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RealClearPolitics Politics Nation Blog

 

Blog Home Page --> December 2007

Huck Backs Off

DES MOINES -- Mike Huckabee has ordered his staff to cancel a negative ad that had already been delivered to television stations, he told members of the media at a news conference. The candidate, who spent the morning jogging and visiting volunteers at his downtown Des Moines headquarters, then proceeded to show the ad anyway.

Huckabee has lately been taking a harder line against Romney. The ad hit Romney on several issues, including crime and abortion. Need proof that he's serious? Look no farther than The Page:

HuckDSMpress.jpg
Photo credit: Mark Halperin

Wicker To Replace Lott

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour today announced he will officially name Rep. Roger Wicker to replace Senator Trent Lott, who resigned as the first session of the 110th Congress came to a close. Barbour made the announcement at an 11 a.m. news conference in Jackson, the Clarion Ledger reported, while another press conference will be held in the Southern part of the state, in Gulfport, later today.

After two terms in the Mississippi Senate, Wicker has served in the House since 1994, when he succeeded retiring Democratic Rep. Jamie Whitten. A former aide to Lott, Wicker has not faced a truly competitive race in any of his six re-election campaigns, meaning national Republicans have little to fear from the new vacancy. The district, which covers the north and northwest part of the state, gave President Bush about 60% of the vote both times he ran.

When the new senator has to run for retainment is unclear. Barbour says the election can be held in November, when the state's other Senate seat, held by Senator Thad Cochran, is also up. Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, thinks Mississippi law dictates an election be held within 90 days of the appointment. The matter looks headed for a courtroom.

No matter the date of the election, WIcker looks like a safe bet to keep the seat in Republican hands. A recent poll taken by Research 2000 shows Wicker leading former Democratic Governor Ronnie Musgrove, 47% to 39%. Former Attorney General Mike Moore, another Democrat the party hoped to lure into the race, has already said he will not compete for the seat.

Final Huck, Romney Moves

DES MOINES -- Looking for any advantage possible in the closing days before Iowans caucus, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney are making their final pitches in very different ways. The two Iowa front-runners' final pitches are telling of the way their campaigns see themselves: Romney's last advertisement is a positive spot; Huckabee is said to be planning a shot at Romney.

Romney today launched a closing advertisement lightly touching on the points he has been hammering home this year: Businessman who turned around the Olympics and several big companies, and who can now turn Washington around. Huckabee, battered by weeks of critical ads from Romney, plans a response, a senior adviser told the Wall Street Journal.

That response ad was cut Sunday, when Huckabee took a day off campaigning to attend church and a film session. The ad, to come out today, accuses Romney of distorting Huckabee's record to hide from his own.

As has been the pattern throughout the year, candidates only attack one another when they are behind or when their lead is threatened. It took Huckabee gaining a lead for Romney to start paying attention; now, with Huckabee's apex seemingly behind him, the former Arkansas governor is getting into the act.

The move carries significant risk: Iowa voters say they do not like negative advertising, and though such advertising remains an effective campaign tool, using it at the end of a crowded caucus campaign means the last thing voters will see is Huckabee going after Romney instead of showing off his own sunny personality, which boosted his prospects in the first place.

Iowa voters who stay up late, though, will have the opportunity to see the funny side of Huckabee the night before the caucuses. While writers are still staying away and most A-list celebrities have not committed to booking the show, Huckabee will join Jay Leno on the comedian's first night back from the writers' strike, which began November 5, the Hollywood Reporter writes.

Hanging out with Leno, even if only by satellite, could prove a big boost for the naturally humorous Huckabee. In the waning days of an increasingly nasty campaign, leaving caucus-goers with a pleasant memory of the candidate is crucial. Romney's is already on the air. Whether voters remember Huckabee in the same way could determine Iowa's outcome.

Weather Looks Good

DES MOINES -- Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have based much of their strategy on turning out new caucus-going attendees, and it looks like Mother Nature is cooperating. While snow clouds menace the Iowa capitol this morning, the outlook for Thursday is much better, with partly cloudy skies and temperatures between 15 and 30 degrees throughout the day. So yes, it will be cold, but there could have been a snow storm or something.

Or could there? In fact, as AP legend Mike Glover pointed out to Politics Nation inside a freezing barn in Chariton in November, there has never been bad weather on caucus night. Fear-mongers who would warn of eight feet of snow and two feet of sheer ice need only look at the history books to find out that the weather has always cooperated.

January 19, 2004 was 15 degrees with light wind and overcast by caucus time, but no precipitation fell. January 24, 2000 brought balmy 33 degree temperatures by 6 p.m., down from a high of 41, and with only scattered clouds. It snowed three tenths of an inch in Des Moines on February 12, 1996, with the temperature near freezing, and two tenths of an inch on February 10, 1992, when the high reached 44 degrees. Neither can qualify as a major storm at all, and in fact both months barely had any snow -- just 3 inches more than a third of the way through.

You get the point: It may snow a little bit, but for the most part, the Iowa parties have done an exceptional job picking a day with good weather for their nominating contests. A review of weather reports going back to the first modern caucuses in 1972 shows caucus night has never seen more than half an inch of snow (1988) and has enjoyed more than its share of good weather (49 degrees in 1984).

Could it be that Mother Nature is an Iowa resident and really loves being able to examine the candidates up close and personal? Or does she just approve of Iowa holding their nominating contests first? The real question: Why hasn't New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner got the same talent for picking dates for his state's primary?

Morning Thoughts: Repetition

DES MOINES -- Good Monday morning, and welcome to the last fifteen hours of 2007. This year seems like it should have been over months ago; on the other hand, who can actually believe it's already 2008? Iowans, it seems, just want to get this whole caucus thing over with. Here's what they're watching today:

-- Today On The Trail: John Edwards is in Storm Lake, Spencer, Emmetsburg and Algona before rocking out for New Years at his campaign office in Mason City. Barack Obama is partying all day, with stops in Perry, Jefferson, Boone, Iowa Falls and Ames, while Hillary Clinton finishes a swing through the east half of the state, making stops in Keokuk, Fort Madison, Muscatine, Waterloo and Des Moines. Joe Biden meets with caucus-goers in Fort Dodge, Ames and Newton, while Chris Dodd is in Oelwein, Waverly, Waterloo and Dubuque. Bill Richardson finishes his year in Ames, Perry, Winterset, Indianola, Knoxville and Des Moines.

-- For Republicans, Mike Huckabee is back on the trail, taking a jog with advisers and visiting volunteers at his campaign office before stopping by a New Years Eve party, all in Des Moines. Mitt Romney's bus tour stops in Clinton, Bellevue, Dubuque, Manchester, Independence and Waterloo, followed by a party with his family in Des Moines. Fred Thompson's going to be doing radio all morning, followed by a tour of Allison and its newspaper and a meet-and-greet in Tama. John McCain is in Hancock, Londonderry, Rye and Concord for house parties, while Rudy Giuliani is in New York with an empty public schedule.

-- Two new, and very divergent, story lines have emerged in the last few days: First, Mitt Romney is back on the move in Iowa; he once again leads in the latest RCP Iowa Average, though by a fraction of a point. Mike Huckabee has gone on the attack in recent days, signaling a recognition that his wave may have crested: Now he has to rely on bringing Romney down a peg or two instead of relying solely on HuckMentum. The former Arkansas governor, who cruised to the top of the GOP field largely on his positive message, even says Romney owes him an apology and an acknowledgment of his wrongdoing, Politico's Roger Simon writes.

-- The second new story line sounds like an old refrain from 2000: The Straight Talk Express is back. While Romney may prove able to come back from a slump against Huckabee, it is less clear that his lead in New Hampshire will hold out. Romney still leads by 5.6% in the latest RCP New Hampshire Average, but John McCain is clearly on the move. Then again, Romney's resurgence in Iowa raises two questions: Many thought Huckabee would pull out a Hawkeye win, so does a Romney win turn into a big boost? And, McCain is rising about the same time Huckabee did in Iowa; will we look back on 2008 as the year of the early peak? If Romney wins both early primary states, his strategy is back on track. If McCain can overtake him, the folks in Boston will need a serious reassessment.

-- In New Hampshire, McCain has the old magic, writes the Washington Post, though for different reasons than his surprising 2000 win: Back then, McCain appealed to independents who liked his maverick streak. Now, his support is coming from conservative and moderate Republicans, as well as independents, in equal measure, thanks largely to his support from the war. Still, the lean, mean operation of 2000 exists (Before the campaign's mid-July meltdown, "they were running a Bush-type reelection campaign," said supporter Peter Spaulding, who pronounced himself "pleased" with the shakeup), and the energy has returned with it.

-- Romney got good news yesterday when the Marshalltown Times-Republican and the Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil announced their support. But the newspaper wars have a clear leader in John McCain, who along with the Des Moines Register, the New Hampshire Union Leader and the Boston Globe picked up the nod of the Concord Monitor and the Nashua Telegraph, giving him a whopping 26 endorsements in the Granite State, OnCall reports.

-- It helps to have Rudy Giuliani out of the state, at least for Mitt Romney. A cornerstone of the moderate New Yorker's pitch to conservatives has been his record appointing judges; make it five minutes with Giuliani without him mentioning John Roberts and Sam Alito and it's a miracle. No matter his disagreements, as he puts them, with conservatives, they can still trust him to hire good judges. With Giuliani and surrogates putting more emphasis on later states, though, it has been left to Mitt Romney to make his own argument on judges. MSNBC's Erin McPike reports Romney surrogates Jim Talent and Jay Sekulow, a former senator and a well-known pro-life attorney, respectively, have been meeting with clergy and evangelical leaders to talk to them about Romney's own judicial philosophy. Sekulow also took an implied shot at Mike Huckabee, arguing that it takes certain political skills to actually get conservative judges approved.

-- On the Democratic side, every prominent politician who backs a candidate for president and spends time stumping through the state should be given a card with three little words on it: "Don't Criticize Iowa." It makes big news, especially when it's someone like Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, who told the Columbus Dispatch in an interview that the Iowa caucuses were "hugely undemocratic" and the process "excludes so many people." "I'd like to see both parties say, 'We're going to bring this to an end.'" Strickland has made three trips to Iowa for Clinton, including one this weekend, though his comments are causing trouble, the Dispatch reports.

-- Clinton's supporter's gaffe may irritate Iowans, though the campaign rushed to assure them she still thinks they should go first. Indeed, Clinton is staying more positive these days, while an increasingly urgent and bitter feud breaks out between John Edwards and Barack Obama. Yesterday, Edwards said it takes a mean streak to bring change. "You can't nice these people to death." That perceived shot got to Obama, who called it "hot air," The Fix reports. The two are competing for the Anybody-But-Clinton vote, and actually pushing and shoving each other quite hard. We wondered a few months ago when their fight would break out into the open. If neither wins, it won't be hard to wonder what would have happened had either gone after the other earlier in the race.

-- Obama keeps engaging because his strategists now see they were wrong about one key piece of the puzzle: They believed Edwards would fade as caucuses drew closer and Iowa voters saw new faces. In fact, Edwards looks like he's repeating his 2004 performance and closing fast. The latest RCP Iowa Average has him tied for second with Obama, just 2 points back of Clinton. We wrote recently that there was no three-way race in Iowa, that Edwards trailed Obama and Clinton outside the margin of error. That has changed, and Edwards is making his comeback. Many have speculated that, had the Iowa caucuses been two or three days later in 2004, Edwards would have won. If his peak comes earlier this year, he just might be the next comeback kid.

Republicans Battle For Show

NEWTON, Iowa -- Fred Thompson points out to crowds that never in his political career has he lost an election. And he promises that he won't start losing with Iowa. Thompson, running a distant third in the race for delegates to be decided at Thursday's caucuses, should explain further: For him, a victory would be finishing third, winning a few delegates and surviving to fight again in South Carolina and other states that might welcome him more.

ThompNewton.jpg
Thompson speaks to voters in Newton
The former Senator and actor has been working the state hard in recent days after a slow start. Criticized for his perceived laziness, Thompson has jumped on a multi-week bus tour -- the only break being for Christmas Day -- and is pressing the flesh as much as he can. In Newton, a small town that once served as headquarters to the Maytag company, Thompson ended his day Saturday speaking to a packed room at a senior citizen's center.

That commitment alone should propel him to a good finish here; his opponents are not Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, who look poised to win and place, in either order. Thompson's chief rivals are John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, two better-known commodities who have nonetheless skipped out on Iowa. McCain held a brief series of events immediately after Christmas before returning to New Hampshire. Giuliani held all of four events over a day and a half in Iowa before doing the same. Both candidates will not even be in Iowa when voters here caucus.

Thompson is running hard, airing television advertisements and meeting as many voters as he can. Giuliani has all but pulled out, while McCain's radio ads are seldom heard. Thompson even has a greater presence than Ron Paul, whose billboards and few television spots are the extent of his paid media; Paul, too, will be in New Hampshire on caucus night. It speaks to Thompson's weakness here, then, that he places fourth in the latest RCP Iowa Average, at 11%. That's behind McCain's 11.4%, though five points above Giuliani and Paul, who finish with 6.2% each.

Because of a number of factors, it is the fight for third place that has become perhaps the most important mini-drama on the Republican side. Much of Romney's strategy is predicated on winning New Hampshire, and if McCain or Giuliani get a third-place boost coming out of Iowa, Romney's chances could be severely imperiled. Thompson, polling little above an asterisk in New Hampshire, would get a boost coming out of Iowa that he could take, rejuvenated, to South Carolina. Even Paul, with gobs of money and more motivated supporters than any other candidate, could force members of the media to eat their hats with a surprise finish.

Like the contest for the GOP nomination itself, the race for the last ticket out of Iowa is filled with intriguing subplots. Voters who find national security the most important issue have two candidates speaking their language, in both Thompson and Giuliani. Many still associate Giuliani with the September 11 terrorist attacks and his response in the aftermath, and Thompson fills much of his stump speech with terrorism talk, noting that he was the Republican floor manager for the measure that created the Department of Homeland Security.

RudyIndy.jpg
Rudy Giuliani, pictured here in Indianola, and Fred
Thompson hurt each other among security voters
"I think [Thompson] won't make rash decisions," Laurie Nelson, a Republican from Newton who is backing Thompson, said. His tough-guy persona has an impact as well. "I wouldn't want to buck him," she joked. Giuliani projects a strong image as well. If just one of them were running, security voters might coalesce more and give that candidate a boost.

McCain, who seems to take joy in sticking his fingers in the eyes of every Iowa voter he can find, still finds time to speak out against ethanol subsidies, a stand tantamount to political suicide. But many Republicans still back the war in Iraq, and McCain's record of support for the troop surge and opposition to anything remotely connected to Donald Rumsfeld, who took much of the blame for the war's early failings, keep McCain in good position to win votes from caucus-goers more concerned with the war.

And while the Des Moines Register's endorsement is more important in the Democratic race, the paper's choice of McCain on the GOP side will surely win him some additional support. Even backing from one-time candidate Sam Brownback has helped; Tim Loraditch, one of the few Iowans with a McCain yardsign in front of his house, came over after Brownback dropped out.

And what of Ron Paul? The Republican electorate is in a state of malaise. Unlike the Democratic side, where voters are undecided largely because they cannot choose between several options they like, large numbers of Republicans remain undecided because they cannot choose between several options they don't like. Paul's supporters are the only ones madly in love with their candidate.

It is not hard to imagine a situation in which a Republican backing one of the other candidates decides to stay in and watch football on January 3 while a much greater percentage of highly motivated Paul supporters line up hours ahead of time, giving him a surprisingly strong showing.

Neither McCain nor Giuliani want to appear as if they are competing for third place, setting expectations so low that even a fourth-place finish might be good news. But both are running a more under-the-radar campaign than people are led to believe. Thompson is working the state hard, though his message is resonating less than it once did; in his twenty-five minute speech in Newton, he was interrupted by applause not once. While his campaign claimed 150 people in attendance, a count of the room and an adjoining spill-over area came to 86, including staff and media.

The race for third place in Iowa could have a dramatic impact on the GOP nominating contest as a whole. McCain could use a third-place "better than expected" bounce to beat Romney in New Hampshire, where polls show a narrowing race. Giuliani could use the boost to resurrect what looks like a flagging campaign. Thompson could do the same, catapulting himself back into contention in far friendlier South Carolina. And Paul would stun everyone and generate a new round of jaw-dropped coverage.

Because Huckabee is viewed by many as having a weak organization in later states, and because Romney's campaign suddenly looks vulnerable in Iowa, a bronze medal here could serve as a predictor for the race as a whole. It is exceedingly rare for a Republican who finishes in third place to win the nomination; only George H.W. Bush pulled off the feat, in 1988. By the end of the 2008 primary season, he may not be alone.

All About Appearances

DES MOINES -- Reporters from Washington, based in Des Moines for the week, are striving to get to as many candidate events as they can. It sure helps, though, when candidates make swings through the state capitol. It's a good idea, too: Des Moines is in the center of the state and serves as a perfect midway point for bus tours headed in any direction.

No wonder, then, that the state's biggest city will see three consecutive days of evening rallies by the three leading presidential contenders. The events are great visuals, well attended by energetic crowds and easy for reporters to cover.

John Edwards drew about 1,000 people to a rally downtown yesterday. Tonight, Barack Obama ends his day at a rally in a middle school gym on the east side of town. And Hillary Clinton finishes off the year tomorrow with a New Years party at the Capitol.

With four days to go, expect the orbits candidates take around Des Moines to shrink. Obama, for one, already has events scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.

RichMentum?

DES MOINES -- On a cold Sunday afternoon, more than 300 people packed a downtown performance space here to see yet another Democratic presidential contender. The crowd didn't come to hear Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards; instead, they offered a raucous standing ovation as New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson entered the room. "I am honored to be in this huge crowd," he said. "Thank you for giving up your Sunday. It is Sunday, right?"

Richardson DSM.jpg
Richardson made his point today in Des Moines
There may be a simple explanation for Richardson's big crowd: Actor and fake president Martin Sheen was expected to serve as host, though what he called a "severe, contagious" cold left him unable to fly to Iowa. Instead, and perhaps better for the candidate, he was introduced by supporter Nancy Sebring, superintendent of the Des Moines Public Schools. Then again, perhaps word of Richardson's legendary charisma, so lacking in most debates this year, has gotten around.

Alternately winning big applause and big laugh lines, Richardson's wide-ranging speech encompassed everything from education to the Constitution and the war in Iraq; he has called for perhaps the fastest withdrawal of American troops of any candidate, which he says differentiates him from the rest of the Democratic field. "They're all terrific, they're all great. They'd all make great vice presidents," he jokes.

Richardson told the crowd his campaign would surprise in Iowa, and that more than 18,000 caucus-goers had pledged to attend their caucuses on his behalf. While many voters will sign multiple pledge cards, the number of potential supporters remains impressive, and gives the campaign's 1250 precinct captains something to work with. "We need you to shock the world," Richardson said.

"Today, it begins. This effort, that is so American democracy," Richardson told the crowd, "where you go and try to get a certain percentage to survive." The governor stands at just 6.2% in the latest RCP Iowa Average, though he peaks at 12% in the latest Mason-Dixon survey for MSNBC and McClatchy. If the big crowd on a frigid weekend afternoon -- when most rational people are snuggly watching football games -- is any indication, RichMentum may be the next buzz word of the 2008 campaign.

Morning Thoughts: Benching Huck

Good Sunday morning. Candidates head to church before the final Sunday before the caucuses while David Yepsen gets his quadrennial appearance on Fox News Sunday to predict winners (he punted). Meanwhile, two journalists who shall remain nameless report that "Caucus: The Musical" is a must-see event. Here's what Iowans are contending with today:

-- Today On The Trail: Barack Obama hits the road in Knoxville, Newton, Indianola and Des Moines. John Edwards makes stops in Boone, Carroll, Mapelton and Sioux City, while Hillary Clinton is in Vinton, Traer, Cedar Falls and Iowa Falls. Bill Richardson makes stops in Marshalltown, Des Moines, Fort Dodge, while Chris Dodd is in Le Mars, Elkader, Emmetsburg, Dubuque, Anamosa and Mason City. Joe Biden hosts events in Mason City, Garner, and Algona.

-- On the GOP side, Mitt Romney is in Columbus Junction, Iowa City, Mount Vernon, Moscow and Bettendorf, then closes his day with an online video conference. Fred Thompson is in Ames, Webster City and Hampton. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are in New Hampshire, with the Mayor making stops in Plymouth, Lincoln and Bretton Woods, while the Senator hits Lebanon and Newport.

-- Most importantly: Anyone notice a missing name? Mike Huckabee is spending a day without public events after a scheduled sermon to a major church in Des Moines was canceled. Huckabee, the recipient of several weeks of bad press on a number of fronts, may have seen his peak, McClatchy's Steve Thomma writes. The campaign is relying heavily on volunteers they don't necessarily know, meaning they are essentially winging the ground game, as one Huckabee adviser told Politics Nation. If he has any hope of regaining momentum, should Huckabee really use one of his last five days on the trail for little more than a Meet The Press interview?

-- We reported yesterday from Indianola, where Huckabee and Giuliani held dueling events. Later, Giuliani had a town hall meeting before skipping out of the state. He will not be back before the caucuses. Giuliani has made twenty stops in Iowa, the Daily News reports, leaving many Iowans to write him off as a presidential hopeful altogether. How different this race would have been had Giuliani packed up and moved to Iowa six months ago. One underappreciated aspect of the GOP race: Thanks to the absence of Giuliani and McCain, Mike Huckabee finished second at the Ames straw poll. If he becomes the nominee, blame the guys who skipped the event and allowed Huckabee to outperform.

-- The Democratic race has the feeling of a Thanksgiving dinner in which no one likes those around the table. Open feuding breaks out at times, but it's mostly simmering, under-the-breath remarks. Clinton and Obama remain locked in a tussle over which would be the most electable in a general during swings through Mississippi river-side towns while John Edwards' wife went on the Today Show today to take a jab at Obama. "Senator Obama talks a nice talk, but John is the warrior in this race," she said.

-- The GOP side is that same dinner during a food fight: Messy and getting worse. The latest salvo comes from a poorly identified group associating itself with Mitt Romney for the sake of bashing Mormonism. The postcard, which CNN writes purports to be from the Romney family, landed in South Carolina mailboxes wishing voters a happy new year, complete with quotes on the Virgin Mary being "fair and white" (from the Book of Mormon) and on God having multiple wives. Romney's camp said there is "absolutely no place" for the kind of mailing in politics. Iowa has the largest evangelical population outside of the South; why haven't more anti-Mormon mailings shown up here?

-- In Iowa, independent voters are not a hugely important segment of the population. In New Hampshire, they're crucial: A recent LA Times/Bloomberg poll had Obama leading Clinton in the Democratic race by two points; Clinton led by seven among Democrats, while Obama had a whopping 13-point lead among independents. Bad news for John McCain, good news for Barack Obama: 60% of independents in the Granite State say they plan to pick a Democratic ballot, while just 39% say they will choose to participate in the GOP race. McCain needs to pull actual Republican votes if his challenge to Romney is to be successful.

-- Fox News is no fan of Ron Paul, and Ron Paul is no fan of Fox News. The network is excluding Paul from a debate January 6 at the campus of St. Anselm College. In response, Paul tells the Boston Globe that Fox folks "are propagandists for this war, and I challenge them on the notion that they are conservative." Paul will get to debate at the school, though the day before, in a debate sponsored by ABC News, WMUR and, for some reason, Facebook. That day, both the Democratic and Republican fields will hold back to back debates. Paul heads to Iowa soon after spending most of his time in New Hampshire in recent days.

-- Whatever happens in Iowa may not matter, David Broder reports, if Mike Bloomberg and a group of influential independents have their way. A group of high-powered moderates, including former Senators Sam Nunn, Chuck Robb, Bob Graham and David Boren -- all Democrats -- and Republican luminaries like Chuck Hagel, John Danforth and Christie Todd Whitman, as well as Bloomberg, will meet at the University of Oklahoma to discuss the possibility of a third party presidential campaign if the two major parties nominate people who they think would further divide the country. Are there enough voters out there to give a third party choice a win? Probably not, but there are certainly enough to severely screw with everyone's predictions.

-- Recurring Trend Of The Day: We wrote recently that illegal immigration is not a vote-moving issue in a general election. Still, it's something that gets a lot of people hot under the collar. In Indianola yesterday, Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist was always surrounded by fans, while Tim Hutchison, a former Senator, stood by himself. The icing on the cake: Dallas Morning News' "Texan Of The Year" is the illegal immigrant. Before next year is out, given the amount of attention the issue receives from all sides, the illegal immigrant might be person of the year from a number of other states as well.

How Far He's Come

INDIANOLA, Iowa -- In December, 2005, then-Arkansas Governor and National Governors' Association head Mike Huckabee sat down with two reporters aboard a dinner cruise boat anchored in the Potomac River in Southwest Washington. Then, the governor took questions from a reporter with Stateline.org and this scribe, at the time with The Hotline.

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Huckabee answers reporters'
questions in Indianola
Things change, and quickly. Today, in front of a packed house of hundreds of supporters at a restaurant here, Huckabee spent twenty minutes taking questions from reporters with every major news organization in the country. Then, Huckabee merited the attention of a single public relations consultant. Today, former Arkansas Senator Tim Hutchison, Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist, campaign manager Chip Saltsman and top strategist Ed Rollins stood back to let the candidate speak.

Then, Huckabee's campaign merited little more than the occasional mention in his hometown paper. Today, Huckabee is leading the RCP Iowa Average by two points, ahead of Mitt Romney, who Huckabee asserts has outspent him by a factor of twenty in Iowa alone. In dueling rallies in this small college town, Huckabee even outdrew Rudy Giuliani, the closest thing the Republican field has to a celebrity candidate. Giuliani's appearance, just a block away from Huckabee's, packed a local deli, but the venue and the crowd were smaller.

Huckabee and Romney, locked in a bitter battle for the state's convention delegates, have spent the last several weeks going back and forth on charges of inconsistency over a number of issues. Today, Huckabee took the opportunity to take new shots, calling Romney's advertisements dishonest. "It's dishonest toward me, it's dishonest toward John McCain," Huckabee said. "That's really what, I think, this race comes down to, is the integrity and honesty with which we are approaching it."

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Rudy Giuliani signs a fan's book at an event
a block away from Huckabee's
Asked point blank whether Romney himself is dishonest, Huckabee toed the line. "He's being dishonest about my record and John McCain's, and Rudy Giuliani's, and I think he's certainly being dishonest about his own record." Romney has "spent millions and million of dollars," Huckabee continued. "I'm sure there's a feeling of frustration. You're not supposed to be behind when you're spending that kind of money."

Huckabee's new attacks on Romney came as the former Massachusetts chief executive opens an advertising campaign hitting McCain in New Hampshire. Romney began running advertisements against Huckabee as his lead in Iowa slipped, and eventually succumbed to Huckabee's meteoric rise. Hoping to head off similar results in New Hampshire, where McCain is surging, Romney started running new ads against the senator there.

That, said Rollins, pushed Huckabee over the edge. "He saw the ad against McCain, and he said, 'This is ridiculous. You can't attack an American hero.'" Rollins said there had been no contact between the two campaigns.

Like Huckabee, McCain has fought back. After leaking a possible attack ad to Slate, McCain launched a hit on Romney yesterday in New Hampshire. Today, he was even more blunt when asked to respond to Romney's latest charges. "Never get into a wrestling match with a pig," McCain told reporters aboard the Straight Talk Express. "You both get dirty, and the pig likes it."

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CSPAN and Huckabee buses
compete for parking spots
Back in Indianola, the media horde and jam-packed crowd told of Huckabee's newfound status as a top contender. Outside, Huckabee's bus idled next to a bus for traveling reporters. By the curb, CSPAN's traveling bus waited for a live interview with the candidate, and a bus for FairTax supporters, a key component of Huckabee's rise, sat at the end of the block. Voters, too, were excited. "I like any Republican who has values that will stick to them," said Michelle Steen, who publishes a Christian newspaper in Indianola. "We have a big Huckabee sign by our driveway on the highway."

Romney had few fans among the mostly older crowd. Asked if she would consider supporting Romney, Patricia Fetters, Steen's mother, said no. "I wouldn't be interested," she said. Pressed for a reason, she laughed. "I hate to say. If you weren't taping me," she trailed off. Her daughter was less circumspect. "I do question Mormonism," Steen said.

For others, it was Romney's perceived changes of heart that concerned them. "I guess I'm just not comfortable with him as far as his changes of his positions in the past," said Greg Abbott. "I mean, people can change, but I'm not exactly comfortable with how he's come about that."

All is not lost for Romney yet, however, largely because, to many voters, Huckabee has not locked in their support. Abbott, who said he is concerned that Huckabee's experience in foreign policy may be lacking. "As a governor, that'd probably be a weaker area, at least an area he has not thought about a lot." Despite the Huckabee sticker on his shirt, Abbott is also considering casting a vote for Fred Thompson.

Fetters says she's heard good things about Duncan Hunter, though Steen, who said she liked former candidate Tom Tancredo, is more in Huckabee's corner. "Huckabee is my choice right now," Steen said. "But I still will keep listening. I'm not, you know, set in stone."

Morning Thoughts: No Sleep 'Til...

WEST DES MOINES -- Caucus day is Thursday. Until then, no rest for the weary or the wicked. Here's what Iowans are waking up to this morning:

-- Today On The Trail: Rudy Giuliani holds events in Clive, Indianola and Mount Pleasant, while Mitt Romney stops in Newton, Pella, Oskaloosa, Ottumwa and Burlington. Mike Huckabee visits Indianola and Perry, while Fred Thompson starts in Burlington, then hits Washington, Williamsburg, Montezuma and Newton. John McCain is staying in New Hampshire for now, with events in Merrimack, Bedford and Londonderry

-- On the Democratic side, John Edwards leads roundtables discussion in Muscatine, Washington and Knoxville before rallying with wife Elizabeth in Des Moines. Hillary Clinton is in Eldridge, Clinton, Maquoketa, Dubuque and Manchester, Iowa. Barack Obama hits Fort Madison, Keokuk, Mount Pleasant and Ottumwa, while Bill Richardson delivers another foreign policy speech in Iowa.

-- The Republican race has, for the moment, boiled down to three candidates and two story lines. Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney are feuding bitterly in Iowa, while John McCain and Mitt Romney are fighting like children in New Hampshire. Romney is attacking both candidates, though for very different reasons: In Iowa, Romney trails, and his team thinks Huckabee has peaked, write Dan Balz and Michael Shear. In New Hampshire, Romney leads, though he's seeing that lead slip as McCain's momentum continues.

-- Both Huckabee and McCain aren't taking things lying down; McCain leaked an anti-Romney spot yesterday before releasing a real one to New Hampshire television stations, while Huckabee is considering another round of push-back in Iowa. Questions all around: Does Huckabee have the money to go toe-to-toe with Romney? Can McCain continue his upward climb? And can Romney survive fighting wars on two fronts?

-- Another question the feudin' and the fussin' brings up: What happened to Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson? The two, who sat together atop national polls for months, are being virtually ignored. Thompson's bus tour, which no one can call lazy, is keeping the candidate out of the fray, which may be a good thing if at least a few Iowans decide they don't like the Huckabee-Romney fight. Giuliani, who never made a serious effort in Iowa, is making just a day and a half swing through the state before bolting for New Hampshire. Questions for both candidates: Can Thompson become the nice guy to choose over the bullies? Can Giuliani survive without oxygen until Michigan or Florida, where he might again be in the top two?

-- Another fascinating subplot: With Romney and Huckabee so far ahead of the rest of the field -- the latest RCP Iowa Average has a 15.3 point gap between second-place Romney and third-place Thompson -- the real fight is for third place. Thompson barely leads McCain for the show position, with Giuliani a little farther out. The implications for both men are great: Thompson has said he needs to finish third in Iowa, and McCain's prospects of winning New Hampshire could receive a substantial boost if he posts a better than expected third in Iowa.

-- For Democrats, the race seems to boil down to three candidates -- no surprise there -- but if anyone says they know who will finish first, second and third in Iowa, they're probably pulling your leg. One certainty: Obama and Edwards do not like Clinton, and the two are getting more irritated that the other one is in the race. This week, Obama spent serious time taking shots at Edwards for his perceived relationships with independent 527 groups, while Edwards called an Obama adviser's comments on the death of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto "ridiculous" and said his rival was in "never-never land," in an interview with ABC's Jake Tapper.

-- Obama strategist David Axelrod's comments, which seemed to link Clinton to Bhutto's death, was a slip-up that had to be walked back. Yesterday, the candidate himself goofed. "It's that experience, that understanding, not just of what world leaders I went and talked to in the ambassador's house I had tea with, but understanding the lives of the people like my grandmother who lives in a tiny hut in Africa," Obama said in Coralville, the New York Times reports. Some thought the comment was sexist, though Clinton surrogate Madeleine Albright didn't play that card: "Senator Clinton has been in refugee camps, clinics, orphanages, and villages all around the world, including places where tea is not the usual drink," she said.

-- Obama's response to the kerfluffle: "They must really be on edge." That statement can, and should, apply to every campaign here over the next few days. Everyone has tons to gain, or lose, in Iowa. For Edwards, a win breathes needed life into his campaign, while a loss spells the beginning of the end of his road. For Obama, a win probably gives him a victory in New Hampshire, and the snowball begins there, while a loss could cost him the Granite State. For Clinton, a win earns a big bounce, as many thought they saw the state slip away from her earlier this month, while a loss costs her the invincible aura she once enjoyed. Everyone, understandably, should be on edge.

-- To get the win, Edwards has to convince people that he is the real change candidate by proving Obama unready to carry the mantle. Obama has to fend off Edwards while standing tall as the Anybody-But-Clinton candidate. And Clinton, while she has more time in which to do so, has to blow out someone, somewhere, and show that she's inevitable once again.

