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RealClearPolitics Politics Nation Blog

 

Blog Home Page --> January 2008

MO Dominoes Are Dem Opportunities

Missouri Governor Matt Blunt's decision to retire at the end of this term could produce a domino effect that helps a former Democratic rival win a seat in Congress. Blunt's exit prompted Republican Rep. Kenny Hulshof to enter the race for governor this week, leaving his 9th District seat for a chance at the top post in Jefferson City.

Hulshof would have been difficult to defeat, as his district gave President Bush 59% of the vote in 2004. But the DCCC had already been spending money on radio ads in the district before Hulshof announced his retirement, and they're likely to continue targeting the open seat.

Prior to Hulshof's decision, the leading Democratic challenger was State Rep. Judy Baker, whose lack of name recognition and financial support may have been too much to overcome against the 6-term incumbent. But the open seat produced much excitement among Democrats, and caused many candidates more well-known than Baker to consider a run.

One such candidate is former State House Speaker Steve Gaw, whom the Columbia Tribune reports is likely to enter the race. Gaw was first elected to the Legislature in 1992, representing all of Randolph County and parts of three others. He was elected Speaker in 1996 after just four years in the State House. In 2000, he ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state, losing 51%-45% to Matt Blunt, who used that post as a springboard to the governorship. Gaw has not run for office since his loss to Blunt, and now Blunt's exit could be the impetus of his return.

Other potential Democratic challengers include former Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell, who was elected to the 2nd highest post in the state in 2000. The Tribune reported, however, that Maxwell is unlikely to run. Wes Shoemyer, a socially conservative, first-term state senator, is still considering a race.

Potential Republican successors to Hulshof include Greg Steinhoff, the director of the Department of Economic Development; State Rep. Bob Onder; State Rep. Joe Smith; and Jason Van Eaton, a former aide to Sen. Kit Bond, the Tribune reports.

The expansive 9th District includes all of 22 counties, as well as the university city of Columbia, the outskirts of the St. Louis metropolitan area, and the entire northeastern section of the state. Democrats were elected here for 34 years before Hulshof first won in 1996. The mix of urban, suburban and rural voters makes this a difficult race for any candidate to win, but will likely remain on national Democrats' target list.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Just Can't Get Enough

He can't help himself, it seems: After wins in Iowa and South Carolina, Barack Obama has raised $32 million in January, the Associated Press' Jim Kuhnhenn reports. $32 million is an incredible quarter. But you read that right: Obama didn't raise that money in a quarter, he raised it in a month.

If Obama becomes the Democratic nominee, his coffers will swell so fast it may not matter who Republicans put up. Recall that, in 2004, after Democrats nominated John Kerry, the GOP spent the next month virtually alone on the air criticizing Kerry. No matter who Republicans nominate, Obama will have enough money to begin hammering them immediately, while the GOP hunkers down to raise money.

One has to believe that Hillary Clinton will be well-funded too, though not to the extent Obama might be. Not in recent history has the entire Democratic Party been better-funded than Republicans, and the gap this year could be enough to truly change the political landscape.

As Senate and House committees announce their fundraising totals today after filing with the FEC, Democrats continue their dominance. The DSCC reports $29.4 million in the bank and a $1.5 million debt, while Senate Republicans have just under $12.1 million on hand, with no debt, Roll Call and the New York Times report. On the House side, the DCCC kept $35 million along with a $1.3 million debt, while Republicans, finally out of the red, have $5 million on hand and obligations of about $2 million.

Numbers for the DNC and RNC were not immediately available, though we'll have those to you by this afternoon.

The Myth Of Youth

Time Magazine will lead this week with a look at the rise of the younger voter, spurred to the polls by Barack Obama's star power. If that sounds familiar, replace the name "Barack Obama" with "Howard Dean" or any of the large number of candidates who supposedly have relied on the youth vote over the years, and one or many news outlets wrote the same story then.

Most candidates who rely on the youth vote end up disappointed at the end when younger voters don't bother showing up. But Obama remains a front-runner after big victories in two states. For all the talk of younger voters flocking toward their favored candidate, though, the numbers tell a less spectacular story: Yes, youth turnout is up. But, the numbers show, not that much.

Those between the ages of 17-29 who are eligible to caucus made up 22% of the Iowa electorate this year, up only 5 points from 2004. In New Hampshire, turnout among those 18-29 was 18%, up 4 points from four years ago. In South Carolina, the 14% of the electorate who are young was up 5 points.

Many more young people turned out this year, but turnout was up across the board, and youth voters rose only slightly more than the population at large. Perhaps more telling, younger voters are making up smaller portions of the electorate. Those under 29 made up just 9% in Florida, and the numbers have decreased in each successive state.

Obama is doing well among younger voters, but it's not a key portion of his coalition. Obama's success rests on a more traditional base of Democrats. As Gordon Fischer, a top Obama adviser and former Iowa Democratic Party chairman, told Politics Nation a few months ago, the youth vote is the icing on the cake, but the campaign is still baking the cake.

Finally, it seems, a campaign that the media says will benefit from a big youth boom is not letting the hype go to its head. Ask President Dean how much good the promise of a younger voter surge actually does.

Rich Challengers File In KY

With the primary coming on May 20, filing for Kentucky federal races closed on Tuesday, as eight Democrats lined up for the right to take on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Several potential top-tier challengers, including Congressman Ben Chandler, state Auditor Crit Luallen and former Attorney General Greg Stumbo all passed on the race, though McConnell does not have a free ride.

Attorney and Iraq war veteran Andrew Horne, a top DCCC recruit in 2006 who nonetheless lost his primary to now-Rep. John Yarmuth, announced his candidacy weeks ago. Still, it may be the second time Horne can't make it through a primary. Wealthy businessmen Greg Fischer and Bruce Lunsford are also in the race, and both are willing to spend money to get their campaigns off the ground.

Fischer is a first-time candidate, while Lunsford ran for governor in 2003 and 2007, losing in both primaries. This time around, he's been encouraged to run by DSCC chair Chuck Schumer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and even new Governor Steve Beshear, who called Lunsford in December, the Lexington Herald-Leader wrote.

All three top candidates face a steep uphill climb. A poll this month, conducted for McConnell's campaign, showed the incumbent 15 points ahead of Lunsford, 22 points up on Fischer and 23 ahead of Horne. Through the end of the 3rd quarter, McConnell had more than $6.8 million in the bank, an almost insurmountable hurdle for any challenger.

Morning Thoughts: All GOP Edition

Good Thursday morning. It's the last day of January, but given the weather in Washington yesterday, it feels like the first week of the month. Here's hoping Punxsutawney Phil declares winter over this Saturday. The rest of what Washington's watching:

-- After another tough week, the House is out of session again today (Were they even around? We honestly forgot. Oh, that's right, State of the Union and then the stimulus package). The Senate Finance Committee, meanwhile, advanced their own version of a stimulus bill to the floor, capping eligibility for rebate checks at $150,000 -- meaning single members of Congress won't be getting rebates -- and adding energy tax breaks and cuts for those building houses, CongressDaily reports (subs req'd). Today, the bill hits the floor, where it needs 60 votes to take the place of the House version, which Majority Leader Harry Reid plans to offer today.

-- Last night's debate brought a new-look GOP field. The media wanted to see the Mitt Romney-John McCain throw-down, and they got it. The two barked back and forth over McCain's recent criticism of Romney for advocating time tables to get out of Iraq, an assertion Romney rejects outright, for so long that even Mike Huckabee complained about being left out, Jonathan Martin writes. But, an important opportunity missed last night: A focus on the economy. Changing the course of the debate to favor a tanking economy is Romney's last chance to get back in front, but last night, heading into the biggest election of his life, he failed to do so.

-- Like him or not, McCain is the front-runner, and somebody has to take action if they're going to stop him. Maybe Romney isn't the person to do so; maybe it's Huckabee. After another stellar debate in which he came across as reasonable, humorous, responsible and tried to act the commander in chief, Huckabee goes into Super Tuesday with no money and not much of an official campaign organization. That's exactly how he went into Iowa, and thanks to an underground network of supporters, he won. It's not hard to imagine Huckabee taking several Southern states and performing surprisingly well in some others, while Romney can't manage one win next week. If that happens, McCain will still be in front, but he'll have to turn his attention to some serious Huckabusiness.

-- Regardless of Huckabee's success, though, we couldn't help but remember 2004, when Edwards survived to face John Kerry one-on-one. A late debate performance was meant more as an audition as the attack dog, in order to convince Kerry he could serve as Vice President. The four candidates on stage last night are all despised by various wings of their party. Huckabee is not well-liked by the Club for Growth, for instance, while Romney is unpopular with evangelicals. Ron Paul, it seems, is unpopular with everyone. McCain's had a history of sticking his finger in the GOP's eye; what better way to do so than by picking Huckabee as a running mate, just to irritate his party further?

-- Further evidence of Romney's dropping off as a strong contender: Five days before Super Tuesday and he still has not made a move to get his advertisements on the air, as this space has reported and as Jim Geraghty and the AP report today. Still, the point Geraghty makes is well-taken: Romney won big in Wyoming and Nevada, where he spent time organizing, and beat McCain by a narrower margin in Michigan. If Romney could spend his money on building big organizations, he'd be in good position. But that's not something he can do in five days.

-- To be fair, McCain and Huckabee aren't going up on television either, leaving only Democrats on the air, the New York Times writes. But that's not unusual for either: McCain is relying on the free media that's brought him this far (Never underestimate how much the press loves access to a candidate). And Huckabee is relying on word-of-mouth campaigning that got him a win in Iowa. Of course, the fact that neither has the money to run a big ad campaign makes the decision not to do so a lot easier.

-- By the way, consider a weakened GOP base: Rush Limbaugh is furious that McCain would even be allowed to use the party label, much less serve as standard-bearer. Conservatives not freaked out by the possibility of a President Obama or a President Clinton vote by staying home. And, chronically under-funded, the ticket can't compete with the hundreds of millions -- perhaps more -- that the Democratic team brings in. It is entirely likely, from the presidential level down, that this could be a doomsday year for Republicans, perhaps on a scale that makes 2006 look small by comparison.

-- Not all is bad news for the GOP this morning: Their old pal Ralph Nader is considering a new presidential bid, Bloomberg reports. If the presidential race is anywhere near close, Republicans will love it if Nader is back on the ballot. Nader will spend a month assessing his fundraising viability and hiring staff, he told reporters as he filed papers to form an exploratory committee.

-- Downer Of The Day: Last week, the conversations centered on two contested conventions, with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton leaning on John Edwards delegates to win and Republicans in a three- or four-way melee for first place. Sadly, as happens every year, the idea of a contested convention is pleasant, but it's not going to happen. The Democratic race is a two-way contest with just 26 Edwards delegates up for grabs (fewer, actually -- his Iowa delegates haven't been picked yet, meaning they'll go with Clinton or Obama). On the GOP side too, there aren't enough delegates allocated yet to make the case against an overwhelming nominee. Contested conventions are fun to talk about, but there's a reason one hasn't happened in decades. This year, too, there will likely be two consensus choices.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton and Obama debate in Los Angeles tonight, after Obama holds a town hall meeting there. Also in L.A., McCain wins backing from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Huckabee addresses the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, while Mitt Romney has tour stops in Long Beach, Fountain Valley and San Diego.

Edwards' Siding Goes Right

To his credit, John Edwards does more than just talk about poverty. Edwards has taken volunteers to New Orleans to help rebuild houses, started One Corps to encourage more people to volunteer in their communities and spent his own time lending a hand on numerous occasions around the country.

After announcing he would suspend his campaign today in the same Ninth Ward neighborhood where he launched his White House bid more than a year ago, Edwards rolled up his sleeves and lent a hand in Habitat for Humanity's Musicians' Village, helping out on a couple of houses currently under construction.

Sometimes, though, it takes a professional. One Habitat volunteer familiar with Edwards' work on the two houses reports the now-former candidate, in the process of building a railing, screwed in several spindles on a rather crooked angle. Plus, the volunteer says, "I think he stripped a bunch of the screws." One possible explanation may be Edwards' assistant: His son Jack lent a helping hand.

Edwards then headed to another house, where he found his calling: He reportedly excelled at putting up siding.

VA's Davis Out Too

Virginia Republican Tom Davis announced today that he will step down from Congress at the end of the year, though he left open the possibility of running for office again someday. The move was not entirely surprising since Davis removed his name from consideration for the upcoming Senate race in Virginia.

"I want to emphasize that I am not closing the door on future public service, but after 29 years in office, winning 11 elections, I think it is time for a respite," Davis said in a released statement.

Davis initially told supporters he would run for Senate if Republican John Warner retired. But after Warner announced he would be leaving the chamber, the Virginia GOP voted to nominate its candidate through a convention, rather than a primary. A convention gave a big advantage to former Governor Jim Gilmore, whom the conservative base in the state would surely support over the moderate Davis.

Davis was first elected to the Northern Virginia-based 11th District in 1994. Shortly after being elected, Davis was named chairman of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee's D.C. subcommittee, and in 2003 became chairman of the full committee, surpassing a number of Republicans on the committee with more seniority.

Davis has remained active on issues pertaining to the nation's capital, and most recently worked with D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton on a drive to give the District a full voting member of the House. He has jokingly been referred to as the Congressman from the Orange Line, the subway route that travels through his district.

Davis was elected NRCC chairman in 1998, and a successful election cycle won him re-election to the post in 2000. In 2002 he worked with Karl Rove on redistricting plans across the country that helped Republicans boost their majority.

Virginia's 11th District includes much of Fairfax County, including the bustling Tyson's Corner, a massive junction of highways and office parks, located 10 miles outside of D.C. The entire region has been trending Democratic for some time, helping provide winning margins for Democrats in recent state legislative elections. But Davis's tenure and moderate voting record has helped him remain in office.

However, in 2006 he won with just 55% against a little-known and underfunded Democrat. Despite the vote of confidence he gave in his retirement announcement that Republicans will keep the seat, Davis has previously admitted the GOP will be hard pressed to win here if he retired.

Democrat Gerry Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, has already formed an exploratory committee for the seat. His position as the supervisors board chair gives him a similar spotlight as that of a city mayor, and it is the same office Davis held before being elected in 1994. Other Democrats who have been waiting for Davis to retire will likely join the race as well, and depending on who Republicans can recruit, this should be one of the party's best chances at a pick-up in the country.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Ad Of The Year

In the race for the Democratic Senate nomination in Oregon, Portland attorney Steve Novick is running as the decided underdog. He trails House Speaker Jeff Merkley in money raised, institutional support and endorsements from prominent Oregon Democratic organizations.

Still, let no one say that Novick is out of the race. He's certainly got creativity wrapped up, as his latest television ad demonstrates:

Challengers low in the polls and off the mainstream radar screen are frequently overlooked and forced to do something off the wall to raise their profiles. Most of the time, the gambits don't work. Occasionally, though, they launch a candidate's unlikely success: Think Paul Wellstone's fantastic ads during his inaugural Senate race in Minnesota. Can Gordon Smith open a beer with his hook? We don't think so.

Lewis Pulls Fast One In Retiring

Kentucky Republican Ron Lewis will no longer seek re-election to his 2nd District seat this year, his office revealed yesterday in a story filled with the bizarre twists of old-school politics. Lewis's re-election paperwork had already been turned in by the state's January 29 candidate filing deadline. But as Josh Kraushaar reports, some 11th hour funny business ensued as Lewis tried to ensure his successor.

Daniel London, Lewis's chief of staff, sent his wife to the Kentucky Secretary of State's office to file her husband's paperwork to run for the seat. While there, she also withdrew Lewis's name from the ballot. Their apparent scheme would have allowed London no primary competition, and forced national Republicans to back the unopposed nominee in the general.

It almost worked. But, the Louisville Courier-Journal reports, State Senator Brett Guthrie heard about Lewis's impending retirement and rushed to the Secretary of State's office to file his own paperwork with little time to spare.

Republican officials in the state, including Senator Mitch McConnell, seemed to frown upon Lewis not announcing his retirement before the filing deadline, thereby not allowing prospective candidates time to mull their options. In a release, McConnell stated that he is "delighted" that Guthrie entered the race, but made no mention of London. NRCC spokesperson Ken Spain called Guthrie an "'A' candidate."

Guthrie and London will now face off in the May 20 Republican primary. The winner will face one of two Democrats in the general election -- State Senator David Boswell and Davies County Judge Executive Reid Haire.

The 2nd District of Kentucky includes all of 20 counties mostly south of Louisville, as well as a small part of Louisville's Jefferson County. This was President Bush's best-performing district in 2004, winning 65%. Lewis had won mostly lopsided races since entering Congress in a 1994 special election. In 2006, however, Democrat Mike Weaver, a conservative state representative and Vietnam War veteran, held Lewis to 55%.

-- Kyle Trygstad

A Giuliani Post-Mortem

John Edwards' unexpected announcement that he will drop out of the race has stolen what was supposed to be Rudy Giuliani's day. The former New York Mayor, who ignored early contests in hopes of relying on his national name recognition to sweep to a February 5 win, saw his strategy collapse thanks to a distant third-place finish in Florida last night. He is widely expected to head to California today, drop out of the race and back John McCain for the GOP nomination.

Giuliani's announcement, as Ben Smith and David Paul Kuhn write, could mark the end of September 11 as a major factor in American politics. Joe Biden famously mocked Giuliani's sentence structure as "a noun and a verb and 9/11," and the failure of that message led directly to Giuliani's demise.

That's not to say the campaign was doomed from the start: Giuliani brought a solid message of competent, even exceptional management to the race. But he played those messages up too late, ignoring early warning signs and relying on a broken strategy.

Strategists and future candidates can take important lessons from Giuliani's failed campaign: First, and most importantly, a campaign needs oxygen. Giuliani, who spent the plurality of his campaign working the Sunshine State and ignoring Iowa and New Hampshire, led in polls until just after the kick-off caucus and primary. After a week of media attention on winners Mike Huckabee and John McCain, and on second-place finisher Mitt Romney, Giuliani's numbers collapsed as voters read about other candidates non-stop.

Second, Giuliani failed to take a risk. The poet Terence argued that fortune favors the bold. In presidential politics, too, playing defense gets you nowhere. The only way to win is to fight for it, tooth and nail, in the earliest contests.

Giuliani and Romney, throughout 2007, were akin to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the Democratic side: All four were seen as 800-pound gorillas, and all four did not want to engage the other on unfamiliar territory, worried that a loss would be seen as a crushing blow. The difference: Clinton and Obama both competed in Iowa and New Hampshire, splitting the vote and emerging to avoid each other, again, on February 5. Giuliani virtually ceded Iowa and New Hampshire to Romney (giving Huckabee and McCain an opening), betting on facing him successfully in Florida and later.

But when Giuliani's main rival became the equally well-known McCain, who had benefited from a month of good press, that strategy collapsed. Previous candidates from New York City have had a hard time being elected governor of the state, much less being elected President. The next person who tries (attention, Mr. Bloomberg) needs to keep in mind an important lesson: You're a celebrity in New York City. In Iowa and New Hampshire, and continuing through other early primary states, you have to beg and plead for a vote just like everyone else.

Finally, many have argued that Giuliani was simply outside the GOP mainstream, and that the positions he took would have killed him in the end. That's probably accurate, given the attitude with which he addressed controversial stands on gay rights, abortion and gun control. Had Giuliani instead come out aggressively pushing back, insisting that his positions were mischaracterized or that his insistence on conservative judges would make up the difference, he might have found more success. Letting rivals pigeon-hole him as a liberal with three weddings under his belt was too much.

A campaign can't survive without oxygen, future presidential consultants and managers would do well to note, and Giuliani's strategy of skipping early contests was the first sign of the campaign's impending doom. As Romney, Clinton and Obama discovered, even a loss can keep you in the news and at the front of the pack. If Giuliani had competed and won in Iowa and New Hampshire, he would have run away with the nomination. Had he competed and lost, he would have at least been able to finish ahead of Ron Paul and Fred Thompson, and he could have built momentum instead of hoping to stay afloat long enough to survive. As he drops out of the race, Giuliani trails even Paul in delegates accumulated.

Edwards Out

John Edwards will use a speech in New Orleans today to drop out of the presidential race, MSNBC's Chuck Todd reports today. The last major casualty in the Democratic race before the nomination is decided, Edwards is ending his campaign in the same city he launched his bid in late 2006.

Edwards' exit will likely aid Barack Obama in some northern states, where liberals can't wrap their minds around Hillary Clinton, and will help Clinton in the South, where race now becomes more of a factor in many voters' minds. Clinton, too, will likely benefit from Edwards' labor backing; Obama has shown a marked lack of ability to win union support, while Clinton has backing from as many major national unions as Edwards did.

The real winner: CNN, which holds the race's first one-on-one debate tomorrow night in Los Angeles. With Edwards out of the race, there's no one left to play peace-maker between Clinton and Obama.

Morning Thoughts: Spin Me Right Round

Good Wednesday morning. For the sake of many in the press corps, who have seen their hard-living ways catch up to them, it's a wonderful thing that the primaries are over early in the evening this year. Then, those of us on the brink of catching our deaths can actually get some sleep. Before we pass on to the great political pages in the sky, here's what Washington is watching:

-- The House is not in session today, though yesterday it passed the economic stimulus package by an approximately 10-1 margin. The measure now moves to the Senate, which feels somewhat snubbed for being left out of the negotiations between the House and the White House, and has its own plan to offer. That could throw a monkey wrench in hopes by President Bush and Speaker Pelosi to just get the darned thing passed. The House, seemingly resting up for battle with the upper chamber, is out of session today.

