back to the middle.

That moderate record hasn't sat well with some in Gilchrest's district, and this year two strong candidates are trying to give the incumbent the boot. State Senators Andy Harris and E.J. Pipkin are both running, and, with the involvement of the Club for Growth on Harris' behalf and Pipkin's personal fortune, both will give Gilchrest a run for his money.

Pipkin, who joined the race this week, jumps into what has already become a nasty race. Both candidates have run negative ads already, with Gilchrest dumping about $200,000 into ads in the last half of November alone. Outside groups are playing a big role in the race as well: The Club has run ads backing Harris, while the League of Conservation Voters ran ads backing Gilchrest.

It is likely Pipkin, who was last heard from challenging Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski in 2004, will contribute heavily to his own race. He donated more than $1.6 million to his own campaign in that race, and because this year's primary takes place February 12, it is likely he will need to dip into his own bank account again for this year's race.

FEC filings show Gilchrest should already be worried about his financial condition. At the end of the third quarter, Gilchrest had raised $174,000 and had about $414,000 cash on hand. Harris had raked in an impressive $531,000 and retained around $400,000 in the bank.

Institutional Republican support has mostly flowed to Harris this year. The NRCC doesn't get involved in primaries, but chairman Tom Cole barely defended his incumbent in a meeting with reporters last month. Many local elected officials are backing Harris, including former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, who held an October fundraiser for the challenger.

Gilchrest has survived other well-funded primary challenges. But Harris' impressive fundraising and Pipkin's entry are probably keeping Gilchrest's campaign team up at night. On the other hand, the district's voters know Gilchrest, and with both Pipkin and Harris in the race, Harris backers worry the anti-Gilchrest vote will be split. Getting another challenger could be the best thing that happens to Gilchrest all year.

Take That, RNC

Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan is not a popular guy in New Hampshire. Duncan backed national party rules that stripped the traditional first-in-the-nation primary state of half its delegates to the national convention for holding a delegate-allocating nominating contest before the approved February 5 window, meaning the state's delegation should be cut from 24 to 12.

But the eventual Republican nominee will have some say in the matter. Nominees will help states pick members of various committees at the conventions, and in order to keep New Hampshire or any other state on their side, it's likely the eventual candidate will help all five states Republicans sanctioned get their full delegate slates back.

Incriminating evidence that candidates plan to overturn the national party's decision: Republican presidential candidates filed their delegate slates with New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner this week, and each one submitted 21 delegates and alternates. The Mitt Romney campaign went farther, filing 24 of each (other campaigns perhaps recalled that three delegate slots will be reserved for party chairman Fergus Cullen and the state's two RNC members, John DiStaso points out). Cullen even says some candidates have told him they'll seat the full delegation.

Another example of both national parties' impotence when trying to control the primary calendar.

Hyde Dead At 83

Former Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde has died at the age of 83, House Minority Leader John Boehner's office has reported. Hyde spent 32 years in Congress, rising to serve as chair of the House Judiciary and International Relations Committees before retiring last year. For his service, President Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier this month.

A conservative who represented the western suburbs of Chicago, Hyde's career included creating the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the so-called Hyde Amendment, which limited federal funding for abortions. Never a lock-step Republican, he opposed the war in Iraq long before it turned unpopular, and he was an original sponsor of the Brady Bill and other gun control measures.

In his role as Judiciary chairman, Hyde was one of 13 impeachment managers who went before the Senate to argue for a conviction. Of those 13, just four are still in the House -- Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, Steve Buyer, Steve Chabot and Chris Cannon. Sen. Lindsey Graham also served as a manager.

Young Down In Dem Poll

Congressman Don Young, the long-time sole representative from the Last Frontier, finds himself in some hot water, a new poll shows. Young has been connected to a scandal surrounding VECO Corp., which has led to prosecutions of several state legislators and an FBI raid of Sen. Ted Stevens' Alaska home.

The poll, conducted by Democratic firm Craciun Research Group for 2006 candidate Diane Benson, was conducted 10/27-11/2 among 601 registered voters. The margin of error Benson, Young and former House Democratic Leader Ethan Berkowitz, as well as State Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, a Republican who is thinking of challenging Young in a primary.

The Democratic primary sample tested Benson, Berkowitz and former Alaska Democratic Party Chair Jake Metcalf. 292 voters who plan to participate in the Democratic primary were surveyed, for a margin of error of approximately +/- 5.7%.

Primary Election Matchup
Berkowitz 29
Benson 21
Metcalf 8

General Election Matchups
Berkowitz 50
Young 35

Benson 45
Young 37

Berkowitz 49
LeDoux 14

Benson 45
LeDoux 12

The incumbent faces a huge uphill battle, but Republicans don't have to despair yet. The status of the race seems familiar; early polls in 2006 showed former Gov. Tony Knowles handily defeating then-Gov. Frank Murkowski. But Knowles lost his comeback bid primarily because Murkowski wasn't his opponent. The scandal-plagued incumbent finished third in his own primary to Sarah Palin, who beat Knowles in November.

If Young is the nominee, Alaska Democrats have a real shot to take back the seat. If another Republican takes his place, the GOP is likely to have a better chance at holding on.

Something to consider as Young and Stevens face re-election next year: After Palin, a decided outsider, knocked off good ol' boy Murkowski, are Alaska voters ready for change regardless of party? The state is still heavily Republican, and the two remaining incumbents could face tough battles in their own primaries.

Murkowski's big problem was nepotism, a charge he endured after appointing his daughter to his old Senate seat. If Alaska Republicans wouldn't stand for that, will they really allow Young and Stevens, tainted by a corruption investigation, to continue as their nominees?

Morning Thoughts: Security!

Good Thursday morning. Is Tony Romo the new Brett Favre? At 10-1, there's no reason for a new Favre; the old one works just fine. Check out Real Clear Sports for a rundown on tonight's Packers-Cowboys affair. Here in Washington, the top stories people are watching:

-- The Senate holds a pro forma session at 9:30 a.m., while the House is still on Thanksgiving break. President Bush today meets with President Elias Antonio Saca Gonzalez of El Salvador, then heads to the Pentagon to discuss long-term strategy with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Deputy Gordon England, as well as Joint Chiefs chair Admiral Mike Mullen.

-- At last night's CNN/YouTube debate, virtually every pundit agrees Mike Huckabee came out ahead, as usual. It was Huckabee's first performance as a top-tier candidate, and, says Chuck Todd, instead of opening with a snappy one-liner, he came out of the gate sounding presidential. Unfortunately for him, the last Republican debate before the caucuses is December 12, giving Iowa voters a long time to be hammered with paid Romney ads that Huckabee just can't afford. But with debate performances that get tongues wagging like last night's, it's no wonder Huckabee's gaining steam.

-- A post-debate survey conducted by InsiderAdvantage, an experienced Southern polling firm, found Huckabee won among both Florida and Iowa Republicans. Surveying 341 undecided Floridians who had watched the debate immediately after its conclusion, the poll found 44% though Huckabee won. The others, in order: Giuliani, 18%. Romney, 13%. McCain, 10%. Thompson, 5%. Paul, 4%. One thing every pundit agrees on: It's time for Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter to vacate the stage. They each scored a paltry 1%.

-- The big loser last night: CNN, which allowed a question from a backer of Hillary Clinton. Righty bloggers were all over the network after a debate where the format practically begs for someone to dig deeper. Weekly Standard hit CNN hard, as well as the rest of the media for awarding the night to Huckabee, the "easy listening" candidate. Aside from the Clinton backer, though, others who saw their questions asked are also supporting other candidates. Michelle Malkin has evidence of an Edwards supporter and an Obama supporter who slipped through the screens.

-- In non-debate news, Rudy Giuliani spent tens of thousands of New York City taxpayer money on security during trips to the Hamptons with now-wife Judith Nathan, Politico's Ben Smith reports. The Mayor probably didn't bill little-known agencies to hide the expenses himself, but someone in his administration likely did, which might cause problems for Hizzoner. Is the issue going to stick around and combine with Bernie Kerik stories to give early state voters an image of Giuliani they don't like? Giuliani frequently reminds voters, even in his own television ads, that he's not perfect, but what if they start deducing that on their own? Giuliani advisor Tony Carbonetti told the Washington Post that he would investigate the charges.

-- The story brings up another point: Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama all have fairly tight security. The two Democrats are protected by the Secret Service even before they earn their party's nomination. The two Republicans have different arrangements. Yes, better safe than sorry, but at what point does an early state voter's access to candidates -- or lack thereof -- play into a decision to caucus or vote for the more accessible John Edwards or John McCain? McCain himself has eschewed security, saying he will refuse Secret Service protection as the GOP nominee.

-- They may need protection, but from each other. Fred Thompson launched the season's first negative ad last night, using past clips of Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee to blast his rivals on abortion and taxes, respectively, as CNN's Mark Preston reports. The attacks were nothing Thompson hasn't said already, but putting those shots in an ad is a first for the GOP contest. Does the ad open the floodgates or set Thompson on course for nothing more than a negative campaign?

-- Speaking of attack ads, what happens when Democrats have to go after each other? The truth is, if Clinton and Obama have to go after each other, they're going to need some practice. Neither has come from behind to win a single campaign: Clinton won by wide margins in both her Senate races. After two wealthy opponents dropped out, Obama practically waltzed into his Senate seat. Obama even lost the one race in which he trailed, a primary bid against Rep. Bobby Rush. For each, running as the underdog is something new. But launching a few broadsides now and then, and defending against them, is good practice for what they'll face from a Republican.

-- Power Player Of The Day: Clinton heads to Lake Forest, California today to address an HIV/AIDS conference at the Saddleback Church, one of the country's largest mega-churches (an anniversary celebration required renting out the LA Angels' stadium so everyone could fit in at once). The church, headed by Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, has played a role in the race before: It was at the same conference a year ago that Barack Obama told Sam Brownback that "this is my house, too." If Democrats are to win any religious support in 2008, watch for it to come from Warren, who has made subtle overtures to the other side of the aisle. He's drawing fire for including Democrats from his fellow evangelicals, but he doesn't seem like the type to back down.

-- Today On The Trail: John McCain holds a press conference in St. Petersburg, while Fred Thompson holds one in Phoenix. Tom Tancredo is off to a house party in Merrimack while Duncan Hunter campaigns throughout South Carolina. On the Democratic side, Clinton speaks at the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. John Edwards addresses the Iowa State Association of Counties in Des Moines, then heads to Iowa City to talk foreign policy. Barack Obama hits the Apollo Theater, Bill Richardson holds an event in New York and Joe Biden meets residents in Concord and Hampton, then speaks on Iraq in Portsmouth.

Watch The Economy

The Dow Jones Industrial Average today closed up more than 330 points. But the big news after the bell was that both the Dow and the S&P 500 put together back-to-back winning days for the first time this month -- 19 trading days into the month.

The economy, in short, is in bad shape. The markets are officially undergoing a correction, when shares fall more than 10%, for the first time since 2003. Oil prices hovered just under $100 a barrel earlier in the week, closing nearer to $90 a barrel in today's trading. And new numbers out from the Washington Post and ABC News show consumer attitudes are at a two-year low.

The latest WaPo/ABC Consumer Comfort Index sits at -21, the lowest point since October 2005. Asked to rate the state of the economy, two-thirds choose negative, and about the same percentage say it's a bad time to make purchases. That's terrible news for businesses heading into what is supposed to be the most expensive Christmas season ever.

The Federal Reserve meets December 11, and speculation on Wall Street is that another rate cut is in the offing. That's good for short-term gains, but will presidential candidates or Congress address the economy? How can they? Voters always say they consider economic issues; a recent Post/ABC poll showed more voters said the economy was one of their top two most important issues than any aside from the war in Iraq.

As consumers grow more pessimistic seemingly by the day, increasing urgency could make it a bigger issue than normal this year.

Oh, To Be In St. Pete

One of the highlights of this reporter's life was running into The Rock at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Fortunately, the running into wasn't literal -- that would have qualified as a lowlight, one would assume. We only wish we had seen this next opportunity coming. If so, we would have been on the first flight to St. Petersburg for tonight's Republican debate.

That's right, none other than Chuck Norris will be in the spin room, stumping for his buddy Mike Huckabee. Politics Nation has never been a huge wrestling or martial arts fan (Full disclosure: Never seen a single "Walker, Texas Ranger" episode), but we would have loved the opportunity to ask some inane question on tax policy or voter outreach in Iowa, eliciting what would surely be a swift kick to the head.

On second thought, after we purchase a few Mitt Romney answering machine messages (see "Holiday Gift Of The Day" item in yesterday's Morning Thoughts) we'll just surf on over to Store.BarackObama.com, where you can now score Obama gear at 10% off for the holidays. Summer items are 25% off!

Which leads to the essential question: Campaign stores have departments now? What happened to giving away shirts in exchange for the free publicity? And did they have any door-busters on Black Friday? We can only imagine freezing Iowans huddled together for warmth outside someone's campaign office waiting for it to open at 5 a.m.

Undecideds Win Big In SC Poll

South Carolinians, it seems, just can't make up their minds. A new poll out of Clemson University shows nearly half the Democratic electorate and a sizable portion of the GOP electorate remains undecided little more than a month and a half before they head to the polls. "As the election itself draws closer, voters are taking their responsibilities more seriously, and respondents are less likely to make a casual selection when queried about who they are likely to support in the January vote," Clemson professors David Woodard and Bruce Ransom write.

The survey, conducted 11/14-27 with four days off for Thanksgiving and included 450 people from both parties, for a margin of error of +/- 4.62%.

Republicans
Romney 17 (+6 from last poll, 8/07)
Thompson 15 (-4)
Huckabee 13 (+7)
McCain 11 (-4)
Giuliani 9 (-9)
Paul 6 (+5)
Undecided 28 (+8)

Romney leads the latest RCP South Carolina Average by 4 points, edging out Giuliani.

Democrats
Clinton 19 (-7)
Obama 17 (+1)
Edwards 12 (+2)
Undecided 49 (+14)

Clinton still leads the latest RCP South Carolina Average by a wide margin, beating Obama by 12 points, though recent polls do show the race narrowing.

How to analyze this poll? Undecided voters break late, but half the Democratic electorate and a quarter of the GOP side makes us wonder how hard respondents were pushed to choose a candidate. Still, that may be telling: If Hillary Clinton has a big lead but only when leaners are included, that's great news for Obama, Edwards and others.

On the GOP side, those whisper campaigns against Giuliani may be working, but Romney's lead -- and impressive improvement -- suggests a state where many thought he would meet his demise may end up helping him after all. A win in South Carolina for the Mormon candidate, and suddenly the South is open to someone other than Fred Thompson. Interesting, too, to note that Romney's and Huckabee's rises come at the expense of three more established candidates Thompson, Giuliani and McCain.

But don't take this poll to the bank just yet. We'll wait for the next one to see if Romney still leads, and if Giuliani's fall is that dramatic.

Nothing's Easy For NM GOP

There were few bright spots for Republicans in 2006, but Heather Wilson was perhaps the biggest. The five-term incumbent survived a challenge from New Mexico's Attorney General by a narrow 875-vote margin, keeping a moderate Albuquerque-based district in GOP hands.

This year, Wilson is vacating her seat to run for the Senate seat currently held by retiring Sen. Pete Domenici. The race to replace her in the House is not one the GOP wants to fight: John Kerry and Al Gore both won the district, by 9,000 and 3,000 votes, respectively. Nearly half the district is made up of Hispanic voters, who of late have been trending toward the Democratic Party at a much faster clip.

But the NRCC got good news when Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White jumped into the race. The popular Republican, elected in a Democratic county, quickly released a poll showing him leading both Patricia Madrid, the ex-AG who lost to Wilson in '06, and Albuquerque City Councilmember Martin Heinrich by double digits.

Nothing, though, goes completely right for the GOP this year. The Associated Press reported yesterday that New Mexico State Sen. Joe Carraro plans to join the race for the seat, taking on White in a GOP primary. Carraro's Senate district covers parts of western Bernallilo County, on the western edge of the Congressional district's boundaries. Carraro established an exploratory committee earlier this month, and while some had speculated that he might drop his campaign to run for re-election instead, he insists he's running for Wilson's seat.

Carraro told New Mexico political analyst Joe Monahan that he sees the Iraq war and immigration as two top issues. The senator will have to earn 20% of the vote at a pre-primary convention in March in order to qualify for the ballot and give White real problems. But Carraro apparently doesn't plan on following Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment. He told New Mexico political watcher Heath Haussamen that, while White has the state GOP behind him, Carraro hopes business interests will join his campaign "to make sure that we have someone running for Congress that knows what they're doing -- no disrespect."

Still, Monahan considers White the front-runner. National Republicans have no plans to get involved, according to NRCC spokesman Ken Spain. "The NRCC does not pre-primary endorse. We trust local Republicans to decide on who they think would make the best nominee in the general election," he told Politics Nation. "With that being said, we are confident the seat will remain in Republican hands."

Democrats face a contested primary as well, as Heinrich will face off with former state Health Commissioner Michelle Lujan Grisham and Bryon Paez, a lobbyist and former state cabinet affairs director. Lujan Grisham and White are generating the most excitement among their parties, and a face off between the two would be a close contest.

Domenici's retirement not only attracted Wilson as a candidate, but won over Reps. Steve Pearce and Tom Udall as well. Udall's seat is likely to stay safely in Democratic hands, but Republican Pearce's southern Second District will be a target for Democrats. So far, three well-known Democrats have announced their intentions to run for the seat, as has wealthy businessman and rancher Ed Tinsley, a Republican who ran against Pearce in 2002. Several Republican state legislators are considering their own campaigns, but none has stepped forward yet. Stay tuned for more on that race.

How's This For Confidence

Facing perhaps the most difficult challenge of any incumbent governor in 2008, Missouri's Matt Blunt has had a rough couple of days. After running up a huge fundraising lead on his likely opponent, Attorney General Jay Nixon, Blunt is agreeing to return about three quarters of his $6 million haul thanks to a state Ethics Commission ruling, severely reducing his financial edge.

The state legislature repealed donation limits set in 1994, sparking a fundraising battle that saw hundreds of thousands of dollars pour into both candidates' coffers in single contributions. But the state's Supreme Court overturned the law in mid-July, ruling that the manner in which the state Senate had acted was unconstitutional.

After fighting the decision for months, Blunt and Nixon agreed earlier this week to refund excess contributions. The upshot: Blunt's money advantage will shrink from about $3.3 million to about $130,000. Nixon will refund $1.3 million -- a significant chunk, but nowhere close to the nearly $4.5 million Blunt will give back.

The young governor, son of House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, skyrocketed to national attention in 2004 when he beat now-Sen. Claire McCaskill for the governorship when he was just 33 years old. Last year he was elected vice chair of the Republican Governor's Association, a top post that gave him access to national donors and an excuse to travel around the country, beginning what many believed would be an exciting political career.

This year, though, Blunt will become the first person in RGA history to run for re-election as vice chair instead of ascending to the chairman's post, the Kansas City Star reports today. Blunt will forgo a bid to chair the group after Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue steps down in order, a spokesman said, to focus more on Missouri and his own re-election contest.

An RGA spokesman told the paper Blunt would have won the support of Perdue should he have decided to run. The news meant a Missouri Democratic spokesman could give the zinger of the day: "Missouri voters lost confidence in Matt Blunt's ability to lead years ago. It looks like his fellow Republican governors are just getting around to that same idea," said party flack Jack Cardetti.

GOP governors meeting this week in California are now expected to select Texas Gov. Rick Perry as their chief headed into the 2008 elections. And, judging from recent poll numbers, Blunt will be one of Perry's top priorities. A poll conducted in mid-November for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shows Nixon leading Blunt by 9 points among all voters and by an astonishing 27 points among independents.

Huckabee's Ball And Chain

Every state has their political junkies. While they would be top political journalists in Washington, these journalists decide instead to be the best in their home states, putting them closer to candidates who might eventually contend for a top spot on a national ticket down the road. When that happens, the local journalists get their chance in the limelight.

Dallas Morning News scribe Wayne Slater got his chance in 2000, with George Bush, as did practically the entire staff of Texas Monthly magazine. Adam Nagourney knows Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani well. And it's anyone's guess why a Massachusetts politician would run for president: Reporters at the Boston Globe and Boston Herald seemingly make their entire living tracking down every last detail about Mitt Romney and John Kerry.

Early states have their top politicos as well: In Iowa, institutional memory comes from the Des Moines Register's David Yepsen and the Associated Press' Mike Glover. In New Hampshire, John DiStaso, of the Union Leader, and the Nashua Telegraph's Kevin Landrigan are top dogs. South Carolina has Lee Bandy, and Nevada has Jon Ralston.

In Arkansas, the top political columnist is John Brummett, a long-time columnist with the Arkansas News Bureau. And with Mike Huckabee finding himself inching up in recent polls, Brummett is getting a lot of national mentions for his Huckmentum coverage. Today, Brummett details Huckabee's knowledge of popular culture, which he suggests comes from his younger days, when he was a radio DJ.

Home-state journalists are important barometers for how the national press will cover a candidate. Brummett has spent years around Huckabee, and when he writes the following sentence, members of the national press corps, until now swooning over the affable former preacher, might think again: "His is wholly a candidate of personality, and, as such, is more Don Imus than Billy Graham." The campaign has to cringe at that one.

As party nominees become more evident, other journalists will become better known nationally for their knowledge of their home state candidates. Pay attention to the coverage they provide. A friendly local press can be the difference between a win and a loss, once again proving Tip O'Neill's maxim: All politics is local.

Morning Thoughts: Rumblin', Stumblin', Fumblin'

Good Wednesday morning. Republicans are preparing to hear from snowmen, Mickey Mouse and others at the CNN/YouTube debate in St. Petersburg tonight. Before the gathering, here's what Washington is watching:

-- Congress is still out of session, but President Bush meets again with Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas in connection with the Annapolis conference, and Condoleezza Rice sits in. The conference has yielded no massive breakthroughs yet, but Olmert and Abbas agreed to keep talking, at the very least. And apparently even Barack Obama is getting involved in the talks.

-- On the Hill, Senate Republicans have set leadership elections for December 6, according to an email sent to GOP members and obtained by Roll Call. The race to replace Trent Lott as Minority Whip is all but over, as Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl has the contest all but wrapped up, The Hill reports. Kyl has not officially declared his candidacy, but he and supporters are making calls to Republican senators and appear to have secured the votes necessary to win while avoiding attracting a challenger. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Richard Burr and Lamar Alexander are running for Kyl's conference chair post, while Jim DeMint is considering a race. Conference Vice Chair John Cornyn will seek Hutchison's Policy Committee slot, while Jeff Sessions will run to replace Cornyn as Conference Vice Chair.

-- Out on the trail, candidates are making mistakes. Or at least they're being accused of mistakes, and no one's innocent until proven guilty in a campaign. Did Mitt Romney tell a Pakistani supporter that he would not consider hiring Muslims for high-level policymaking positions? Mansoor Ijaz says Romney did, at a campaign stop in Las Vegas. Two others from the fundraiser back up Ijaz's claim, TPM reports. Romney's camp is pushing back hard on the report and the candidate himself denied saying he would not appoint Muslims, but Ijaz is not backing down. Downside for Romney? Not in a Republican primary, Cenk Uygur opines.

-- Mike Huckabee is not mistake-proof, either. The AP this morning shed light on a treasure trove of goodies for opposition researchers: 436 pages of documents on Huckabee's interactions with his state's Ethics Commission. Huckabee accepted 314 gifts with a total value of more than $150,000, according to the commission, and 16 complaints were filed, leading to five violations. On taxes, Huckabee's record is less altruistic than he asserts. And on immigration, he was not the hard-liner some supporters would like to make him out to be. Telling quote from Arkansas Ethics Commission director Graham Sloan: "People are starting to contact us and they're saying, 'We want everything on Mike Huckabee.'"

-- Nor is Barack Obama clean as a whistle. Obama's HOPEFUND PAC has given donations to elected officials backing his campaign in several early states, a move Hillary Clinton's campaign said was in violation of federal election law. Sure, a campaign wants to spread the wealth to their backers, but it looks bad when New Hampshire State Sen. Jacalyn Cilley gets a $1,000 donation just six days before announcing her support for Obama. The Clinton camp, by the way, was not Obama's only Democratic rival to spread a recent Washington Post story around, looking for takers. Ironically, as the LA Times reports, Obama's PAC violates the candidate's pledge not to take money from other PACs and federal lobbyists: It has done both. We don't think campaign finance stories attract an audience any wider than the Beltway (anyone who pays that much attention to politics, the theory goes, has already made up their mind), but the issue could strip Obama of one issue on which he and Clinton actually differed.

-- And for Rudy Giuliani, the Empire State Pride Agenda has bad news on the question of whether he's a gay rights supporter. The group has released "The Giuliani Files," detailing the ex-Mayor's backing for gay rights between 1994 and 2001. Those efforts included backing a hate-crimes bill, signing a domestic partnership law and addressing the group's annual dinner in 2001. Try explaining those positions to voters in South Carolina. (By the way, a must-read on the aborted Clinton-Giuliani Senate race in 2000, in which Adam Nagourney writes the two picked up many of the political skills they're showing off today).

-- Finally today, should Mitt Romney give "the speech" outlining his Mormon faith? Here's one influential voice Romney might want to listen to: Orrin Hatch, Utah's senior senator, Romney backer and a fellow Mormon. Hatch thinks Romney would do well to give a speech, according to the Associated Press. The campaign told AP that a speech "dealing with faith and values" is still being considered. New York Times' Michael Luo sees the Mormon issue as hurting Romney in Iowa while fueling Mike Huckabee's rise. Huckabee manager Chip Saltsman, though, says his candidate has no intention of bringing up Romney's faith, and will only discuss his own.

-- Reason To Buy A Bigger Suitcase Of The Day: More proof that, while Iowa and New Hampshire are critical for top candidates in both parties, this thing is going to continue at least through Super Tuesday: Obama is spending heavily in February 5 states, The Fix notes, with offices in 13 states including the newest one in Fargo, North Dakota. The campaign says they'll even send some poor souls to Alaska to campaign there. Clinton has five offices in just four states, though five more are opening soon.

-- Today On The Trail: A very slow day on the campaign trail. Joe Biden and Dennis Kucinich address College Convention 2008 in Manchester, after Biden and Chris Dodd address the Iowa Association of Counties in Des Moines. Hillary Clinton talks about health care in Ankeny, Iowa, near Des Moines. And only John McCain holds events before the debate, with a town hall at Clemson and a party with supporters in St. Pete.

More On Nevada

This reporter hypothesized yesterday that, thanks to the brief window between Iowa and New Hampshire and some Democratic candidates' promises not to campaign in Michigan (despite the state legislature's move to force every candidate onto the ballot), Nevada has finally become important.

In the piece, we mention that Democratic candidates have taken far fewer trips to the state than to other early primary states. Our numbers, though, were somewhat off: Hillary Clinton has been to the state eight times, not five, while John Edwards has been there 17 times, not eight. Barack Obama has showed up nine times, as we reported.

With so few visits, is it any wonder that two of the state's biggest labor prizes remain up in the air? The state's Culinary Workers have yet to choose a candidate, and the union that represents most of the workers on the Vegas Strip would -- and probably will -- have a big influence on the race's eventual outcome. Nevada's SEIU chapter has yet to make an endorsement either.

While Senator Harry Reid is remaining neutral in the race, his son, Clark County Commission President Rory Reid, is backing Clinton, lending her a political operation in the state's most populous county, where many of the Democratic votes will come from. Edwards has won more union nods in the state than anyone else, and his success at wooing local SEIU chapters could help him win over Nevada service workers as well. Clinton and Bill Richardson have each been able to win some union backing as well.

Who's ahead and who's behind in the Silver State? We finally have enough polls to create an RCP Nevada Average, which shows Clinton up by a whopping 23.6 points, more than doubling Obama's totals.

Calendar Not Set Yet

No, Bill Gardner hasn't re-thought his decision to hold the New Hampshire primary on January 8. And Chet Culver is still planning to caucus on January 3. But the February 5 "Super Tuesday" state is getting more crowded.

Yesterday, Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts signed a bill allowing the Bay State to join two dozen other states in holding its presidential primary on the first day allowed under party rules.

For Republicans, the move means that seven candidates will see their home states vote on Super Tuesday, including Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee. For Democrats, five of the seven candidates will have hometown primaries to attend, in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, New Mexico and New York. Only John Edwards' North Carolina and Dennis Kucinich's Ohio vote later.

Losing one's home state is a big blow to a campaign, and some candidates in 2008 -- even top-tier hopefuls -- are in danger of coming in second at home. But when more than twenty-some states hold their contests on the same day, allocating more than 50% of the delegates needed to win the nominations, if someone can't win their home state on February 5, they're probably losing the nomination anyway.

Morning Thoughts: Long And Short Goodbyes

Good Tuesday morning. Like the Redskins or not, today is a sad day in Washington as Sean Taylor has died, about a day after he was shot during a home invasion in Miami. He was just 24. In the political world, here's what people are paying attention to:

-- The House is out of session, while the Senate will hold a brief pro forma session in order to prevent President Bush from making recess appointments. The White House's attention is fully focused on Annapolis, where more than twenty countries are meeting to encourage a solution to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Clinton made headlines with a handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in 1993, but this year there is unlikely to be significant progress, despite the fact that Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas are closer than Rabin and Arafat ever were. Syria is among the countries at the table by the Chesapeake, but Iran and representatives from Hamas are absent.

-- Trent Lott's resignation continues to roil Capitol Hill, where some are scrambling to make the most of the aftermath. In the emerging GOP leadership races, Sen. Lamar Alexander has decided against a race for Republican whip and will instead throw his hat in the ring for Conference Chairman, should Sen. Jon Kyl take the number two spot. Alexander joins Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Richard Burr and Jim DeMint in the race for chair. At the moment, meanwhile, Sen. John Cornyn looks like the only candidate for Policy Committee Chair, the post Texas seatmate Hutchison currently holds.

-- Lott's decision to resign before the end of the year, as he made clear in yesterday's news conference, seems designed to avoid a new lobbying reform measure that would prevent him from serving as a lobbyist for two years. If Lott gets out before January 1st, he can go to work on K Street after just one year out of the chamber. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour issued a statement yesterday asserting that he will set the special election to replace Lott for November 4, 2008, but Democrats are having none of it, write The Fix and The Hill, insisting that the governor misread election law. Barbour's office thinks they have the right to set the primary in November through a technicality in the law. An election early in the year would be a huge benefit to Democrats, allowing their nominee to run without a presidential candidate, a big positive in Mississippi. Still, no matter who the Democratic nominee is (and Ronny Musgrove is making all the right noises), they face an uphill fight against a top Republican in what is still a federally red state.