-- Buried Story Of The Day: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour will announce the state's new Senator on Monday, the Mississippi Press reports, filling a vacancy left by Trent Lott, who retired earlier this month. One candidate who will definitely not get the job: Outgoing Rep. Chip Pickering, who said yesterday he asked Barbour to remove his name from consideration. The announcements, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reports, will be held in Jackson and Gulfport. Rep. Roger Wicker leads the speculation game, but other candidates have buzz as well, including Treasurer Tate Reeves.

Edwards' New Clinton Zinger

DES MOINES -- Members of the media have long complained at Hillary Clinton's unwillingness to answer their questions. Now, Clinton is curtailing the questions she takes from Iowa audiences as well. Top Of The Ticket reports Clinton has not taken questions during campaign stops for the last two days, from either the media or potential caucus-goers.

In response, John Edwards today launched "Ask John," a new program in which Iowa voters can call or email the campaign and receive a response auspiciously from the candidate. Elizabeth Edwards and top campaign aides will also answer questions Iowa voters have.

Edwards is the only Democratic candidate to have visited, and, says his campaign, answered questions in, all of Iowa's 99 counties. His current bus tour will hit 38 counties. The campaign promises to answer each questioner, in some form or another, by caucus night.

Iowa and New Hampshire voters are both notoriously prideful of their unique access to candidates. Whether their hackles are raised by Clinton's refusal to answer questions could determine the flow of the next week. To be fair, not every candidate answers questions at every event. Barack Obama did not take questions yesterday as he debuted his new stump speech in Des Moines.

5 Moments That Changed The GOP Race

NBC Political Director Chuck Todd on Sunday put into words what every political junkie has thought for months. "We've all got what we want for Christmas," he said on Meet The Press. "It's this race."

A year in to the widest open, most covered and most fascinating presidential race in a generation, and just a week before the first votes are cast, eight candidates have at least some legitimate chance at winning their party's nominations. None are in their positions by accident.

In the fight for the Republican nomination, there have arguably been four front-running candidates. The strategies that have worked -- and those that haven't -- have made for a fluid race in which, even at this late date, many have concluded there is no front-runner at all. Recently, we examined the top moments in the Democratic race. Today we take a look at the five moments in 2005 that most changed the GOP race:

5. November 5 and December 11 -- Ron Paul raises $4 million and $6 million in individual days. The important thing to remember: Ron Paul will not win the Republican presidential nomination. His campaign does not have the organizational strength, and his message is simply not suited for a Republican primary electorate that, largely, still supports the war in Iraq and President Bush.

But $10 million in two days is astounding, and Paul's message clearly resonates with many more than the 50,000 or so who gave as part of the "money bomb."

Howard Dean, fighting against the Washington Democratic establishment and arguing that he represented the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, gave rise to Barack Obama's outsider message that is now working so well. Paul's financial success will probably not lead to electoral success for the same reason: Like Dean, Paul is the wrong messenger.

If another, younger, more telegenic libertarian Republican comes along in the future, claiming to represent the Republican wing of the Republican Party, he or she might help redefine the GOP for a generation. Paul's success will not change the 2008 Republican Presidential contest, but four, eight, even twenty years down the line, someone may point to Guy Fawkes Day and the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party as days that shifted the way Republicans think about themselves.

4. August 11 -- Mike Huckabee finishes second at the Iowa Straw Poll. Huckabee spent next to nothing to compete at Iowa State University in Ames, relying instead on a network of home-school advocates and FairTax backers, as well as a substantial number of voters who must have taken tickets from other candidates who invested more in the event.

His second-place finish had two effects that rocked the GOP race: It effectively knocked Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback from the race, giving social conservatives just one candidate around whom to coalesce. And it gave Huckabee another media boomlet, on which his campaign finally capitalized. Huckabee's strong showing at the straw poll was not the apex of his drive toward the top of the Iowa polls, where he now resides; it was the first push that got Huckmentum rolling as far as it has gone.

One might also argue that back-to-back decisions from Rudy Giuliani and John McCain not to compete in the event -- in fact, both have barely made an effort in Iowa at all -- opened the door for Huckabee to sneak in. Both Giuliani and McCain, at that time national front-runners trailing Mitt Romney in the first caucus state, were afraid of being seen as losing. By not busing in their own supporters, each left the door open for Huckabee to score a victory that arguably led to his position as a front-runner today.

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Thompson speaks to supporters at his Urbandale, Iowa
headquarters. Rep. Steve King, applauding right, looks on
3. September 5 -- Thompson announces on Leno. After months of preparing a run for president in the messiest way possible, and as other Republican candidates debated in New Hampshire, Fred Thompson showed why he has never been nominated for any sort of acting award and rarely takes a role with more than a few speaking lines. Announcing his candidacy on Jay Leno's Tonight Show, Thompson tried to appear presidential and run a campaign above the fray, above an increasingly nasty GOP scrum and at a level he and his campaign hoped could not be equaled by the others. Unfortunately for him, his GOP opponents were already looking past a dud of a campaign.

Looking back on this entire campaign, it is hard to imagine a faster rise and fall than that of Thompson. Once the savior of conservatives everywhere, who were without a candidate to rally around, Thompson ran a campaign so ham-handed that he has become almost a non-factor in the GOP side: A recent poll in New Hampshire had him tied with Duncan Hunter. Further, Thompson's entry caused many Republicans to take another look at the field. In the end, virtually every candidate except Thompson benefited from that closer look, most prominently Huckabee.

From constant turnover among top campaign aides, a less than stellar fundraising performance and debate appearances that even Arthur Branch would have panned, Thompson couldn't capitalize on the immense wellspring of good will that existed. His choosing to announce his campaign on Leno's couch showed the fatal strategy Thompson pursued: Run a different kind of campaign. That never works. Campaigns are run following a specific formula because that formula works, a formula to which the former senator never wanted to conform.

2. July 13 -- McCain campaign implodes. Once the national front-runner, with an aura of inevitability and a fundraising plan that assumed $100 million in the bank by the end of the year, John McCain's fortunes began to slip early. By the time Rudy Giuliani got in the race, a month into the year, he had overtaken the Arizona Senator as the national front-runners. And, to be blunt, McCain has never been a good fundraiser.

Still, the campaign did not recognize its financial short-comings and wound up having to drastically alter the game plan. Many senior staffers, including campaign manager Terry Nelson and long-time strategist John Weaver, parted ways.

If John McCain loses the Republican nomination, his campaign plan, drastically different from that of his 2000 insurgent race, could take the blame: Why take a candidate who is best running from behind and try to make him the inevitable nominee? But if McCain wins, which he very well could do, he can point to what can only be described as an implosion -- early speculation was that he would drop out in July or August -- as the impetus for a major retooling that worked.

McCain had a winning early strategy in 2000, derailed only in South Carolina. The only improvements he may have needed to make were in South Carolina, a state with thousands of veterans who would happily vote for a war hero in a Republican primary. The implosion, in short, let McCain be McCain, which is the only way he can win.

1. December 6 -- Romney delivers "The Speech" at Texas A&M. No one on the Republican side had a worse November than Mitt Romney. His Iowa poll numbers, once seemingly insurmountable, began to slowly receed as Huckabee's increased. Some social conservatives more openly questioned his conversions, on issues of abortion and gay rights, while asserting that his Mormon faith was all but a deal-breaker. Romney decided to risk a speech explaining the role of faith in America, an answer to John Kennedy's famous speech defending his Catholicism in 1960.

The moment presented risks: Romney very well might have said something to irritate and alienate his remaining evangelical backers. Instead, he delivered a reasoned yet impassioned speech that won praise from many corners while only mentioning the word "Mormon" once. Since then, his poll numbers have inched up, the slide seems to have abated and Romney's fortunes seem headed north. Romney may not win the nomination, but the speech at President George H.W. Bush's library in College Station stopped the death spiral and gave Romney a fighting chance.

Bonus: December 19 -- Rudy Giuliani checks into the hospital. The former New York City mayor is not the paragon of health. A cancer scare kept him out of the 2000 Senate race, and the flu-like symptoms and self-described worst headache he had ever experienced might renew questions about Giuliani's well being. His campaign was not forthcoming about the incident, and Giuliani's doctor will not be made available to the media until after Christmas. If Giuliani is not the GOP nominee, might pundits look back on a day in the hospital just three weeks before the New Hampshire primary as a turning point in the campaign?

The GOP race has entered the final sprint, in which the term "race" actually starts to mean something. Pundits and historians will look back at 2007 as the year in which the contest was decided. The eventual winner -- and anyone's guess is good at this point -- will have benefited in some way from the make-or-break moments above. He who capitalizes most will be standing at the end of the day.

Huckabee's Turnout Machine

DES MOINES -- Three leading evangelicals this morning held a conference call with pastors from around Iowa urging them to help turn their congregants out for the caucuses, Marc Ambinder reports. Tim LaHaye, author of the popular "Left Behind" series, Rick Scarborough and Michael Farris, a top advocate of home schooling, spoke with participants under the auspices of the US Pastor Council and Vision America.

The three are urging pastors to make sure their flocks are involved, though they cannot legally advocate on behalf of a candidate. Still, all three are backing Mike Huckabee, and their message is clear. "Pastors, we have a solemn duty to assure that our congregants are informed and then participate in this vital act of civic ministry through the caucuses," an email inviting pastors to call in reads.

With significantly fewer resources than Mitt Romney and other leading Republicans, Huckabee has to rely on surrogates to help boost turnout, a crucial component of any Iowa campaign. Pastors around the state have been key in Huckabee's rise in recent polls, and his continued strong performance rests largely on their efforts.

Richardson Again Calls For Resignation

DES MOINES -- In a speech today, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson will again play the experience card, arguing he is the candidate best prepared to lead. "I have learned that people are often sustained and moved by little more than an unshakable belief" in the ideals of democracy, Richardson plans to say, per prepared remarks.

Asserting that the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is a challenge put directly to the United States, Richardson will pledge to restore the country's standing in the world while urging a fundamental shift in foreign policy. "America must always lead in the name of freedom, and we should never allow our nation to perpetuate dictatorships or provide support to tyrants to oppress their people," he will say.

"Yesterday, I called for President [Pervez] Musharraf to step down. Today, as a nation, I am calling on the administration to stand firm for our ideals in the face of terrorism and in respect for the ideals Bhutto stood for. Anything less would send a dangerous signal to the world that terrorism alters our resolve," Richardson says in prepared remarks. In response to Bhutto's assassination, Richardson calls for a halt to all non-terrorism related military aide to Pakistan until Musharraf steps down and a technocratic government is in place.

The call for Musharraf's resignation provoked strong reaction from two Democratic opponents, Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, both of whom serve on the Foreign Relations Committee. They maintain "misplaced faith" in the Pakistani leader, Richardson plans to charge. "Like the Bush administration, they cling to a misguided notion that Musharraf can be trusted as an ally to fight terrorism or to change his despotic ways."

Richardson has tacked continually to the left in recent weeks, most notably on the war in Iraq. Today, his remarks could continue to help him among those who have been anti-war from the start. "Make no mistake. This administration is losing the war on terrorism," he will say, giving the most anti-war voters real red meat. "Bush's foreign policy has failed, but not for lack of opportunity to make it better."

The tones Richardson strikes, of restoring America's standing and remaining above the fray, are similar to those laid out by other candidates. Still, as a former UN ambassador with myriad stories of hostages rescued, bodies of American servicemen returned and tense negotiations around the world, Richardson should be able to more credibly make the argument than other candidates.

"We cannot afford another president who is a foreign policy novice. We cannot afford another president who takes the easiest path, rather than the right path; a president who makes wrong choices because he doesn't know how to make the hard, but right, choices," he will say. Richardson stands at just 6% in the latest RCP Iowa Average.

Morning Thoughts: On Hold

WEST DES MOINES -- It's Friday morning, the end of what seems like a very short week. No one's left in Washington, so here's what Iowans and Granite Staters are watching as the presidential primaries draw to a close:

-- Today On The Trail: Hillary Clinton makes stops in Story City, Webster City and Mason City, while John Edwards is in Independence, Dubuque, Clinton, Tipton and Davenport. Barack Obama's bus tour takes him to Williamsburg, Coralville, Clinton, Davenport and Muscatine. Joe Biden is in Adel and Decorah, followed by stops in Cresco, Waverly and Waterloo. Chris Dodd holds events in Des Moines, Clive and Council Bluffs. And Bill Richardson gives a speech in Des Moines (more on that below) followed by "Final Presidential Job Interviews" in Decorah, Elkader, Anamosa and Tipton.

-- On the Republican side, Fred Thompson campaigns in Pella, Oskaloosa, Ottumwa, Fairfield and Fort Madison, while Mitt Romney's bus tour takes him to Rock Rapids, Sioux Center, Le Mars, Sergeant Bluff, Missouri Valley and Council Bluffs. Mike Huckabee is in Pella and Ottumwa. John McCain finishes his Iowa swing with a stop in West Burlington, followed by multiple events in Manchester, New Hampshire. Rudy Giuliani finishes up a multi-day swing through Florida with a stop in Orlando, followed by an event in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Ron Paul has a day of closed-press media interviews in Manchester.

-- The assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto rocked the presidential campaign yesterday, as every candidate not only expressed condolences but used her death as an opportunity to assert their own foreign policy experience. By the end of the day, the jockeying had led to several tiffs between campaigns on both sides of the aisle, even before Bhutto was laid to rest this morning.

-- In perhaps the most startling discussion of the assassination, top Obama strategist David Axelrod seemed to suggest that the war in Iraq, and by extension Hillary Clinton, could be responsible for the tragedy: "One of the reasons that Pakistan is in the distress that it's in is because al-Qaeda is resurgent, has become more powerful within that country and that's a consequence of us taking the eye off the ball and making the wrong judgment in going into Iraq. That's a serious difference between these candidates and I'm sure that people will take that into consideration," Axelrod told reporters in Des Moines yesterday. A top Clinton spokesman responded, accusing Axelrod of politicizing the tragedy with "baseless allegations." Axelrod backed off the comments later, telling CNN that he meant that American actions in Iraq have had direct impacts on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not to be left out, Edwards actually spoke to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, First Read and Radio Iowa report.

-- Second-tier Democrats got into the scrum as well, starting with Bill Richardson's call for Pervez Musharraf's resignation. That prompted harsh responses from Joe Biden, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Chris Dodd, the number two Democrat on the panel, both of whom called Richardson's assertion irresponsible. Richardson fired back, arguing that U.S. support for Musharraf has been misguided. Richardson will give a speech on Pakistan this morning in Des Moines. He told CNN this morning that Pakistan's scheduled January 8 elections should be postponed until former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif decides to get involved.

The question of the moment, however, is this: If the Democratic race is a three-way contest in Iowa, and if Clinton is the "experienced" candidate, as her campaign has argued all year, doesn't she become the default choice in any crisis situation? We'll see.

-- Republicans spent the day responding to the attack, rather than each other, which left them open to a few minor flubs on foreign policy. Mike Huckabee, whose reputation for policy gaffes is growing by the day, said the incident should raise questions about whether to continue martial law in Pakistan (martial law was ended two weeks ago, which Ambinder says is evidence of a lack of brilliance on the policy front). Meanwhile, Romney chastised "those who think Iraq is the sole front in the War on Terror," per a statement. Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes wonders just who thinks there is but one front, calling the statement Romney's "Mike Huckabee moment." Meanwhile, John McCain responded to the news by arguing that he is most ready to handle the crisis, citing the fact he has been to Waziristan, the lawless tribal area on the Afghanistan border.

-- In more domestic affairs, a look at the schedule tells the whole tale: Every major Democratic candidate is in Iowa, as are most Republicans, all intent on making their closing arguments. What's the best way to make a closing argument to a large audience? Bus tours are good, but Hillary Clinton is going to offer a two-minute advertisement on every 6 o'clock news broadcast in Iowa the day before the caucuses, the campaign says. Don't be surprised if another campaign(s) does something similar.

-- If other campaigns follow Clinton's lead, it will only add to the media saturation Iowans face these days. The New York Times' Patrick Healy looks at some of the latest ad campaigns -- Romney has a new blitz on the way, Giuliani is preparing a September 11th-themed commercial, and Edwards just launched two new spots. Obama has spent the most, at $8.3 million, followed by Clinton at $6.3 million and Edwards at $2.7 million, according to a CMAG analysis. That's good for an astounding 44,600 individual advertisements. From experience, Politics Nation can report that no show goes by without an advertisement, including The Simpsons.

-- Romney leads the GOP field with $6.5 million spent on more than 8,000 individual runs, and the former governor leads by a mile. Thompson and Huckabee come in second and third, having spent just over $1 million each. The bottom line: Democrats will spend about $140 per caucus-goer on advertisements while the GOP drops nearly $100 per voter. That's comparable with the amount of money New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine spent on their respective bids for office.

-- While Democrats are making their final pitches, Republicans, the schedule shows, aren't ready to go that far yet. John McCain is spending a few days in New Hampshire, while Rudy Giuliani is only now making his post-Christmas appearance in Iowa (and his first in more than a week). Usually, one expects a candidate to exude confidence in the outcome of a race, but Republicans know their race is just too fluid. "I'm not ready to predict the outcome," Mitt Romney told the Washington Post yesterday in Manchester, where he said goodbye to close supporters before heading to Iowa for the remainder.

-- Third Party Of The Day: If Huckabee wins the Republican nomination, bet that more candidates will take a harder look at people backing the so-called FairTax in the future. The group, which favors a national sales tax to income taxes, had a big presence at the Iowa straw poll in Ames this August, helping Huckabee to a surprise second-place showing, and their supporters fueled Huckabee's similarly surprising rise in polls this month. Will the system -- a 23% sales tax and monthly reimbursement checks for poorer families -- work? The Washington Post takes a look. One thing's for sure: The movement has real backers, and they're providing some serious Huckmentum.

More Ex-Edwards Aides Helping 527s

WEST DES MOINES -- John Edwards, who has long railed against the influence of special interest groups in campaigns, came under heavy fire as the New York Times reported today that Edwards campaign officials had contact with officials at a 527 group planning a major advertising blitz on the former Senator's behalf.

An email obtained by the Times, sent from the head of a Washington State local of Service Employees International Union, describes plans to contact the campaign to determine what level of support Edwards advisers would hope for. The email listed meetings including with Edwards campaign manager David Bonior and top SEIU officials.

Questions about the coordination between Edwards' campaign and his SEIU backers were initially raised this week as Chris Cillizza reported the union group, officially known as the Alliance for a New America, was being advised by top Democratic strategist Nick Baldick. Baldick managed Edwards' 2004 race, and many saw his involvement as evidence that coordination, prohibited under federal campaign law, occurred. The group has spent about $600,000 on radio ads in Iowa backing Edwards and plans to spend $750,000 on television ads in the final week and a half before the Iowa caucuses.

Baldick is not the only former Edwards aide now helping the Alliance for a New America. FEC filings show ex-Edwards staffer Katherine Buchanan is the group's "custodian of records," responsible for signing finance reports. Buchanan was previously employed by Edwards' One America PAC as late as December 30, 2005, as well as by Edwards' Senate campaign committee.

Spokespeople for both the Edwards campaign and SEIU deny wrongdoing and insist the two did not coordinate anything beyond a rollout of endorsements, which is legal under FEC rules. "The email put forth by a rival campaign is an internal SEIU email about internal SEIU discussions and has nothing to do with the Edwards campaign," spokesman Eric Schultz told The Page. "Apparently, based on the email we received from a reporter, SEIU officials were having two separate conversations - one with the Edwards campaign to discuss perfectly legal member-to-member activities and another one internally about their own activities - to try and link the two conversations together is false and misleading."

Schultz said both SEIU and the campaign have prohibited communications between certain staff members that might appear improper. "We stand by our strong position that 527s should have no role in the political process," he said.

Edwards has been attacked recently by Barack Obama for backing he is getting from the outside groups, including during a speech today in Des Moines. Obama has suggested that the backing Edwards gets from outside groups is hypocritical, given Edwards' stance against taking money from lobbyists and political action committees. The two campaigns have engaged in a running battle this week, as both fight more openly for the right to hold the anybody-but-Clinton mantle.

While Edwards' campaign is likely not in legal jeopardy because of the SEIU official's email, the revelations could tarnish his squeaky-clean image. The incident, one Democratic operative backing another candidate says, "severely undermines his 'I'll fight them all back to hell' message. But, more dangerous for Edwards is if this is seen as part of a pattern that confirms the story line that's been setting in over the course of the campaign -- that he's not genuine and he'll do and say anything to get elected."

"Not only is he going to have to explain to Iowans why he loses his itch to fight the corruptive influence of the system when the system is benefiting him," the operative continued, "but more fundamentally he'll have to explain why they should trust him. That's a bad place to be going into the final week for a guy running as a populist."

With just a week to go before voters in Iowa caucus, the timing could not be worse: Many agree that Edwards must win the lead-off state, in which he has invested huge amounts of time and money, in order to have a shot at the Democratic nomination.

Obama Previews New Shots In Tour Kickoff

DES MOINES - Launching a massive eight-day bus tour in advance of Iowa's first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, Illinois Senator Barack Obama offered what campaign aides described as a sharpened stump speech today, calling on Iowans to "stand for change." Evidencing the tightness of the Democratic race, Obama mixed his usual optimistic, at times lofty rhetoric with barely veiled attacks on former North Carolina Senator John Edwards and New York Senator Hillary Clinton, his two chief rivals for the nomination.

Obama DSM 2.jpg
Obama delivers his revised stump speech,
with TelePrompTer
Ten months after kicking off his campaign, which he called an "unlikely journey to change America," Obama's closing argument is largely the same as those he has made before. But intermixed with a standard stump speech were new attacks on his opponents. "There are others in this race who say that this kind of change sounds good, but that I'm not angry or confrontational enough to get it done," Obama said, referring to recent criticism from Edwards. "I'm the only candidate in this race who hasn't just talked about taking power away from lobbyists, I've actually done it."

Defending himself from Edwards' criticism, Obama saved his harshest words for Clinton, with whom he has been locked in a back-and-forth struggle for supremacy in Iowa polls. "You can have the right kind of experience and the wrong kind of experience," Obama said, responding to charges that he is unprepared. "Mine is rooted in the real lives of real people, and it will bring real results if we have the courage to change. I believe deeply in those words. But they are not mine. They were Bill Clinton's in 1992, when Washington insiders questioned his readiness to lead."

Obama, whose campaign has long stressed various forms of change as a key rationale for his run, joked that in the last few weeks other campaigns are following his successful strategy. "It must be catching on because in these last few weeks everyone's talking about change," he laughed.

Politics, though, does not always run on a predictable script, and Obama took time to pause and remember former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who died today in a suicide bombing. "She was a respected and resilient advocate for democracy for the people of Pakistan," Obama said. "We stand with the people of Pakistan in their quest for democracy and against the terrorists that threaten the common security throughout the world."

Obama's "Stand for Change" tour is scheduled to hit twenty-three cities before caucus time. Kicking the tour off in Des Moines, former Air Force Chief of Staff Tony McPeak, introducing the Senator, said it was Obama's fifteenth stop in Des Moines this year. The bus tour includes two more stops in the capitol city, along with swings to eastern and northern cities in the state.

5 Moments That Changed The Democratic Race

Time for a year-end look at five moments that fundamentally altered the way the Democratic race has played out:

5. September 26 -- Edwards accepts public financing. Casting it as a move to ensure openness and a way to shut out lobbyists and special interests, John Edwards declared in late Spetember that he would accept public financing in his bid for the Democratic nomination. The decision gave him access to millions he might not otherwise have raised, but it also severely curtailed spending. Edwards, once seen as the obvious yin to Hillary Clinton's yang, has been marginalized to some degree by Barack Obama. And while Clinton and Obama each raised upwards of $75 million in the first three quarters of the year, Edwards has struggled in a distant third place.

Edwards' decision hurt him in several ways. Aside from curtailed spending in early primary states he needed to win, he also lost support among many of his one-time fans in the liberal blogosphere. Kos, for one, said that the acceptance of public money meant Edwards was not viable, and though he maintained good relations with the netroots, Edwards needed them to be for him in a much stronger way.

4. August 4 -- Clinton attends YearlyKos. The liberal netroots, who in 2006 helped raise million for the Democratic Party and claims responsibility for victories by several second-tier Democratic congressional hopefuls who pulled off big upsets, had their knives out for Hillary Clinton early. Unhappy with triangulation and furious with what they saw as timid moderation, the netroots wanted an unabashed progressive who would fight for their cause; it is little wonder that John Edwards had won online straw polls at DailyKos for more than a year.

But Clinton decided to attend the largest gathering of liberal bloggers of the year, showing up at YearlyKos in Chicago and held a breakout session to get to know a new set of opinion makers in the Democratic column. Clinton's moves to placate the netroots -- communications director Howard Wolfson fought Bill O'Reilly over YearlyKos; Clinton earned the endorsement of netroots hero Joe Wilson and announced it on a conference call with bloggers; in the Senate, she worked on a bill to provide paper trails in voting machines -- had a hugely important effect: The netroots still didn't like her, but at least they didn't hate her.

Whether it was DailyKos or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that got certain candidates elected is subject to debate. But it was certainly the netroots that brought down Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman in his primary last year. By making sure lefty bloggers did not hate her, Clinton escaped what could have been a blogosphere-wide effort to bring her down.

3. October 30 -- Clinton stumbles in Philadelphia. In early debates, Hillary Clinton provided no zingers, no great lines and no winning moments. But she was the front-runner, and because she did not lose, she won. Again and again, Obama, Edwards and others tried and failed to land a punch. It was left to Tim Russert, moderating a debate in Philadelphia the day before Halloween, to throw Clinton off her game.

Clinton seemed on her way to another flawless debate performance until Russert asked her whether she agreed with New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's decision to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Clinton hemmed and hawed, offering what her opponents criticized as two answers in two minutes. The sheen began to come off the impenitrable armor of the inevitable candidate.

Obama DSM.jpg
Obama speaks in Des Moines
on December 27
2. November 10 -- Obama shines at Iowa Dem dinner. Fewer than two weeks after the debate in Philadelphia, Clinton had the chance to right the ship. The Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson Jackson Dinner presented the opportunity to give a big speech, fire up the crowd and show organizational strength. But Clinton's efforts were outstripped, again, by Obama.

Clinton, speaking second-to-last, delivered a solid speech ripe with red meat for her fans crowded into an old hockey arena in downtown Des Moines. Obama, speaking last, put every candidate to shame with what many considered his best speech since his address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. And while Clinton had many friends in the audience, Obama had more -- Joe Biden made light by saying hello to Iowa and hello to Chicago.

Riding high in national polls, leading big in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton's Philadelpia stumble opened a window through which Obama entered at the Jefferson Jackson Dinner. Now, Clinton's ten-point lead in Iowa has turned into a tie in the latest RCP Iowa Average. Her huge lead in New Hampshire has also evaporated, and while she leads the latest RCP New Hampshire Average, she has trailed Obama in recent polls. Clinton has even seen her national lead shrink.

1. January 16 -- Obama files exploratory committee. Conventional wisdom in 2006 and before was that Hillary Clinton would run away with the Democratic nomination. It was to be less a campaign than a coronation. But with the entry of Barack Obama, a freshman senator who nonetheless enjoyed unbelievable support, a hefty fundraising capability and the aura of one who could do no wrong, the calculus fundamentally changed.

Clinton's team already anticipated John Edwards' angle -- he would cast himself as the outsider versus Clinton, the ultimate insider. But Obama was more of an outsider than Edwards. He was new, fresh, and called for a fundamental change in the American political system in a way that Edwards simply couldn't match. The Clinton machine was seemingly blindsided, especially after Obama began drawing crowds numbering in the tens of thousands to rallies. His entry sucked oxygen out of the room, dooming second-tier candidates to also-ran status, a fate even Edwards might face.

Obama's audacity of hope, a theme to which he has stuck throughout the campaign, and the sheer audacity of a freshman senator running against a party legend, changed the Democratic race more than any candidate's entry -- save, perhaps, that of Al Gore -- could have.

The Democratic race is much more stable than the GOP race -- unlike yesterday, today our top five deals with just three of the candidates. In all likelihood, the race is still Clinton's to lose. But given the momentum Obama has built, thanks in large part to the Jefferson Jackson Dinner and Clinton's weak debate performance in Philadelphia, he has the opportunity to steal the nomination.

No matter who wins, Obama's was the game-changing campaign, and Clinton has to hope that she will either get her momentum back or that Obama's charge is just too little, too late.

Morning Thoughts: Closing Time

MINNEAPOLIS -- Halfway through the trip to Des Moines, and with just minutes before flight number two, some quick hits this morning:

-- Today On The Trail: Hillary Clinton continues her Pick A President tour in Lawton, Denison, Carroll and Guthrie Center, Iowa. Barack Obama hits events in Des Moines, Nevada, Marshalltown, Toledo and Vinton. John Edwards hits Waukon, Decorah, Waverly and Waterloo. Joe Biden is in Corydon, Creston and Council Bluffs, while Chris Dodd hits Waukon, West Union and Des Moines. Bill Richardson holds his presidential job interviews in Denison, Carroll, Jefferson, Boone and Story City.

-- On the GOP side, Mike Huckabee is in Winter Park and Windermere, Florida, raising money, while Rudy Giuliani has events in Fort Lauderdale, Dania Beach and Miami. John McCain is in Des Moines, Clear Lake, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Cedar Falls, while Fred Thompson's bus tour has him stumping in Urbandale, Osceola, Chariton and Knoxville. Mitt Romney has New Hampshire to himself, with events in Nashua, Manchester and Bedford. Ron Paul is in Des Moines all day.

-- The big news today: Obama launches his closing argument at a morning event in Des Moines, The Page reports, and it's back to the change theme. Halperin's key quote: "If they've been secretive in the past, they'll be secretive as president. If they haven't been all that strong on lobbyists in the past, [it] doesn't matter what they say in the campaign, they won't be that strong about it when they are president."

-- Obama's close to if not ahead in Iowa. Why is he staying on the attack? Do internal polls tell him something the public polls don't reflect yet? Mixing it up with John Edwards over the weekend and on Christmas Eve, and now refocusing on Clinton, Obama gives us the impression that the already fluid race has shifted yet again, and in Clinton's favor.

-- Did Rudy Giuliani's health scare make some voters question whether he's in good enough health to be president? His campaign finally released a statement from the doctor, OnCall reports. Doctor Valentin Fuster said Giuliani's "significant headache and fatigue" necessitated a CT-MRI and other tests, including spinal fluid evaluation, but that at the end Giuliani remains healthy. Also in the statement: Backing up the campaign staff, Fuster said the symptoms can be accurately described as flu-like. Some had questioned whether Giuliani's staff hadn't misstated the health scare.

-- More from Des Moines later today.

Morning Thoughts: Back To Work!

Well that didn't last long. Candidates are hitting the trail hard with just a few days to go before Iowa voters head to their caucuses, and today marks the last day that Politics Nation takes it easy before two nominees are chosen. With Congress out of session for the next few weeks, here's what Washington is watching:

-- Today On The Trail: Mitt Romney hits Concord, Henniker, Hooksett and Merrimack, New Hampshire. Rudy Giuliani is in Largo, Florida. Mike Huckabee fundraises in Miami, while John McCain holds a town hall in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Fred Thompson meets voters in Creston, Iowa.

-- On the Democratic side, John Edwards has town halls in Conway, Laconia, Manchester and Salem, while Barack Obama meets voters in Mason City, Webster City and Carroll, Iowa. Hillary Clinton is in Mount Pleasant with the Vilsacks and her husband, before hitting events in Pella and Cumming. Joe Biden is in Des Moines.

-- The schedules hold lessons for the candidates' strategies just days before the first votes are cast: Mitt Romney needs New Hampshire. John McCain sees an opening in Iowa -- as does Fred Thompson. Rudy Giuliani is still pursuing the post-Iowa/New Hampshire strategy and banking on Florida and more. Mike Huckabee just needs money,

-- Meanwhile, John Edwards is secure in his position in Iowa -- the veteran caucus-goers who back him now are going to show up, and their base is going to spread on caucus night, when they can convince others to join their team. Now, Edwards needs a bigger base in post-Iowa states. Obama still needs to boost his base in the nation's first caucus state. He narrowly trails Clinton in the latest RCP Iowa Average, thanks to a lopsided American Research Group poll, and Edwards presents a real threat. Obama, again, needs to step up the Iowa effort. Clinton, at this point, has won over everyone she can on her own in Iowa. Now she has to rely on arguments that she is the most capable of leading and that Tom and Christie Vilsack know whereof they speak.

-- Mitt Romney is a smart guy. His efforts as a venture capitalist and business consultant turned around many top U.S. companies. But what has $16 million in advertising gotten him? Not much, the Chicago Tribune reports. The governor has spend more than both Clinton and Obama (combined) as well as just under 8 times what Rudy Giuiani has spent, and still he trails both Giuliani and Hucakbee in national polls. 7,400 commercials in Iowa, per Nielsen, have done enough to get him in second place. If Romney has a chance, he needs new, more powerful ads. Then again, with his first post-Christmas day spent in New Hampshire, does that mean Romney is focusing more on the Granite State than on the Hawkeye State? If so, he's no longer competing with Huckabee; he's taking direct aim at John McCain.

-- Whether it's Romney, Huckabee or any of the Republican candidates, most conservatives still have not made up their minds, the AP
reports
. Libby Quaid writes that, with a week to go before the caucuses, even those who say they like one candidate over the others will offer qualifying statements saying their minds could change. The big lesson: The Democratic race is close. The GOP race, in Iowa and beyond, is impossible to predict.

-- For Democrats, the big question is who shows up. If there's a giant blizzard, Edwards probably benefits with his experienced caucus-going backers. But Iowa
first-timers
are well divided between Clinton and Obama, and either has a shot at taking the crucial voting bloc. Obama appeals to youth and independent voters. Clinton is backed by EMILY's List, which boasts an impressive number of voter contacts to undecided women who generally vote Democratic but have not caucused. Of the two candidates, whichever base turns out better will probably walk away with a win.