-- Last night's Florida win for John McCain perpetuated the front-runner storyline in a dramatic way. The media consensus, at the moment, is that McCain is the nominee in waiting. "Only McCain left standing," writes CQ's Craig Crawford. "For McCain, Momentum That May Be Hard To Stop," heads the Post's Dan Balz. The win, Adam Nagourney wrote, "raises the hurdles for [Mitt] Romney." While many suggested yesterday that Florida was a must-win for him, this morning many are discussing just how crucial Florida was for Romney, instead. The Florida primary was going to be a game-changer in favor of either McCain or Romney, and it certainly succeeded.

-- But the media may be racing toward a conclusion too quickly. To be certain, there have to be dozens of conservative radio hosts around the country who loathe John McCain and everything they think he stands for. Those hosts reach millions of people -- heck, more people listen to Rush Limbaugh on a daily basis than watch Fox News, CNN and MSNBC combined. As the Washington Times' Don Lambro points out, as McCain gets closer to the nomination, those hosts won't quiet down; they're just getting louder.

-- In fact, one might argue that Romney has an easier path to the nomination now than he did before losing Florida. With Rudy Giuliani out of the race, Romney's the only executive. With Mike Huckabee all but dead in the water and flat broke, Romney is the lone anti-McCain figure in the race. That's his new pitch, NBC/NJ's Erin McPike writes: It's a conservative versus John McCain. If he can convince voters that's actually the matchup they get, Romney -- if Republicans on Capitol Hill are to be believed -- would have to try to lose. Fortunately for McCain, though, Republicans on the Hill have shown a propensity to incorrectly gauge their base from time to time, and a win last night in a closed GOP primary showed the base might be just fine with the maverick.

-- Instead, it was Romney who headlines portray this morning as on the way to his own funeral. The AP's headline defines just how the media is looking at his second-place showing: "Romney vows to carry on campaign." That's not the message a successful candidate projects, that's the message of someone about to drop out. And, to be fair, that's probably not Romney. He came close last night, chased a lead opponent from the race and now has the matchup that probably suits him best. Still, with no events other than the Simi Valley debate on his docket today -- one has to imagine a sit-down with Mrs. Romney and all the little Romneys to discuss financial matters -- he's not acting like it's full speed ahead. When are those Super Tuesday ads going up?

-- On the Democratic side, HILLARY CLINTON WON A HUGE VICTORY LAST NIGHT! That's our lede, A01, right in front. Well, not really. Every now and then, the press reports on the efforts of one group to convince us what to report and what to value. How very meta. Clinton's campaign tried that yesterday, hoping to convince reporters that Florida was just as important -- if not more so -- than South Carolina, where Barack Obama came away with a big win. Clinton landed in Davie, Florida after polls closed last night for what her camp billed as a victory rally, and we're certain she'll win a few headlines, mostly in Florida. But it really didn't help her cause when MSNBC, among others, read disclaimers about Florida offering no delegates any time they talked about the Democratic side.

-- On the other hand, Florida Democrats offered two points about their party's nomination contest: First, in a vacuum, Hillary Clinton is still the front-runner. It wasn't a complete vacuum -- we suppose Obama's campaign had a few ads on cable news networks -- but it was nothing like the saturation level that happened in the first four early states. Aided by a lack of attention, Clinton won: She is therefore the default candidate, the one Democrats pick when they don't know much about the other guys. On February 5, Clinton can win every place no one watches, forcing Obama and John Edwards to find every delegate and play everywhere.

-- Second, and on the flip side of the above, Clinton won by just 17 points, about half of what she led by a year ago when a Quinnipiac poll showed her up by 36 (see all the Florida polls here). Nationally, Clinton holds a 9.7-point edge over Obama, according to the latest RCP Democratic Average. That's way down from the near-30 point lead she held through October. Obama has closed the gap enough to eliminate much of Clinton's default status. The default candidate, by the way, has a hard time winning votes back once they're lost. If Obama succeeds in overtaking Clinton, she will have a terribly difficult time coming back. Given polls in strange states like Colorado, where Obama's up by 2, he may be on the verge of doing just that.

-- Unthinkable Scenario Of The Day: We're not picking on Zogby, they just offer the best example of the lesson that politics is unpredictable. Their telephone survey of 364 likely Republicans, conducted 7/12-14 last year, showed Fred Thompson with 22% and Rudy Giuliani with 21%, followed by Romney's 11%, McCain at 9% and Huckabee at just 5%. Thompson and Giuliani, who led the national polls all year, are gone. Laggards Romney, McCain and Huckabee are still standing. Remember this in four years: Do not pay attention to national polls in presidential primaries.

-- Today On The Trail: Before Republicans head to the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California to debate, Huckabee has a fundraiser in Newport Beach, meets with religious leaders in Westlake Village and holds a fundraiser in Thousand Oaks. McCain has media stops in Miami and Burbank before the debate, while Romney goes straight to the debate. Clinton hits North Little Rock for a town hall, then heads to Atlanta to address the National Baptist Convention and the Georgia Dems' Jefferson-Jackson dinner. Edwards delivers a major speech on poverty in New Orleans before heading to the Georgia Democratic event as well. Obama has rallies planned in Denver and Phoenix as his February 5 sprint is already in full swing.

McCain Wins Florida

John McCain won the Florida primary, along with the state's 57 delegates tonight. For complete coverage, and minute-by-minute results as they came in, check out the RCP Blog.

Multiple media outlets confirm that tonight's disappointing finish will end Rudy Giuliani's campaign. He will fly to California tomorrow to offer his backing to McCain.

DCCC Launches Red-To-Blue

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Chris Van Hollen today tapped three trusted lieutenants to head up a pivotal program that helped the party pick up dozens of Republican-held seats last year. Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Alabama Rep. Artur Davis and Iowa freshman Bruce Braley will co-chair the Red-to-Blue program, Van Hollen announced today.

The program, which targets promising recruits running against GOP incumbents, rewards prospects for proving fundraising and campaigning abilities by providing financing and assistance. It is also a leading indicator for which Republican members the committee views as most vulnerable.

Van Hollen and Wasserman Schultz co-chaired the successful program in 2006, helping raise more than $22.6 million for 56 candidates, according to the DCCC. In 2004, Red-to-Blue raised $7.5 million for 27 candidates. In all, 42 new Democrats were elected to Congress in 2006, including 24 who defeated GOP incumbents and eight who won an open seat that had been vacated by a Republican.

The preliminary list of targeted candidates includes Democratic challengers running for eight GOP-held open seats and three special elections. Five of the eight candidates running for open seats are candidates who ran in 2006 and lost by fewer than 3 points. Second-timers include Dan Maffei, who lost to Rep. Jim Walsh in New York's 25th District, Mary Jo Kilroy, who narrowly lost Ohio's 15th District to Deborah Pryce, Linda Stender, in New Jersey's 7th District, Gary Trauner in Wyoming and Charlie Brown, who missed beating John Doolittle in California's 4th District. First-time challengers John Adler, in New Jersey's 3rd District, Ohio 16's John Boccieri and Debbie Halvorson in Illinois' 11th District are all state senators running in open seats.

Also listed are three seats with special elections that will take place this year, including seats being vacated by Republican Reps. Denny Hastert and Richard Baker and a seat left open after the death of Democratic Rep. Julia Carson. Carson's seat is the only Democratic seat listed, and her grandson, Indianapolis City-County Councilor Andre Carson will be the Democratic nominee in the March special election.

Notably absent from the first wave of Red-to-Blue candidates are those who face a competitive primary. One likely list member is Ann Kirkpatrick, a well-funded former state legislator who has received endorsements from EMILY's List and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and whose top Republican competition dropped out three weeks ago. Kirkpatrick is running in the moderate and sprawling 1st District in Arizona, which is being vacated by the scandal-plagued Republican Rick Renzi.

Two other districts likely to make the Red-to-Blue list at some point this year are Minnesota's 3rd District, where Republican Jim Ramstad is retiring, and New Mexico's 1st District, where Republican Heather Wilson is leaving her seat to run for the Senate. President Bush won 51% in both districts in 2004.

The Red-to-Blue list will grow as the year goes on, and a Democratic candidate's inclusion, or exclusion, will indicate the amount of faith the DCCC has in that candidate's chances.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Is FL Crucial To Romney?

As we wrote this morning, Mitt Romney has dominated the Florida airwaves, broadcasting almost three times as many ads as John McCain has this month alone. And while it has been assumed, by this writer as much as any, that Romney will move forward with his campaign, and in reasonably strong position, regardless of his Florida finish, some signs suggest that the campaign is waiting with baited breath, hoping for a win before they make future plans.

RomDSM.jpg
Romney greets voters in Des Moines on New Years' Eve
Time's Mark Halperin notices that, while Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- and, within a few hours, even John Edwards -- are running ads in February 5 states, Romney and other Republican hopefuls are not. While John McCain and Rudy Giuliani are probably out of money, Romney, as he has done throughout the year, can write himself a check.

But instead of getting a head start on his rivals, Romney remains dark in Super Tuesday states. Campaign spokesman Kevin Madden says the campaign is going according to plan, though. "It's our goal to be competitive in all these early states," he says. "You can make the case that you have a growing level of momentum" heading into February 5.

Still, the situation appears similar to the week between New Hampshire's primary and the Michigan contest, in which the campaign pulled ads from Florida and South Carolina to focus their attention on the Wolverine State. Conventional wisdom held that Romney was acting the businessman: Why continue to throw good money after bad, when he might not win the nomination?

After winning in Michigan, Romney put enough resources behind his Florida effort to put him in the position he finds himself today: Very near, if not at, the top. Still, without a larger investment, Romney remains an underdog in February 5 states. Romney lacks a national profile, and he would have to introduce himself to voters, unlike McCain, who can coast on his name recognition.

The absence of further ad spending, then, seems to suggest that Romney is awaiting the results of Florida to see whether it's worth it. And given that he's waiting, even as the race boils down to a nail-biter between Romney and McCain, one might conclude that a win in Florida is Romney's only option if he is going to continue.

Madden dismissed that idea. "I don't think any state's a must-win, since we've been very competitive in all these early states," he told Politics Nation. "A very competitive finish is good for us, whether it's a first or a close second." Asked whether Romney had put any additional money behind his candidacy, Madden demurred. "Our FEC reports are due on the 31st," he said.

Florida, unlike previous states, operates under a winner-take-all system. Romney's campaign -- including the candidate himself -- has been the most vocal proponent of the delegate battle theory, by which the primaries do not produce a clear winner and the battle progresses to a convention. Despite Romney's lead in the race for delegates, his campaign may have concluded that, should Florida's 57 delegates fall to McCain, the path to 1,191 representatives at the convention becomes implausible.

Given Romney's lack of spending, one might be led to believe that Florida is just as important to him as it is to Giuliani. Then again, it seems likely that Romney will continue, regardless of the outcome tonight. Madden hinted to Politics Nation that advertising in February 5 states is right around the corner. "We will make those decisions in the next day or so," he said.

Northup Tries 2nd Comeback

Former Republican Rep. Anne Northup will file for her old seat today, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports, setting up a grudge match with Democrat John Yarmuth in Kentucky's 3rd District. Yarmuth defeated Northup 51%-48% in 2006 to take back the Louisville-Jefferson County based seat for Democrats.

Northup's first four elections were close, running against relatively well-funded candidates in a district that Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry all won in the last three presidential elections. In 2006, Northup's campaign faced challenges both political -- she fell victim to the national anti-incumbent mood that swept the country -- and the personal, when one of her six children unexpectedly passed away. After the death, she suspended her campaign for six weeks.

After her defeat, Northup mounted an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for governor last year, losing 50%-37% to scandal-tainted Ernie Fletcher, the incumbent who was soundly beaten by the Democratic nominee in November. Before deciding to enter the race this year, Northup had been supporting Republican Erwin Roberts, who recently pulled out because of the likelihood his Army Reserve unit would be activated.

Those who follow Kentucky politics say Northup will be aided by Senator Mitch McConnell's run for re-election this year, especially if no Democrat emerges as a strong challenger. McConnell, who had nearly $7 million in the bank by the end of the 3rd quarter, will spend heavily, especially in Yarmuth's district. The two are close politically -- McConnell did not back incumbent Fletcher while Northup was challenging him -- and the seat returning to the Republican fold is good for GOP candidates running at all levels. McConnell, who hails from Louisville, would certainly like to be represented by a Republican in Congress as well.

In her latest financial disclosure with the FEC, Northup reported having less than $10,000 cash on hand. In 2006, she spent about $3.4 million to Yarmuth's $2.2 million. Through September of last year, Yarmuth had banked an impressive $610,000. He has no reason to worry about money anyway -- he donates his congressional paycheck to charity.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Missouri GOP In Chaos

Following Governor Matt Blunt's surprise decision to suspend his campaign for re-election, Missouri Republicans are scrambling to get to the head of the pack to replace him. Three major candidates have jumped in so far, all hoping to face likely Democratic nominee Jay Nixon. Still, with a relatively late primary, the crowded field of well-known candidates could only serve to bolster Nixon's chances in November.

The top Republicans have moved quickly to form their campaign teams and stake their claims to the nomination. In a four-minute video on his website, Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder said he looked forward to tax cuts and tougher positions on illegal immigration. The first-term number two hails from Cape Girardeau, just south of St. Louis near the confluence of Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky.

State Treasurer Sarah Steelman's campaign hit Clay County yesterday, stressing education, health care affordability and the economy to what the Kansas City Star called about 20 people. Steelman had announced she would seek a second term as Treasurer early on January 22, but after Blunt made his announcement, later that day, she decided instead to seek the governorship. Steelman is a former State Senator from Rolla, a small town halfway between St. Louis and Springfield.

The two statewide elected officials are not alone in the race, though. Today, U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, who represents the Columbia-based Ninth District in the northeast corner of the state, plans to announce his own bid for governor, the Star reports. Hulshof has been calling top donors telling them of his decision, and a formal announcement will come today, GOP sources said.

Two other Republicans, moderate Rep. Jo Ann Emerson and former Senator Jim Talent, who ran for governor in 2000, have each said they will not run.

Hulshof likely begins as the front-runner, and in 2006 he spent more than $1.3 million. That's considerably more than Steelman's 2004 campaign, when she raised just over $900,000, and Kinder's, when he took in around $740,000. Kinder starts his campaign with about $275,000 in the bank, outpaced by Steelman's $330,000. Hulshof, FEC records show, has $350,000 in his federal account, though it is unclear how much he can transfer to a statewide bid.

No matter which candidate emerges from the GOP primary, they will likely face an uphill battle against Nixon, Missouri's Attorney General. Nixon has been running, albeit against Blunt, for most of the past four years, and recent polls had shown Nixon leading the Republican incumbent. Through the end of the year, Nixon had raked in an incredible $1.75 milion for his campaign, finance reports show. While Republicans have several candidates to be proud of, Nixon's advantage still makes the seat a better opportunity for Democrats than it is for Republicans.

Morning Thoughts: Sunny Day

Good Tuesday morning. Hope you're not too tired: We're just one-quarter of the way through the busiest week in politics in recent memory. Here's what Washington is watching today:

-- The Senate continues debating amendments to the FISA bill today, a day after Republicans failed to end debate and Democrats failed to extend the program by 30 days. President Bush highlighted the program in last night's State of the Union, urging Congress to take action. House members take up the economic stimulus package today, which is expected to sail to passage with only token opposition from the far right and the far left.

-- The political world, though, is focused on Florida, which the Miami Herald modestly casts itself as "a barometer for the country." Over a million people have already voted in the state's closed primary, and the state's booming Hispanic, retired and conservative electorates will ultimately decide the direction of the race. Win two out of three of those constituencies and a candidate will take the GOP nomination.

-- In the Sunshine State, Republicans face yet another must-win state for one candidate. Iowa was Mike Huckabee's Waterloo, as was New Hampshire for John McCain, Michigan for Mitt Romney and South Carolina for Fred Thompson. Only Thompson has lost so far, though given polls, tonight might be the end for Rudy Giuliani, who has staked his claim on a state that doesn't seem to be breaking his way. The final RCP Florida Average has Giuliani trailing McCain and Romney by just under 15 points. Asked by reporters yesterday if a loss would end his campaign, Giuliani exhibited a rare moment of doubt: "Wednesday morning, we'll make a decision," he said, per AP's Libby Quaid.

-- McCain and Romney are locked in a pitched battle. not only for Florida but for first place in the race as a whole. In recent days, McCain has called Romney a flip-flopper and accused him of setting a time-table for withdrawal in Iraq. Romney has pushed back hard, calling McCain dishonest and accusing him of hidden liberal tendencies. The winner of that argument looks likely to win the nomination. The two candidates, both of whom have their problems with the Republican base, look like finalists for the job. Given Thompson and Huckabee, one of whom is out and another who looks on his way out, is it really the case that conservatives didn't have a candidate, or did they have a candidate and choose McCain and Romney in spite of that choice?

-- Given the fact that Romney has run almost ten times as many advertisements as McCain, should he be worried that he remains fractionally behind? Romney, as Ambinder writes, ran more ads in September than McCain has run to date, and McCain's lead can be seen in one of two lights: First, McCain, media darling and noted maverick, is ahead despite his lack of money through sheer force of will and the advantage of running eight years ago gives him an insurmountable head start. Second, Romney, unknown outside Massachusetts and Utah when this thing started, has come within an inch of overtaking a war hero with previous presidential race experience while far outpacing America's Mayor. Either way, both candidates look pretty good coming out of Florida.

-- While there's no love lost between McCain and Romney, there doesn't seem to be any affection between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as well. Even as Clinton shook Ted Kennedy's hand at last night's speech, Obama refused to offer his own hand, Frank James writes at The Swamp. It was the first time the two have seen the inside of the chamber in which they ostensibly work, during votes on FISA, and each had several opportunities to say hello to the other. As far as reporters know, neither took advantage of those chances.

-- Indicative of the keys to a Clinton win: She's bought time on Spanish-language radio networks. After her Nevada performance, and Obama's big win among African Americans in South Carolina, Clinton is depending on her enduring popularity among Hispanics for another win. But, perhaps indicative of how tenuous that strategy seems, according to Politico's Ben Smith: That Spanish-language radio buy is going into Clinton's home state of New York. The district to watch: That of Clinton backer Rep. Charlie Rangel, based in Harlem, which is 31% African American and 48% Hispanic.

-- Rankings Of The Day: Ted Kennedy's decision to back Obama at a mega-rally yesterday in Washington dominated cable news nets as much if not more than Bush's speech. That's because his was a Symbolic Endorsement, the highest level in the endorsement hierarchy, Chris Cillizza writes. Below the Symoblic, a candidate can score a State-Specific (Statewide) Endorsement, a Celebrity Endorsement, State-Specific (Non-Statewide) and the Pariah Endorsement (say, the New York Times in a GOP primary). Off the top of our head, we can't think of anyone other than Al Gore who remains in the Symbolic Endorsement category.

-- Today On The Trail: Republicans are tracking down last minute votes in Florida: Giuliani's in Miami Beach, Pompano Beach, Del Ray Beach and Orlando. McCain, to be accompanied by Gov. Charlie Crist, hits polling places in St. Petersburg before hosting a party in Miami. Romney holds his final event in Tampa before an election night party in St. Pete. Only Huckabee is out of state, stopping by a Tampa polling station before heading to Jefferson City, Missouri, as well as a fundraiser in St. Louis. Edwards kicks off his day in Tulsa before heading to Jefferson City, Missouri and St. Paul, Minnesota. Obama's back in El Dorado, Kansas, where his grandparents lived, followed by a town hall meeting in Kansas City, and Clinton heads to Florida to thank her supporters after polls close.

Geographic Coalitions Key To FL Win

As Republicans make their final pleas across the Sunshine State today, Florida voters are given a unique opportunity to cast decisive votes in at least one party's nominating contest. Strategists looking at past elections in the state quickly discover that organizing in Florida is far different from other states: In multi-candidate primaries, big margins from one's own base are important, but the ability to bring together the state's myriad coalitions is the true key to victory.

Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, Florida is a massive state. Like South Carolina, its varied regions lend themselves more to some candidates than others. But South Carolina has three main regions; Florida has as many as eight, depending on who does the counting, and each brings important constituencies into play. Combine margins among several areas and a candidate will win. Depend on one region too much, and candidates pigeon-hole themselves and limit their vote ceilings.

The Panhandle, for example, is home to a significant number of veterans. In Rep. Jeff Miller's First Congressional District, stretching from Pensacola to more than one in five voters are military veterans, a higher percentage than any district in the country. Conversely, the northern-most part of the state is seen as the most Southern part of Florida. Both John McCain and Mitt Romney will compete strongly for votes there.

On the east side of the state, from the Jacksonville area near the Georgia line south to St. Augustine, Romney will have to battle Mike Huckabee for social conservative votes. The area has seen rapid growth, primarily in suburban areas populated by younger family-centric conservatives. If Romney scores a big win along the coast, he could be in strong position around the rest of the state.

Rudy Giuliani seemingly will not find a base until the central region starts reporting its votes. On the east side, the region around Daytona Beach and Orlando has seen an explosion in its Hispanic population in recent years, making it a likely target for eventual Democratic gains. But retirees have flocked there, and Giuliani has spent time courting their votes.