-- Speaking of resignations, by the way, little-noticed late last night, thanks to Lott's big day, was Dennis Hastert's decision to step down a minute before midnight. Hastert officially submitted his resignation letters to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, allowing Blagojevich, Hastert wrote, sufficient time to schedule a primary election to compete for the seat on the same day as his state's presidential primary. That's good news for Republicans, as a general election on February 5 -- when a certain favorite son is on the ballot for president in Illinois -- would have brought out a massive Democratic turnout that might have swung the seat blue. Democrats are still hopeful that scientist Bill Foster can snatch the seat, especially after a nasty GOP primary between businessman Jim Oberweis and State Sen. Chris Lauzen.

-- The IL-14 race could get ugly, but not as grisly as the Republican presidential race, which spent the weekend devolving into little more than name-calling between the national front-runners. Despite pledging to obey the 11th Commandment earlier this Fall, Rudy Giuliani has been engaged in a full-throated back-and-forth with Mitt Romney, as Dick Polman lays out. One aspect of the campaign we have yet to fully comprehend: Why Giuliani and McCain people and Romney folks feel such vitriol toward each other. At least some aspect of the race is staying polite, though: Mike Huckabee is just about the only candidate left not to have gone after Rudy Giuliani, the New York Sun reports. What do you suppose a veep nomination smells like? Still, we can bet that a Giuliani-Huckabee ticket would have some fiscal conservatives in Washington going through the roof, and not in a good way.

-- On the Democratic side, Barack Obama's decision to get Oprah on the trail has won big headlines around the country. But his opponents are getting their own big-time endorsements in New Hampshire, where John Edwards has won the backing of Manchester Education Association president Scott McGilvray and Hillary Clinton got support from Dr. Susan Lynch, wife of New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch. Lynch says he will remain neutral, but Tom Vilsack said the same thing four years ago even as his wife publicly threw her support to John Kerry.

-- With Lynch, Bill Shaheen and former Democratic Party chair Kathy Sullivan, Clinton now has access to the top political machine in New Hampshire. A wise political observer suggested to Politics Nation that New Hampshire is now the most important state in the Democratic race, as Clinton sees her numbers, and her fortunes, dip in Iowa. Clinton could make the Granite State her bulwark against Obama, if her team really thinks that Iowa is slipping from their grasp. Over at Politico, Allen and Budoff Brown write that Obama has the swagger of a front-runner. Times change quiclly in politics: A few weeks ago, we were wondering if Obama could stop Clinton. Now it's whether Clinton can stop Obama.

-- Clinton did not benefit from a gender gap in the highly-publicized ABC/Washington Post poll [PDF] earlier this month, but the key to winning in 2008, for either party, will be unmarried women, writes the San Francisco Chronicle. And, when learning how to appeal to that group, why not get a quote from Clinton strategist Ann Lewis, who says the key to appealing to those women is getting into their social networks. The group is big enough to swing any election: More than 53 million women fall into the category, about one quarter of the electorate. The group, says Lewis, cares most about economic issues, and with the housing crunch, credit crisis and turmoil on Wall Street that is now officially called a correction, one can bet the nominees have to start brushing up on their economic policies. Clinton, meanwhile, thinks she can find the edge among elderly women, Patrick Healy writes.

-- Holiday Gift Of The Day: Politics Nation is a huge and unabashed NPR fan, especially "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," a weekend show in which the only prize is Carl Kassell's voice on your home answering machine. Perhaps taking inspiration from the show, The Plank spotlights a similar idea: Mitt Romney greeting anyone who calls your house, for a contribution, of course. Brilliant idea, and it's officially on Politics Nation's Christmas list. If every candidate offered the same service, we wouldn't be able to choose one over another.

-- Today On The Trail: Barack Obama is in Portsmouth, New Hampshire for a foreign policy summit. John Edwards rallies with writers and stage hands in New York, while Hillary Clinton is in Spartanburg, Aiken and Bennettsville, South Carolina. Bill Richardson discusses agriculture in Council Bluffs, Chris Dodd is in Ames and Joe Biden campaigns in Allison, Butler and Cedar Falls. Dennis Kucinich holds events in Plymouth, New Hampton, Exeter and Concord, New Hampshire.

-- On the GOP side, John McCain heads to a Chik-Fil-A in Seneca and a town hall meeting in Anderson, South Carolina. Mitt Romney has a health care forum in St. Petersburg, Florida, while Mike Huckabee is up the road in Orlando. Ron Paul holds two events in Charleston and a rally in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.

Carson Out In Indiana

Rep. Julia Carson, an Indianapolis Democrat first elected in 1996, announced she will retire from Congress today after disclosing that she has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer this weekend. Carson has not been in Washington since September, when she was hospitalized with an infection.

Carson's chief of staff told the Associated Press that she hopes to be back in Washington after the New Year.

Carson has faced several close races in recent years, despite the strong Democratic tilt of her Indianapolis-based district. Her poor health largely prevented her from campaigning, and she's won by fewer than ten points even as John Kerry carried the district by sixteen and Al Gore won by twelve points.

Republicans are interested in the seat, but it would likely be an uphill battle with Carson out of the race. Still, the GOP did well in and around the city in 2007, when a virtually unknown Republican knocked off powerhouse Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson and the GOP took control of the county council.

Long Day In Mississippi

Washington Post's Cillizza has been following the Mississippi Senate developments all day. His findings:

-- Gov. Haley Barbour says he will set the special election to fill Trent Lott's seat for November 4, coinciding with next year's General election. That's good news for Republicans -- not only will the appointed Senator have longer to establish him or herself, he or she will also be able to tag their opponent with the Democratic presidential nominee. In Mississippi, that's a huge plus for the GOP. It also means, if Politics Nation understands Mississippi election law, that Lott will not offer his resignation before January 1st.

-- Retiring Rep. Chip Pickering is unlikely to be Barbour's appointee, according to Cillizza's sources. Pickering has made little secret of his hope to end up in the Senate some day, but his shot may come in six years when Thad Cochran, who is running for re-election this year, is up again. Cochran was a retirement threat earlier this year, and six years from now he would be even more likely to hang it up.

-- With Pickering seemingly out of the running, Rep. Roger Wicker seems like the front-runner for the seat. Wicker has about $570,000 cash on hand, giving him a big head start over any potential challenger.

-- On the Democratic side, while early speculation centered on another pass from former Attorney General Mike Moore, a candidate Democrats have pined for over the years but failed to woo. But, Cillizza finds, Moore is actually interested in the race. He would still be an underdog, but he would give Democrats their best shot at stealing the seat. Former Gov. Ronny Musgrove remains Democrats' back-up plan.

Big Trouble For Daniels

He's not facing the best candidate Indiana Democrats could have put up, but incumbent Hoosier Governor Mitch Daniels is in some serious trouble, according to a new poll conducted for the Indianapolis Star. Daniels, who served as President Bush's head of the Office of Management and Budget before winning election in 2004, finds himself trailing two possible Democratic candidates.

The poll, conducted 11/13-16 by Iowa-based Selzer & Co., surveyed 600 registered voters and 449 likely voters. The margin of error, among likely voters, is +/- 4.6%, and 4% among registered voters. Tested alongside Daniels were architect Jim Schellinger and former Rep. Jill Long Thompson.

General Election Matchups (LVs only)
Schellinger 44
Daniels 40

Thompson 44
Daniels 43

Daniels has seen a dramatic reversal in his approval rating during his tenure. Just 40% approve of his job performance while 50% disapprove. That's a big change from March 2005, when 55% approved of Daniels compared with just 30% who disapproved. Only 35% think Indiana is headed in the right direction, while 57% say it's off on the wrong track.

Indiana's political climate has long been dominated by intensely local issues. State politicians get in trouble for trying to change the state's multiple timezones, and Daniels has taken flak for leasing Indiana's toll roads to a foreign country. 48% of respondents said the lease has been mostly a bad deal for the state, while just 31% call it a good deal.

Daniels has raised plenty of money, and his bid will certainly be aided by the Democratic primary still to come. But as if finding himself under 50% wasn't bad enough, actually trailing both Democrats has to be a sobering wake-up call for the first term governor.

Senators Work To Replace Lott

Senator Trent Lott's decision to resign before the end of the year, an announcement he is said to be planning for noon today, has touched of a flurry of behind-the-scenes positioning in the Senate. Lott, the Senate Republican Whip, vacates the number two leadership slot just a year after taking over the post.

Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, is seen as the front-runner to replace Lott and has begun reaching out to colleagues. Kyl, who serves as Senate Republican Conference Chair, is technically third in the leadership pecking order and is actively seeking the whip position, a spokesman confirmed to Politics Nation. Senator John Ensign, head of the Senate Republican's campaign committee, has already begun campaigning on Kyl's behalf, hoping to head off any potential challenge.

Kyl's move has set off a scramble to replace him as Conference Chair. Senate GOP aides say Alexander, of Tennessee, and North Carolina Senator Richard Burr would likely make bids for the post. An Alexander spokesman said the senator is spending today holding conversations with aides, considering runs for both whip and conference chair. A Burr spokesman declined to comment yet. (UPDATE: A source close to Burr tells Politics Nation that Burr will run for conference chairman if the position becomes available. Burr made the decision, the source said, after being approached by several colleagues.)

Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is already making calls, a Republican source tells Politico. Hutchison serves as chair of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, the number four post on the leadership chain, but her recent declaration that she will run for governor in her native state in 2010 puts a damper on her chances, some say.

Because Lott chose to retire before the New Year, the announcement will likely set up a special election within three months, according to those familiar with Mississippi election law. Lott's replacement, to be appointed by Republican Governor Haley Barbour, would start off a race as a de facto incumbent, and conventional wisdom is coalescing around Rep. Chip Pickering as Barbour's choice. Pickering's office refused to comment ahead of Lott's announcement.

Democrats have several potential top-tier candidates for the seat, but any Republican would find themselves the front-runner in a general election. Former Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore has long been mentioned as a potential candidate, while Democrats point to former Governor Ronny Musgrove and Rep. Gene Taylor, who represents a heavily Republican district. The DSCC would not say who it had contacted in the state.

Harman Holding Back Dues

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came to power with a less than cohesive Democratic majority. Her assent was marred somewhat by her endorsement of Jack Murtha, her longtime ally from Pennsylvania, for Majority Leader, a race he lost badly to Marylander Steny Hoyer. And when faced with the prospect of three senior members who wanted to chair the House Intelligence Committee, Pelosi had to make another decision that would have been unpopular no matter how she sliced it.

Pelosi faced the choice of elevating Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings, a former federal judge who had been impeached but maintained his political popularity at home, or Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes. The third option: Grant a waiver to fellow Californian Jane Harman, the panel's ranking member under GOP leadership. But Harman and Pelosi have had their run-ins, and Hastings' past made him a politically inappropriate choice. Reyes, in the end, got the post.

Harman has since refused to pay dues to the DCCC, the Torrance Daily Breeze reports. While she said she had paid her dues in recent cycles -- including $190,000 during the 2006 election cycle -- she refused to comment on dues this year. Chief of staff John Hess told the paper that Harman has donated $50,000 to Frontline Democrats, those who face the most difficult races next year.

Reports from Bloomberg earlier this month suggest Harman may be on the hook for as much as $250,000, as chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Rish Assessment.

The DCCC has set a goal of raising upwards of $150 million from Democrats on Capitol Hill, far ahead of Republicans' $33 million goal.

GovernStrong In Texas

Why mess with success? After two big election wins, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has begun exporting some members of his campaign team to other Republicans. Trouble is, when you break up a team, sometimes those teammates end up playing against each other down the road.

Former Schwarzenegger aide Walter von Huene, who served as the Governator's chess partner, has signed on as speech coach to Texas Lieutenant Gov. David Dewhurst, the LA Times notes. Dewhurst is widely expected to seek the governor's mansion when Rick Perry leaves office in 2010, and after two terms as the number two guy in the Lone Star State, he's the early front-runner.

But Dewhurst might not have a clear path to the GOP nomination. Schwarzenegger's rise to power was presaged by his involvement in a successful statewide initiative campaign he spearheaded. In Texas, an initiative last year to float cancer research bonds was headed up by 7-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who delivered an eloquent election-night speech as his initiative won voter approval.

That speech was written by Jeff Danzinger, a former Schwarzenegger speech writer, the Dallas Morning News reports. And another former Schwarzenegger staffer, Katherine McLane, serves now as Armstrong's spokeswoman. Does Armstrong have the political bug? McLane isn't saying, telling the Morning News that Armstrong is focused only on making cancer research a national priority during the 2008 presidential race. "What happens after that, who can say?" she said.

Armstrong has campaigned with members of both parties. His proposition increasing cancer research funding won support from a prominent Texas Democratic state senator and an aide to former Democratic Gov. Ann Richards, who died of cancer last year, as well as former President George H.W. Bush and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. If he were to make a run, he would give Dewhurst a real race, and because of Texas's loose fundraising laws, it could easily be the most expensive race in the country.

Both Dewhurst and Armstrong have poached staffers from Schwarzenegger. When it comes to politics, they've learned, don't fix what ain't broke.

Morning Thoughts: Lotta Surprise

Welcome back from a long holiday off. Those who took the Patriots and their 20-something line last night got what they deserved. On a separate note, what's the best way to recover from a stint as a Capitol Hill Chief of Staff? One ex-Senate head is launching the world-famous Beckett Farms Barbecue sauce. With that, here's what those still attached to Washington are watching today:

-- No House and Senate action today. The two chambers are on recess until next Monday, when they return for the final sprint. President Bush prepares for three heavy meetings today, including sit-downs with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. The two will sit down in the Oval Office with the president in advance of the start of the Annapolis Conference, which kicks off today. The third meeting, with American Nobel prize winners, will get awkward right about the time Al Gore walks into the room.

-- But things are still buzzing atop Capitol Hill. Sources tell NBC News and CNN that Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott will step down by the end of 2007. The Republican Whip was the subject of retirement rumors in 2006, but ran for re-election anyway, saying his state needed him to stay on Capitol Hill while it recovered from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. With his resignation, Gov. Haley Barbour will choose a replacement, likely from the ranks of six other statewide elected Republicans and two members of Congress. Early speculation will likely focus on retiring Rep. Chip Pickering, who was said to have his eye on a Senate seat. The appointee will have to run for retainment in November, making Mississippi the second state with both Senate seats up this year.

-- On the House side, what's the best way to overcome a lack of resources at the NRCC? Encourage a bunch of rich guys to spend their own money running for Congress! The New York Times today takes a look at some of the dozen wealthy candidates running in close districts next year, including candidates taking on Reps. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Melissa Bean (D-IL), Darleen Hooley (D-OR) and Ciro Rodriguez (D-TX). The 14 candidates who have already put more than $100,000 into their own races does something to help the NRCC overcome its fundraising gap, but it also ensures the Millionaire's Amendment will be tripped in more than a few seats.

-- After the last break presidential candidates get until Christmas, everyone is back at full speed. Barack Obama this morning announced he would pull out the big guns and campaign with Oprah Winfrey in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids next Saturday, then Columbia, South Carolina, and Manchester on Sunday, December 9th. It's extraordinarily rare for a campaign to announce an appearance so early, but we're guessing they're not going to have many empty seats in the media section for the events.

-- There's a reason Obama and Winfrey are stopping in Iowa first: The state caucuses first. And appearances by Oprah are not the only benefits the state sees. Whether it's the $2 billion annually for ethanol subsidies or the $1.10 the state receives for every federal dollar it is taxed, Iowans know how to attract money, the Boston Globe writes. But it's not only presidential candidates who are forking cash over to the state. Give some credit to Sens. Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin, two very senior senators who do their best to bring home the bacon.

-- Fred Thompson's final sprint got off to something of a bad start when he made an appearance on Fox News Sunday and criticized his hosts. Wait, wasn't this the candidate who basically lived on Sean Hannity's show for a few months? "This is the constant mantra of Fox, to tell you the truth," Thompson said in response to criticism from Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes. JMart has video as Thompson takes shots at Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and the very network he was appearing on. Thompson's campaign has been hit with charges that the candidate is lazy, and his efforts today will do little to assuage those fears: As other candidates race around the country, Thompson appears on three radio programs.

-- Speaking of taking shots, Hillary Clinton and Obama are sparring over health care, the latest round focusing on the two front-runners' call for mandating coverage -- Clinton does so, Obama does not -- and whether that's a key piece to the whole "universal" concept. The bottom line: Obama's rhetoric against Clinton has become sharper, while Clinton is going after Obama more directly and by name. Clinton, meanwhile, is taking the electability argument for herself, as she says she's "by far the most electable Democrat" during a campaign stop in Nevada (ne-VAY-duh) Iowa yesterday, writes The Swamp's Rick Pearson.

-- Snub Of The Day: Guess the DNC was serious about that whole no delegates thing. The St. Pete Times takes a look at hotel rooms reserved for the Florida delegation at Democrats' Denver convention and finds ... they weren't assigned one. Of course the Florida party was stripped of its delegates when it moved its primary ahead of the approved February 5 window earlier this year. But not reserving a hotel should the credentials committee reestablish the delegation, which is likely? That's harsh.

-- Today On The Trail: John Edwards holds a media availability in Bow, New Hampshire, then heads to Manchester and Nashua for events, finishing the day in Manchester. Clinton is in Concord, Goffstown and Brentwood, New Hampshire, while Barack Obama rallies in Littleton and Dennis Kucinich is in Nashua. Chris Dodd has events in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Davenport, while Joe Biden campaigns in Humboldt, Clarion, Forest City and Mason City and Bill Richardson stops in Mount Ayr, Bedford and Sydney, Iowa.

-- On the GOP side, Rudy Giuliani gets the Politics & Eggs once-over in Bedford, New Hampshire. John McCain has an event in Lexington, South Carolina, while Fred Thompson conducts his radio interviews, Mike Huckabee raises money in Austin, Texas, and Ron Paul holds a rally in Myrtle Beach.

Are Expectations Already Set?

The common phrase top anchors will repeat ad nauseum over the next three weeks is that there are three tickets on each side out of Iowa. There's a ticket for win, place and show. But for some candidates, might even a win, and a first-class seat on the plane to Manchester, be less comfortable than the place ticket in Economy Plus?

Pollsters and pundits have breathlessly informed everyone, for months on end, that Hillary Clinton is the runaway favorite for the Democratic nomination. And they're right. One pundit was overheard to explain that no candidate who's ever polled greater than 50% in a national poll has failed to win their race.

But a national poll is not the same as a state poll. Clinton's lead around the country is not even close to the state of the race in Iowa, where her lead is just 2.4% in the latest RCP Iowa Average, and where she even trails Barack Obama in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll. New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina will be heavily influenced by Iowa's outcome, and Democratic candidates are planning on an extended campaign.

Should dominoes fall in something other than Clinton's favor in those early states, regardless of how much money remains in her coffers, February 5 will be very difficult following a series of early disappointments. In short, Clinton is inevitable only if she actually wins something. Which is why someone else staying close in Iowa is leading Team Hillary to prepare for a possible letdown, as the Chicago Sun-Times reports (Campaign spokesman Mark Daley: "Our definition of success doesn't necessarily mean coming in first.").

But the campaign must still be somewhat confident: Their choice at the moment is to bolster Iowa staff in order to win, not New Hampshire staff to set up contingency plans. Still, a Clinton victory in Iowa is less valuable than an Obama or Edwards victory there. That doesn't mean, however, the state is a must-win for every campaign.

On the Republican side, Politics Nation has been arguing for months that, despite national polls, Mitt Romney is the GOP front-runner. After enjoying months of big leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, recent polls have even showed Romney pulling ahead in the latest RCP South Carolina Average. With that kind of momentum and free media, as well as an almost bottomless pocketbook, Rudy Giuliani's lead in national polls could become Romney's lead in national polls.

But the last two weeks have brought nothing but bad for Mitt Romney's campaign. First, Huck-mentum gets moving in a big way -- so much so that Iowa polls have the former Arkansas governor close to a statistical tie with Romney and that other campaigns have begun to take on Huckabee's record, a sure sign that he's viable. Second, anti-Mormon phone calls that began showing up around the country earned the Romney campaign not sympathy but suspicion -- people actually thought the campaign would do that to themselves.

Finally, with Huckabee breathing down Romney's neck in Iowa, Giuliani plans to challenge Romney in New Hampshire, where Hizzoner will invest a whopping $700,000 in ads, second-most after the $4 million Romney has already spent, John Harwood reports.

So things aren't looking good for Romney. What's worse: He's still expected to win Iowa and New Hampshire. If he wins, the mainstream media will have expected it. If he loses, it's big news. Sometimes a candidate can become too much of an inevitability, and Romney may have reached that plateau. Perhaps the best thing that can happen to him before Iowans begin to vote is a serious stumble -- it would have to happen sooner rather than later to allow for recovery -- in order to reset conventional wisdom. If such a stumble is not forthcoming, then Romney's big win may be nothing more than a vehicle to talk about the amazing performances of second place Huckabee and third place (Giuliani? Thompson? Does it matter?).

Clinton and Romney are, in short, suffering from their own exceptional performances. Without Clinton's big lead in national polls, and without Romney's giant lead in early states, their performance in Iowa would matter less. But with both candidates' recent bad luck -- stumbles for Clinton and opponents' good fortunes for Romney -- performing well in the lead-off contest is becoming more important. With six weeks left before Iowans caucus, can either do anything to reduce expectations? Maybe the more important question each has to prepare for is, what if we don't beat expectations that are already set?

House, Senate Dems Lead GOP

New financial disclosures show Democratic campaign committees continue to lead the money race over their Republican counterparts. Thanks to a strong fundraising performance from the Republican National Committee, though, GOP committees actually combined to outraise their Democratic counterparts.

The DSCC raised about $3.1 million in October, just ahead of their Republican counterparts' $2.9 million for the month. That's a narrow margin, but the NRSC, which has raised $26.3 million to date, is still well behind Democrats' $45.1 million. Democrats started November with $23.4 million in the bank, well ahead of Republicans' $9.5 million on hand.

That cash advantage for Democrats is actually the better news for the GOP. On the House side, the DCCC raised $4.1 million in October for a total of $56.7 million so far this year. The NRCC pulled in $3.6 million, for a total of $40.7 million. But, again thanks to the huge debts the committee racked up in 2006, Republicans find themselves at a huge cash disadvantage, with $2.6 million cash on hand and $3.6 million in debt. Democrats have $29.2 million in the bank.

On the national level, though, the RNC continues to outraise the DNC. Despite losing chairman Mel Martinez, the committee raised $8.5 million in October to the DNC's $5.6 million. Much of that money came from a successful fundraising dinner held last month at the National Building Museum, where the party promised donors they would hear from several top Republican candidates. Instead, diners heard only from Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, as Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson excused themselves early and John McCain was stuck in the Senate for votes.

In spite of the disappointment, Mike Duncan's RNC has $17.6 million in the bank after raising $71.5 million this year, while Howard Dean's committee has raised $46.1 million and $3.3 million on hand. Democrats maintain a $1.7 million debt, while the RNC is debt-free.

Gardner Sets Primary Date

After some final puzzle pieces fell in place, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner announced in Concord today his state would hold its first-in-the-nation primary on January 8. The move will allow the state to maintain its prominence in the presidential nominating contest while allowing candidates just five days to campaign after the lead-off Iowa caucuses.

Holding the primary on January 8 allows Gardner to comply with New Hampshire law, which requires the contest to occur seven days before any similar primary. But with only five days between Iowa and New Hampshire, a strong performance in the Hawkeye State becomes even more important. "If you don't do well in Iowa, I don't think [five days is] enough time to recover," said independent election analyst Rhodes Cook.

Cook pointed out that, after former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's infamous "scream" and poor showing in Iowa, the candidate had eight days during which to recover. After getting his sea legs again, Dean finished a respectable second, at 26% to John Kerry's 38%. The results were cast as a blow to Dean, who had led by a wide margin in opinion polls, but he still earned 9 of the state's 22 allocated convention delegates. Given less time to recover, a candidate's stumble could be heightened in 2008.

On the other hand, a candidate who outperforms could benefit from a significant boost because of the fast turnaround. "The results of Iowa are still hanging overhead" after five days, Cook said. "If you do very well, it may be to your advantage to have a quick vote in New Hampshire." But don't count on the state simply ratifying Iowa's decision. "There is a contrarian streak in New Hampshire that has to be taken into account a little bit," says Cook. "It has the motto 'Live Free or Die' for a reason. It wants to show it's a bit different than Iowa."

The eclectic Gardner, who maintains sole discretion over when the primary will be held, kept his deliberations close to the vest for months. In countless media interviews, Gardner refused to be backed into a corner. He went as far as openly speculating that, because of pressure from Michigan and other states moving their contests earlier, he would have to schedule the primary in December of this year.

Press accounts paint a picture of Gardner as single-mindedly dedicated to saving his state's prominent first primary. A Democrat who has been appointed Secretary of State by governors of both parties, Gardner seemed to relish the suspense he created in the presidential field. That suspense came down to the wire, as Gardner did not inform campaigns of his decision, and, after scheduling a 3:30 press conference, made media members wait more than 45 minutes before making the date official.

The announcement came the same day the Michigan Supreme Court ruled their state can hold its primary on January 15. The state legislature had set that date for the primary, but two lower courts ruled the measure unconstitutional. Michigan's high court overturned those decisions earlier today, in a narrow 4-3 decision, and will allow the contests to go forward.

The late hour of the court's decision, though, could cause Michigan headaches. Election officials are worried that the decision has come too late for absentee ballots to be printed and sent out.

AFSCME In On Dem Primaries

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees this week announced they would wade into somewhat competitive Senate primaries in Minnesota and Oregon, providing early backing for Democratic candidates in two seats the party and the union hope to take back next year.

AFSCME Council 75 gave its backing to Oregon State House Speaker Jeff Merkley, who is running an uphill bid against incumbent Republican Gordon Smith. And Council 5 gave its nod to comedian Al Franken, who hopes to face incumbent Republican Norm Coleman.

Both candidates face primaries before they're able to run against the incumbents; Merkley faces Portland lawyer Steve Novick, and Franken has to get by attorney Mike Ciresi. Still, the union's early involvement suggests their interest in the races, and thanks to new FEC rules, their involvement will make a difference come the general. Whether that difference is enough to put Democrats over the top, in what have to be considered seats that favor the incumbents, remains to be seen.

We'll be covering the Minnesota Senate race in the future, but for now, check out the backgrounder on Oregon.

Morning Thoughts: The Long Haul

Good Wednesday morning. if you're lucky, this is the last day of your work week. If you're coming into the office on Friday, you're probably an employee of Jon Corzine's, currently the least popular public official in America for making New Jersey government types come in the day after Thanksgiving. Here's what Washington is watching before it heads out for the long holiday:

-- Hillary Clinton has begun seriously going after Barack Obama. And even conservatives, like NRO's Jim Geraghty, are impressed with Clinton's latest shot, in which she questions whether Obama's experience overseas as a ten year old prepares him to lead the country in complex times. "I have traveled the world on behalf of our country -- first in the White House with my husband and now as a Senator," Clinton said. "Now voters will judge whether living in a foreign country at the age of ten prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next president will face."

-- Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack is backing her up: "There is no question she was the face of the administration in foreign affairs," he told MSNBC. Rightly or wrongly, the shots mark the most direct from the Clinton camp. Lesson: Watch out, rookie: It's time to play with the pros or go home. Given the increasingly sharp rhetoric Obama's been trying out on the trail, and his attempts to draw better contrasts, the rookie doesn't look like he's headed home any time soon. Once the back and forth spats really get going, how fast does the media quit watching Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani go after each other and focus solely on the Clinton-Obama free-for-all?

-- Obama launches a new advertisement in South Carolina today, according to NBC/NJ. The spot, which follows closely on the heels of John Edwards' first ad in the state, focuses on Obama's background as a community organizer and civil rights attorney, piggy-backing on radio ads the Chicagoan has been running in Palmetto country. Michelle Obama campaigned there yesterday as well.

-- Clinton engaging Obama. Obama and Edwards running television spots in South Carolina. Clinton's lead shrinking in New Hampshire, according to the latest CNN/WMUR poll (see RCP New Hampshire Average here). What's this all mean? Iowa's important, but all three leading candidates are preparing for a longer campaign. Don't let anyone tell you the race will be over after the Hawkeye State.

-- In news about the current administration, ex-White House flack Scott McClellan is blasting President Bush and Vice President Cheney over administration leaks about the name of former CIA operative Valerie Plame. In his new book, McClellan said he was given bad information and that Bush, Cheney, Karl Rove, Scooter Libby and Andy Card all had knowledge of the leak as McClellan unwittingly passed along the falsehoods to the press. White House spokesman Scott Stanzel issued a statement saying the president never misled his spokespeople, and he never would, according to CNN. Watch this one develop in the coming days, as Stanzel clearly omits the other four accused officials in the statement.

-- Speaking of disagreements among old allies, Bob Shrum ensured everyone knew that John Kerry didn't necessarily like or trust his 2004 running mate. But how did Edwards feel? Close aides tell the New York Times that the one-time Veep wannabe was frustrated with Kerry, even urging him not to go windsurfing during the Republican National Convention. Edwards, who embarked on a campaign to join the Kerry ticket, simply failed to deliver the attack lines the Kerry campaign wanted. Is that why Edwards' attacks on front-running Clinton began so early, contrary to 2004? And how much damage could Kerry do to his former junior partner, if he were to decide to take a stab at making a difference in the race?

-- As we mentioned yesterday, the FEC has issued new rules allowing corporations and unions to buy television time during election periods, but only if they do not expressly urge votes for or against specific candidates. Opponents say the move dramatically undercuts the spirit of campaign finance reform legislation. If the rule sticks, though, watch for millions -- perhaps hundreds of millions -- of dollars in last-minute ad spending hitting candidates on any issue conceivable.

-- Correction Of The Day: When writing on population changes and other fun facts included within the brand new Almanac of American Politics, this reporter foolishly referred to "bowling allies." As two astute readers, presumably with bowling averages higher than Politics Nation by a factor of five or more, point out, the phrase should be "bowling alleys." We regret the error, and highly encourage all readers to contact their members of Congress to encourage them to be as bold as Dennis Kucinich in including such vital information on their websites.

-- Happy Thanksgiving. Politics Nation will post occasionally over the next few days, so check in when you're not stuffed with turkey.

Population Shifts Toward GOP

The new Almanac of American Politics is out, and statistics within the Bible for political junkies show a rapidly changing American political landscape. Population, statistics show, is draining from the Midwest and Northeast and pouring into southern, sunnier states. It will take a decade for the results to be evident, but one thing is sure: With changes as rapid as these, the electoral college math in 2012 will be dramatically different from what it is in 2008.

Of the ten fastest-growing districts in America, not one cast their ballots for John Kerry in 2004. All but one, Rep. Nick Lampson's Texas 22 seat, are held by Republicans, and Lampson, some will argue, is only back in Congress because his opponent didn't have her name on the ballot. Lampson is a top target of House Republicans next year and looks to be in serious danger.