-- Your Next Career Move Of The Day: Bob Shrum, Tad Devine and Mike Donilon, John Kerry's three top campaign ad gurus in 2004, raked in about $5 million from that single campaign, the New
York Times
reports. That was the lion's share of the $9 million the campaign spent on consultants, more than President Bush did during the same year. Want to retire young? Get into Democratic ad consulting.

-- Politics Nation is on the West Coast until tomorrow, when we set up shop in Des Moines. Light posting today, but check back regularly for breaking news and analysis from Iowa all week, as well as countdowns of the most important news in politics over 2007.

DCCC, DSCC Best Rivals

House and Senate Democratic committees once again outraised their GOP rivals in November, further boosting their fundraising edge in advance of the 2008 election. New filings with the FEC show Democrats expanded their already-historic lead just eleven months after the party took over Congress.

In the House, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised $4.1 million last month, ending the month with $30.7 million on had. That's more than ten times above the National Republican Congressional Committee's $2.3 million on hand. The NRCC maintained about $3.3 million in debt, though Republicans reported recently that transfers from candidate committees had provided the party enough cash to wipe out that debt. The DCCC retained about $1.66 million in debt through November.

Those funds do not include the hundreds of thousands of dollars each party spent on special elections earlier this month in Ohio and Virginia. Combined, Republicans dropped more than $500,000 on the two races, while Democrats spent close to $250,000, mostly in Ohio. Republicans handily won both specials to replace their incumbents, who had passed away.

On the Senate side, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised $4.15 million last month, leaving them with $25.4 million in the bank and just $2 million in debt. Senate Republicans pulled in just shy of $2.4 million in the month, leaving them $10.4 million to spend. The NRSC is debt-free.

Sununu's Xmas Gift

Republicans in New Hampshire have had little to cheer for lately. In 2006, the party lost both chambers of the legislature for the first time since 1911, along with two members of Congress while the incumbent Democratic governor won a higher percentage of the vote than any governor in the state's history. For 2008, things looked bad for Senator John Sununu.

Sununu faces a difficult re-election against his 2002 opponent, former Governor Jeanne Shaheen. In every poll so far, Shaheen has led, often by wide margins. Until now. A new American Research Group poll, conducted 12/16-19, gives Sununu a reason to smile. The poll surveyed Sununu and Shaheen among 558 registered voters.

General Election Matchup
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind)
Sununu 52 / 13 / 93 / 48 (+11 from last, 9/07)
Shaheen 41 / 79 / 4 / 41 (-5)

ARG pollster Dick Bennett, who has conducted polls for some Republicans in the state, says he expects Democrats to flock more to Shaheen, closing the race, and suggests Sununu's strength is overstated. Still, the poll is great news for the beleaguered incumbent, though the poll gives Shaheen confidence: President Bush has an approval rating of just 22% in the state, meaning any attempt to tie Sununu to the White House could hurt the GOP.

Republicans, stung in 2006 when Democratic Governor John Lynch won re-election with 73%, may push Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta to run for the state's top job next year. The same poll shows Guinta trailing, but holding Lynch under the crucial 50% mark.

General Election Matchup
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind)
Lynch 48 / 79 / 15 / 52
Guinta 32 / 6 / 63 / 26

Guinta is no stranger to uphill battles. In 2005, he surprised Democratic incumbent Bob Baines to win election in Manchester, an upset few expected. At just 37 years old, Guinta has a long future ahead of him. If he runs against Lynch, the Republican would start off as the underdog, though Lynch would not have an easy race.

Dems, GOP Look Back At First Session Of 110th

As rank and file members of Congress scrambled to vacate Washington yesterday, leaders of both parties did their best to spin results as the first session of the 110th Congress came to a close. The two sides laid blame for the session's shortcomings on their counterparts, though leaders said they had reason to be optimistic for 2007.

For Democrats, 2007 was both heady and frustrating. Experiencing their first concurrent majorities since 1994, the party laid out a flashy agenda that included action on ethics reform, energy, the minimum wage and tax cuts. While Republicans said the plans lacked ambition, Democrats nonetheless crowed about their own accomplishments while looking for new leverage in 2008.


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
"This has been one of the most successful sessions I've served in 26 years in Congress," said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Party "made history in many respects, but much more needs to be done."

The Democratic agenda included multiple proposals sandwiched into broad themes, making it impossible to say any had been accomplished completely. Still, the party can legitimately claim some success.

Democratic Caucus chair Rahm Emanuel's office released a chart Thursday comparing the first session of the Democratic Congress with Republicans' first chance to lead in 1995; that year, the GOP passed just one of 11 measures proposed by the vaunted Contract with America. This year, Democrats managed to pass big portions of their "Six in '06" agenda - including measures to implement the recommendations of the September 11th Commission, raising the minimum wage, reducing the cost of college and a major energy bill.

"This is just the beginning of the change that the elections of 2006 brought," Emanuel said, "and 2008 is going to be an even bigger election about change."

Previewing a possibly potent argument Democrats will use next year, leaders complained the GOP is using legislative maneuvers to block popular legislation. "The filibuster rule has now been used on every single piece of legislation. They are against change. They are happy with everything that's happening. We are not," said DSCC chair Chuck Schumer. "There's much more to be done. They block it, with filibusters."

Democrats in the House have been frustrated at the slow pace necessitated by Republicans in the Senate. "In the House we've been able to accomplish a bit more than the Senate," said one member of Congress. Still, the party cannot throw a Democratic-led upper chamber under the bus when making arguments that voters should elect more Democrats. "That the Republicans have put up road blocks, there's no question," the House Democrat said. "That's not going to be enough, I think, to convince people we can't do more."

The obstruction argument has been made before, and with mixed success. Republicans claim the issue was enough to knock off then-Democratic leader Tom Daschle in 2004, though Democrats, now trying the same argument, are quickly learning it's a complex point to make. Asked what Democrats needed to do better next year, a moderate House Democrat said the party should find a better way to "explain to people that, in the things that didn't get done, it was because the Republicans, either in the House, the Senate or the President, one of those three people opposed it."

Democrats said the GOP would be hurt by inaction on key legislative efforts, thanks in some part to President Bush. "Bush vetoed one bill in six years, and now acts like the Grinch by vetoing a health care bill for children," Hoyer said, referring to Congress's failure to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
Republicans, though, fired back, asserting Democrats had acted in too partisan a fashion until the last few weeks. "Divided government really does present an opportunity to do important things," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. "We missed an opportunity to take up a big challenge, something important." Still, he said, "you've watched the approval rating of Congress tumble over the year."

The chamber's low ratings is thanks in part to the war in Iraq, the biggest issue on which Democrats' base wanted action. The new majority made little progress. Despite thirty-four votes in the Senate and thirty-six in the House, Congress capitulated to the administration, authorizing an additional $70 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan without conditions.

Democrats, who found success saddling Republicans with the Iraq albatross in 2006, continue to blame their rivals for a lack of progress. "We need Republicans to join with us to give the troops a strategy to succeed in Iraq," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "We need Republicans to join with us to refocus our military efforts on al Qaeda."

McConnell said Democrats would have a difficult time using Iraq as an effective issue, given the successes of the troop surge. "Things have improved [in Iraq]," McConnell said. "It's an undeniable fact. Or should I say, an inconvenient truth." The Kentucky Republican went on to say he would have picked General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, as Time's Man of the Year. "Unfortunately, Vladimir Putin beat him out," he joked.

The moderate House Democrat recognizes that Iraq remains a key issue, if not with independent voters than with his own base. "Everyone's walking around here saying, 'Eh, you guys didn't really do anything.' We did exactly what we said we were going to do," he said. "The fly in the ointment is, 'But you didn't stop the war in Iraq.'"

Leaders on both sides remain optimistic for next year, saying the last-minute rush of bipartisan legislation could bode well for the future. "We've been working on a bipartisan basis the last couple of weeks," Reid said. "It hasn't been easy, but we've worked through them."

McConnell said Congress' historically low approval ratings would not last. "I will predict that those numbers are going to pick up some," he said. "We really have met in the middle."

Whether the bipartisanship continues into next year is an open question. If recent history is a guide, this election year will likely resemble most others as tensions rise with November's approach. Both parties will recharge over the winter holiday and retool their strategies, and both will be back in January with knives out.

-- Reid Wilson and Kyle Trygstad

Morning Thoughts: D-Fence!

It's Friday, the last day Washington, D.C. can be considered a major metropolitan area until the new year. Everyone who doesn't need to be here is taking off as fast as possible. Here's what the stragglers are watching:

-- The House is out of session while the Senate will meet for a pro forma session to prevent President Bush from making recess appointments. President Bush is at Camp David, and Tony Fratto drew the short straw and has to stay at the White House to brief reporters.

-- Rudy Giuliani was finally released from the hospital yesterday, though about eight hours after he was initially supposed to be. Marc Ambinder reports doctors were only waiting for tests to come back. He flew back to New York City, though he's taking today off, NBC/NJ's Matt Berger reports. Matters of health haven't come up much in the presidential campaign, though three leading Republicans have had cancer and one has diabetes (one survivor, Fred Thompson, has been asked to release his medical records). Two weeks before votes are cast, will we hear renewed calls for medical records to be released? And now that Giuliani appears fine, we can make a little fun: Was he just suffering from vertigo from his free fall? Time's Michael Duffy thinks so.

-- It is in the final two weeks that the race breaks, and if there's a negative story out there floating around, yours will not be the campaign that benefits. John McCain, the victim of a George Bush-fueled bad break in 2000, does not want history to repeat itself, and is aggressively fighting what his campaign calls "gutter politics" -- allegations that he did favors for a lobbyist, a story the New York Times is reportedly ready to break. McCain has hired prominent Washington attorney Bob Bennett to handle the Old Gray Lady. The paper hasn't even published the story, though yesterday allegations landed on Drudge, in the Post and in Politico.

-- Two lessons from the story: First, Matt Drudge has built himself up to a position of so much power that one of the leading Republican presidential candidates feels the necessity of rebutting him in public within hours of a charge going up. No wonder Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton's camps are trying to get close to him. Keep Drudge off your back and your life gets a lot easier. Second: After watching what happened in 2000, to himself, and in 2004, to John Kerry, McCain hired Bennett to get control of the story quickly. That's how campaigns are going to react this year: Fast. Both nominees will be under intense pressure to respond, and to respond quickly. Still, the campaign wants to respond on their own terms, and today McCain hits the early voter-rich precincts in ... Louisiana? Maybe the camp just wanted him off the beaten path while they deal with the story.

-- But the lesson for McCain is not lost on other candidates. And recently it seems like everyone is playing defense. Meaning Hillary Clinton's new attack websites earned a quick reaction from Barack Obama. ABC News' Jake Tapper reported the sites -- Votingpresent.com and .org, references to Obama's 130-something decisions to skip votes during his time as a state senator -- have the same IP address as other, official Clinton sites. Both sites are down as of this morning, but this is something new. Clinton, in recent weeks, has gone into near panic mode as Obama's numbers have climbed. Domains are cheap, and it is not difficult to imagine more sites like this being snapped up in the coming days. Both campaigns have built sites detailing attacks from their opponents while lobbing plenty of bombs themselves.

-- By the way, later in the day Obama registered Desperatehillaryattacks.com. How meta is this: The campaigns don't even have to put up any content to be accused of attacking each other. Spend $10 a year at a domain registering service, get press for attacking your opponent. Does that say the media is just looking for an excuse to write the attack story?

-- In the Big Apple, Mike Bloomberg is giddy with anticipation of the partisan attacks. He wants to see Hillary Clinton take on Mike Huckabee, political scientist Tom Schaller writes. The two candidates would most polarize the electorate and offer Bloomberg the biggest window -- a Democrat many already can't stand alongside a Republican evangelical Christian with his own somewhat bizarre past (submissive women, dog hangings, gifts for the governor, etc.). So why not elect the competent manager in the middle? Why do we think Bloomberg is really falling for this idea? And why not pick war hero Chuck Hagel, the retiring Nebraska Senator, as his running mate? Apparently that deal is in the works as well, as Sam Stein of the HuffPo reports.

-- Juxtaposition Of The Day: Whether it's Elizabeth Edwards, Bill Clinton or Michelle Obama, rarely has their been an electoral contest in which the spouses played such an important role. If Barack Obama pulls out a victory this winter, some may find that the spouses were one of the big differences between the campaigns. Michelle Obama, on the trail in Iowa City yesterday, can't help but get good press, and her message discipline is impressive. Bill Clinton, in Concord yesterday to meet with the Monitor's editorial board, has a much higher profile, and a much bigger mouth. If Clinton's wife loses the nomination, might some blame Bill and credit Michelle?

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton is in New Hampshire, with stops scheduled in Concord, Portsmouth and Stratham. Obama just did a hit on MSNBC, then he's off to Davenport, Coralville and Washington, Iowa. John Edwards has an interview in Johnston, then gives a speech in Des Moines and meets undecided voters in Nevada (Ne-VAY-duh) and Tama, Iowa. Chris Dodd hits Cedar Rapids, Manchester and Iowa City, Bill Richardson has events in Cedar Rapids, Ankeny, Newton and Ames, and Joe Biden holds meetings with voters in Vinton, Anamosa, Bellevue and Clinton, Iowa.

-- On the GOP side, McCain is in Baton Rouge, while Mitt Romney is stumping through New Hampshire, with stops planned in Skillsoft and Rochester. Fred Thompson's bus tour takes him to Sioux City, Sioux Center, Sheldon, Spencer and Fort Dodge. Mike Huckabee is in Davenport, Muscatine, Coralville and Dubuque, Iowa.

Photo Of The Day

mccain salter.jpg


Photo credit: Christopher Morris for Time Magazine, which has a great White House Photo Blog

Caption: "One Voter at a Time: Republican presidential candidate John McCain campaigns in New Hampshire"

The guy in the puffy coat McCain talking to: Top McCain strategist/speech writer Mark Salter. If McCain has to work on Salter to guarantee his vote, the campaign is probably in some trouble. We're just guessing that Salter will probably cast a vote for the Arizona Senator.

Tancredo Backs Romney

Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo made it official this afternoon, the Des Moines Register reported, dropping out of the presidential contest just two weeks before Iowa voters hit the polls.

Tancredo announced he will back one-time rival Mitt Romney, saying the former Massachusetts Governor is "the best hope for our cause" on curbing illegal immigration. The two met for an hour this morning to discuss the issue.

Tancredo has already announced he will not run for re-election next year, though he has made clear that he would like to challenge freshman Colorado Democratic Senator Ken Salazar in 2010.

Baseline Shows Dole Up

DailyKos continues their baseline poll series with a new look at Senator Elizabeth Dole's chances at re-election. The survey shows the once-embattled former NRSC chair in pretty good shape leading up to a potential second term.

The Research 2000 poll, taken between 12/16-18, sampled 600 likely voters. Dole, State Sen. Kay Hagan and banker Jim Neal were tested. The sample was made up of 42% Democrats, 38% Republicans and 20% independent and other voters.

General Election Matchups
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind / Men / Wom)
Dole 46 / 13 / 85 / 41 / 49 / 43
Hagan 39 / 67 / 7 / 38 / 36 / 42

Dole 47 / 14 / 85 / 44 / 49 / 45
Neal 37 / 64 / 7 / 37 / 36 / 38

Dole's favorable rating is not the best it could be -- just 46% view her favorably while 38% have an unfavorable view. And as Democrats are made more aware of her opponents and back them at rates higher than the mid-60% level, the race will likely close. Still, Dole will be well-funded, and her lead among independents is good news.

Both Neal and Hagan are little known. About 40% of respondents have never heard of them, while just 16% have no opinion of Dole. Each has a long way to go to toppling an incumbent, but as the poll demonstrates, their tasks are difficult but not impossible.

Oh, The Irony

One common complaint Democrats have had about the war in Iraq is that it continues to take what they call much-needed funding away from the war in Afghanistan. That country, they point out, aided al Qaeda and therefore had more to do with the September 11 attacks that got the country into both conflicts to begin with.

Now, Democrats have a bill to get behind in order to provide more attention to Afghanistan. Introduced by Washington State Democrat Adam Smith, a top member of the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committee, the bill calls for an increased presence in Afghanistan with the assistance of soldiers redeployed out of Iraq.

The gods of irony are apparently watching Congress these days: The measure has been designated House Resolution 911.

Romney Gamble Pays Off

Two weeks ago, Mitt Romney strode to a podium in College Station, Texas, and delivered a speech fraught with peril. The Mormon candidate, sick and tired of answering questions about his religion, was going to address faith in the public square and get it off his chest once and for all. Romney's Mormonism has been seen as an albatross around his neck, and with flagging poll numbers, a speech actually addressing the issue head-on was seen as a huge gamble that could make, or would break, his campaign.

Two weeks later, polls show Romney has reversed his slide, and while he isn't at the top of the GOP pack again, he's on his way up. The governor has seen recent upticks in the RCP National Average, the RCP Iowa Average and the RCP South Carolina Average, and while many were ready to watch Romney's huge advantage in New Hampshire slip in favor of a John McCain surge, the latest RCP New Hampshire Average shows his slide has plateaued.

The Texas A&M speech helped Romney in two ways: First, it reassured many in evangelical Christian circles that Romney would not take governing cues from the Mormon Church. The speech won plaudits from top evangelical leaders like Michael Gerson, Chuck Hurley and others. Polls, too, show Romney gaining among evangelicals. A recent Reuters/Zogby poll showed 14% of born again voters backed Romney, up from 4% and slightly more than the 7-point bounce Romney earned among all voters. (Mike Huckabee gained big among evangelicals too, up 14 points, while Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson each lost 15 points among the group)

Second, it significantly raised his national profile. Coupled with Rudy Giuliani's stunning decline -- he fell 13 points from the last NBC/WSJ poll, in early November -- Romney is now tied for first place. The poll also shows slight upticks in Romney's positive ratings, from the last survey in November, and fewer respondents rating him negatively.

Many argued that Romney's campaign was inept and amateur, and was taking a huge risk by giving the Mormon speech so late in the game. But these guys know what they're doing. One of the under-reported stories of this campaign cycle is the depth of talent Romney recruited.

A look at his campaign organization reveals a veritable who's-who of Washington Republican politics: Carl Forti, former NRCC communications director; Sally Canfield, former top policy adviser to Dennis Hastert; Matt Rhoades, former research director at the RNC; Kevin Madden, former spokesman for John Boehner; Tony Feather, political director for the Bush/Cheney 2000 campaign. This is not an amateur team by any stretch of the imagination.

The campaign has worked hard to bring together a coalition of groups, from old Washington hands like ex-Rep. Vin Weber and ex-Sen. Jim Talent to conservatives like James Bopp, Paul Weyrich and Robert Bork, to business leaders like eBay CEO Meg Whitman and national security experts like former CIA Operations chief Cofer Black and House Intelligence Committee co-chair Pete Hoekstra.

Still, despite spending millions to lay the groundwork in early states, a healthy lead in polls through much of the year and an almost limitless bank account, thanks to his personal fortunes, Romney remained well behind front-runners in national polls. He needed, it seemed, a breakout moment. That moment came a month before the Iowa caucuses, in a speech many thought was a huge risk.

Poll numbers show that risk has paid off. Whether or not Romney wins the nomination, he stopped his slide and successfully vaulted himself back into contention.

Morning Thoughts: Another One Bites The Dust

Good Thursday morning. Washington is about to feel like a ghost town. Here's what those who remain are watching today:

-- The House and Senate are done on the floor this year, with only a few committee meetings to go. The House has officially closed the first session of Congress, while the Senate will hold pro forma sessions in order to prevent the President from making recess appointments. President Bush today swears in James Peake as Secretary of Veterans' Affairs, the first physician and the first general to serve in the post. Later, Bush visits Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

-- The most attention some candidates get is as they are leaving the ranks of their opponents. That's certainly the case with Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, the anti-illegal immigration hardliner whose message never caught on despite his position being widely accepted in the GOP field. Tancredo is set to drop out of the presidential race today during a press conference in Des Moines, the Denver Post reports. Tancredo is working the phones with other presidential campaigns, trying to win commitments from others to take up his cause, the Rocky Mountain News reports. In recent days, two top Tancredo allies -- fellow immigration hardliner Rep. Steve King and Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist -- have announced their support for other candidates.

-- It's safe to guess that Tancredo will probably not offer his backing to Rudy Giuliani, whose record on immigration is less than stellar. Giuliani will miss the news conference, though he will head back to New York today after being hospitalized overnight with flu-like symptoms. Yesterday just wasn't Giuliani's day: Earlier, his plane had experienced mechanical problems, and instead of a quick hop to a campaign stop, Giuliani had to drive, the LA Times reports. Oh, and he fell 13 points from the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll into a tie with Mitt Romney, at 20%, for the national lead. Anyone ready to stick a fork in the one-time front-runner?

-- Speaking of those on the decline, Fred Thompson has given up on New Hampshire and is now aiming for a third-place finish in Iowa, the New York Times writes. And while many have called him lazy, most recently Politico's Roger Simon, Thompson actually has a busy schedule planned for the first part of his Iowa bus tour, which will be interrupted only by Christmas Day in Virginia before the caucuses. Is that enough to make up for a campaign that is, to be generous, lackluster. Thompson once finished second in national polls; he languishes in fifth place in the latest RCP Average. The latest RCP Iowa Average shows his goal of 3rd place is attainable, but only because Mike Huckabee and Romney are still the only two candidates to break double digits (a pretty remarkable statement just two weeks out).

-- On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton knows that politics is not like war: Two enemies, generally, are better than one. However unlikely the scenario is, Clinton would love to see John Edwards outperform Barack Obama, primarily because Obama has the resources to continue while Edwards, it is thought, does not, and would fizzle after a strong Iowa performance. Edwards' campaign, not surprisingly, takes issue with that notion, and a new memo headed to the media soon attempts to lay out the case that the former Senator is running a national campaign (TPM's Sargent has a sneak peek). Among the statistics: The campaign claims eight times more organizers on the ground in New Hampshire than they had in 2004, along with 22 states that will hold their nominating contests on February 5 in which Edwards has political advisers. The Edwards message: Be careful what you wish for.

-- Edwards and Thompson each have something to celebrate, though. Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen thinks both have the ability to sneak up on the front-runners in the last few weeks. Edwards' rural strategy, and the backing of First Lady Mari Culver, have Yepsen buying up his stock, while Thompson's aggressive bus tour -- during which he will visit 54 of Iowa's 99 counties -- and new backing from western Iowa Congressman Steve King has Yepsen enthusiastic about Thompson's chances.

-- USA Today's Fredreka Schouten gives a grander overview to something Politics Nation has been watching lately: Third-party groups have spent more than $2 million on the presidential race since November 1, records show. Along with EMILY's List and AFSCME, backing Hillary Clinton, and Club for Growth, beating up on Mike Huckabee, other groups have picked their candidates as well: Caucus4Priorities is spending hundreds of thousands to back John Edwards, Common Sense Issues has big plans in mind as it works for Huckabee. The groups are only just beginning to sharpen their knives in advance of the general election.

-- Earned Media Of The Day: We recently wrote about a group called Democratic Courage, a liberal organization taking on Hillary Clinton and, potentially, another candidate. The group has sunk thousands of dollars into convincing Iowa voters to pick another, stronger voice (many accuse it of being a stalking horse for Edwards), but the most attention it's gotten has come from a television ad that cost just $2,500 to air. The ad, which shows a cardboard cutout of Clinton tumbling away after a gust of wind, was picked up by National Public Radio and newspapers in Newark, San Jose and Boston, and the Wall Street Journal put the spot on its website, reports the Wall Street Journal (everyone's an ombudsman).

-- Today On The Trail: Tom Tancredo holds his announcement in Des Moines. Fred Thompson's bus tour rolls through Carroll, Denison, Atlantic, Missouri Valley and Council Bluffs. Mitt Romney is in Indianola, Fort Dodge, Orange City and Council Bluffs, while Mike Huckabee stop is Marshalltown, Dike, Waterloo, Manchester and Cedar Rapids. And Ron Paul heads to Plymouth and Berlin, New Hampshire.

-- On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is in Grundy Center, Tipton, Centerville and Burlington. John Edwards holds pre-caucus events in Council Bluffs, Le Mars and Sioux City, while Bill Richardson campaigns in Waverly, Oelwein, Independence, Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. Chris Dodd is in Council Bluffs and Des Moines and Joe Biden stops in Sioux City, Mason City, Webster City and Marion. Barack Obama has New Hampshire to himself, with events planned in Exeter, Portsmouth and Rochester.

GOP Poll Has Daniels Up

While previous polls have shown Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels struggling against little-known Democratic opponents, a new survey sponsored by the Republican Governors Association suggests the embattled incumbent may get beyond his troubles with toll roads and time zones in time for election day.

The survey, conducted 12/10-15 by Bellwether Research & Consulting for the RGA, polled 1009 registered Indiana voters for a margin of error of +/- 3%. Daniels, ex-Rep. Jill Long Thompson and architect Jim Schellinger, both Democrats, were surveyed. The poll's sample was made up of 36% Republicans, 24% Democrats and 40% independents or voters affiliated with other parties.

General Election Matchup
(With leaners)
Daniels 46
Thompson 33

Daniels 46
Schellinger 31

Daniels enjoys a 51% job approval rating, while just 41% disapprove. The results look pretty good for the incumbent, for while he is under the magic 50% mark, he remains well ahead of his Democratic opponents.

The poll, though, is a marked contrast from an early November survey conducted by independent firm Selzer & Co., based in Iowa, which showed Schellinger and Thompson each leading Daniels with 44% of the vote as he hovered in the low 40s.

The big difference: Bellwether's sample had a twelve-point Republican edge, while the Selzer poll showed a 2-point Democratic edge. President Bush won the state with 60% and 57% in 2004 and 2000, though in 2006 Republicans won just 50.6% of the House votes cast in the state to Democrats' 49.4%. Daniels won with 53% of the vote in 2004, compared with 45% for acting Governor Joe Kernan.

In(hofe) Fine Shape

If Senator Jim Inhofe finds himself in trouble, the Republican Party should probably just pack it up and head home for the remainder of 2008. But the Oklahoma Senator, seeking his third full term next year, is doing alright, according to a new poll conducted for his opponent. Still, the poll shows even voters in ruby-red Oklahoma are looking for a new direction.

The Benenson Strategy Group poll, conducted 12/8-12 for State Sen. Andrew Rice, surveyed 900 likely voters for a margin of error of +/- 3%, testing both Inhofe and Rice.

General Election Matchup
Inhofe 49
Rice 35

Inhofe 46
Generic Dem 38

Just 48% of Oklahoma voters rate Inhofe's job performance as excellent or good, the poll shows, while 45% say it is fair or poor. And only 27% say the U.S. is headed in the right direction, compared with 58% who say the country is going the wrong way.

Inhofe, first elected to the Senate upon the retirement of Democratic Senator David Boren, is a top Republican on the Armed Services and Environment and Public Works Committees. He has won re-election by solid margins, with 57% in both 1996 and 2002.

Another Term For Ramstad?

Minnesota Republican Jim Ramstad, whose retirement came as a surprise to most in Washington, may be considering another term, Roll Call and the Minnesota Campaign Report write. GOP leaders had reportedly leaned on the moderate Ramstad to stay for another term instead of opening up his swing district, on the outskirts of the Twin Cities, to a possible Democratic takeover.

NRCC chairman Tom Cole told Roll Call he thinks Ramstad is reconsidering his decision, a sentiment echoed by Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy, one of Ramstad's close friends on Capitol Hill. His backtrack, some speculated, could be thanks to Rep. Jim McCrery's own retirement.

Ramstad is the number four Republican on the powerful House Ways & Means Committee, while McCrery is the ranking Republican, giving Ramstad the opportunity to run for the top slot if he stays, or at the least advance in seniority. But, sources told Roll Call, Ramstad was rethinking his retirement well in advance of McCrery's decision. Ramstad cited the bill, dealing with mental health and addiction treatment parity, in his retirement statement, dedicating it to the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone.

Kennedy suggested another reason might be Ramstad's dedication to a mental health bill. If Democrats pass the measure, Ramstad may be willing to step aside, putting the seat in play. Both parties have highly-touted recruits already running for Ramstad's seat. Democratic State Senator Terri Bonoff and Republican State Representative Erik Paulsen have each raised significant amounts of money and spent time on the campaign trail in advance of Minnesota's September primary.

Calls to Ramstad's office seeking comment were not returned.

The Third District, which rings Minneapolis on three sides, includes Hennepin County suburbs from Lake Minnetonka to the Mall of America in Bloomington. Ramstad's moderate record -- he ranks near the middle of the House -- matches the district, which gave President Bush narrow 51% and 50% majorities in 2004 and 2000, respectively. Ramstad is popular in the area, and has never faced a serious challenge, winning with at least 64% in every one of his nine campaigns.

Changes Coming At Time

Time Magazine named its Person of the Year today, tapping Russian President Vladimir Putin, but two long-time columnists for the magazine won't be around to write about the selection, the New York Observer reports.

Conservative columnists Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer will lose their spots in the magazine. Time is negotiating with National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru, the paper reports, hoping to land him as a replacement. The reasons for the changes are unclear, though a Time spokeswoman said the magazine hoped both would continue to contribute on occasion.

Morning Thoughts: Vilmain Event

Good Wednesday morning. Congress is so close to finishing their work for the year, we're not surprised at the number of members we saw streaming down Pennsylvania Avenue last night, all of them looking exhausted. Meanwhile, here's what Washington is watching:

-- They're not done yet, though. The House today will vote on the Senate's version of the omnibus spending measure, which includes $70 billion in funding for the war in Iraq that the original version did not include. That gives Democrats the chance to vote against war funding and appease the base, while the funding measure will pass on the backs of Republican votes. Later, the House takes up the alternative minimum tax and a bill on consumer safety. The Senate has morning business, but no votes are scheduled. President Bush signs the energy bill this morning that increases fuel efficiency standards 40% by 2020.

-- A story that will have every Democrat talking today: The New York Times reports that the White House engaged in discussions with the CIA over whether to destroy controversial video tapes showing harsh interrogations of high-value al Qaeda detainees. The White House lawyers involved included Harriet Miers, Alberto Gonzales and top Dick Cheney aide David Addington, as well as John Bellinger, then the senior lawyer for the National Security Council. There is disagreement between former officials over who favored destroying the tapes, though the simple fact of the White House's involvement in the matter is likely to incite outrage both on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail.

-- We've never bought into the cult of the consultant, whereby one political strategist is able to manipulate the hundreds of voting groups around the country to such an extent that he or she changes the outcome of a presidential race on his or her own. See Karl Rove and his permanent majority. But in Iowa, organizing matters, and the best organizers have cult followings of their own. Teresa Vilmain, Hillary Clinton's Iowa state director, is one of those top-notch organizers, and she gets another glowing write-up today in the Wall Street Journal. The real take-away of the story: Whoever has built the superior organization -- Vilmain, Obama state director Paul Tewes or Edwards state director Jennifer O'Malley Dillon -- will walk away on caucus night with a win. (One measure of Vilmain's stature: Top Clinton turnout guru Michael Whouley has been brought in to reshape the campaign's New Hampshire field organization. He has not been asked to go to Iowa.)

-- Sometimes a win, though, means second place. Not second place in Iowa, but second place in a voter's heart. And as the Chicago Tribune writes today, second place is still up in the air. Supporters of Joe Biden, Bill Richardson and others who might not meet the 15% threshold necessary to win delegates will have to go somewhere, and campaigns are focusing on rounding them up after the first period of voting. That, the Tribune suggests, is why Barack Obama and John Edwards are beginning to engage each other. Both are competing for second-place votes as well as rural votes, two keys to an Iowa win.

-- In New Hampshire, campaigns are wrestling with a big dilemma: In a small state, the influx of a few thousand new residents can dramatically alter the playing field. A new report out from the University of New Hampshire suggests about a quarter of Granite State voters eligible to vote now were not on voter rolls in 2000. New residents, demographer Kenneth Johnson suggests, are more likely to have higher incomes, which could benefit Obama on the Democratic side. But the real story is the lack of real independent voters. Most call themselves independent, but are, at the end of the day, actually drawn to one party. John McCain, banking on independent votes to get him through the GOP primary, has to hope that there are enough independents who lean GOP to push him over the top.

-- Mitt Romney is determined not to let McCain get traction in the Granite State. Perhaps more importantly, Romney is determined to reverse his slide and Mike Huckabee's rise in Iowa. The Bay Stater has the money to outspend Huckabee, which he is managing easily (1,000 points in the top four Iowa markets, and $1.7 million worth of television time this week in five early states, according to Jonathan Martin). Huckabee has about half Romney's ad buy in Iowa. But in New Hampshire, Romney is spending $674,000 to McCain's $545,000, not an overwhelming difference.

-- Here's an interesting comparison: Is Mike Huckabee the 2008 version of Harriett Miers? Marc Ambinder thinks so, and he has a compelling case. The same groups that joined up to oppose Miers' Supreme Court nomination are now taking it to Huckabee, including Rush Limbaugh and several bigger-name right-leaning blogs. Conservative intellectuals are against him more than they are for him, and eventually that could spell danger for the governor. From immigration to Miers to spending, this coalition has proven a vaunted foe of Republicans who don't fall in line, up to and including President Bush.

-- Those who set primary dates should be getting a clear message lately: Never, ever set primaries so close to Christmas. Whether it's Mike Huckabee's ad featuring a floating cross or Rudy Giuliani with Santa, these advertisements are just getting ridiculous. The candidate who ends up winning will probably be the one who doesn't put up an ad on the holiday.