On the west side of the central region, Tampa Bay, home to the second-largest media market in Florida, also has its share of retirees. Republican votes there come from affluent suburbs and tend toward more moderate voting patterns that would fit both Giuliani and McCain. Without a big pro-Giuliani turnout throughout the central part of the state, the former New York Mayor is going to leave Florida empty-handed. Pasco County, just north of Tampa Bay, takes pride in reporting their vote counts early. If Giuliani is to have success among the retirees on whom he has focused, early results should show a big pro-Rudy edge.

Giuliani will also need a big boost from the Treasure Coast, an area on the state's southeastern edge including Vero Beach, Port St. Lucie and Palm Beach. Social conservatives are few and far between, and the area is home to the state's large Jewish community. Giuliani, insiders say, should be able to count on a boost there, as well.

More retirees populate Sarasota, Bradenton, Fort Myers and Naples, on the opposite coast. Here, though, those enjoying their golden years come largely from the Midwest as opposed to the Northeast. They are economic conservatives, setting up another battleground between Romney and McCain.

Finally, what is expected to be a close race all night could break open as more precincts come in from the south. Miami-Dade County and Broward County each have huge Cuban populations, which traditionally vote Republican. Districts represented by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart, all Cuban Republicans, are a whopping 63%, 70% and 62% Hispanic in a state in which those of Hispanic origin make up about 17% of the population.

Candidates have focused much attention on the area, assiduously courting the community's leaders as much as Democrats did in Nevada. In the region where anti-Castro declarations are sure-fire applause lines, endorsements still matter, and that could work to benefit McCain. Both Diaz-Balarts, Ros-Lehtinen and Senator Mel Martinez, who was born in Sagua La Grande, Cuba, are backing the Arizona Senator. But, say veterans of Florida politics, McCain will be waiting on a bed of nails late into the night. The populous regions in the south are notoriously late in reporting their vote totals.

Because of Florida's tremendous size, it is difficult for a candidate to put together the coalitions needed for victory. The candidate who can string together coalitions of veterans, social conservatives, retirees and Cuban Americans stretching from the Redneck Riviera to the Florida Keys will pull off a win tonight, though as notoriously slow votes continue to trickle in, few are likely to benefit from a prime-time victory speech. That may have to wait until the early hours after midnight.

Dems Offer SOTU Response

Excerpts from Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius' Democratic response to President Bush's State of the Union:

"In this time, normally reserved for the partisan response, I hope to offer you something more."

"An American Response."

"A national call to action on behalf of the struggling families in the heartland, and across this great country. A wakeup call to Washington, on behalf of a new American majority, that time is running out on our opportunities to meet our challenges and solve our problems."

On the Economy:

"Our struggling economy requires urgent and immediate action, and then sustained attention. Families can't pay their bills. They are losing their jobs, and now are threatened with losing their homes."

"We heard last week and again tonight that Congress and the President are acting quickly, on a temporary, targeted stimulus package. That is encouraging. But you and I know that a temporary fix is only the first step toward meeting our challenges and solving our problems."

On the Need to Work Together:

"There is a chance Mr. President, in the next 357 Days, to get real results, and give the American people renewed optimism that their challenges are the top priority. Working together, working hard, committing to results, we can get the job done."

"In fact, over the last year, the new Democratic majority in Congress has begun to move us in a new direction, with bipartisan action on significant initiatives to bolster our national security, raise the minimum wage, and reduce the costs of college loans."

"These are encouraging first steps. But there is still more to be done."

On Charting a New Course:

"The new Democratic majority of Congress and the vast majority of Americans are ready - ready to chart a new course. If more Republicans in Congress stand with us this year, we won't have to wait for a new President to restore America's role in the world, and fight a more effective war on terror."

On Iraq:

"The last five years have cost us dearly - in lives lost; in thousands of wounded warriors whose futures may never be the same; in challenges not met here at home because our resources were committed elsewhere. America's foreign policy has left us with fewer allies and more enemies."

On Working for the Common Good:

"I know government can work to benefit the people we serve, because I see it every day, not only here in Kansas, but in states across the country. I know government can work, Mr. President, because like you, I grew up in a family committed to public service. My father and my father in law both served in Congress - one a Republican and one a Democrat. They had far more in common than the issues that divided them - a love for their country that led them from military service to public service. A lifetime of working for the common good, making sacrifices so their children and grandchildren could have a better future."

On Transforming America:

"These are uncertain times, but with strength and determination, we can meet the challenges together. If Washington can work together, so quickly, on a short-term fix for families caught in the financial squeeze, then we can work together to transform America."

WH Releases SOTU Excerpts

From the White House press office, highlights of tonight's State of the Union, as prepared for delivery:

"The actions of the 110th Congress will affect the security and prosperity of our Nation long after this session has ended. In this election year, let us show our fellow Americans that we recognize our responsibilities and are determined to meet them. And let us show them that Republicans and Democrats can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time."

On trusting and empowering the American people:

"From expanding opportunity to protecting our country, we have made good progress. Yet we have unfinished business before us, and the American people expect us to get it done. In the work ahead, we must be guided by the philosophy that made our Nation great. As Americans, we believe in the power of individuals to determine their destiny and shape the course of history...So in all we do, we must trust in the ability of free people to make wise decisions, and empower them to improve their lives and their futures."

On the economy:

"To build a prosperous future, we must trust people with their own money and empower them to grow our economy. As we meet tonight, our economy is undergoing a period of uncertainty... And at kitchen tables across our country, there is concern about our economic future. In the long run, Americans can be confident about our economic growth."

On earmarks:

"The people's trust in their Government is undermined by congressional earmarks..."

On housing:

"...We must trust Americans with the responsibility of homeownership and empower them to weather turbulent times in the housing market."

On strengthening No Child Left Behind:

"On education, we must trust students to learn if given the chance and empower parents to demand results from our schools. In neighborhoods across our country, there are boys and girls with dreams -- and a decent education is their only hope of achieving them. Six years ago, we came together to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, and today no one can deny its results... Now we must work together to increase accountability, add flexibility for States and districts, reduce the number of high school dropouts, and provide extra help for struggling schools. Members of Congress: The No Child Left Behind Act is a bipartisan achievement. It is succeeding. And we owe it to America's children, their parents, and their teachers to strengthen this good law."

On the importance of trade:

"On trade, we must trust American workers to compete with anyone in the world and empower them by opening up new markets overseas. Today, our economic growth increasingly depends on our ability to sell American goods, crops, and services all over the world... These agreements will level the playing field. They will give us better access to nearly 100 million customers. And they will support good jobs for the finest workers in the world: those whose products say 'Made in the USA.'"

"If we fail to pass this [Colombia free trade] agreement, we will embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere. So we must come together, pass this agreement, and show our neighbors in the region that democracy leads to a better life."

On improving our energy security:

"To build a future of energy security, we must trust in the creative genius of American researchers and entrepreneurs and empower them to pioneer a new generation of clean energy technology. Our security, our prosperity, and our environment all require reducing our dependence on oil."

On combating climate change:

"Let us create a new international clean technology fund, which will help developing nations like India and China make greater use of clean energy sources. And let us complete an international agreement that has the potential to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the growth of greenhouse gases. This agreement will be effective only if it includes commitments by every major economy and gives none a free ride."

On entitlement reform and immigration:

"There are two other pressing challenges that I have raised repeatedly before this body, and that this body has failed to address: entitlement spending and immigration. Every Member in this chamber knows that spending on entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is growing faster than we can afford...Now I ask Members of Congress to offer your proposals and come up with a bipartisan solution to save these vital programs for our children and grandchildren."

On the freedom agenda:

"Illegal immigration is complicated, but it can be resolved. And it must be resolved in a way that upholds both our laws and our highest ideals."

On the surge in Iraq

"Our foreign policy is based on a clear premise: We trust that people, when given the chance, will choose a future of freedom and peace. In the last 7 years, we have witnessed stirring moments in the history of liberty...And these images of liberty have inspired us. In the past 7 years, we have also seen images that have sobered us...[and] serve as a grim reminder: The advance of liberty is opposed by terrorists and extremists -- evil men who despise freedom, despise America, and aim to subject millions to their violent rule."

"The Iraqi people quickly realized that something dramatic had happened. Those who had worried that America was preparing to abandon them instead saw...our forces moving into neighborhoods, clearing out the terrorists, and staying behind to ensure the enemy did not return...While the enemy is still dangerous and more work remains, the American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined just 1 year ago..."

"...Some may deny the surge is working, but among the terrorists there is no doubt. Al Qaida is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated."

On our 2008 objectives in Iraq:

"Our enemies in Iraq have been hit hard. They are not yet defeated, and we can still expect tough fighting ahead. Our objective in the coming year is to sustain and build on the gains we made in 2007, while transitioning to the next phase of our strategy. American troops are shifting from leading operations, to partnering with Iraqi forces, and, eventually, to a protective overwatch mission."

On this generation rising to the moment in the war on terror:

"We must do the difficult work today, so that years from now people will look back and say that this generation rose to the moment, prevailed in a tough fight, and left behind a more hopeful region and a safer America."

On Iran:

"Our message to the people of Iran is clear: We have no quarrel with you, we respect your traditions and your history, and we look forward to the day when you have your freedom. Our message to the leaders of Iran is also clear: Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment, so negotiations can begin. And to rejoin the community of nations, come clean about your nuclear intentions and past actions, stop your oppression at home, and cease your support for terror abroad. But above all, know this: America will confront those who threaten our troops, we will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf."

On the American people:

"The secret of our strength, the miracle of America, is that our greatness lies not in our Government, but in the spirit and determination of our people."

Sweet Relevance

For two years, dozens of states have complained about so called "front-loading" of the primaries, worrying that the rush to the beginning of the calendar would only increase the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire and their lead-off contests. Now, though, with two Democrats each having won two contests and three Republicans having won battles in six states, local newspapers are discovering that their states actually matter.

With twenty-two states fighting for attention on February 5, political writers everywhere are the biggest winners in the increasingly confused nomination battles. Candidates are only too willing to oblige: Hillary Clinton landed in Tennessee on Saturday and heads to Massachusetts and Connecticut today, while her husband stopped in Missouri. Barack Obama hits Kansas later this week after stopping in Georgia and Alabama yesterday.

Those sound more like general election schedules than primary schedules. Republicans are centered on Florida until tomorrow, but afterwards, expect similarly distant and spread-out itineraries.

Check out the response some newspapers have today:

"For candidates of both parties, Tennessee has become a strategic piece of ground in the 22-state battle for delegates," the Knoxville News Sentinel writes. "Colorado on campaigns' radar," heads the Rocky Mountain News.

The Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey: " It was 1984, the last time New Jersey's votes in a presidential primary mattered. This year, for the first time in 24 years, New Jersey will matter once again. After decades of feeling neglected, the Garden State moved up its presidential primary to Feb. 5." The Philadelphia Inquirer agrees: "With the New Jersey primary scheduled for Feb. 5, moved up from the traditional first Tuesday in June, the state's electorate is positioned to weigh in while the races are still in flux."

Even in Obama's home state, the race matters: "The presidential race has shifted from the early-state sprint for momentum of recent campaign cycles to a state-by-state slog for delegates. And Illinois Democrats award their delegates on a proportional basis, meaning if Clinton does well in some parts of her native state, she could snatch some delegates away from Obama. In the race to 2,025, the magic number to win the party's presidential nomination, every delegate counts," writes top Quad-City Times politico Ed Tibbetts.

Florida's result "puts the spotlight on Georgia and 23 other states [sic] having primaries Feb. 5 and how those voters could ultimately determine which candidates will be each party's nominee for president," according to the Savannah Morning News. Even Florida is celebrating: "For the first time in 32 years, Florida's presidential primary really matters this week -- despite the best political efforts of both parties," said the Tallahassee Democrat.

Reporters won't spend Sunday watching the Super Bowl. More states are realizing that the real Super Bowl takes place two days later, and newspapers are realizing their relevance on a daily basis.

As Edwards Fades, Lawyers Get Involved

Top trial lawyers met for their winter conference this weekend at a resort in Puerto Rico, and while no presidential candidates joined them (though DNC chair Howard Dean did), several chief advisers to front-running candidates were on hand to convince the attorneys to come on board. Trial lawyers, who provide key financial footing for Democratic candidates, have for months stood behind fellow barrister John Edwards.

Still, Edwards' 4% showing in Nevada, and his disappointing third-place finish in South Carolina, have given his backers pause and opportunity to consider other candidates. Edwards raised more than $8 million from trial lawyers through the third quarter, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, second only to Clinton and just barely ahead of Obama.

As his campaign hits the skids, the Washington Post reports, other campaigns have seen an opening. Terry McAuliffe, Hillary Clinton's campaign chair, and Julianna Smoot, Barack Obama's finance chief, plied trial lawyers at the conference to become their new bundlers. The $100 million candidates, as Edwards is fond of calling them, need the new help. In the run-up to February 5, they're burning more than $2 million a day, the Post writes.

Trial lawyers are a good place for both campaigns to start; they provide more money to Democratic causes than virtually any other interest group available. As Democratic candidates have dropped by the wayside, their top bundlers are getting phone calls from big names in both Obama's and Clinton's camps have sought out their fundraisers.

Democrats have outraised their GOP counterparts by wide margins this year, and trial lawyers will play a big role in ensuring the party has the money to compete in November. Trial lawyers had given nearly $38 million through the third quarter, and just $8 million of that went to Republicans. Once a Democratic nominee is decided, the vast majority of trial lawyer money is expected to go their way.

But because the Democratic race drags on, McAuliffe and Smoot spent the weekend in Puerto Rico, wooing donors who can sustain them through what looks like an increasingly long fight. One possible way to woo former Edwards backers: Promise him the Attorney General's slot.

A Nail-Biter In WY?

In 2006, after Rep. Barbara Cubin told a wheelchair-bound opponent that she should slap him, Democrat Gary Trauner lost the seat by just over 1,000 votes, one of the closest races in the country in what is normally a very Republican state.

This year, Trauner is trying again. Cubin is not. A new survey, conducted by Washington-based Mason-Dixon for the Casper Star-Tribune, shows the Democrat might benefit from more than just a weakened incumbent. The survey, conducted 1/18-21, tested 625 registered voters for a margin of error of +/- 4%. Trauner and Republican Cynthia Lummis were tested.

General Election Matchup
(All / Ind)
Trauner 41 / 37
Lummis 40 / 33

Trauner, the poll shows, enjoys overwhelming support from Democrats, while Lummis, the state's former Treasurer, lags among her party's base: 23% said they would vote for the Democrat. Full numbers were not available, but both candidates are relatively well-liked. Trauner's unfavorables are at just 25%, while Lummis' are at only 17%.

Still, Lummis does not have an open path to the GOP nomination. She will face former Republican national committeeman Tom Sansonetti -- who was instrumental in moving Wyoming's primary to early January -- State Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, House Speaker Roy Cohee and former U.S. Attorney Matt Mead, along with two other frequent candidates. Lummis is running well ahead, the poll shows, but it's by no means a done deal.

Primary Election Matchup
Lummis 31
Sansonetti 9
Zwonitzer 5
Cohee 4
Mead 3

While FEC reports aren't due until February 1, Trauner had raised more than $170,000 through the third quarter, easily out-pacing Cubin. That's not a huge amount of money, but in an inexpensive state, it's a big head start. None of the Republicans had filed yet, as all of them jumped in after Cubin's early November exit from the race. If Republicans are in trouble in Wyoming, the party could face another 2006-type election.

Morning Thoughts: Weekend At Barack's

Good Monday morning. With a week to go before the Giants and the Pats meet in the Arizona desert, we -- and plenty of others -- still think the Super Bowl is the trophy a big winner could receive a few hours after polls close the following Tuesday. Consider the first four days of this week the pre-game show: No week has been more important to the presidential race than this one. Here's what Washington is watching today:

-- The Senate continues consideration of the FISA amendment bill, throwing the liberal netroots into another week of frenzy. For Democrats, the measure presents a problem and an opportunity: Ameliorate bloggers or homeland security-concerned voters. Both will be irritated by something the Senate does, presenting Republicans with what they see as a real opportunity. The House meets for morning business today, but no votes are expected before 5 p.m.

-- After the two chambers spend their days in session, Senators will slum it by heading to the House chamber, where President Bush will deliver his final State of the Union address at 9 p.m. Eastern time. The speech is sure to change the presidential debate, at least for a day, as Bush is said to be set to call for more bipartisanship, in the wake of the stimulus compromise, and urge action on FISA, making tax cuts permanent and approving trade deals with Peru and Colombia. It is unlikely he will offer any major new initiatives, according to White House press secretary Dana Perino, and don't expect any big Iraq announcements: General David Petraeus' next report to Congress doesn't happen until March.

-- While Bush's speech will surely inject some story lines into the campaign to replace him, this weekend was dominated by another subject: Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton's campaign had prepared the media for a 15-point loss. They might have been able to spin that into a wash. But Obama's stunning victory, in which he doubled up Clinton, propelled him to some huge headlines on Sunday, along with a rash of newspaper endorsements. He racked up massive margins among African Americans, who turned out in higher numbers than in any South Carolina primary in modern memory. That's exactly the message the Obama campaign needs to convey to rank-and-file Democrats worried about electability: He goes beyond attracting Independents and Republicans. He actually expands the Democratic base.

-- Just when Clinton was struggling to recover from the thumping, word of Senator Ted Kennedy's endorsement leaked. Kennedy and his niece, Caroline, will join Obama at what promises to be a mega-rally at American University here in Washington today. How convenient for cable news networks: They're sure to have satellite trucks, major reporters and live shots ready to go, giving Obama another huge day. The endorsement came despite a personal entreaty from Bill Clinton, the New York Times reports. After the Washington rally, Kennedy will join Obama on a western campaign swing and for events in the Northeast leading up to Super Tuesday.

-- It won't happen tonight during her response to President Bush's State of the Union, but Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius is set to offer Obama her backing as well, Marc Ambinder reports. Kansas is one of the states the Obama campaign thinks it can win on Super Tuesday, and he's going to spend Tuesday stumping across the state, including a visit to Eldorado, where his grandparents lived. Two big endorsements, both of which will have February 5 impacts, and a huge South Carolina win made this weekend all about Barack Obama. Such a weekend, for his campaign, could not have come at a better time.

-- John McCain's weekend was good for him in a more under-the-radar sort of way, but in a way that might well decide the Republican primary much before the Democratic race ends. In the last few days, McCain's won backing from the Fort Myers News-Press, the St. Petersburg Times, the Sun-Sentinel and a few other Florida papers, along with high-profile support from Senator Mel Martinez and Governor Charlie Crist. Mitt Romney had been seen surging in recent days, but backing from the state's two top Republicans might just be enough to turn it around for McCain. Then again, Romney's organization lost to Mike Huckabee's momentum in Iowa. Can McCain's organization overcome Romney's momentum in Florida?

-- The Democratic race has gone national, while the Republican race remains focused on Florida. If McCain pulls out a win, no matter the margin, he wins all of the state's 57 convention delegates, which would put him well in front of any of his rivals, both in actual delegate counts and in the battle for later states. McCain, in short, can all but close the deal in Florida. Romney, who in recent days has gone back to his Olympics metaphor and said he can survive a gold or a silver, will stick around, and has the money to do so, while Giuliani and Huckabee, who look set to trail by 15 or 20 points, could fade away.

-- One overlooked strategic blunder: Huckabee went straight from his Iowa win to New Hampshire, where he managed a respectable third place. Then he spent the next week in Michigan, where he again scored third. But the wheels had already started coming off before his narrow loss to McCain in South Carolina. There's value to competing everywhere, but once you win, you're allowed to choose your spots. Why didn't Huckabee spend more time in South Carolina instead of in Michigan and New Hampshire? Had that decision gone the other way, we might be singing a very different tune on his chances. And yet, Huckabee's only now beginning his forays into February 5 states, with a stop in Tennessee today. Shouldn't he just hunker down and spend the next several days in prominent Super Tuesday southern states?

-- Staged Media Event Of The Day: Twenty-two states will vote on February 5, giving editors a dilemma: Political pundits have all but concluded the Democratic race will not be over by close of polls on February 5, and the GOP race could be the same way. So, when will the nomination come to a conclusion? How about February 12, when three states hold their nominating contests? Editors will have a much easier time allocating coverage for those events: They happen to be in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., as the Post notes on its front page. This space will certainly offer dispatches from as many Metro lines as possible.

-- Today On The Trail: Obama rallies in Washington, while Clinton holds town halls in Hartford, Connecticut and Springfield, Massachusetts. Both will be in Washington for FISA votes and the State of the Union. Edwards will meet voters in Chattanooga and Nashville before heading to Springfield, Missouri. Giuliani has his last full day of Florida stumps, in Sanford, Clearwater, Fort Myers, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. McCain holds three events in Jacksonville before holding rallies in Orlando and Tampa, while Romney rallies in West Palm Beach, Fort Myers, Orlando, Panama City and Jacksonville. Huckabee rallies in Pensacola and raises money in Nashville, Tennessee before ending his day in Tampa. Ron Paul spends his day in Portland and Augusta, Maine.

Gaming Out SC Results

Yesterday, we took a look at plausible Florida scenarios. Today, it's on to South Carolina, where Democrats vote tomorrow in what has become the nastiest, most personal primary on the Democratic side so far. What if Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John Edwards wins here? Let's take a look:

Barack Obama: Like it or not, race has become a factor in South Carolina, and it may have broader implications for the rest of the contest. Obama scored a big win among African Americans in Nevada, while losing Whites and Hispanics. If Obama wins by a wide margin in Palmetto country, it will be thanks to a large portion of white voters who backed him as well. If he manages a small win, it will be largely because of African American votes.