But the nine other seats are not all safely Republican. Rep. Jon Porter will face a strong challenge in Nevada 03, the Las Vegas suburbs, while Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, of Florida's 5th District, represents a district that held a Democrat at the beginning of the decade. Arizona Reps. Jeff Flake and Trent Franks come in at numbers one and two, and new residents of the state have registered overwhelmingly Democratic, according to the East Valley Tribune. Neither Flake nor Franks are in immediate danger, but a generation from now, the districts will not look the same as they do today.

The fastest-growing Congressional Districts between 2000 and 2005, with change percentage:

1. Arizona 06 -- Flake (+36.3%)
2. Arizona 02 -- Franks (+34%)
3. Nevada 03 -- Porter (+32.1%)
4. Florida 05 -- Brown-Waite (+26.9%)
5. California 44 -- Calvert (+23.8%)
6. Texas 10 -- McCaul (+23.4%)
7. Texas 22 -- Lampson (+22.6%)
8. Texas 03 -- Sam Johnson (+22.4%)
9. Florida 14 -- Mack (+21.6%)
10. California 45 -- Bono (+21.6%)

On the other hand, Democrats own all ten of the fastest-shrinking Congressional Districts. The regions are heavily biased toward the Midwest and Northeast, where an aging population and a waning industrial base are hurting growth. All ten districts are based around urban areas, many of which are hemorrhaging population to suburbs.

None of the districts are in any real danger of going Republican -- save Rep. Julia Carson's Indianapolis-based 7th District, which is only in danger because of a perennially weak incumbent -- but if states and districts fail to keep pace with the rest of the nation's growth, Democratic seats will have to be cut during the 2010 redistricting.

The ten fastest-shrinking districts, with percentage of population lost between 2000 and 2005:

1. Ohio 11 -- Jones (-9.1%)
2. Michigan 13 -- Kilpatrick (-7.9%)
3. Illinois 09 -- Schakowsky (-7.9%)
4. Pennsylvania 02 -- Fattah (-7.4%)
5. Pennsylvania 14 -- Doyle (-7.4%)
6. New York 28 -- Slaughter (-7.1%)
7. Michigan 14 -- Conyers (-6.7%)
8. Illinois 05 -- Emanuel (-5.1%)
9. California 08 -- Pelosi (-5.1%)
10. Indiana 07 -- Carson (-5.0%)

The statistics also show that, when a presidential candidate says they can compete in all 50 states, they are probably exaggerating their appeal. It is highly unlikely, for example, that any Democrat could carry the four states in which Al Gore failed to garner even 30% of the vote in 2000. Do not look for Democrats to spend ad money in Alaska, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.

Neither should one expect a Republican to spend any hard-earned dollars in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, states where President Bush won his lowest totals in 2004 and 2000, respectively.

In all, Republicans still control rural America, and Democrats should be very pleased that the electoral college does not count by county. In 2004, George Bush won 2530 counties, while John Kerry took home just 583 counties.

The Almanac also sheds some light on the more fun side of Congress. For those in Politics Nation who remain true political geeks, it will help to know that New York City was the birthplace of 32 members of Congress, followed by Chicago and Los Angeles at 10 apiece. Washington, D.C., was where just six members were born. Oh, and don't forget that Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich is the only member of Congress to list all the bowling allies in his district on his Congressional website.

Michigan In Trouble

While lawyers for Michigan are urging the state's Supreme Court to reinstate the January 15 primary date, election officials say they have to know by Wednesday whether to move forward with preparations, the Detroit News reports. State elections director Chris Thomas said any further delay would prevent officials from promising a primary "without failures, without great likelihood of errors or without disenfranchising a large number of military, overseas and out-of-state voters."

The appeal yesterday hoped to overturn two lower court rulings in which judges have said the appropriation of money for the primary was unconstitutional. Giving money to a private cause, which is in essence what a primary is, requires a two-thirds vote of the Michigan legislature; the bill moving the primary to January 15 did not meet that threshold.

It is still unclear whether the legislature can or will vote on an amendment to fix the legal issues raised by the lower court judges. The state's top court was of little help itself, giving no indication of when it would rule or if it would schedule further arguments.

Jonathan Martin is one of many who thinks Michigan's eventual conclusion -- whether it's proceeding with the primary or changing to a convention formula -- would have a dramatic impact on the GOP race. John McCain and Mitt Romney each have serious organizations there, while Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson do not, leaving them in bad position should a convention materialize.

If Romney takes the cake, it's another notch in his early state win list -- at the moment, Romney leads both the RCP Iowa Average and the RCP New Hampshire Average -- heading into South Carolina, which many believe will present him his earliest challenge.

But a primary, which would play out more on television, would invite Giuliani and Thompson to start an air war, making Romney's path more difficult. At what point does Giuliani, or Thompson for that matter, begin to make his stand against Romney's gathering momentum? If the Michigan Supreme Court rules for a primary, it may be there.

NE Primary May Shrink

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning looked ready to get out of the race to replace retiring Sen. Chuck Hagel, the Lincoln Journal Star reported late last night. A source close to the campaign told the paper Bruning would drop out sometime next week, paving the way for former Gov. Mike Johanns to cruise to the GOP nomination.

Bruning, who jumped in the race even before Hagel announced his retirement, has praised Johanns in recent days, softening what had been a challenging tone. Bruning addressed a gathering of Republicans on Saturday and focused on his own record as attorney general. In recent weeks, Bruning has focused on differences between himself and Johanns on immigration. Still, Bruning campaign manager Jordan McGrain vehemently denied rumors of a pullout.

Johanns, the heavy favorite both in the primary and the general elections, will get a visit from President Bush next month for an Omaha fundraiser. Johanns served, until earlier this year, as Secretary of Agriculture. Bruning had raised close to a million dollars through the end of September, though he would likely have found himself swamped by Johanns' fundraising ability.

Former Omaha Mayor and Congressman Hal Daub also dropped out of the race last month. On the Democratic side, former Sen. Bob Kerrey took a pass on the race, as did national Democrats' second choice, current Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey. The party has turned its attention to 2006 Congressional candidate Scott Kleeb. But in a year when seemingly everything has gone right for Democrats, Nebraska is one potential opportunity that looks to have slipped away.

Morning Thoughts: Obi's One

Good morning. With members of Congress gone for the holiday and staffers heading to Iowa and New Hampshire, Washington just feels so empty. All there is left is President Bush's annual pardon of the Thanksgiving turkey, today at 10:15am. Aside from the president being soft on turkey crime, here's what the few survivors are watching today:

-- We wrote yesterday on the new ABC News/Washington Post poll that shows Barack Obama leading Hillary Clinton by the narrowest of margins in Iowa. A July ABC/Post poll showed Obama ahead as well, but this poll is the first since a Newsweek survey in late September showed Obama leading. The cross-tabs shed light on why Obama may be ahead: Of the one-third in the poll who had met a candidate, more than half met Obama, as Ben Smith points out. Edwards has met 38% of that subsample to Clinton's 36% and 22% for Bill Richardson. So remember: Take every poll with a grain of salt. Stu Rothenberg does.

-- Edwards' fall to third place can be traced, some have argued, to a lack of enthusiasm from labor groups. While labor was divided in 2004, Edwards had hoped his populism would rally workers to his cause. He's only been moderately successful, as the Wall Street Journal finds labor divided up to four ways. Like Christian conservatives, whose backing is split among many Republican contenders, by dividing their attentions, labor also cuts their influence. And, says the Journal, that means caucus results may be less than decisive, meaning a prolonged Democratic nomination fight.

-- Obama and Clinton are switching to a new topic on which they can argue over who is most experienced: The economy. "More than ever before, workers will need good job training for the jobs of this new century, but there is one job we can't afford on-the-job training for: That is the job of our next president. That could be the costliest job training in history," Clinton said, per ABC News, repeating "job" an astounding six times in three sentences. Obama's countercharge: Clinton "wasn't Treasury Secretary," and she should show her experience. Clinton's economic focus had to do with statistics and rising heating costs; Obama wants to lower costs of community colleges, per the New York Times. A focus on working-class issues is a great way to pick up some of those union members who haven't fallen in line with their local yet.

-- It's okay to be an hour late if your plane, say, lands at the wrong airport (Paging Mr. Obama...). But if you show up an hour late to a campaign event for no good reason, you'd better offer a pretty good excuse to Iowa voters. Edwards' recent excuse, per a spokesman: "He just had some stuff going on." The Des Moines Register, which devotes an article to Edwards' constant tardiness, says the candidate is late frequently, and offers this zinger, from Davenport high school sophomore Porsha McElfresh, who waited an hour for Edwards: "There's a lot of kids here who probably don't care about their education, but they should be in class instead of sitting here wasting time."

-- Over the weekend, in that same Bob Novak column that stirred up so many passions in the Democratic field, a report emerged, though it was hardly surprising, that John McCain is considering pulling out of Iowa to focus on New Hampshire. Today, Andrew Malcolm of the LA Times writes that a Fred Thompson fundraising pitch urges supporters to help him buy television ads in Iowa and South Carolina, conveniently omitting New Hampshire, a state which Thompson has largely avoided and therefore seen his poll numbers plummet. A CNN poll of Granite State voters showed even Ron Paul doubling Thompson's score there.

-- Is Thompson preparing a new Southern Strategy? In this version, it would seem, Thompson is focusing his efforts entirely on states south of the Mason-Dixon line, save Iowa. NBC/NJ's Adam Aigner-Treworgy, on the trail with Thompson in the voter-rich town of Kenner, Louisiana, reports Thompson's "feeling" that the state will be important in the election. Louisiana's primary is February 9, four days after Super Duper Tuesday. Don't believe he's looking Soutward? In the last week, the candidate has shown up in Mississippi, Pensacola, The Citadel and Myrtle Beach, along with one day in Iowa.

-- A Southern strategy would be predicated on Thompson casting himself as more conservative than other candidates. That may be good for a primary, and it was once good for a general election too, but some see the Congressional GOP heading to the right as well. Eight of the 17 members who have announced their retirements are moderates, Politico writes, and the loss of what former moderate Rep. Sherwood Boehlert terms the "vital center" will hurt the party's chances of retaking the majority. Moderate Virginia Rep. Tom Davis (R-Orange Line) offers the spot-on assessment: "The money has moved away from the parties, who used to be the enforcement mechanisms, to groups on the extreme right and left, and it's killing us," he said.

-- Finally, in a vote that will have ramifications stretching far into the future, the Federal Elections Commission will vote today on a rule interpreting the Supreme Court's decision in a key campaign finance case, The Hill reports. The case, in which the Court ruled that corporations and unions could pay for ads within a 60-day window the FEC had banned, has led to new rules that top election lawyers on both sides say are confusing and will be difficult to enforce. Reform groups contend the new proposal is more than the Court wanted, and would essentially defang the campaign finance reform act's communications provision, opening the door to new attack ads within days of an election.

-- Endorsement Of The Day: Speaking to DCCC backers at a breakfast fundraiser yesterday in Manhattan, former DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel said he thinks Mike Huckabee would be a smart campaign choice, per the New York Daily News. Emanuel says choosing Huckabee would work well for either Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani, both of whom would need to shore up their base. Perhaps more importantly, Emanuel again reiterated that Democrats should watch out on immigration, as the issue is becoming what he calls the "third rail" of American politics.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton is in Shenandoah, Creston and Des Moines, Iowa. Edwards holds community meetings, still with Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, in Grinnell and Des Moines. Obama delivers a policy speech in Manchester, then holds other events in Alton, North Conway and Laconia. Bill Richardson holds town halls in Nashua and Derry, then meets with voters in Merrimack. Joe Biden has a press conference scheduled in Iowa City, and Dennis Kucinich will stop by Concord for a book signing and a town hall.

-- On the GOP side, Mike Huckabee fundraises in Florida and takes reporter questions beforehand. Mitt Romney gives a speech in Des Moines, then heads to Newton for a forum. Fred Thompson meets voters at a coffee shop in Orange City, a bar in Le Mars and a ballroom in Sioux City, Iowa, while Giuliani has a press conference in Chicago before meeting with locals in Oak Park, Illinois. And Ron Paul is in Nevada, where a rally yesterday drew 1,000 people in Las Vegas. Today he heads to Reno for a rally at University of Nevada.

Obama Leads In Iowa

A new ABC News/Washington Post poll that's sure to shake up the Democratic race shows Barack Obama has taken his first lead in months in Iowa. The poll, conducted 11/14-18 of 500 likely Democratic caucus attendees, carried a 4.5% margin of error.

Obama led in the last ABC/Post poll, taken in late July, but the results will certainly be a boost to his campaign. We can envision the fundraising email David Plouffe is typing up right now.

Primary Election Matchup
Obama 30 (+3 from last poll, 7/31)
Clinton 26 (nc)
Edwards 22 (-4)
Richardson 11 (nc)
Biden 4 (+2)

Clinton still leads in the RCP Iowa Average, but by a narrow 2.4 points.

Among those certain to attend, Obama holds 28% of the vote, ahead of Clinton's 26% and Edwards' 23%. Edwards performs better among those who have attended a caucus before, taking 26%, one point behind Obama's 27% and ahead of Clinton's 21%. Obama also leads among those who will attend for the first time, leading 35% to Clinton's 34% and Edwards' 14%.

Liberals and Democrats are split, giving 32% each and 28% each, respectively, to Clinton and Obama. But Obama's margin comes among independents, where he holds a 35% to 18% lead, and among self-described moderates, with whom he leads 29%-19%.

Importantly, Obama also leads among second choice candidates, and Edwards' performance in the category is strong enough to inch him ahead of Clinton when first and second choices are combined.

Second Choice
Obama 26 (nc from 7/31)
Edwards 24 (+1)
Clinton 19 (-4)
Richardson 13 (+1)
Biden 6 (+2)

First/Second Choice Combined
Obama 55 (+4 from 7/31)
Edwards 45 (-3)
Clinton 44 (-4)
Richardson 23 (+1)
Biden 10 (+5)

Democrats say the Iraq war remains their top issue, with 33% choosing it as number one and 23% picking it second. Health care remains important as well, with 26% picking it first and 24% marking it as the backup. The economy came in third, as 21% chose it either first or second.

Kean Not Running

That was quick. Earlier today, we reported that New Jersey Republicans initially pointed to State Sen. Tom Kean as a potential candidate to replace retiring Rep. Mike Ferguson. Late today, Kean sent out a statement thanking Ferguson for his service and saying he would not seek the seat, instead focusing on his new duties as Republican Senate leader.

A knowledgeable Republican strategist says Assembly Republican Whip Jon Bramnick becomes the front-runner with Kean out of the race. Bramnick was said to be considering a Senate bid against incumbent Democrat Frank Lautenberg, but a race for Congress would seem to be more appealing. PolitickerNJ reports on Republican sources saying Kean will support Bramnick as he moves toward a bid.

Linda Stender, the Democrat who lost to Ferguson by just two points in 2006, has a preliminary name identification and fundraising edge on Bramnick, making the race difficult for Republicans. But one interesting wrinkle: The GOP source said a top staffer for Rudy Giuliani promised Republican leaders in New Jersey that, should the former mayor of the neighboring metropolis get the GOP nomination, their state would be targeted in 2008.

Regardless of whether Giuliani can win the state -- and his campaign believes they can -- the influx of staff and advertising dollars would likely carry a trickle-down effect, helping Republicans at all levels and, the party would hope, boosting their nominee to replace Ferguson over Stender. While former Governor Tom Kean Sr. today announced he would back John McCain, Giuliani has at least one prominent backer connected to Bramnick: His New Jersey state chairman is Tom Kean Jr.

Mark Your Calendars

The Commission on Presidential Debates has announced it will hold three debates between top-ticket contenders and one for their veeps this fall, co-chairs Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf announced today.

The first debate, at the University of Mississippi, will happen on Friday, September 26, focused on domestic policy. The second will be Tuesday, October 7 from Belmont University in Nashville, in a town hall format on issues the audience brings up. Finally, nominees will meet on October 15, a Wednesday, at Hofstra University to debate foreign policy.

Voters have repeatedly told pollsters that Iraq is their biggest concern this year. The issue, which does not favor Republicans, will be front and center once more just two weeks before the election.

Vice presidential candidates will meet at Washington University in St. Louis on Thursday, October 2, to discuss both foreign and domestic policy.

The commission has announced a new format that sounds like it will lead to a much more open discussion. The moderator will introduce a segment and ask each candidate to comment, and then "will facilitate further discussion of the issue, including direct exchange between the candidates, for the balance of that segment," according to the release. And in good news for YouTube, viewers will be able to submit questions to the town hall-style debate via the internet.

The moderators for each debate will be chosen later this summer.

Ferguson Out In NJ

Four-term moderate Republican Rep. Mike Ferguson will announce he will not seek re-election, PolitickerNJ reports, opening another seat for Democrats to target and Republicans to lose sleep over. Ferguson, who is just 37 years old, will say he prefers to spend more time with his young children.

Ferguson's 7th District, which spans from the Pennsylvania border nearly to Newark Airport and includes Edison, Woodbridge and Linden, re-elected the congressman by just two points last year over Assemblywoman Linda Stender. This year, Stender is running again and already has about $225,000 cash on hand. Ferguson leaves the House with more than $750,000 in the bank.

As Republicans begin looking for a candidate, their eyes will likely turn to a familiar face: The district is home to State Sen. Tom Kean Jr., whose failed run for Senate in 2006 left him with a rolodex full of deep-pocketed donors he should be able to tap again.

A Kean bid would be the GOP's best hope in keeping a district that gave President Bush just a 3,000-vote margin over Al Gore in 2000, and a wider 6-point edge in 2004. Still, the loss of a seasoned campaigner like Ferguson is another blow to the NRCC, which can't take much more punishment these days.

Doolittle Out?

It's rarely good news when an incumbent member of Congress announces his retirement, but in the case of Rep. John Doolittle, the Roseville Republican whose house was raided by the FBI in April, a retirement would be good news for the House GOP. Hank Shaw, who reports on politics in Sacramento, speculates today that State Sen. Rico Oller is set to run should Doolittle step down.

Doolittle, Shaw reports, is about to do just that, and will throw his support behind Oller. Other likely candidates include 2006 candidate Eric Egland and Assemblyman Ted Gaines. Last year's Democratic nominee, Charlie Brown, outraised Doolittle about four times over last quarter, and if Doolittle remains on the ballot, Brown would be the odds-on favorite to capture the seat.

The district, which covers some suburbs of Sacramento north to the Oregon border and population centers in Roseville and Rocklin, is the most rural seat in California. The ordinarily Republican seat gave President Bush 61% of the vote there in 2004.

Doolittle's withdrawal would be the political equivalent, for Democrats, of Lucy pulling out the football right before poor old Charlie Brown makes contact.

Investigated? So What?

A survey by USA Today shows it's bad for business to be under investigation while running for re-election. At least seven members of Congress have seen their names associated with ongoing investigations, and most have suffered on the campaign trail.

Rep. William Jefferson, the only member currently under indictment for corruption charges, raised just $15,000 in the third quarter, leaving him only $30,000 cash on hand. Few believe Jefferson will be on the ballot in 2008, though he has yet to attract a challenger. California Republican John Doolittle pulled in only $50,000 last quarter, while 2006 opponent Charlie Brown raised more than $200,000 in the same period. A fellow Republican candidate raised almost $80,000 in the same period.

In Alaska, two incumbent Republicans facing re-election next year each boasted big bank accounts. Rep. Don Young has $1.48 million in the bank, while Sen. Ted Stevens has more than $1 million on hand. Stevens' home was raided by the FBI in late July, while Young is under investigation, both in connection to the lawmakers' ties to VECO Corp.

Reps. Jerry Lewis and Tom Feeney, of California and Florida, respectively, are under investigation for their ties to lobbyists. Lewis pulled in just $67,000 in the third quarter, but his nearly million-dollar bank account means he would have the money to run again. Still, retirement rumors have been buzzing for months, and Lewis may decide to step down instead of running again. Feeney, who has cooperated with the FBI in an investigation connected to Jack Abramoff, raised an impressive $329,000 in the third quarter, three times what he pulled in during the same period in 2005.

Rep. Alan Mollohan, the West Virginia Democrat who finds himself under scrutiny for securing earmarks for non-profit organizations tied to his family, raised almost $200,000 in the quarter. No opponent has announced for the seat, which went heavily for President Bush in both his races. Even after news of the investigation came out last year, Mollohan still took nearly 65% in his re-election bid.

At least a few of the seven members of Congress under investigation will decide not to seek re-election next year. But even if their minds are already made up, keeping a campaign account open has one huge benefit: Donations to campaigns can be used to defray costly legal bills that at least some of these members can expect.

Dems Set For Show Me Pickup in Gov Race?

After a narrow win over now-Sen. Claire McCaskill in 2004, Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt has faced a rocky first term. Adding to his woes, the state's popular attorney general, Jay Nixon, has been plotting a bid against Blunt for years. A new poll, taken for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and KMOV-TV shows Nixon is in good position to take the seat back for Democrats.

The Research 2000 poll, conducted 11/12-15, surveyed 800 likely voters for a 3.5% margin of error. Blunt and Nixon were tested.

General Election Matchup
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind / Men / Wom)
Nixon 51 / 86 / 9 / 59 / 47 / 55
Blunt 42 / 8 / 85 / 32 / 47 / 37

Fav/Unfav
Nixon 47 / 41
Blunt 43 / 53

Blunt has a long road ahead of him. Just 40% rate his performance as governor as excellent or good, while 58% say he's done a fair or poor job. Nixon, on the other hand, wins 48% positive ratings and 41% fair or poor.

Democrats will make Missouri a top target, and by doing so they can kill several birds with one stone. The state is an important bellweather in a presidential race, and after picking up McCaskill's Senate seat in 2006, the DCCC is targeting Rep. Sam Graves, a Republican representing the suburbs of Kansas City, as well.

Townsend Out

Several outlets are reporting White House Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend has submitted her resignation and will stay only through the New Year. The former mob prosecutor who served in President Clinton's Justice Department had a close relationship with President Bush, Politico reports.

Townsend becomes the first member of the Administration to leave after Chief of Staff Josh Bolten set a Labor Day deadline for top staff to leave. It is not clear why Townsend is leaving.

Morning Thoughts: X Versus Y

It's Monday of the shortest week of the year. Kick back, relax, push the work aside and check out what Washington's watching today:

-- The Hill is dark, as both the House and Senate are on Thanksgiving recess. They're not back for two full weeks, meaning the sprint on spending bills is going to be intense. Even the Bush Administration seems to be totally on vacation: the President is in Richmond and Charles City, Virginia; acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner is in Italy; Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez is on a trip to Colombia, his second in a month; and Henry Paulsen of the Treasury Department is in Ghana.

-- This weekend saw a feisty Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton duking it out over ... Bob Novak? The conservative columnist claimed, in a weekend report, that Clinton backers were saying their candidate has the goods on Obama but has decided against dropping the bombshell. Obama virtually sprinted to a microphone, and the two campaigns spent Saturday sending out dueling statements before Clinton's camp denied having anything to do with the report. Andrew Malcolm has the long list of backs and forths, and one important lesson we learn from the incident: Like Clinton, the first time someone throws a pebble at Obama, he's coming back with a boulder. Looks like that new rapid response team is working already.

-- The increasing infighting between Democratic front-runners is leading some to wonder whether the party will produce a wounded nominee, writes the Des Moines Register. But to some, the increasingly sharp exchanges help candidates sharpen their message. Attacks have worked in some cases, like 1980, when George H.W. Bush beat Ronald Reagan's "voodoo economics" in Iowa. In other cases, most notably in 2004, attacks can fatally wound candidates, as Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt found out.

-- Speaking of scandals, Washington was buzzing late last week about phone calls made to a number of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire that purportedly slammed Mitt Romney and Mormonism. No one has claimed responsibility; in fact, the three most likely suspects, Teams Giuliani, Thompson and McCain, have all issued strong denials, and McCain went as far as seeking an investigation from the New Hampshire Attorney General. The fingers of blame are circling backwards now, and Romney's camp, or someone near it, is becoming a target of suspicion.

-- Campaign ads are flying around these days as time grows short. Barack Obama is launching a new spot in Iowa, focusing on jobs and middle class tax cuts. Mitt Romney's latest spot stays on his family-focused message. And Rudy Giuliani begins his second ad of the year, this one focusing on leadership. But Mike Huckabee takes the cake with his first spot, featuring none other than legendary martial artist Chuck Norris. The ad is only costing Huckabee's campaign $60,000, according to a fundraising email, but the spot will be the talk of the town for days. It comes, not coincidentally, as Huckabee's poll numbers in Iowa have shot up, and during a spell in which he won't return to the state for up to two weeks. With an absence like that, paid media is a good way to consolidate new supporters.

-- John McCain gets some important backing today as he's joined in Boston by former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean Sr. Kean, who chaired the September 11th Commission, lends more gravitas to the campaign with the most GOP foreign policy credentials. Adding to those credentials, while most candidates are home for Thanksgiving, McCain is likely to be in Iraq, as final details are being worked out, NBC News reports. Meanwhile, he told reporters on the Straight Talk Express this weekend that, should he become the GOP nominee, he'll reject Secret Service protection and limit it as much as possible should he win the White House.

-- Remember David Vitter? The Louisiana Senator had some little run-ins with a DC Madam's employees six times between 1999 and 2001, and now that Deborah Jeane Palfrey is heading to trial for her business' exploits, she wants former clients, Vitter included, to testify on her behalf. Vitter received a subpoena last Tuesday, Mary Ann Akers reports. Vitter isn't up until 2010, but combining Palfrey and another woman, in New Orleans and now the pages of Hustler Magazine, few would be surprised if Vitter faces a very tough re-election fight in three years, or if he decides not to run at all. Speaking of Hustler, Larry Flynt, who's backing Dennis Kucinich this year, maintains that he has a few more GOP sex scandals up his sleeve.

-- Head Fake Of The Day: He hasn't showed up there in a few days, but Rudy Giuliani is making his presence known in Iowa, reports Adam Nagourney. The campaign has started running more radio ads and robo-calls and dropping mailing pieces, all after virtually ignoring the state in the previous nine months of the year. If Giuliani showed up in one of the top three places on caucus night, his campaign would get a big boost heading into New Hampshire, where he's concentrated more of his fire in recent months. Along with a surging Huckabee, Giuliani's new attention to Iowa is bad news for Mitt Romney.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton is in Knoxville, Waterloo, Vinton and Tama, Iowa. John Edwards has scheduled stops in Davenport, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, all with singers Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. Obama makes appearances in Clarion and Fort Dodge, Iowa, while Joe Biden is in Iowa City and Chris Dodd is at Drake University outside of Des Moines. Bill Richardson, deciding to be different, heads to Massachusetts and New Hampshire today.

-- On the GOP side, Giuliani is in Texas today and holds a press conference in McAllen this morning. Ron Paul heads to Pahrump, Nevada, for an event with local Republicans. Mitt Romney is fundraising in Boise and Seattle and will meet the press in both cities, while John McCain announces Kean's endorsement in Boston after a stop in Nashua. Later, McCain heads to Philadelphia for events at a charter school and at the University of Pennsylvania. Thompson, meanwhile, hits Kenner, Louisiana and the New Orleans Airport, followed by two stops in Jackson, Mississippi.

Field Report: Two Approaches

Three incumbent Republicans seeking re-election are taking an approach markedly different from a Republican challenger who hopes to join them in the upper chamber. For Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith and Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, the farm bill this week offered them the latest chance to vote against their party and join Democrats in trying to pass what will doubtless be a popular bill in their home states. Meanwhile, Smith and Maine Sen. Susan Collins are moving to inoculate themselves against criticism on the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq.

Smith and Coleman both voted with Democrats to invoke cloture on the measure on Friday, joining every Democrat and two other Republicans. The measure attracted 55 votes, short of the 60 votes required.

Smith and Collins, who also faces a tough battle in 2008, voted against their party to support a war funding bill that would have required troops begin leaving in 30 days. That bill, too, failed to gain enough votes for cloture. But while Smith, Collins and Coleman have grown closer to Democrats this year, Rep. Heather Wilson, the New Mexico Republican hoping to replace retiring Sen. Pete Domenici, is taking the opposite tack. "Sen. [Charles] Schumer only wants to fund pay, body armor and chow for the troops if he can put conditions on the money so that they cannot do the mission they have been ordered to do," she told the AP.

Wilson, a veteran herself, will have to take some strong anti-Democratic positions if she can make her way through a competitive primary against Rep. Steve Pearce. While turnout in GOP primaries has been low of late, some in New Mexico are expecting a much higher showing after a barn-burner of a race, writes the Albuquerque Tribune.

Finally, in Maine, where Collins will most likely face Democratic Rep. Tom Allen, the Kennebec Journal has a message for both candidates: They "want to engage us for an entire year. It's a big race and one that already has national eyes on it because it could help tip the balance of the Senate toward a more favorable Democratic margin ... but six to nine months of that would be just fine, thank you. Call us back in April."

Polls Show Tight Race For Hastert Seat

Sometimes it pays to lose a campaign. In some cases, a loss can set up a candidate well for the next time he or she makes a bid. That's what businessman Jim Oberweis is hoping as he seeks to replace retiring Speaker Dennis Hastert in the suburban Chicago district. Still, two polls taken recently show, while Oberweis begins the primary in good position, he is no shoe-in for the nomination.

The first poll, taken for Oberweis's campaign from the respected Republican firm McLaughlin & Associates, shows the two-time Senate candidate and 2006 gubernatorial candidate leading his GOP opponents, two of whom have an elected base within the district. Hiring McLaughlin brings extra benefits to the Oberweis campaign; the pollster also worked for Hastert, and would presumably donate his institutional knowledge of the district.

The poll, conducted 10/16-18, as Oberweis launched the cycle's first television ads, also surveyed State Sen. Chris Lauzen, Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns and Rudy Clai. A total of 333 Republican primary voters were surveyed for a margin of error of +/- 5.4%.

Primary Election Matchup
Oberweis 41
Lauzen 37
Burns 3
Clai 0
Other/undec 19

Fav/Unfav
Oberweis 63 / 19
Lauzen 50 / 6
Burns 11 / 6

On the other hand, a separate poll taken last month on Lauzen's behalf shows similar numbers. The poll was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, Lauzen's long-time pollster, between 10/22-23. 300 likely primary voters were surveyed, for a margin of error of +/- 5.6%. Lauzen, Oberweis and Burns were tested.

Primary Election Matchup
Lauzen 38
Oberweis 38
Burns 4

Fav/Unfav
Oberweis 63 / 20
Lauzen 55 / 5

In both polls, Lauzen and Oberweis are well within the margin of error for first place. That's good news for both candidates, though both have the ability to drop significant amounts of their personal fortunes into the race.