-- Democrats hoping for big Senate gains next year have been frustrated in Oregon, where Washington insiders have settled on House Speaker Jeff Merkley as the best candidate to take on Republican Senator Gordon Smith. The two-term Republican could be vulnerable, but several top candidates refused to run and Smith has not stumbled sufficiently to attract vultures. Until, perhaps, Monday. As Mississippi Senator Trent Lott prepares to retire, Smith, eulogizing his career, said Lott's 2002 comments at Strom Thurmond's birthday party were "misconstrued." Lott said that had the country elected Thurmond, who ran as a state's rights segregationist, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years." The Oregon Democratic Party and the DSCC pounced, and if they can make hay of Smith's comments in socially liberal Oregon, they might cut into what is looking increasingly like a safe Republican seat.

-- ManBearPig Sighting Of The Day: Al Gore, you just won the Nobel Peace Prize. What are you going to do now? I'm fundraising for the DCCC! The former Vice President lent his name to a pitch from Congressional Democrats, Politico reports, as part of the committee's Year-End Challenge. Democrats' GOP counterparts are finally out of debt, but the DCCC maintains a huge cash-on-hand advantage over the NRCC.

-- Today On The Trail: John Edwards has two more town halls with Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, in Portsmouth and Manchester, New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton stops in Independence, Elkader, Clarion and Des Moines. Bill Richardson holds town halls in Hudson, Pembroke, Portsmouth and Dover, New Hampshire, while Barack Obama meets voters in Concord, Manchester and Nashua. Chris Dodd is in Ames, Marengo, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids and Joe Biden is in Council Bluffs, Fort Dodge, Carroll, Denison and Sioux City.

-- On the GOP side, Mitt Romney has a media availability in Davenport and a Christmas party in West Des Moines. Fred Thompson's bus tour continues, with stops in Cedar Rapids, Tipton, Muscatine and Davenport. Mike Huckabee is in West Des Moines and Ames, while Ron Paul makes the obligatory stop at the Politics and Eggs breakfast in Bedford. Rudy Giuliani is staying out of the early states, giving a press conference in Kansas City and a speech in Columbia, Missouri.

Where's The Confidence?

He's raised more than $16 million this quarter alone. He has set himself up as a hero of the growing libertarian movement around the country. He is acting more like a front-runner every day. But Congressman Ron Paul is still, at heart, a pragmatist. Roll Call's David Drucker reports today that, regardless of how he does in the presidential sweepstakes, Paul will file for re-election to his House seat.

Meanwhile, Paul campaign chief Lew Moore tells Politics Nation that the impressive fundraising performance the campaign turned in earlier this week will allow them to focus on building staff. The campaign has "a very full-blown canvassing program" run out of offices in Des Moines and Concord, New Hampshire, Moore said, and Paul advertisements will go up in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and other early states.

Paul's libertarian message is playing better in some parts of the country than in others, something the campaign recognizes. "Our greatest amount of focus has been on New Hampshire," Moore said, though "we're going into all the early states," including forays into Florida and Michigan.

Paul's appeal comes, Moore speculated, from Republican losses in 2006. "It's in many ways pent up demand. Our party has campaigned election after election on smaller government, and there is no smaller government," he said. "The Republican Party is shrinking."

Unlike Paul's, the GOP's "finances are in serious trouble in several areas." Paul, who Moore contends helps the GOP attract new voters, is doing more good than harm. "The Republican Party needs to be about expanding the base, not restricting it."

Part of acting like a front-runner, in modern politics, is attacking opponents. Paul's campaign recently paid for two Arkansas legislators to head to Iowa and make the case against Mike Huckabee. Still, no campaign wants to be seen as going negative, and the Paulites are no different. "It isn't so much a matter that we're going after Mr. Huckabee. I think a lot of our folks in Iowa are frustrated that the people that we're talking to are not aware of his record," Moore said. "People in Iowa should have the opportunity to know about it."

Paul remains an unlikely candidate to win the GOP nomination. But as his campaign begins to act more like a front-runner, they would do well to develop the confidence that other front-runners have. John McCain, for one, would never say he will plan to run for re-election, making clear his own assumption that he will win the nomination.

For now, Moore will not speculate on his campaign's chances anywhere. "I have no idea where we'll actually finish," he said.

A GOP Chance In NC

Until now, the race to replace outgoing North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley has been dominated by an increasingly nasty Democratic primary. Lieutenant Gov. Beverly Perdue and Treasurer Richard Moore have been slugging it out for months, trading barbs and charges over their respective records.

The Republican race, by contrast, has been marked by virtually unknown candidates, including attorney Bill Graham, former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr and State Senator Fred Smith. Finally, though, Republicans think they have found a real candidate, and a poll conducted for Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory shows the big city mayor could make the race competitive.

The poll, conducted between 11/12-15 by Washington- and Houston-based Voter/Consumer Research, surveyed 501 registered voters for a margin of error of +/- 4%, while a separate sample included 301 Republican primary voters for a margin of error of +/- 6%. All six candidates were tested.

General Election Matchups
McCrory 39
Perdue 36

Moore 37
McCrory 36

Primary Election Matchup
McCrory 20
Smith 19
Graham 12
Orr 9

McCrory has yet to officially make up his mind on the race, and continues consulting with family and supporters before his anticipated announcement, a spokeswoman said. That announcement is likely to come shortly after the new year.

While McCrory would make the race competitive for Republicans, he might have a difficult time making it out of the GOP primary. The three other candidates would all be running to the right, and conservatives would likely choose Smith, Graham or Orr over the more moderate McCrory. Still, having been elected to seven two-year terms in a big city, Republicans might decide to give him a pass in the primary with the hope that he would attract enough urban support to take the seat back for the GOP.

NRCC Debt Free

Top Republicans are expected to announce soon that the National Republican Congressional Committee is finally out of debt, Politico's Patrick O'Connor reports. After almost a year of paying off a massive debt incurred during the 2006 cycle, Republicans in the House helped the struggling committee with transfers of about $3 million this week.

The committee has reported a re-energized fundraising base after two strong wins in special elections in Virginia and Ohio. Much of that new money has come from members of the GOP caucus, including $500,000 donations from both House Minority Leader John Boehner and former Appropriations Committee chairman David Dreier. Retiring Rep. Jim Saxton looks likely to donate some of his remaining war chest to the committee, while others seeking prominent committee slots are likely to pony up big sums as well.

Now out of debt, House Republicans turn their attention to shrinking the huge fundraising edge their Democratic counterparts enjoy. Through October 31, the DCCC maintained $29.2 million cash on hand, with about $2.1 million in debt. Republicans held just $2.5 million with a $3.6 million debt. After spending more than $500,000 to win the two special elections, and after paying down the debt, Republicans still face a long road ahead if they are to take a run at reclaiming seats.

AFSCME Hits Obama

As part of their independent expenditure campaign on behalf of Hillary Clinton, the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees are going negative, new FEC filings show. The union spent more than $34,000 on mailings produced by Washington-based 360 JMG LLC yesterday, and the required 24-hour notice filed with the FEC shows the mailings, sent to Iowa, are to be used expressly to oppose Barack Obama.

AFSCME has spent more than $985,000 on the presidential race so far, more than $950,000 of it on Clinton's behalf. The mailings hitting Obama are the first negative pieces the union has produced, and are the first independent expenditures of their kind that attack a candidate other than Clinton. As we reported earlier, several groups have spent a combined total of more than $110,000 on advertisements hitting the New York Senator.

Other groups are weighing in on behalf of their candidates as well. The Carpenters' union, backing John Edwards, have spent more than $28,000 on t-shirts for their members on Edwards' behalf. The union has also spent money on rally signs, decals for hard hats and bumper stickers. Vote Hope, a San Francisco-based organization working to bank 500,000 votes for Obama in that state's February 5 primary, has spent at least $38,000 on his behalf.

Morning Thoughts: Eight-Way Tie

Good Tuesday morning.

-- The Senate begins considering the omnibus funding bill today, while the House takes another look at the energy bill, which the Senate has amended. The House later takes up terrorism insurance. President Bush visits the new Capitol Visitor Center, apparently hoping to get a look before construction is delayed again. The Federal Communications Commission, meanwhile, will take up a proposal today to allow television and radio stations to partner with newspapers in the country's largest media markets, despite a request from some Congressional leaders to postpone the hearing.

-- John McCain is hoping for a big boost among independents who can choose a Democratic or Republican ballot in New Hampshire's January 8 primary. But, the Washington Post suggests, that population of truly independent voters -- for whom McCain is not battling fellow Republicans, but Democrat Barack Obama -- may be shrinking. 44% of Granite State voters are independents, but by some estimates, just a third of those are really willing to pick either party's ballot. "The bottom line is that they either lean Republican or lean Democratic," says ex-NH GOP chair and McCain adviser Steve Duprey. Contrary to recent reports, many independents still seem committed to choosing a Democratic ballot. Between 55% and 70% say they will take a Democratic line, surveys from the University of New Hampshire show.

-- As we wrote yesterday, there is no such thing as the Democratic three-way tie for first in Iowa. Nationally, John Edwards is even farther back. And while he has focused on a positive message lately as Obama and Hillary Clinton pivot toward attacking each other, he still needs to not only get close to Clinton, but leap-frog Obama's poll numbers to do so. Obama, in Iowa, said it was he who had done the most to rid Washington of special interests, while Edwards, in Des Moines, said he and Obama have "philosophical differences" on the issue -- he noted he has not taken money from lobbyists or PACs, the New York Times reported. A friendly disagreement, to be sure, but a disagreement between two candidates who have thus far focused all of their fire on Clinton.

-- On the GOP side, Mitt Romney's poll numbers are sinking in Iowa, but like Edwards (see link above), he may have a hidden reservoir of support in Iowa. Edwards has his veteran caucus attendees, while Romney has Mormons. There are more than 22,000 Mormons in Iowa, the Wall Street Journal reports, and one top Church leader in the state says he expects up to 7,000 Mormons to caucus. Most, many expect, will caucus for Romney. And as many believe the caucus attendance on the Republican side will be well below Democratic turnout, those few thousand votes could make all the difference as Romney struggles to catch up to Mike Huckabee, an evangelical Christian. How big is the evangelical vote in Iowa? Oh, about 500,000. Analyst Soren Dayton concludes that, in order to account for Romney's hidden Mormon vote, one should add 5% to Romney's Iowa poll numbers.

-- The long campaign theme continues, but here's a new wrinkle: It looks more likely that both nomination fights will carry on past Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, and that most major candidates will last until February 5. But what if more than one major candidate survives Super Tuesday as well? Adam Nagourney lays out reasonable scenarios under which the five leading Republican candidates may split the first five states, while Democrats divide the first four, leading to a split on February 5 and a heated contest for delegates in subsequent contests. The nightmare scenario for a party, but the dream scenario for journalists: A divided convention. At least one candidate is planning for a post-February 5 battle: The Stranger reports Obama will set up a campaign office in Washington State, which caucuses on February 9.

-- As candidates and their surrogates criss-cross early states in the final two weeks before Iowa caucuses, some surrogates are, perhaps, better left at home. After pointedly mentioning Barack Hussein Obama, former Nebraska Senator and Clinton supporter Bob Kerrey went one step farther last night. "I've watched the blogs try to say that you can't trust him because he spent a litte bit of time in a secular madrassa. I feel quite the opposite," Kerrey told CNN. Was Kerrey taking another misguided shot at Obama, a la Billy Shaheen, or does he really not realize that he is spreading a rumor that is demonstrably untrue? If it's the second case, writes Marc Ambinder, maybe Obama's camp really does have something to worry about after securing the nomination.

-- Speaking of Clinton's folks, and of Billy Shaheen, is it possible Clinton could win Iowa but lose New Hampshire? State Rep. Jim Splaine, he of the first-in-the-nation primary law from 1976 and a big Clinton backer, says the candidate is talking to or at New Hampshire voters, not with them, the Washington Post reports. That, he says, is not how someone wins the Granite State. Still, Splaine's first love is a New Hampshire primary: "In fact, one of the strengths of the NH [sic] Primary is that candidates indeed have that chance, to get away from the podiums and look us in the eye, face-to-face, not talking over our heads," he wrote at the blog Blue Hampshire.

-- Slightly off the beaten path, Mike Bloomberg is seriously thinking about a run for president, it seems. Bloomberg has told friends that he would spend up to $1 billion to get himself in the White House, but now he's taking the step of actually feeling out some of his campaign advisers. At least one adviser, who had wanted to go work for Clinton, was told to stay out of the race for now and wait to see what Bloomberg does, the New York Post reports. Locking up a campaign team is not the first step toward deciding on a run -- it's actually several steps down the line.

-- Ridiculously Cool Interactive Graphic Of The Day: The New York Times has somehow charted the number of times each candidate has said another candidate's last name during debates, divided up by each debate. Not surprisingly, Hillary Clinton wins the most mentions, with either Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney coming in second place.

-- Today On The Trail: John Edwards holds town hall meetings with country stars Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne in Lebanon, Keene and Nashua, New Hampshire. Barack Obama has a policy forum in Des Moines. Hillary Clinton holds town halls in Ottumwa and Donnellson, Iowa, then heads to an open press low-dollar fundraiser in Chicago. Bill Richardson meets students in Davenport, Iowa, then heads to Manchester, New Hampshire for a town hall meeting. Chris Dodd has a town hall in Mason City.

-- On the GOP side, Mitt Romney gives a speech in Spartanburg, holds press availabilities in West Columbia, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, followed by campaign events in North Charleston and Myrtle Beach. John McCain gives a speech in Salem, makes a pit stop in Hollis, visits a house party in Nashua and has a town hall meeting in Hudson. Fred Thompson's big bus tour continues, with stops in Manchester, Decorah and Waterloo, Iowa. And Rudy Giuliani takes time off the trail to fundraise in New York.

Dems Race To Replace Udall

As the Denver Post reports, an interesting dynamic is taking place in the race for the Democratic nomination in Colorado's 2nd District. The candidates, vying to replace Rep. Mark Udall, who is running for the Senate, are battling each other for the backing of wealthy gay activist groups and donors.

Former Colorado School Board chair Jared Polis, who is gay, has the backing of Wisconsin Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin. But former State Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, who helped put a referendum on the state ballot in 2006 to provide similar legal rights to same sex couples that married couples have, is giving Polis a run for his money among gay activists.

Scott Coors, nephew of beer magnate and former Republican Senate candidate Pete Coors and is openly gay, recently hosted a fundraiser for Fitz-Gerald; and activist Tim Gill has endorsed her. Gill has spent tons of his own money fighting anti-gay marriage amendments and campaigns around the country.

A third candidate vying for the Democratic nomination, environmentalist Will Shafroth, is the great-grandson of John Shafroth, a former Governor, Senator and Congressman from Colorado. Shafroth, who's reportedly running his campaign out of the barn in his backyard, is planning to petition his way onto the primary ballot, as Udall did in 1998, rather than go through the party caucus. His experience in environmental issues and conservationism could win him the support of Democratic voters hoping for a successor with similar interests to Udall, co-chair of the House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus.

Fitz-Gerald has earned most of the establishment support, while Polis earned the attention of the netroots by visiting Iraq last month and contributed to popular liberal blogs. All three candidates have raised gobs of money. Polis led with more than $550,000, followed by Fitz-Gerald at about $450,000 and Shafroth at $425,000, through the third quarter.

The 2nd District includes the city of Boulder, home to the free-spirited surroundings of the University of Colorado. John Kerry won 58% here against President Bush in 2004, and Udall's past two Republican opponents have failed to surpass 30% of the vote. The congressional primaries in Colorado are not until August 12, 2008, so the competition for this seat should be long, interesting and expensive, and the winner more than likely will also win in the general election.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Dems' Tough Road In MS

Republicans can breathe a sigh of relief today as new numbers out of Mississippi show Sen. Trent Lott's resignation opens a seat they have an excellent chance at retaining. The poll, another in a series taken for DailyKos by Maryland-based Research 2000, shows possible GOP candidates running well ahead of any Democrat with whom they are matched.

Taken between 12/10-12, the poll tested former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and former Attorney General Mike Moore, who has since said he will not run. On the GOP side, Reps. Roger Wicker and Chip Pickering were tested. Six hundred likely voters were included in the sample for a margin of error of +/- 4%.

General Election Matchup
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind)
Wicker 47 / 8 / 79 / 48
Musgrove 39 / 78 / 7 / 37

Wicker 46 / 8 / 78 / 47
Moore 39 / 77 / 7 / 37

Pickering 45 / 6 / 78 / 45
Musgrove 39 / 78 / 7 / 37

Pickering 45 / 7 / 77 / 46
Moore 41 / 80 / 8 / 40

Fav/Unfav
Wicker 49 / 17
Pickering 46 / 19
Moore 45 / 27
Musgrove 41 / 28

Gov. Haley Barbour is unlikely to choose Pickering, many believe, because he had already declared he would not seek re-election in 2008. And given that Moore is out, a Wicker-Musgrove matchup looks more likely. In that contest, Democrats might have a shot, but it would be a long one, and Wicker, who looks like the front-runner to be appointed to Lott's seat, would have an added boost of sort-of-incumbency.

Democrats could use their financial advantage over the NRSC to run a few advertisements in Mississippi, but Republicans have to be happy with the way the seat looks for now.

Is Edwards In The Hunt?

It has become conventional wisdom that the Democratic presidential race is a contest between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. The common phrase: The three are in a statistical tie. Regardless of whether that statement is accurate, Edwards may be in a better position than his opponents.

Be clear on one point: John Edwards is in third place in public opinion polls. There is no statistical tie for first. The latest RCP Iowa Average shows Obama leading with 29.8%, followed by Clinton at 26.3% and Edwards at 23%. Obama and Clinton are statistically tied for first. Clinton and Edwards are statistically tied for second. But Edwards, 6.8 points behind Obama, is not statistically tied for first.

In fact, Edwards has not led a poll in Iowa since a Time Magazine survey in late August, when he earned 29% of respondents' support. He has been mired in third place in most recent polls, occasionally tying with Clinton (in a Research 2000 poll for the Quad City Times over the weekend) or leading Obama by a few points (in an Iowa State University in mid-November).

Still, as anyone will tell you, it is difficult if not impossible to poll Iowa caucus-goers. In a state with a population of more than 3 million, finding the perhaps 150,000 voters who will attend a Democratic caucus next month is difficult. Campaigns vie for those who have caucused before. Edwards, having run in the state before, has stronger support among previous caucus attendees than Clinton or Obama, both of whom are leaning on those who have not yet attended a caucus. Those voters are not guaranteed to show up on caucus night, leading to the assumption that every Edwards backer who has caucused before is worth more than every Obama or Clinton backer who has not.

For months, Edwards has launched the toughest attacks on front-running Clinton, pointing to her support for the war in Iraq, her failed health care initiative of 1993 and her position on NAFTA, as well as a host of other issues on which the two disagree. But now, just weeks before the caucuses, Obama and Clinton have taken to squabbling, whether over a Clinton supporter's assertions that Obama's past drug use will be an issue or Clinton's own charges that Obama's health care proposal does not cover as many people as hers would. The dialogue, at times, has gotten downright nasty.

Enter the kinder, gentler John Edwards. In 2004, nice-guy Edwards catapulted to a surprise second-place finish along with John Kerry in the Iowa caucuses after similar squabbling derailed Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt. Edwards' team has worked not only to foment unrest between Clinton and Obama, but also to portray their candidate as a fresh, positive face.

The media has taken note: Along with a cover story in Newsweek (Cover header: "The Sleeper"), he earned a big write-up in the Wall Street Journal (Headline: "Not-So-Dark Horse") and a positive appearance on ABC's "This Week" over the weekend. That appearance was marked by Edwards' sticking to a friendlier message, both more upbeat than he has demonstrated so far in the campaign and sunnier than the disposition of either Clinton or Obama.

So John Edwards is not in a statistical tie for first place in Iowa. But given his solid foundation of experienced caucus-goers and his closing argument that emphasizes a more positive message than his rivals, that may not matter. Edwards could be a surprise in Iowa, for the second cycle in a row.

Admin Faces United Hill Front

Destroyed CIA videotapes showing the intense interrogation of two high-value terrorist suspects has sparked a battle between Congress and the Bush Administration, setting up what could be an explosive showdown complete with subpoenas and dueling investigations as many on Capitol Hill hope to reassert their body's co-equal status with the White House.

The top two members of the House Intelligence Committee presented a united front this weekend in promising a continued investigation into the tapes' destructions, squelching Justice Department hopes that Congress would stay on the sidelines. The statements came after Attorney General Michael Mukasey refused to give Congress information on Justice's investigation into the tapes' destruction.

Mukasey, on Friday, sent a letter to top members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committee, saying a special prosecutor, for which some members of Congress have called, is unnecessary, and that the Justice Department and the inspector general of the CIA have the investigation under control. Justice then advised the CIA not to cooperate with the Intelligence panel's investigation, prompting the joint statement, while the two officials heading the investigation, assistant AG Ken Wainstein and CIA Inspector General John Helgerson, asked the congressmen to hold off.

"We are stunned that the Justice Department would move to block our investigation," panel chair Silvestre Reyes and ranking member Pete Hoekstra said in a statement. "It's clear that there's more to this story than we have been told, and it is unfortunate that we are being prevented from learning the facts." Reyes, a Texas Democrat, and Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican, had asked CIA director Michael Hayden to turn over any documents and communications related to the tapes and their destruction.

The two Congressmen went on to urge Hayden to make two top CIA officials -- John Rizzo and Jose Rodriguez -- available for questioning this week. "We will use all the tools available to Congress, including subpoenas, to obtain this information and this testimony," they wrote.

In an appearance on Fox News Sunday, Hoekstra and California Democrat Jane Harman, also a member of the Intelligence committee, promised to continue their own investigation. "I think what we're going to do is we want to hold the community accountable for what's happened with these tapes. I think we will issue subpoenas," Hoekstra said. "It's important for Congress to hold [the intelligence] community accountable."

"On a bipartisan basis, the House Intelligence Committee wants to get to the bottom of this and isn't going to back off for the attorney general here, who I think, as I said, may be doing something that won't give the public confidence that it was a full and fair investigation," Harman said.

Later, the harshest criticisms came from Republican Hoekstra, a long-time member of the intel panel. "You've got a community that's incompetent. They are arrogant. And they are political. And they don't believe that they are accountable to anybody. They don't believe that they're accountable to the president," he said. "If they had done what they are supposed to do on the tapes -- keep us informed, listen to the kind of recommendations that my colleague Jane Harman made to them -- we wouldn't even be having this discussion today."

Romney Survives Russert

It was Mitt Romney's turn in the Meet the Press studio on Saturday, an appearance that can be dangerous for anyone, especially a candidate whose current positions do not jive with previous statements. Last week, Rudy Giuliani faced a withering assault on several fronts, from his business dealings to his personal life. Giuliani survived, if only barely.

Romney, though, did much better. He dealt easily with host Tim Russert's questions on his Mormon faith, even tearing up at one point when discussing the Church's decision to reverse a century-old ban on African American participation in church rituals. He handled the inevitable flip-flop questions as well as one could expect, too.

Romney's one major stumble: He claimed he had the support of the National Rifle Association in his 2002 campaign for governor. Spokesman Kevin Madden had to clarify that Romney did not win the group's backing, and his Democratic opponent even won a better rating than Romney did that year.

Other takeaways from the appearance:

Jonathan Martin: "Romney held his own in his first exposure to the Russert treatment. ... Romney's appearance certainly didn't lessen the flip-flop narrative, but he didn't appear to have made it appreciably worse."

New York Times: "Romney spent almost the entire hour of the interview parrying questions, first about his faith, and then about his past positions. ... Romney appeared to trip up when asked if he believed life begins at conception."

Washington Post: "Maybe it was the pressure of the moment. Being under the Tim Russert spotlight can get to anyone. Under Russert's grilling about guns on this morning's 'Meet the Press,' ... Romney claimed an endorsement he'd never won."

USA Today: "Pressed about whether he's flip-flopped on many issues, Romney made the case that he's learned from experience."

Morning Thoughts: Dead Tree Edition

Good Monday morning. Welcome to the final full week of campaigning before Christmas, New Years and the Iowa caucuses. Hillary Clinton is celebrating by hitting six national television shows. Ron Paul chose to celebrate by raising $6 million yesterday. More on that later. In the meantime, here's what Washington is watching:

-- The Senate meets today to resume consideration of a bill to remake the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. A motion to proceed vote will be taken at noon. The House is considering a number of bills under suspension before taking up energy legislation the Senate amended last week. President Bush has been reduced to giving a speech at a Holiday Inn in Fredericksburg, Virginia, while Treasury Secretary Paulson gives a speech on the mortgage crisis in Orlando and Secretary of State Rice attends a donor conference in support of the Palestinian government in Paris.

-- A story to watch as it emerges: Over the last several weeks, as Democrats in Congress have done all they could to pass spending measures, many in the party in Washington have been frustrated as Republicans have outmaneuvered them at virtually every turn. As AP takes a look at Democrats' need for a new strategy, party insiders acknowledge that, despite their Congressional majorities, Democrats gave up on Iraq war funding, energy and spending, all in the last few weeks. Republicans still face a risk in 2008, and their brand is certainly unpopular. But Democrats can't have made their base happy by rolling over so often and, seemingly, so easily.

-- The big news over the weekend: Newspaper endorsements. The Des Moines Register chose John McCain and Hillary Clinton, while the Boston Globe is backing Barack Obama and McCain. Each campaign is rolling out a big endorsement virtually every day -- Bob Kerrey for Clinton (no surprise, but still brings headlines), Joe Lieberman for McCain (something of a surprise, lots of headlines and help with crucial New Hampshire independents), Robert Bork for Romney (probably pretty valuable to his campaign), Iowa First Lady Mari Culver for Edwards (a la Christie Vilsack for John Kerry in '04?). Expect the names to keep coming.

-- For McCain, the endorsements of big newspapers plays right into his campaign strategy: While Rudy Giuliani and Romney feud over immigration, all while handling upstart Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson's constant grenades, McCain sits above it all and talks about the importance of the war in Iraq. He's made himself out to be the only adult in the Republican race. It's the same thing Joe Biden has tried to accomplish, with markedly less success, on the Democratic side.

-- For Clinton, the Register's backing is simply huge. Her chances in Iowa were all but over, some were wondering what would happen if she finished third there, and recent polls have shown her firewall in New Hampshire falling apart as well. The paper's backing gives Clinton a boost, a chance to regain some momentum at a crucial time, and, most critically, denies Obama the chance to tout the endorsement. It could be just what Clinton needs to get back on track.

-- For Obama, the Register's nod isn't a crisis of epic proportions. The Globe's backing, though, is huge news: As recent polls have shown him gaining on Clinton (he's just 3 points back in the latest RCP New Hampshire Average), conventional wisdom is evolving to accept the possibility that Obama does not have to win Iowa to prevent Clinton from taking the cake. His poll numbers, which were supposed to improve dramatically after an Iowa win, are already there in New Hampshire, while his South Carolina support is rising too. Like the GOP nomination, the Democratic fight might not be over until at least February 5. Still, not everyone understands the Globe's endorsement, like the always subtle Wolf Blitzer, yesterday on CNN's Late Edition: "Now a lot of people could argue, who cares about the Boston Globe?" Obama's fans care: The endorsement could extend the race and help Obama make it a two-person fight after Iowa.

-- Obama also won the endorsement of Iowa Rep. Dave Loebsack, meaning, as Ben Smith points out, that all three Iowa Democrats went with a different presidential contender. The picks fit, though: Loebsack the college professor goes with Obama. Edwards gets trial lawyer Bruce Braley. And Clinton gets long-time establishment Rep. Leonard Boswell. Both New Hampshire Reps. Carol Shea Porter and Paul Hodes are on Obama's side. On the GOP side, Rep. Steve King is set to make an announcement today. King is an anti-illegal immigration activist who is close with Rep. Tom Tancredo, though he's playing coy and maintains that no one aside from himself knows his true intentions. Rep. Tom Latham has yet to make a pick either.

-- Is Rudy Giuliani banking too much on this whole February 5 idea? He's virtually non-existent in Iowa. His South Carolina presence is not what it could be. And now he even trails in polls in Florida. And while he claims to be making an effort in New Hampshire, where he has a campaign stop today, Giuliani is cutting back his television ad spending in the Granite State this week, Nashua Telegraph's Kevin Landrigan reports. Giuliani is still spending plenty on Manchester-based WMUR, but he is reducing spending levels in the Boston media market, dropping initial ad buys by fifty to one hundred percent. Romney is still out-spending the field at about $250,000 a week on WMUR alone, followed by Giuliani, who had been at $180,000, and John McCain, at $120,000.

-- Ron Paul Moneybomb Of The Day: You thought $4.2 million in a day was a lot? You ain't seen nothin' yet. Ron Paul hauled in an astonishing $6.026 million yesterday, according to campaign spokesman Jesse Benton, breaking the record $5.7 million held by John Kerry in 2004. That money came from 58,000 donors, nearly 25,000 of them first-time givers. Paul has pulled in over $18 million this quarter, which will probably put him on top of the GOP field when FEC reports are due in mid-February.

-- Today On The Trail: Giuliani is in Durham, New Hampshire, while McCain hits Hillsborough, Concord and Weare, New Hampshire. Fred Thompson starts "The Clear Conservative Choice: Hands Down" bus tour (we're not making that up) through Iowa, meeting voters in Dubuque, while Mitt Romney holds town hall meetins in Londonderry, Manchester and Goffstown, New Hampshire. Mike Huckabee appears on Larry King Live tonight from Los Angeles.

-- On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton stops in Johnston and Des Moines after the morning shows, followed by events in Davenport and Coralville. Obama continues his bus tour through Spencer, Storm Lake, Cherokee, Le Mars and Sioux City. Edwards finishes up his bus tour in Des Moines before campaigning in Cedar Rapids and Davenport. Dennis Kucinich and Joe Biden are in New Hampshire, where Kucinich holds events in Sunapee, Claremont and New London, and Biden hits a house party in New Ipswich.

Carson Passes Away

Rep. Julia Carson, who rose from poverty and an early career as a secretary to become a state legislator and then a member of Congress in 1996, passed away yesterday at the age of 69. Carson announced she had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer earlier this year and said she would not run for re-election next year.

Carson entered politics at the urging of her then-boss, Rep. Andy Jacobs, in the 1970s. Twenty years later, Carson succeeded Jacobs in the House. She compiled a mostly liberal record and was known as a backer of organized labor.

A date for a special election has not been set, but because Carson announced she would retire, candidates have already started campaigning for the seat. Marion County Treasurer Michael Rodman is the only Democrat to have announced a bid, while State Rep. Jon Elrod is running on the GOP side. The Democratic nominee would be favored, as the district gave 58% to John Kerry and 55% to Al Gore.

Two Saturday Endorsements

With less than three weeks to go before votes are cast, it's crunch time for any big names who hope to get on the ground floor of the next administration. It's also time to roll out endorsements that have been in the works for weeks, in hopes of winning a few new votes late in the game.

Hillary Clinton, whose campaign has been based largely on inevitability, is benefiting from more establishment Democratic endorsements than we could report this week: Iowa Congressman Leonard Boswell. Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski. Now, Maine Governor John Baldacci joins the campaign, they announced this morning.

On the GOP side, Mitt Romney keeps piling up conservative backing. While many have questioned Romney's own dedication to conservatism, he's won support from pro-life lawyer James Bopp Jr., ACU chief David Keene and Bob Jones III, all three of whom lend Romney their own conservative credentials.

This morning, Romney is getting a big boost that should help him among hard-core conservatives as he fights to get to the top of the GOP pack. Romney's team this morning announced support from Judge Robert Bork, whose Supreme Court nomination was derailed in 1987 but who remains one of the best-known and most highly regarded conservative jurists in the country.

The nods speak to both campaigns' emphasis going into the final stretch: Clinton, looking for support in what could be a longer than expected Democratic race, emphasizes her establishment credentials in Democratic circles around the country. Romney, not trusted by some in the conservative base, emphasizes his right-leaning credentials by associating with the biggest names in the movement.

The First Blog

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Three Dems To Watch

Three new polls in three very different states out today show not everything is rosy for Democrats. It's been a difficult year for three elected officials, which could lead to opportunities for Republicans down the road.

In Nevada, a lesson is rapidly emerging: It does not pay to be Senate Democratic leader. A Mason-Dixon poll, conducted 12/3-5 for the Las Vegas Review Journal, shows just 41% of the 625 registered voters think Sen. Harry Reid is doing an excellent or good job, while 58% say his job performance is fair or poor. That's about the same as unpopular Governor Jim Gibbons, a Republican, who clocked in at a 41% to 54% margin.

Is it bad to be a Republican leader? Or is it just better to be a few steps down the leadership chain? John Ensign probably doesn't care, as long as the NRSC chief remains popular in the Silver State. He enjoys a 57% excellent or good rating, while 40% rate him as fair or poor.

In New York, a Quinnipiac University poll taken just before Eliot Spitzer's one-year anniversary as governor demonstrates his difficult year. Only 37% of the 1,083 respondents in the poll, taken 12/4-10, approved of the way Spitzer is doing his job, while 48% disapprove. Independents are slightly less favorably disposed to Spitzer, by a 35%-49% margin. 21% say things have gotten worse while Spitzer has been governor, while just 7% say things are getting better.

By contrast, the state's two Senators, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, are very popular. Even though she's on the presidential campaign trail, 64% approve of Clinton's job performance, while 59% like the job Schumer is doing. 29% disapprove of Clinton, while 22% disapprove of Schumer.

In neighboring New Jersey, the news isn't much better. Quinnipiac surveyed 1,085 registered voters there, between 12/5-9, and found that Governor Jon Corzine has just a 46% to 43% approval rating, while only 38% are satisfied with the situation in New Jersey. 62% say they are dissatisfied.

Corzine leads a generic Republican by a 41% to 31% margin, though just 44% say he deserves re-election and 43% say he does not. Senator Frank Lautenberg, whose seat comes up for re-election next year, has a 42% job approval rating, with 33% disapprove. Before Republicans get too excited, though, they should look at recent history. Lautenberg has never been the most popular senator, and neither have his seatmates, including Corzine, Sen. Bob Menendez and former Sen. Robert Torricelli.