A big win shows Obama can attract southern Whites. That would seem to forecast victories in other Southern states that vote February 5, including Georgia and Alabama. A narrow victory might be trouble, and in light of that, Obama may focus his Super Tuesday attention on Northern states. A loss, which looks unlikely, will by no means signal the end of the Obama campaign, but could further the perception of a race-based contest. That, in the end, is good for none of the Democrats, who will need Clinton and Obama standing side by side -- whichever ends up as the nominee -- by convention time.

Hillary Clinton: Winning South Carolina would be a huge upset, which Clinton seems to be good at lately. No one expected her to win New Hampshire, and she almost pulled out of Nevada before making a comeback there. South Carolina would be even bigger, and would fuel the media's renewed obsession with her as the front-runner.

But the only way Clinton wins is by tapping a significant number of African American votes. Bill Clinton is widely popular, still, among black voters, and if she is to pull off a victory, it will be largely because of his focus on the community in the last few days. Politics is a zero-sum game: Every black voter who casts a Clinton ballot is not casting an Obama ballot. If she comes anywhere close to Obama's numbers among African Americans, expect the campaign to spin it as a big victory, even if Obama pulls more votes overall.

John Edwards: Recent surveys have shown Edwards on the move in South Carolina, his native state. But it may be just too little, too late. Edwards needs the state more than anyone else, and it looks increasingly unlikely that he'll get a win. To do so, he'll have to pull heavily from both white and black voters. A win, or even a good showing, would send a strong message: Populism isn't dead. That's good news for Edwards, but he doesn't have the money or the time to spread it among February 5 voters.

South Carolina will not likely end anyone's campaign, though it may end Edwards' hopes of being president. For Obama and Clinton, the state is the last opportunity to win delegates before February 5 -- the DNC stripped Florida of its delegates, which were to be awarded on January 29 -- but it is by no means make or break for either.

Obama will likely get the momentum of a win, but the question remains: Will it be enough to propel him to a Super Tuesday win? The Clinton camp should still be worried about damage it has done among African American voters, though exit polls tomorrow will show how bad those injuries are. And Edwards needs to begin to think about what comes next, a gallant but probably futile charge toward February 5, or a graceful hunkering down to decide which of the other two deserves his support.

Chicago's Expensive

With Illinois's congressional primary taking place on February 5, candidates' financial records for the last three months were due last night to the FEC, a week earlier than candidates in other states. As the reports indicate, the Chicago-area districts with competitive primaries are proving to be incredibly expensive.

In the 14th District, west of Chicago, where former Speaker Dennis Hastert's seat is being vigorously contested in the Republican primary, dairy company owner Jim Oberweis spent some $1.4 million from October 1 to January 16, the dates outlined in the most recent filing. His competition for the Republican nomination, State Senator Chris Lauzen, also spent a hefty sum, dispersing more than $500,000 in the last three months.

The campaign's hefty cost is due in part to the expensive Chicago media market, and also to the personal wealth both candidates enjoy. In the Democratic primary race, Bill Foster spent close to $750,000 in the last three months, outspending his rival John Laesch, the 2006 nominee, by some $700,000.

In the 3rd District, where Congressman Daniel Lipinski has had his closest races in a Democratic primary, Assistant State's Attorney Mark Pera spent close to $500,000 in the last three months. Pera, hoping to capitalize on Lipinski's vulnerability, has retained Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, a major Washington polling and media firm, and has run television ads throughout the Chicago area. Lipinski spent just under $100,000, and still has close to $400,000 in the bank. With no other Democrats spending large amounts of money, Lipinski could see much closer primary results this year than in 2006.

North of Chicago, in the 8th District, Congresswoman Melissa Bean doesn't need to worry about a competitive primary, but she has been preparing for her biennial fight for her life. President Bush won 56% here in the last two presidential elections, while Bean has never won more than 52% in either of her two election wins.

With just under 10 months to go before the general election, Bean has close to $1.3 million in the bank, a large total to start an election year with. But Republican businessman Steven Greenberg has raised just more than $400,000 so far, and has less than $100,000 cash on hand.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Weldon Steps Down In FL

House Republicans just cannot catch a break. After losing New York Rep. Jim Walsh yesterday, Florida Rep. Dave Weldon will announce his retirement today, Politico's Josh Kraushaar reports, becoming the twenty-fifth Republican to back out of another race this year. That means about one in eight Republican members will not be back in 2009.

Weldon, first elected in 1994, is like Walsh an appropriator, a perch from which he has procured millions of dollars for NASA. Unlike Walsh, Weldon was one of the most conservative voices in Congress, calling for a flat tax, a ban on abortions and increases in defense spending.

The space agency is important to Weldon's district, which includes some of Cape Canaveral at its northern end. Much of Brevard County and some of Osceola County, including Vero Beach, Kissimmee and St. Cloud, vote for Weldon's seat, and the area has seen a booming Latino population in recent years.

Democrats believe they have a chance at winning the seat, though it won't be easy: President Bush won the district by eight and 14 points in 2000 and 2004. A former Brevard County Commissioner, Nancy Higgs, is set to announce her bid shortly. She will have to content with physician Steve Blythe in the Democratic primary. Making the district all the more promising: Weldon outspent his 2006 opponent 9-1, though he managed just a 12-point win.

Weldon and Walsh become the third and fourth Republican members of Appropriations to leave Congress and their plum committee spots. Senator Roger Wicker, appointed to replace Trent Lott, also served on Appropriations, making Republicans looking for a leg up lick their chops at the opportunity to score one of the coveted seats. On the Democratic side, only Rep. Tom Udall, who is running for Senate, will give up his seat.

Take That, Early States

It has long been assumed that, though the DNC stripped Michigan and Florida of their convention delegates, those states' delegates would be reinstated once party conventions roll around. When a nominee is chosen, the two states will take their case to the Credentials Committee, which will be heavily stacked with delegates favorable to the nominee.

No candidate wants to be nominated by just 48 of the 50 states, especially not when both are swing states come November. Therefore, regardless of who wins, it is likely they will support the full compliment of both states' delegations.

Hillary Clinton is getting a jump on that, promising to make sure her delegates vote to confirm both early states. The move will certainly help her in Florida, where Democrats lately have complained about the lack of attention they have received. Clinton today released this statement:

"I hear all the time from people in Florida and Michigan that they want their voices heard in selecting the Democratic nominee.

"I believe our nominee will need the enthusiastic support of Democrats in these states to win the general election, and so I will ask my Democratic convention delegates to support seating the delegations from Florida and Michigan. I know not all of my delegates will do so and I fully respect that decision. But I hope to be President of all 50 states and U.S. territories, and that we have all 50 states represented and counted at the Democratic convention.

"I hope my fellow potential nominees will join me in this.

"I will of course be following the no-campaigning pledge that I signed, and expect others will as well."

Sitting Down With John Ensign

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As Republicans face a dangerous terrain next year, no one is feeling the pressure more than NRSC chairman John Ensign. Few know the national landscape like Nevada's junior senator, who has been given the sometimes unenviable task of protecting his colleagues while booting as many Democrats as possible.

Ensign sat down with Real Clear Politics on Wednesday evening to survey the playing field and offer his analysis heading into 2008. As usual, RCP's questions have been cleaned up, but Ensign's responses are verbatim:

RCP: Heading into next year, what kind of mood are Senate Republicans facing on the trail?

NRSC Chairman John Ensign: First of all, a year out is really an eternity in politics. A year before the 2006 elections, if you would have asked Republicans and Democrats how they were feeling, which they did, you go back and read, you know, Republicans were feeling very, very good. Democrats were, you know, shaky at best. And if you go back in 2003, a year before 2004, if you go back, I mean a year before the last several election cycles, the party that felt pretty darn good about their chances, election day didn't turn out so well.

There are a lot of factors. You know, the mood in the country, you know, the hypothetical is if the election were held today, it might not go so well for us. But the election's not being held today.

Click below for the complete transcript.

Obviously Iraq has turned around dramatically. And that's, all points look like it's going to continue to turn around. They're actually starting to make some political progress along with the military progress that's been had over there. And that's a big deal. And now we have the economy and the downturn, you know, the potential downturn in the economy. Which party looks like they have the best solutions for that and which party is willing to actually solve the problem instead of making politics out of it. And which party can offer solutions that stimulate the economy.

You know, it's very clear that you had a party that proposed tax increases after tax increases and spending. Now, the economy turns down and now they all of a sudden want to cut taxes. The American people know we are the party that wants to give them their own money back. That will stimulate the economy, it proves every time. And so I think that it's going to be a very effective issue for us come November.

There's some other things that are potentially very good out there for us. First of all, the Democrats right now running for president, they are so overly confident that they are running way left. Normally you're trying not to get too far right or too far left in the presidential election cycle, okay? Republicans aren't trying to go too far right, you're noticing that. Democrats are going way left. And it's difficult when you're that far left to come back at all, you know, to the center where the American people are. And I think that, regardless of which one of them comes out on top, it gives us a pretty good person to run against.

What happened in 2006, what were the two big factors? George Bush and Iraq. Iraq's going better, and George Bush isn't on the ticket. They're going to want to make it about him, but he's not going to be our standard-bearer. Things are going a lot better for us politically, I believe, and for our candidates. And then it just comes down to who's running better races. I don't think this is going to be a nationalized election. You don't see nationalized elections two elections in a row. I think it's going to be race by race by race, and who runs the best races, and you know the smartest, has the best ideas and things like that and I think we win on ideas.

RCP: Polls continue to show more Americans trust Democrats to handle the economy better than Republicans. How do you get over that hurdle now that the economy is a central issue?

Ensign: The solution is not taking more of their money. The solution is giving more of their money back. Whether it's business or whether it's individuals, I mean, we have a better brand on that. And what we have to do now is take that, and show them where they have been and where we have been and where we are.

If you're looking at the Democrats, yes, they are embracing tax cuts, but they're also embracing more spending that does not stimulate the economy. Even things like transportation dollars, which they do stimulate the economy when that's being spent. But if you propose it now, it takes several years to take effect. That's not an economic stimulus package. The best thing you can do right now is, you know, to give businesses money to spend.

I'm going to have a proposal that we'll lay out in the next several days to bring more of the money that's been made overseas back home, which we did, we're going to try to replicate what we did a couple of years ago where we brought back $350 billion. That can help stimulate the economy. And you give individuals who pay taxes, you give them more of their money back. That stimulates the economy in the short run.

RCP: Regardless of good news out of Iraq, it seems like American public opinion on the war have solidified against it. How do you surmount that challenge?

Ensign: It just becomes more of a non-issue, I think is what it does. You see it keeps dropping farther and farther down on people's radars, they may be opposed to the war but it's not as important. But national security is still important to people, and who can handle national security.

This whole FISA issue, I'm pretty sure the American people care more about their own security than they do about the civil rights of a terrorist who lives overseas. And the Democrats have been in the position to defend a terrorist from outside this country's civil rights. That's a pretty good issue for us. That's why you see the Democrats caving on this issue.

RCP: What do you say to Democrats who will argue the bill is an excuse to let the government tap your phones?

Ensign: Because it isn't. It's about the government tapping terrorists' phones from overseas. And their emails. It's about tapping them. Now if they happen to be calling you, okay, that's a problem. If you're an ordinary American citizen, you're probably not getting calls from terrorists.

RCP: The Republican Party isn't very popular right now --

Ensign: Congress is incredibly unpopular though. And they are the party in power. They're the party that controls both houses of Congress. In general, there's an anti-Washington mood. And I think that whichever one of the candidates can run on a few things wins: This election is going to be about independent voters. You know, our base is fine, their base is fine. It's going to be about independents. Who attracts independents on issues, whether it's the economy, whether it's health care, whether it's education, those kinds of issues that are core issues anymore, I think whichever candidates communicate the best, who has the best solutions.

You've got a Washington-run health care system versus a health care system where they choose their own doctors that's affordable and accessible. That's the Republican solution. Democrats are, you know, a government-run health care system. Washington doesn't run things very, very well. It's an anti-Washington mood. When you're proposing more Washington-type solutions, that doesn't go very well.

With our schools, you keep putting more of the control, putting the students first instead of teachers' unions first. We need to be communicating to people that it's time to quit caring about somebody's power in the schools and think about the kids and their education. Too long, we have cared about protecting bad teachers. We've got to be able to fire bad teachers and pay good ones more. The Democrats have been protecting that system for too long.

We've got to do a better job teaching science and math. The current education establishment takes education majors and we teach science and math. Instead of science and math majors to teach science and math, which every other industrialized country does. We've got to fundamentally change that, and I think we've got a good message to be able to take across to the American people that, you know, we care about education, but here are the solutions to education, not the same old tired diatribe that the Democrats have been proposing.

RCP: Gordon Smith, Susan Collins, and Norm Coleman are running in increasingly Democratic states. Is it okay, and necessary, for them to run against the Republican brand?

Ensign: It's okay for them to run as who they are. They match their states, all three of those match their states incredibly well. And they're all running great campaigns. They've put great teams together, they're raising a lot of money, and frankly we like all of their opponents. If we could choose them out there, we feel pretty good about them. I expect all three of those folks to win re-election, and I'd be really shocked if we lost any of those three.

RCP: What are Republicans' best pickup opportunities?

Ensign: Louisiana is definitely number one, no question about it. John Kennedy is a fantastic candidate. Her [Senator Mary Landrieu's] numbers are bad. The reality is the Republicans have taken over that state. The power base in the governor's office and the Ag commissioner and everything is gone. Plus a lot of her voters left the state. They're gone.

As evidence, you go through the demographics of the voting bloc down there, in the governor's election, and she's never had anything but a close race. Well, all of her advantage she had moved out of state. So I feel very good about us being able to beat Mary Landrieu, and John Kennedy is fantastic on the issues. We're united as a Republican Party down there for the first time in a long time, and so I feel very very good about our chances.

I'll leave them off the table for now, but if we get a couple of candidates that we're recruiting right now in a couple of states, we won't say who they are, who we're recruiting, but I'll mention the states: South Dakota and Iowa. South Dakota and Iowa, these two candidates, if we're able to sign them, they will be absolutely heavyweight - they are heavyweight candidates and if we can get them on board, they will be absolutely national races that people will pay attention to right away. They're great candidates, both of them, and they can run effective campaigns very easily.

I'll give you a dark horse, for us, and that's in New Jersey. Anne Estabrook is, I think, she's got a primary over there, but she's got the right profile. Fiscal conservative, social moderate, successful businesswoman, energetic and has some money to be able to put in the race. So I'm just giving you that as a dark horse. And his numbers are horrible. Absolutely horrible.

RCP: But isn't New Jersey a black hole into which Republicans have thrown millions away over the last several cycles?

Ensign: Well we had a great chance against Torricelli. We would have beat Torricelli, okay? But all the sudden they changed the rules, that's a little tougher to play against. We would have beat Torricelli. But I think that if Lautenberg runs, I'm not saying we're going to be the favorite there, I'm giving you the dark horse. But I want you to pay attention to it. You heard it here.

RCP: Which seats Republicans currently hold present you with the biggest challenges?

Ensign: As far as incumbents are concerned, I think John Sununu is going to have the most challenging race, and I think that that one's -- you know, the polls are all over the place, and it's probably pretty much of an even race. And I think it's going to be like that the whole time, and I think it's going to come down to a one, two, three point race, on either side, and whoever runs the best race.

The one thing about it is, first of all she's [former Governor Jeanne Shaheen] showing a little weakness I think in the last quarter on her fundraising where he is just doing a great job, and he's banking his money, which is really important. But also, John fits that state. If you look up in the dictionary somebody who's from New Hampshire, you'll see his picture. He is born, raised, bred, he's very libertarian type, very similar to New Hampshirites.

They're not really Republican, they're very, a freedom type of orientation there. And taxes can be a huge issue up there based on her record as governor. I think that he'll run a very, very effective race. He's brilliant politically, he's great on issues and he has a record of accomplishment down here. He isn't one of those people that is -- he's very independent and he's got a record that is clearly independent.

RCP: But in 2006, there probably wasn't a worse place to be a Republican than in New Hampshire.

Ensign: They got exposed to both sides a lot earlier than the rest of the country, and they've been exposed over and over, so they know. You had the Democrats really running left, so they see what the Democrats are about up there. And I don't know if you noticed, but John Sununu's poll numbers improved dramatically during that time. I think that says something. They understand who the Democrats are right now.

RCP: The NRSC has lagged behind the DSCC in fundraising this year. How's the money looking lately?

Ensign: We did a great job with our money. We're ahead of where we were cash on hand two years ago, because we really did a great job of cutting our expenses and being very, very smart with our money. And we approach this place like a business, and we're offering more services and doing it for less money. And everybody is working harder than they've ever worked. And we have an unbelievable team here.

But it does present us with a challenge. In elections, you know, obviously more money is better. But if you look at the election, it isn't always a question of who has more money that wins. It is who does better with their money, who has better messaging. Conrad Burns dramatically outspent Tester. George Allen outspent Jim Webb. You can go down race by race -- Jim Talent outspent McCaskill -- I mean, race by race there are a lot of races where we outspent the Democrats and we lost.

You have to get to a minimum threshold, and that's what you always have to look at, and then it's who has a better message.

RCP: What are you hearing when you talk to prospective donors?

Ensign: The last couple of months, much better than the first. You know, our donors were down. They were frustrated, they were down, they were mad, they were angry, and now they're seeing what the Democrats are all about. As a matter of fact, New York City is probably the best place that we're seeing that. We had a very big turn around in New York City, where people wouldn't take my phone calls the first six months. Not even take my phone calls!

Then we started getting some meetings with them, and the Democrats came out with all their tax proposals, and New York all of a sudden has loosened up its wallet. We're having a much better effect on a lot of folks because the Democrats talked one way and then they came in and they just couldn't help being Democrats.

RCP: Many Republican voters were turned off by the party's perceived lack of discipline on federal spending. How can the party turn that reputation around?

Ensign: I've said for a long time that we need to change. We've justified it for a long time that we were better than Democrats, and so that was okay. We are better than Democrats, but it hasn't been okay. We need to do a much better job with holding the line and we did a great job at the end of the year. That's the first time, I've been here eleven years, that's the first time we beat the Democrats on spending. We beat the appropriators and the Democrats on spending. We've never done that before in my eleven years. First time.

We not only beat them there, we beat them on the energy bill, we beat them on SCHIP, on AMT, we beat them on everything. There wasn't a single issue that we lost at the end of the year. We held tough, we held together, and that was a valuable lesson for us, that if we think about policy, and we don't try to be Democrat-lite, we actually try to govern as Republicans, the American people will actually -- that's why they were frustrated with us.

They elected us to govern, you know, you hear this. They elected us to govern. No, they elected us to govern as Republicans, with certain principles. Fiscal conservatism was one of the principles they elected us on. We did a good job on keeping the taxes low, but we did not do a good job on spending.

We're getting that message, and we're turning things around. That was a big part of our discussion today in our retreat. The pollsters told us, 'One of the most important things for you all to do is to actually keep your promises,' okay? Don't say one thing in a campaign and then govern a different way.

RCP: You mentioned New Jersey as a sleeper race for Republicans. What's the Democrats' version of a dark horse or sleeper race?

Ensign: I'll let Schumer speak for that.

We have some tough races out there, obviously. Colorado, Bob Shaffer is doing a phenomenal job out there, he is, and I expect him to win. And a little tougher race for us is going to be New Mexico, but we have two really good candidates running down there, but they have a good candidate running. He's an ultra-liberal Udall. Udalls are pretty left-wing, but you know it'll be a good contrast down there, but you know, it's certainly a swing state, a tougher state, kind of a purple state.

They have a little advantage because we have a primary and they don't. At the same time, that doesn't mean you can't win. We saw that in Virginia. Virginia had a primary, George Allen didn't. He lost. So it still depends on who runs the good races.

RCP: At the end of the night on Election Day, what do you see as the best and worst-case scenarios?

Ensign: I think we can actually sneak back into the majority on our best case scenario. I think we could get to 51. I think worst case scenario -- 45, 46. That would be a real bad night, if we have a real bad night, we're 45. A good night for us staying 48, 49, that's a real good night. A great night is 51.

NH Bank Accounts Swell

Democrats hoping to pick up a Senate seat this year have few better options than in New Hampshire. Six years ago, Senator John Sununu barely snuck by then-Governor Jeanne Shaheen. This year, Shaheen is back, and given the strong Democratic tilt the Granite State took on in 2006, she looks like the early favorite.

Shaheen, who announced her bid in the fourth quarter, raised an impressive $1.2 million for the period ending on the last day of the year, Politico reports. She has some catching up to do, as Sununu ended September with $2.1 million in the bank.

Senate Republicans gave Sununu a little boost of their own, elevating him this week to a seat on the Senate Finance Committee to replace Senator Trent Lott, who resigned last month. That perch should give the freshman Senator another valuable platform from which to rake in the big bucks.

One thing is clear: Saturating the media market in New Hampshire is an expensive proposition. A single point in the Boston/Manchester media market runs at $527, and while Portland and Burlington markets are less expensive -- $91 and $76 per point, respectively -- they're still important markets to hit. Both cover prime Republican territory; the Portland market covers the northern portion of the state, while Burlington stations are beamed into the western corner, which also covers Democratic strongholds around Hanover.