The winner will face the winner of a Democratic primary between 2006 nominee John Laesch, attorney Jotham Stein, businessman Joe Serra and scientist Bill Foster. Foster, who is also independently wealthy, is considered the favorite. Come November, the race to replace Hastert will likely be one of a few around the country in which both candidates trigger the so-called millionaire's amendment, making the race incredibly expensive for both parties.

Looking Ahead To 2010

New York

Of the freshmen governors elected in 2006, several are doing extraordinarily well. Ohio's Ted Strickland and Florida's Charlie Crist are routinely mentioned as potential vice presidential candidates. Chet Culver has his turn in the limelight as Democratic presidential candidates fawn over him. And even Maryland's Martin O'Malley is getting good press.

For New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, freshman year has been a lot more difficult. Dogged by scandal, held up as a shining example of coddling illegal immigrants. After winning election easily, Spitzer's approval ratings have steadily tanked. A new Siena College poll shows just 33% of the state views his job performance as excellent or good, down from 55% in June. The trend line is getting progressively worse: In July, 46% rated him positively. It was 44% in September, and 41% in October.

Sure, the guy will raise a bijillion dollars for his 2010 re-election bid, and his biggest potential threat, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has said he won't make a bid, but Spitzer had better do something to turn his numbers around. For starters, his party needs him to be popular if he is going to help Democrats re-take the New York State Senate, which would likely kick two Republicans out of Congressional districts after the 2012 redistricting.

Tennessee

He's not going to be president in 2008, but former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said this week that he might be up for a bid for the governor's mansion in 2010. Incumbent Gov. Phil Bredesen is term limited that year, but Frist won't have an easy path to either the nomination or the general election. Reps. Zach Wamp and Marsha Blackburn have said they might be interested in running, and even freshman Sen. Bob Corker refused to completely rule out a run, according to the Knoxville News.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Lincoln Davis is actively contemplating a bid, and one can't rule out a comeback attempt from former Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

The state is somewhat unique in that the Lieutenant Governor, at the moment Republican Ron Ramsey, is the Speaker of the Senate, elected by his colleagues. Ramsey is also said to be considering a bid, but his base would be much less than in other states, where a lieutenant governor faces voters every four years.

South Dakota

Speaking of term-limited governors and their possible successors, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin says she won't rule out a governor's bid in 2010, when Republican Gov. Mike Rounds will not be on the ballot. If Herseth Sandlin runs for the executive post, Rounds might be enticed to replace her in the House. It's not an unprecedented move; former Gov. Bill Janklow left the governor's mansion for Congress before he was forced to resign after a car accident killed a motorcyclist.

A further wrinkle, the Rapid City Journal reports: Herseth Sandlin did not rule out running for any other office in 2010, when Sen. John Thune is up for re-election. Thune, of course, narrowly defeated Tom Daschle in 2004, and Democrats would love to give him a taste of his own medicine. Odds are, though, that if Herseth Sandlin left the House, she would go for the seat Thune doesn't seek.

Don't Say No

As the Senate debates the farm bill this week, Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin is in an unusually enviable position. The Iowan, who is managing the debate for Democrats, knows this morning's cloture vote will be a close one. He has also seen Democratic presidential candidates missing their Senate votes in favor of campaign stops.

Fortunately for him, Harkin has leverage. Harkin's office told Politico's John Bresnahan that the Senator has been "calling his friends on the campaign trail" to make sure they'll be back in Washington for the vote.

Harkin has not endorsed a candidate for president yet, though he hosted them all at his steak fry this Fall, and while he looks unlikely to give a nod to one over another, no one wants to irritate Iowa's senior Democrat. Plus, voting for the farm bill will certainly endear all four Senate presidential wannabes to a crucial Iowa voting bloc.

So despite a late night last night -- the debate in Las Vegas ended at 10 p.m. Eastern and some candidates attended the Clark County Democrats' Jefferson Jackson dinner -- four Senators running for president made their way quickly back to Washington in time for this morning's vote. That's going to make for some bags under the eyes.

Phones Target Romney

New Hampshire and Iowa residents have gotten phone calls lately planting negative ideas about Mitt Romney's Mormonism and military deferments he received while serving as a missionary during the Vietnam war, AP's Phil Elliott reports. The twenty-minute calls were made from Utah-based Western Wats, and though a spokesman denies they conduct push-polls he declined to comment on calls targeting Romney.

Romney's campaign, which has long had to deal with under-the-radar questions about the candidate's religion, quickly sent out a statement blasting the calls. "Whichever campaign is engaging in this type of awful religious bigotry as a line of political attack, it is repulsive and, to put it bluntly, un-American," said communications director Matt Rhoades. "There is no excuse for these attacks."

Reports initially suggested the company, Western Wats, was somehow connected to Rudy Giuliani's campaign. The company has previously done work for The Tarrance Group, an Arlington, Virginia-based pollster that serves as Giuliani's top number crunchers. But Tarrance Group chief Ed Goeas vehemently denied the story and released an email between Western Wats and himself, in which the company reaffirms that the two are not working together, reports Jonathan Martin. Giuliani's campaign also denied involvement.

Rose Kramer, an Iowa voter who backs Romney, told Politics Nation the call, which she received around 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, began with typical screening questions on whether she planned to caucus and if she had caucused before. After an initial ballot test -- on which she says Romney's name was listed last -- the pollster offered five questions about John McCain, all of which she characterized as "glowing." Kramer said she asked the caller whether he was working for a campaign; he said no, his was an independent research group.

McCain's Iowa offices has received calls complaining of the push poll, though Iowa state director Jon Seaton said the senator disapproves of the style of campaigning and that the campaign had no involvement.

Romney's camp has long expected implied or direct mentions of his religion in early states, especially in evangelical-rich Iowa and South Carolina. Whisper campaigns and email chains have been passed around for months, though few have cropped up in national media. The push poll, the most dramatic example so far, is likely to further fan the flames of an increasingly nasty GOP race.

Update: McCain's campaign released a statement this morning from New Hampshire co-chairman and former Congressman Chuck Douglas: "Today, the McCain New Hampshire Leadership Committee intends to file a complaint with the New Hampshire Attorney General's office seeking a full investigation to determine who was behind the push poll. The Leadership Committee calls on all the other Republican campaigns to join us as parties to this complaint. These tactics are repugnant and despicable and there is no place in New Hampshire politics for push polling or any other negative tactics that engage in personal attacks. It is especially shameful that those responsible would hide behind a push poll to impugn a candidate's faith."

McCain added his thoughts, calling the push polls "cowardly acts." McCain urged his fellow Republicans to pledge not to engage in the same "despicable tactics" for the rest of the campaign, and said he was outraged that the calls would hide behind his name. "I was a target of these same tactics in South Carolina in 2000 and believe the American people deserve better from those who seek the high office of the presidency," he said in a statement.

Morning Thoughts: Frontrunner Again

Good Friday morning. Barry Bonds had a very bad day yesterday, and as Tom Bevan wrote, how 'bout that asterisk? Here's what Washington is looking at today:

-- The Senate takes up cloture on two Iraq war funding bills, as well as an amendment to the farm bill. The House has begun its Thanksgiving recess and won't be back until December 4th. President Bush today meets with new Japanese Prime Minister Vasuo Fukuda, while Vice President Cheney raises money for Republicans in Little Rock.

-- Coming out of a debate In Las Vegas yesterday that many though put Hillary Clinton in her most difficult position yet, the reaction is almost completely positive for Hillary Clinton. Not only did she defend herself, she also began calling out other candidates, most notably Barack Obama's health care plan and John Edwards' "Republican playbook." Positive Clinton coverage comes from The Fix, OnCall, Ben Smith, Marc Ambinder ("Call It A Comeback?"), Mark Preston ("Clinton Makes A Recovery") and Chuck Todd. The one the Clinton camp is sending to every big donor this morning: Des Moines Register's David Yepsen: "That's why the lady is a champ."

-- Still, reports WSJ's John Harwood, some Clinton allies are worried that Obama has a better organization on the ground in Iowa. Strategists Mark Penn and Teresa Vilmain hope their focus on older voters, a constituency among whom Clinton holds a wide 47%-18% lead, will pay off. But Clinton leads just 45%-32% among those under 35, and Obama's team has spent time on college campuses encouraging students to get into the caucusing action. Meanwhile, Edwards runs best among those in rural settings, white men and evangelicals, so don't count out his supporters yet.

-- Just as reports have surfaced about Rudy Giuliani's quiet attempt to inject himself into the GOP caucuses in Iowa, influential Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican who represents about the western third of the state, is taking shots at Hizzoner. The GOP platform would be "sacrificed" if Giuliani gets the nomination, King said, and encouraged someone to think of a third-party bid. "What's it take to be a spoiler? Not much," he told the Register's Jane Norman. King is an immigration activist who is close to Giuliani's fellow presidential candidate, Tom Tancredo.

-- How's this for an interesting wrinkle: Meeting in Baltimore this week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have issued a new document called "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship." The document calls abortion an evil larger than most others, per the New York Times, but still asserts that "there may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate's unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons." Is the document aimed at allowing Catholics to vote for an anti-war candidate? More likely, it's aimed at allowing their followers to cast ballots for Rudy Giuliani. Is it any coincidence that the chairman of the group's domestic policy committee is a bishop in Brooklyn?

-- Is this a joke? Lou Dobbs is predicting a surprise presidential candidate for 2008, reports John Fund. That candidate, an "independent populist," might just be Dobbs himself. Dobbs would be enticed to enter the race if Michael Bloomberg does, friends say. And Dobbs is well aware of his "Q" ratings, Fund says, pointing out that the anti-immigration guru himself claims to be the media figure most popular among voters in all parties. Apparently Bob Novak is on board, with the idea at least. Dobbs gets ink in this weekend's column, Playbook notes.

-- Guest Speaker Of The Day: In an interview with C-SPAN, former top political hack Karl Rove says he's surprised by a few developments in the race for the White House, Andrew Malcolm writes. The Architect did not expect Giuliani to attract backing from Pat Robertson, nor to stay atop the GOP field for so long. He didn't see Obama and Edwards as so weak against Clinton. Rove heaps the highest praise on Mitt Romney, who he said is running "a textbook campaign."

-- Today On The Trail: Edwards tours a hospital in Henderson, then joins striking writers at the NBC studios in Burbank, California. And Hillary Clinton heads back to Washington for votes before heading back to Nevada for more campaign stops. On the GOP side, Tom Tancredo will look fantastic after his $400 haircut. Mitt Romney is in Las Vegas, while Fred Thompson rallies in Pensacola and gives a speech in Hollywood, Florida. Rudy Giuliani is in Washington with the Federalist Society, and John McCain holds a presser in Denver before showing up in Errol and all-important Dixville Notch, New Hampshire.

Good News For NE GOPers

A new baseline poll, sponsored by DailyKos and conducted by Research 2000, surely has many Democrats wishing that former Sen. Bob Kerrey hadn't turned them down. The poll, conducted 11/12-14, surveyed 600 likely voters for a margin of error of +/- 4%.

Former Gov. Mike Johanns and Attorney General Jon Bruning were surveyed on the GOP side, while Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey and 2006 Congressional candidate Scott Kleeb were the Democrats tested.

General Election Matchups
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind)
Johanns 59 / 20 / 86 / 58
Kleeb 28 / 62 / 6 / 28

Bruning 55 / 17 / 82 / 52
Kleeb 29 / 63 / 6 / 29

Johanns 57 / 18 / 84 / 54
Fahey 33 / 70 / 8 / 33

Bruning 55 / 17 / 82 / 53
Fahey 34 / 71 / 9 / 34

Fav/Unfav
Johanns 59 / 25
Bruning 48 / 28
Fahey 37 / 17
Kleeb 28 / 9

It looks like Democrats will need to get very lucky if they hope to take retiring Sen. Chuck Hagel's seat.

That's A Latta Lead

There is some whispering, albeit from only the most optimistic Democrats, that an upcoming special election in Ohio's 5th Congressional District might be winnable. A new poll, conducted on behalf of the NRCC, shows any optimism might be better used on another race. For now, the seat once held by the late Rep. Paul Gillmor looks like just what Republicans need: A win.

The poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, a well-respected Republican polling firm, tested State Rep. Bob Latta, who won a heavily contested Republican primary, and Robin Weirauch, who ran against Gillmor in 2004 and 2006. It was conducted 11/11-12 and surveyed 350 likely voters, for a margin of error of +/- 5.24%.

General Election Matchup
Latta 50
Weirauch 36

Generic Congressional Ballot
Republican 45
Democrat 37

Despite a nasty primary, in which Latta took hit after hit from the Club for Growth, 88% of Republicans say they will choose the GOP nominee, indicating that time heals at least most wounds in the district. In two nail-biters statewide, President Bush easily carried the 5th District, taking 59% in 2000 and 61% in 2004. The general election will be held December 11.

Watching The Undercard

Tonight's Democratic show-down in Las Vegas features one definite heavyweight fight, set up by the press as Hillary Clinton versus some combination of Barack Obama and John Edwards. We noted from Philadelphia that many were using boxing metaphors, and what better venue than right off the Strip, where the biggest bouts are fought, to continue that metaphor?

But pay attention to what is becoming an increasingly heated, if subtle, undercard. That fight, between Obama and Edwards, is a contest for the half of Democratic voters who haven't already said they would back Clinton. Both argue that they draw the clearest contrast with Clinton, and both shy away from taking on each other. But this fight is perhaps more urgent than a battle against Clinton: United against her, her opponents might stand. Divided, they will probably fall.

The battleground where an Obama-Edwards grudge match will be fought is Iowa. But unlike previous years, strategists for both campaigns say, this year there might be only two tickets out of the state, not the traditional three. "Whoever comes in third here is going to be in bad shape," Edwards strategist Joe Trippi told Politics Nation in Des Moines. That candidate, he said, will be "on life support." And the race is shaping up, in his mind, as a perfect opportunity for Edwards. Obama, he argues, "has had ten months with the whole world saying, 'It's between him and her,' to make it between him and her. Guess what? He's failed at that."

Clinton's problem, says Trippi, is that much of her support is reluctant, as opposed to enthusiastic. That reluctance presents an opening for a new candidate to emerge, and when that happens, "the race resets. And when it resets, she's going to lose a lot of her support."

The media's intense focus gave Obama an opening that Trippi says he missed. "There should have been a way to leverage that [media] focus, you know, to turn the race that way," he said. "People have looked at Barack Obama and have made a decision about him."

Obama backer David Axelrod thinks the subtle digs at his candidate, from the Edwards team, are just beginning. "Obviously, I think [Edwards is] a very, very determined guy. This is his second shot," Axelrod said at an Obama event in Chariton, Iowa. "Ultimately, [Obama's] quarrel is with a style of politics that has come to characterize Washington," he said, and those who would "shift and dodge, and wind up where you need to get to in the short run."

"People look for authenticity," Axelrod said. "They look for consistency. I think they're looking for people to stand on long-held principles and not on sort of short-term calculated posturing." Though the implicit shot touched some of Edwards' own inconsistencies, the Obama strategist couldn't help but return to his main target: "That's, I think, one of the reasons why Senator Clinton has run into some problems."

At the Philadelphia debate, though, it was Edwards who got credit for being fastest on the attack and surest of foot in drawing contrasts. The clarity of those contrasts are key, Trippi said. "We're going out every day and making sure people understand that the clearest choice in this race is between Hillary Clinton and John Edwards."

Obama, who has looked less steady going after his rivals, is only warming up, according to Axelrod. "[Obama] is happy to, and willing to, respond to any challenge. That's been true throughout his political life," said the strategist who cut his teeth in rough and tumble Chicago political circles. "He comes from a pretty tough political arena."

The race for the Anybody But Clinton crowd is not a race for second place. With a slim lead, if that, in Iowa and a not-insurmountable lead in New Hampshire, the presumed front-runner has her work cut out to reach the nomination. But as Edwards and Obama continue to aim fire at Clinton, the clock is ticking for them to make contrasts with each other. Tonight, the undercard is just as important as the main event.

On Access

With all the candidates, all the events and all the time in the world, it seems, it is slightly surprising that no presidential contender has fallen off a stage yet. Don't laugh -- it's happened as much as twice in one cycle, when Gary Bauer and Bob Dole both took plunges during the '96 campaign.

In truth, campaign 2008 is much more scripted than previous years. The front-runners are virtually inaccessible to the media -- on a recent bus tour, Barack Obama did a few pull-asides with top networks but did not schedule a single press availability. Hillary Clinton, too, rarely meets the press.

Other candidates are very available. John McCain holds frequent meetings with the media, and Fred Thompson is open to chatting as well. Even Rudy Giuliani, the consensus GOP front-runner, is seemingly in Washington every other week to announce a new endorsement and take questions.

But Republicans aren't exempt from being caught up in their success. Mike Huckabee, for example, was once so starved for attention that a call to his campaign would be answered, by the candidate himself, in mere minutes. After a big surge in recent polls, the governor is much less free to chat these days.

Many have asked whether this year's campaign is too scripted, usually in regards to a specific candidate named Clinton. The recent flap over her campaign planting a question on global warming, though, is indicative of more than just a misstep on her campaign's part. In fact, every campaign is over-managed this year, and candidates are left with as little room for error as possible.

One has to wonder: If someone hopes to be leader of the free world, shouldn't they be able to wing it time and again? On the other hand, the scripted campaign is much like the manager-warden dictating the candidate-inmate's life. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, who borrowed it from another president, maybe the candidates know that they're hoping to get into the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system.

Quotes Of The Day

Laurence Tribe, an influential constitutional law scholar at Harvard University, took a few not-so-subtle shots during a recent trip to New Hampshire that is sure to invite cheers from the Obama camp and a response from Team Giuliani.

Stumping for Obama, Tribe said of Giuliani: "True, he made the trains run on time in New York City. So did some other figures in world history."

Is that a Mussolini comparison? Let's wait and see how the Giuliani camp responds.

In more positive news, Mitt Romney is apparently a big fan of the dictionary. His campaign, likely as part of a network ad buy, has some banner ads up on merriam-webster.com. Romney spokesman Kevin Madden, explaining to The Hill: "Gov. Romney's prepossession towards the appositeness of classificatory vernacular is, unfortunately, sometimes indiscernible."

Morning Thoughts: Viva

It's Thursday morning, which means we're only hours away from some much-needed football. The surprising Oregon Ducks get a chance to go after the Arizona Wildcats tonight. If you haven't seen them yet, someone quite a while ago made the prediction that they'll be national champions. Take a look now. Here's what else is happening today in, and about, Washington:

-- The Senate is still working on the farm bill, and later today will consider a supplemental spending measure to pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House will vote on overriding the president's veto of the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations package. Later, the lower chamber will take up new mortgage regulations and a bill that would expand court oversight of government eavesdropping within the country's borders. It's the second time this month Democrats have tried to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to include more oversight. The Senate version of the bill is marked up today in that chamber's Judiciary Committee.

-- Democrats are in Las Vegas tonight for a candidates' debate, sponsored by CNN. The event is an opportunity for Hillary Clinton to walk back her mistakes and reestablish herself as the unquestioned leader in the race, writes the New York Times. Clinton's real problems last time, at a debate in Philadelphia, came when she hemmed and hawed on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. This time, she's put the issue to rest, in a statement sent to a limited number of reporters yesterday, opposing licenses for those who are "undocumented."

-- Meanwhile, the debate offers Nevada a perfect opportunity to complain that they are being virtually ignored, despite the early votes they will take. Democrats moved the Nevada caucuses up to January 19 first, hoping the state would encourage their candidates to consider and talk about Western issues, as Democrats look to the Mountain West for new electoral votes in 2008. But, writes the LA Times, it's not quite worked: Nevandans, according to polls, just care about the same thing everyone else does, including the war in Iraq, health care, immigration and security. And with a caucus that's widely thought to just be a rubber stamp for Iowa and New Hampshire, candidates have visited the state just 162 times this cycle -- that's one-tenth the number of trips they've made to Iowa.

-- The state does have its own political culture, though, and the Las Vegas Sun's Patrick Coolican offers a primer with a great lede: "Last year, the state controller was murdered by her husband, Clark County commissioners were convicted in a strip club bribery scandal and a candidate for governor was accused, although never charged, of getting grabby with a cocktail waitress after drinks at a seafood joint. Really, it's not always like that." Bottom line: Look to the establishment and the Culinary Workers. Does organization matter? Top candidates think so: According to CNN, Barack Obama has the most offices in the state and has been conducting a number of mock caucuses to inform their voters, while Hillary Clinton has Rory Reid, chair of the Clark County Commission and son of a certain Senate Majority Leader, in her back pocket.

-- On the GOP side, two big ads begin running shortly. Rudy Giuliani is finally going on television, pointing to his record in New York, and he doesn't even mention September 11th (take that, Joe Biden!). Advertising Age says the ad, "Tested," won't win him any fans in New York, but it's a "solid effort." By the way, Giuliani says Americans, when they look to him, won't find perfection. What is it with the guy's obsession with pointing out his own faults? We thought that was Mitt Romney's job.

-- In other advertising news, Mike Huckabee will be on the air in Iowa starting next week, First Read reports, with a relatively modest $60,000 ad buy. Having vaulted into second place without television, Huckabee's jump on most of the rest of the field will only boost his poll numbers, at least for now. Romney is not taking Huckabee's rise lightly, Geraghty reports. A source predicts that the part of Huckabee's record that is so unpopular around the Club for Growth offices here in Washington will become well known in Iowa too. Still, Romney had better watch his back: Janet Huckabee is apparently pretty good with a grenade launcher (?!?!), per CNN.

-- Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert will likely announce his resignation today in a speech on the House floor at about 2:30 p.m. The effective date of his resignation has not been decided, aides told CNN, but the announcement likely comes too late for Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to set a special election to coincide with the district's February 5th presidential primary. Some Democrats had hoped that an election held on that day, when native son Barack Obama is also on the ballot, would boost turnout enough to help them win a surprise victory. The seat leans Republican, but Democrats won several seats that favored Republicans by wider margins in 2006.

-- Shot And Chaser Of The Day: (With apologies to Last Call) John McCain wound up in a bit of hot water recently, telling a woman who referred to Hillary Clinton as a nasty word that she'd asked an "excellent question." CNN anchor Rick Sanchez took McCain to task, suggesting his campaign would implode because of the incident. Wisely, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis then sent out a fundraising letter charging the "Clinton News Network" with attacking the senator, Howard Kurtz writes. Kurtz finds it ironic that McCain, beloved by the media in 2000, is now accusing them of trying to hurt his campaign.

-- Today On The Trail: Before Democrats head to Las Vegas for the debate, Joe Biden holds an event at his campaign headquarters and John Edwards visits some place called Bagelmania. After the debate, everyone heads to the Clark County Democrats' Jefferson Jackson Dinner, at the Paris Hotel on the strip.

-- On the GOP side, Ron Paul addresses Republican chiefs of staff in Washington, while Fred Thompson holds a town hall meeting at JP Morgan Chase in New York, then heads to Darien, Connecticut. Mike Huckabee has a fundraiser and press conference in Bellevue, Washington, John McCain has a press conference in Sacramento, Mitt Romney holds a town hall in Burbank and Rudy Giuliani makes the necessary stop at The Villages near Tampa. Tom Tancredo is in Manchester and Nashua for campaign events.

First Of Many?

Sen. Joe Biden, who has been endorsed by more Iowa legislators than any other candidate for president, kicks off an 11-day swing through the state over the weekend. That swing includes Thanksgiving, when Biden will stay in what is becoming his adoptive state.

"Sen. Biden and family to spend Thanksgiving in Iowa," the press release heads. How many other candidates will spend time in Iowa for the holiday? And after that holiday, what about Christmas?

Book your rooms now.

For The Real Junkie

The Almanac of American Politics, Washington's Bible for politics, is officially out. Politics Nation has our copy, and we're not letting it out of our sight.

How much of a political junkie are you? Visit NationalJournal.com and click on their spotlight -- about halfway down the page -- to take the Almanac quiz. Politics Nation scored an embarrassingly low 24 out of 30, but to be fair the questions are tough!

How did you score?

By the way, stay tuned for an in-depth interview with Almanac editor Charles Mahtesian, someone who probably knows more about the American political landscape than anyone in the country.

The Real Deal

It's official: Mike Huckabee is really, actually, shockingly on the move, and in a big way. The latest polls out of Iowa, dating back to the middle of October, show what is now more than a few good days for the former Arkansas Governor: They show him clearly, solidly in second place in the GOP race. That's a huge accomplishment for a guy with no money.

In a mid-October University of Iowa [PDF] poll, Huckabee was tied for second place. In subsequent polls from American Research Group, Zogby, CBS/New York Times [PDF] and Strategic Vision, he's in second place by himself, by as many as seven points, in the Strategic Vision poll, and six points, in the CBS/NYT poll. He trails only Mitt Romney, though by 12.8 points in the latest RCP Iowa Average.

The Huckmentum is unbelievable, considering that Huckabee has fewer staffers total than Romney has in Iowa alone. But with Sam Brownback out of the race, and despite big evangelical endorsements for Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and John McCain, could it be that rank-and-file Christian conservatives are making Huckabee the candidate of their choice?

If so, look for Huckabee to sustain his momentum. The Iowa Christian vote is estimated by some to be as high as 40% of the GOP base. If Huckabee can form a coalition of even half those voters, he will vault himself into serious contention. For the record, Politics Nation said Huckabee would do well as far back as December of 2005, though we will admit that we were selling more stock than we were buying in recent months.

Good As Gold

Barack Obama released a detailed list of bundlers yesterday, a move in line with his calls for transparency in government. The top three Democrats have all released some information on their rainmakers, but Obama's disclosure goes so far as to provide information on how much each bundler has actually raised for the campaign.

Among those collecting big donations for the candidate: Ari Emanuel, brother of House Democratic Caucus chair Rahm Emanuel and inspiration for Ari Gold, the super-agent on HBO's "Entourage." Ari has raised between $100,000 and $200,000 for Obama's campaign, joining other Hollywood bigshots David Geffen and Jeff Katzenberg on Obama's team.

Emanuel, presumably well-trained by his brother, is no stranger to political donations. Over the past few years, he's given $65,000 to the DCCC, maxing out at $25,000 for the 2006 cycle, when brother Rahm was in charge, as well as to various presidential candidates' previous campaign accounts -- he contributed to Senate campaign accounts operated by Obama, Chris Dodd, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and gave money to PACs chaired by Tom Daschle and Russ Feingold.

This year, he's also spent his money backing Al Franken, maxing out to the comedian's campaign for Senate and donating another $5,000 to Franken's Midwest Values PAC, which helped fund Democratic candidates around the country for the last few cycles.

Over the last three cycles, Emanuel has backed a number of presidential campaigns, including those of Wes Clark, Howard Dean, John Edwards (in the '04 cycle), Dick Gephardt, Kerry, Bill Bradley and Al Gore.

Emanuel caused a minor flap last year when FEC records showed he had written a $1,000 check to the Republican National Committee. This year, while he may be bundling for Obama, FEC records show he has yet to actually write his own check to the Obama campaign.

Morning Thoughts: Attacks Begin

It's Wednesday, something of a milestone in the presidential race, as The Fix points out: In just 50 days, Iowans will be ready to caucus, and presumably ready for the television ads to end. Here's what Washington is keeping an eye on today:

-- The House will consider the Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act while the Senate is still at work on the farm bill. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who was sworn in last week, gets a ceremonial swearing in later today. Meanwhile, as the farm bill makes its way through the Senate, the U.S. Department of Agriculture still has no permanent Secretary, after Mike Johanns left to run for Senate. But acting Secretary Chuck Connor, a long-time staff director for the Senate Agriculture Committee and a White House aide overseeing the farm bill, has plenty of experience with that particular legislation.

-- Members of Congress are being asked to raise and donate a record amount of their campaign coffers to the DCCC, according to Bloomberg News. Democrats in the lower chamber are being asked to transfer a combined $50 million in dues from their re-election campaign while raising another $104 million from donors. Different members, of course, are paying different amounts: Niki Tsongas, the most junior member of the House, is being asked to pay $104,000. Allen Boyd, a veteran Florida Democrat who sits on the Appropriations Committee, has to fork over $450,000. Committee chairs like Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank owe a whopping $1.5 million, and leaders like Nancy Pelosi owe $25.8 million. The $154 million the DCCC hopes to earn from its members would swamp the NRCC, which has lagged well behind Democrats despite chairman Tom Cole's hope that more members will pony up from their own campaigns.

-- With a day over seven weeks to go, someone is already paying for phone calls dig toward the bottom of the barrel. Everyone expects the inevitably nasty calls questioning Mormonism or wondering just who needs three wives, but few expected this one, per MyDD: Testing negatives against John Edwards, the choices are: "He is too liberal to win a general election," and "He chose to continue the presidential campaign instead of staying home with his wife who has cancer." Most push-polls or robo-calls come close to the line, but if the campaign behind these questions gets caught, someone's going to get fired. Marc Ambinder spends some time contemplating the identity of the culprit. Ben Smith reports the major Democratic candidates all deny being behind the calls.

-- Speaking of attacks, Barack Obama is apparently still getting questions about an email circulating through Iowa that questioned whether or not he put his hand over his heart during a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. This time it came as he addressed auto workers in Dubuque, writes CNN. Obama got the question at least twice while Politics Nation was on the road with him, and also took time to dispel rumors that he is Muslim and was raised in a madrassa. Obama's campaign seems concerned enough to have a practiced answer on the question, but not concerned enough to overtly address what could be an avenue less than savory characters could take to malign Obama.

-- Meanwhile, Obama and Edwards continue to press a new line against Clinton, hitting her on trade legislation. Obama criticized Clinton's positions on NAFTA at the same forum in Dubuque yesterday, while Edwards hits her on NAFTA and recent trade deals, writes Perry Bacon. The issue is one on which Edwards and Obama could draw distinctions with each other, should the need arise: Obama thinks NAFTA should be revisited and backs a trade deal with Peru. Edwards thinks NAFTA should be scrapped and opposes the Peru agreement. A bigger issue to come? If so, it's one that probably plays to Edwards' advantage in a Democratic primary.

-- New Hampshire independents may be taking another look at the GOP slate, a new poll suggests. The Boston Globe finds that while 72% of independents said they would take a Democratic ballot in the June survey, that number is down to 55% in the most recent survey. In 2000, most independents chose Republican ballots, and heavily favored John McCain. This year, independents are most excited by Barack Obama. So the more independents who choose a GOP ballot, the better for McCain and the worse for Obama. As a pollster once told Politics Nation: In 2000, Al Gore didn't beat Bill Bradley in the New Hampshire primary, John McCain did. The Globe points out that Bradley's campaign co-chair is now Obama's campaign co-chair in the state. So, lesson learned?

-- New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is shelving plans to award driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, the New York Times and AP report. The issue flared up at the Philadelphia Democratic debate when Clinton couldn't seem to get her answer on the question correct. Spitzer said he still supported the decision, but that he believed it would have been blocked legally or in the legislature, and that he was not willing to fight for something that would be so easily stopped. Does that mean the issue goes away as something her opponents will hit Clinton on? Far from it.