Still, every time Republicans target one of the seats, sinking millions into ultra-expensive Philadelphia and New York City media markets, they come up short. After State Sen. Tom Kean Jr. lost to Menendez last year, Republicans might be shy about going after Lautenberg too aggressively next year.

Competitive In Colorado?

In the last version of the Politics Nation Exchange, we dropped Colorado from the third-most likely state to switch parties to the fifth-most likely. But for the second time in recent months, a new poll suggests Republican former Rep. Bob Schaffer may have a better chance at keeping the seat in GOP hands than conventional wisdom suggests.

The poll, by Research for Change, Inc., surveyed Schaffer and Rep. Mark Udall, the Democrat seen as the odds-on favorite to steal the seat from retiring Sen. Wayne Allard. Conducted 12/3-5, the poll surveyed 500 likely voters for a margin of error of +/- 4%.

General Election Matchup
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind / Men / Wom)
Udall 39 / 78 / 11 / 35 / 36 / 42
Schaffer 37 / 8 / 69 / 25 / 44 / 31

The poll shows a lot of Colorado voters are undecided, the same conclusion a poll conducted by Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli. That poll found Udall leading by a narrow 36% to 35%.

Udall has outraised Schaffer by a wide margin, and he's considered a top recruit against the GOP's second or third choice. Udall also leads among independents, and given that independents have broken heavily to Democrats in recent Colorado elections, he is in good position to capture many of the remaining 40% who are undecided. Still, there's a long way to go until November, and for now Schaffer does not seem to be rolling over and playing dead.

Hillary Clinton: Lightning Rod

No one running for president inspires more vitriol on the right and loyalty on the left than does Hillary Clinton. We've alluded recently to the incredible number of outside groups that are spending on her behalf, and disclosures with the Federal Elections Commission show organizations both supporting and opposing her are pouring money into the race.

Within thirty days of an election, third-party groups that support and oppose a candidate are required to file reports of any independent expenditures within twenty four hours. A quick breakdown:

Groups supporting Clinton have spent at least $649,116 this week.

Groups opposing Clinton have spent at least $114,606 this week.

That's right, this week. And we say "at least" because reports for Thursday and today are not in yet. The biggest Clinton boosters are unions backing her campaign, including the American Federation of Teachers, which spent $310,000 on radio ads in New Hampshire between now and the January 8 primary, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has dropped more than $260,000 into two media buys in Iowa.

EMILY's List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women, is also spending significant resources on women voters in Iowa who might turn in to Clinton supporters. The group has launched an aggressive voter identification and turnout featuring mailings and web advertisements, both on political sites and non-political sites like BabyNames.com and Epicurious.com.

Clinton's opponents are coming at her from both the right and the left. The Life and Liberty PAC, a Washington, D.C.-based group dedicated to educating voters about Clinton and top Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani and their pro-choice records, dropped nearly $78,000 into a phone and mail campaign.

A group called Democratic Courage comes at Clinton from the left, attacking her for "allow[ing] herself to be bullied so much by Republicans that we don't have faith that she would stand up to them either in the general election or if she got into the White House," said the group's chairman, Glenn Hurowitz.

Hurowitz hinted that the group has more up its sleeve. "It's possible that we could focus on another candidate in the future," he said. While he wouldn't comment on which campaign they might target, in a post yesterday at Huffington Post Hurowitz suggests Barack Obama's approach to bringing people together is misguided.

For now, though, Clinton bears the brunt of outside attack ads and is benefiting the most from independent boosters. While third-party organizations will weigh in for and against other candidates -- a new pro-John Edwards group hit the Iowa airways today with a television ad on jobs, while Obama is benefiting from a group called Vote Hope based in California -- it is likely that no candidate will get more attention than Clinton, from both sides.

More Races To Watch

Backers of a proposed same-sex marriage ban collected more than 600,000 signatures to win a spot on the Florida ballot in 2008, the Orlando Sentinel reported. The proposed amendment would be on the same ballot as the race for president, and though some have suggested that the bans did not affect the outcome of the 2004 presidential race -- arguing that President Bush would have won anyway -- there is a compelling reason Republicans can be happy that evangelical turnout could be boosted in the critical swing state.

In Indiana, former First Lady Judy O'Bannon endorsed architect and businessman Jim Schellinger for governor yesterday, the latest in a string of establishment backing for the candidate who trails in the Democratic primary, the Indianapolis Star reports.

Schellinger has a way to go to overcome a name recognition edge enjoyed by ex-Rep. Jill Long Thompson -- Long Thompson had a 4-1 edge in a September poll -- but Democrats think Schellinger gives them the best chance to knock off incumbent Republican Mitch Daniels.

The state has had a large Republican tilt in recent presidential elections, but Daniels has faced a rocky first term, while Democrats picked up three Congressional seats in 2006 and Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh remains one of the most popular politicians in Indiana.

O'Bannon is the widow of former Gov. Frank O'Bannon, who died in office in 2003. She had endorsed Senate Minority Leader Richard Young early in the race, before he ended his bid.

Finally, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal recently told the Associated Press that he was "working hard" to find a reason to go to the Democratic National Convention in Denver next year. Freudenthal voiced disappointment that no presidential candidate has addressed Western issues. Even though he has a vote as a super delegate, Freudenthal skipped the 2004 convention in Boston, and the AP reported yesterday that he hasn't been since 1984, in San Francisco.

The convention will be held just 100 miles from Freudenthal's Cheyenne, Wyoming governor's mansion. And it seems that a larger force has compelled the governor to change his mind: "I heard from a couple of my daughters, as well as my wife, that I was planning to go to the convention," Freudenthal said. "I just wasn't aware of that at the time."

Meanwhile, precinct caucuses have begun in Freudenthal's home state, which we suppose are the first actual preference statements by voters in the 2008 presidential race. Republican precinct caucuses will be held between now and December 20, in advance of the state's January 5 county conventions. The county conventions will allocate about a quarter of the state's national convention delegates, the AP reports.

Not many Republican candidates have stumped in the state, though Mitt Romney has made a few appearances.

Morning Thoughts: Oh, Shift

Good Friday morning. Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning summed up yesterday best in a statement: "As a fan and former player this is the saddest day in my life for baseball. ... The selfish acts of those individuals who tried to cheat the system have brought the integrity of the game to its knees." Click at the bottom of this post for Bunning's complete statement. Here's what else Washington is looking at today:

-- No votes are expected in the House, which meets in pro forma session this morning. The Senate will meet early and hopes to complete work on the farm bill before beginning work on overhaul of the federal housing administration and the defense department authorization. President Bush holds a cabinet meeting before signing a free trade agreement with Peruvian President Alan Garcia. Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee will hold a hearing on Iran with Mike McConnell, Director of National Intelligence.

-- Say what you will, yesterday's Democratic debate was nothing if not fair. While PBS legends Jim Lehrer and Gwen Ifill have nothing to fear, as Des Moines Register editor Carolyn Washburn will not likely beat them to the presidential debate stage in September and October, at least Washburn gave everyone just about to talk yesterday. NBC's timed it -- all the candidates are within a few minutes of each other, with Hillary Clinton near the bottom and Obama just two minutes ahead, with the same number of questions. Bottom line: Everyone got more than 10 minutes to talk, and Bill Richardson did the best at hogging the mic.

-- The debate yesterday was much like the GOP gathering a day before: Everyone played, for the most part, nice. It even seemed like Washburn got her stride a bit: At least no one was asked to raise his or her hand. And like yesterday, everyone had their moments. Clinton got in the most attention-grabbing zinger, with a double shot at Edwards and Obama. Edwards was good enough to win Fox News and CNN focus groups. Obama got in the best joke, a line about Clinton advising him in office, made all the better by a genuine Clinton cackle. Biden was the big thinker. And, we suppose, Richardson didn't fall off the stage. The biggest winner has to be Obama: He's got the momentum and no one robbed him of that, much as Clinton won every early debate simply by not losing.

-- And if you just haven't had enough debates, Jonathan Martin reports that Iowa Republicans are considering giving it one more shot, thanks to Ms. Washburn's subpar performance on Wednesday. Watch us dance with glee.

-- That's a fundamental shift in the Democratic race: While national polls don't show it yet, it's almost as if everyone suddenly suspects that Obama is actually leading the race. As this reporter found out today with a piece on Clinton's slipping support among women, people get irritated when someone questions their candidate. But something is changing in the presidential race, and it's sure to generate as much inbox hate-mail as I got this morning. Check out The Fix's Friday Line, where Obama is suddenly tied with Clinton after trailing all year.

-- Speaking of a fundamental shift in the race, we've seen it coming on the GOP side for a while longer now. Still, it's striking when the once-vaunted Mitt Romney, he of the PowerPoint presentations and perfect hair, admits to the New York Times that he is, in fact, the underdog in Iowa. Romney signaled a new avenue of attack against Huckabee yesterday, going after his record of pardons and commutations. There's a pretty stark distinction there: Huckabee gave out more than 1,000 pardons or commutations in 10 years as governor. Romney gave out none. Do Iowans care, or is that compassionate conservatism at work?

-- It seems like everything is revolving around Huckabee in the Republican field. First, prominent GOP strategist Ed Rollins agreed to serve as Huckabee's national campaign chairman, The Hill reports. The former Reagan campaign manager brings insider creds to the outsider's campaign. Second, Rep. Ron Paul, he of the massive crowds and floating blimp, is paying two Arkansas State Representatives about $5,000 each to head to Iowa for a series of interviews attacking Huckabee. Third, AP's Andrew DeMillo (who Jonathan Martin rightly points out is getting a serious load of work now that Huckabee's at the top) reports a new bombshell: Huckabee backs the Southern Baptist Convention's position that women should "submit graciously" to their men. Huckabee has some other problems on womens' issues, including opposing equal pay. Those stands likely wouldn't go over well in important swing states.

-- What a perfect argument: Republicans blast out a release as the Democratic Presidential nominee chooses a running mate, calling the pick the most liberal person ever born, et cetera. If Democrats pick someone who looks like he's hoping for a tap on the shoulder, they'll be able to respond by saying the guy's clearly a moderate: He sued the DNC. That would be the case if Florida Sen. Bill Nelson is the Veep selection. Nelson is cohosting a fundraiser, Mary Ann Akers reports, with DNC chair Howard Dean, the man he lost a lawsuit to last week over the primary calendar, in Miami next week. Nelson won't actually be there, though; the Senate is in session. Too bad, that would have been a fun photo op.

-- In a blow to Democrats, and certainly likely to change things up on Politics Nation's Exchange, former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore has decided against making a run for Senate, the Jackson Clarion Ledger reports. Moore said polls showed he could win, and that he would have the money necessary to win the race, but that he would rather spend the time with his family. Democratic hopes now turn to former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, while Congressman Roger Wicker still looks like the GOP front-runner.

-- Spicy Meatball Of The Day: AdAge reports that on December 10, campaigns topped the $1 million in ad spending in one day mark. Clinton is spending $275,000 in New Hampshire, while Obama is up with about $150,000 in ads in three early primary states. Edwards is spending less than Obama, and only in Iowa and South Carolina. Romney is burning through $250,000 a day in the three early states plus Florida, while McCain and Giuliani are spending $150,000 a day in New Hampshire. Mike Huckabee is spending just $10,000 a day in Iowa. When's the first $2 million day? Evan Tracey guesses January 2.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton fundraises at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. John Edwards has meetings in Elkader and Manchester, Iowa. Obama is still bus touring through Monticello, Cedar Rapids, Manchester and Guttenberg, Iowa. Hope they run into each other for an awkward handshake. Chris Dodd is in Cedar Rapids and Davenport and Joe Biden is in Keokuk, Fort Madison, Burlington and Davenport. Bill Richardson gets New Hampshire all to himself, holding an AARP forum in Concord followed by town halls in Keene, Claremont, Hanover and Lebanon.

-- On the GOP side, Fred Thompson has a press conference scheduled at the Louisville Slugger factory in Kentucky (bring us one of those mini-bats). John McCain meets residents at an American Legion post in James Island, South Carolina, while Mitt Romney holds town hall meetings in Carroll, Early and Storm Lake, Iowa. Ron Paul meets supporters in Elko, Nevada, while Mike Huckabee and Chuck Norris visit Boscawen and Tilton, New Hampshire.

STATEMENT BY SENATOR JIM BUNNING ON THE MITCHELL REPORT

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- U.S. Senator Jim Bunning today issued the following statement regarding the report released today by former United States Senator George Mitchell following his investigation into the alleged abuse of steroids by some Major League players.

"As a fan and former player this is the saddest day in my life for baseball. Senator Mitchell's report shows what many have known for years - that the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs has been a significant problem in America's pastime for at least two decades. Senator Mitchell hit the nail on the head when he said there is plenty of blame to share. The Commissioner's office, owners, player's union, and the players themselves all share responsibility for bringing a black eye to a game Americans cherish. This is an embarrassment for Major League Baseball.

"As someone who originally said he wasn't the right man for the job, I can say this for Senator Mitchell - he did a great job for not having subpoena power. I want to congratulate Senator Mitchell on a job well done. However, there is one glaring hole in the Mitchell report, and that is the failure to address how to handle the records of those players who not only cheated by using steroids, but also broke a federal law that has been on the books since 1991.

"The selfish acts of those individuals who tried to cheat the system have brought the integrity of the game to its knees. It brings into question the legitimacy of any records achieved while using performance enhancing drugs. That is something that must be addressed as we move forward and I hope that Commissioner Selig will take a close look at those players mentioned in this report and any other player suspected of cheating. I believe that those players who tried to gain an unfair advantage by using these substances should have their records stripped."

Shaheen Out As Clinton Chair

Following comments suggesting Republicans might use Barack Obama's past statements on his own drug use against him in a general election, former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair and former New Hampshire First Gentleman Bill Shaheen has stepped down as chairman of Hillary Clinton's campaign in the state.

"Senator Clinton has been running a positive campaign focused on the issues that matter to America's families. She is the best qualified to be the next President of the United States because she can lead starting on day one. I made a mistake and in light of what happened, I have made the personal decision that I will step down as the Co-Chair of the Hillary for President campaign," Shaheen said in a statement emailed from the campaign.

Shaheen was one of the most sought-after endorsements in New Hampshire earlier this year. His choice to back Clinton was heralded as a major victory, lending her a big name with loads of experience working in politics in the state. In an interview with the Washington Post, Shaheen suggested that Obama's past would come back to haunt him. "It'll be, 'When was the last time> Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?'" he said, per the Post. "There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It's hard to overcome."

Shaheen issued an apology earlier today.

Obama Points To Staffer

A questionnaire shopped by opponents of Barack Obama suggests the candidate, as he ran for State Senate in 1996, is a lot more liberal than his campaign says he is. The questionnaire, first reported by Politico, purported to show Obama was opposed to capital punishment, supported a single-payer health care plan and supported laws that would prohibit possession of handguns.

Obama opponents are having fun with the questionnaire and the campaign's reaction to it. Speaking on MSNBC last night, Washington Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, a top surrogate for the Illinois Senator, said an Obama staffer filled out the form without getting it approved.

To some Democrats backing other candidates, the example is the latest example of Obama blaming a staffer rather than taking responsibility. "Maybe throwing people under the bus is how they are promoting the use of mass transit," said one Democrat working for a rival campaign.

The Boston Globe today pointed to Obama's missing a face to face meeting with New Hampshire Fire Fighters and a controversial memo labeling Hillary Clinton "D-Punjab" as other examples in which Obama blamed staff for miscues. "It doesn't speak to folks looking for a President who is decisive and says the buck stops with him," the Democratic operative said.

Still, Smith defended Obama in an interview with Politics Nation. Running for office, Smith said, "the buck stops with you every single day." Noting that unauthorized questionnaires had slipped through cracks in his own campaigns for State Senate and Congress, Smith said the error was understandable. "You cannot even begin to imagine the blizzard of questionnaires that come through your office."

"It was Senator Obama's mistake. What we were trying to correct was the notion that positions in that memo were ones that Obama had ever held," Smith said. "They were not."

Pointing to Obama's chief opponent and recent questions about planted audience members, emails insinuating that Obama is a Muslim plant and suggestions from a top Clinton supporter that Obama's past might be used against him by Republicans, Smith said no campaign is perfect. "Senator Clinton has had to throw a hell of a lot more people under the bus than Obama," he said. "I'll give Senator Clinton slack on that. You've got thousands of people working for you on a presidential campaign."

Dodd Misses NY Ballot

Chris Dodd will not be on the Presidential preference primary ballot in New York on February 5, Ballot Access News reports. Candidates were required to file at least 5,000 petition signatures by December 6 to qualify for placement on the ballot, and the Democratic Senator from Connecticut apparently did not meet the deadline.

If this was a strategic decision, the Dodd campaign's plan must be to allocate the bulk of its funds to earlier primary states, and not spend money on gathering signatures in New York. But according to the New York State Board of Elections website, "there is no geographic distribution requirement for signatures as with other statewide elections." Therefore, all of the signatures could have been gathered in, say, Manhattan, rather than sending staffers to every congressional district in the state, as candidates for state offices are sometimes required to do. So how expensive could it be?

Due to its relative proximity to his home state, Dodd might have expected to enjoy some name recognition in the Empire State. Among others, he will appear on ballots in California, Oklahoma and Illinois, but not New York.

-- Kyle Trygstad

No Craig Albatross In ID

A new poll out of the Gem State shows that, despite the travails of outgoing Sen. Larry Craig, Republicans have a strong chance to retain the state's open Senate seat next year. The poll, conducted by Myers Research and Strategic Services, tested Lieutenant Gov. Jim Risch, a Republican, against former Rep. Larry LaRocco.

The poll was conducted for Democratic State House Leader Nicole LeFavour last month, between 11/13-19, as she pondered a bid herself, and surveyed 600 registered voters for a margin of error of +/- 4%.

General Election Matchup
Risch 48
LaRocco 34

Generic Senate Matchup
Democrat 42
Republican 36

A generic Democrat leading a generic Republican in a Senate race? Seems impossible, doesn't it, especially as Risch leads LaRocco by a wide margin? Not necessarily. The GOP brand is wounded, even in Idaho: President Bush earns just a 33% excellent/good job approval rating, lower even than Craig's 37% mark.

So how is Risch ahead? The simple answer is that he is one of the state's most popular public officials. When Gov. Dirk Kempthorne was elevated to become Bush's Interior Secretary, Risch served temporarily as his replacement, though he decided to avoid a GOP primary and ceded the nomination to Gov. Butch Otter, choosing instead to run for re-election.

Risch is the overwhelming favorite to retain the seat for Republicans, thanks to the good will he built during his temporary stint as governor. LaRocco is probably the best-known Democrat the party could have found to run for the seat, though if history is any indication, he has to find a new way to run a race: He lost to Risch in the race for Lieutenant Governor in 2006 by a wide 58%-39% margin.

McConnell Gets An Opponent

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell finally has a Democratic opponent, Politico's Josh Kraushaar reports. The incumbent Republican could face Iraq war vet Andrew Horne in November, if Horne makes it out of the Democratic primary.

Horne had been a favorite of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, though he lost the primary for Kentucky's Third District by a wide margin. The Democrat who beat him, John Yarmuth, went on to defeat Republican Rep. Anne Northup in the general election.

Horne may not be alone in the Democratic primary, though. Businessmen Greg Fischer and Bruce Lunsford are considering Senate bids as well, while former Kentucky Attorney General Greg Stumbo has formed an exploratory committee. Stumbo, though, is unlikely to make a bid, some Kentucky Democrats say. Horne may not be the strongest candidate: He ran well behind McConnell in a late October poll, while other potential candidates trailed by smaller margins.

Already, State Auditor Crit Luallen and Rep. Ben Chandler, two Democrats who could potentially give McConnell a real race, have said they will not run.

While some Democrats hope to do to McConnell what Republicans did to then-Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in 2004, knocking off the Republican leader would be a challenge for any candidate. McConnell has stockpiled more than $6.8 million for his re-election bid already, and has already begun running advertisements on television.

Landrieu Up, Barely

A new survey out of Louisiana shows Republicans have a real chance to take back at least one Senate seat, though there is still work to do. The poll, conducted by SurveyUSA for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, shows Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu's Republican opponent nipping at her heals, and with room to grow.

The results are good news for the incumbent coming after a poll conducted for that Republican, State Treasurer John Kennedy, showed him leading Landrieu. Conducted 12/6-10, the poll surveyed 643 registered voters by automated dial, for a margin of error of +/- 3.9%.

General Election Matchup
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind / Men / Wom)
Landrieu 46 / 73 / 17 / 35 / 39 / 52
Kennedy 42 / 19 / 76 / 46 / 51 / 33

More Louisiana voters know Landrieu, though that's both good news and bad news. 40% say they have a favorable impression of her, while 32% are unfavorably disposed. Just 35% view Kennedy favorably, while 10% see him unfavorably.

The good news for Landrieu: She has a smaller group to target to win over in order to reach the 50% threshold, and she can use some of her big war chest to define Kennedy early. The good news for Kennedy: Because so few have an opinion about him, he has more room to grow.

President Bush is viewed very unfavorably by Bayou voters, with just 32% approving and 53% disapproving. If Landrieu tries to tie Kennedy to the president -- not a bad move, considering that Karl Rove helped get Kennedy in the race -- the Republican might fire back by tying Landrieu to Congress, which enjoys just a 21% approval rating, while 59% disapprove. Louisiana voters most care about health care (17%), the economy (16%) and Iraq (13%), all three good issues for Landrieu. Still, immigration (13%) and terrorism (9%) could be big factors in the race as well, both of which would seem to benefit Kennedy.

The standard warning about SurveyUSA polls applies: Because they are conducted by recorded message, they are both cheaper and less reliable than polls conducted with live callers. SurveyUSA has a good record of getting the results close if they conduct polls just a few days before an election, but polls this far out can swing wildly from one sample to the next. Always take them with a grain of salt, but they do provide something of a snapshot of the race.

Morning Thoughts: No News Is Good News

Good Thursday morning. If you slept, it's probably because your name will not show up in former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell's report on steroids in baseball. There are sleepless ballplayers who can't take their eyes off the ceiling because Mitchell is naming names. Check Politics Nation for more on that later today. Meanwhile, here's what Washington is watching today:

-- The House this morning will take up a continuing resolution to keep the government at work past Friday. Later, the lower chamber will take up the conference report on the intelligence authorization bill. The Senate, meanwhile, continues to slog through the farm bill and its myriad amendments, and will also take a procedural vote on an energy bill. And just three weeks from today, Iowa caucus-goers will be the first to pass judgment on the 2008 presidential field. We can't wait.

-- We hear there was a Republican debate yesterday. Funny, we saw a gathering of Republican candidates arguing with a moderator, but we didn't hear them take many shots at each other. Aside from Tom Tancredo's kind-of shot at Mike Huckabee on immigration and Fred Thompson's shot at Mitt Romney ("You're getting to be a pretty good actor"), the most effective attack lines came from former UN Ambassador Alan Keyes. How did he meet the Des Moines Register's criteria for participation -- 1% in Iowa polls, a paid Iowa staffer and an official statement of candidacy with the FEC -- while Democrats Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich, who have been in plenty of debates, did not?

-- With nine candidates on stage, it's impossible to say anyone won, and because no one slipped and fell or drooled on themselves, no one lost, either. Thompson stood out with a good moment, refusing to raise his hand during a global warming question (though this is about the sixth time candidates have rebelled against hand-raising, leading, some would hope, moderators to come to a new conclusion about the questions). John McCain looked and spoke like he was in a New Hampshire town hall, where he does best. Rudy Giuliani took a tough question about government openness and turned it to his advantage. Romney still looks like he's from central casting, and looking like a president is half the battle. And Mike Huckabee made a smooth transition from humorous joker to serious communicator quite effectively.

-- The only news that was made: Mike Huckabee apologizing to Mitt Romney after the debate. The apology came in the wake of Huckabee wondering aloud to a New York Times reporter whether Mormons believe that Jesus and the Devil are brothers. Romney, spokesman Kevin Madden said, accepted the apology. On the Democratic side, former New Hampshire First Gentleman Billy Shaheen also apologized yesterday for commenting on dangers his party faced if they nominate Barack Obama as president. The senator's drug use and admission of same, Shaheen said, would open him up to Republican attacks. Splashed on Drudge's front page for hours yesterday, Shaheen's comments ("It'll be, 'When was the last time> Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?'" he said, per the Post. "There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It's hard to overcome.") were quickly disavowed by the Clinton campaign. Late last night, Shaheen officially apologized.

-- Today, it's Democrats' turn. Don't expect much in the way of negativity to come from their gathering today, though: It's unlikely candidates want voters' last impressions to be of them squabbling. But given the weather in Iowa, it will be a big deal if all four Senate Democrats are in their places on time. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd and Barack Obama are all back in Washington today to take procedural votes on the aforementioned energy bill and for a key farm bill vote. Why take the risk of being in Washington instead of overnighting near the debate site? Could be because Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin is managing the farm bill for Democrats, and irritating him three weeks before the caucuses is not a good idea.

-- This reporter has an article up today suggesting that immigration is an issue that simply doesn't move votes in a general election. But in Storm Lake, Iowa, the reason might be clear: Few believe they have heard an immigration proposal that actually satisfies them, as the New York Times writes. The issue only motivates voters to pick new candidates in a GOP primary, as the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza wrote this week. Yet in another sign yesterday's debate meant little, the moderator actively dissuaded candidates from discussing the issue, saying Iowa voters were familiar with their positions.

-- Back to the trail. Rumors of an impending shake-up in Camp Clinton continue to buzz, and Newsday has the sights set squarely on top pollster Mark Penn. The story has been running for three days now, and it's becoming more specific, despite the candidate's denials of any problems within the campaign. Aides, too, say a change is unlikely, and that Penn still has her ear. But he could be skating on thin ice. The best way to put the rumors behind you: Actually make a move that means something.

-- Bad News Of The Day: John DiStaso is to New Hampshire as David Yepsen is to Iowa. You don't mess with the dean of an important state's press corps. And when he says you have no firewall in New Hampshire, as your campaign has planned for, you sit up and pay attention. That's what Clinton's team is doing this morning, as DiStaso pens a look at Clinton's grand plan of halting an Obama surge in the Granite State and determines, simply, that it's not working. But, again, Bill Shaheen to the rescue, comparing Clinton to New Hampshire Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, who "was down by 25 percentage points with three weeks to go and no money." That would be the same Shea-Porter who just announced her endorsement of ... Obama.

-- Today On The Trail: Democrats debate in Johnston, Iowa, at 2 p.m. Eastern. Afterwards, Hillary Clinton rallies in Shenandoah, John Edwards has a community meeting in Indianola, Chris Dodd holds campaign events in Grinnell and Story City and Barack Obama starts a tour through Iowa in Dubuque and holds a town hall in Maquoketa. Joe Biden speaks to Polk County Democrats in Des Moines. On the GOP side, Ron Paul meets supporters in Fallon, Nevada. John McCain holds town hall meetings in Sioux City and Davenport (that's right, Iowa, not New Hampshire). And Mitt Romney holds events in Muscatine and Bettendorf, Iowa.

Thompson Misses Ballot

Delaware brings fewer delegates than other February 5 states, putting it lower on the priority list than New York, California, Texas and others. Still, one of the first tasks of any presidential campaign is to determine ballot access rules in order to actually make it to a convention. If anything goes wrong, it can be evidence of a serious organizational problem.

Fred Thompson, then, might find it helpful to take another look at his organization: Volunteers and staff collected just 281 signatures for the Delaware primary, First State Politics reports. That's short of the 500 signature bar he needed to reach to get on the ballot, and many are said to have been rejected because the signers were not registered Republicans. Meanwhile, every candidate other than Duncan Hunter, including Tom Tancredo, managed to scrounge up the signatures necessary to gain access to the ballot.

Thompson has effectively focused his entire campaign on Iowa, a state which, thanks to the caucuses, requires more organization than most. If his campaign can't manage 500 signatures in Delaware, Thompson could be in for a rude surprise on January 3.

Iowa Dems Clarify Caucus Rules

This morning, we mentioned that Iowa political guru David Yepsen is worried that, because of the influx of college students from out of state, the first presidential nominating contest of the year might more accurately be called the Illinois caucuses. Yepsen suggested that Barack Obama's campaign, which has been the most active on college campuses throughout the state, might be operating in an underhanded manner.

But, says Iowa Democratic Party chairman Scott Brennan, there's not much the state party can do about it. "In running the First in the Nation Caucuses, the Iowa Democratic Party follows the Iowa Code in determining the eligibility of potential caucus goers. According to the Iowa Code, all college students who are at least 18 years old are eligible to vote and, therefore, eligible to caucus," Brennan said in a statement.

Still, any college student wishing to participate must be a registered Democrat, which can be done on caucus night, in the precinct where they attend a caucus. That limits the range and effectiveness of a huge boost among college students. The state Democratic Party allocates delegates to precincts based on previous years' Democratic performance. Therefore, boosted turnout at one precinct would only help Obama -- or any other candidate -- win delegates at that precinct.

It is possible, for example, for 500 caucus attendees to fight over 10 delegates at the precinct nearest to the University of Iowa, while down the road 100 caucus attendees could have to allocate 10 delegates as well. So while 50 supporters of Hillary Clinton would fail to meet Democrats' 15% threshold at the larger caucus, those same 50 supporters would win half the delegates and the smaller caucus.

Once results roll in, look for some precincts that vote overwhelmingly for Obama to be centered around college campuses. In precincts farther out, though, the playing field will be level.

Saxby's Smooth Sailing

A new Strategic Vision poll out this morning shows what looks like an easy ride for freshman Sen. Saxby Chambliss. The Georgia Republican crushes all comers in a state that is fast becoming the reddest in America.

The poll, conducted 12/7-9, surveyed 800 likely Georgia voters for a margin of error of +/- 3%. Along with Chambliss, DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones, businessman Rand Knight, reporter Dale Cardwell and businessman Josh Lanier, all Democrats, were surveyed.

General Election Matchups
Chambliss 57 (nc from last, 10/21)
Jones 27 (-1)

Chambliss 57 (-1)
Cardwell 25 (-1)

Chambliss 58 (nc)
Knight 23 (-2)

Chambliss 58 (nc)
Lanier 22 (-2)

In the three years they have served together, Chambliss has always been slightly less popular than seatmate and fellow Republican Johnny Isakson. Still, Georgia voters approve of his job performance by a 53% to 34% margin, healthy for any incumbent seeking re-election. Isakson enjoys a 58% job approval margin, while 33% disapprove.

Even in this bastion of Republicanism, though, President Bush does not fare well. Just 39% approve of his overall job performance, while 45% disapprove. The same percentage approve and disapprove of his handling of the war in Iraq, though a plurality of 46% say they do not favor a withdrawal of troops within six months. Perhaps most telling of Republicans' feelings toward Bush: Strategic Vision always asks Republican respondents whether they see Bush as a conservative in the mode of Ronald Reagan. In Georgia, just 7% said yes, while 79% said no.

While Chambliss looks like he's in solid position, Bush's own standing among his base doesn't appear too good. That GOP malaise won't have a decisive impact on Chambliss, but it could be felt in other, closer states.

Morning Thoughts: Grand Old Sign Of Relief

Good morning, it's Wednesday. Only twenty two more shopping days until the Iowa Caucuses. Here's what Washington is watching today:

-- The House this morning takes up the Alternative Minimum Tax before tackling terrorism insurance and two appropriations bill conference reports. The AMT fix heads to the floor without a Medicare package that was anticipated, primarily because House Democrats have yet to agree on what it should contain while Senate Democrats have warned that anything but a small version will not win Senate approval. The Senate continues trudging through farm bill amendments.

-- Republicans avoided a potentially embarrassing storyline yesterday, handily winning special elections in Ohio and Virginia. In Ohio, despite an onslaught of DCCC ads attacking State Rep. Bob Latta for his ties to disgraced former Gov. Bob Taft and the coin collector who got him in trouble, Latta had no trouble easing by Democrat Robin Weirauch, 56%-44%. In Virginia, Republican Delegate Rob Wittman handily beat Iraq war veteran Philip Forgit, whose profile had looked promising. But the DCCC never jumped into the race with both feet, and Wittman prevailed, 63%-35%.

-- The two races seriously cost Republicans. The NRCC put around $440,000 into Ohio 05 and $80,000 into Virginia 01. $520,000 is a lot of money for the NRCC, which had only $2.5 million in the bank by the end of October. Still, by spending 20% of its money on two easy wins and making sure they were easy wins, Republicans probably earned more than they spent. If either seat had fallen into Democratic hands, donors would have flocked elsewhere, as far away from what would have been a sinking ship as possible. By preserving the seats, Republicans helped themselves in the long run.

-- The final two debates before the Iowa caucuses take place in Des Moines over the next two days, and what Iowan won't be watching television at 1 p.m. local time? That's right, the Republican debate can be seen today on CNN at 2 p.m. Eastern. Great for ratings. Here's what to watch on stage: Mitt Romney going after Mike Huckabee on immigration. Fred Thompson going after Huckabee on immigration. Rudy Giuliani going after Romney on immigration. John McCain going after Romney just because he's used to it. Ron Paul going after everybody. Romney touting an endorsement from the National Review. Huckabee touting an endorsement from Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist. Thompson touting an endorsement from conservative icon Morton Blackwell. Giuliani touting the fact that he still leads in polls (this week). McCain, in Iowa, talking about how much he loves New Hampshire. And making it even more entertaining, Alan Keyes will be onstage.

-- The debates are likely to have what the Des Moines Register calls "seismic impact." It's the tenth time Republicans have met this year, and the 16th for Democrats, marking the conclusion of what has been a remarkable pre-primary year. If the GOP debate is going to be good, tomorrow's Democratic mix-up should be a pay-per-view event, as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards mix it up. We'll offer a fuller preview later. Suffice it to say, a Clinton deputy campaign manager with ties to the Chicago area sent an email to a friend there asking for dirt on Obama during his days as a community organizer on the South Side. Did he find anything? We'll know tomorrow.