Full coverage in the Boston/Manchester market -- that is, 2,000 points for a week -- will run a campaign just over $1 million. That market covers about 80% of the state's population. Add to that special interest group spending and money from the party committees, both of which, as John Ensign suggested, have their eyes on the seat, and the tiny Granite State looks set to shape up as one of the most expensive races in the country.

Morning Thoughts: Pulling Punches

Good Friday morning. Dennis Kucinich has shocked the political world by dropping his presidential bid. The biggest fallout: No more profiles of wife Elizabeth. Kucinich now gets to go back to Cleveland and fight for re-election, which may be a bigger problem than he would like. Here are other hot topics Washington is watching:

-- House Republicans are retreating to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, where they will hear from President Bush at a luncheon today. The Senate, meanwhile, is in session but has no roll call votes scheduled. Lefty bloggers are up in arms today as a White House-backed bill to give the NSA more spying ability won a test vote yesterday in the Senate. Look for some in the blogosphere to suggest drastic action against Democrats who supported the president's bill.

-- Republicans who met in Boca Raton last night tip-toed around each other, which means things probably won't change, RCP's Tom Bevan writes. That let John McCain and Mitt Romney continue to look like front-runners, and it probably doomed Rudy Giuliani to yet another third-place finish. The question Giuliani's team should begin to consider: Does a third-place finish necessitate a quick withdrawal, or can he credibly stay in until after Super Tuesday? By the way, the biggest battle of the night: "Now that Sylvestor Stallone has endorsed me, I'm sending him over to take care of Chuck Norris right away," McCain said.

-- There will be few accusations that Republicans and Democrats are at all alike come November, as last night's debate showed. Only Ron Paul said Iraq was a bad idea, while the others on stage said it was a good idea, as the New York Times writes in their debate roundup. That is decidedly anathema to any Democrat's position, and regardless of whether the issue is backsliding in importance in voters' minds, it's going to be a major point of distinction in the general election.

-- By the way, Romney winning Florida is suddenly a real possibility. The latest RCP Florida Average shows the two tied after recent polls have showed Romney with a notable upward trajectory. He still has a chance to either blow that lead or solidify it: Voters don't head to the polls until Tuesday. It is rare, in recent history, for a candidate to put all his chips on one state, telegraph his withdrawal if he loses that state, win, and return to the head of the pack to contend for a nomination. This year, it has happened twice, with Romney in Michigan and McCain in New Hampshire. Whichever one loses the nomination will have only himself to blame for not squelching the other guy when he had the chance.

-- Consider, for the moment, that Democrats actually turnout and vote in Florida on Tuesday, despite the fact that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards have used the state as little more than an ATM machine. In what might be seen as an indication of the level of excitement Democratic voters have leading up to this year's election, they actually are turning out: More Democrats have taken advantage of early voting than Republicans, Marc Ambinder reports.

-- Recent polls have shown Clinton way ahead -- she leads by 22 in the latest RCP Florida Average -- and no one has bothered to set expectations there. Could we see a Florida bounce heading in to Super Tuesday? If so, that's great for Clinton, coming out of what looks like a South Carolina loss. If no one pays attention, though, Obama could head to Super Tuesday with a big lead.

-- Bill Clinton has been diligently working African American voters in South Carolina, doing everything he can to cut into Obama's lead with the key segment of the South Carolina Democratic base. But Obama's camp is countering by working to cut into Clinton's healthy lead among women, the LA Times reports. And while the battle is pronounced in South Carolina, it's playing a role in February 5 states already. In California, Obama has sent staffers looking for older women, and during recent stops in the state he's emphasized the struggle his own mother went through after his father left. Women make up a disproportionate slice of the Democratic electorate, and if Obama's going to catch up to Clinton -- he's running behind among women virtually everywhere, so far -- he'll need to shrink the gender gap.

-- Disturbing Trend Of The Day: Jim Walsh yesterday became the 24th Republican to announce he would not seek a new term in the House, either because of retirement or because of the prospects of another job. Lefty blog Swing State Project takes a look at those who have backed out of another run, as well as those who might still be ready to call it quits (Our favorite: California Republican Elton Gallegly. Swing State's note: "Botched a retirement attempt in 2006"). The bad news for Republicans: 24 retirements this year is a lot more than the 13 who were out by this time two years ago.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton holds a town hall in Columbia and a rally in Rock Hill. Obama has roundtables in Charleston and Columbia before rallying in Clemson, Florence and Columbia. Edwards campaigns in Greenville, holds a town hall in Columbia and meets voters in Orangeburg and Charleston. On the GOP side, McCain meets the media in Miami, holds a roundtable in Tampa, talks to Fort Lauderdale media and addresses a lunch in Miami. Giuliani rallies in Miami and addresses a local GOP group in Sarasota, while Huckabee makes two stops in Fort Lauderdale before heading to Miami for interviews and a speech at a lunch. Romney addresses the same Miami lunch before stopping in Pensacola and meeting the media in Clearwater.

Gaming Out FL Results

Four candidates are seriously competing for Florida's votes, and recent polls show more than one have legitimate chances of winning the state's delegates. Unlike any previous contest, no one is sitting Florida out, and for some, their entire campaigns may be on the line. Imagine what happens to the race, then, if the following candidates pulled out a win:

Rudy Giuliani: No candidate needs Florida more. Giuliani has pulled out of every contest he's fought the moment it looked as if he were going to lose -- never has a 50-state strategy been more inaccurately named -- and he's finally decided to make his stand. A win here would give campaign advisers a powerful argument: We told you we were going to win Florida.

Suddenly, donors would open their wallets; the media, which has long ignored the absent Giuliani, would pay attention; poll numbers around the country would almost certainly improve. And Giuliani's national strategy, to be the most famous guy on the ballot, could be back on track. For every candidate, there seems to be a point at which their candidacies are either made or broken. Usually, those points are only known after they happen. For Giuliani, it's been clear for weeks that it's all about Florida.

Mitt Romney: A Romney win would be stunning. For much of the last year, he languished near the double-digit mark before beginning a slow, steady climb that has landed him near the top of the pack. It is ironic, perhaps, that he finds himself in that position after the year he's had: Romney was supposed to win Iowa and New Hampshire to catapult himself toward the nomination. He did neither, and yet many still believe he is the only viable candidate left to beat John McCain.

A Romney win would likely knock Giuliani from the race and set the Bay Stater up for a clear showdown with McCain. Romney can afford national airtime leading up to February 5, but McCain's lead nationally, and in key Super Tuesday states, would ensure his worst-case scenario would be a split. The upshot of a Romney win in Florida: A very long Republican campaign that extends into March.

John McCain: Perhaps the most likely scenario at the moment, a McCain win would cement the one-time also-ran as the heavy favorite to win the GOP nomination. Romney and Giuliani need a platform from which to spring into Super Tuesday. McCain already has his, and a Florida win would both boost his chances and deny the others theirs.

McCain came in second in Louisiana, behind "uncommitted," indicating that, in the absence of knowledge about other candidates, Republican primary voters will back him, not Giuliani. He is, in essence, the default candidate. The only way another candidate takes that mantle away from him is to notch a victory and dominate the news coverage for several days after, then to follow it up with another win. If McCain takes Florida, those opportunities for other candidates basically disappear.

Mike Huckabee: Let's be honest, Huckabee is not going to win Florida. With no money to advertise and a messenger who has sounded downright gloomy lately, the campaign just can't compete with three better-known challengers. So, why not hit the February 5 trail now instead of doing so after a disappointing finish on January 29?

Huckabee is still in second place in most national polls. He has a following. He could draw big crowds in states with heavy evangelical populations that vote on Super Tuesday, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri and Oklahoma. Even California has a large number of evangelicals Huckabee might poach, and perhaps they would help replenish his barren campaign coffers. Bottom line: Huckabee won't win Florida, so why waste the time and energy trying?

At the moment, McCain holds a fraction of a point lead over Romney in the latest RCP Florida Average. Giuliani is just over 3 points back, while Huckabee trails five points behind him. Tonight's debate, in Boca Raton, is crucial to all four. Whoever comes out on top tonight might just propel themselves to making one of these hypotheticals become reality.

Another Surprise Retirement

Dealing another body blow to House Republicans, ten-term Rep. Jim Walsh is likely to announce his retirement shortly, sources tell Politico's Patrick O'Connor. Walsh, who represents part of upstate New York, follows more than a dozen other veteran incumbents out the door, many of whom opened swing seats ripe for Democratic takeovers.

After nine easy elections, when Walsh coasted to victory, his was one of five seats in which Democrats over-performed in the Empire State. Congressional aide Dan Maffei, who had served New York icons Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Charlie Rangel, came back to his home town and, despite being out-spent two to one, came close to winning. It took more than a week for Maffei to concede; he lost by just over 3,000 votes. Still, before last year, Walsh had never seen an opponent come within ten points.

An unflashy moderate, Walsh has concentrated on his post on the Appropriations Committee, where he ranks sixth among Republicans in seniority and serves as ranking member of the Labor, HHS and Education subcommittee, after having served as chair of four other subcommittees. Before Congress, he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal and as a social worker.

The district spans from Syracuse and Onondaga County, west to the Rochester suburbs. While traditionally Republican, largely to send someone to Albany to balance out Democrats in New York City, it has recently trended Democratic on a federal level. Both Al Gore and John Kerry beat President Bush there, one of just a few seats Republicans hold that their presidential nominee lost.

Maffei began his bid for a rematch on a tear. He had raised more than $340,000 through September 30, and he retained about $315,000 in the bank. Walsh had more than $450,000 in the bank after September, but this year the fundraising gap would have been much smaller.

The open seat is exactly what Rep. Tom Cole and the NRCC don't need. In 2006, no region proved more difficult for Republicans, and more fertile for Democrats, than the Northeast. In New York, Democrats beat longtime incumbent Republcians Sue Kelly and John Sweeney, stole a seat left open by retiring Republican Sherwood Boehlert and came close to beating Walsh, Tom Reynolds and Randy Kuhl.

The GOP lost every statewide election in 2006, and the party holds on to the State Senate by a whisker. Upstate has shifted inexorably toward Democrats, who will also eventually make strong challenges for seats held by Long Island Rep. Peter King and Staten Island Rep. Vito Fossella. After 2006, just six of the twenty nine members of Congress representing New York are Republicans. If Walsh's retirement is any guide, 2008 could shrink that number even farther. It's hard to imagine after last year, but New York Republicans could discover they have yet to reach the bottom.

Morning Thoughts: The Final Countdown

Good Thursday morning. Is the fact that we forgot there was another debate tonight a sign that there are just too many gatherings for us to pay attention anymore? With so many, we'd imagine some network would try to slip in some weird rule, knowing no campaign has time to read every single debate memo. If no one has yet, someone please try to get the candidates wearing funny hats or something.

-- The House is out of session for the week after two full days of work. The Senate picks up consideration of a bill reforming the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is likely to bring a quick end to that bipartisan spirit we were talking about yesterday. The Senate Agriculture Committee today takes up the nomination of former North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer to round out the Cabinet as Agriculture Secretary, while the Senate Finance Committee continues work on an economic stimulus package as congressional leaders appear close to a deal.

-- As much as we mock it, tonight's debate actually does matter. It is perhaps the most important single moment of the campaign for Rudy Giuliani, sinking in recent Florida polls, who needs to pull off a big win in the state if his bid for the White House is going to continue. Tonight, as the field meets on stage for the first time without Fred Thompson, may be Giuliani's last chance.

-- A poll out today for Florida's major newspapers, though, shows Giuliani's best days may already be behind him. The survey, conducted for the St. Pete Times and the Miami Herald, among others, shows John McCain and Mitt Romney well ahead of the pack, statistically tied for first place, while Giuliani is tied for third with Mike Huckabee. It's a dramatic ten-point hole Hizzoner has to climb out of, when in November he enjoyed a 17-point lead in the state. "Giuliani, for all intents and purposes, has virtually no chance to win in Florida," pollster Rob Schroth said.

-- Thompson would have gotten a win had he only made his intentions to stick around painfully obvious, Jim Geraghty reports. Little-noticed amid the fray was Louisiana's caucuses, in which "Pro-life uncommitted" beat out, in order, John McCain, Ron Paul and Mitt Romney. That place-holder name was reportedly put on the ballot when social conservatives became unsure that Thompson would still be on the ballot. Turns out he dropped out just hours before caucusing began. The order of finish is telling for other reasons as well: Mitt Romney, the only candidate with any organization in the state, finished third among candidates and fourth overall. Is this a sign that, in states that don't get attention, McCain is beginning to benefit from a snowball effect?

-- McCain is becoming the consensus front-runner, and Democrats are already planning their fall campaigns around him. Is there anything at all the other candidates can do to stop him? If there is, they'd better do it soon, writes Chuck Todd. That means tonight is likely going to mirror Monday's Democratic debate as one of the ugliest of the year. Romney and Giuliani have no other choice; for the sake of their own delegates, they need to bring McCain down a few pegs. And, as Michael Luo writes in the Times today, no one is going to be shy about hitting back at Romney.

-- If McCain is the Republican nominee, some members of the GOP are going to be very, very frustrated. In fact, it doesn't matter who the GOP nominee is -- many in the GOP are going to be frustrated anyway. Poll numbers continue to show what we're experiencing on the trail: That an overwhelming majority of Democrats are satisfied with their candidates while many fewer Republicans feel the same way. A new LA Times poll shows more than three quarters of Democrats say they are happy with their choices, while just 11% are dissatisfied. About half of Republicans are satisfied, while almost a quarter are dissatisfied. That satisfaction gap is going to translate, somehow, into November: Even if every Republican hates the Democratic nominee, it's much harder to turn voters out based on a negative premise -- "I'm going to vote against the Democrat" -- than a positive premise.

-- Give an inch and they'll take a mile: Hillary Clinton's campaign recently complained that a national advertising buy the Obama camp made constituted campaigning in Florida. When no one got outraged, NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports, Clinton's team began seriously considering holding public events in the state. The state offers no delegates, but it is still the last time before Super Tuesday that Democrats get to vote for a candidate. Given her standing in the race, Clinton virtually has to win there. She's ahead by almost 18 points in the latest RCP Florida Average, but she needs to be. Anything other than a big win is a huge defeat heading into the following week.

-- Reality Check Of The Day: Having lost Iowa, gotten thumped in New Hampshire and turning in a ridiculously low 4% showing in Nevada, John Edwards is beginning to think about the end of his race. Clinton and Obama are overlooking him as they take shots at each other, and while he can continue to hold on to the delegates he's accumulated so far, he's held recent conversations with both his rivals, as Dan Balz reports, and one sit-down with Clinton that generated a lot of talk. At this point, Edwards seems resigned to sitting back and hoping for a brokered convention. If he gets that, those weekend conversations will be the first of many between the three.

-- Today On The Trail: Edwards holds events in Greenwood and Seneca, while Obama meets voters in Kingstree, Beaufort and North Charleston and Clinton gives a speech on the economy in Greenville. She then travels to Anderson, South Carolina. Giuliani has a rally before the Boca Raton debate, while McCain raises money and holds town halls in Palm Beach and West Palm Beach. Before the debate he attends a party in Deerfield Beach. Romney has a rally planned for Miami, while Huckabee doesn't have anything other than the gathering on his plate.

Doolittle Successors Emerge

California Congressman John Doolittle's retirement announcement two weeks ago invited rampant speculation over a slew of potential candidates for the GOP nod. That number has dwindled, and the Republican primary now looks likely to be a three-person race.

Assemblyman Ted Gaines, State Senator Sam Aanestad, and Mike Holmes, who challenged Doolittle in the 2006 primary, have all recently taken their names out of contention, leaving only two candidate certain to be in the race: former State Senator Rico Oller and Air Force Reservist Eric Egland.

A third likely candidate is former Congressman Doug Ose, who reportedly is still weighing his options. Ose was elected to Congress from the 3rd District in 1998, and honored his pledge to serve just three terms. He briefly considered running for the Senate in 2004, but opted against it.

Before Ose's election in 1998, a Republican had never won the 3rd District since its creation in 1962. The 3rd shares its northern border with the expansive 4th District, and voters may be seeking someone with experience and a history of representing the area. With the current congressman under federal investigation for a lobbying scandal, a former congressman who kept his term-limit pledge and never ran afoul of the law may be an attractive successor.

Democrat Charlie Brown, who won 46% against Doolittle in 2006, may have a tougher time distinguishing himself against the moderate Ose, rather than Oller, a conservative in the state Senate. Oller previously ran for Congress in 2004, finishing a close second to Dan Lungren in the 3rd-district Republican primary to succeed Ose.

Despite Brown's good showing in 2006, whoever the Republican nominee is will be the favorite heading into the general election, as President Bush averaged 60% of the vote in 2000 and 2004. This likely would not have been the case had Doolittle decided to run again.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Bad News And Bedfellows

As the economy tanks and both parties scramble to come up with a solution, something new and strange is sweeping Washington: Both parties are actually working together. The spirit of bipartisanship, increasingly rare inside the contentious Beltway, has gone so far as to cause two votes on contempt charges for top White House aides to be postponed, Politico reports.

The impetus for such cooperation: A need both parties feel to pass a sweeping stimulus package that puts money back into consumers' (read: voters') pockets. The White House and Congressional Democrats met yesterday, and have been in frequent communication, over the basic outlines of a plan, and all sides -- including Congressional Republicans -- hope for a quick fix.

Despite the cooperation, both parties are strategizing about how to appear more cooperative than the other side. It's still politics, after all. "If something is going to be successful, it has to happen fast," one Senate Republican aide, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about ongoing negotiations, told Politics Nation. "If either side insists on a my-way-or-the-highway approach, it won't get 60 votes in the Senate -- and will die."

Republicans think they are winning the agreement war; tax hikes aren't a part of the initial package, and getting Democrats to admit that a tax break is good for the economy is more than just a moral victory for the GOP. "This won't be the package they want, and it will lean a lot more toward tax relief than anything else," the Republican said. "They've moved our way and taken tax hikes completely off the table."

Democrats, though, maintain that they still have the upper hand. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered their plan quickly, and negotiations are going harmoniously. If their package passes, they will be able to tell voters that the extra money in their pockets are because of Democrats who got Washington to work. Congressional Republicans, said one Senate Democratic aide, are negotiating out of necessity. "They see us leading on [the economy] and they needed to hop on board," the aide said.

Still, some Democratic aides wonder whether Republicans, who are playing nice right now, might walk away from the table instead of handing Democrats such a win. Getting Congress to act on an issue that is likely to play a major role in the 2008 elections, after all, is a powerful message. Republicans might decide, however, that participating in the stimulus package is a bigger win -- or a smaller loss -- than being blamed for inaction, even as the Republican White House works with Congressional Democrats.

Besides, says the Senate Republican aide, the time for serious disagreements has likely passed. "There are some that argue there is no need for an economic growth package, but now that everyone from Pelosi to the White House have acknowledged the utility of a package and are working to draft one, that ship has sailed," he said. "It's now just a matter of what its destination is."

35 Years Later

Protesters from both sides of a critical issue stormed Capitol Hill yesterday, forcing pedestrians off sidewalks to make their voices heard. Yesterday, the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the issue of abortion rights once again took center stage.

Three and a half decades later, as Republican presidential candidates fight for the label of most pro-life and accuse each other of infidelity to the cause, activists on both sides hope desperately for the issue to play a role in the general election. Their side, they both believe, will win the day, and a pro-choice or pro-life platform will make the difference between a win and a loss. But in a general election, does abortion, in fact, move votes? The answer, according to polls and to recent history, is probably not.

Virtually every poll that tests the question finds a small majority -- in the area of 55% -- say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Around 45% say it should be illegal in most or all cases. That number rarely strays more than a point or two. Meanwhile, asked what issue would be a deal-breaker if a voter disagreed with a candidate, just 8% said abortion, according to a Fox News poll conducted in mid-November. In the same poll, 24% said the war in Iraq would be a deal-breaker, while 10% said health care and 10% said economic policies or taxes (immigration scored even lower than abortion, at 5%).

It is hard to think of a contest in recent years that has been decided largely on pro-choice or pro-life platforms. While those positions are crucial to some Republican primary contests -- just ask Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani -- the issue has only played a small role in the Democratic debate: Hillary Clinton has pointed out that some of Barack Obama's infamous "present" votes occurred on abortion issues, but other than that, every candidate is assumed to be pro-choice. On the GOP side, top life advocates are split between a number of candidates, including Giuliani (Pat Robertson), Romney (Paul Weyrich and James Bopp Jr.) and John McCain (Sam Brownback), not to mention countless backers of Mike Huckabee.

In fact, there is not a unanimous opinion among the Republican electorate about the issue. Exit polls from South Carolina showed more than a quarter of GOP voters thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Those positions did not stop them from casting a vote for candidates quite outside their thinking: 20% of those who said they thought abortion should be legal in all cases voted for Huckabee, who doesn't have a pro-life bone in his body, and 74% voted for McCain, Romney or the recently departed Fred Thompson, none of whom can be called pro-choice. More than half those voting in the New Hampshire GOP primary said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

An LA Times/Bloomberg poll in late November showed that just 28% of Republicans would be less likely to vote for Giuliani, despite his pro-choice stand, while 15% said they would be more likely to vote for him given that stand. To more than half of Republicans, Giuliani's position, anathema to what is supposed to be a huge issue to the GOP, would not make a difference.

That abortion is becoming less of a vote-moving issue does not mean its importance is diminished by any means. Interest groups and activists on both sides are as passionate about it as any other issue, and for good reason: It is one of the first political issues on which anyone forms an opinion, and few are swayed. Groups like EMILY's List, NARAL, and National Right-To-Life maintain strong positions in the Democratic and Republican Parties, both primary vote-winners and as money machines.