-- Black Tie Gala Irony Of The Day: The Federalist Society will hold a massive banquet tomorrow night at Union Station, just blocks from the RCP Washington Bureau. Attendees include President Bush, Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito and top GOP lawyers Ed Meese and Ted Olson. At the same time, Washington Wire reports, former Deputy AG James Comey will be addressing the American Bar Association on common ground in fighting the war on terror. No word, though, whether newly confirmed AG Mukasey will show up.

-- Today On The Trail: Obama has a town hall meeting at Google headquarters, in Mountain View, California, and a fundraiser in San Francisco. Bill Richardson, Mitt Romney and John McCain are also fundraising in California. Edwards hits the auto workers and walks a picket line in Dubuque. Rudy Giuliani has events in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Fargo, North Dakota, then back to Rock Rapids, Iowa, before finishing his day in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. And Ron Paul makes stops in North Strafford, Lancaster, Whitefield, Littleton and Woodsville, New Hampshire.

Another Abramoff Target?

Florida Republican Tom Feeney, who has found himself on the periphery of a scandal that has already nabbed former Reps. Bob Ney and Tom DeLay, may be closer to the center of the probe than many thought. The congressman, the Orlando Sentinel reports, has paid almost $28,000 to a Baltimore company that specializes in data recovery.

The company, FTI Consulting, can recover deleted emails and unearth other electronic information, and aides confirm that Feeney has turned documents over to the Justice Department. The FBI had contacted the Sentinel regarding emails between reporters and former Feeney Chief of Staff Jason Roe regarding a 2003 trip Feeney took to Scotland to play golf, a trip paid for by Abramoff.

Feeney paid about $5,600 for the trip, which he said was the amount owed, though records show Abramoff paid about $20,000 per person for the trip.

Feeney's district, which contains suburbs north of Orlando, is not a rock-solid Republican seat. The three-term incumbent has won easily, though former State Rep. Suzanne Kosmas is hoping to give Feeney a strong race. The congressman, though, just can't help opening himself up to new attacks: Tonight, Cassidy and Associates lobbyist Todd Boulanger, a close associate of Abramoff, holds a fundraiser for the increasingly embattled incumbent.

Davis Eyeing Gov Race

It's never too early to plan. Rep. Artur Davis, an Alabama Democrat widely seen as a rising star in Democratic politics, is beginning to consider a governor's race when Bob Riley is term-limited out in 2010, according to the Times Daily. "I'm taking a very hard look at governor in 2010," Davis said.

Davis, who is African American, would be the state's first non-white governor, and he would likely face an uphill race: In 2006, just two of seven statewide offices went to Democrats, when Lieutenant Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. and Agriculture & Industries Commissioner Ron Sparks won their races. Davis is one of two Democrats out of a seven-member House delegation. Alabama has one of the highest African American populations in the country, at about 26% of the state's population.

Davis also hinted he may consider a Senate race, as well, if Sen. Richard Shelby decides to step down. His $700,000 cash on hand number would immediately make him a top-tier Democratic candidate.

A Tale Of Two Primaries

It isn't always easy being an incumbent member of Congress, even when your party's presidential nominee carries your district by dozens of points. In two cases this year, incumbents are facing difficult challenges that threaten their status in Congress, and that's before they even get to November.

In Idaho, freshman Rep. Bill Sali got some good news yesterday when three top Republicans announced they're heading up his campaign. The conservative firebrand has put his foot in his mouth a few times of late, most recently when he suggested that the founding fathers had not envisioned Rep. Keith Ellison's election to the House. Ellison is the first Muslim to serve in Congress.

After winning a difficult primary in 2006, Sali now faces a more moderate challenger this year. Iraq war veteran Matt Salisbury has the backing of Idaho Agriculture director Pat Takasugi, though Sali's campaign will be chaired by Public Instruction Superintendent Tom Luna, Treasurer Ron Crane and House Speaker Lawerence Denney. Still, an August poll from Greg Smith & Associates, a leading Idaho Republican pollster, showed just 29% of those surveyed viewed Sali favorably, while 46% viewed him unfavorably.

Through the third quarter, Sali held cash reserved of just $110,000 with almost $190,000 in debt. Salisbury declared his intention to run on July 4, though he has yet to file papers with the FEC.

In Maryland, Rep. Albert Wynn is not a freshman. First elected in 1992, the Democrat representing Prince George's County, north and east of Washington, has never won a general election with less than 75% of the vote. But last year, Donna Edwards, former executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, gave Wynn a scare, coming within three thousand votes -- about 3.3% -- of beating Wynn in the primary.

This year, Edwards is running again. Earlier this week she won backing from the League of Conservation Voters, while Wynn won support from NARAL. The liberal blogosphere is backing Edwards, who is anti-war, while criticizing Wynn for supporting the bankruptcy bill and voting to repeal the estate tax.

Edwards also has support from EMILY's List, which will help her allieviate Wynn's fundraising edge. At the end of the quarter, Wynn had $400,000 on hand, while Edwards, who launched her campaign at the end of June, already has $115,000 on hand.

The two primaries are being fought on very different turf, but for the same reasons. Sali, some Idaho Republicans believe, is too conservative for his district. Ironically, say some Maryland Democrats, so is Wynn. Both primaries promise to be two of the closest in the country featuring incumbents.

Headline Of The Day

Headline on a statement from Rep. Charlie Rangel, the New York Democrat, commenting on penalties for crack-related crimes, as reported by Roll Call: "Rangel on Crack."

Oops.

Morning Thoughts: What It Takes

It's Tuesday morning. Gas prices are headed up twenty cents in the next two weeks, likely breaking a new record for national average. Go fill up now.

-- The Senate this morning takes up the nomination of Robert Dow, Jr., to serve as a U.S. District Judge in the Northern District of Illinois. The House, meanwhile, considers a number of bills under suspension, including measures on attorney-client privilege and several on internet safety for children. The Senate Environment and Public Works and Foreign Relations Committees consider measures to address global warming, while the House Education and Labor Committee deals with the cold, taking up the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

-- Fred Thompson, who last week on Meet The Press told host Tim Russert he would not push for a national anti-abortion constitutional amendment, won the backing of the National Right To Life Committee yesterday, the country's largest pro-life group. Marc Ambinder writes the nod is not terrible news for Mitt Romney, especially considering Romney's campaign sees his biggest challenge at the moment coming from Mike Huckabee, not from Thompson. That's a story all on its own. Huckabee, meanwhile, is providing former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley to call the endorsement a "mistake," attributable to "Washington politics."

-- Despite the backing, two recent polls show Fred Thompson mired in sixth position in New Hampshire. While Rudy Giuliani had been rising over the summer, his support has now sagged, and Mitt Romney maintains an 11.2-point lead in the latest RCP New Hampshire Average. Huckabee's support is definitely growing, but whether he has the time is another question. The race looks like it'll remain a three-way contest between Romney, Giuliani and John McCain, though at the moment Romney is in the driver's seat.

-- Why is Romney so far ahead there, and in Iowa, where he leads by 13.8 points in the latest RCP Iowa Average? Perhaps his $10.2 million spent on television advertising has something to do with it. CNN reports the former Massachusetts governor has run more than 14,500 commercials, both new records for the year before an election. The second-highest Republican spender: McCain, at $300,000 in total spending. On the Democratic side, Barack Obama has dropped $3.9 million, while Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson have each spent about $2.2 million on television.

-- Watch out in Iowa, though: The Examiner's Bill Sammon reports that Rudy Giuliani has high hopes for the state, where he wants to finish second. Giuliani's camp admits they can't beat Romney in Iowa, and that their real battle is with Mike Huckabee. Mark our words, the Romney campaign really wants someone to challenge the Gov in Iowa -- or at least say they're able to finish first -- in order to tamp down the CW's expectations. Or is it more interesting that both Romney and Giuliani see Huckabee as their top rival? Then again, the New York Sun says Giuliani is still downplaying Iowa and New Hampshire in favor of the big February 5th states.

-- Speaking of rivals, some have noticed of late that best buddies McCain and Giuliani have begun trading shots. Last week, McCain's team hit Giuliani for their association with indicted ex-NYC Police Commish Bernard Kerik, while Team Giuliani hit back using the phrase "Keating 5" and questioning the wisdom of a $3 million loan McCain is taking out to fund his bid. Washington Post's Michael Shear has the back and forth. Until now, the two had mostly trained their fire on Romney, who no one in the field seems to like. The only person not being attacked, it seems, is Fred Thompson.

-- In the Democratic race, Mark Halperin thinks the feudin' and the fightin' has been good for John Edwards and bad for Clinton, while pretty much everyone says Obama's got the Big Mo' heading into Thursday's Las Vegas debate. So the question remains for both camps: Does one need to fold for the other to have a real shot at Clinton? At the moment, the answer is probably no; as Time's Ana Marie Cox writes, some top campaign rivals still think Edwards would win Iowa, were the caucuses held today, setting up a real three-way campaign. Also at Time, Jay Newton-Small looks at what it takes to be the Un-Hillary.

-- Photo Of The Day: The Associated Press captured Mitt Romney, reporters in tow, walking straight by an Obama for President sign. The picture, snapped in New Hampshire, reminded Politics Nation to share our observation about public expressions of support in Iowa. Hillary Clinton has a wide lead on the Democratic side in yard signs, it seems, while Barack Obama has a healthy edge in bumper stickers. We saw John Edwards' and Joe Biden's names on bumper stickers as well, but Obama was by far the most popular. On the GOP side, surprisingly few expressions of support showed up, save a few Mitt Romney and Ron Paul yard signs.

-- Today On The Trail: Rudy Giuliani meets voters in Glendale, California. Mitt Romney offers a new immigration plan in Sioux City, then opens a new campaign office there. Fred Thompson speaks at the Citadel, then meets voters in Myrtle Beach. And John McCain campaigns in Chicago, visiting the Mercantile Exchange and addressing the city's Urban League. On the Democratic side, John Edwards is in Lebanon, Milford and Salem, New Hampshire, and Barack Obama speaks to the United Auto Workers in Dubuque.

Udall Poll Has Him Up Big

As word leaks that Rep. Tom Udall is definitely in the Senate race, the nascent campaign has released a poll showing him way ahead of any other candidate. The poll, conducted for Udall's campaign, from Democratic firm Fairbanks, Maslin, Maullin and Associates, also tested Reps. Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce as well as Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez and developer Don Wiviott.

The poll was conducted 10/23-27 and surveyed 500 likely general election voters, for a margin of error of 4.3%. They also surveyed 439 likely Democratic primary voters for a margin of error of 4.6%.

General Election Matchups
Udall 52
Wilson 36

Udall 50
Pearce 33

Chaves 47
Wilson 43

Pearce 44
Chavez 40

Primary Election Matchup
Udall 50
Chavez 30
Wiviott 2

Il Papa To DC

Meeting in Baltimore today, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops heard the exciting news that Pope Benedict XVI will make his first trip to the United States next year, the first papal visit since 1999, the Washington Post reports.

Benedict will arrive in Washington in mid-April, visit the White House and hold a Mass at the new baseball stadium under construction just south of the Capitol. Later in the week he will address the United Nations and visit Ground Zero in New York, while celebrating Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral and Yankee Stadium.

The trip is Benedict's eighth since becoming Pope. He's already met President Bush, at a stop at the Vatican earlier this year.

Morning Thoughts: Scheduling Problems

Good morning, and happy observation of Veterans' Day. Many are taking the day off in anticipation of the barn-burner in the NFC West tonight, when division leader Seattle, at 4-4, takes on San Francisco, at 2-6. Whether it's baseball or football, the Western divisions just don't seem to win a lot. And Seattle, Portland, Golden State, the Clippers and the Lakers aren't getting much done either, of late. Anyway, here's what Washington's watching today:

-- Because of the holiday, the House and the Senate are out of session. Thanks to the federal holiday, most of Washington is sleeping in today. In honor of Veterans' Day, the House, later this week, will pass a bill renaming a Texas post office for a resident of the town who died in action in Iraq. The station, to be renamed in honor of Steven Gill, will be at least the tenth renamed in honor of a soldier who died in Iraq, writes Washington Post's Paul Kane.

-- Reverberations from the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson Jackson dinner are still being felt, and it is almost universally positive for Barack Obama. Bill Richardson was the only candidate to call for party unity, even though his prepared remarks contained the sharpest attack of the night: "Barack, Hillary and John are saying that it will take them longer to end the war in Iraq than it took FDR to win World War II. We can get out faster. The experts know it, I know it, and the American people know it," he planned to say, per a release from his campaign. In fact, Richardson cited only "leading candidates" and left out their names.

-- It probably wasn't wise for Obama to schedule an appearance on Meet the Press for Sunday morning, meaning he had fewer than eight hours to prepare without the burden of a JJ speech on his mind. Still, by all accounts, he didn't "commit any news," a phrase Ben Smith employs that Politics Nation has always found funny. First Read writes that he handled questions well, though the Clinton campaign will be able to circle back on a few things he mentioned.

-- Speaking of a bad scheduling, some candidates are doing their best to counter Ron Paul's $4.2 million day. Fred Thompson's blogosphere fans are setting something up for November 21, when they hope to raise a substantial amount for the former Senator. One big problem, though: That's the day before Thanksgiving. NRO's Jim Geraghty reports it's probably one of the worst days for fundraising of the year. Thompson is the first candidate whose backers are trying to duplicate Paul's success, and falling short of the Texan's haul will doom Thompson to more bad headlines. But, clever like a fox, those headlines would come out Thanksgiving day or the Friday after, when approximately 14 people around the country read the paper.

-- Which is better, bad scheduling or no scheduling? Mitt Romney, who has been asked several times if he will address his Mormon faith in a Kennedy-esque speech, says the speech might not happen. But Politics Nation is skeptical of the way Romney phrased it, during a house party in Holderness, New Hampshire. "Is there going to be a special speech? Perhaps, at some point. I sort of like the idea myself. The political advisers tell me, 'No, no, no -- it's not a good idea.'" That Romney's advisers would say no to a speech many in the governor's camp have already suggested is too long in coming seems highly unlikely.

-- This column maintains that low Congressional approval ratings do not necessarily spell trouble for Democrats. While Congress wins lower ratings than even President Bush, many pollsters agree that the ratings are more of an expression of dissatisfaction with Washington as a whole rather than the party that controls Congress. Still, delving into approval ratings of Democrats in Congress, the Washington Post finds the party's standing among their own base is wounded as well. Since April, the party's approval ratings have plummeted 27 points among liberals, 29 points among unmarried women and a whopping 30 points among those over age 45. Republicans have not enjoyed the heights from which to fall, but their ratings remain worse than Democrats. But much lower ratings mean Democrats have to make 2008 about the GOP, not about themselves.

-- Democrats did get some good news today, as Tom Nagle, chief of staff to Rep. Tom Udall, said the New Mexico Democrat will definitely run for retiring Sen. Pete Domenici's seat. Udall, elected to Congress in 1998, served two terms as the state's Attorney General before going to Congress, and a recent poll shows him handily defeating Reps. Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce, who are battling it out for the Republican nomination. Udall still has to get through Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, though some have suggested that Chavez would be willing to make a bid for Wilson's Albuquerque-based district.

-- Trend Of The Day: Three years ago, President George H.W. Bush went skydiving in celebration of his 80th birthday. This weekend, Bush celebrated the reopening of his presidential museum by jumping out of another plane with the Army Golden Knights. Next week: Pizza successfully delivered to Bush home, so he celebrates by jumping out of an airplane.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton, Joe Biden and Dennis Kucinich are in Dubuque talking to United Auto Workers. Edwards is in Plymouth, New Hampshire, for a major policy speech on Veterans' issues, then heads to Hanover for a town hall. Barack Obama is also in New Hampshire. On the GOP side, Rudy Giuliani is in Missouri, while Mitt Romney is in New Hampshire. Tom Tancredo and Fred Thompson are in Iowa and John McCain is in South Carolina.

Clinton Controversy Less Clear Than It Looks

CEDAR RAPIDS -- Hillary Clinton has faced criticism in recent days after a campaign aide asked a student to ask the senator a question on global warming, most notably from John Edwards, who suggested that the tactic is akin to the way President Bush operates in front of screened audiences. "It takes a village to ask a question, apparently," joked Bill Kristol this morning on Fox News Sunday, offering the zinger to opponents Edwards and Barack Obama.

jjclinton.jpg
Clinton speaks to Iowa
Democrats last night
Two quick thoughts on the matter: Skeptics will point out that Clinton actually called on the student, leading them to believe that she was in on the plot. After all, how likely is it that, in a crowd that presumably numbered in the hundreds, Clinton would find the one planted questioner without knowing who that person was?

On the other hand, after spending several days on the trail with Obama, during which Politics Nation attended half a dozen or so town hall meetings where questions were asked, it strikes us that Clinton may have had little choice but to call on the plant.

Iowans are proud of their access to presidential candidates, but notably few, when solicited by Obama, raised their hands to ask a question. While every event ended before all the questions could be answered, there were never more than three or four hands up when Obama made his exit. So, with the choice of a smattering of audience members interested in asking a question, Clinton might have had a better than even chance of picking the plant.

None of that excuses the staffer's actions, and her opponents will certainly raise the specter that more than a few audience questions were planted at various campaign stops. But perhaps it absolves the candidate herself of blame in the matter.

One further observation: Des Moines is a very small town. After last night's Jefferson Jackson Dinner, three top Democratic strategists all happened to find themselves in the very same, very small bar at the Hotel Fort Des Moines. Jammed with campaign staffers and journalists, Edwards adviser Joe Trippi, Obama chief David Axelrod and Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe all made appearances.

Trippi and Axelrod exchanged pleasantries, and McAuliffe might have said hello, though Politics Nation didn't happen to witness it.

Finally, now that the dinner is over (a clearly relieved Iowa Democratic Chairman Scott Brennan was also spotted around town, sans tie, after the festivities), the sprint to the end is off in full force. The Des Moines Register's David Yepsen pens a great history of the caucuses in this morning's paper, detailing the rise of the caucus's prominence and offering some lessons that might come from this year's contests. A definite must-read for any junkie.

More JJ Photos

The first candidates join Nancy Pelosi on stage:

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John Edwards, Nancy Pelosi, Bill Richardson, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd wait for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to be announced:

jjedpelrichbiddodd.jpg

Clinton and Obama say hello:

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The candidates wait for the pledge of allegience:

jjcandidates.jpg

MC Nancy Pelosi rallies the troops:

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The "Big Lug," Iowa Governor Chet Culver, speaks to his people:

jjculver.jpg

Obama fans go nuts:

jjobamafans.jpg

...as their candidate wows the crowd:

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At the end of the night, the confetti falls:

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Iowa Dems JJ In Pictures

One gets a sense of the mayhem to come:

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Fans line up to get to their tables on the lower level:

JJ1.jpg

Obama fans crowd in, headed to upper concourse:

JJ4.jpg

Outside Veterans Memorial in downtown Des Moines, the sign wars have been fought:

JJ2.jpg

Last night's scramble to put up as many signs as possible left this upper concourse:

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Edwards Sharpens Clinton Attacks

DES MOINES -- After addressing the Iowa Farmers' Union this morning, John Edwards continued to sharpen his attacks on front-running Hillary Clinton while also aiming subtle jabs at Barack Obama. "If we change corporate Republicans with corporate Democrats, nothing will change," Edwards told reporters after his speech.

Edwards has accused Clinton of accepting more political action committee and lobbyist money than any other candidate in the race, arguing that she is part of a flawed system. "I don't think you can say the system is fine as it is," he said. "We have to have a president who is willing to stand up to these people."

Edwards has of late sought to cast himself as a candidate willing to fight to change a system, unlike Obama, who takes an approach aimed at compromise through involving all interested parties. "We can't pretend these entrenched interests are just going to step aside," Edwards said.

Asked to respond to charges that Clinton's campaign planted a question in a town hall audience, Edwards landed a strong rebuke. "That's what George Bush does," he said. "That's not the way democracy works."

"If you want to be president of the United States, you go out and face people," he said.

Sign Wars Rock

DES MOINES -- What to do in a decent-sized Midwestern town on a Friday night? Sane people engage in normal activities; this particular Friday, many streamed into the Wells Fargo Arena to hear John Cougar Mellencamp. The concert showed Iowans may be getting tired of the politicking; former Senator John Edwards made a surprise appearance and heard the only boos of the night.

But for those whose sanity might be called into question, the real event was next door, at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. There, like the worst stereotype of a high school election, dozens of staffers and volunteers from each campaign sprinted past watchful Iowa Democratic Party monitors, flying at top speed to the upper decks, where tonight an estimated 9,000 people will listen to six top Democratic candidates at the annual Jefferson Jackson Dinner. Once upstairs, runners slathered walls and halls with printed yard signs and custom-made banners.

These are Sign Wars, Iowa style.

Below, on the arena level, wave after wave of runners prepared, bathed in face paint, armed with bullhorns and slapping duct tape on their t-shirts for use on the upper deck. "Hillary, our nominee," the Clinton backers chanted. "Fired up! Ready to go!" Obama supporters answered, the two camps separated by every other candidate like two school bullies destined to duke it out if they cross paths.

From the middle of the scrum, a defiant chant, aided by a bullhorn: "We want Elizabeth, we want John, we want to see them on the White House lawn!" Even Edwards backers, it seems, are fighting to establish the perception of a three-way race. A lone Congressman, not of Iowa, slowly made his way out the door, uniquely calm and solitary amidst the mayhem.

Upstairs, fallen signs, the first of what will be thousands of victims destined for a dumpster, lay scattered on the floor just minutes into the mad dash. A handful of senior staffers, armed only with digital cameras and envious memories of forgotten youth, wander the concourse, stepping quickly to avoid the sprinting signers, more than a few of whom collided at full speed.

Inside the arena, no signs are allowed, punishable by a ten-minute time out. Candidates walked a thin line around IDP officials with increasingly short tempers. Only Sen. Joe Biden got a time out, though "I'm more than willing to give more," one party staffer said.

The dinner will likely raise more for Iowa Democrats than any single event in their history. It is possible, even, that the party will pull in more than Iowa Republicans did at their quadrennial straw poll, in August. The thirty sections on the upper level sold out in just hours, according to one campaign source, as campaigns snapped up the sections at $5,000 a piece in order to stack them with supporters. On the floor level, tickets ranged from $20 to several thousand, though IDP spokeswoman Carrie Giddins declined to provide specific statistics.

For some candidates, the Jefferson Jackson dinner will provide their best chance to talk directly to several thousand guaranteed caucus attendees. In 2003, the event started Sen. John Kerry's comeback and helped Edwards establish himself as a serious player. This year, candidates will come armed with their best, and for one, it could be the a definitive moment.

But before any dinner can take place, young staffers have to blow off steam, hundreds of signs and untold rolls of duct tape in the greatest sign wars on earth.

More Huckabee/Dobson Evidence

Politico's Jonathan Martin and RCP's Tom Bevan are talking about rumors that have influential Christian conservative leader James Dobson set to announce his presidential endorsement in a matter of days. The candidate he's picked, per reports: Mike Huckabee.

One Christian conservative activist close to both men suggests Dobson's endorsement is made all the more likely after Don Wildmon, the head of the American Family Association and chairman of the influential Arlington Group, announced he would back Huckabee today. The source says Wildmon and Dobson reflect each other's thinking, and that "they both realize that their support, if combined, will be a sum greater than its parts."

Dobson would bring Huckabee a bigger name than Wildmon, and would certainly drive a significant amount of mainstream media coverage. But in practical terms, the AFA probably has the wider reach, with an email list of over 3.3 million people. Together, the two would give Huckabee the following among Christian conservatives that he has lacked thus far, to the surprise of many, as movement leaders have chosen to side with other candidates with better poll numbers over the more ideologically similar Huckabee.

Update: Dobson is pushing back on the idea that an endorsement is imminent, or even that an endorsement would favor Huckabee, according to Paul Weyrich, "in ferocious terms," according to National Journal's Linda Douglass.

Saxton Out In NJ

Twelve-term Congressman Jim Saxton will not run for re-election next year, PoliticsNJ reports, citing health reasons for his retirement. Saxton is being treated for prostate cancer and sciatica. First elected in 1984, Saxton started his career in the state assembly in 1975.

Saxton, a socially and economically moderate Republican, has been targeted by the DCCC in recent months after winning in 2006 with 58% of the vote, a narrower margin than some had expected. Saxton had cruised to victories over even top DCCC recruits. This year, the DCCC was trying again and had recruited State Sen. John Adler, seen as another top recruit. Adler has already banked an impressive $229,000, though far out-paced by the nearly $1.4 million Saxton has on hand.

The third district, which covers Philadelphia's New Jersey suburbs out to Ocean and Burlington Counties and includes Fort Dix, has become a swing district in recent presidential years. Al Gore carried the district by a 54%-43% margin in 2000, while George Bush beat John Kerry by a narrow 51%-49% margin in 2004. As an open seat, the district will become a top priority for both parties.

Adler will face the winner of what is likely to be a competitive Republican primary. State Sen. Diane Allen, who ran for Senate in 2002, is the likely front-runner, while PoliticsNJ reports that Burlington County Sheriff Jean Stanfield, Ocean County Clerk Carl Block and Ocean County Freeholders John Kelly and Joe Vicari are also considered contenders.

Update: Politico's Josh Kraushaar reports that Wyoming Rep. Barbara Cubin, who along with her husband has faced serious medical issues this Congress, will also announce her retirement at a GOP central committee meeting in her state tomorrow. Cubin narrowly survived in 2006 after threatening to slap one of her opponents, who is in a wheelchair. She beat Democrat Gary Trauner by just half a percent last year.

The seat is safer than Saxton's for Republicans, and Cubin's retirement makes State House Majority Leader Colin Simpson, son of former Senator Alan Simpson, a strong favorite to win the GOP nod. Simpson had already declared his intention to run for the seat, regardless of Cubin's plans. Trauner is running again as well.

Michigan In Chaos

Just shy of two months before Michigan was scheduled to hold their presidential nominating primary, on January 15, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge William Collette ruled the contest unconstitutional, throwing the actual date of the primary into question. Tom Bevan's been following the back and forth, though some new developments have arisen that cause the waters to muddy further.

The Michigan State Legislature could have engineered an easy fix. State legislators hurriedly put together a bill addressing issues Collette found unconstitutional in order to save the January 15 date, but Democrats blocked the move, and Republicans could not muster the votes necessary to give any legislation immediate effect, according to a memo from Michigan GOP spokesman Bill Nowling.

State Republicans have a contingency plan, in case further attempts to revert to the January 15 date are unsuccessful. In that event, the GOP would hold a state convention on the 25th and 26th of January, still before the approved February 5th window and still ahead of Florida's January 29 contest.

At the convention, delegates from each Congressional District will meet to vote on a candidate, and the winner from each district will get three delegates to the national convention, for a total of 45 delegates. The state's twelve at-large delegates will be apportioned by a vote from the whole body of delegates on the 26th.

Democrats' backup plan is not immediately clear, though the party would likely be forced to switch to caucuses or a convention as well. Still, Democrats in the state legislature are hoping to win passage of "pet projects," as Nowling calls them, in exchange for their votes to fix the primary. In order to save the January 15 date, and under pressure from Sen. Carl Levin, the primary driver of Michigan's effort to hold an early contest, one side will probably buckle to pressure and make the changes and deals necessary.

But for now, Michigan remains a state without a presidential primary. It is safe to assume that this is not what Levin envisioned or hoped for.

Edwards The Ice Cream

DES MOINES -- Ben & Jerry's co-founder Ben Cohen is surprisingly on-message. The activist businessman, who launched a group dedicated to redirecting federal government spending away from the Pentagon and toward health care, education and other domestic priorities, is backing John Edwards' presidential campaign.

After a news conference today in which a part of that organization, Caucus for Priorities, announced its backing of Edwards, Cohen pontificated on the possibilities his association with the candidate brought up. He denied there were plans for an Edwards-inspired ice cream flavor, even though, as one reporter pointed out, erstwhile presidential hopeful Stephen Colbert enjoys a concoction bearing his name.

Pressed on what an Edwards flavor might be, Cohen stuck to message. "It's not going to be a very fluffy flavor," he predicted. "It's going to be a very solid flavor." Cohen speculated that the flavor might be called "Captain Courageous Crunch," though he may want to run that by lawyers for Quaker Oats, which makes the cereal, before production begins.

Only In Iowa

They claim to be a state that takes their presidential considerations more seriously than the rest of the country. Iowans may, in fact, be right.

Only in Iowa would one find a young child wearing a "Property of Students for Barack Obama" sweatshirt, sitting in a barn as the temperature dipped into the 30s, patiently waiting through two hours.

Only in Iowa would one expect Terry McAuliffe, a top Clinton adviser, to be hawking his book, "What a Party!: My life among Democrats," at the Des Moines library at 12:30 p.m. on a Friday.

And only in Iowa would a sight like a signed poster from the captain of Air Force One, expressing best wishes to the staff of the Des Moines International Airport Best Western, be completely ordinary.

Tonight, volunteers from the Democratic campaigns will meet outside the site of tomorrow's Jefferson Jackson dinner to hold a rally. The sign wars, one has to believe, will be second to none. We'll try to post pictures here after the event. To paraphrase a well-known showman: Only in Iowa!

Clinton, Edwards Nab Endorsements

DES MOINES -- In the lead-up to tomorrow's Iowa Democratic Party Jefferson Jackson Dinner, major candidates are rolling out endorsements as fast as possible. In a conference call with reporters today, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, long the subject of speculation as a potential vice presidential candidate, announced he would back Hillary Clinton, calling her an experienced candidate who gives Democrats their best shot at winning the presidency.

"I believe she is the strongest candidate our party could put forth," Strickland said, calling Clinton the "most effective carrier" of a message that carried him to victory in the crucial swing state in 2006. Strickland will attend the dinner tomorrow night with Clinton.

"The road to the White House goes through Ohio, and I'm going to be very proud to have Ted Strickland walking that road with me," Clinton said. "She can carry Ohio," Strickland maintained.

Asked whether she would consider Strickland as a potential number two, Clinton demurred, calling it "way premature to be talking about running mates." Strickland too declined to entertain speculation. "I am not presumptuous enough even to consider the vice presidency," he said. "You can just stop any thought of the vice presidency. I'm not interested."

John Edwards will also wade into the endorsement game today when he accepts the endorsement of the Caucus for Priorities at a hotel near the Des Moines airport. The group, an offshoot of the Priorities Action Fund, founded by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's, seeks to point out inequities in the federal budget, spotlighting Pentagon spending. "As Commander-in-Chief, he'll do whatever it takes to keep us safe," Cohen said in a statement. "But he'll also make sure Americans have health care, strong schools, and the opportunity to get ahead."