-- One thing Mitt Romney doesn't need is a headache in New Hampshire to go along with his Iowa migraine. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to get along well with former governors of his home state. While he brought predecessor William Weld to New Hampshire with him last week, other campaigns have used former Massachusetts governors as their favorite surrogates for attacking the Gov. First, Paul Cellucci, former governor and U.S. ambassador, joined Rudy Giuliani's team. Now, Jane Swift, Romney's immediate predecessor, is backing John McCain and penned an op-ed in the New Hampshire Union Leader labeling Romney a flip-flopper. Swift, acting governor after Cellucci resigned to serve as ambassador, was pushed out of the governor's race by Romney's entrance in 2002. Now she's back, campaigning today for McCain in stops in New Hampshire. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and New Hampshire is mighty cold right now.

-- For Hillary Clinton, what more could she want right now? How about reminding voters that she voted for the war in Iraq and has yet to denounce her vote? That's part of the picture Examiner White House correspondent Bill Sammon paints in a new book taking a look at top presidential contenders, excerpts of which will be published all week. In many ways, Sammon concludes, Clinton sounded a lot like President Bush. Imagine that passage, highlighted and circled, showing up in mailboxes around Iowa.

-- David Yepsen, dean of the Iowa press corps, spent a second column yesterday warning campaigns against trucking in supporters from outside the state, and singling out one candidate in particular: "Maybe we should call these the Illinois caucuses," he ledes. Yepsen goes as far as to insinuate that Obama's approach might constitute fraud. Not a great column to have written about your campaign from the most widely-read columnist in the state just three weeks before they vote. Still, making sure college students are freezing their rear ends off in Iowa City and Ames rather than at home in Chicago could pay off for Obama. The question is, will those students do more than just overwhelm a few precincts? Chris Bowers, by the way, will head to Iowa to give Yepsen a piece of his mind and a vote in his caucus.

-- Big Spender Of The Day: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has spent $16,000 on flowers since January, The Hill reports today. Records out recently show Pelosi has spent more than $3 million so far this year, more by far than former Speaker Dennis Hastert's $1.6 million in spending for the same period last year. Critics will say the Speaker is spending too much money. Supporters will argue that Pelosi is trying to re-establish the office of the Speaker as a counterbalance to the president: The flowers, a spokeswoman said, were purchased for visits by foreign dignitaries including Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, French President Sarkozy and King Abdullah of Jordan.

-- Today On The Trail: After Republicans meet in Johnston for the Des Moines Register/Iowa Public Television debate, Romney heads to a house party in Johnston and a Christmas party in Marion. McCain will hold events in Urbandale, Des Moines and Waukee, Giuliani meets supporters in West Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, and Huckabee has a health care policy discussion at Des Moines University. Ron Paul will give a speech at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, and the rest of Thompson's day consists of dropping by a debate watch party in Johnston. Light day on the Democratic side: Bill Richardson is in Sioux City, Storm Lake and Fort Dodge; Chris Dodd attends community forums in Vinton and Mason City, and John Edwards has events planned for Iowa City, Grinnell and Des Moines.

GOP Wins Both Specials

Two special elections held today, both in strong Republican districts, stuck to their party registration tonight, as both Virginia 01 and Ohio 05 elected new GOP members of Congress.

With all but one precinct reporting, State Rep. Rob Wittman has won the special election for the 1st District of Virginia 61%-37% over Democrat Philip Forgit, replacing the late Rep. Jo Ann Davis who died in October.

In Northwest Ohio, the race to replace the late Rep. Paul Gillmor caused Republicans some heartache. The party spent more than $425,000 to retain the seat, though State Rep. Bob Latta retained the seat for Republicans. Latta won 57% to Democrat Robin Wierach's 43%.

Though Democrats seemed optimistic about opportunities presented by Wittman and Latta's seats, Republicans held their own. The party swatted away Democratic hopes of stealing a seat; had Democrats succeeded, they would have perpetuated the storyline that Republicans were in a disastrous environment.

-- Kyle Trygstad and Reid Wilson

Afternoon Quick Hits

Sen. Mary Landrieu could be in trouble next year, a recent poll conducted for her opponent suggested. But if Democrat-turned-Republican State Treasurer John Kennedy makes it through the primary and beats the two-term incumbent, at least Landrieu could have a soft landing, as CQPolitics suggests today.

Landrieu, whose home was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, might be out of a job just as a vacancy at the Department of Homeland Security opens up. Landrieu has worked with government agencies to get disaster relief for her state, and her experience as chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Disaster Recovery Subcommittee would give her a nice platform from which to jump to the DHS job.

Other candidates CQ floats for the spot (never too early to play the guessing game): James Lee Witt, Bill Clinton's FEMA director, Govs. Janet Napolitano, thanks to her border security experience, and Kathleen Sebelius, who won kudos for her response to a deadly tornado. Former New York City Police Commissioners Bill Bratton and Ray Kelly, retired General Wes Clark and Reps. Bennie Thompson, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Jane Harman, who has long served on the House Intelligence Committee, are also mentioned.

In other Senate news, the Oregon AFL-CIO is meeting today and may make an endorsement in that state's Senate race. State House Speaker Jeff Merkley looks like the favorite for the nod -- he's already won backing from AFSCME -- and though he faces a primary against Portland Democratic activist Steve Novick, Merkley presided over a legislative session that delivered for labor, the Oregonian reported.

The nod, though, is a blow to the candidate Merkley and Novick are aiming to knock off. In 2002, the state's AFL-CIO stayed neutral in the contest between Smith and then-Secretary of State Bill Bradbury. It's not all bad news for Smith, though: The International Association of Fire Fighters is sticking with the incumbent. Merkley needs two-thirds of the union's political council to support him in order to get an endorsement.

A recent poll taken for the Portland Oregonian and KGW, out over the weekend, shows that while Merkley or Novick might start out behind Smith in name recognition, they don't have far to go. Just 60% of Oregonians knew enough about Smith to rate him -- he scored well, with 40% viewing him favorably and 20% unfavorably. Smith's seat-mate, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, is slightly more popular, at 45% to 19%.

Merkley's state legislature is viewed favorably by just 33% of respondents, while 30% see the body in an unfavorable light.

Previewing Virginia 01

As voters head to the polls in this vast Virginia district, Republican State Rep. Rob Wittman and Iraq war veteran and teacher Phil Forgit, a Democrat, will be hoping things go their way. The odds here are that Wittman takes this heavily Republican district. But we'll take a look at the scenarios that need to happen for either candidate to win.

To understand the diversity of this district, take a look at this excerpt from a Newport News Daily Press editorial:

va1.gif"Gerrymandered beyond reason, the 1st District stretches from this industrial waterfront through Williamsburg, the Middle Peninsula and the Northern Neck, into the outer Washington suburbs north of Fredericksburg. What community of interest binds the urban-suburban southern end with the rural northern end is a mystery left behind when the state legislature drew this map."

The district lies along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, running about 150 miles from north to south. Much of Newport News, a city of some 180,000 people, is included in the southern tip of the district. This is where much of the population resides, with NASA and large military and Defense Department operations the major employers.

For Forgit to win: In districts as large as this, elections can turn into territorial battles (see the July 2007 special election in GA-10 that turned into Augusta vs. Athens). If this were to happen, Forgit's chances would greatly improve. Forgit and Wittman, come from opposite ends of the district. Forgit lives in Williamsburg, about 30 miles northwest of Newport News. Wittman lives in Westmoreland County in the Northern Neck, a rural area without much in common with Newport News. As an Iraq war veteran and Bronze Star recipient, many voters in the military-heavy district can relate to Forgit's resume.

For Wittman to win: The district leans heavily Republican, giving President Bush 60% in 2004 and the late Congresswoman Jo Ann Davis 63% in 2006. If Wittman's get-out-the-vote efforts worked, Republicans will head to the polls today in large numbers and select the only candidate with two decades worth of elected office experience. Wittman was promised a seat on the House Armed Services Committee by House Minority Leader John Boehner, something Democrats were unable to do for Forgit.

Polls close at 7 p.m.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Plenty Of News From CNN Poll

Plenty of headlines available from this morning's CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll [pdf]. Whether it's John Edwards polling better against Republicans than any other Democrat, or John McCain polling better against Democrats than any other Republican, several campaigns will be sending this survey around to its big donors.

There are some negatives, though: Edwards and Barack Obama will make the argument, again, that they are more electable than Clinton. Every Republican will point out that they are more electable than Mike Huckabee. And any GOP campaign could point out that one rival, Fred Thompson, has fallen so far, so fast that he is not even included in the questions.

The poll, conducted 12/6-9 surveyed 912 registered voters for a margin of error of +/- 3%.

General Election Matchups
Clinton 51 (nc)
Giuliani 45 (nc)

Clinton 54
Romney 43

McCain 50 (+3 from last, 6/24)
Clinton 48 (-1)

Clinton 54
Huckabee 44

Obama 52 (+7 from last, 9/9)
Giuliani 45 (-4)

Obama 54
Romney 41

Obama 48 (nc from last, 6/24)
McCain 48 (+4)

Obama 55
Huckabee 40

Edwards 53
Giuliani 44

Edwards 59
Romney 37

Edwards 52
McCain 44

Edwards 60
Huckabee 35

Morning Thoughts: Omnibusted

Good Tuesday morning. Atlanta Falcons fans had a bad day yesterday, with Mike Vick going to jail for twenty-three months and Drew Brees making their secondary look foolish. Somewhere, Jim Mora Jr. is secretly relieved. Here's what Washington is looking out for today:

-- The Senate is back to the farm bill today, and aside from weekly party lunches, they're debating and considering amendments all day. The first roll call votes will take place around 4 p.m. The House begins consideration of the State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill, H.R. 2764. Remember that number: The House will use that bill as the omnibus spending measure to get things done before Christmas. Other bills considered under suspension today include an expansion of the Do Not Call Registry and its extension. The Senate Intelligence Committee begins an investigation of the destroyed CIA interrogation tapes today as Attorney General Mike Mukasey briefs the committee. Expect more than just a briefing from other big players as the House gets involved as well.

-- Whether the House votes on the massive half a trillion dollar omnibus bill today is unclear, as House Appropriations Chairman David Obey last night declined to file the bill. Obey said he is looking to cut funding to the president's requested domestic levels if it means ending any link between domestic spending and the war in Iraq. Democrats had offered the White House billions of dollars for the war, without strings attached, if Bush would sign a bill increasing domestic spending by a fraction of that total. "I'm not in the business of trying to pave the way for $70 billion or $90 billion for Iraq for $10 billion in table scraps," Obey told Washington Wire. The deal had been first floated by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who is said to have made Obey and Speaker Nancy Pelosi livid with his remarks.

-- It's Election Day in Virginia 01 and Ohio 05. It is unlikely that Democrats will come close to beating Republican Rob Wittman in Virginia, to replace the late Rep. Jo Ann Davis. But in Ohio, State Rep. Bob Latta faces an uncomfortably close race for re-election. In fact, a poll conducted for the Latta campaign showed him trailing two-time Democratic nominee Robin Weirauch, Politico's Josh Kraushaar reports. The NRCC has spent more than $425,000 on the race, a huge percentage of their bank account. Still, it's a good investment: If Republicans lose the seat, which President Bush carried by twenty points both times he ran, the Republicans in trouble storyline will continue unabated into next year, depressing fundraising even further. Stu Rothenberg notes that today's race could be the nadir of Ohio Republicans' recent troubles, and that polls don't mean much because of the low turnout in special elections. Today's weather: 34 degrees and raining at 7 a.m. local, heading up to 39 degrees and raining all day.

-- We've already seen new third party ads taking on a number of candidates. The Boston Globe reports we're not done yet. The Club for Growth, long an arch-enemy of Mike Huckabee, is up with another spot in Iowa -- and a $175,000 media buy to air it. Hillary Clinton has been hit for her abortion positions, Mitt Romney on flip flopping. One can only imagine the mailings prepared for South Carolinians detailing Rudy Giuliani's many flaws. And, the Globe reports, it's easier than ever to start a PAC or a 527 and go after candidates running for President. Why the sudden proliferation of outside groups? Thanks to John Kerry's weak reaction to Swift Boat Veterans in 2004, which helped sink his '04 bid.

-- The opposition research game that outside groups play is not theirs alone. Campaigns have research divisions for a reason, and Barack Obama's is not engaged only in finding nice, positive things to say about people. Instead, Obama is circulating a flier in Iowa attacking John Edwards with what Jake Tapper sees as some below-the-belt shots. The campaign says the piece is in response to a local union asking for differences between the two, but as it tries to connect Edwards to closing Maytag plants in Iowa, Illinois and Arkansas, Obama's people, Tapper said, should remember than their candidate is probably more closely linked to (but still not responsible for) the closings.

-- The shot proves once again that John Edwards should not be overlooked in Iowa. In fact, a new CNN/Opinion Research poll out this morning shows that Edwards' whole electability argument is actually accurate: Edwards does better than every other Democrat against every leading Republican. On the GOP side, once again it's John McCain who does better than any fellow Republican when matched up against top Democrats, beating Clinton by two, pulling even with Obama and losing to Edwards by the slimmest margin. Lastly, Mike Huckabee, who despite being in the top tier still has low name recognition nationwide, trails Democrats by more than any other Republican, down 10 point to Clinton, 15 to Obama and 25 to Edwards.

-- Still, Huckabee's support is growing, as NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports. A fundraiser planned for Dallas yesterday had to be moved twice to accommodate a huge crowd. The campaign, which now trails Rudy Giuliani by a few points in national polls, has spent next to nothing -- just $750,000, O'Donnell reports. But they're ramping up the organization, adding to their 45 staffers nationally with organizers in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Even Huckabee's offices are getting bigger: Someone took out a few walls in the Gov's downtown Des Moines office space, making it three times bigger to handle the influx.

-- Celebrity Endorsement Of The Day: Forget Oprah Winfrey. Barack Obama has the backing of Kal Penn, the co-star of "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle," one of the strangest but funniest movies Politics Nation has ever seen, The Swamp reports.. With Penn's obviously huge endorsement, Oprah must feel terrible that she didn't get in with Obama sooner. OnCall has a compilation of celebrity endorsements, somehow leaving Penn off Obama's list. Looking at the Democrats, at least, the list is pretty self-evident: Obama's got the cool kids (Winfrey, Clooney, Jessica Biel, Will Smith, Zach Braff). Clinton's got the establishment (Tony Bennett, Barbara Streisand, Spielberg, Quincy Jones, Carole King). Edwards has the middle America types (Jackson Browne, John Mellencamp, Bonnie Raitt). And Richardson has, somehow, Lee Iacocoa and the New Mexico-native Unser family.

-- Today On The Trail: Mike Huckabee is in Council Bluffs, Red Oak, Creston and Osceola, Iowa, before finishing his day in Des Moines. Rudy Giuliani meet supporters in California, while Mitt Romney meets locals in Des Moines. John McCain is in Inman, Greenville and Spartanburg, South Carolina, while Ron Paul gives speeches in Sioux Center and Sioux City and attends a rally in Council Bluffs. On the Democratic side, John Edwards holds town hall meetings in Clinton and Muscatine, then holds an event with the United Steelworkers in Davenport. Hillary Clinton has a big fundraiser with Warren Buffett and Barack Obama has a giant fundraiser in south Seattle.

Young, Stevens In Trouble

DailyKos is out with another Research 2000 poll today, and the results are not good for Republicans in the great snowy north. R2K tested embattled Republican Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young alongside Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich and former House Democratic leader Ethan Berkowitz. Berkowitz has already announced his campaign against Young, while Begich continues to mull a bid against Stevens.

The poll, conducted 12/3-6, surveyed 600 likely voters for a margin of error of +/- 4%. The sample reflects the heavily Republican tilt of the state: 33% of those responding were Republicans, compared with just 19% of Democrats. The remaining 48% called themselves independent or identified with another political party.

General Election Matchups
(All / Men / Wom / Dem / GOP / Ind)
Begich 47 / 43 / 51 / 81 / 7 / 55
Stevens 41 / 46 / 36 / 7 / 81 / 35

Berkowitz 49 / 46 / 52 / 83 / 18 / 57
Young 42 / 46 / 38 / 8 / 72 / 35

There's a reason Berkowitz and Begich are out-pacing Young and Stevens: Alaska voters simply don't see the two incumbents in a very favorable light:

Fav/Unfav
Begich 48 / 19
Berkowitz 45 / 18
Young 40 / 54
Stevens 39 / 58

The numbers are pretty incredible: Independents choose both challengers by wide margins, though the state's Republican Party still maintains an incredible size advantage. But there is no guarantee that Young or Stevens will make another bid, or even be the GOP nominee come next year. Facing scandals, Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski looked to present Democrats with a great pick-up opportunity in 2006. That is, until Alaska Republicans did not renominate him, instead choosing Sarah Palin in his place.

Palin went on to win the general election over former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, who until Murkowski got routed was the favorite to win the seat. If Republicans choose other candidates over Stevens and Young, they are likely to be rewarded. Barring a new candidate, Democrats have the best chance they've seen in Alaska for more than a generation.

Obama Scores Big In NH

Barack Obama, who already enjoys the support of freshman Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes of New Hampshire, got the sweep today as the New Hampshire Union Leader reports. The Granite State's other Democratic member of Congress, Carol Shea-Porter, will back Obama as well. Shea-Porter, whose district includes Democratic vote-rich Manchester, can speed Obama's growing momentum among women.

Hillary Clinton has enjoyed big leads in New Hampshire, by as much as 20 points in the RCP New Hampshire Average. Now, though, her lead has shrunk to just 8 points, and a Mason-Dixon poll out over the weekend showed her leading by just 3.

After a huge rally with Oprah Winfrey this weekend, the New Hampshire momentum seems to be on Obama's side. Will Shea-Porter be the straw that breaks the Clinton camel's back?

Is Cornyn In Trouble?

After filing for the Senate last week, Texas Democrat Rick Noriega, a state representative, commissioned a Lake Research poll of 500 likely Texas voters, as the Houston Chronicle reports. The results weren't spectacular for Noriega, but certainly offered a glimmer of a chance against Cornyn, running for his first reelection to the Senate since winning the open seat in 2002 with 55% against a strong candidate -- former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk.

Of those polled, 41% disapproved of the job Cornyn has done in the Senate, while 31% said they would definitely vote for him next November and 53% said they would consider someone else. If nothing else, this encouraging poll should help Noriega's fundraising abilities by dispelling potential donors' worries that Cornyn is unbeatable.

In Cornyn's favor is the fact that the two top Republicans in the state were just reelected statewide in 2006, a favorable year for Democrats around the country. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison won reelection in 2006 with 62% of the vote, a strong win for an incumbent, though it was against an underfunded candidate who lacked enough money to compete statewide. Republican Gov. Rick Perry was also reelected in 2006, though he won just 39% of the vote in a four-candidate contest. Democrat Chris Bell took 30%, while two independent candidates combined to take 30% as well.

Though he has less than a month left before his first FEC filing deadline, his fundraising total on the 1st of January will be the first sign of how strong a candidate he will be. As of today, his only competition for the Democratic nomination is high school teacher Ray McMurrey, of Corpus Christi.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Updating The Exchange

We're updating our Senate race rankings today, which we have failed to do since late September. If you take one lesson from the list, it's that Democrats are in even better position than they were a few months ago: More seats are open, more pickups are possible and the party is still outraising its Republican counterparts.

Still, watch the middle tier races: Sens. Norm Coleman (R-MN), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) are in trouble, but they seem with each passing day to be getting safer. All three are bucking Republican leadership at times, and while Democrats have good candidates against each, the difference between a bad year for the GOP and a terrible year will be the difference between these three surviving or failing.

Races we considered for the number 10 spot: Kentucky, where Democrats are hungry for the potential to knock off Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell has a lot of money, though, and in a presidential year, as Kentucky goes for the GOP nominee, it's hard to imagine any but the best candidate (Rep. Ben Chandler?) having so much as a snowball's chance of beating McConnell. Polls show Chandler and State Auditor Crit Luallen performing well against the incumbent, but both have said they won't run. South Dakota, where Sen. Tim Johnson is still recovering from a stroke, should be a good opportunity for Republicans. So far, though, they have only managed to recruit a State Representative who reported just $37,000 in the bank at the end of the third quarter, nowhere close to Johnson's $2 million account. Because of his health troubles, Johnson had been a retirement threat. But he announced his re-election bid in mid-October, and with an underfunded challenger, he will likely sail to another six year term in 2008.

(Correction: We wrote that State Representative Joel Dykstra had raised $37,000 in the third quarter. In fact, he raised $82,000 in the third quarter and retained $37,000 cash on hand. We regret the error and any resulting confusion.

Races we dropped from the Exchange: South Dakota, Nebraska.

Races we added to the Exchange: New Mexico, Mississippi

As always, agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts. And don't forget to head over to RCP's Fantasy '08 to trade contracts based on your own rankings.


10. Mississippi (R-Open): Resigning Sen. Trent Lott is leaving big shoes to fill, and Republicans might actually have some trouble filling them. As Gov. Haley Barbour looks around for a Republican to hold the seat, Rep. Roger Wicker is seen as the front-runner. Wicker has plenty of cash on hand, giving him a lead over any potential Democratic opponent. Democrats are working on former Attorney General Mike Moore and former Gov. Ronny Musgrove, both of whom would be top picks to steal the seat. But any Democrat will find it difficult, if not impossible, to win in this most ruby red of states. If someone like Hillary Clinton is at the top of the ticket, subtract five more points from the eventual Democratic nominee. (Last: Not ranked)

9. Alaska (R-Stevens): If your home is raided by the FBI, guilty or not, it's probably time to call it a career. Indeed, if Ted Stevens is actually the GOP nominee, this race will move higher up on Democrats' priority list. The DSCC is doing all it can to recruit Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. Other Republicans are said to be interested in a run for the seat, whether or not Stevens makes a bid. If Stevens is no longer in office, the state will have lost both its long-time Senators since 2002, while Rep. Don Young is tied up in the same scandal involving VECO Corp. Without Young, the state's position in Congress will be significantly impacted. In fact, should Stevens and Young run for re-election, that's likely to be a central tenant of their campaign. But will voters want seniority or new elected officials, like Gov. Sarah Palin, who aren't viewed as corrupt? (Last: 10)

8. Maine (R-Collins): Susan Collins was supposed to be this year's Lincoln Chafee: Popular and moderate, but a Republican in a very blue state. Democrats got their best possible candidate in Rep. Tom Allen, but polls in October have showed Collins holding consistently huge leads of twenty points or so. The race is going to tighten, and Allen is going to have the money to compete. But to the NRSC's relief, Collins is in great position a little less than a year out. Watch her rely heavily on her friend and colleague, independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, if the race narrows. (Last: 6)

7. Minnesota (R-Coleman): Comedian Al Franken and wealthy attorney Mike Ciresi both say they will abide by the results of a convention among Minnesota Democrats. But several times over the last few years, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has faced nasty fights in post-convention primaries as candidates fail to live up to their promises. If Franken and Ciresi duke it out in a primary, Franken is likely to win but come away severely wounded. In a general, many will say that Franken is simply too goofy to be a Senator. But he's acting serious, and Minnesota is the same state that elected Jesse Ventura as governor. Incumbent Republican Norm Coleman, to his credit, is apparently taking the threat seriously. One thing to watch: The Democratic convention in Denver will likely help Mark Udall (see number 5, below). With a badly damaged GOP brand, will the Republican convention being held in Minneapolis be a good thing or a bad thing for Coleman? The answer might determine whether he gets re-elected. (Last: 8)

6. Oregon (R-Smith): Democrats are coalescing around House Speaker Jeff Merkley, though he still faces attorney Steve Novick in a primary. Merkley, who has his sights set on incumbent Gordon Smith, faces an uphill battle: Smith is doing all he can to inoculate himself from charges that he might, in fact, be a Republican. Smith has turned against the war in Iraq, recently voted for cloture on the farm bill, something 45 Republicans voted against, and makes his opposition to the Bush Administration known at every turn. But he is a Republican in a blue state during a presidential year. Merkley will need some national help if he is to compete with Smith on a financial level, but this year, that is not impossible. (Last: 5)

5. Colorado (R-Open): Rep. Mark Udall is hoping to build on a Democratic foundation that has overtaken this increasingly purple state in recent years. Democrats now control the state legislature, the majority of the Congressional delegation and the governor's mansion, and Udall hopes to take back a second Senate seat from retiring Sen. Wayne Allard. Republicans recruited previous Senate candidate and former Rep. Bob Schaffer, and while he's not the party's perfect candidate, he spent the summer raising good money and, to the surprise of many, was within one point of Udall in a mid-September poll. Still, with the Colorado landscape favoring Democrats so much, Udall remains the favorite. This is a district where the DSCC's huge money advantage over the NRSC could come into serious play. (Last: 3)

4. Louisiana (D-Landrieu): Down on the Bayou, incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu is undeniably in trouble. A Zogby poll taken for the two-term senator's challenger, Republican State Treasurer John Kennedy, a former Democrat, shows Kennedy up by seven points. That's not a huge margin for an internal poll, but any survey that shows an incumbent trailing a challenger is significant news. Landrieu had more than $3.4 million cash on hand after the third quarter, while Kennedy hadn't begun raising money. Still, the Democrat who lost several hundred thousand members of her base remains the Republicans' best target for a pickup. (Last: 4)

3. New Hampshire (R-Sununu): A poll in early October showed the rematch between Republican Sen. John Sununu and former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen overwhelmingly favoring Shaheen, the Democrat. Shaheen faces no primary and will benefit from her organization, which has stayed largely intact since her departure from the governor's mansion. Gov. John Lynch, a close ally, has kept that organization in good practice, winning with a higher percentage of votes than any governor in the state's history in 2006. Lynch is unlikely to get a strong challenger in 2008, and after the Democratic wave that swept the state last year, Shaheen remains a favorite to take the seat back for Democrats. (Last: 1)

2. New Mexico (R-Open): If Republicans can get bad news about New Mexico, bet that they will. When Sen. Pete Domenici announced his retirement, moderate Albuquerque Rep. Heather Wilson looked like a great candidate to retain the seat for the GOP. Then, dominoes started falling: Conservative Rep. Steve Pearce joined Wilson in the GOP primary. Rep. Tom Udall, a popular Democrat who will be well-funded, reconsidered his earlier decision not to run and jumped into the race, giving the party their strongest candidate to take the seat. But Udall's path wasn't entirely clear: He faced Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez in the primary. Until, that is, Chavez dropped his bid, giving Udall a clear shot. News can't get any worse for Republicans in New Mexico. But if it can, it probably will. (Last: Not ranked)

1. Virginia (R-Open): Mark Warner seems headed straight for the Senate, even if he faces another former governor in the general election. Polls repeatedly show Warner beating Jim Gilmore by twenty points or more, and there's a simple reason: Gilmore was elected when Virginia was a Republican state. Warner helped nudge the state to purple status, where it currently resides. After Gilmore forced Northern Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, a moderate, out of the race, Virginia Republicans will struggle to appeal even to GOP-leaning independents. The party can all but kiss the Senate seat goodbye. (Last: 2)

Morning Thoughts: O, O, It's Magic

Good Monday morning. The Seahawks, Cowboys and Packers are going to the playoffs, and the Patriots covered a spread for the first time in three weeks. This year in the NFL seems so much more normal than the year in college football. Here's what Washington is chatting about this morning:

-- The Senate meets to continue debating the farm bill, though no votes will be taken today. The House meets in pro forma session as legislators begin to craft an omnibus spending bill. President Bush holds a Hanukkah reception tonight, while acting Agriculture Secretary Conner, Commerce Secretary Gutierrez, Health and Human Services Secretary Leavitt and Treasury Secretary Paulson are all participating in the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue in Beijing. Al Gore is in Oslo, Norway this morning where he is accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.

-- Democrats Tuesday will offer a $500 billion package of funding for the war in Iraq as well as domestic spending measures. House Republican leader John Boehner criticized the majority for holding war funding hostage on CNN's Late Edition, though he may have little choice but to go along: In exchange for domestic funding at levels of approximately $11 billion more than the president requested, Democrats will give the White House $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At some point, will the Democratic base get irritated that their new majority is still funding the war?

-- There's no denying it, Oprah Winfrey is officially a force in modern politics. In front of four huge crowds -- 18,500 in Des Moines, 8,500 in Manchester, 29,000 in Columbia and 10,000 in Cedar Rapids -- the mega-star pushed Barack Obama harder than any product she's ever backed. The size of her effect on the race will be evident when the next round of polls come out, but one Obama adviser, asked by Marc Ambinder to compare Winfrey to Hillary Clinton's use of Chelsea Clinton this weekend, probably made an appropriate comparison: "It's kind of like bringing a knife to a bazooka fight."

-- Rudy Giuliani faced a grilling on Meet The Press yesterday, but he seemed to get away largely intact. But how long until a journalist actually presses Giuliani on some of the questions he scooted away from yesterday? Whether it's his ongoing relationship with Giuliani Partners and some of its more questionable clients or his decision to provide security for then-girlfriend Judith Nathan, Giuliani did nothing to quell the queries he is sure to get during the rest of the campaign. Giuliani, though, can take solace in one thing: Mitt Romney is Russert's guest next week, as the LA Times points out.

-- And Republicans debated last night in Coral Gables, Florida, for the benefit of Univision. Addressing Hispanic voters in a partially Spanish-language debate, seven Republican candidates took a gentler tone on immigration, still promising to end illegal immigration while praising the immigrant spirit, as the New York Times writes. They took a softer tone with each other, as well: Candidates barely laid a glove on their rivals, as Jonathan Martin reports. Participating in the forum looked to be important for Republicans, who have seen their performance among Hispanic voters slip in successive elections. Still, the eventual GOP nominee will have more work to do before November, as Hispanics favor Democrats by a nearly two to one margin.

-- Likely to make a splash this week: The New Hampshire Union Leader reported Friday that state investigators are close to announcing something in the criminal probe of robo-calls that blasted Mitt Romney and boosted John McCain a few weeks ago. The culprit is likely an outside group loosely tied to one of the candidates, and whomever is implicated will have a difficult time in the next few weeks: Several top political reporters in the state are virtually campaign out near the Attorney General's office waiting for word to break, and any association with a push poll could bring a candidate down in actual polls.

-- Good news, by association, for Hillary Clinton: When women govern, they remain highly popular. A new survey out from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which seeks to elect more women to office, shows voters are more likely to see male governors as too partisan, while independent voters prefer female candidates. Can Team Clinton convert that into votes for president? After 2006, eleven women now serve as governors, the most in history. That number, though, will drop to ten when Louisiana Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal takes over for outgoing Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

-- Missing Persons Of The Day: What do the GOP front-runners all have in common? They've all spent long stretches of the two months before the Iowa caucuses away from the state. It took Mike Huckabee nearly a month to show up, which he did on December 3. Mitt Romney wasn't around for ten days (hardly a long stretch, but long for Romney). And Rudy Giuliani hasn't been seen since November 8, as the Chicago Tribune reports. Sure, they all have good reasons -- Huckabee capitalizing on his new support to raise much-needed cash, Romney focusing some efforts on New Hampshire, also an important state to his campaign, and Giuliani focusing on other states as he practically bypasses the early contests. Still, it says something about the GOP race: The calendar is getting longer, not shorter.

-- Today On The Trail: Obama is in Las Vegas before heading to Universal City, California. John Edwards begins a statewide bus tour in Des Moines, then holds a town hall meeting in Marshalltown. Joe Biden meets voters in Oelwein, Independence and Waterloo, Iowa, while Chris Dodd holds a town hall at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California and Bill Richardson gives a speech in Los Angeles. On the GOP side, Fred Thompson visits a museum in Miami, John McCain meets voters in North Augusta and holds events in Aiken and Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina and Rudy Giuliani meets voters in San Francisco.

Sunday Quick Hits

Good Sunday morning. Some news as we wait to watch Rudy Giuliani face his most dangerous foe: Tim Russert.

-- Democrats got good news in New Mexico on Friday when Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez announced he would not run for retiring Sen. Pete Domenici's seat, leaving Rep. Tom Udall unopposed by any major candidate for the nomination. Udall will face the winner of the Republican primary between Reps. Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce, and while polls have shown Udall leading both candidates, their cases won't be helped by a long and difficult primary in which they both tack right in order to win over GOP voters.

-- Just a few days before Ohio voters head to the polls to pick a replacement for the late Rep. Paul Gillmor, Democrats and Republicans are dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race. Republicans have $388,000 in television time reserved through Tuesday's election, while Democrats are firing back with $237,000 in air time, the Toledo Blade reports. Democrats are attacking Republican Bob Latta for voting to raise taxes thanks to the 2003 budget, while the NRCC is hitting Democrat Robin Weirauch for her positions on illegal immigration and the estate tax. The district is heavily Republican, as RCP's Kyle Trygstad wrote, but Democrats must think they have a real shot, given the amount of money they've dropped.

-- Longitme Louisiana Republican Rep. Jim McCrery will not run for re-election in 2008, Politico reports. McCrery was in line to chair the House Ways and Means Committee before Democrats retook the chamber in 2006. McCrery opens a solidly Republican seat that the GOP will likely retain. His retirement, though, opens the third seat on the powerful committee for 2008: Reps. Jim Ramstad and Jerry Weller have also announced they will step down as well.

-- In Minnesota, Democrats might have trouble getting a nominee out of a convention unscathed as they seek to bring down freshman Sen. Norm Coleman. The AP reports one AFSCME council, centered in large cities, is backing comedian Al Franken, while another, though smaller council focusing on county government employees is backing attorney Mike Ciresi. Both candidates have pledged to abide by the results of a Democratic convention, but in Minnesota candidates who lose the convention frequently force a later, expensive primary. If Ciresi, independently wealthy, and Franken, able to raise large sums of money, head to a one-on-one showdown, Democrats may pick a wounded nominee to take on Coleman.