But, as an issue to appeal to moderate voters, abortion -- either the pro-choice or pro-life sides -- will not win an election. It seems to be more of a cultural issue than a political issue, and while battles over Supreme Court nominees will be intense, the debate in a general election will remain circumspect. Candidates will talk about the types of judges they would nominate to the Court, but, as polls show, overt appeals to pro-life or pro-choice voters do little more than motivate a base.

Morning Thoughts: Two Down, One Out

Good Wednesday morning. As happens every year, the day after the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Capitol Hill remains littered with protest signs. Here's the rest of what Washington is watching today:

-- The House takes up flood insurance, a measure to curb crime rates among the mentally ill and the Death in Custody Reporting Act, along with an all-important resolution honoring the UCLA women's water polo team for winning the NCAA Division I (there are more than one water polo divisions?) championship. The Senate continues considering a bill promoting Native American health.

-- Arthur Branch will not be president. In a statement yesterday, Fred Thompson said he hopes he made his party and his country better with his run, but in the end, he's abandoning his campaign after a disappointing third-place finish in South Carolina. He becomes the first major candidate to drop out, and the question becomes: Who benefits? Thompson is close with John McCain, though close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades without a formal endorsement.

-- Thompson fans, who make up a little over 8% of the field in Florida, are gun rights advocates and those most concerned with homeland security, Politico writes, or self-identified very conservative and evangelical voters, per The Fix. Supporters looking for a strong leader would naturally flow to Rudy Giuliani, while evangelicals and conservatives seem destined for Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee. While Thompson's departure would seem to favor his old friend McCain, it looks likely that the former candidate will have to step in to make sure his supporters know that as well.

-- Read those two postmortems on Thompson's campaign and the story that filters through is one of disappointment and extreme frustration on the part of key advisers. Every Thompson fan we know, as well, was frustrated by the lackluster performance of a candidate they thought would have been a good president. But once again, the unfortunate rule that everyone wants to ignore worms its way into the discussion: When running for president, follow a traditional route. It works, that's why it's tradition. Running a campaign based on Fox News and days of radio interviews is not going to win you votes in the modern primary process. Now, as Carl Cameron reports, Thompson has been reduced to openly running for vice president.

-- First, there were multiple Huckabooms. Then, the win in Iowa gave him Huckmentum enough to charter the Huckaplane. Now, it looks like Mike Huckabee is Mike Huckabroke. Several aides are not being paid, while campaign chair Ed Rollins admits that others have quit, as Jonathan Martin and others report. The campaign looks like it's spiraling out of control, when just two weeks ago it was riding high. If Huckabee exits the race, blame money problems and one entirely questionable strategic decision: Why did Huckabee spend time and money in Michigan (and even, to some extent, in New Hampshire) where there were fewer evangelicals to take advantage of and where McCain and Romney had big leads already? Skipping Michigan in favor of South Carolina and Florida might have aided the campaign more in the end.

-- One storyline we just can't figure out: After months of Giuliani or McCain leading the GOP field, and even with Romney's early-state strategy, it was assumed that evangelical voters didn't have much of a voice in the Republican process. Huckabee's and Thompson's respective rises in the polls made some wonder: Had evangelicals taken over the Republican race? With both down and, if Huckabee runs out of money, out, evangelicals will again be faced with the Mormon, the Arizonan who hates talking about faith and the thrice-divorced Catholic New Yorker. After giving business Republicans a scare, it looks like evangelicals will once again be marginalized in the primary process.

-- Every day, it seems, the rumors become more pronounced and more overt, and every day Team Obama is a little more scared by tales of their candidate's secret Muslim religion. Barack Obama's campaign is not waiting around hoping for people's better judgment to sink in, though; they are actively and quickly responding to every rumor that comes up. Obama's camp sent out an email yesterday from John Kerry warning of swiftboat-style attacks, while the candidate sat down with CBN's David Brody for an extended look at faith.

-- Nonetheless, the Clark County (Washington) Republican Party saw fit to post an extended biography of Obama that included a reference to him being Muslim, as Washington State blogger Jon DeVore points out in a screen shot. The statements have since been taken down, replaced with an apology for the factual errors. Two things to consider: First, if the rumors are reaching Democratic primary voters and making them think twice, what does that say about Obama's electability in the general? Second, what do the rumors say to Muslims in the U.S.? That their religion is enough to prevent them from becoming president? Those, along with Mormon questions Romney has had to face, just go to show the American electorate still has some racist and religionist tendencies that have to be addressed.

-- Elsewhere on the Democratic trail, with Hillary Clinton in California and Arizona yesterday and Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York today, the Democratic front-runner is clearly looking beyond South Carolina to the crucial February 5 primaries, Washington Post reports. California, New York, New Jersey and Arkansas have been her main focuses since she lost Iowa, while strategists say Obama is more likely to win Georgia and Alabama if he takes South Carolina, as well as six states that hold caucuses that day, in Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, Alaska and Idaho.

-- Both candidates are doing their best to penetrate their rival's home states -- Clinton in downstate Illinois and Obama in certain African American-heavy districts in New York -- and the strategies give just a hint of the complex math to come. Clinton has already started running ads in California, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, Missouri, Connecticut and Massachusetts, Ben Smith reports, while rumors of someone buying up a $2.7 million Super Bowl ad abound. Oh, that's why they needed $100 million.

-- Endorsements Of The Day: The same Washington Post story from above hints Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius is preparing to endorse Obama -- she's a little busy working on the Democratic response to the State of the Union, though -- while the senator won backing from The State, one of South Carolina's top newspapers, in editions running this morning. And further sealing McCain's military credentials, he's won support from the last guy to win a war in Iraq -- Norman Schwarzkopf. Endorsements don't mean a lot, but these three could have decisive impacts among "New Democrats," South Carolinians and Florida's military and retired communities, respectively.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton begins in Philadelphia before holding two rallies with Sen. Bob Menendez in Hackensack and North Bergen. Obama heads to Rock Hill, Sumter and Dillon for a mix of town halls and rallies, while Edwards holds events playing up his Palmetto roots in Bennettsville, Lancaster and Gaffney. Republican Giuliani rallies in Estero before meeting supporters in Naples, while McCain has an economic round table in Orlando. Huckabee rallies in Fort Lauderdale, and Romney stops in Sarasota and Tampa.

Blunt Surprises, Drops Out

One of the races Politics Nation was looking most forward to covering next year just got a lot more boring, but Missouri Governor Matt Blunt, who today announced he would not run for a second term, did provide everyone in Washington a surprise. The Fix has Blunt's statement, in which he cites a desire to spend more time with his family and says the decision was not motivated by political considerations.

Still, Blunt would have had a difficult time overcoming a strong challenge from Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon. Both had raised millions of dollars toward a general election matchup, though Nixon led by a wide margin, according to a November poll, after Blunt's first term was marred by poor performance. Just 40% of Missourians said Blunt's performance was excellent or good, the poll showed.

The announcement came as such a surprise that Blunt apparently hadn't even informed campaign staff of the decision by the time a statement was released. A campaign worker answering the phone at Blunt headquarters was surprised by the news when told by Politics Nation.

With his exit, Blunt ensures that Democrats have an excellent chance at picking up the seat. Nixon has a big head start on whichever Republican emerges from what is certain to be a competitive primary to replace Blunt. Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder, former Senator Jim Talent and at least a few of Missouri's five Republican members of Congress will likely consider a bid for the seat.

The news isn't all bad for Blunt, either. By bowing out of a race he very likely would have lost, he can save some of his reputation, make some money for a few years and think, once his kids are a little older, of re-entering public service. The state's Democratic Senator, Claire McCaskill, narrowly beat Talent in 2006, meaning she will be vulnerable in a few years, while Senator Kit Bond might be considering retirement when his term is up in 2010. By leaving on his own terms, Blunt leaves the door open for a return, and given his age -- he's just 37 years old -- he has plenty of time to do so.

Blunt's departure means Missouri will see its fifth governor in nine years, since the October 2000 death of then-Governor Mel Carnahan. Carnahan's lieutenant, Roger Wilson, served out the remainer of his term before handing the reins over to Democrat Bob Holden. Holden was seen in such a poor light after his first term that McCaskill beat him in the primary as he sought re-election in 2004, before losing to Blunt in the general.

Still, a governor of Missouri can go on to other things. Bond and John Ashcroft both left the governor's mansion for the Senate, while Carnahan was running against Ashcroft when his plane went down just weeks before the election. Carnahan's wife stood in for her husband after he posthumously defeated Ashcroft. It is safe to assume that Blunt has something else in mind down the road, and this move, while likely handing the chief executive seat to Democrats in 2008, ensures he'll have a shot when his time comes.

-- Reid Wilson, with Kyle Trygstad

Giuliani's Flawed FL Strategy

Rudy Giuliani's initial plan called for a big victory in Floirda just a week before February 5, catapulting him into the lead in key February 5 states and trading on his name recognition to help him win the GOP nomination. Just a week before the Florida vote, though, Giuliani finds his strategy in shambles.

Despite spending more than seven weeks of his time in Florida during the campaign, GIuliani now finds himself trailing John McCain and barely leading Mitt Romney, by 3.3 points and 0.7 points, respectively, according to the latest RCP Florida Average. While he led by as much as 18 points in mid-November, Giuliani has seen his support tumble while Romney, McCain and Mike Huckabee have all seen their numbers rise after wins in prominent early states.

But Giuliani's problem goes farther than that. Among the states voting on February 5 are key states, including Connecticut, New Jersey and his home state of New York. Because of his proximity to those states, Giuliani was supposed to easily outperform his competition. Recent polls, however, suggest different: Giuliani led by 16 points in a recent Garden State poll by Research 2000, though other surveys have McCain leading. Giuliani leads the RCP New Jersey Average by just 3.4 points.

That, for Giuliani, is the good news. In Giuliani's home state, McCain is either tied or leading in recent polls. In six polls conducted since January 9, Giuliani leads in just one; the two are tied in a new Quinnipiac survey; and McCain leads in four. The Arizona Senator leads the former New York Mayor in the latest RCP New York Average by 5.5 points. In neighboring Connecticut, a University of Connecticut poll for the Hartford Courant shows McCain leading by a whopping 23 points.

In California, meanwhile, a state in which Giuliani was supposed to cruise to a win based on his name recognition and others' reluctance to play in such expensive media markets, three recent polls put McCain up by 10.4 points in the latest RCP California Average.

With non-stop media coverage of the 2008 campaign, Giuliani's faltering strategy and the improved positions of McCain, Romney and even Huckabee prove a new rule of nominating contests: The press is hungry for a story, and a candidate can't rely on starting late. The traditional campaign is traditional for a reason: It works. Finishing no better than fourth or fifth is not the way to keep atop the polls in later contests, as Giuliani is finding out.

If the mayor had actually spent time in Iowa and New Hampshire, he might still have lost. But a second- or third-place showing in either state could have propelled him to better finishes later. Romney and McCain did well enough to win later contests; Giuliani could easily have done the same. When the campaign's obituary is written, which looks increasingly likely, it will hold an important lesson for future campaigns: Play early and often, even if you think you might lose. Taking a risk can be rewarded in presidential politics.

The Odd Couple

It is largely assumed that, in lieu of his own appearance at the top of the ticket, John Edwards favors Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. Obama's and Edwards' messages are largely the same, though their approaches differ, and Edwards' dislike for Clinton has been obvious for months.

But last night, Edwards and Clinton had a symbiotic relationship, as both sought to attack what they characterized as inconsistencies in Obama's record and rhetoric. Edwards took his usual shots at Clinton for being a Washington insider, though they were far from the sharpest he's used, instead paying more attention to Obama.

As if the joint Obama targeting weren't enough to pique interest, Edwards and Clinton actually sat down together in Edwards' green room after the debate, CNN reports. Sources told the network that little more than light chatter was involved, and that such meetings have occurred previously between Edwards and Obama.

Still, Edwards and Clinton have not had a collegial relationship during the campaign, and a chance meeting with light chit-chat seems unlikely. Could the two have begun a conversation that could lead to bigger things -- perhaps a deal of some sort -- down the road?

We've always thought the idea of a Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton ticket would not fly with either camp; the two seem to genuinely dislike each other. And it has been largely assumed that Edwards, thanks to his performance as a running mate in 2004, would be out of the running for the same position in 2008. He's not on anyone's shortlist yet, but ... what if? In a race that very well may be decided by the few dozen delegates Edwards commands at a national convention, a very prominent position in the next administration could be offered by the winning candidate.

How prominent? Maybe that's what Clinton and Edwards were discussing.

Feuding Past Myrtle Beach

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Meeting with reporters the morning after the most contentious debate of the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination fight, Hillary Clinton continued to take shots at lead opponent Barack Obama. "What we saw last night was that he's very frustrated," Clinton said of the change in tone that has marked both campaigns in recent weeks. "He clearly came looking for a fight."

ClintonDC.jpg
Clinton bashed Obama while
meeting with reporters in Washington
Dismissing surrogates and rejecting notions that her campaign is trying to marginalize Obama by describing him as young and African American, Clinton said there are real differences between the two. "We have a big difference on health care. We apparently have a big difference on credit card rates," she said. "Drawing those differences and contrasts is important for voters."

Still, Clinton took on Obama's character as well as his positions. "He has a hard time responding to questions about his record," she said, further explaining that the eventual Republican nominee will attack that record. "Words matter, but actions matter more. And time and time again, we see where words and actions don't match." Clinton also invoked a rival who has attacked her for months but now seems more on her page in the dispute over Obama's "present" votes in the Illinois legislature: "Both Senator [John] Edwards and I believe you can't vote 'present' as president," she said.

Much of the questioning focused on former President Bill Clinton, who in recent days has reportedly received angry phone calls from Rep. Rahm Emanuel and Senator Ted Kennedy urging him to tone down the rhetoric against Obama. Hillary Clinton today downplayed any feuding that goes on at the surrogate level, saying the debate last night showed off what the campaign should be about: "This is between us," she said.

At the end of the day, though, she denied the strife of the primary would negatively effect the party's chances in November. "We will have a unified party once we have a nominee. There's no doubt about that."

On a day that saw the Dow Jones Industrial Average open down more than 400 points, Clinton began the press conference addressing what she characterized as "a global crisis that could very well thrust us into a deep recession." Clinton blamed the Bush Administration's policies of the past seven years. Clinton repeated her proposal to freeze mortgage rates for five years and to halt foreclosures for 90 days while urging President Bush to convene the President's Working Group on Financial Markets.

She urged the White House and Congressional leaders, who will meet today to hammer out an agreement on a stimulus package, to find common ground on a bill that can pass quickly and that would deal with the mortgage crisis.

Clinton, who is now on her way to events in California and Arizona, disputed claims that she is essentially abandoning South Carolina in the face of an inevitable Obama victory there. "I have a couple of obligations that I have to meet today and tomorrow," she said of her trip, which takes her to the Northeast tomorrow. "We are running a very vigorous campaign in South Carolina."

Morning Thoughts: Dems Get Ugly

Good Tuesday morning We were watching the fights last night, and all the sudden a debate broke out. Fallout continues today, as Clinton will hold a media advisory here in Washington before jetting off to other events. Virtually everyone is talking about it today, though other topics could become much more important, and pretty quickly. Here's the rest of what Washington is watching today:

-- The Senate is back in session today after a long holiday break. They take up the Indian Health Care Improvement Act after an hour of morning business. The House renames a few post offices, expresses its sense that the U.S. has the moral responsibility to do something about poverty (but doesn't actually do anything about it), amends a bill on highway tunnels and thanks the Coast Guard for seizing 350,000 pounds of cocaine at sea in 2007. The Senate Finance Committee, meanwhile, takes up economic stimulus (just in time; see below).

-- As for the Massacre in Myrtle Beach, one thing is certain: By later primaries, when John Edwards and John Kerry were the only two legitimately competing for the Democratic nomination four years ago, Edwards was respectful in his challenges, campaigning virtually openly for vice president. This year, that's not going to happen. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton simply don't like each other, and neither is going to choose -- or even ask -- the other to be their number two. In the loudest, angriest debate so far, Clinton landed some key punches: The "present" votes, a Tony Rezko mention and his consistency on the war in Iraq. Obama got his share in, too: The bankruptcy bill, Bill Clinton's attacks and all the Washington insider criticism you can handle.

-- At times, they were both shrill, though Clinton is the more practiced debater. She frequently interrupted Obama in mid-attack, and her response to criticism is not to play defense, but to fight back, as Chuck Todd observed. That's a great response, and it suggests that Clinton is the more disciplined politician. By the way, Rick Klein's live-blogging is a must-read for micro-analysis on every punch and counter-punch.

-- One big winner last night: John Edwards, who generally sat back and said nice things about people, got in some good jokes about being the white man at a disadvantage and seemed pleased to be above it all. That is, when he wasn't taking very effective shots at both Obama and Clinton. For months, Edwards has targeted Clinton as much as he can. Last night, he went after Obama as much, if not more. The Edwards campaign must believe that the only way they vault back into contention is if they take votes away from Obama in South Carolina. Still, against Obama and Clinton, both of whom had solid debates, Edwards has a steep hill to climb.

-- Last year, deputy campaign manager Mike Henry authored a memo suggesting Clinton skip Iowa, making the state less valuable for the eventual winner. Henry did not get his wish, and Clinton got thumped, nearly derailing her entire campaign. This week, Clinton again finds herself an underdog, going into a heavily African American state just days after more than 80% of that key demographic chose rival Obama in Nevada. This time, the campaign is trying something different. Bill and Chelsea Clinton will be in the state for part of next week, though the candidate herself will be in California, Arizona, New Mexico, New Jersey and New York, as the New York Observer reports. Clinton's absence doesn't have the effect of minimizing an Obama win, but it's certainly sending a message that Clinton isn't taking the state as seriously as she did New Hampshire.

-- Obama, too, is looking beyond South Carolina, anticipating a contentious February 5. His campaign became the first to launch national ad, a sixty-second bio spot featuring testimony from Harvard Professor Laurence Tribe, Illinois Republican State Senator Kirk Dillard and Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill and snips from his DNC speech in 2004. The spot, running on CNN (including one before last night's debate) and MSNBC, according to AdAge, was immediately attacked by the Clinton camp as a violation of the early state pledge. Their rationale: There are 6.6 million households in Florida that get CNN, therefore Obama had violated a pledge not to campaign in a state that will hold its primary ahead of the DNC-approved window.

-- Clinton's team put former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Kathy Sullivan on the phone to blast Obama for the move. Still, now that January is more than three weeks old, who cares about Iowa and New Hampshire anymore? At least Obama's up on national television. Minor irony, aside from a Florida Congresswoman saying a presidential candidate from her party should not advertise in her state: "Just last week the Obama campaign snubbed the people of Florida in a memo that stated that Florida did not matter in the nominating process," said a statement from the Clinton campaign, as they argue that Obama should stay away.

-- One more Obama observation: Anecdotally, many have written about emails circulating false information about Obama's religion -- they claim he's a Muslim, or worse, some sort of Manchurian candidate -- though this reporter had never come across voters who had seen the emails. That is, until Nevada, when Obama and Clinton fans, and more than one cab driver, said they had received the emails. Obama's campaign must be feeling heat over it: Salon's Glenn Greenwald reports on some Obama mailers in South Carolina that call him a "committed Christian" who was "called to bring change" and "called to serve." Greenwald doesn't like the overtly religious tone, which he calls at least as explicit as anything Mike Huckabee has done. Still, it's the South, where religion is a political issue, and Obama's team must be seriously worried about the rumors if they're making it such a central part of a mailing to South Carolinians.

-- Republicans are a few hundred miles south this week, stumping across Florida after Saturday's contests in Nevada and South Carolina. After the results rolled in, we were struck by the almost concessionary tone of Mike Huckabee's speech to supporters. Now, Mitt Romney is trying to get ahead of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani in Florida, and his strategy seems to seize on that point: He's ignoring Huckabee, Jonathan Martin writes.

-- Huckabee has little money to compete in Florida or in February 5 states, but he's not dead in the water: He's in fourth place, just seven points behind front-running McCain, in the latest RCP Florida Average, and second behind McCain in the latest RCP National Average. Lots of political obituaries, including Huckabee's, have been written this year. Few, so far, have proven accurate. That being said, the Huckabee campaign is no longer providing transportation to reporters, either by bus or by plane. The transport was important in the primaries, they said, but they're "scaling back," per NBC/NJ's Carrie Dann.

-- A major sign of Obama's rise to the top came in a Republican debate before the New Hampshire primary, when GOP candidates were asked to contrast themselves with the Illinois Senator as opposed to Clinton, a favorite target in previous debates. Last night's debate was another sign of the rise of a candidate from the other party: Many thought the Democratic winner would end up facing Romney or Giuliani; Obama was most overt, talking about his contrasts with "Rudy and Mitt." In Myrtle Beach, Giuliani's and Romney's names never came up. Instead, Democrats spent plenty of time criticizing McCain for his stand on the surge. Thirty minutes later: "I think that John McCain is going to be the Republican candidate," Edwards said. Mac is back, and as the Republican front-runner.