Caucus for Priorities claims 10,000 members in Iowa, and the group's yard signs, depicting a pie chart with the federal budget, are ubiquitous sights around Des Moines and the state. Their support comes the same day the Edwards campaign announced steering committees in the last of Iowa's 99 counties, making them the only campaign with official organizations in each county.

After the announcement, Edwards heads to Eastern Iowa for events before heading back toward Des Moines for tomorrow's dinner.

Giuliani's Kerik Problem

For a White House campaign based on competent leadership, the indictment of former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik presents Rudy Giuliani with very real headaches, and opens a window his opponents can exploit to paint Kerik's old boss as a loyalist with the judgment on par with President Bush's "Heckuva job, Brownie" declaration.

Kerik surrendered this morning to the FBI at a suburban White Plains office. Marshals then escorted him to a federal courthouse to enter a plea. Giuliani has said he made a mistake in judgment in pushing Kerik for the post of Homeland Security Secretary.

The indictment, coming just two months before the first votes in the presidential nominating process are cast, will likely be exploited by rival campaigns, though none would disclose the means by which they plan to use matter. "This is a change election. Voters are fed up with ethical transgressions and the status quo in Washington," said one strategist for a rival campaign. "They want higher standards."

Much of Giuliani's campaign has been based on the premise that his administration performed nothing short of a miracle in turning New York City around. He has said that one of his strengths is the ability to surround himself with top minds. Kerik's proximity to Giuliani -- the Mayor plucked him from obscurity as a police detective to positions with the city's Gambling Control Commission, the Department of Correction and as police chief, and the two were so close that Giuliani is Kerik's daughter's godfather -- could prove a big liability. "There is no way to downplay how close he was to Rudy. This was his top guy. He recommended him for a top Cabinet post," the rival strategist said. "That feeds a perception about patronage politics and the possibility that he turned a blind eye to this behavior."

One unaligned GOP operative, who asked not to be named, said the close association between the two could be used to raise further questions about Giuliani's values. "Do Republicans want a nominee whose right-hand man was frog-marched on national TV for corruption?" Coupled with Giuliani's multiple marriages and liberal stances on choice and gay rights, "some Republicans may say, 'You know what? I do appreciate knowing where Rudy stands. And I'd just as soon not stand next to him."

If the race continues on a path toward all-out warfare between candidates -- in recent days, Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, John McCain and Mike Huckabee have all taken a harsher tone with each other -- Kerik's indictment may show up in negative mailings, television advertisements or automated calls. And candidates' debate preparation teams are sure to be crafting zingers to lob at the mayor during the next Republican debate, currently scheduled for November 28th in Florida.

Another problem for Giuliani: The event is the Republicans' version of the YouTube debate, meaning crafty campaigns can submit tough questions for Giuliani on the matter. Given fireworks at recent candidate gatherings, CNN will be sorely tempted to use any such questions.

The rival campaign strategist offered a preview of how other campaigns will try to tag Giuliani's Kerik connection. "It makes it impossible for Rudy to draw a contrast between how he does things and how the Clintons do things," the strategist said. "I expect every campaign will make sure to remind Republican voters that we can't beat the Clintons by acting like them."

Poll Has T. Udall Up

In what has to be the most polled race this side of the Iowa Democratic caucuses, a new Research 2000 poll taken for DailyKos shows Rep. Tom Udall handily defeating any Republican in his way to take the seat of retiring Sen. Pete Domenici. Reps. Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson, who are vying for the GOP nomination, each do much better against other Democrats, making Chuck Schumer's job of recruiting Udall all the more important.

The poll, conducted 11/5-7, surveyed 600 likely and regular voters throughout the state. The margin of error was +/- 4%. Along with Reps. Udall, Wilson and Pearce, Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez and Lieutenant Gov. Diane Denish, both Democrats, were also tested. 41% of the sample was Democrats, 31% Republicans and 28% were independents or backed other parties.

General Election Matchups
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind)
Udall 55 / 80 / 19 / 57
Wilson 38 / 10 / 79 / 35

Wilson 45 / 14 / 83 / 47
Chavez 42 / 70 / 6 / 41

Wilson 44 / 13 / 82 / 46
Denish 43 / 72 / 7 / 41

Udall 54 / 80 / 19 / 55
Pearce 37 / 10 / 78 / 32

Pearce 40 / 11 / 80 / 37
Chavez 39 / 65 / 6 / 37

Denish 45 / 74 / 8 / 44
Pearce 39 / 11 / 79 / 36

Fav/Unfav
Udall 51 / 28
Wilson 46 / 34
Denish 44 / 23
Chavez 42 / 32
Pearce 41 / 35

Udall's double-digit reach among Republicans, matched up with both Pearce and Wilson, is a big problem in a state where the GOP already has fewer voters than Democrats do. Wilson runs better than Pearce among independents, which fits with the moderate reputation she's built on Capitol Hill. Still, whether she can win a Republican primary with a moderate reputation remains to be seen.

Gregoire Up, Rossi Making Money

The Washington Poll, sponsored by the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at the University of Washington, shows a close race for governor in 2008. Incumbent Chris Gregoire, facing a rematch with defeated 2004 foe Dino Rossi, maintains a narrow lead, which Republicans will argue is a bad sign for an incumbent and which Democrats will argue is much better than the position in which she's found herself in previous polls, trailing Rossi badly.

The poll [PPT], conducted 10/22-28, was taken by Pacific Market Research, surveyed 601 registered voters and came in with a margin of error of +/- 4%. Rossi and Gregoire were surveyed, along with frequent candidate Ruth Bennett, a Libertarian.

General Election Matchup
(All / Puget Sound / Eastern WA / Other west / Dem / GOP / Ind)
Gregoire 47 / 50 / 36 / 48 / 85 / 6 / 43
Rossi 42 / 38 / 52 / 46 / 5 / 86 / 41
Bennett 2 / 2 / 5 / 2 / 3 / 0 / 4

The Puget Sound region, including King, Pierce, Snohomish and Thurston Counties, are the traditional Democratic strongholds of the state. Gregoire needs a big lead in those four counties to overcome what will almost certainly be a Rossi romp east of the Cascade Mountains, the GOP's stronghold in the state.

Rossi jumped in the race on October 25, and according to a campaign spokeswoman, the campaign has already pulled in $500,000, cutting into Gregoire's big fundraising lead. Seattle Times' David Postman reports the campaign raised $463,000 in the last six days of October and $110,000 in the first two days of November, a rapid pace that probably comes from pre-announcement commitments.

Gregoire has raised about $3.25 million, including $321,000 last month, according to as-yet incomplete finance reports (completed versions are due Saturday).

Morning Thoughts: Huck & Hill Push Back

It's Friday morning, and Iowa Democrats are flocking to Des Moines for the annual Jefferson Jackson Dinner fundraiser that party organizers now say will be the largest event in Iowa Democratic history. The party expects 9,000 people to attend. Back in Washington, here's what's on people's minds:

-- The House today takes up a measure to patch the alternative minimum tax. The Senate is in session but will not record votes. President Bush has fled the chilly climes of Washington for Crawford, Texas, where he welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Secretary of State Rice.

-- Late last night, Judge Michael Mukasey was confirmed as the next Attorney General by a 53-40 vote. Of the seven senators who did not cast a vote, five are running for president, including Senators Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd and Barack Obama, all of whom had announced their opposition to the nomination. John McCain and fellow Republicans Lamar Alexander and John Cornyn also did not cast ballots. While senators running for president are missing their share of votes these days, but for Obama, who has missed 80% of his votes since September, failing to be there to cast a vote on Mukasey is the second time in recent weeks he has missed a vote he's talked about frequently on the campaign trail. McCain has missed more votes than any other senator, of both parties, save Tim Johnson.

-- Politics Nation heard a lot of comments yesterday about a certain story on National Public Radio, in which reporter David Greene found two ordinary people who have crossed paths with big-time political campaigns. The story cites Toledo, Iowa, waitress Anita Esterday, who served Hillary Clinton and campaign staffers and who claims the campaign didn't leave a tip. The campaign pushed back hard on the story, asserting that the campaign left a $100 tip on a $157 bill. Still, their explanation, which NPR ran in a correction, drew skepticism from Esterday and her fellow waitresses. The matter, which can be chalked up to bad staff work (candidates rarely carry cash, credit cards, et cetera) also goes to show how quickly the Clinton campaign will push back on any story it sees as negative, especially one that shows up on NPR, about as close as liberals get to their own version of Rush Limbaugh.

-- Is Mike Huckabee going negative? Comments in two separate articles today suggest the former Arkansas governor is more than just a happy-go-lucky candidate willing to get along with everyone. After being attacked lately by Mitt Romney (on immigration), Fred Thompson (on taxes) and the Wall Street Journal (on waffling), Huckabee is flexing his own muscles. "I am probably the only candidate that has been subjected to this sort of detailed questioning about faith," Huckabee told Salon (thanks, Playbook). "I don't think Romney has even been [questioned]." Sure, not the sharpest attack. But how about this one: Huckabee blasted Fred Thompson for his opposition to a nationwide abortion ban, criticizing him for his willingness to leave the issue up to the states. A cynic will suggest that Huckabee is auditioning for vice president, showing off his attacking skills. Others, though, are starting to think that Huckabee may be seriously concerned with taking a shot at the number one position.

-- Huckabee won an endorsement from a prominent social conservative, American Family Association head Don Wildmon, but he's no Sam Brownback or Pat Robertson. The split of Christian conservatives will be a problem for Huckabee, and thanks to their failure to coalesce around a candidate, it now looks like the once-powerful Christian Coalition will sit out the primaries, as AP's Jim Davenport writes. Coalition president Roberta Combs says her organization will be focusing on Congressional races.

-- Be careful what you wish for: One Ron Paul supporter urged the Washington Post's Fact Checker site to include Paul on their list, even though, the reader wrote, Paul "doesn't lie enough to make for entertaining reading on this site." So the Fact Checker checked, and sure enough, during an interview with NBC's Jay Leno a few weeks back, Paul made some gaffes, asserting that the elimination of the income tax would still leave the government with revenue equal to that of the 2000 federal budget. Not so, says the Post, reporting that a tax slash of that size would reduce the government to the size it was in 1995. The amount of money -- $1.1 trillion -- is the amount the government spends on discretionary matters, including defense spending.

-- We Told You So Of The Day: The RNC approved penalties for states that hold their delegate-allocating primaries before the February 5th window today, following through on rules it set down during the 2004 convention. Iowa and Nevada are unaffected because, technically, the states do not officially allocate their delegates to the national convention when they hold early caucuses; they allocate delegates only to the county conventions. For all intents and purposes, the differences are so negligible that they are essentially the same thing. The vote, according to Marc Ambinder, was overwhelmingly in favor of punishing New Hampshire, Wyoming, Florida, South Carolina and Michigan.

-- Today On The Trail: John Edwards is in Des Moines, followed by events in Sioux City, Carroll and Jefferson. Joe Biden is in Oelwein, as is Chris Dodd, who also attends a press conference in Des Moines. Obama holds a roundtable discussion in Des Moines, then goes to a town meeting in Sioux City.

-- On the GOP side, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and John McCain all make New Hampshire stops today. Romney meets voters in Atkinson and Hudson, Huckabee delivers a speech in Lebanon, and McCain holds a press conference in Concord followed by meetings with voters in Meredith and Moultonborough. Fred Thompson unveils a Social Security plan in Washington, and Rudy Giuliani meets locals in Henderson, Nevada.

Quote Of The Day

"Quiet! Somewhere a whale is in trouble. I have to go!"

-- Al Gore, making a cameo on NBC's "30 Rock" during the network's Green Week

Obama Claims Electability

OTTUMWA, IOWA -- Answering voter questions at an elementary school in South Ottumwa today, Barack Obama claimed he is the candidate who can appeal to states beyond those traditionally considered battlegrounds. While other senators offered, Obama pointed out that he alone was invited to campaign with Sen. Ben Nelson, a conservative Nebraska Democrat, during his 2006 re-election bid.

The claim came in response to a town hall attendee who wanted to know why he was the better candidate than Hillary Clinton. Obama has been asked several times during a five-day bus trip to distinguish himself from Clinton, though he has generally demurred. Today, though, Obama said he would bring his campaign to every state, not simply Ohio, Florida and other swing states. "I think I'd be the strongest general election candidate," he said.

Sorry, Kentucky

For those in the Bluegrass State who thought the governor's election would end the political ad wars, television must be very disappointing lately. And it's about to get worse.

We wrote this morning on a report that Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell has already begun running television ads, more than a year before he faces voters in his bid for re-election. McConnell has been targeted for months by liberal group MoveOn.org for backing the war in Iraq and President Bush.

But MoveOn isn't the only outside group that's already involved in the race. Americans United for Change, a coalition of liberal organizations and labor unions, launched ads today hitting McConnell on his opposition to the State Children's Health Insurance Program. The group is spending $100,000 on the ad buy, after spending $200,000 on a round of ads earlier this year hitting McConnell on Iraq.

Earlier this week, AUC launched ads targeting Republican Reps. Joe Knollenberg (MI), Steve Chabot (OH), Ric Keller (FL), Sam Graves (MO), Randy Kuhl (NY) and Michelle Bachmann (MN) on the same topic.

Why target McConnell? A recent poll suggested he ran just five points ahead of Rep. Ben Chandler and Auditor Crit Luallen, but few believe that McConnell is seriously in trouble next year.

Still, liberal blogs, MoveOn and Americans United are three big groups, and if they help recruit a top challenger, Chuck Schumer's DSCC will have a hard time not investing in the race. The groups hope McConnell is some combination of 2008's Tom Daschle, who was successfully portrayed as a Washington insider to South Dakota voters, and George Allen, who was simply caught off guard. But given that McConnell is already on the air, he seems determined not to be surprised.

Obama Still Fresh Face To Many Iowans

FORT MADISON, IOWA - A new sight is appearing at campaign events around Iowa these days. Along with candidates, enthusiastic volunteers and candidate buttons, potential caucus-goers will also see their own breath. Standing in an open barn that ordinarily hosts rodeos, Barack Obama seems to understand that, along with daylight hours, time is growing short. Still, undecided voters who make their way to hear candidates speak have serious questions about the freshman senator, and many seem reluctant to commit to backing him yet.

Laying out his stump speech, Obama weaves in pleas for commitment cards and flattery aimed at people he calls the most important voters of the 2008 presidential campaign. "You're going to choose the next leader of the free world. Whoever does well in Iowa, I think, will be the next president of the United States," he told voters here. "I really want you to caucus for me."

Promises to eliminate the differences between red states and blue states, pledges to change business in Washington as usual and an optimistic streak second to none can make Iowa voters pay attention. But for many, nothing short of detailed policy proposals will seal the deal.

Those proposals are a hole which Obama has yet to fill for some. "He says he has a plan. Well, what's the plan? Tell us about it," urged Jean Clark, a retired teacher from Burlington who has not yet chosen a candidate. "I wish Obama was stronger."

For others, Obama's newness is all that matters. "He has no baggage," said John Horton, a Burlington retiree whose daughter works on the campaign. Many attendees at Obama rallies profess never to have been involved in politics before. One questioner at a recent stop in Muscatine pointed out his 80-something mother, who he said would vote for Obama, the first time she's ever voted for a Democrat. "That rumbling sound you hear," he joked, "is my father revolving in his grave."

On another hand, the lure of Obama is based on an obvious factor his campaign has chosen not to play up. "We're a multicultural society, and I think Barack Obama is the first articulate expression of that," said Winston Dancing, an undecided caucus-goer from Fairfield. For others, Obama's race is something to consider before choosing to back him. "Unfortunately, race is still a factor in our society, and so is sex" said Clark, who said she is considering only Obama and Clinton as her top choice.

During a five-day campaign swing through Eastern and Central Iowa, caucus-goers interrogating Obama have similar issues on their minds. There is a universality of sentiment in favor of ending the war in Iraq; Obama wins loud cheers when he rails against water-boarding, or when he pledges to restore Habeas Corpus. Corporations, lobbyists and other bogeymen are excoriated at every stop. "The whole big business mentality of the country is just riding us on a rail," Dancing said. "This seems to be kind of a populist movement, and I like that."

The rallies, whether billed as a town hall meeting, a meet the candidate event or a morning coffee, are the same from Cedar Rapids to Burlington, Fort Madison and Fairfield. Obama, bathed in soft yellow light, looks around the room at attendees, bobbing his hand in cadence with his speech. When pondering a question, or when making a joke, he looks at the ground, at times glancing up to make a point.

His theme is always the same. "I have a track record of bringing Americans together, and I think that's what we as Democrats, more importantly we as Americans, need to do," he says. Obama believes that "what's at stake in this election [is] who we are and what we believe in." It is a theme that, at every stop along the bus tour, still leads to standing-room-only crowds.

If there is a common strain among campaigns that trail their rivals, it is that Iowa voters do not want the national media telling them who is ahead or behind. For Obama, though, the narrative has worked well. Horton summed up the consensus among his neighbors, who are divided between multiple Democratic campaigns: "It's between [Obama] and Hillary, of course."

But whether Obama can make up ground on Clinton is a question that remains to be answered. Perhaps, his campaign has calculated, there are still votes to gain and no need to take votes away from Clinton. Obama only mentions Clinton once in his stump speech, when he says the two front-runners got in an argument over whether to negotiate with Iran. But the entire talk is peppered with subtle references to judgment over Iran and Iraq, change in Washington that is more than just cosmetic, and Obama's promise not to accept lobbyist money.

By the time he reaches the question and answer period, Obama seems to recognize that he should fling mud in Clinton's direction. In Muscatine, Obama mentioned Clinton four times in response to voters' queries. In Fort Madison, it was three times. Still, when one man gave him the opportunity to provide contrasts between the two on government reform, Obama instead talked about his work with conservative Republican Senator Tom Coburn, with whom he authored a bill to put federal spending data on the internet.

In Fairfield, one woman asked Obama directly how he can beat Clinton. "I'm going to win in Fairfield and that's going to put me over the top," he joked. He said the race would be competitive, and that the current state of the race was "a statistical dead heat between myself and Hillary in Iowa." But his only direct contrasts with Clinton relate to the fact that he isn't tainted by a long Washington track record and that he does not accept lobbyist and corporate money.

Still, remaining the default "anybody-but-Clinton" candidate is vital to Obama's chances. As conventional wisdom - both here, along the banks of the Mississippi River, and in Washington - coalesces around the notion that former Senator John Edwards is a decreasing factor in the caucuses, Obama's fortunes improve.

At the moment, it seems, undecided Iowans are looking for a reason to be convinced not to caucus for Clinton. Obama, working packed rooms throughout Eastern and Central Iowa, is doing his best to provide that reason. Whether he converts the opportunities presented him, though, remains to be seen.

Morning Thoughts: Veto This

FAIRFIELD, IOWA -- Politics Nation had no need for an alarm clock this morning. The train that rolled through town, apparently very slowly, judging by the number of whistle blasts, took care of an alarm's normal duty. Still, we wouldn't have minded had the train come, say, after four a.m. From the campaign trail, here's what's on the minds of Beltway insiders today:

-- The Senate meets today to vote on the president's veto of the Water Resources Development Act. The veto was overridden in the House earlier this week, and because WRDA earned more than 80 votes in the Senate, the upper chamber is expected to find the votes necessary and follow the House's lead. The House, meanwhile, is gearing up for a tax fight. The Rules Committee today will formulate the procedure under which the Alternative Minimum Tax relief proposal, which passed out of the Ways and Means Committee recently, will be debated on the floor.

-- A Politics Nation theory: John Edwards' biggest problem is not Hillary Clinton; it's Barack Obama. Edwards needs to cast himself as the Anyone But Clinton default candidate, a spot held at the moment by Obama. We're anticipating Edwards targeting Obama in some significant way, and he took a shot yesterday in Newmarket, New Hampshire. Edwards, writes the Nashua Telegraph's Kevin Landrigan, says it takes a fighter to battle special interests, not a unifier, as Obama describes himself. Obama, meanwhile, has begun mentioning Edwards at least once in town hall visits around Iowa. Is his campaign preparing to return fire?

-- The expectations game is fully at work now. Obama, in a video interview with CBN's David Brody, says he doesn't necessarily have to win Iowa to win the nomination. Obama's money, unlike most other Democratic candidates, can carry him through to February 5th states, but in a sense he's right: Conventional wisdom is that Edwards must win Iowa and that Clinton can put away the nomination with a win here. But Obama? Expectations have yet to be set, though anything but a win certainly makes the rest of the race exceedingly difficult.

-- Pat Robertson's decision to back Rudy Giuliani has candidates and Republican activists from all corners talking, and it's given some of the Mayor's opponents license (as if they needed it) to attack. Like Barack Obama's implicit indictment of Hillary Clinton as politics as usual, Mitt Romney has a common refrain on Giuliani: "I don't think the Republican Party will choose a pro-choice, pro-gay civil union candidate to lead our party" (that from NBC/NJ's Erin McPike). Around town, Gary Bauer's not surprised and Laura Ingraham is not happy with the reasoning behind the pick. And Mike Huckabee, the GOP's nice guy who's been bypassed of late by top conservative leaders, actually took a shot at Robertson: "I think that it's pretty disearteneing to see that it's not necessarily based on people that you say, 'Gosh, these guys really have the right principles.'"

-- Giuliani's week was looking great yesterday. Today, not so much. Giuliani has refused to answer questions about friend and former New York City Police Chief Bernie Kerik beyond an Associated Press interview earlier this week. He'll get more questions today, when Kerik is likely to be indicted on fraud, corruption and conspiracy charges by a suburban New York grand jury, writes the New York Times. The image of a close confidante being led away in chains is exactly the opposite of what Giuliani wants, especially as he makes his final push toward the nomination.

-- Iowa caucus-goers won't head to the polls until January 3rd, but at the moment, Hillary Clinton is leading the Democratic race. The measure: Not polls, not money, but in actual delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Of the more than 800 members of Congress, party leaders and other top officials who get automatic invites to Denver, 159 are backing Clinton, reports the New York Times. Obama runs second, with 59 delegates. Party leaders and elected officials don't always get it right -- a 2004 survey showed Howard Dean outpacing John Kerry among PLEOs. But a number is a number, and right now, Clinton is ahead. Oh, unless you count undecideds. Then they're ahead, by a nearly 2-1 margin over Clinton. Still, in a close election, super delegates become exceedingly important.

-- The Election '07 hangover has passed, but ruminations about larger implications are still rolling in. The real target of all the wonderings: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who faces re-election next year in a state that just handed its Republican governor a 20 point loss. As The Fix notes, McConnell is already up on television for a race more than a year away -- and one for which he has yet to attract an opponent. McConnell is spending $117,000 on a 60-second ad in Louisville and Lexington. Remember that no Democrat has won a statewide federal election in Kentucky since Bill Clinton in 1996, and Wendell Ford won big in 1992. Since then, McConnell's seat mate Jim Bunning has faced two nail-biter elections, but has pulled it out both times. Is McConnell in trouble? It certainly looks like he thinks so.

-- Frenchman Of The Day: Bonjour, Mme. Clinton? C'est Nicolas. During his trip to Washington this week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had a busy schedule, but he had no trouble shoe-horning in 15 minutes to call Clinton. Sarkozy, one source told the Washington Post, wanted to get a lay of the political land. He's already met with Barack Obama and John McCain as well.

-- Today On The Trail: We're on the trail with Obama, who meets residents in Fairfield, Chariton, Ottumwa and Knoxville. Bill Richardson is in Manchester, Concord and Portsmouth, while Hillary Clinton is in North Conway and Somersworth, New Hampshire. Joe Biden will give a speech at St. Anselm, in Manchester. On the GOP side, Mike Huckabee is in Cedar Rapids before heading to Owosso, Michigan, for a fundraiser. John McCain holds an event in Jackson, Michigan, while Rudy Giuliani meets reporters in Dubuque then meets voters in Cedar Falls, before flying out to Las Vegas to deliver a speech.

Dems Win Mississippi!

Sorry, John Arthur Eaves, not your race. As Democrats were on their way to losing every statewide race save one last night, the party got surprisingly good news in this reddest of red states. At the end of the night, the party took three State Senate seats and with them, control of the state's upper chamber.

Democrats had lost the Senate earlier in the year when State Sen. James Walley switched parties. Walley was among three Republican incumbents who went down to defeat, while just one Democratic incumbent lost. The party now holds a 28-25 seat majority, and after picking up one seat in the House, a much wider 76-46 majority in the State House.

The DLCC, which oversees thousands of state legislative races from Washington, cited a grocery tax, which Democrats tried to halve, a move the GOP resisted, as a key issue in this year's election. The wins came as Gov. Haley Barbour easily defeated Democratic challenger Eaves by a 58%-42% margin statewide.

Obama Flashes Populist Streak

BETTENDORF, IOWA - While John Edwards has long cast himself as a hero of populists and liberals, Barack Obama today hinted that he will challenge Edwards for those votes. Addressing Iowa voters in this industrial town on the Illinois border, Obama proposed measures he said would make life easier for the middle class.

The speech, billed as a major policy address on reclaiming the American dream, mixed Obama's intent on combining big ideas with more practical political considerations. Only minutes after urging attendees to sign pledge cards for the January 3rd caucuses, Obama reached for his usual lofty rhetorical heights. "When our fellow Americans are denied the American dream, our own dreams are diminished. And today the cost of that dream is rising faster than ever before," he said.

"We're tired of tax cuts for the wealthy that shift the burden onto the backs of working people. We're tired of waiting ten years for the minimum wage to go up while CEO pay is soaring." Obama offered a raft of new proposals aimed at making life easier on the middle and working class, including tax cuts and credits that would cover 10% of a family's mortgage interest payments and the first $4,000 in yearly college tuition, and eliminating income taxes for retirees making less than $50,000 a year.

Obama also proposed pegging the minimum wage to the inflation rate, a goal that has for years eluded national Democrats. Still, he characterized the effort as a key part of reclaiming the American dream. "Americans share a faith in simple dreams," he said, inlcuding "a job with wages that will support a family."

While most of the crowd was already firmly in the Obama camp, the candidate seemed to urge others to make up their mind. After introducing supporter Bill Gluba, a 2006 Congressional candidate who last night was elected mayor of neighboring Davenport, Obama said he recognized that Iowa voters liked to take their time when choosing a nominee. But with two months before the caucus, he said, "it's about time to make those decisions."

If Obama can convince voters he is a more electable populist than Edwards or others, Bettendorf and Davenport, combined a large Iowa industrial hub, will be key to his success.

For Paul, GOP Or Bust

As the Ron Paul campaign continues to make headlines for its astounding $4 million day this week, some, including Jay Cost and Steven Stark, to conclude that Paul, should he miss the GOP nomination, may opt instead for a third-party or independent bid for President. After all, with an impressive fundraising haul and low poll numbers in the GOP race, Paul would have the means and the motive to strike out on his own.

But any bid other than on a GOP ticket is extraordinarily unlikely, Paul's campaign contends. Paul's most likely avenue would be the Libertarian Party, which enjoys ballot access in most states. But the party is not waiting around to see if Paul will join them for a second run, as he did in 1988. At least one candidate, George Phillies, is making his own run at the Libertarian nomination.

Paul spokesman Jesse Benton said there had been no contact between the campaign and national Libertarians, and that no thought is being given to an independent or third party bid. "It's GOP or bust," Benton said in an email. So, whether an independent Paul bid would harm the GOP by stripping votes it would ordinarily claim, or whether it would harm Democrats by luring anti-war conservatives who would otherwise defect to a Democrat is, for now, purely theoretical.

New Kid Learns Fast

Rep. Niki Tsongas, elected just weeks ago in an October 20 special election to replace retiring Rep. Marty Meehan in Massachusetts' Fifth District, sure doesn't waste time. The barely-freshman has already launched her first effort to bring money back to her district, which hugs the New Hampshire state line in the northern part of the state.

Tsongas, with the help of Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey, secured $240,000 in funds in the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations conference committee report being debated by the Senate today. The money will go to the Lowell Community Health Center, a nonprofit that serves the district's largest city. The organization, says Tsongas Chief of Staff Katie Elbert, will use the money to buy equipment for a new clinical service center.

The bill also includes some earmarks left over from Meehan's tenure. But just two weeks in, Tsongas looks like she's got the hang of this Congress thing.

Morning Thoughts: Always On Time

BETTENDORF, IOWA -- Good Wednesday morning. Politics Nation is an American League fan (though not as extreme as some people), so we're not purists, but replay in Major League Baseball? That's a pretty slippery slope. Here's what Washington is watching today:

-- The House and Senate today will hold a joint meeting to hear from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is in the middle of his first official visit to the U.S. The Senate will then consider the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations bill conference report. A story line Democrats must be thrilled about: In the ongoing battle over federal spending, a category into which Republicans hoped to lump SCHIP, the House voted overwhelmingly to override President Bush's veto of the Water Resources Development Act, a margin that is expected to be repeated in the Senate. How effective is an argument if a majority of your caucus votes against it? That's a question the GOP will have to wrestle with as funding battles continue.

-- Democrats waking up after election day have reason to be happy. The party reclaimed the Kentucky Governor's mansion and the Virginia State Senate and held on to the New Jersey Senate. For full results of the races we were watching, click here. Chris Cillizza offers his take here.

-- In the special election to replace the late Rep. Paul Gillmor, in Northwest Ohio's 5th Congressional District, State Rep. Bob Latta appears to have fended off a tough fight from State Sen. Steve Buehrer in the Republican primary. The race at times was spectacularly nasty, with Buehrer and Latta trading personal barbs and the Club for Growth weighing in heavily on Buehrer's behalf. Latta will likely cruise to a win in the December 11 runoff against Democrat Robin Weirauch, who ran against Gillmor in 2004 and 2006.

-- Here in Bettendorf, Barack Obama plans to outline his path to reclaiming the American dream. In a town hall meeting last night in Cedar Rapids, Obama was not asked about rival Hillary Clinton, but he took the opportunity to offer distinctions between the two anyway. This morning, Obama will offer a similar critique. "We're not going to reclaim that dream unless we put an end to the politics of polarization and division that is holding this country back; unless we stand up to the corporate lobbyists that have stood in the way of progress; unless we have leadership that doesn't just tell people what they want to hear -- but tells everyone what they need to know. That's the change we need," Obama plans to say, per excerpts provided by the campaign. Look for Obama to continue drawing more marked distinctions with Clinton throughout the day, and at virtually every campaign stop he makes in Iowa.

-- The Cedar Rapids event was somewhat marred when the candidate showed up almost an hour after the advertised 7 p.m. start time. Obama isn't the only candidate to leave a crowd waiting. Rudy Giuliani has faced complaints about his on-time record. One reporter suggested to Politics Nation that Obama was so late it merited a story, and another, the New York Times' Jeff Zeleny, reported that story. Being late once will probably have little effect on the campaign, but if it becomes a pattern, Iowa voters, who take the character part of a candidate notoriously seriously, will likely take note.