-- As Auditor Crit Luallen officially bowed out of the race against Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, three other candidates are cropping up. Ryan Alessi, the Lexington Herald-Leader's indispensable political columnist, points to businessmen Charlie Owen and Greg Fischer and attorney and Iraq war veteran Andrew Horne as potential Democratic candidates. Owen ran for the seat in 1998, though he didn't make it out of the primary, and was the Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor in 2003. Horne ran for Congress in 2006, losing to now-Rep. John Yarmuth in the Democratic primary. Fischer has not run for office before, though he is likely to spend a significant amount of his own money on the bid.

-- Attack phone calls aren't exclusive to the presidential campaign. Rep. Mark Udall, a Democrat running for a Republican-held Senate seat in Colorado, found that out the hard way this week when Common Sense Issues, a group best known for aiding Mike Huckabee in Iowa, began running a new round of calls against him, the Rocky Mountain News reported yesterday. The group is also running television advertisements, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee says Common Sense Issues is coordinating with Republican Bob Schaffer's campaign and the Colorado GOP. Both Schaffer and Colorado GOP chair Dick Wadhams deny the charge.

Versace Out In IL-18

Dick Versace, a former NBA and Bradley University basketball coach, unexpectedly announced he will not run for retiring GOP Rep. Ray LaHood's Illinois District. Versace, the only Democrat in the race so far, now leaves the party without a candidate.

"Due to unforeseen personal circumstances, I am announcing my withdrawal as a Democratic candidate for the congressional seat in this district," said Versace, in a released statement. "I thank everyone for their support and encouragement in this race, and I ask that you please respect my privacy and that of my family as we face this difficult personal issue."

Versace would have faced a difficult run for the open seat, as President Bush won the district in 2004 with 58%. Three Republicans - state Rep. Aaron Schock, television executive John Morris and Heartland Partnership CEO Jim McConoughey - are competing in the Republican primary.

Still, Democrats had hope that Versace, with a bit of star power behind him, could have stolen the district in 2008. The party won several seats in 2006 that boasted bigger Republican advantages than the GOP enjoys in the 18th. National Republicans have to be relieved that a threat to one of their seats seems to have evaporated. "With three strong Republican challengers running for the nomination, we believe that we remain in a good position to retain the seat," NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said.

State parties can file a candidate if no one announces a bid before filing day, an Illinois Democratic Party spokesman said.

-- Kyle Trygstad and Reid Wilson

Plain Dealer Vs. Kucinich

Three months before Ohio's Congressional primaries take place, the Cleveland Plain Dealer has already made its endorsement in the 10th District Democratic race. It came just one day after news broke that the district's representative, long-shot Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, was planning to run for reelection. And for the second straight primary election, Kucinich was not the endorsee.

The paper endorsed Cleveland Councilman Joe Cimperman, though it remains to be seen if he can fare any better than Kucinich's 2006 opponent, Barbara Ferris, who took just 24% of the primary vote with the paper's endorsement. But unlike Ferris, Cimperman has been an elected official in Cleveland for a decade. Ferris and two others are also challenging Kucinch this year. But newspaper endorsements often come just before an election, so the timing of the Plain Dealer's editorial brings this election into a new light.

If articles over the past year describing the angst caused by Kucinich's constant traveling and presidential campaigning are any indication, it's possible voters of Cuyahoga County and Cleveland's West Side have finally had enough of their national candidate. While Kucinich and his wife have gotten national press coverage, Kucinich has been getting crushed at home.

An excerpt from the nondorsement:

"Here's the unvarnished truth: No matter how earnest he may be on the issues that obsess him, Kucinich doesn't get much done. Not even Democratic rule on Capitol Hill has changed that. When he regularly opposes his own party's leaders, when he can't even bring himself to vote for a simple resolution marking the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, he marginalizes himself and, far more important, he marginalizes his district."

Cimperman still has to prove his campaign mettle, but the Plain Dealer's early endorsement of a six-term incumbent's challenger makes this race just a little more interesting to watch.

-- Kyle Trygstad

A Man Of Few Words

Speaking with Real Clear Politics yesterday, State Representative and OH-5 candidate Bob Latta said things are "going well" and that he'll be "campaigning heavily" throughout the weekend for Tuesday's special election against Democrat Robin Weirauch in Ohio's 5th Congressional District. As a member of the Legislature, which was in session on Tuesday, he had to take a timeout from the trail, but says he's back on the road in the vast northwestern Ohio district.

Asked about the TV ad that the DCCC had run in the district tying him to Tom Noe, the Republican fundraiser and convicted felon, and former Governor Bob Taft, Latta said, "You mean the one we had pulled?" Asked about the influence of national groups on the campaign, he simply said, "It's a free country."

-- Kyle Trygstad

Update: This week, money continues to fly into the district. The NRCC has spent more than $366,000 on ads and mail against Latta's Democratic foe, Robin Weirauch. The NRCC and the National Rifle Association spent another $10,000 backing Latta. Democrats have dumped about $85,000 into the race this week alone.

Why the spending disparity? Are Republicans seeing unfavorable poll numbers and panicking? A loss would be devastating, though the national media has paid little attention to the seat, meaning a narrow win, such as Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Niki Tsongas had over Republican Jim Ogonowski, would still be counted as a win. In Tsongas's case, the closeness of the victory was attributed to Ogonowski's outsider populism, which rang true with many local voters.

In reality, Tsongas carried the district with about the same percentage of votes as Gov. Deval Patrick had in 2006. If Latta wins a close election, it may be more telling than Tsongas' narrow win. If he loses, it will be one more nail in the GOP coffin.

-- Reid Wilson

Rudy's Dangerous Strategy

Rudy Giuliani has never had good relations with the press. He berates journalists, questioning their intelligence and their motives at every turn, and flatly refuses to answer questions if he thinks they are somehow beneath him. But with poll numbers slipping a bit, Giuliani has to deal with one journo, and it's the most difficult one of all: NBC's Tim Russert.

Giuliani will appear on Russert's "Meet the Press" this Sunday, and the New York Sun reports that some in the Giuliani campaign think they have to use the event as a "firewall" to stem the tide of two awful weeks.

But given Russert's habit of eviscerating anyone and everyone on his set, is Meet really the venue in which Rudy wants to make his stand? Witness Bill Richardson's performance some months back; many who watched had to turn it off so as not to watch the carnage. And Russert will almost certainly take after Giuliani on a topic on which he flayed Richardson: Which is he, a Yankee fan or a Red Sox fan?

Unlike other media, Russert does not take no for an answer. He will probe Giuliani's record. He will prod Giuliani's personal life for hypocrisy. He will, in short, bring every viewer's attention to every flaw Giuliani has ever had. Granted, the mayor might need to fix his image a bit, reset the campaign and stand up a little straighter, but he might be better off by declaring that he's a Mormon and giving a speech at Texas A&M University.

The show gives candidates a major upside: Anything other than utter defeat is a victory. If Russert can't get his claws in deep enough, the candidate wins and gets a victory lap of positive media attention. But, as one might expect, a victory is rare. For a candidate like Giuliani, more used to tabloid journalism in New York than wonk-fests in Washington, the show is a big gamble. Meet the Press? Might as well call it Waterloo.

A Powerful Moment

PORTSMOUTH, NH -- When Greg Majors stood up, unsteady and shaking, to ask John McCain a question at an environmental and energy issues forum put on by the publishers of the Portsmouth Herald, no one expected anything but an ordinary question. But in a town hall meeting, nothing can be taken for granted.

"I'm considering what good is it for me to be here alive, because I'm taking up valuable space," Majors said. With his care-giver by his side, steadying his balance, Majors told McCain that he had been in a motorcycle accident twenty two years ago, and that he has trouble speaking and even standing up. "I have difficulty doing anything. I'm standing here with this guy holding me up," he said.

"I don't see any point in continuing because it's difficult for everyone else to partially support me and then it's pointless to sit here and use their resources," Majors continued. "I hope that you will never give up your hope and your faith," McCain responded as he walked over to Majors.

The town hall meeting can be intensely personal. In front of hundreds of people, many freely discuss their most intimate problems. Later that evening, a woman told McCain that her husband, a wounded veteran, couldn't find a job. The previous day, an Alzheimer's advocate, who also suffered from the disease, asked what McCain would do for funding. McCain frequently hears from widows and mothers of soldiers who had died, or with people who lose their health care or can't afford their prescription drugs.

But how should a candidate -- how should anyone -- deal with someone who has just expressed a lack of will to go on living? "I know that there are loving family members and loving neighbors and friends who want to do everything they can to help you live as long and as beautiful life as possible. And we pray for you and cherish you," McCain said.

Later, to reporters, McCain reflected on some of the more powerful moments of the campaign. "Here we are at a town hall meeting on climate change, and this young man says that he doesn't think he ought to continue to take up space and consume energy, and he should basically not be a burden on his family anymore," McCain recalled, clearly shaken. "I was astonished and deeply moved by his comments." After the forum, McCain talked to Majors and his care-giver. Majors left the town hall meeting with a copy of McCain's book, "Faith of My Fathers," under his arm.

Asked how to deal with such an intense moment, McCain professed that his effort was ineloquent and less than perfect. "You just do the best you can," he said.

Morning Thoughts: Romney's Graduation

MANCHESTER, NH -- Good Friday morning. Sixty-six years ago, another country bombed the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor. Yesterday, Rep. Harry Mitchell wrote a letter to Navy Secretary Donald Winter requesting a new aircraft carrier, on which construction is scheduled to begin in 2012, be christened the USS Arizona, which sank in the Pearl Harbor attack. Here's the rest of what Washington is watching today:

-- The Senate will try to invoke cloture on a comprehensive energy bill passed by the House when it meets this morning. The House is not in session. Vice President Cheney addresses members of the VFW today at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. Attorney General Michael Mukasey is probably going to have a stressful day: He meets with Senators for a members-only briefing on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act at the Capitol.

-- Senate Democrats running for President -- there are four in all -- will face some very difficult choices in coming weeks. As Senate leaders rush to finish business, they're going to face a number of nail-biting votes, and the first may come this weekend, CNN reports. Republicans have threatened to filibuster the energy bill, and in order for Democrats to achieve the 60 votes necessary to stave off that defeat, they may need Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Chris Dodd back on the floor. Still, Harry Reid has difficult teeth to pull just a month before the Iowa caucuses. For Republicans, only John McCain is consistently absent from the debate. The absences, which essentially give Republicans a majority in the chamber, could have a big impact as Congress scrambles to finish up for the year.

-- Did something happen yesterday? We must have missed it. Of course we kid. Mitt Romney's big speech in College Station, Texas went over well with most people, though others pointed to flaws. But Michael Gerson, though acknowledging that Romney's situation was very different from John Kennedy's in 1960, praised the "quality and ambition" of the modern-day speech. An interesting contrast: Kennedy's central point was that religion ought to be shelved as a private affair. For Romney, religion belongs in the public domain. The kicker the Romney campaign is framing today: "Kennedy's speech remains a landmark of American rhetoric. But Romney's deserves to be read beside it."

-- The LA Times took a look at some of what they called the "glowing reviews." Still, it concludes, the speech will likely not help the Republican do better among evangelicals. Reaction was mixed among evangelical leaders, with some telling the NYT that there was nothing he could have said and others, like Palmetto Family Council President Oran Smith, called it "a very red-meat conservative speech." Those who attended the speech, including Southern Baptist chief Richard Land, were immediately positive, though James Dobson and Tony Perkins released statements praising the speech but warning that questions had not been completely answered, the Washington Post writes. The Wall Street Journal even found some of the guests who attended the speech, at the campaign's invitation, didn't necessarily want to hear more about Mormonism.

-- View the speech one of three ways: First, Romney harmed his campaign by focusing on Mormonism so late in the game, just a month before Iowa. And by including references to flip-flopping, Romney is choosing to make his closing argument about his two biggest weaknesses. Second, he mentioned Mormonism once and didn't really describe anything about anything; the speech changed absolutely nothing, and was neither a benefit nor a drawback to the campaign. Third, Romney helped his campaign, and significantly. He assuaged some doubts, effectively took the issue off the table for the rest of the campaign, and got to look presidential while doing it. And with the entire Washington press corps watching and writing about him today, Romney effectively gets a crucial win that can right his listing ship.

-- Okay, onto other, non-Romney news. This reporter is beginning to come to a new conclusion about the Democratic race, and it has much to do with women like Clara Oleson, profiled today by the Los Angeles Times. A large segment of women, the paper writes, simply can't stand Hillary Clinton. While blue-collar working women see Clinton as on their side on economic matters, wealthier and better-educated women have been slower to come around. Whether it's just a gut reaction or intellectual disagreement with her positions on issues, or a deeper sense of betrayal of her own gender, Clinton will only win these women over if she is the Democratic nominee. But she'll have to get there without them.

-- A poll out yesterday of 2,000 Latinos holds promise for Democrats and problems for Republicans. 57% of Latinos identified themselves as Democrats, while just 23% said they were Republicans, up significantly from the 21 point gap the same survey found two years ago. What does this all mean? Great news for Democrats in swing states like Arizona, Colorado and Nevada, Don Frederick writes. That's 24 electoral votes Democrats haven't been able to win lately.

-- Democrats, crossing their fingers for a long-shot battle against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, saw two of their best potential candidates take a pass on running, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. Auditor Crit Luallen, who just won re-election by a huge margin, has told the DSCC that she won't run, while former Attorney General Greg Stumbo is thinking instead about running for State Representative (huh?). Stumbo won't make an official announcement until after incoming Gov. Steve Beshear is inaugurated next week. Democrats' next target will be Iraq war vet Andrew Horne, who lost the Democratic primary to now-Rep. Jack Yarmuth in Louisville last year.

-- To-Be Trend Of The Day: This is going to change the way many in the political world conduct business. As more people give up their land-lines in favor of cellphones, pollsters are having to rethink a methodology that has been in place for the better part of four decades. How do they reach out to those with cell phones, especially those concerned with the by-the-minute prices? The New York Times reports surveyors are considering reimbursing respondents for minutes used. Meanwhile, another difficulty: The FCC requires callers to physically type in the number of a cell phone they call, which means widely-used autodialers are legally out. How pollsters react to these emerging challenges will determine how accurate polls are in the future.

-- Today On The Trail: Barack Obama is in Chicago preparing for his weekend Oprah swing. Joe Biden is in Ames and Boone, Iowa, while John Edwards participates in an AARP forum in Manchester before heading to a house party in Bedford and town halls in Peterborough and Claremont. Hillary Clinton talks to the press in Washington before heading to Des Moines. Chris Dodd holds a town hall meeting by phone with Air America's Ed Schultz.

-- On the GOP side, John McCain has town halls in Atkinson and Beford, and will hold an event commemorating Pearl Harbor in Hampstead. He'll also stop by his campaign's Nashua headquarters. Mitt Romney holds an event on strengthening the military in Des Moines. Fred Thompson is in Columbus, Ohio, for a meet and greet at GOP headquarters, then heads to Davenport and Des Moines. Rudy Giuliani gives a speech and holds a town hall meeting in Chicago. Mike Huckabee starts off in Charlotte, North Carolina today, before heading to an AARP forum in Bluffton, South Carolina. He finishes the day in North Charleston and North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Cheney "More Optimistic" Than McCain

STRATHAM, NH -- Responding to Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion that a self-governing democracy would be established in Iraq by the time he and President Bush leave office in 2009, John McCain today said he doubted progress would come that fast. "He's more optimistic than I am," McCain said. "We're going to continue to make progress, but it's a slower process than that."

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McCain speaks to Timberland employees
Cheney made his remarks in a long interview with Politico yesterday. They are the latest in a series of comments from the administration suggesting perhaps a more rosy scenario than reality suggests. The Vice President claimed that the insurgency was "in the last throes," in late May 2005. In 2003, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blamed the insurgency on "pockets of dead-enders." McCain has criticized those statements and did so again today. "Most PR people will tell you it's far better to err on the side of caution and be pleasantly surprised," he warned.

McCain said he saw the situation on the ground changing for the better during his recent trip to the region, over Thanksgiving, but that more work needs to be done. "We've got [al Qaeda] on the run, but they're trying to locate" in the north of the country, he said. While areas like Fallujah, which has seen two major battles in recent years, are improving, the situation is far from resolved. "They're not going to go quietly into the night."

Talking to reporters aboard the Straight Talk Express on the way to the headquarters of Timberland, McCain also expressed interest in engaging in public debate as President, similar to Prime Minister's Question Time. "I think it'd be fun," McCain said to laughter. "Anything that makes people pay attention to their government is a good idea."

Stopping at the outdoor company and addressing about 450 gathered employees, McCain spoke again of service, recognizing and thanking assembled CityYear volunteers. "I'm particularly proud to be here because I need a new pair of shoes," he joked.

Lamar! Wins

Leadership elections made necessary by the resignation of Sen. Trent Lott, the Senate Minority Whip, produced a second chance for one senator today. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, who lost the Whip race to Lott last year, narrowly edged out North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr to win the chairmanship of the Republican Conference.

Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, the previous Republican Conference chair, was elected unanimously to Lott's vacant Whip position.

Alexander's election over Burr is another victory for established old lions of the Republican caucus over younger, more conservative members like Burr, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn. Still, the narrow margin by which Alexander won suggests the young pups will find success sooner rather than later.

Surrogates Barnstorm New Hampshire

MANCHESTER - Why would anyone venture out on a night when the temperature heads below freezing and stays there? Perhaps a bigger head-scratcher: Why would dozens of middle and high school students do so, when the destination is a town hall meeting for a presidential candidate for whom they will not be able to cast ballots?

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McCain and Red Sox star Curt Schilling
meet the press in Manchester
The answer, in Red Sox country, is ace pitcher Curt Schilling. One of a number of surrogates stumping throughout New Hampshire this week, Schilling told an audience of voters and their children that John McCain is his choice for president. As presidential candidates flock to Iowa for the final sprint to the finish, their campaigns, which need a constant presence in the first primary state, have taken to sending high-profile stand-ins on virtually a daily basis.

Schilling, who befriended McCain when he pitched for the Arizona Diamondbacks, brings the Arizona senator a two-fold benefit: A member of the Red Sox in the heart of Red Sox Nation gets the attention of any voter. One who pitched another team to a World Series over the hated New York Yankees is even better.

Attendees peppered Schilling with nearly as many questions as they did McCain, urging him to run for Senate in Massachusetts. One questioner, pointing out that Schilling made more money than Red Sox manager Terry Francona, urged the pitcher to send his boss a message. "Would you please tell him to stop speaking? When we watch it on TV, it's disgusting," he said to laughter.

McCain promised to appoint Schilling chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness, and suggested that the pitcher might even have a future in politics. Schilling, who campaigned for President Bush in 2004, displayed some of McCain's penchant for needling the incumbent. "In the White House, [Bush] made a lot of mistakes," he said. He also took a shot at one other candidate seeking the Republican nomination; asked why he was not supporting Rudy Giuliani, who said he rooted for the Red Sox during the World Series, Schilling shrugged. "The flip-flopping thing happens across party lines," he said.

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Schilling stumps for McCain
New Hampshire has been overrun by surrogates this week. Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld joined Mitt Romney at a stop in Concord, while Bill Clinton held campaign events for his wife on the western side of the state on Tuesday. Michelle Obama, an increasing presence in early primary states on behalf of her husband, took a two-day swing through New Hampshire as well.

Still, the surrogate New Hampshire residents are most looking forward to is Oprah Winfrey, who will rally for Obama in Manchester next week. The television star also has rallies scheduled in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, followed by a stop in Columbia before coming here.

Tickets for the Columbia event, which was going to be held at the University of South Carolina's Colonial Center, were gone in hours, the campaign reported. The center, USC's basketball arena, holds 18,000 people. Wanting to get everyone possible in to see the candidate, Obama's campaign moved the rally to Williams-Brice Stadium, where the Gamecocks play football. Capacity there: 54,000.

Romney's Big Moment

CONCORD - Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is happy to answer any questions voters might have for him, and he promises he isn't tired of the Mormon Question. In fact, he told Real Clear Politics, it hardly comes up when he meets with voters around New Hampshire and Iowa.

Perhaps Romney's faith doesn't come up because voters everywhere read enough about Mormonism in newspapers and on the internet, where it is discussed and debated virtually every day.

But thanks to his religion, Romney has been handed an opportunity no other candidate gets. And after weeks of news focused on Mike Huckabee's rise and John McCain's comeback, as well as revelations that Romney still had illegal immigrants working on his lawn, a speech discussing his own religion and the role of faith in America could not come at a better time.

Once the front-runner in Iowa and New Hampshire and on the rise in South Carolina, Romney has seen his poll numbers stagnate while Huckabee is on the rise in Iowa. McCain, who barnstorms through New Hampshire with reckless abandon, seems to be gaining traction and is certainly winning press and voter attention.

With one address, Romney has the opportunity to steal the spotlight. The speech has been so widely anticipated by the Washington media that it is virtually guaranteed to earn wide-spread coverage. A well-delivered, well-reasoned speech would be top political news and land Romney back above the fold, a position he has rarely known lately. For a candidate to get such universal coverage this late in a campaign, it usually takes a scandal of some sort. Romney has the opportunity to win that attention by his own hand, and on purpose.

Faith is a big part of the Republican primary. Huckabee is a Baptist minister; McCain recently discovered his own Baptist roots. Even Rudy Giuliani has discussed his belief in God after September 11. Evangelical leaders around the country are weighing in for or against GOP candidates, and though many rank-and-file evangelicals are coalescing around Huckabee, even Romney is winning high-profile endorsements. Romney has found success not by comparing his religion to evangelical Christianity, but by discussing his own faith in a higher power. Importantly, the speech Romney will give covers more than just Mormonism. If a large portion of his address applauds evangelical Christians for their beliefs without pandering too overtly, those who remain undecided may give Romney another look.

But the speech is not without risk. To be sure, following in the footsteps of John F. Kennedy is difficult, if not impossible. The myth of JFK is so great that virtually no one can achieve parity. Romney is not even the best speaker in the Republican field, and if he bombs, it will also be top news, though in a negative way.

Today's address could be a make-or-break event for the Romney campaign. On balance, though, his opportunity to make something of what has largely been seen as a liability is better than his campaign might otherwise have hoped. In fact, no Republican candidate has had the stage to himself so completely, and certainly won't at this late and crucial stage in the campaign.

If Romney pulls it off, future politicians might just be dissecting the timing and delivery for hints about how to turn a weakness into an opportunity for strength.

Click below for excerpts from the campaign.

Excerpts Of Governor Romney's Remarks (As Prepared For Delivery):

"There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us. If so, they are at odds with the nation's founders, for they, when our nation faced its greatest peril, sought the blessings of the Creator. And further, they discovered the essential connection between the survival of a free land and the protection of religious freedom. In John Adam's words: 'We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion... Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people.'

"Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone."

...

"When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God. If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States."

...

"There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes President he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths."

...

"It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter - on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course. Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.

"We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America - the religion of secularism. They are wrong.

"The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust.

"We should acknowledge the Creator as did the founders - in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.'"

...

"These American values, this great moral heritage, is shared and lived in my religion as it is in yours. I was taught in my home to honor God and love my neighbor. I saw my father march with Martin Luther King. I saw my parents provide compassionate care to others, in personal ways to people nearby, and in just as consequential ways in leading national volunteer movements."

...

"My faith is grounded on these truths. You can witness them in Ann and my marriage and in our family. We are a long way from perfect and we have surely stumbled along the way, but our aspirations, our values, are the self -same as those from the other faiths that stand upon this common foundation. And these convictions will indeed inform my presidency."

...

"The diversity of our cultural expression, and the vibrancy of our religious dialogue, has kept America in the forefront of civilized nations even as others regard religious freedom as something to be destroyed.

"In such a world, we can be deeply thankful that we live in a land where reason and religion are friends and allies in the cause of liberty, joined against the evils and dangers of the day. And you can be certain of this: Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me. And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion - rather, we welcome our nation's symphony of faith."

Morning Thoughts: Speech Day

MANCHESTER, NH -- Good Thursday morning. Politics Nation spends all day on the Straight Talk Express, though we would love to be back in Washington to watch the Chicago Bears lose to the 'Skins tonight. Other than a big win, here's what Washington is watching today:

-- The Senate is still considering a fix to the Alternative Minimum Tax, while the House Administration Committee takes up the use of automated phone calls in federal campaigns. More states are banning the practice, which can be an inexpensive and effective way of getting a candidate's message to voters; calls usually run from between seven and ten cents per completed effort. President and Mrs. Bush light the national Christmas Tree tonight, while Secretary of State Rice attends a meeting of NATO ministers in Brussels.

-- It's game day for Mitt Romney, who today will address an audience in College Station, Texas about faith in America. Per excerpts provided by the campaign, Romney will address faith in general more than Mormonism specifically. "There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the constitution," Romney plans to say. "No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes President he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths." Check out Politics Nation's take on the speech later this morning, and Jon Meacham's take, in which he says Romney should call for a renewal of what Ben Franklin called the "public religion," a belief in a divine force to which all praise by doing good for other people. Romney begins his address at 10:30 a.m. Eastern, covered live on CNN.

-- In case any other campaigns, volunteers, employees, et cetera, were wondering, yes, you will be asked about Romney's speech. No, don't comment. If you do, you will get in trouble. Witness Cyndi Mosteller, co-chair of Fred Thompson's South Carolina campaign. "As a person who's been to seminary and studied somewhat the Mormon doctrine, I think that the more people scrutinize, look at and become aware of that doctrine, they will have more questions rather than less," she told The Palmetto Scoop. "I think the doctrines of Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism are so vastly different from the Mormon doctrine." Candidates, that rule goes for you, as well: Mike Huckabee, for one, is irritated that his Baptist faith is getting more scrutiny than Romney's Mormonism. "He hasn't gotten nearly as much for his Mormonism as I have for being a Baptist. I mean, I've never heard the kind of interviews with him that I got from Bill O'Reilly or Wolf Blitzer. No one's just kept pressing and pressing and going into the details of his doctrine. Not that I've heard," Huckabee told GQ.

-- Good news for Romney: No matter how your speech goes today, you'll still have a lead in New Hampshire, where just 18% of Republican leaners call themselves evangelical, according to that AP/Pew poll out last week. John DiStaso points out that just nine percent of GOP voters in the Granite State are less inclined to back Romney because of his religion, a much lower percentage than elsewhere in the country. And whether or not the speech hurts him with evangelicals, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley still thinks Romney will get a narrow win in the January 3 caucuses, he told the Des Moines Register. By the way, now that Huckabee has overtaken him in polls, Romney can now win by just a few points and still call it a big win. If this is Grassley's prelude to an endorsement, it's awfully similar to 2004, when the state's senator (Tom Harkin) backs a former New England governor (Howard Dean) in the caucuses. We just can't envision Romney "screaming" to a crowd of fans.

-- Bottom line, according to Halperin and AP's David Espo: Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney were once their party's front-runners. They've run into trouble. Watch as they both switch tactics in order to, as Halperin puts it, "salvage" their candidacies.

-- Clinton gets some good news today, along with Huckabee, as the two win endorsements from the 16,000-member New Hampshire NEA. It is the first time the state group has backed a Republican, OnCall reports, and it's no wonder they chose Huckabee: He was the only GOP candidate to speak to their convention in July. The nod is big for Clinton as well; she's making a previously unplanned trip to New Hampshire today to accept the endorsement.

-- Huckabee's big rise has done more to inject new questions into the GOP race than virtually any other development this year: Do social conservatives actually matter? (Answer: Yes) Is Rudy Giuliani's status as a front-runner secure? (Answer: No) Will Mitt Romney win Iowa now that Huckabee's on the move? (Answer: A huge, resounding, echoing Maybe) And is Huckabee the Republican Democrats should most fear? (Answer: Read Cillizza's take) Are Huckmentum and Huckaboom words we can expect to enter the modern vernacular? (Answer: One can only hope) And how much is the media's attention boosting Huckabee's rise? (Answer: Check out the top three stories at the NYT's Politics section for a hint)

-- This could be interesting: Dan Bartlett, former communications specialist at the Bush White House, has been shooting his mouth off again, it appears, and conservative bloggers are frustrated. In an interview with Texas Monthly, Bartlett confesses that he sees the blogosphere as little more than a way to get his message out: "Talk about a direct IV into the vein of your support," Bartlett said of blogs. "It's a very efficient way to communicate. They regurgitate exactly and put up on their blogs what you said to them. It is something that we've cultivated and have really tried to put quite a bit of focus on." Some bloggers, like Ed Morrissey, are less than pleased with the idea that they are little more than press release machines. The lefties are having fun too. Liberal blogger Kevin Drum gives right-wing bloggers a new motto: "Even more credulous and slavish than Fox News."

-- Smart Hire Of The Day: Television and movie writers are winning the public opinion battle in their fight for new, higher wages, so Hollywood studios are countering with their own muscle, in the form of a trio of top political advisors. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has picked up Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, two veterans of the Clinton White House and Al Gore's presidential bid, along with Steve Schmidt, who ran Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2006 campaign, Variety reports. Hey, has anyone asked Ah-nold how he feels about the strike?

-- Today On The Trail: John Edwards is in Seneca, South Carolina, his birthplace, before heading to Walhalla and Charleston. Chris Dodd is in Cedar Rapids and Pleasant Hill, Iowa. Hillary Clinton makes a trip to Gunstock Ski Resort in Gilford, New Hampshire, then heads to Manchester and back to Washington.

-- On the GOP side, John McCain heads to Timberland's headquarters, addresses the Portsmouth Rotary and has a press availability in Newington. Later in the day, McCain talks about energy and climate change in Portsmouth before holding a town hall in Raymond. Mike Huckabee meets the press outside a fundraiser in Greensboro, North Carolina, while Rudy Giuliani holds private events and a press conference in Sarasota and Venice, Florida. Mitt Romney delivers his speech in Texas today.

MD Filing Deadline Passes

The deadline to file for office passed Monday night in Maryland, one of the earliest of the 2008 cycle (only Illinois, on November 5, was earlier). With the deadline passed, the first glimpses of hot contests in the state's February 12 primary come into focus in the 1st and 4th Districts. In the 1st, Eastern Shore Republican Wayne Gilchrest faces multiple challenges from the right, while suburban D.C. Democrat Albert Wynn faces a rematch with an opponent on the left.

Democrat Donna Edwards is back after coming within 4 points of taking Wynn down in 2006. And Gilchrest has been forced to put his PAC-contributions embargo on hold, as State Sen. Andy Harris tripled Gilchrest's fundraising total through the end of September and Club for Growth has stepped into the fray. Five Republicans in all are challenging Gilchrest.

Seven of the eight members of the House delegation are being challenged; even House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, whose challenger details in his campaign website bio his (by our count) five stints in jail, serving terms ranging from child support delinquency to spray-painting state government buildings. That one may not be a nail-biter, but Wynn's battle against Edwards and Gilchrest's fight for his political life could both be nail-bitingly close.

The biggest difference: The outcome of the heavily Democratic 4th will almost certainly be decided in the primary. But if the moderate Gilchrest gets knocked out in February, it could be a long 9-month battle for the environmentally-conscious district on the Chesapeake Bay, as Democrats may decide to target the seat. That's yet another fight Republicans don't want to have.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Exploring The Gender Gap

Recent polls have shaken the core of the Democratic race. For the first time in months, someone not named Clinton leads in Iowa, and that same someone -- Barack Obama -- is rapidly catching up in New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton, the once inevitable lock for the nomination, suddenly looks vulnerable. But other polls out this week show Clinton still leading, albeit by slim margins, among Iowa caucus-goers.

The difference between the two divergent sets of results can be found in the cross-tabs and holds the key to Clinton's success. When she leads, Clinton enjoys a large gender gap. When she trails, Obama closes that gap among women, effectively shutting off Clinton's most valuable base.

Consider some recent polls. In a Pew Research survey, Clinton enjoyed an eight point edge over Obama among women in Iowa, a 29-point gap in New Hampshire and a 17-point lead in South Carolina. Consequently, Clinton led in all three states.

But in a recent Des Moines Register poll, in which Obama led among Iowa caucus-goers, Clinton's advantage among women had evaporated. Obama attracted more women to his side, 31%, than Clinton, who was favored by 26%. Compare that to Clinton's 34%-21% lead in the Register's October poll. A Washington Post/ABC News [pdf] poll, the first to show Obama leading in Iowa, was also the first to show Obama leading among women -- 32% to 31%.

Pollster Ann Selzer, who conducts the Register's polls, says women react to Clinton and Obama very differently. "There's a real difference between the candidates in distinguishing their leadership style," she said. Those who have questioned Clinton recently on her records at her husband's presidential library have cemented an opinion that she stands for the secrecy and triangulation of the 1990s. "People harken back to a time when [they] felt like things weren't on the up and up," Selzer said. Obama, though, brings a perceived openness to the race. By stressing his ability to solve problems through compromise, he is naturally appealing to women's styles.

Clinton needs women to win the Democratic nomination, and she needs women to win a general election. Recently, the candidate has been showing off her motherly, feminine side in order to boost her credentials with women. But as more women choose a candidate not named Clinton, some on her team have to be wondering how they put together the coalition necessary to get a victory.

Morning Thoughts: Negative Newswire

MANCHESTER, NH -- Good Wednesday morning. Yesterday's temperature in the Granite State topped out at 26 degrees. Let's see if we can't do a little better today, alright? Here's what Washingtonians are watching today:

-- The Senate continues work on a fix to the Alternative Minimum Tax. They'd better hurry; the IRS estimates that millions of returns will be delayed as they reprogram computers, and that number is growing by the day. The House is in session today and tomorrow. President Bush is in Omaha today for health care meetings and a fundraising reception for former Governor and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns' Senate campaign. Meanwhile, CNN reports President Bush will try for some form of peace agreement in his last year in the White House. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe confirmed today that Bush will head to the Middle East in January, but declined to give details. Israeli television reported yesterday that Bush will stop there, Bush's first trip to Israel as president.