-- All-Consuming Storyline Of The Day: As the debate progressed, the beginnings of a bigger story played out in Tokyo, as the Nikkei index plummeted more than 5.6%. European markets aren't doing much better -- in fact, 43 markets have reached bear market territory, Bloomberg reports. We thought the economy was going to be a big issue before, but when the Dow Jones Industrial Average drops well blow 12,000 today, that's certain to get everyone's attention. More analysis on the stumbling market at RealClearMarkets.

-- Today On The Trail: McCain starts in Pensacola before heading to Fort Walton Beach, Florida; later, he holds a fundraiser in New York. Romney is in Boca Raton, Coral Springs and Naples, while Rudy Giuliani is in Palm Beach Gardens. On the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Huckabee heads to Atlanta for a Right to Life event. Obama hits stops in Greenville, Greenwood, Lexington and Orangeburg, while Edwards starts in Conway before appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman. Clinton has a media availability in Washington before holding town halls in Salinas, California and Laveen, Arizona.

A Heated Battle For Hastert's Seat

Former Speaker Dennis Hastert's retirement from the House has sparked a combative two-person race for the Republican nomination in Illinois's 14th District special primary. Dairy company owner Jim Oberweis and State Senator Chris Lauzen have been running highly negative campaigns, The Beacon News reports, including direct mail pieces featuring "dead cows" and accusations of "dirty campaign contributions."

Just two weeks remain in this tight battle, as the special primary, as well as the primary for the November general election, will be held February 5.

Lauzen's first negative mailer referenced Oberweis's three failed campaigns--two for the Senate and one for governor--by using three cartoon cows with Xs over their eyes. It read: "Good ice cream...yes. Good candidate...No!" The mailer also accused Oberweis of FEC violations from a previous campaign.

Oberweis's recent mailers have included accusations of a scandal related to the nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions Lauzen has accepted over the last 10 years from a company currently under investigation by the Illinois attorney general's office. Lauzen's campaign has since returned the money.

On top of support from Hastert, the Chicago Tribune endorsed Oberweis last week, despite what it called a "vitriolic anti-immigration message" that the paper had criticized Oberweis for in his previous campaigns. The newspaper also cited Lauzen's 14 years in the state Senate "where he has alienated many legislators and been minimally effective."

Four Democrats, including scientist Bill Foster and 2006 Democratic nominee Jonathan Laesch, are also vying for the district, which President Bush won in 2004 with 55% of the vote. Laesch won 40% of the vote in 2006 and gave Hastert his lowest margin of victory since first being elected to the House in 1986.

The Democratic and Republican nominees will face off in a March 8 special election, the winner of which will serve out the remainder of Hastert's term, and have the early lead in the November general election race.

--Kyle Trygstad

A Typical NJ Poll

Get used to this: When New Jersey voters are polled about their choice for any office, a large percentage will tell pollsters where they can stick their survey, and in no uncertain terms. The state's electorate is notorious for remaining undecided well into late October, and even early November.

This year, when Senator Frank Lautenberg faces re-election, will be no exception. A new Monmouth University poll, conducted 1/9-13, shows many have yet to make up their mind on a candidate. The poll, of 698 registered voters, tested Lautenberg, developer and former Chamber of Commerce President Anne Evans Estabrook and State Senator Joe Pennacchio.

General Election Matchup
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind)
Lautenberg 40 / 65 / 9 / 39
Pennacchio 25 / 12 / 52 / 26

Lautenberg 38 / 61 / 18 / 32
Estabrook 24 / 3 / 62 / 25

Neither Lautenberg nor Senator Bob Menendez are particularly popular in their home state. Just 43% approve of the job Lautenberg is doing, while Menendez has only a 37% approval rating. But only 28% and 25% disapprove, respectively, meaning Republicans will think they have a chance to pick off a Senate seat and Democrats will think they need to play serious defense.

But New Jersey has proven a tease to Republicans before. Two governor's races and two Senate races, in recent years, have given the GOP what they think is a shot at a victory, and candidates and the party have thrown millions into expensive Philadelphia and New York media markets. But they've come up short each time, as New Jersey voters break late for Democrats.

This year, will Republicans take the bait again and sink more hard-earned cash into what has recently been a sinkhole? Their lack of cash may preclude them from doing so, meaning the GOP will spend its money more efficiently and that Lautenberg could have an easier time than early poll numbers suggest.

Morning Thoughts: Hope, Change And Opportunity

MCCARRAN AIRPORT, LAS VEGAS -- Good Monday morning, and happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It may be a holiday for federal workers, but for campaign employees, it is not. Here's what party and campaign operatives are considering with their day off; as we'll call it, a special Norm Rice edition of Morning Thoughts:

-- Hope. Twenty-one years after his birthday was declared a holiday, King's legacy lives on in more than just after-Christmas sales. In the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, King's hopes of achieving equality for everyone is undergoing a serious test. On one side, some believe that Barack Obama's candidacy is a test of racial equality; on the other, some think true equality would mean he endures the same scrutiny as any other candidate.

-- If African American voters turn out in record numbers for the first black candidate to be able to claim the front-runner mantle, Obama could win, especially in South Carolina. If, on the other hand, the race becomes a standard Democratic contest, Hillary Clinton is likely to remain in command. Clinton once had a legitimate claim to a significant slice of the African American vote; she led among the key demographic for most of 2007. Thanks to recent controversies, though, African Americans favored Obama by overwhelming margins in Nevada, and he enjoys similar margins in South Carolina. Both spent Sunday in major, historic black churches -- Obama at Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, Clinton at Abyssinian Baptist in Harlem -- in what may be a sign of where the Democratic battle goes from here.

-- Change. Obama was right. Everyone really is jumping on this whole "change" bandwagon. Something Democrats are going to consider: Which candidate gives them the best chance of winning a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a bigger margin in the House? Clinton has long emphasized that she is the most electable. Is that really the case, given the non-stop anecdotes of Republicans and independents flooding caucuses and primaries to cast an Obama vote? Answer that question and you'll know who the Democratic nominee will be.

-- Two things Republicans are going to consider: Which candidate delivers the "change" message most effectively -- a longtime Senator whose reputation is as a maverick independent, a businessman governor or an evangelical preacher who embodies the term "compassionate conservative" in a way George Bush only dreamed of? And which candidate is best to use that message of change against, a neophyte with a funny name or a veteran with a name like Clinton? Answer the first and you'll find a Republican front-runner. We think we know the answer to the second one, but given Republican willingness to talk about their differences with Obama at a debate in New Hampshire, it's obvious they're considering their answer to his candidacy as well.

-- Opportunity. On Saturday, Fred Thompson and John Edwards came in third in two separate contests in which each should have done better. Thompson, despite a nearly two-week long bus tour, couldn't come close to John McCain or Mike Huckabee in South Carolina. Edwards, in spite of strongbacking from influential unions around the country and in Nevada, managed a pathetic 4% there, fewer than one-tenth the delegates Clinton and Obama scored. Both candidates had opportunities to get a win. Both failed. Now, the question of their exits from the race become not ones of if, but of when.

-- Thompson looks most likely to become the first major casualty of the GOP contest. He has no public schedule remaining, and his post-South Carolina speech read more like a concession than a call to action. Edwards has said he will stay in the race until the convention, but what kind of power broker can he be if he only has a few dozen delegates? His being a game-changer would depend on an extremely even contest, which is far from likely, and his delegates doing what he says, which they don't have to. On the other hand, Thompson and Edwards can probably cast their lots with a front-running candidate and seal a win for that person (McCain and Obama, probably, given Thompson and Edwards' personal feelings), then hope their candidate wins the White House and gives them a good job in Washington (Is Ambassador to Hollywood a Senate-confirmable post?).

-- Speaking of opportunity, Obama has a big one coming up in South Carolina next Saturday. But for Republicans, who has the edge going in to Florida? The latest RCP Florida Average shows John McCain with a three-point lead, but that's without any polls conducted after his South Carolina win. Throw in a potential endorsement from Mel Martinez and possible backing from Thompson and McCain looks like it's his time to shine.

-- We're headed back to Washington as you read this column. Normal updates will resume mid-day Monday.

Reid Wins, Culinary Loses

LAS VEGAS -- When the Democratic National Committee gave Nevada voters a chance to hold early caucuses, few thought the state's voters would have a big influence on the 2008 nominating contests. Even a few weeks ago, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he expected 100,000 people to turn out, no one took him seriously.

Yesterday, aside from Hillary Clinton, Reid was the big winner. More than 117,000 turned out to caucus, a number that approaches one quarter of the registered Democrats in the state. Reid, the first to succeed in a long line of those who have tried to shake up the primary calendar, now has a powerful argument for 2012 and beyond: Nevadans, he can argue, get it.

Reid and his wife, caucusing in their hometown of Searchlight, joined 67 neighbors at a community center next to Harry Reid Elementary School, the Las Vegas Sun reported today. The couple were the only two in their precinct to caucus for uncommitted delegates.

Yesterday's events had their share of losers as well. Chief among them: The Culinary Workers' Union, which waited until the closing days of the contest to back Barack Obama. After convincing state Democrats to open nine at-large caucus sites on the Las Vegas Strip where many of their members could make their voices heard, Culinary officials watched as seven of those nine precincts voted for Clinton.

The union had spent the better part of a year promoting itself as Nevada's king-making organization. But the heavily Hispanic membership bucked leaders' calls for solidarity and split, as Hispanics around the state favored Clinton by a two-to-one margin.

Culinary's top official, Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor, who does not use a first name, was gracious in defeat. "You have to give credit to the Clinton campaign. She won," he told the Sun. Still, after promoting themselves so heavily only to wind up on the losing side, Culinary has some soul-searching to do. The loss has ramifications beyond national convention delegates; it could effect the union's position in the state's political hierarchy, as well as it's position at the bargaining table.

Clinton Wins Nevada

With 98% of precincts reporting, results, from the Nevada Democratic Party headquarters at the Cashman Center in Las Vegas:

Clinton 50.7%
Obama 45.2
Edwards 3.8
Kucinich 0.1
Uncommitted 0.3

Delegate allocation estimates: Clinton 13, Obama 12

Nevada Democrats report initial turnout figures at over 114,000 with 88% of caucuses counting, a number much higher than even the most optimistic political watchers had hoped for. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had initially predicted 100,000, a number many thought far too high.

Disorganization At Dem Caucuses

LAS VEGAS -- Four years ago, the Nevada caucuses hardly mattered. John Kerry won 63% of the vote at just a handful of locations on Valentine's Day in 2004, well after he had sown up the nomination. This year, they could hardly matter more, and perhaps understandably, the Nevada Democratic Party has found difficulty handling the new attention.

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At Desert Pines, confusion reigns
Voters at Desert Pines High School, where about a dozen precincts joined to caucus, were confused by where they should go, how the process worked and even if they were registered to vote. "What a mess," said Liz Taylor, a Las Vegas voter who was caucusing for Barack Obama at one precinct in the cafeteria. As flummoxed attendees looked for their candidate's section, Taylor criticized the precinct organizer. "There's a lot of Spanish-speaking people here, and they don't know what she's saying," Taylor complained.

"I hope the press is more organized than we are," said Susan Farnsworth, who was signing people in at another precinct in the school gym. "People don't know where their precinct is." Still, she said, the State Party had tried. "They told us everything to do. And I got it down. I think."

The scene at Nevada Democrats' headquarters, at the Cashman Center north of downtown Las Vegas, was little better. Phones ring non-stop more than half an hour after caucuses were supposed to begin. Volunteers and staff sprint through the building at break-neck speed. And top advisers to many candidates mill around, looking for some member of the press to spin.

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At the Cashman Center, parking lots A and B
are presumably less patriotic
Back at Desert Pines, at virtually every precinct around campus, Clinton's sections were more full than those for any other candidate. Obama staffers scuttled around trying to convince more to join them, while caucus-goers hoping to cast a vote for John Edwards were scarcely seen.

Voters echoed their campaigns' main talking points: Clinton backers cited her experience as the chief reason for their support, singling out Bill Clinton as a potential positive influence in the White House while criticizing Obama as naive. Obama fans said they wanted massive and dramatic change, hitting Clinton for being part of the problem in Washington.

Many, though, remained confused, and with the complicated rules of the caucus, things don't seem on track to get better. Most of the confusion can be dismissed as first-time jitters, Taylor, the Obama backer, said. "You always start out like this, with two left feet."

Morning Thoughts: Big Thompson, Clinton Day

Good Saturday morning, and happy caucus and primary day. Polls are already open in South Carolina, where they close at 7 p.m. Eastern. Nevada Republicans head to their caucuses at noon., with results coming in by 1:30 p.m., while the Democrats start at 2:00 p.m. and hope to be done in an hour or two. Results are expected by 5:00 p.m. Eastern. Meanwhile, here's what Washington is watching today:

-- With poll numbers getting out of hand in South Carolina, Nevada is becoming more important for Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama. She needs a win here today, and she is in good position to get it: Clinton leads the latest RCP Nevada Average by four points. Previous contests this year have not given the winner a big boost, meaning that Clinton can't expect a Nevada victory to help close the gap down south, where Obama leads the latest RCP South Carolina Average by 9.6 points. Clinton, though, needs to sustain some momentum going in to February 5. Having lost three of the first four meaningful contests is not the way to build the big mo'.

-- Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn sounds awfully coy when "downplaying" -- and we use quotation marks for a reason -- expectations in Nevada in a memo out yesterday. Citing an Obama campaign official who said the candidate who wins the Culinary Workers' endorsement is most likely to win the caucuses, Penn says the nine Strip-based caucus sites will play a huge role in the process, and that the Obama campaign begins the day with a 5-point advantage. "If the polls turnout differently from the result, there may be an easy explanation for it this time," he concludes, blaming any loss Clinton might suffer on the special caucus sites.

-- Meanwhile, we suggested yesterday that perhaps Nevada was a state Edwards should have focused on more. He may begin to realize that he won't win the nomination, but he's still accumulating a good number of delegates. By the end of the contest, John Edwards could be the kingmaker who decides which Democrat wins the nomination, Ben Smith suggests. An underlying, and surprising, point that reveals itself: Like Romney, leading Democrats are planning for a long fight as well.

-- Fred Thompson has the most on the line today for Republicans. He has essentially staked his entire campaign on South Carolina. If he falls flat, he will become the first major Republican candidate to get out of the way. If he comes in a close second or third, with candidates bunched together, he might decide to stay in. After losing Michigan, Mike Huckabee and John McCain could each do with a victory too; McCain leads the latest RCP South Carolina Average by just one point, though that margin is falling as Huckabee closes the gap. Each could use the momentum heading into Florida and February 5. No one, though, is in more need of something that looks like a win than Thompson.

-- There isn't a cloud in the sky over Las Vegas. There is, however, significant cloud cover around South Carolina. The National Weather Service has issued a snow advisory for the Greenville-Spartanburg area, as Jonathan Martin points out, where Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson are said to have strong bases; 1-3 inches are expected. Columbia is under a winter weather warning, while rain will fall throughout the day closer to the coasts. The effect the weather will have on turnout could be the difference between a nail-biter and a blowout tonight.

-- After today, Democrats turn their attention to South Carolina and beyond. On their way to the Palmetto State, each candidate is making stops around the country in key February 5 states as they begin the delicate process of deciding how to approach Super Duper Tuesday. Is it more cost effective to buy ads in each of the twenty-two states that will vote that day, or should the candidates purchase spots on national television? AdAge reports media buyers from the Clinton and Obama camps have each contacted at least one network about national air time.

-- Republicans, meanwhile, turn their attention to Florida, and everyone gets their first taste of Rudy Giuliani in several weeks. Giuliani's poll numbers have slipped in recent weeks -- he now trails McCain by 2.9 points in the latest RCP Florida Average -- but because of a long tour of the state and a constant television presence, which other candidates lack, it's not smart to write him off just yet.

-- On the other hand, what if McCain picks up a major endorsement before the January 29 primary? It seems that Senator and former RNC chairman Mel Martinez is on McCain's Monday schedule, and a nod of support is rumored, the Miami Herald blogs. Rumor has it, as well, that Governor Charlie Crist has been asking around on whether he should back McCain, who came out early for the then-Attorney General's bid for the state's top job. Either, or both, endorsements could seal Florida for McCain.

-- Worst GOTV Ad Ever: Usually, our bit is something "of the day." But this deserves an "ever": Pizza Hut, trying to be hip and with it, is urging their customers to get out and vote in a new television spot. And apparently, their pizza-munching protagonist doesn't believe in this whole "change" thing, yet still easily convinces his pizza-stealing buddy to go vote. Truly, never has a worse campaign ad been made. The ads are running in Nevada and South Carolina.

-- Today On The Trail: John McCain visits a polling place in Charleston before holding his victory party there. Mike Huckabee's victory party is in Columbia, as is Fred Thompson's, their only public events of the day. Mitt Romney rallies with voters in Jacksonville, while Rudy Giuliani will meet older voters at The Villages, both in Florida. Ron Paul hits precincts in Charleston, Lexington and Columbia before rallying with supporters there. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton visits with Las Vegas supporters as caucus results roll in. Later she attends an event with voters in St. Louis. John Edwards rallies with voters in Atlanta before hopping over to Greenville, South Carolina. Obama is down today, but picks up tomorrow with stops in Atlanta and Columbia.

Obama Still A Big Draw

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- As campaigning draws to a close in the battle for Nevada's caucus delegates, candidates hit last minute mega-rallies around Las Vegas. And despite the state's less experienced caucus-going population, crowds were as massive as his initial forays into Iowa. The line outside the University of Nevada-Las Vegas stretched into the desert night, with those hoping to get in waiting expectantly for their turn at the metal detectors.

Still, the campaign may have reason to worry. Many of those who professed to back Obama said they either did not plan to caucus or were unable to do so. "I don't affiliate with either party," said Phil Cole, of Las Vegas, who says he does not plan to caucus. But Cole brought his son anyway, just to see Obama speak. Others said they had to work, or were simply unaware of their caucus locations.

Obama's message of change trumping experience seems to resonate with voters here much as it did in Iowa, where he won, and failed to do in New Hampshire, where he lost. "It's important to me to come up with new ways to handle problems," said Cheryl Martin, who plans to caucus for Obama tomorrow. A foreign policy voter, Martin said the fact that other candidates had more experience did not matter, and that Obama had a different form of appropriate judgment. "He's collecting a lot of intelligent people around him," she said.

As in Iowa, Obama has also attracted voters from across the spectrum. Lori Lemaster, a Republican, says if she had to vote in the GOP caucuses today, she would choose Mike Huckabee. While she says family issues are those that matter to her most, she is considering heading to her Democratic caucus tomorrow to vote for Obama. "He's fresh," she said, when asked why. "He doesn't owe any favors in Washington." And, she says, "he looks like a good family man."

Few Las Vegans are native to the state, and many transplants said this was their first election here. Alan Strait, a recent college graduate who plans to become a teacher, will attend his first caucus in Nevada instead of in his home state, Iowa. Strait has no problems with the rest of the field -- he says he will vote for Hillary Clinton if she makes it through to the general election in November, and while he likes John Edwards, "I don't think he's going to win" -- but Obama's vision on education tipped the scales for him. The first-time caucus-goer will join his neighbors at Cunningham Elementary School (typically of Las Vegas, on Jimmy Durante Boulevard).

Recent polls show Obama running significantly behind Clinton among Hispanics, a key voting bloc. If he is going to win here, he will need a big turnout among those who favored him in Iowa -- chiefly white liberals and intellectuals, coupled with independents and Republicans. The latest RCP Nevada Average shows him behind by 3.7 points, though turnout is anyone's guess.

The line stretching around campus to see him, in his final rally of the Nevada chapter of the campaign, holds within it the candidate's key to victory. If they turn out, he will once again surprise pundits with a big victory. If they stay home, decide to sleep in past the 11 a.m. caucus start time or just can't find their caucus location, Clinton looks headed for another win.

A Little Help From Their Friends

LAS VEGAS -- When Politics Nation called to reserve a space at the Nevada Democratic Party's caucus-day location, someone familiar called us back. Iowa Democratic Party Communications Director Carrie Giddins, apparently a glutton for punishment, is lending a helping hand to her colleagues in the Silver State.

Two weeks after Iowa finished their caucuses, transplanting is not uncommon. Familiar faces are everywhere, as campaigns ordered their Hawkeye staffs to pack up and ship off to the new caucus state. The John Edwards campaign, for one, says they dispatched 75 staffers from snowy Iowa to sunny Las Vegas and environs.

With experience in training caucus-goers and getting them out the door, Iowa staffers can lend a hugely important hand to their Nevada counterparts. Few in this state have caucused before -- just 9,000 showed up in 2004 -- and the local NPR station's daily talk show spent half an hour exploring the privacy issues behind caucusing, a significant concern to many callers.

Strategists on all sides have little idea of what is to come. "Anybody who says they know what turnout will be has too high of an opinion of themselves," Clark County Commission chairman Rory Reid told Politics Nation. "This is not Iowa." With some help from Hawkeye veterans, though, the campaigns -- and even the State Democratic Party -- hope to import some of the success Iowa Democrats found earlier this month.

Young To Run For Re-Election

Long-time Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young says he's running for reelection this year. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports Young spent the recent congressional recess holding fundraisers in Alaska, and he told the newspaper, "People know I'm back and they know that I'm running."

But if Young is to win an 18th full term in Congress, he will have to defeat challengers who are likely to make an issue of a wide-ranging federal investigation that includes the incumbent. State Representative Gabrielle LeDoux is challenging Young in the August 26 Republican primary. Democrats who have filed for the seat include Alaska House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, former Alaska Democratic Party Chairman Jake Metcalfe, and Diane Benson, who lost to Young 57%-40% in 2006.