-- A sign for the Mike Huckabee campaign: He's beginning to be attacked by candidates and prominent officials on the Republican side, including more than just the Club for Growth. That's both good and bad for the former governor. Good, because it means he's reached a point where other candidates see him as a threat. Bad, because he doesn't necessarily have the money to respond. "I like him and he certainly is somebody who can give a stemwinder, but I have learned so many things about his waffling positions," said top conservative Paul Weyrich, who announced his support for Mitt Romney last week. Funny, isn't that the same thing some were saying about Romney?

-- Elsewhere in the GOP, Rudy Giuliani today wins the backing of Christian conservative patriarch Pat Robertson. Robertson is a huge get for the mayor, who has had problems with social conservatives. Speculation mounted earlier this week that the nod might come from Sen. Sam Brownback, the former presidential candidate with whom Giuliani met two weeks ago. The campaign shot down that rumor, and the big surprise today is that Brownback will instead announce his support for John McCain in Dubuque, Iowa. Brownback had something of a following in Iowa, and McCain had already picked up several top Brownback aides in the state. The move is another step toward McCain making a serious play for the Hawkeye State.

-- Finally on the GOP side, Fred Thompson appears to be making a real effort, counteracting a long-held image as a lazy campaigner. Thompson, campaigning yesterday in South Carolina, took shots at Romney for spending his own money on ads in the state. "Governor, you can't buy South Carolina," Thompson said, per Jonathan Martin. "You can't even rent South Carolina." The comments came the same day Thompson launched his first campaign ads of the cycle and in the middle of what has been Thompson's most grueling campaign week to date, with stops in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Tennessee, writes the Post's Michael Shear. Thompson will be in Iowa next week as his campaign begins to resemble the intensity of the rest of the field.

-- Study Guide Of The Day: USA Today posts a definite must-read for any political junkie as they run down the "what's at stake" question for all 50 states. Read, remember, then wow your friends at cocktail parties.

-- Today On The Trail: Obama delivers his speech in Bettendorf, then holds town hall meetings in Muscatine and Burlington before ending his day in Fort Madison, Iowa. John Edwards addresses the Politics & Eggs crowd in Bedford, New Hampshire, then holds a town hall in Amherst. Hillary Clinton campaigns today in Peterborough and Nashua.

-- On the GOP side, Mike Huckabee is in Cedar Falls, Waterloo and Vinton, Iowa. Mitt Romney is in Columbia and Hilton Head, South Carolina, while Fred Thompson hits Greenville before attending the Country Music Awards in Nashville. Rudy Giuliani gets that endorsement in Washington before campaigning in West Columbia, South Carolina. And John McCain campaigns in Livonia, Michigan, before talking with the press in Grand Rapids.

Election Results

Democrats win Kentucky governorship, Virginia Senate, pick up one seat in New Jersey Senate:

Kentucky Governor (Democratic Pickup)
Steve Beshear/Dan Mongiardo (D) -- 59%
Ernie Fletcher/Robbie Rudolph (R-inc) -- 41%
(100% reporting)

Kentucky Secretary Of State (Republican Hold)
Trey Grayson (R-inc) -- 57%
Bruce Hendrickson (D) -- 43%
(100% reporting)

Mississippi Governor (Republican Hold)
Haley Barbour (R-inc) -- 58%
John Arthur Eaves (D) -- 42%
(96% reporting as of 10:35pm)

Virginia State Senate
District 1 (Democratic Pickup)
John Miller (D) -- 51%
Tricia Stall (R) -- 49%
(100% reporting)

District 6 (Democratic Pickup)
Ralph Northam (D) -- 54%
Nick Rerras (R-inc) -- 46%
(100% reporting)

District 27 (Republican hold)
Jill Holtzman Vogel (R) -- 48%
Karen Schultz (D) -- 47%
Donald Marro (I) -- 4%
(100% reporting)

District 34 (Democratic pickup)
Chap Petersen (D) -- 55%
Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-inc) -- 45%
(100% reporting)

District 37 (Republican hold)
Ken Cuccinelli (R-inc) -- 50.02%
Janet Oleszek (D) -- 49.77%
(100% reporting)

District 39 (Democratic pickup)
George Barker (D) -- 51%
Jay O'Brien (R-inc) -- 49%
(100% reporting)

New Jersey State Senate
District 1 (Democratic Pickup)
Jeff Van Drew (D) -- 56%
Nicholas Asselta (R-inc) -- 44%
(93% reporting)

District 2 (Democratic Pickup)
Jim Whelan (D) -- 57%
Sonny McCullough (R-inc) -- 43%
(100% reporting)

District 12 (Republican Pickup)
Jennifer Beck (R) -- 54%
Ellen Karcher (D-inc) -- 46%
(99% reporting)

District 39 (Republican hold
Gerald Cardinale (R-inc) -- 55%
Joe Ariyan (D) -- 45%
(100% reporting)

Ohio 05 Special Election (General Election 12/11)
Bob Latta (R) -- 44%
Steve Buehrer (R) -- 40%
Mark Hollenbaugh (R) -- 7%
Fred Pieper (R) -- 6%
Mike Smitley (R) -- 4%
(100% reporting)

King County Prosecutor (Republican hold)
Dan Satterberg (R) -- 54%
Bill Sherman (D) -- 46%
(99% reporting)

King County Council District 6 (Republican hold)
Jane Hague (R-inc) -- 56%
Richard Pope (D) -- 41%
(97% reporting)

IA Youth Turnout Gets Preview

IOWA CITY -- Far from the hubs where media will cast their attention as polls close tonight, this Iowa college town heads to the polls today to determine whether or not underclassmen will be permitted to go to bars. The measure, to which bar owners adjacent to the University of Iowa campus are showing their opposition in force, could have ramifications far beyond the Thursday night boozing crowd.

While many Iowa students will be home for winter break when the January 3rd caucuses roll around, some see the huge voter turnout in Iowa City as evidence that the youth vote may be interested and engaged enough to actually caucus. As of Monday, when early voting closed, more than 8,000 early votes had been cast, a huge increase over the record high, set at 4500 in 2005, according to the Des Moines Register.

University of Iowa professor David Redlawsk estimates that, while previous city elections featured just a few hundred students, this election may bring more than 6,000 student votes, presumably heavily opposed to the measure, which would prohibit 19- and 20-year olds from entering bars after 10 p.m.

Seemingly every four years, some candidate claims they will outperform others among younger voters. Those forecasts virtually never pan out, as the youth vote has yet to materialize in significant numbers in an Iowa caucus. The Iowa Democratic Party estimates that, in 2004, 18-34 year olds made up just 10% of caucus-goers, while those over the age of 65 made up 32% of attendees.

This year's election in Iowa Falls, in which younger voters are apparently turning out in droves, could foreshadow a stronger presence of younger voters than previous years. Still, many have claimed the mantle of the younger voter's candidate, and almost always at their peril. One former strategist for Howard Dean's 2004 campaign, asked by Politics Nation to chat about the benefits reliance on the youth vote brings, responded with a lesson many campaigns have learned in past years: "What youth vote?"

Iowa Field Getting Crowded

IOWA CITY -- Conventional wisdom holds that Iowa is Mitt Romney country. The former Massachusetts Governor has spent millions on ads, vaulting him to a solid first place lead here in the state that will hold the nation's first presidential nomination contest. Romney's lead stands at 13.5 points in the latest RCP Iowa Average.

But recently, with about two months to go before caucus time, GOP candidates are signaling a new interest in Iowa. John McCain has been sending mailings, we wrote recently, and his Iowa director says he expects a "fairly aggressive" mail campaign to continue. McCain has spent the past three days in Iowa and wraps up his visit today with a media availability in Cedar Rapids.

AP's Liz Sidoti reported yesterday that Rudy Giuliani, who many thought had all but written off Iowa, has sent a dozen mail pieces to voters here and in New Hampshire, and has divided about $500,000 between the two states plus South Carolina.

And Mike Huckabee, who has recently received an increasingly positive reception in Iowa, is basing much of his campaign on his success in the state.

Now, Fred Thompson, the lone top-tier candidate who has yet to make his presence felt here, is launching two new television ads in Iowa and nationally. The spots, available on the RCP Vlog, highlight what his campaign calls his "consistent conservative" record. In the 60-second version, in fact, he mentions the word "conservative" four times.

With McCain, Giuliani, Huckabee and Thompson all making investments in Iowa, not only is Romney's lead not safe, but the state could be a lot more competitive on the GOP side than many had thought.

The big losers: Iowa businesses. Yes, the caucuses bring in tens of millions of dollars (if not hundreds of millions this year), but faced with heavy ad spending from Democrats, who view the state as a must-win if anyone is to stop Hillary Clinton from capturing the nomination, as well as Republicans, will retailers be left any airtime to peddle their Christmas toys?

Polling SCHIP

As the House prepares today to vote to override President Bush's veto of a water development bill, an effort that looks likely to succeed, Democrats are hoping to put more pressure on the GOP over the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which appears headed for a second presidential veto.

In a letter circulated to colleagues yesterday and obtained by Roll Call's David Drucker, DCCC chairman Chris Van Hollen suggested the issue has cost incumbent Republicans Joe Knollenberg (MI-09), Kenny Hulshof (MO-09) and Thelma Drake (VA-02) significant support.

Knollenberg, according to a poll conducted for the DCCC by Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, dropped 5 points between an April benchmark and a 10/30-11/2 poll. Knollenberg now leads his probable opponent, Michigan Lottery Commissioner Gary Peters, by a slim 42%-35% margin.

Van Hollen cited similar drops in support for Hulshof and Drake, though he did not release specific poll numbers. Republicans reacted angrily, saying the polls proved Democrats were trying to politicize children's health care. Several top Republicans suggest the party will try to change the conversation on SCHIP from one focusing on health care to one focusing on runaway federal spending.

Still, the Democratic polls show the GOP still has work to do. The polls included an informed ballot question on SCHIP, which, in Knollenberg's case turned his seven-point lead into a seven-point deficit. Knollenberg's campaign manager dismissed the poll question as misleading, but that may not be enough to save some in the GOP. Given a significant cash advantage over the NRCC, the DCCC can afford to pay for ads hitting the other party on any issue they wish. Hulshof's district, for example, has been a prime target despite voting overwhelmingly for President Bush in 2004 and being left off both parties' target lists in recent years.

Morning Thoughts: Iowa Bound

Good Tuesday morning. Politics Nation is off to Iowa this morning to spend a few days on the trail. Check back often for updates, but pardon if we're a little slow today. Should be back on track by mid-morning. In the meantime, here's what Washington is watching this election day:

-- The House today will vote to override President Bush's veto of the Water Resources Development Act, while moving on a conference report on a Labor, HHS and Education Appropriations funding bill that also faces a presidential veto threat. WRDA, as it's called, is likely to become the first presidential veto overridden during President Bush's term, while Labor/HHS/Education's fate is less clear.

-- The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, will vote on Michael Mukasey's nomination as Attorney General. Thanks to support from Democrats Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein, his nomination is likely to move to the Senate floor with a favorable recommendation. This is the second time in recent months that Feinstein has bucked her party on a nomination vote -- she also cast a crucial vote in favor of Judge Leslie Southwick in August. Paul Kane has already compared her to Joe Lieberman, and suggests the one-time mayor of liberal San Francisco might have serious problems with her lefty base.

-- It's Election Day in Mississippi, Kentucky, Virginia, New Jersey and Ohio's 5th Congressional District. Check out the list of races we're watching this evening (and check back with Politics Nation for live results) as well as today's weather forecast everywhere ballots are being cast. Here's a scary scenario for the GOP: Top Republicans rallied this weekend in Virginia Beach, not in Northern Virginia, where key races will likely decide control of the State Senate. Are they just hoping to not fall too far behind?

-- Two big establishment endorsements in recent days for Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton. The nods, though, mean two very different things for the candidates. Romney yesterday won the backing of influential conservative power broker Paul Weyrich, giving Romney further, and somewhat surprising, inroads with social conservatives. Clinton has been endorsed by Walter Mondale, which might do more to push Barack Obama's contention that Clinton is a continuation of the last 20 years of Democratic narrative. By the way, look for an excellent examination of the Clinton/Obama feud in the forthcoming Atlantic, courtesy one Mr. Marc Ambinder (though it's not online yet). Clinton and Romney, meanwhile, are favored to win their primaries by one smart politico, Dick Gephardt, who made his comments at a power lunch yesterday. Also offering thoughts: Dick Armey and Charlie Cook.

-- Seeking any union support they can find, apparently, Clinton, Obama and John Edwards are all supporting the Writer's Guild of America as they strike across Hollywood. Perhaps the three are happy they don't have to face Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, both of whom are not producing new shows until writers come back. Then again, is a writers' strike something akin to a baseball players' strike? We'll find out in about a month when every sitcom is forced into reruns.

-- In slightly more serious news, we've argued that Edwards needs to make a case against Obama as much as he does against Clinton -- and he probably needs to make the Obama case first, in order to reassert himself as the evident Anybody-But-Clinton candidate. A preview of the case Edwards might make: "Obama's been out there for 10 months, and he hasn't really taken hold," Edwards might say. "In a lot of ways, he's had his shot to make his case, and we're just beginning to make ours." That could be what Edwards would say. It was exactly what Edwards strategist Joe Trippi told the Iowa Independent (thanks, Halperin).

-- Wise Man Of The Day: Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri is probably the only sane person in the entire primary calendar struggle. Carcieri vetoed legislation yesterday that would have moved his state's primary to February 5th, and while Democrats hold huge majorities in the House and Senate, they don't meet again until January, meaning the state would not have time to get ready for an early contest. Meanwhile, Michigan Democrats vote tomorrow on their January 15th primary, paving the way for Bill Gardner to set the New Hampshire date on Orthodox Christmas. And at TNR, I take an in-depth look at the primary chaos, and why no one at all can stop it.

-- Today On The Trail: Mitt Romney is in Greenville, then meets voters in Anderson, South Carolina. John McCain is in Ames this morning, just about three months after he skipped the GOP straw poll there, followed by stops in Boone, Decorah and Cedar Rapids. Fred Thompson meets voters in Columbia, Fort Mill and Spartanburg, South Carolina.

-- Hillary Clinton is in Newton, Iowa, for a tour of a biodiesel plant, then rallies with voters in Amana. Elizabeth Edwards is named a Woman of the Year by Glamour Magazine in New York, while her husband holds events in Newmarket, Portsmouth and Durham, New Hampshire. Joe Biden tours a Riverdale, Iowa business, while Barack Obama holds a late town hall meeting in Cedar Rapids. Bill Richardson releases a book tomorrow on leadership and spends the day in New York raising money.

Tomorrow's Forecast

In The West Wing, as President Jed Bartlett is running for re-election, one character gets nervous because it's raining in Oregon on Election Day. A later scene shows Will Bailey, played by Joshua Malina, precipitously looks to the heavens and asks for rain just hours before the polls close, leaving his candidate, we are led to believe, the winner.

Rain, the theory goes, depresses voter turnout. Other weather can also have a dampening effect on turnout. Here, then, with the Official Real Clear Politics Election Day Weather Forecast, special RCP Weather Correspondent Steve Shepard:

A cold front currently across the Ohio River valley will affect weather conditions in the following areas, bringing with it light precipitation and the coldest air of the season thus far.

Virginia: Mainly light rain showers associated with a cold front should clear out from west to east (overnight across the Blue Ridge, by daybreak in the Northern Va. suburbs of D.C., and by lunchtime in the Tidewater area), and skies will clear by afternoon. It will be breezy, with high temperatures ranging from the mid 40s across the higher elevations, to 55 in the D.C. suburbs, and into the lower 60s south and east.

New Jersey: Morning showers will give way to sun, clouds, and brisk winds in the afternoon. Highs will range from the upper 40s north and west to the mid 50s down the shore.

Mississippi: North: Sunny and cooler, with highs in the mid 50s. Along the Gulf Coast, a slight chance of a shower, otherwise more clouds than sun, with temperatures in the upper 60s to near 70.

Kentucky: Sunny, and much colder, with highs only in the 40s across much of the Commonwealth, which is between 20-30 degrees colder than today. Breezy along the Cumberland Plateau.

Toledo, Ohio [Ed. note: The primary election to replace the late Rep. Paul Gillmore takes place in Ohio's 5th District tomorrow]: Cloudy and colder. Scattered rain and snow showers are possible, though there will be no snow accumulation. Brisk west winds will make temperatures feel a bit colder than the lower 40s.

Paul Smashes Online Record

Let it never be said that supporters of Texas Rep. Ron Paul don't know their history, or that they aren't trying to carve a place out for themselves. Paul's campaign has raised an astonishing $2.9 million in online contributions since midnight from about 21,000 donors.

That, according to campaign spokesman Jesse Benton, breaks the record for a one-day online fundraiser. And the pace -- more than $170,000 an hour -- would make even Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton jealous.

Benton said scheduling the event today was the brainchild of a group of supporters, who are well aware that November 5th is Guy Fawkes Day. The day marks the attempt, in 1605, of a group of Roman Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill the King of England in hopes of taking down England's Protestant rulers. Fawkes was caught before the bombs exploded, and for his troubles he was hanged.

Those readers who have seen the excellent "V For Vendetta" will find the lyrics familiar: "Remember, remember, the fifth of November / The gunpowder, treason and plot / I know of no reason / Why gunpowder treason / Should ever be forgot."

So what are Paul supporters going for here? One can assume they hope the analogy is metaphorical, and that they hope to blow up the system they don't like, as opposed to any actual buildings.

Guy Fawkes Day or not, $2.9 million is an impressive haul for an incumbent Senator in a quarter. For a presidential candidate to pick up that kind of money in just 17 hours is, as Paul's people point out, unheard of.

Clinton Upping Iowa Spending

Time's Mark Halperin reports that Hillary Clinton's campaign is raising ad spending in Iowa by 20-40% in key markets. The move comes just a week after the campaign announced it will boost its Iowa staff significantly, including sending senior spokesman Mo Elleithee to Des Moines for the remainder.

Clinton, running 7.2 points ahead of closest rival Barack Obama in the latest RCP Iowa Average, recognizes, as Obama and John Edwards do, that the Hawkeye State is perhaps the most important contest on the Democratic side. Many believe that if her rivals don't stop Clinton in Iowa, they won't be able to stop her at all.

The moves also come a week after Clinton's poorest debate performance of the year, in which virtually the entire field trained their fire on her to some effect. The media judged last week's performance something of a stumble for the front-runner, and the Washington Post/ABC News poll out yesterday had her national lead down ten points since late September.

The moves to shore up Iowa, therefore, can be viewed one of two ways: The campaign is either incredibly worried about its support in a crucial test of the candidate's inevitability, or it is kicking in to what many have suggested is the "extra gear" it possesses. Obama and Edwards, of course, will call it a reaction to her recent stumble, while Clinton's backers are convinced they're only just getting started.

Previewing Election Day

A preview of the races we're watching tomorrow:

Kentucky Governor
Steve Beshear/Dan Mongiardo (D)
Ernie Fletcher/Robbie Rudolph (R-inc)

Beshear is expected to cruise to victory tomorrow. Polls show him leading Fletcher by fifteen to twenty points. The Washington Post on Sunday even spotlighted the race as a sign that Democrats are undergoing a resurgence in the Bluegrass State.

Kentucky Secretary Of State
Trey Grayson (R-inc)
Bruce Hendrickson (D)

Grayson has spent close to $1 million on the race, and while former Pineville Mayor Bruce Hendrickson has spent only $18,000, a recent poll showed him trailing Grayson by just 4 points with 24% undecided. In a landslide gubernatorial race, no matter how much of a future Grayson has in state politics, he may be the victim of a Democratic tide.

Mississippi Governor
Haley Barbour (R-inc)
John Arthur Eaves (D)

Eaves has spent a good amount of his own money, but Barbour has spent more, and is likely to cruise to an easy re-election, likely becoming the only governor this year to successfully carry his state for his own party.

Virginia State Senate
District 1 (Republican Open Seat)
John Miller (D)
Tricia Stall (R)

District 6
Nick Rerras (R-inc)
Ralph Northam (D)

District 27 (Republican Open Seat)
Karen Schultz (D)
Jill Holtzman Vogel (R)
Donald Marro (I)

District 34
Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-inc)
Chap Petersen (D)

District 37
Ken Cuccinelli (R-inc)
Janet Oleszek (D)

District 39
Jay O'Brien (R-inc)
George Barker (D)

Republicans admit that the game is being played virtually entirely on their side of the field. Democrats need just four seats to retake the State Senate, and given recent polls showing the party preferred by a majority of Virginians, this year presents their best shot in the eight years since they lost control to Republicans. Major candidates are all up on the air, with the GOP stressing their support for immigration reform and Democrats pointing to popular Gov. Tim Kaine as their model.

New Jersey State Senate
District 1
Nicholas Asselta (R-inc)
Jeff Van Drew (D)

District 2
Sonny McCullough (R-inc)
Jim Whelan (D)

District 12
Ellen Karcher (D-inc)
Jennifer Beck (R)

District 39
Gerald Cardinale (R-inc)
Joe Ariyan (D)

Democrats hold a 22-18 seat advantage in the legislature, and this year brings just a few strong opportunities for parties to pick up a seat or two. Recent Zogby polls showed Van Drew and Whelan leading their Republican opponents 45%-42% and 50%-37%, respectively, where the margin of error was +/- 5%. Karcher is in enough trouble to have merited a weekend visit from State Senate President Dick Codey.

The real theme of this year's races: Unbelievable amounts of money. Van Drew, Whelan and Karcher have all out-raised their opponents, on the order of $3 million, $3 million and somewhere around $5 million, respectively. Their Republican counterparts have scooped up more than $1 million each, but are still facing big funding gaps.

Salt Lake City Mayor
Ralph Becker (D)
Dave Buhler (R)

Running to replace Democrat Rocky Anderson, Becker, the state House Minority Leader, leads Buhler by 21 points in a Mason-Dixon poll conducted early last week. Though it's a conservative state, Becker looks likely to keep the seat in Democratic hands.

King County Prosecutor
Dan Satterberg (R)
Bill Sherman (D)

A local election in which Politics Nation is intensely interested. After long-time King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng passed away, in May, his assistant, Dan Satterberg, is facing off with Democratic activist Sherman in the general election. Maleng was the lone safe Republican in an increasingly Democratic county, home of Seattle, and did not face a serious challenge for decades. Now Satterberg, running as Maleng's successor, promises to make the office nonpartisan. Satterberg enjoys the support of a large number of liberal Democratic elected officials and may just pull off what would be a big coup.

King County Council District 6
Jane Hague (R-inc)
Richard Pope (D)

On the east side of Lake Washington, where Republicans still hold many state legislative and local seats, incumbent King County Councilwoman Jane Hague looked to be cruising to re-election. Even after being charged with a DUI, Hague did not face a serious challenger. Now, though, she is worried enough to have dumped more than $100,000 into her own race.

County Democrats are not backing Pope, though, and most of Hague's Democratic colleagues on the council want her back for four more years. What's wrong with Pope? He's run for office ten times, changed parties three times and been reprimanded by lots of judges throughout the county. If he wins, he will create some great headlines around the county for the next four years.

Another Collins Lead

Tom Bevan writes this morning on a Critical Insights poll showing Maine Republican Susan Collins leading by a wide margin in her re-election race against Rep. Tom Allen. The incumbent senator, who many thought among the most vulnerable up for re-election next year, holds a 54%-34% lead over her Democratic rival, virtually identical to the 56%-33% lead she held in a Research 2000 poll two weeks ago.

While Beltway Democrats remain confident that they recruited the best possible candidate to go after Collins, many Republicans, even those skeptical of their own party's chances next year, think their incumbent will breeze to re-election.

Critical Insights, a Maine-based firm, conducts quarterly polls testing various public officials' favorability rating -- Gov. John Baldacci's rating was a net negative, at 44% favorable and 47% unfavorable, for the first time in his five-year tenure -- and issues of import to Mainers. State residents cited taxation as their top concern, as is common for Critical Insight polls, but to a much smaller 18% plurality than last year, when 34% named it as their biggest concern. Unemployment, the economy and health care all came in just under taxation as priority issues for state residents.

The poll also found that 65% of the state's residents agree with the state's tourism motto, "The Way Life Should Be." Perhaps unsurprisingly, those most inclined to agree were those making more than $75,000 a year and people over the age of 55. Those most likely to disagree included the always cranky 18-34 year old demographic.

GOP Gets Top OH-15 Recruit

Washington Republicans are thrilled to have scored what they call a top recruit in the race to succeed retiring Rep. Deborah Pryce. Ohio State Sen. Steve Stivers will make the race, according to the National Republican Campaign Committee.

The GOP has been looking for a candidate since Pryce announced her retirement in August. Pryce beat Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy by just over 1,000 votes in 2006, and Kilroy, running again, has already raised an impressive $425,000 through the third quarter.

While pundits suggest that Pryce's seat is a top Democratic pickup opportunity, NRCC officials are excited about Stivers' prospects. "Steve Stivers' decision to jump into the race is proof positive of how the Democrat-led Congress' record low approval rating is negatively affecting the election hopes for their candidates in 2008. If I'm Mary Jo Kilroy, I'm wondering what the Democrats in Washington have gotten me in to," said NRCC spokesman Ken Spain.

Stivers was appointed to the State Senate in 2003 and won his initial retainment election with 57.6% to a Democrat's 33.7%. His 16th State Senate District comprises the western third of Franklin County, which holds a large part of the Congressional District's population. Still, Democrats point out that Stivers has never faced a competitive election, and that leaves them in good spirits. With Stivers' entry, Kilroy remains the favorite, but the GOP at least has a quality candidate with an electoral base to give her a run for her money.

Morning Thoughts: Election Eve

'Twas the day before Election Day, and down in Kentucky, it almost doesn't matter if Ernie Fletcher gets lucky. The incumbent's much safer down Ole Miss way, where he might even make a veep short list someday. As you can tell, Politics Nation's poetry skills are limited. Instead, here's what Washington is watching today:

-- Congress is beginning their busiest stretch of the year this week when spending bills, veto overrides and the massive farm bill all hit the floor. The Senate takes up the farm bill this afternoon, though no roll call votes will take place today. The House will vote on a bill to provide more funding for foreign tuberculosis control and a resolution expressing concern over relationships between Iran and terrorist groups in Latin America

-- Later in the week, both houses will take up a $700 billion Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Labor-HHS conference report, which faces a veto threat from President Bush because it tops out at $10 billion over his Labor-HHS request. Democrats hope they will have the votes to override any veto, something that hasn't happened in Bush's presidency. Until tomorrow, that is, when the House is expected to override Bush's veto of the Water Resources Development Act. The Senate is expected to follow suit, making it the first bypassed veto of the Bush Administration.

-- By Wednesday, Congress is expected to have moved on to a free trade pact with Peru, which has won support from Barack Obama. John Edwards, writes NBC's First Read, is using that against the freshman senator in the first overtones of what many assume have to be vicious assaults coming. Edwards, running third in the polls, has to leap over Obama and Clinton to make it to the head of the pack, and the initial assaults on Obama have begun. If Edwards is the only one to oppose the measure, he could find the issue effective. Unions, after all, still play a big role in the Iowa caucuses, and while the AFL-CIO is not voicing its opposition to the measure, Change to Win, a coalition that includes SEIU, the Teamsters and the Carpenters' union, is urging members of Congress to vote no.

-- Edwards will audition a new line of attack against Clinton this week, accusing her of "voting like a hawk in Washington, while talking like a dove in Iowa and New Hampshire," per excerpts provided to the New York Times. The lines are the latest efforts to nail Clinton down on Iraq and Iran. Edwards' last efforts at Clinton, on illegal immigrant licenses, when he accused her of multiple positions in a single answer, were not helped during an appearance on "This Week" yesterday, when the former senator admitted that his position on the issue is the same as Clinton's. WSJ's Jackie Calmes says Clinton's camp was happy with Edwards' hemming and hawing.

-- Edwards, Obama and Clinton are all up on television. So are Mitt Romney, John McCain and most of the GOP field. But, as New York Times' Jim Rutenberg points out, Rudy Giuliani is not. Campaign aides say they will begin a push to define Giuliani this week, but through web ads, not television. Giuliani's strategy, many expect, is to wait to make a big push until February 5th states, where advertising rates are much higher. Though now that Giuliani is focusing more on New Hampshire, he'll certainly pop up on Granite State TV, won't he? Good question, his rivals all say.

-- As terrible poetry demonstrates, tomorrow is election day. Even inside-the-Beltway types are shocked at the amount of advertising going on in the DC media market, all for Virginia races. Yesterday, Politics Nation saw three ads from three separate campaigns during the course of an hour. The Washington Post, meanwhile, finds Virginia will provide a good landscape for Democrats: 50% want the party in charge of the legislature while 42% back the GOP; Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine is basking in the glow of 67% approval ratings; and while a big majority thinks the U.S. is off on the wrong track, 57% of Virginians are happy with their state's direction. Dems hope they can take back the State Senate and make progress in the Assembly tomorrow, and as we wrote recently, even Republicans are admitting that this is a defensive cycle.

-- In Kentucky, Gov. Ernie Fletcher is all but out as he faces poll after poll showing him trailing by twenty points. But his poor performance could cost the GOP more than just the governor's mansion. A Louisville Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll out at the end of last week shows popular Secretary of State Trey Grayson winning just 40% of the vote against little known Democratic challenger Bruce Hendrickson, who has the backing of 36% of voters. Grayson admits that Fletcher is a drag, but is pinning his hopes on popular State Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, who experts say could prevent voters from marking a straight Democratic ballot. Grayson should be winning easily; he's raised almost $1 million for the race, while Hendrickson has pulled in just $18,000.

-- Problem Of The Day: This page thought Fred Thompson survived his big showdown on Meet The Press, despite bad luck over a Washington Post story on a top backer's criminal past. Jonathan Martin agreed, saying those expecting a train wreck were disappointed. In fact, most of the mainstream media thought Thompson did pretty well. But the big sore thumb David Brody points out: Thompson said no to a pro-life constitutional amendment, which is consistent with his stand against federalism. Still, asks Brody: "Is this too much federalism to the point of alienating social conservatives?" It's a question the Thompson campaign, after losing some prominent social conservative backers in recent weeks, needs to answer quickly.

-- Today On The Trail: There are too many events these days. We're splitting our trail reports along party lines from now on. Hillary Clinton gives a speech in Cedar Rapids, then makes stops in Oelwein, Waverly and Mason City. Bill Richardson is stopping in Des Moines, Grinnell and Marshalltown. Joe Biden will be in Marshalltown and will make three stops in Ames, including for a conference on bio-economics at Iowa State. John Edwards gives a speech in Ottumwa and Oskaloosa, then joins Biden, Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich at the bio-economy forum.