-- Mitt Romney doesn't need this: As he makes his way toward Texas A&M to deliver "the speech," the Boston Globe reports a landscaping company, which Romney has previously gotten in trouble for hiring, again used illegal immigrants to tend the governor's mansion in Belmont. The campaign issued a statement yesterday confirming the company had been fired for failing to meet a condition Romney laid out for giving them another shot. But company owner Ricardo Saenz, the Globe reports, disputes that assertion, saying Romney never made a big deal of the illegal immigrants working his lawn. How embarrassing is the story going to become? It's almost guaranteed to come up at this weekend's Univision debate in Miami.

-- Log Cabin Republicans are not alone in disliking Romney. The group ran several effective advertisements earlier this year criticizing Romney for flip-flopping on gay rights, and now the Republican Majority for Choice is joining in, NBC/NJ's Erin McPike reports. The group has sent around a flier Romney issued during his 2002 governor's race with this key phrase: "Mitt has always supported a woman's right to choose. Mitt is a strong supporter of women's rights and has promised to protect a woman's right to choose." Why do these groups dislike Romney, who is probably less conservative on their issues than some other Republican front-runners? One theory: Nominating or electing a candidate who once supported gay rights and choice but has since reverted is more damaging to those causes than nominating or electing a candidate who has always opposed them.

-- Three Vanderbilt University professors find evidence that bias against Mormons is both more prevalent and more deeply-held than bias against women or African-Americans. The internet survey, conducted in mid-November, surveyed 1,200 respondents and an oversample of 600 born again Southerners, showed that among evangelicals, Mormons are seen in the same light as atheists. But the survey has good news for Romney: When people know he is Mormon, they react better than when they are informed by someone else. And while stereotypes against Mormons can hurt Romney's candidacy, positive messages that dispel those stereotypes work, the survey found.

-- Speaking of big headaches, here's one: Mike Huckabee's meteoric rise has been fueled in large part by his wit and charm, some excellent debate performances and unimpeachable credentials on issues important to social conservatives. Some have suggested that the governor simply doesn't have the policy background other candidates possess, and they may be right: Asked yesterday in Des Moines to comment on the recently-released National Intelligence Estimate suggesting Iran's nuclear weapons program was halted in 2003, Huckabee said he hadn't heard about it and wasn't familiar with its contents. And the story is only getting bigger, as Huckabee made his comments during an on the record dinner with reporters. Look for reporters to quiz him on all manner of topics, and while a day off might hurt, one spent brushing up on policy would likely prove beneficial in avoiding future gaffes.

-- For Republicans, as Mitt Romney is about to find out, illegal immigration is a deal-breaking issue. For Democrats, it's an issue they would just rather go away. But it popped up in Iowa at a National Public Radio debate yesterday, and debate moderators pressed them hard. Whether illegal immigration is an issue that can swing an election, despite the vitriol it inspires in voters, is a big question: Republicans would like to say it is, though none can point to a race in 2006 that turned on the issue. Still, as Charles Mahtesian told RCP, the issue has leaped from a border state concern to something people consider in Georgia and New England. Might it become an even more important issue in the future? Democrats have to hope not. The party has yet to come to grips with its positions, or how to explain them to voters in a coherent way.

-- Have any doubt that Hillary Clinton would inspire an unprecedented amount of independent expenditures and involvement by third-party groups -- both for and against her -- should she pull off the Democratic nomination? Just take a look at how the money is being spent already: In the last seven days, about $148,000 has been spent by outside groups on Clinton's bid. She's won backing from AFSCME, which bought up $31,000 in television time in Iowa, and EMILY's List. And conservative groups like RightMarch.com and the Life and Liberty PAC are spending heavily against her. Just one other candidate has seen third party spending on his behalf. If she wins the nomination, watch out for the rise of 501(c)(4) groups, 527 groups and others bent on helping Clinton win or lose. Nonprofits are already becoming a force in primaries, as John Solomon and Matthew Mosk write today.

-- Skeptic Of The Day: Does Antonin Scalia think O.J. Simpson got away with murder? It sure sounds like it, judging from comments he made during oral arguments yesterday. Like the case of Allen Snyder, a Louisianan sent to death row for killing his wife, Simpson's was "a case where a man killed his wife and then feigned mental illness with his escape escapade." The Swamp was there, incredulous but amused.

-- Today On The Trail: Hillary Clinton is giving a major economic speech at the NASDAQ in New York while Barack Obama addresses voters at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa. Obama then rallies in Cedar Falls and holds a town hall meeting with students in Waverly. Bill Richardson is in Washington, while Chris Dodd has events scheduled in Boone, Pella and Oskaloosa, Iowa. On the GOP side, John McCain is in Manchester with Boston Red Sox ace Curt Schilling, Fred Thompson makes stops in Pickens, Anderson and Lexington, South Carolina, and Mitt Romney holds finance events in Louisiana and Texas before his big speech tomorrow.

Romney: Iran Still A Threat

CONCORD, NH -- Acknowledging some good news in a recently released National Intelligence Estimate saying Iran stopped actively pursuing nuclear weapons in 2003, Mitt Romney said the country remains a threat, even with only a peaceful nuclear energy program. "They, of course, are continuing making the ingredients which would be used in a nuclear weapon," Romney told Politics Nation today. "If they had stopped both I would feel a great deal more confident about their intentions. But their continuing to produce enriched uranium is of great concern to the world."

Romney sees one positive aspect to the report: The NIE "gives the perspective that [Iran] will not have a weapon in the imminent future," he said. "Perhaps by 2008 or 2009 they would be able to have a weapon if they were to try and pursue that, and I think we therefore have to recognize that a nation that has a virtually unlimited supply of free energy enriching uranium is a clear source of threat."

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Romney greets Concord Rotary members
But he contended the world's approach to Iran is working. "The suggestion of the Intelligence Estimate is on track by saying that the sanctions of the world do have an impact," he said. "And I believe that as Iran continues to develop and produce enriched uranium that we should continue to pursue a course of economic sanctions and diplomatic sanctions in an effort to communicate to the Iranian people the peril for following the course for nuclear ambition."

No matter what the NIE said, Romney promised it would not have sole bearing on his outlook on Iran. "My perspective on matters of importance is that you don't look for a homogenized view. You look for people who have different perspectives and you want to listen to the debate between them and see the basis of their thinking."

"Were I president, I would not simply read a report and say, 'Oh!' I would instead insist on having people with the most objective and first-hand information presenting their perspectives. And if no one disagreed I'd look for someone who disagreed, even if I had to find them from outside the agency," he said.

While President Bush has faced criticism for shunning any form of dissent within his own administration, Romney said he would not fall into that trap. "I'd want to hear voices of disagreement to make sure that we'd considered all the options and all the possibilities," he said. The distinction, for a candidate whose justification for running hinges on competent management, seems a subtle distancing between Romney and the unpopular Bush Administration. The distinction is a safe one to make, however: It is based more on approach than on any policy disagreements.

Romney, finishing a multi-day campaign swing through New Hampshire where he enjoys a wide 15.3 percentage point advantage in the latest RCP New Hampshire Average, heads to Louisiana and Texas tomorrow for private events. On Thursday, he will address an invited crowd at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University in a widely-anticipated address on the role of faith in America.

Bush And The Next Guy

CONCORD, NH -- The surge is working. The surge is not working. At this point, it virtually doesn't matter; a vast majority of Americans want an end to the war in Iraq and they are not about to be persuaded otherwise. Similarly, a large portion of Americans view President Bush unfavorably. The latest RCP Average shows just 33% of Americans think the president is doing a good job, while 61% view his job performance unfavorably.

After seven years in office, those opinions are hardening with each passing day, making a Bush comeback all but impossible. Some, though, like former White House adviser Karl Rove, think the president is set to bounce back, now that some Democrats admit the surge's success. Because of the impending rebound, Rove told the Washington Times, GOP candidates should do their best not to alienate him and the core Republicans who make up those who approve of his job performance.

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McCain meets voters in Milford, New Hampshire
Despite a much better relationship now than they enjoyed seven years ago, John McCain is not taking that suggestion. The Arizona Senator, traveling in New Hampshire this week, took pains at a joint MTV/MySpace forum last night to distance himself from the current administration's shortcomings. Discussing the genocide in Darfur with a crowd of college students at Southern New Hampshire University, McCain said he would have taken a different tactic than Bush did. "We're still a leader in the world, and I would have used the bully pulpit a lot more," McCain said to applause. "I would have made it a higher priority.

McCain also criticized Bush for refusing to veto spending bills the Republican Congress passed in recent years, which led, McCain charged, to rampant, out of control spending. McCain said he personally asked Bush to veto the bills but was rebuffed.

Aside from Bush, there is perhaps no serving public official more associated with the war in Iraq than McCain. But last night, he promised a questioner that he recognized the approach to Iraq had likely wounded future presidents. Asked what it would take for him to attack another Middle Eastern country, specifically Syria or Iran, McCain promised to carefully consider any military action and to consult Congress. "The American people are cynical because of how we got into the last conflict," McCain said. "I'd make very, very sure my intelligence sources were accurate."

"For four years this war was mishandled, and it was badly mishandled," he said, criticizing former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Still, he said the surge is working, and that Iraq's future should be viewed with "caution but with a little optimism." In front of a crowd of students, the demographic perhaps most likely to oppose the war, McCain made the case that American troops in Iraq know why they're there. "They know that if they don't succeed, [al Qaeda] will follow us home, and there will be chaos and genocide."

McCain won cheers from students. Asked after the forum whether his position on Iraq was a significant concern to them, several students who opposed the war said no, and none brought the issue up on their own. That skill is something any Republican is going to have to acquire as the Democratic nominee taps into the vast reservoir of opposition to the war.

Whether Rove is right about staying on the president's good side, McCain is finding at least some success in being critical of certain aspects of the administration's record. Both are laying out a blueprint for the GOP's approach to November's general election. Which path the eventual Republican nominee takes may determine whether the party stays in the White House or slides further into a national minority.

DCCC's OH 05 Optimism

Ohio's 5th District, vacant since the September death of Rep. Paul Gillmor, appears on the surface to be a Republican lock. But the DCCC may think otherwise, what with its recent major ad buy. And a closer look at the district may show why.

True, President Bush did win the district with 61% in 2004, while Gillmor carried it that year with 67%. But in the Democratic year of 2006, Gillmor's take dropped 10 points. Conversely, Robin Weirauch, the 2004, 2006 and now 2007 Democratic nominee jumped 10 points from 33% to 43% between 2004 and 2006.

But the 20-point turnaround between elections had little to do with Weirauch winning over more voters, and everything to do with Republicans not showing up to the polls. In 2004, Gillmor received 196,649 votes to Weirauch's 96,659. In 2006, his vote total plunged to 129,813, while Weirauch's remained about even at 98,544.

Weirauch will have to hope that the trend between '04 and '06 continues in '07, but she'll absolutely need to pick up some more Democratic voters to upset Latta. And the DCCC knows well that a win in December 2007 makes a win in November 2008 far easier.

An interesting battle for votes will take place in Wood County, the district's largest county and home to the university town of Bowling Green and some Toledo suburbs. Republican Bob Latta represents the county in the state House, and carried it in the 2006 state elections with 57%. Though Weirauch did not win one county in 2006, she came closest in Wood, taking 49.6% of the vote against Gillmor.

If Latta loses his home county, where he's served in the state Senate and House since 1996, he may have reason to sweat a bit. But Weirauch will still need to make up a ton of ground in the other counties she finished closest in 2006 to overcome the 31,000+ vote margin she lost to Gillmor by. Those counties include: Defiance, Fulton, Henry, Huron and Sandusky.

By November 21, the latest FEC reporting date for this special election, she had already spent more than she had the entire 2006 election cycle. If she were to win, with one week to go that spending would need to continue to increase, and fast. And while the goal is to get out more Democratic voters, winning will require even more Republicans staying home.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Morning Thoughts: Outside Influences

MANCHESTER, NH -- Sure, Iowa goes first. But with John McCain, Mitt Romney, Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama in the Granite State today, don't let anyone tell you it's unimportant. The candidates sure don't think so. Politics Nation's trip just about ended early last night when we cheered a little too loudly against the Patriots. Not smart up here. For those who are smart, though, here's what to look out for today:

-- The House returns from Thanksgiving break to begin consideration of bills dealing with dam safety, timber imports and prevention of human trafficking. The Senate today takes up a free trade agreement with Peru, with a final passage vote scheduled for this afternoon. President Bush attends an RNC fundraiser with the First Lady in Washington, while Vice President Cheney fundraises for Texas Rep. Ralph Hall, who, we feel compelled to remind the veep's staff, was a Democrat until just a few years ago. Defense Secretary Gates is headed to Afghanistan to meet with President Hamid Karzai, while Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson get into the holiday spirit: Mukasey lights the National Chanukah Menorah on the Ellipse tonight and Paulson's department has their annual holiday party, with the boss scheduled to attend.

-- Two big stories outside the political sphere that will play heavily in both primaries broke yesterday: On the Democratic side, how quickly will Barack Obama and John Edwards point to news reports that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 in an effort to rekindle the debate over Hillary Clinton's judgment on the topic? We're guessing as early as today, when candidates meet for a radio debate in Des Moines. The National Intelligence Estimate is good news for anyone who voted against a resolution naming a part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization; that would be every Senate Democrat running for president except Clinton. In Washington, does this mean President Bush is even more of a lame duck than he was before yesterday? The announcement has changed the debate on Iran more than any single intelligence report has ever changed a debate, the New York Times assesses.

-- Republican debates have focused excessively, in the minds of some, on immigration, and after yesterday, that focus is unlikely to wane. Phoenix Mayor Bart Gordon, a Democrat many believe is headed on to higher offices eventually, announced yesterday his administration would withdraw backing from a police order that prevents officers from asking about the citizenship and residency status of anyone they arrest, the Arizona Republic reports. The New York Times gives a national spin. The federal government failed to uphold its end of the bargain, forcing the city to act, a spokesman said. The move comes two months after a police officer was killed by an illegal immigrant. Look for Gordon, the Democrat, to win praise from Republicans as they take after each other on immigration issues.

-- We told you yesterday that Congressional Democrats' campaign arm is spending close to $150,000 on a television ad hitting Ohio-05 candidate Bob Latta in the race to replace the late Rep. Paul Gillmor. Republicans, who paid for a poll in the district last week, went into full panic mode either after they got the results of the poll or in anticipation of more DCCC spending: Yesterday the NRCC dropped a whopping $234,000 on television ads hitting Democrat Robin Weirauch, along with $33,000 in targeted direct mail, FEC reports show. And the bad news could keep coming: Republicans commissioned a new survey in Virginia-01, where Republican State Delegate Rob Wittman faces teacher and Iraq war veteran Phil Forgit. Both special elections will be held a week from today. For more on the Ohio race, check back with Politics Nation later today.

-- In the presidential contest, much of the focus this week will center on what Mitt Romney has to say about Mormonism at a speech this week at Texas A&M University in College Station. But Romney's warning that he's not going to talk about his own faith much, focusing rather on the role of faith in America. "There's plenty of ways that people can learn more about my faith if they'd like to, I'm sure -- a lot of websites people can go to," Romney told the LA Times. Romney's written the speech himself, campaign aides tell Top Of The Ticket, and many believe the speech will be one of the most powerful moments of the campaign so far. Sliding in some polls, Romney needs a big splash to get back on top. Thursday's event is starting to feel like a make-or-break moment.

-- Well-known evangelicals have weighed in on behalf of virtually every candidate except Mike Huckabee, and they seemed to do it right as he was on the way up. The tax crowd has made their feelings about Huckabee known. But what about another vital GOP constituency, the Second Amendment crowd? Consider that Romney's record on guns is thin and Rudy Giuliani's is downright terrible, in the minds of the National Rifle Association. Fred Thompson and John McCain have solid records, but Huckabee's is top-notch. NRA Public Affairs Director Andrew Arulanandam tells OnCall that a pre-primary endorsement is not out of the question, though it's "definitely out of the ordinary as far as what we usually do." NRA officials have met with every GOP candidate except Paul, and anyone who wins their backing can expect a big boost in a Republican primary, especially in New Hampshire, the Live Free or Die state.

-- John McCain had a little fun in Hooksett, New Hampshire last night, joining a crowd of college students to become the first Republican presidential hopeful to attend a joint MTV/MySpace forum, broadcast both on cable and the web. McCain, the oldest Republican aside from Ron Paul and the one most closely associated with the war in Iraq, won wild applause with calls for action on global warming, Social Security, genocide in Darfur and other issues younger voters are likely to find appealing. As young voters move away from the GOP, could some old guy like McCain actually bring them back? And, while it's completely anecdotal, none of the students we talked with afterwards were concerned enough with his Iraq position that they wouldn't vote for him. Every one was an opponent of the war, yet McCain's support is less important to them than other issues.

-- In the Senate, what once looked like a great three-way race to be Republican Conference chairman in the wake of Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott's resignation could get a little less interesting today as Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison may drop her bid, Roll Call reports. That move would leave Tennessean Lamar Alexander and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr vying for the position. It would also mean Hutchison would keep her post as head of the GOP Policy Committee, shutting off the possibility for others, including Texas colleague John Cornyn, to move up the leadership ladder.

-- Scalper's Opportunity Of The Day: Oprah's popular. Perhaps Politics Nation underestimated her appeal. But she's huge, apparently, in both South Carolina and New Hampshire, CNN reports, where rallies with Obama are now filled to capacity, the campaign says. That's astonishing in South Carolina's case -- 18,000 people can fit in the Colonial Center in Columbia, and if they do, Oprah will be a bigger draw than the University of South Carolina's basketball team.

-- Today On The Trail: Politics Nation will be with John McCain at stops in Milford and Hooksett; in between, he stops in Peterborough and Keene to meet voters. We'll also join Mitt Romney in Concord and Meredith after he makes stops in Windham and Raymond, New Hampshire. Fred Thompson is in Spartanburg and Greer, South Carolina, while Mike Huckabee joins Don Imus on the air, then meets voters in Des Moines.

-- On the Democratic side, candidates will meet for a radio debate on Iowa Public Radio at the State Historical Society in Des Moines. Listen live, from 2-4 pm Eastern, here. Other than the debate, John Edwards has a town hall at Iowa State University, Barack Obama rallies at Grinnell College and the University of Iowa and Chris Dodd holds a town hall at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City. Bill Richardson will join Huckabee on Imus, then attends a funeral in Independence and holds a meeting with voters in Waterloo.

How Can This Not Rock?

Political Radar has the scoop, and the news is fantastic: Rep. Ron Paul will appear on The View. The Texas Congressman will join three of the usual hosts and actress Kate Walsh tomorrow.

Paul had a good appearance on The Tonight Show earlier this year, and like the late-night circuit, The View is a good place to reach a lot of key voters. Hillary Clinton appeared on the show earlier this year, though planned appearances by John and Elizabeth Edwards and Michelle Obama were canceled in solidarity with striking writers.

How will staunch Republican Elizabeth Hasselbeck respond to Paul's anti-war rhetoric? Unfortunately, we won't get to find out: Walsh is guest-hosting for the absent Hasselbeck.

Parties Trade Do-Nothing Barbs

Democrats, swept to power last year with help of charges that a Republican-led Congress had done little for America, have set much of their calendar for 2008, and Republicans say it's just another example of the new majority not keeping its word. Despite their promises to keep Congress in session five days a week to actually get work done, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has scheduled just two five-day work weeks for the entire year.

The two weeks Hoyer plans for five days of votes both come before Congressional recesses scheduled over Easter and the month of August. "It appears that the 'most open Congress in history' isn't planning on being open for business very often next year," NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said. "The Democrats' agenda of inaction and broken promises has apparently worn them out to the extent that they are desperately in need of extra days off next year."

Arguing that Congress needs to be in session more is a difficult one to make. But Republicans hope to draw attention to the lack of action, and to tie Democrats to Congress' low approval ratings. Their first point: This isn't what Democrats promised they would do. "It's not the most consequential broken promise," said Ed Patru, a spokesman for the House Republican Conference. But "it's one of myriad broken promises."

Democrats take issue with the idea that they haven't accomplished anything. Their record in 2007, they say, shows the party has accomplished more and worked more days than their GOP predecessors. The House has been in session for 105 days so far this year, more than the 87 days Republicans kept the House in session in 2006. "We have met more than Republicans this year, and will meet more than Republicans next year," House Democratic Conference spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg says.

The calendar argument, which would ordinarily be a completely inside-the-Beltway concern, helped Democrats convince voters last year that Republicans were doing nothing with their power. Now Republicans are hoping to use the same argument against Democrats. "Democrats are crowing about the number of votes they've taken, but that is not a case they can take to the public," Patru said. "What, do they want a cookie for that?"

Despite being in session longer than the GOP, Congress still has yet to finish eleven of twelve funding bills, a job Patru calls "the most rudimentary responsibility of Congress." Feinberg countered that the party in charge had made significant progress on the minimum wage, a tax relief plan for small businesses and assistance on college tuition, as well as popular measures on Head Start and lobbying and ethics reform. Feinberg blames the failure to move appropriations bills on "Republican obstruction."

The issue, though difficult to make, can feed into a larger narrative of inaction. The GOP hopes that, as in the past, it's a criticism that almost exclusively benefits the minority party running against incumbents. President Bush's vetoes of popular legislation on children's health care, though, along with minimum wage and other high-profile legislation, will give Democrats at least something to fire back with. If they're successful, the argument will be ineffective. If they fail, Democrats could be in trouble.

GOP In Trouble In NH

In 2006, few states felt the anti-Republican backlash as much as New Hampshire. The party lost both its GOP House members as well as majorities in both state legislative chambers, all as Democratic Gov. John Lynch cruised to a record-breaking re-election.

The reversal of fortune came after a 122-year drought in which Democrats could not hold the state legislature and the governorship. It was so bad for Democrats, Froma Harrop wrote last week, that the party once recruited a homeless man to run for office just to have a name on the ballot.

With Sen. John Sununu on the ballot next year, along with his 2002 rival, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, Democrats have another chance to pick up seats in the Granite State in 2008. Shaheen leads Sununu by wide margins in recent polls, and many call the seat one of Democrats' top opportunities of the year.

One indicator to watch: What percentage of independent voters choose Democratic ballots during the state's January 8th primary? In 2000, a large majority took a Republican ballot, helping Sen. John McCain win big and rejuvenating his campaign. This year, though, speculation is mounting that a vast majority of the undeclared will pick up a Democratic ballot.

Who that benefits in the presidential race is probably still up for debate. But one thing is certain: Unless he can win back Independents, Sununu is in for a bad year, likely on par with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's awful 2006.

Morning Thoughts: Came In On Sunday Once

Good Monday morning. Twenty two days until Christmas and exactly one month until the biggest holiday of all: The Iowa caucuses. Do they make advent calendars for a caucus? What would be in the little boxes? We're guessing yard signs, supporter cards and buttons. Here's what Washington has on its mind today:

-- The Senate meets for the first time in a few weeks and picks up where it left off on the farm bill. No roll call votes, however, are expected. The House takes a final day of rest before gathering tomorrow. President Bush attends a meeting with businessmen working towards a U.S.-Palestinian public-private partnership at the White House, while Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson makes remarks at the Office of Thrift Supervision's National Housing Forum. That one could move a few markets. Breaking news this morning as President Bush plans a Rose Garden news conference to challenge Congress on its agenda.

-- Congress has a lot of work on its plate before it leaves for holiday break, the Washington Post reports. Members still have to deal with eleven of the twelve appropriations bills, most of which are hovering between conference committee and a presidential veto. Democrats also hope to pass a cure for the alternative minimum tax, but they're so late in doing so that the IRS has suggested a revision would delay some tax returns. Before any of those can be tackled, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to get the farm bill out of the way, followed by a bill on wiretapping, as the House takes up energy legislation. With so much on their plates, don't be surprised if Congress is in session on Christmas Eve.

-- Two special elections will take place next Tuesday to replace members of Congress who passed away early next year, and an odd occurrence is taking place: Democrats are playing seriously in Ohio's 5th District, vacated by the late Paul Gillmor, and Virginia 01, left open by Jo Ann Davis. Both seats are heavily Republican -- Gillmor's voted for President Bush by more than 20 points in both elections, while Davis' district topped a 20-point gap for Bush in 2004 but not 2000 -- but Democrats think they have a chance, or are at least forcing the NRCC to spend money it doesn't have. Last-minute independent expenditure reports with the FEC show the DCCC dropped $148,000 into ads against Republican Bob Latta in Ohio, while informed speculation suggests that the DNC is practicing turnout operations in Virginia. The move is working a little bit: The NRCC spent $11,000 on the two races at the end of last week, and one expenditure -- against the Democrat running in Virginia -- was for ad production, meaning more spending is on its way.

-- As we mentioned above, the presidential contests are a month away from at least starting the process of concluding (ending right away would be too simple and straight forward). A Des Moines Register poll out over the weekend showed Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama leading their fields, by five and three points, respectively. Just in time for December, we have two real races. The biggest priority for Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney: Stopping their slides now and getting some positive press. The biggest problem looming for Huckabee and Obama: The danger of peaking too soon. A month is still a long time, certainly long enough for a campaign to collapse.

-- And some candidates are getting in trouble, the Iowa way. As Joe Biden pointed out at the Iowa Democrats' Jefferson Jackson Dinner, Barack Obama has a lot of supporters, and many of them are willing to drive from Chicago for their guy. Obama's camp wants to use those supporters (and who wouldn't?), but to do so he has to tread lightly. As his campaign encourages out-of-state students to become Iowa voters, he runs the risk of infuriating local Iowans, and he's already stepping on David Yepsen's toes. If there's one person no candidate wants to offend, it's Yepsen. As for the out-of-state component of Obama's campaign, it reminds, in a sense, of Howard Dean's "perfect storm," wherein the easiest way for an Iowa voter to determine who was from out of state was by the orange Dean for President ski caps. And we saw how that worked out.

-- It's been a solid year of campaigning, and it's not over yet, the Boston Globe speculates. With more money, at least three well-funded candidates on each side and a second tier that has its own big bank account, campaigns that don't win Iowa or New Hampshire will not see their money dry up as early as previous years: They simply have more in reserve. That means the nomination fights are only getting longer, and, given that Clinton and Obama have already come close to the $100 million mark, it may be the case that even the large number of February 5th contests are not decisive. Look out, Washington State caucuses on February 9th: the candidates are headed your way.

-- In 2000, New Hampshire launched John McCain as a contender. In 2004, Iowa bolstered John Edwards' prospects. Now, both find themselves trailing in states in which they once over-performed. But both candidates had a very good weekend, and other candidates will be wise not to write off their chances. First, McCain won a glowing endorsement from the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state's largest and most conservative newspaper. Then today, Edwards picked up the endorsement of Rep. Bruce Braley, the freshman congressman who represents much of the eastern part of the state. For both Edwards and McCain, the new endorsements could lead to a resurgence in states on which they have bet a large part of their fortunes.

-- Speaking of McCain, the candidate has been a long-time friend of radio host Don Imus, whose unfortunate comments earlier this year sparked his ouster from radio and MSNBC. Today, Imus is back on the air, and McCain will join him to welcome him back, along with Democratic consultant James Carville. McCain has a history of shooting off his mouth at times, so how will his being coupled with a shock jock known for insensitivity go over with voters? He's not alone in taking the risk: Imus has Huckabee set for Tuesday. How many swing voters and DC insiders still listen to Imus? Not enough to impress a few Democratic candidates; Clinton's camp says she has no plans to be back on the show, and Obama has already said he doesn't plan to appear, the Daily News reports.

-- Thing That Irritates Bill Gardner ... Of The Day: New Hampshire residents aren't the first folks getting their ballots, The Swamp reports. Floridians will be the first to cast ballots, as early as Christmas Day and nine long days before the Iowa caucuses. That's great for Republican candidates like Rudy Giuliani, who leads in Florida polls, or Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson, who have campaigned there for months. It's not so good for Mike Huckabee or John McCain, who don't have the money necessary to compete in ad wars and need a bounce from Iowa or New Hampshire. Still, few people will vote early, giving everyone a chance to catch up.

-- Today On The Trail: Mike Huckabee stops by The Early Show on CBS before hitting an interview on Iowa Public Radio. Later, he stops twice in Des Moines before appearing on Nightline. Rudy Giuliani is in Greensboro, North Carolina, while Mitt Romney is in Manchester and Hampton. John McCain begins a week-long swing through New Hampshire, with stops today in Durham and Hooksett. And Fred Thompson participates in a town hall meeting with small business owners.

-- On the Democratic side, Clinton holds events in Clear Lake, Sioux City and Council Bluffs, Iowa. Edwards has town hall meetings in Waterloo and Burlington, while Obama holds a roundtable discussion in Des Moines. Joe Biden gives a foreign policy speech in Iowa City before hitting a town hall at the University of Iowa there. Bill Richardson has an Iraq-focused town hall in Newton, and Chris Dodd begins a bus tour with stops in Ottumwa and Des Moines.

Romney Giving "The Speech"

Mormonism is a touchy subject with the Mitt Romney campaign. Whether or not the candidate should deliver a speech explaining his widely misunderstood faith, a la John Kennedy, has been a hotly-debated discussion within Romney circles.

Now, Romney is set to deliver an address on faith in America this week at former President George H.W. Bush's library at Texas A&M University, his campaign announced today.

"This speech is an opportunity for Governor Romney to share his views on religious liberty, the grand tradition religious tolerance has played in the progress of our nation and how the governor's own faith would inform his Presidency if he were elected," Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said in a statement today.

Romney aides have gone back and forth on whether to hold the speech, as AP's Phil Elliott reported in November. Some who opposed the idea said something as dramatic as an explanation of one's faith could only be done once, and argued that in an atmosphere as crowded as the last month of two open primaries a single speech would not be able to cut through the noise.

Romney, though, appears to have overruled those advisers. He personally decided to give the speech last week, Madden said.

A wise idea? A foolish concept? My colleague Jay Cost has discussed the issue at length. But because Washington media types have publicly speculated on the possibility of a speech, it is almost certainly going to be big political news next week.

Sunday Funnies

Many have bemoaned the lack of privacy for politicians. Others argue that, should someone seek public office, voters have a right to know their history. But sometimes, things just get ridiculous.

"I have not been planning to run for President for however number of years some of the other candidates have been planning for," Barack Obama said today in Iowa, according to a release from rival Hillary Clinton. The Clinton research shop begs to differ: "Senator Obama's comment today is fundamentally at odds with what his teachers, family, classmates and staff have said about his plans to run for President," countered Clinton spokesman Phil Singer.

As evidence, the Clinton camp cites essays the Senator penned about why he wanted to be president. Valid points, right? Perhaps not, when the essays were written in third grade and kindergarten. Clinton provides other articles delving into the process by which Obama decided to run, but really, were essays written when the candidate could barely tie his own shoes really necessary?

Probably not. It did provide a good laugh, though.

Democrats Finalize Primary Calendar

VIENNA, VIRGINIA - With Iowa's lead-off caucuses a scant 33 days away, the Democratic National Committee put finishing touches on the calendar under which it will nominate a presidential candidate. The chaos that has ruled the seemingly endless process of establishing delegate selection rules was finally laid to rest at today's DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting, the last before the party's August convention.

Recent calendar shuffling required Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to seek waivers as states jockeyed for position. The three states, which have long held early primaries, had been given permission to hold their contests before an approved February 5 window in which other states can schedule their events. The waivers, necessary because all three had changed the dates on which their contests will be held in recent months, were granted with little dissent.

Still, the meeting was not without rigor or conflict. Many throughout the party have voiced frustration that Iowa and New Hampshire, two states that have traditionally held their nominating contests at the head of the pack, continue to dominate the process so completely. "It's unconscionable that we continue to grant special treatment" to the two early states, Michigan Democratic Party chairman Mark Brewer told fellow committee members.

Brewer's home state faced the harshest sanctions of the day. Just weeks after Michigan's state legislature moved to establish a primary ahead of the February 5 window, "Michigan is coming to you today to request equal treatment," DNC member Debbie Dingell said. Early states have too much influence on the process, she argued, as Democrats hope to elect a president. "It is not a president of Iowa or New Hampshire. It is a president of all 50 states," she said.

Despite their pleas, the body stripped Michigan of its entire delegate slate. The move, along with four Democratic candidates' decisions to remove themselves from the primary ballot, makes Michigan's January 15 primary little more than a beauty contest. Michigan becomes the second state, along with Florida, to see its delegates removed for rule violations.

Ensuring that Michigan's contest is all but meaningless, the committee provided an eleven-day window between the New Hampshire primary and the Nevada caucuses, giving candidates a chance to reset messages and focus on the Silver State. Nevada Democrats are giddy at the prospect of increased influence in the process; state party Executive Director Travis Brock passed out stickers touting "the 11 Days of Caucus."

Nevada did not come by its position in the process easily, and its advance could signal a change in the way future calendars are formulated. Opening the meeting, RBC co-chairs James Roosevelt and Alexis Herman spent significant time reviewing the progress and decisions the committee has made. No matter the work put into the calendar this year, many committee members predicted an end to Iowa and New Hampshire's traditional supremacy.

Criticizing New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner's public adherence to a state law requiring him to set the primary a week ahead of other states, committee member Donna Brazile said she believed the "gentleman's agreement" between Iowa and New Hampshire was coming to a close. "I want to thank Mr. Gardner for making sure that it is history," Brazile said.

The final pre-February 5 window schedule:

January 3 - Iowa
January 5 - Wyoming (Republican caucuses only)
January 8 - New Hampshire
January 15 - Michigan (Only Republican delegates allocated)
January 19 - Nevada
January 19 - South Carolina (Republican primary only)
January 26 - South Carolina (Democratic primary only)
January 29 - Florida (Only Republican delegates allocated)
February 5 - Party-approved window opens