-- On the GOP side, Mitt Romney holds a town hall meeting in Fort Lauderdale and Rudy Giuliani holds a town meeting in Manchester before campaigning for Mayor Frank Giunta, who faces re-election next year. John McCain holds meet and greets in Allison and Iowa Falls, then heads to Ames to join Democrats at the ISU forum. Fred Thompson makes the required "Politics and Eggs" stop in Bedford, then heads to events in Rochester and Dover, New Hampshire.

RNC Loses Ronayne

Republican National Committee deputy communications director Dan Ronayne is leaving his post next week to take over as a top manager at the Washington lobbying firm Chlopak, Leonard, Schecter and Associates.

Ronayne, who served as communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 2006 cycle, will be replaced by Brian Walton, who served as his deputy last cycle.

Mixed Day For Thompson

Fred Thompson, in his first Sunday show appearance since becoming a presidential candidate, fended off Meet The Press host Tim Russert's grilling today in a more than forty minute interview that has harmed other candidates' chances. Thompson defended his record on abortion rights and gay rights while delving into the developing crisis in Pakistan and ongoing situations with Iraq and Iran.

In short, while Thompson has failed to impress in previous speeches before important Republican constituencies, his performance this morning must have done a lot to assuage some nervous supporters.

But the impressive appearance came as the Washington Post reported a story, on the paper's front page, that top Thompson supporter Philip Martin, one of Thompson's campaign co-chairmen, has a past that includes drug and conspiracy convictions. Thompson, asked about the story by Russert, refused to throw his friend "under the bus," though he did not commit to keeping Martin on board with the campaign.

Thompson's campaign has saved more than $120,000, the Post writes, by using Martin's Cessna airplane to transport the candidate between events. The campaign only had to reimburse Martin for the cost of a commercial airline ticket rather than for the full costs of the private flight, which are much higher. Congress changed the rule in September to require the fuller reimbursement.

Thompson is not the only candidate to use a supporter's airplane, the paper reports, citing Rudy Giuliani and John Edwards as other examples. Nor is he the only candidate to grant access to a supporter with a criminal past, after Hillary Clinton's campaign had to return hundreds of thousands of dollars from indicted donor Norman Hsu.

Still, the timing is not what Thompson's camp would have hoped for. An appearance on a Sunday talk show that beat expectations was nonetheless overshadowed by a bad story. Little more than an hour after the appearance ended in the Washington media market, CNN and The Page both led with Martin, not the rest of Thompson's appearance.

Lessons From WaPo/ABC Poll

A new Washington Post/ABC Poll out this weekend gives an important window into the political landscape, and despite Congress' low approval rating, Democrats have to be happy with what they see. The poll, conducted 10/29-11/1, surveyed 1131 adults for a margin of error of +/- 3%.

Democratic presidential candidates are generally viewed more favorably than Republicans -- no leading Democrat has a net negative approval rating, while just two of the top five Republicans sport positive ratings. Perhaps more importantly, more Americans are aware of Democratic candidates enough to form an opinion, suggesting that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards will have to spend less time introducing themselves and will be able to spend more time defining their opponents.

Fav/Unfav
Obama 51 / 36
Clinton 50 / 46
Edwards 49 / 35

Giuliani 50 / 40
McCain 43 / 42
Thompson 33 / 37
Romney 28 / 41
Huckabee 21 / 30

That Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee have negative ratings does not necessarily indicate a negative overall opinion of the candidates. Given candidates they are unaware of, many respondents will say they have an unfavorable opinion rather than voluntarily offer that they have no opinion. Still, if any of the three end up winning the nomination, they will have work to do to introduce themselves to a majority of the country. That costs a lot of money.

Public opinion of Clinton, Obama and Edwards is largely unchanged from the last Post/ABC poll, taken in late February. Clinton's favorable rating is up one point, and her unfavorable is down two points, both within the margin of error; Obama's favorable is down two, while his unfavorable is up six, only slightly outside the margin of error and certainly explainable as more people get to know any candidate; Edwards' favorable is up three, and his unfavorable is down four, both inside the margin of error.

On the GOP side, though, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain have seen their favorable ratings drop dramatically, with a corresponding increase in their unfavorable ratings. Giuliani's favorables have dropped 14 points since February, while his unfavorables are up 12 points. McCain's positives are down nine points, with unfavorables up seven points. McCain's numbers might be explainable by his closer association with the war in Iraq, which, ironically, has helped him among Republican primary voters.

But Giuliani's drop in support has to be troubling for Republicans backing America's Mayor; the campaign is relying on the post-September 11th image of Giuliani, and if those initial positives wear off, Giuliani's campaign will have to spend a lot more to bring their positives back up.

Many Republicans will point to an increasingly slumping Congressional approval rating as evidence that their party still has a chance. Just 28% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, while 65% disapprove. That brings the RCP Congressional Job Approval Average to a -40.5% spread. That's a continuation of the steady decline since the middle of April, when 44% approved. And while a skimpy 32% approve of Republicans in Congress, Democrats don't fare much better -- they win the approval of just 36%.

But the Republican brand has suffered some serious damage. Only 39% of Americans see the GOP favorably, down 12 points from March 2006. The party's unfavorable is up ten points in that time, to 56%. More than half (51%) of Americans still see the Democratic Party favorably, though that's down four points in a year and a half as well.

Regardless of how the parties are viewed themselves, Democratic candidates have to be optimistic about their chances. On the major issues facing the country, Americans trust the party to do a better job handling all but the campaign against terrorism.

Trust Which Party On ___?
(Dem / GOP)
Health care 54 / 29
Situation in Iraq 50 / 34
Economy 50 / 35
Taxes 46 / 40
Immigration 42 / 35
War on terror 41 / 42

Yet even if the GOP tries to make the campaign against terrorism a central theme to next year's election, they will find the issue resonates less than it has in the past. Prior to Congressional elections in 2002, the GOP owned a 21-point margin on the issue. Prior to the 2006 elections, Democrats had a one-point advantage on the issue, among registered voters. With the GOP taking a slim one-point lead now, the landscape is essentially unchanged from that of 2006, which was disastrous for Republicans.

Whatever party is ahead or behind, it is clear that more people are paying close attention to politics than in previous years. The poll shows 67% are following the 2008 presidential race very or somewhat closely. Polls taken at virtually the same time in 2003 and 1999 show a much smaller percentage -- 54% and 45%, respectively -- paying attention.

The poll has Clinton leading the Democratic race with 49%, down four points from a late September poll. Barack Obama is at 26%, up six, while John Edwards hovers at 12%, down just a tick. On the GOP side, Giuliani leads with a third of the vote, followed by McCain, up seven from September at 19%, Thompson at 16%, Romney at 11% and Huckabee at 9%. See the whole write-up, courtesy Tom Bevan, on the RCP Blog.

Bloodbath Coming?

It is a rite of passage in any presidential campaign. For some, it is an opportunity to introduce themselves to the nation. For others, it is worse than being sent through a meat grinder. It is NBC's Meet The Press, with host Tim Russert.

Some candidates with experience and comfort level do well on Meet. Top Senators and pundits accustomed to Russert's grilling can avoid the trip wires he might throw in their way. Others, though, stumble and struggle to explain their shifting positions. Remember Bill Richardson's interview earlier this year? He hopes you don't.

After campaigning frequently on Fox News and Sean Hannity's radio show, this weekend Fred Thompson will meet the press. Can his humble country boy ways charm Russert? We'll be watching to find out.

Rudy Hits Dems, Not Romney

Speaking to reporters at a Capitol Hill hotel this morning, Rudy Giuliani repeated his criticisms of leading Democratic presidential candidates while defending himself from claims that he is similar to Hillary Clinton. Reacting to the claims, made by Mitt Romney's camp, Giuliani singled out judicial appointments as an issue on which he and Clinton differ. "I will appoint very different kinds of judges than Hillary Clinton would," he said, citing Supreme Court justices Samuel Alito, John Roberts and Antonin Scalia as his models.

"There are a hundred other differences but we don't have time," Giuliani joked. He did not make any reference to Romney.

Asked to respond to Delaware Sen. Joe Biden's claim that he is the least experienced candidate in the field, Giuliani repeated his charge that none of the Democrats had executive experience, and that none have had to meet a budget. Giuliani again singled out Clinton for criticism. "Hillary's promised about $800 billion in news spending already," he said.

Giuliani, though, did agree with Clinton over recent comments made by rival Barack Obama, who said he would negotiate with Iran without preconditions. "This may be the one area in which Hillary and I do agree," he said. "And I'll use her words [to describe Obama's positon]: Naive and irresponsible." Obama's comments, said Giuliani, "could come from the fact that [negotiation] is not an area of strength for him, or for any of the Democratic candidates."

"At least he sticks to his positions," Giuliani said of Obama. "I respect a man for taking a position," an implicit shot at Clinton.

Giuliani was in Washington to accept endorsements from Sens. Kit Bond, the former governor of Missouri, and Norm Coleman, who got to know Giuliani when the two were mayors. Giuliani praised both men for their executive experience and called them distinguished public servants. Bond, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, praised Giuliani's experience with and knowledge of terrorism, while Coleman called Giuliani's tenure in New York a "miracle."

Dem Race Actually Interesting

It has long been this column's publicly stated position that the Republican presidential race is a much more interesting contest than its Democratic counterpart. Due to the characters involved, the dilemmas many interest groups have with leading contenders and every candidate's possession of what seems to be a fatal flaw, the GOP side just grabs our attention more.

On the Dem side, there's a clear front-runner in national polls and in every early state (if only by a few points in Iowa). Snooze.

But thinking back on this week, we noticed we're writing a lot more about the Democratic side than we normally do. Last week, a cursory glance at our daily Morning Thoughts column shows that, aside from the "Today on the Trail" feature, we wrote nine items about Republican presidential candidates and only four about Democrats. Two items were bipartisan. This week, though, we wrote a whopping fourteen Democratic items and just eight for the GOP, along with one that covered both parties.

A plurality of our coverage this week had to do with the Clinton-Obama-Edwards debate dust-up, so maybe that's the reason for the increased attention to Dems. Whatever the cause, there's blood in the water, Obama, Edwards and Republicans are all circling what they hope is a wounded campaign, and we actually have a ballgame here. Don't get us wrong, the GOP race is still fascinating, but now we have two nail-biters instead of one.

As a very tech-savvy friend of Politics Nation (FoPN) would say, us reporting on what we already reported: Very meta.

Morning Thoughts: Counting Chickens

Good Friday morning. Wisconsin has a big showdown with Ohio State this weekend, which means the Buckeyes will finally be forced to play a good team. Here's what Washington is watching this morning:

-- The House is out of session and the Senate will not hold roll call votes today. President Bush is back on the trail, raising money for Sen. Lindsey Graham's 2008 campaign before heading to Camp David for the weekend.

-- On Capitol Hill, a once-secure nomination no longer looks so easy. Former federal judge Michael Mukasey, selected for his easy confirmability, is drawing fire from Democratic senators for refusing to say whether waterboarding is a torture technique illegal under U.S. law. Four of the ten Democrats on the Judiciary Committee will oppose his nomination, while chairman Patrick Leahy will announce his intentions today. Three of the four Democratic presidential candidates with a vote in the Senate will vote against him; Joe Biden has yet to make his position known. Mukasey needs just one Democrat to clear the committee, which is made up of 10 Democrats and 9 Republicans. His one-time supporter, Sen. Chuck Schumer, looks like a key vote, though at a meeting with reporters yesterday even he refused to answer questions about Mukasey.

-- Also on the Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is one of the vast majority of Americans who disapproves of Congress' job performance, per The Swamp. "I don't approve of Congress because we haven't done anything that -- we haven't been effective in ending the war in Iraq," she told reporters yesterday. "And if you asked me in a phone call, as ardent a Democrat as I am, I would disapprove of Congress as well." NRCC chair Tom Cole's statement in response, in its entirety: "I agree."

-- On the campaign trail, things are getting expensive. John Edwards started running his first television ads yesterday, an $800,000 buy in Iowa (details here). Barack Obama has spent about $4 million on ads, with Hillary Clinton at $3 million, according to WSJ's John Harwood. With two months to go (from tomorrow!) candidates have already shattered spending records from 2003, and that doesn't include Mitt Romney's ad buys.

-- We wrote yesterday on Obama's blown opportunity to continue sticking the Iran issue to Clinton. Late yesterday, though, Obama introduced a resolution codifying what Sen. Jim Webb's letter said, that President Bush does not have the authority to use military force against Iran, reports the AP. The move prompted an angry reaction from Clinton's camp, who accused Obama of playing politics, though in a statement emailed to Politics Nation yesterday, Obama spokesperson Jen Psaki said legislative efforts were needed. The Obama Senate staff either had this one in the can or has the fastest bill writers on the Hill.

-- Federal Judge Robert Hinkle has set February 5th as the date he will hear arguments in a lawsuit filed by Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Alcee Hastings against Howard Dean and the DNC for what they say is the wholesale disenfranchisement of Florida voters. The DNC stripped the state of its delegates to the national convention, a tactic upheld by a 1980 Supreme Court case, so many question whether Florida Democrats' lawsuit will actually get anywhere.

-- Rudy Giuliani will win the endorsement of Missouri Sen. Kit Bond today, CNN reports, making Bond the second senator to back Hizzoner in recent days. Norm Coleman, the Minnesota Republican, also announced his support this week. Bond will lend Giuliani an important and much needed hand in his native state, where Mitt Romney has already won the backing of Gov. Matt Blunt. Missouri holds their primary on February 5th.

-- Pedestal Of The Day: Edwards and Obama don't take PAC money, right? That decision costs them, in all honesty, next to nothing, reports Politico's Ken Vogel. While Sen. Hillary Clinton has collected a whopping $750,000 from political action committees this year, that's less than 1% of the total amount her campaign has collected. PACs have donated $2.6 million to presidential contenders, just 0.7% of the money candidates have raised. It's easy to be above what Edwards and Obama describe as the influence of lobbyists, especially when it's so cheap to do so.

-- Today On The Trail: Hillary Clinton becomes the last candidate to file papers for the New Hampshire primary today, then makes stops in Claremont and Manchester. John Edwards has events in Cheraw, Lancaster and Rock Hill, South Carolina, and Joe Biden stops in Gaffney and Greenville. Barack Obama is in Manning, Sumter and Greenville. Bill Richardson swings through DeWitt, Davenport, Tipton and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. On the GOP side, John McCain is in North Charleston and Lexington, South Carolina, Mike Huckabee is in Columbia and Ron Paul is in Clemson and Columbia. Rudy Giuliani makes a DC announcement, then heads to Errol and all important Dixville Notch, followed by stops in Shelburne and Berlin, New Hampshire. Mitt Romney spends his day in Marshalltown and Waterloo, Iowa, followed by a press conference in Cleveland, Ohio.

Obama Misses 2nd Iran Chance

Sen. Jim Webb sent a letter today to the White House warning President Bush not to take offensive military action against Iran without the consent of Congress. The issue has recently cropped up in the presidential race, where Sen. Barack Obama former Sen. John Edwards have criticized Sen. Hillary Clinton for voting in favor of an amendment designating a wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization.

Obama spent much of Tuesday's debate on the issue, hitting Clinton for offering the president what he characterized as the first steps down the path toward the use of force against Iran. But in what is apparently a missed opportunity to drive the point home, Obama was not among the 29 senators who signed on to Webb's letter. One source familiar with the process said Obama's office was among those asked several times to sign on. Clinton, however, did sign on.

Webb, who has recently become one of the party's leading voices on military issues, was joined by Clinton along with top Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin, John Kerry and Jack Reed, among others, in affirming that congressional authority was not granted by an amendment designating the Quds Force a terrorist organization. That amendment, offered by Sens. Jon Kyl and Joe Lieberman, "should in no way be interpreted as a predicate for the use of military force in Iran," the letter reads.

The missed opportunity is not the first time Obama's Senate record has been put seemingly at odds with his campaign rhetoric on the issue. Obama's argument against Clinton has been questioned by some, who noted he missed the vote on the Kyl-Lieberman amendment in order to campaign.

Neither Obama's Senate office nor his campaign office returned multiple calls and emails seeking comment. UPDATE: Obama's office emailed through the following statement:

Senator Obama admires Senator Webb and his sincere and tireless efforts on this issue. But it will take more than a letter to prevent this administration from using the language contained within the Kyl-Lieberman resolution to justify military action in Iran. This requires a legislative answer and Senator Obama intends to propose one.

Full letter below the jump.

President George W. Bush

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Bush:

We are writing to express serious concerns with the provocative statements and actions stemming from your administration with respect to possible U.S. military action in Iran. These comments are counterproductive and undermine efforts to resolve tensions with Iran through diplomacy.

We wish to emphasize that no congressional authority exists for unilateral military action against Iran. This includes the Senate vote on September 26, 2007 on an amendment to the FY 2008 National Defense Authorization Act. This amendment, expressing the sense of the Senate on Iran, and the recent designation of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, should in no way be interpreted as a predicate for the use of military force in Iran.

We stand ready to work with your administration to address the challenges presented by Iran in a manner that safeguards our security interests and promotes a regional diplomatic solution, but we wish to emphasize that offensive military action should not be taken against Iran without the express consent of Congress.

Sincerely,


1. Webb
2. Akaka
3. Baucus
4. Boxer
5. Brown
6. Byrd
7. Cantwell
8. Carper
9. Casey
10. Clinton
11. Dodd
12. Dorgan
13. Durbin
14. Feinstein
15. Harkin
16. Johnson
17. Kerry
18. Klobuchar
19. Kohl
20. Leahy
21. McCaskill
22. Mikulski
23. Murray
24. Reed
25. Rockefeller
26. Sanders
27. Stabenow
28. Tester
29. Whitehouse
30. Wyden

SC Dems: No Colbert

So much for that idea. South Carolina Democrats, who were considering whether funnyman Stephen Colbert is a legitimate Democrat, nationally viable and has campaigned in the Palmetto State, have rejected his attempt to get on the ballot, Politico reports. It is unclear what the comedian's next step will be, though he could potentially run as an independent on the general election ballot.

We imagine South Carolina Democrats will merit a mention on either tonight's Threat Down or a place next to bears in Colbert's heart.

Prelude To A Primary

Democrats were heartened to hear that Rep. Steve Pearce, a conservative New Mexico Republican, would run against more moderate Rep. Heather Wilson in the GOP primary. Now, though, Democrats could find themselves facing a primary as well.

While Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez has reportedly been hard at work condensing support for his bid, DSCC chairman Chuck Schumer said he is continuing to talk to possible candidates, according to the Albuquerque Tribune. Schumer would not say who he has talked with, though Lieutenant Gov. Diane Denish is one possibility. A Denish spokeswoman said more DC Democrats had urged her boss not to completely shut the door on a bid.

The DSCC is also said to be aware of a blog urging Rep. Tom Udall to change his mind and make a run. Schumer did not mention New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, though NBC Political Director Chuck Todd said recently that a Senate bid from Richardson is not out of the question. Richardson's camp has repeatedly shot down those rumors, however.

Schumer's comments elicited a strong response from Chavez's campaign. "While Martin Chavez has great respect for Senator Schumer, New Mexicans, not New Yorkers, get to decide who will be the next U.S. senator from New Mexico," Chavez manager Mark Fleisher told the Tribune.

Meanwhile, on the GOP side, Pearce kicks off his campaign tomorrow with the beginnings of a ten-stop tour around the state.

Update: The Albuquerque Journal breaks news this afternoon with a report that Udall's political staff are calling Democratic heavy hitters in New Mexico to inform them that the congressman is reconsidering his decision not to run for Senate. Udall has not reached a decision, but Schumer scores a victory for getting him to think seriously about the race again.

Journal scribe Michael Coleman also reports Udall got a call yesterday from Richardson, who told him unequivocally that he does not plan to run. The guaranteed absence of a primary against Richardson is likely just the enticement Udall needed to think again about entering the race.

We've written it before, but if Udall does jump in, 2008 gets two interesting side stories: First, all three of New Mexico's members of Congress will be seeking the seat, severely wounding the state's seniority in the House. Fortunately for New Mexicans, Sen. Jeff Bingaman has his own seniority to put to work on behalf of his state. The second story line: Rhree members of the Udall family will be running for the upper chamber, including Mark, in Colorado, Tom, in New Mexico, and Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, a cousin to both Udalls.

The Bizarre Case Of Richard Curtis

Washington State Representative Richard Curtis, a conservative Republican who represents an area near the Oregon border, has had a very bad two weeks. Attending a conference of GOP state legislators last week in Spokane, Curtis went to an erotic video store in nearby Medical Lake. There, dressed in women's lingerie and after participating in lewd behavior, Curtis met Cody Castagna, and a short while later the two met at one of Spokane's fanciest hotels to have sex. Curtis later fell asleep, and Castagna, according to court documents, stole his wallet.

Later that morning, Castagna called Curtis and threatened to blackmail him unless Curtis turned over $1000. Curtis then contacted the Washington State Patrol, who in turn contacted the Spokane Police Department. According to Castagna, Curtis offered the man the money in exchange for sex, and later gave him the wallet as collateral.

Newspaper reports in Washington State show Castagna has faced criminal charges in Spokane, near the Idaho border, and King County. He will likely face blackmail charges in the incident, but despite his less than stellar reputation, Curtis, who during his legislative career compiled an extensive anti-gay voting record, is going to have a difficult time explaining his way out of wearing women's lingerie on camera. While it is unlikely that Curtis will face any criminal charges, yesterday he resigned from the legislature, a move House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt praised. Curtis' website has already been removed from the state legislature's server.

The incident is not the first time Spokane has found itself near Republicans who get in trouble for gay sex while publicly speaking out against homosexuality. Former Spokane Mayor Jim West, another conservative Republican who served in the legislature before winning election to the hometown post, allegedly offered internships to young men through a gay website using city resources. West was kicked out of office in a recall election in 2005. And, of course, Spokane is also just minutes from the Idaho border, where Sen. Larry Craig has found himself in trouble over the summer.

For more on the case, Spokane TV station KXLY has a round-up of the case as it was developing, while the Seattle Times' David Postman wrote his thoughts yesterday.

GOP Previews Clinton Tie-Ins

Barack Obama was right about one thing: Republicans are just licking their chops waiting for a shot at Hillary Clinton. Not only do GOP strategists see her as ripe for targeting during a general election, but other Republicans will try to tie down-ballot Democrats to their top-of-the-ticket leader.

The flap over Clinton's back-and-forth answer on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants offered an opportunity, for example, for the NRCC to take after a potentially vulnerable freshman Democrat on the same topic. "Just like Hillary, Chris Murphy is unsure about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants," a new NRCC press release heads.

The release cites a quote from Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who knocked off long-time Rep. Nancy Johnson last year, saying he didn't know where he stood on the issue: "I haven't had time to look at it before so I probably should come down one way or the other," Murphy told Cybercast News Service.

Accusing Murphy of "Clintonesque doublespeak," the committee is offering up just one of what are likely to be many attempts to tie freshmen Democrats to Clinton. The possibility of Clinton as a galvanizing force for the GOP is an argument Obama and John Edwards will continue to make as they try and convince the Democratic electorate that only they are electable.

Gore Wins Blind Bio Poll

Pollster John Zogby is out with his latest blind bio poll, which offers some interesting insights into the Democratic presidential race (find the poll's head-to-head matchup and the latest RCP Democratic Average here). Still, one has to wonder, how "blind" are these polls when more than one candidate is a rock star who is well known to the electorate and when two have previously been on national tickets? Judge for yourself. The biographies offered:

Candidate A is an experienced candidate from the South who has been Vice President of the United States and a US Senator. This person has won several awards, including an Oscar, a Grammy, and an Emmy for his documentary about global climate change. This person has won the Nobel Peace prize and is recognized as an international authority on foreign policy, energy, the environment, and technology. This candidate has opposed the Iraq war from the beginning.

Candidate B is a candidate with roots in the South and the midwest, but is currently a US Senator from a Northeastern State. This candidate is well known for work on many domestic issues, including education, children's issues, and health care. As a US Senator, this candidate voted to authorize the Iraq war. This candidate is critical of how the war has been handled by the current administration.

Candidate C is a first-term US Senator from the Midwest who has emphasized efforts to reach out to include in the political process many people who are disaffected and unused to involvement in politics. This candidate brings a fresh face to Washington and draws huge crowds to campaign rallies. This candidate has opposed the Iraq war from the beginning.

Candidate D is a former US Senator from a southern state. This candidate also has run as a Vice Presidential candidate in the past. This candidate champions health care and education for the poor, and has experience running a national political campaign. As a US Senator, this candidate voted to authorize the Iraq war but has since said it was wrong to vote for authorization.

Not very hard to guess who is who, right?

Blind Bio Matchup
Candidate A 35
Candidate B 24
Candidate C 22
Candidate D 10

Candidate C, who for no reason at all we'll call Barack Obama, brings just two positives to the race the other actual candidates can't claim: A "fresh face" and an opposition to the war in Iraq. While Candidate A sucks up more than a third of the vote, it is likely safe to assume that a Grammy, an Emmy and an Oscar are not what people are voting for; without this war opponent in the race, we'd wager many of those votes would go to Obama.

Luckily for Obama, Al Gore isn't running. Further proof, if one is needed, that a Gore endorsement would be a game-changing moment.

In all, the 527 respondents, who said they would vote in a Democratic primary, are largely satisfied with the choices they will face. 76% said they are either very or somewhat satisfied with the field.

Morning Thoughts: All Politics Is Local

For some reason, Virginia Tech is playing two Thursdays in a row. Fans in Washington, of which there are quite a few, will be bleary-eyed tomorrow, but no worries. If Maryland can beat Georgia Tech, the Hokies should have no problems. Here's what Washington is watching before kickoff:

-- The Senate is still attempting work on the second incarnation of SCHIP. Senate negotiators, led by Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, are trying to cut deals with House Republicans that would attract enough votes to override a veto. Baucus and Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, the committee's ranking member, are set on establishing a cigarette tax to pay for the $35 billion SCHIP expansion, and Baucus said the group has agreed in concept, writes CongressDaily (subs req'd). On the other side of the Capitol, the House never got around to the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act, so they'll try again today.

-- The Administration has an unusually public day today. President Bush will make remarks at the Heritage Foundation, meet the 2007 Little League World Series champions and attend an RNC dinner in Washington. Vice President Cheney addresses the American Legion in Indianapolis, then fundraises for Sen. John Cornyn and the NRSC in Dallas. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff holds a press conference with vulnerable Maine Sen. Susan Collins on preventing improvised explosive device attacks in the U.S. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves for a six-day trip to Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

-- On the Presidential campaign trail, the mini-blow up surrounding Hillary Clinton's remarks on immigration seemed to get worse as yesterday went on, fueled in large part by rivals John Edwards and Barack Obama. Clinton strategists, writes the Washington Post, are looking at containing fallout, while Edwards will kick off a new ad campaign centered on debate footage. The Clinton camp, in a hastily-arranged conference call yesterday with supporters, appealed for more money to fight back from attacks they said would continue, writes The Hill. Something for Clintonistas to consider: If they act like the debate really hurt, does that become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Mark Penn doesn't think so: The strategist says he is already detecting backlash among women voters.

-- And by the way, Clinton supports a plan granting drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants, proposed by her home state governor, Eliot Spitzer, per Adam Nagourney. Aides and advisors said she broadly supports the goal, but is not aware of either of Spitzer's specific plans. So, hand her Democratic opponents a victory for requiring clarification on an issue, and hand her GOP opponents a massive issue for the general election, and, perhaps most importantly, a new issue that hasn't been beaten to death like most other anti-Clinton rhetoric.

-- Over the next week and a half, leading up to the Iowa Democrats' Jefferson-Jackson Dinner next Saturday, candidates will pour into Iowa, where they all realize how tight the race really is. Every four years, AP veteran Mike Glover gets to write a story like this one, in which Democratic candidates are appealing to voters to at least make them their second choices, assuming the first choice doesn't make the 15% threshold. The second choicers mattered in 2004, when Edwards' people picked up significant support around the state from supporters of Rep. Dennis Kucinich.

-- In Virginia, Rep. Tom Davis has been helping his wife, State Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, in her bid for re-election. And in what may be a sign that Davis does not intend to seek re-election next year, his campaign has given nearly $400,000 in in-kind contributions, the Politico reports. Devolites Davis' Democratic opponent, Chap Petersen, is not pleased, and sent a letter to media outlets urging stations to pull the ads because of a lack of the required disclaimer. The race, as we wrote recently, is one of the most contested in a state where Democrats are optimistic about their chances to pick up the State Senate. Davis himself said his wife and Petersen will spend $1 million each on the race, a ridiculous amount for a job that pays $18,000 a year.

-- We said the New Jersey legislature, up for election on Tuesday, would not change more than a few seats one way or the other, and thanks to big Democratic leads, the GOP will not likely take over a chamber. But while the races don't offer too much drama, both parties are raising big bucks. The Newark Star-Ledger today reports Democrats have raised $28 million and the GOP has collected $11.4 million for their races. One strategist told Politics Nation that at least one of his clients' opponents had broken the spending record with almost two weeks to go in a race. All 120 legislative seats are up for election, and with no contribution limits to state, county and local parties, the money has only just begun to flow.

-- John Arthur Eaves is still spending millions on the one governor's race this year that has received virtually no attention. Eaves, a trial lawyer, is trying to unseat first-term Gov. Haley Barbour, and has poured millions into his own campaign, including most of the $2.24 million he raised between October 1 and 27. At the end of that period, Barbour maintained $1.72 million cash on hand to Eaves' $95,000. The race is so far off the radar that Politics Nation has yet to see a poll conducted in the state. Democrats will win the governorship here eventually, and they already own the Attorney General's post, but likely not this year.

-- Bad Luck Of The Day: Why did Barack Obama not get the New Hampshire SEIU endorsement? Because of a sick baby, who we sincerely hope is alright. In several bizarre twists last week, the state chapter, which represents about 10,000 people, voted to endorse Edwards, though not without a huge fight, multiple votes and a lot of angry rank-and-file members. Read accounts here and here. Obama has lagged behind Edwards and Clinton in union support, and a win in New Hampshire would have been big for him. But the fact that he competed, at least, is a positive sign for his camp.

-- Today On The Trail: Hillary Clinton stops by Wellesley College, her alma mater, and UNH-Durham today. Barack Obama holds a rally in a different Durham, this one in North Carolina, while Joe Biden formally files for the New Hampshire ballot, then holds a pizza party with supporters in Concord. On the GOP side, John McCain holds events in Myrtle Beach and Goose Creek, while Mitt Romney stops in Decorah, Mason City, Charles City and West Des Moines, Iowa. Fred Thompson has breakfast with Nevada Republicans in Las Vegas, Rudy Giuliani attends a rally of New Jersey legislative candidates in Manalapan, and Ron Paul opens a campaign office in Greenville, followed by a Spartanburg County Republicans' monthly meeting.