Though he will not release his 4th-quarter fundraising totals until the end of the month, Young retained about $1.5 million at the end of September, far more than Benson or Metcalfe, the only other two candidates who filed 3rd-quarter reports. The DCCC worked hard to recruit Berkowitz, the Democratic Lieutenant Governor nominee in 2006 who led Young by seven points in a December poll.

News of Young's re-election plans cannot be welcome for Alaska Republicans, many of whom have been stung by the investigation surrounding the VECO Corporation, an oil services company whose chief executive, Bill Allen, pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges. Also implicated was Senator Ted Stevens, whose home was raided by the FBI in late 2007, and several current and former state legislators.

Washington Republicans have seen good news lately, both in terms of strong recruitments and decisions by some ethically challenged members, including Arizona Republican Rick Renzi and California's John Doolittle, to step down. Young's decision to stay in can only cause heartburn for the NRCC.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Dems Target Obama

LAS VEGAS -- False email rumors have been circulating for months suggesting that Barack Obama is some sort of Manchurian Candidate from another culture bent on harming the United States. Hearing John Edwards and Hillary Clinton tell it these days in Nevada, it seems they believe Obama is a Manchurian Democrat, sent from the Republican Party to harm the left's chances of retaking the White House.

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Edwards slammed Obama twice
at an event in Las Vegas
The way Edwards and Clinton speak, one would be led to believe that Obama is the clear front-runner and that the only way the other two can win is by taking votes away from the popular freshman senator. In separate appearances today, both went out of their way to slam recent comments Obama has made in praise of the Republican Party, and to loud applause.

Speaking to supporters before beginning a nationwide tour, John Edwards took time to claim the mantle of a candidate who can come from behind. "I am not the $100 million candidate. That's the other two guys," he said. "I am the underdog." Before singling out Clinton for taking lobbyist money, a refrain he has long repeated, Edwards turned his attention to Obama. "I have a truly universal health care plan. Senator Obama does not."

Edwards then joined critics of Obama's recent comparisons of his campaign to that of Ronald Reagan, in that both are agents of change. "We know that Ronald Reagan is not an example of change for a presidential candidate who is running in the Democratic Party."

Just half an hour later, joining owners and employees at a small business a few miles away, Clinton echoed the criticisms, citing an interview in which Obama said the GOP was the party of ideas. "My leading opponent the other day said that he thought the Republicans had better ideas than Democrats the last ten to fifteen years. That's not the way I remember the last ten to fifteen years."

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Clinton acted as if it were Obama
who led Nevada polls
Clinton's shot at her rival came two minutes -- literally -- after her campaign announced a conference call in which Reps. Barney Frank, Corrine Brown and Shelley Berkley would denounce the comments. Frank's sister is top Clinton adviser Ann Lewis, and Berkley represents the Las Vegas-based district from which a large plurality of Democratic caucus-goers will come tomorrow.

Both campaigns sought to portray Obama as the Nevada front-runner despite recent polls showing Clinton ahead. "Senator Obama has an advantage because of the Culinary endorsement," Clark County Commission chairman and Clinton state chair Rory Reid told Politics Nation. "She has significant union support, but the Culinary Union is certainly a factor. They were an endorsement that everybody sought, simply because of their numbers."

Edwards has left Las Vegas and will attend a rally in Oklahoma City later today, the third stop on what the campaign is billing as a nationwide tour. Clinton will hold two rallies, in Elko and in Reno, before joining husband Bill Clinton for a final rally in Henderson, just south of Las Vegas. Obama has rallies planned for Elko and Las Vegas before heading to a Martin Luther King Jr. dinner in Las Vegas.

Romney's Delegate Fight Strategy

HENDERSON, Nevada - Meeting reporters in this Las Vegas suburb, Nevada's second-largest city, to accept an endorsement from an important state senator, Mitt Romney was hit by a barrage of questions from those who want to know why he is not competing more in South Carolina. That state, which holds its primary on the same day as Nevada's caucuses, will get far more attention on the Republican side than the state in which Romney intends to campaign Saturday.

"We plan to go all the way to the end of the process," he said last night, and a process is what the Republican race has become. On his seventh visit here, when few others of his party have shown up more than a handful of times, Romney's strategy has become clear: Looking ahead, his team may believe the GOP nomination will come down to a delegate fight the likes of which have not been seen for a hundred years.

By virtually every conceivable measure, Romney leads the Republican presidential race. He has won two of the first four contests. He owns more delegates than any other candidate, by far. And more people have cast votes for him than for any other contender. Still, many consider his campaign's collapse to be virtually inevitable. But as he campaigns two thousand miles from his nearest Republican rival, Romney's team may be the one laughing all the way to the GOP convention in Minneapolis.

Aside from a handful of staffers working on behalf of Ron Paul, Romney is virtually alone in the state: John McCain, who many believe to be the Republican front-runner, has a total of one staffer here. Still, Nevada offers 34 delegates. "I want as many of those as I can possibly get," Romney said. "My understanding of the presidential process is, you win the most delegates, and then you win the nomination."

Romney denied favoring Nevada over South Carolina. Campaign spokesman Eric Fehnstrom later pointed out to Politics Nation that Romney has gone back up with television ads in the Palmetto State, which will continue to air through the primary. In fact, Jonathan Martin reports, Romney is even increasing his television ad buys there. Romney has not run television spots in Nevada, instead sticking to radio.

Romney acknowledged that John McCain has a lead in polls in South Carolina, but he said things might not turn out as expected, noting that the pundits and the polls "have proven not to be very accurate so far."

"Coming off a strong win in Michigan, I think we're going to surprise folks," he said. Fehnstrom, though, was quick to tamp down those expectations. "South Carolina is John McCain territory. I'd be shocked if Mitt Romney were to win that state," he said. "I think we have a better chance here in Nevada."

Asked about the absence of a clear GOP favorite, Romney lavished praise on McCain, Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani, calling the group "such a strong field" of candidates.

That strong field, through four contests, has yet to thin. And as he continues to build delegates in places others are avoiding, the Romney hypothesis might prove prescient. "It may very well be a delegate fight at the end," Fehnstrom said. "But I think time will tell. February 5 is going to be a big day for everybody."

Earlier in the day, in Columbia, South Carolina, Romney engaged in a heated exchange with Associated Press reporter Glen Johnson over major GOP lobbyist Ron Kaufman's involvement in Romney's campaign. In Henderson, the issue didn't come up, though Johnson was in attendance again. The AP scribe, this time, did not ask a question.

A Fine New Year For Franken

U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken has had a momentous couple of weeks, confirming the general assumption that Minnesota is a state to watch in November. Franken topped Republican Senator Norm Coleman in 4th-quarter fundraising, won a major endorsement, and also released his first two TV ads.

Franken announced last week that he raised $1.9 million during the last three months of 2007, eclipsing by $200,000 Coleman's announced 4th-quarter fundraising. Through the previous FEC filing deadline Franken had raised $5.2 million, almost entirely from individual contributions, compared to Coleman's $4.9 million.

Mike Ciresi, Franken's chief competition for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party nomination, has yet to announce his 4th-quarter fundraising total; he raised just over $1 million through September 30. Ciresi, who is chairman of a large Minneapolis law firm, finished second in the 2000 DFL Senate primary to Mark Dayton, and considered a second run for the seat in 2006. His fundraising will likely need to pick up if he is to compete through the DFL state convention in June, when the party will endorse a candidate, though he can probably self-fund his campaign until then.

On Wednesday, Franken received the endorsment of Education Minnesota, the largest labor union in the state with roughly 70,000 members. The union is encouraging its members to attend the February 5 caucuses and become Franken delegates to the DFL convention. The union's statewide membership should also offer Franken a boost in the general election.

The two ads Franken released this week offer a glimpse into his campaign's early strategy: proving his Minnesota roots and his commitment to taking the job seriously, two areas of criticism where the "Saturday Night Live" alum is vulnerable. One ad shows Franken walking down a residential street in his hometown of St. Louis Park, Minn., the other features his fourth-grade teacher referring to him as "Allen." At the end of both ads, Franken states that he is "serious" about representing the state in Congress. Neither ad mentions Coleman or Ciresi.

Coleman's reelection bid was given cause for concern when Democrat Amy Klobuchar delivered a crushing 20-point defeat to Republican Congressman Mark Kennedy in the 2006 election for the open Senate seat. Also in 2006, Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty squeaked out a 1-point victory over Attorney General Mike Hatch thanks to embarrassing gaffes by Hatch and his running mate in the final days of the race.

Franken is already relatively well-known around the state, and it appears he will be able to fund a statewide race through November. If he wins the DFL endorsement in June, and if necessary the September primary, the forthcoming general election campaign with Coleman will likely be amongst the most competitive Senate races in the country this year - and certainly an entertaining one to watch.

--Kyle Trygstad

Edwards Can Win Nevada

HENDERSON, Nevada - Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama spent much of Thursday in California, looking ahead to February 5 mega-states that could decide the Democratic nomination. John Edwards made a brief stop in the Golden State as well, but he used the bulk of his day to stump across neighboring Nevada, which holds its caucuses this Saturday. That should come as no surprise: Given its demographics and the amount of energy the former Senator has put into the state, Nevada is likely to either boost Edwards back into a legitimate three-way race or be the final nail in his campaign's coffin.

During his 2004 campaign, Edwards and fellow candidate Dick Gephardt talked about their fathers' blue collar occupations so much that they should be designated (D-Mill Worker) and (D-Milk Man), respectively. Both battled for union backing, along with Howard Dean. This year, Edwards has fared much better among unions, and lately, Edwards' reliance on his father's background as a way to connect with voters has made a comeback. He has always enjoyed strong support from labor unions, and among both groups of voters, Nevada offers fertile territory.

Nearly 14% of Silver State employees belong to a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And for all the talk of the importance of the Las Vegas-based Culinary Workers' Union, which is backing Obama, Edwards enjoys significant support among other key unions in the state, including groups representing communications workers, carpenters, steel workers and transport workers.

By contrast, Edwards has been spending significant time and resources in South Carolina. There, just over 3% of workers belong to a union. If Edwards is to take advantage of a decade of good relations with labor, Nevada should be the state he targets.

Top Nevada elected officials have built what should be a good backbone for an Edwards organization. He has the support of the Speaker of the state Assembly and a number of other important legislators, and his staff includes several field experts and union leaders who should be adept at turning out caucus-goers. His organization is deeper in South Carolina, but the Nevada cavalry is nothing to scoff at.

Finally, Edwards' poll position is simply better in Nevada than it is in South Carolina. In the Palmetto State, he trails leader Obama by some 30 points. In Nevada, he trails by as much as ten. Both states present a challenge for the former Senator, though a 30-point mountain is much more terrifying than a ten-point hill.

If Edwards remains intent on staying in the race through the convention, he will need to win at least a few delegates. Even better, he needs to finish better than a distant second, as he did in Iowa, and certainly better than the distant third New Hampshire provided. Edwards has always banked on an impressive South Carolina showing. Perhaps, in the final two days before caucus-goers head out on Saturday, his team should throw everything it can at Nevada, instead.

Morning Thoughts: You're Unpredictable

LAS VEGAS -- Good Friday morning. Politics Nation has a long day on the trail, and the sun hasn't even considered rising, so pardon the brief edition today. Check back throughout the day for frequent updates. Here's what Nevadans, South Carolinians and Washingtonians are watching today:

-- In Nevada, a new Las Vegas Review-Journal poll puts Clinton ahead by nine points, with Obama running second and Edwards a distant third. Add to that a Zogby poll for C-SPAN and Reuters and we have a new RCP Nevada Average, in which Clinton leads by a skinny 3.7 points. Those numbers may change, though. The Review-Journal offered a glowing review for Barack Obama while hitting Clinton and Edwards in their endorsement, which ran today.

-- Another unpredictable factor, writes Nevada political guru Jon Ralston: Turnout is completely unpredictable. In 2004, just 9,000 Nevadans came out to caucus. This year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ambitiously predicted 100,000 would show up. Ralston, who knows everything there is to know about Nevada politics, "will go out on a limb," he writes, and predict that the number will be somewhere between the two. Great. But it's not just Ralston who's confused. Even top campaign strategists are worried. An unpredictable electorate is a dangerous electorate.

-- Turnout projections got something of a boost yesterday when a judge in Nevada ruled in favor of the state Democratic Party and against the Teachers' Union, allowing caucuses in certain Strip casinos to continue. The ruling is a huge win for Obama, whose supporters in the Culinary Workers' Union will likely dominate those caucuses, giving him a few extra percentage points that might prove crucial to a victory. Judge James Mahan's decision was also a win for both national parties; as two related rulings are scheduled to be handed down in days by the Supreme Court, Mahan ruled that it is the parties' right to pick their nominee in their way.

-- Just days ago the Democratic race was a love-fest on a debate stage. Now it's devolving again, largely thanks to a few surrogates. Sure, three candidates are fighting for votes, but Marc Ambinder hypothesizes that outside groups, including UNITE HERE and AFSCME, are involved to such a degree because the race is acting as a predictor of the future of the labor movement. The latest shot across the bow: "Hillary Clinton does not respect our people," begins a UNITE HERE Spanish-language ad running in Nevada. Talk about escalating the rhetoric.

-- Republicans, meanwhile, have hummed this tune before, and every four years, it seems, it causes someone problems. "If somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we'd tell them what to do with the pole, that's what we'd do," Mike Huckabee told a cheering crowd in Columbia, South Carolina, where the Confederate flag was once proudly displayed on the State Capitol. The irony, as the New York Times points out: It was former South Carolina Governor David Beasley, Huckabee's most prominent Palmetto State supporter, who moved the flag during his term in office.

-- Each candidate's travel schedule in Nevada says something important: That there are really only three cities with airports large enough for a fly-around (with the occasional exception of Pahrump, an hour west of Las Vegas). Okay, that was a joke. But a candidate's travel schedule in South Carolina says a lot more about his strategy: McCain is taking his last day on the Palmetto State trail on the coast, while Thompson and Huckabee are fighting for votes Upstate. The coasts are where recent transplants from the Midwest or the Northeast come to retire, while Upstate is home to more evangelicals and traditional Southern conservatives. No matter the outcome tomorrow, McCain is unlikely to get many votes from Huckabee Country, and the people of Myrtle Beach south to Charleston will ensure Huckabee's numbers stay low near the water. If that changes, and one over-performs in the other's territory, the race is going to be a blowout.

-- Weather Report Of The Day: Republicans head to the polls in slightly warmer, but still chilly South Carolina tomorrow. Upstate the highs will only reach into the lower 40s, while it will be in the low to mid-50s along the coast. Rain is expected virtually everywhere, which could significantly drive down turnout. In Nevada, a recent cold snap is subsiding slowly, with high-40 degree weather in Reno, mid- to upper-50s in Las Vegas and colder, into the 30s, in the northern part of the state. Still, when you're caucusing at the Bellagio, who cares what it looks like outside?

-- Today On The Trail: Edwards has an event at his Las Vegas campaign headquarters before heading to an event with Teamsters in Oklahoma City. Clinton holds an economic roundtable in Las Vegas before taking a lap on the Elko to Reno to Henderson circuit for rallies. Obama's taking the same circuit, starting in Reno before heading to Elko and ending in Las Vegas.

-- On the GOP side, Huckabee meets voters in Bluffton before rallying in Aiken, Greenville, Spartanburg, Rock Hill and Columbia. John McCain spends his time in Florence before heading to Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head Island and Mount Pleasant. And Fred Thompson heads upstate with stops in Seneca, Pickens, Spartanburg and Greenville. Romney joins the Democrats in Nevada for rallies in Elko and Reno. And Rudy Giuliani holds a space policy roundtable in Cape Canaveral before rallying in Titusville.

-- Today, Politics Nation hits the trail with Edwards, Obama and the Clintons. Check back for frequent updates.

Romney Done With SC?

LAS VEGAS -- Mitt Romney lands in the Las Vegas area tonight, just two days before Nevada Republicans head to their caucuses. Romney will hold afternoon events in Las Vegas and Henderson, followed by events north in Elko and Reno. On Saturday, he will hold more events in Nevada before beginning a bus tour in Jacksonville, Florida.

Notice anything missing? Romney doesn't plan any stops in South Carolina beyond today. For Democrats, Nevada is going to be a big deal. But those in the media following Republicans are camped out in the Palmetto State.

Avoiding South Carolina on Saturday makes sense for Romney: He's in third place there in the latest RCP South Carolina Average, while Fred Thompson is surging from fourth place.

In Nevada, on the other hand, Romney has invested much more time and energy than any other Republican. Romney has dozens of staffers on the ground, and today he won backing from the Las Vegas Review Journal, the state's largest daily. The only other candidate with a significant presence here is Ron Paul.

So, while Romney is in fact playing everywhere, he has the opportunity to give a victory speech after winning Nevada instead of a concession speech after finishing third or fourth in South Carolina. Then again, recent polls suggest even a Nevada win might not be guaranteed: One recent poll in Nevada showed Romney leading John McCain by eight points, while another had Romney in fourth place, trailing McCain by seven points. See all the latest Nevada polls here, though there are too few polls to offer an RCP Nevada Average.

Another Competitive Year In The Philly 'Burbs?

In 2006, as Democrats won congressional districts across the country that for years were not thought to be competitive, few metropolitan areas provided greater political theater than the Philadelphia suburbs. Pennsylvania's 6th and 8th Congressional Districts were decided by a grand total of 2 points, while in the 7th District, the home of the incumbent's daughter was raided by the FBI less than a month before the November election.

It is still unclear how competitive these districts will be in 2008, but both parties have been scouring their bases for legitimate challengers. The Philadelphia suburbs have been trending Democratic--John Kerry and Al Gore each won all three districts by slim margins--even as these three districts were represented in Congress by Republicans prior to 2006.

In Republican Congressman Jim Gerlach's 6th District, Democrats have had a laundry list of potential challengers turn down a bid, including Christopher Casey, the brother of Senator Bob Casey. The district has been competitive since its inception after the 2002 redistricting. Gerlach barely avoided a loss once again in 2006, winning by a 51%-49% margin for the third straight year. Democrat Lois Murphy, who lost to Gerlach in 2004 and 2006, has declined to run again. But Democrats reportedly have not given up on Casey yet.

In the 7th District, freshman Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak received late campaign advertising in 2006 that money cannot buy. The FBI raid on the home of incumbent Republican Curt Weldon's daughter was caught on film by local news media and shown across the country. This allowed Sestak to breeze into Congress with an 8-point victory. But the retired 2-star Navy admiral just got his first credible challenger in W. Craig Williams, the now-former assistant U.S. attorney from Philadelphia and a veteran of the Gulf War. Williams was endorsed January 15 by the Delaware County GOP Committee.

Democrat Patrick Murphy, the youngest member of the congressional freshman class of 2006, defeated one-term incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick by a margin of 1,518 votes. This Bucks County-centered district had been represented in Congress by a Republican since 1992. At least three Republicans are currently running for the chance to take on Murphy, who is the only veteran of the Iraq war serving in Congress. One of the candidates is Tom Manion, a retired Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and the father of a soldier who died in Iraq. Manion already has the support of Fitzpatrick and Bucks County GOP Committee chairman Harry Fawkes. And with Murphy winning by such a small margin in 2006, the NRCC is likely to step in with financial support as well.

National Democrats certainly see a chance to pick up a seat in the 6th District, but holding on to the 7th and 8th districts may be equally challenging.

--Kyle Trygstad

Daniels Has The Dough

In what we still look forward to as one of the marquee governor's races of the 2008 cycle, an unpopular incumbent is going to have a huge financial advantage over his Democratic opponents. New fundraising numbers show Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels far outstripping both of his potential rivals in the race to claim cash.

Daniels, the AP reports, finished 2007 with a massive $6.7 million cash on hand. He raised $5.8 million last year. In his 2004 race, Daniels beat acting Governor Joe Kernan using a warchest of $18 million.

Architect Jim Schellinger, who national Democrats privately hope will represent their party in November, reported raising $2.4 million since he entered the race last March. He retained $1.8 million in the bank. Former Rep. Jill Long Thompson, who has the backing of EMILY's List and much higher name recognition than Schellinger, raised $635,000 since getting into the race in July and maintained cash reserves of $435,000.

Recent polls have shown divergent results in the race. A poll conducted in December for the Republican Governor's Association showed Daniels with healthy 13- and 15-point leads over Long Thompson and Schellinger, respectively. But a survey conducted for the Indianapolis Star by the venerable Ann Selzer, in November, showed Schellinger leading by four and Long Thompson up one on the Republican incumbent.

Regardless of who's ahead in horse race polls eleven months out, it is trouble for an incumbent to see his poll numbers fall below 50%. Selzer's poll showed that a majority of voters, by a 50%-40% margin, disapproved of Daniels' job performance, and 57% said the state was off on the wrong track.

The RGA is keeping a close eye on the race, along with another embattled incumbent in the middle of the country. "Our top focuses this year is making sure our incumbents are re-elected, and that makes Missouri and Indiana our top priorities," RGA communications director Chris Schrimpf told Politics Nation. Missouri Governor Matt Blunt faces a tough battle with Attorney General Jay Nixon in November. If Blunt comes in with fundraising numbers even approaching Daniels', the RGA will be very pleased indeed.

So It's Come To This

Not to kick him while he's down, but outgoing Senator Larry Craig is having a rough time getting his name out there. Normally, a senator's op-ed would run in one of his or her state's major papers and get prominent billing on the issues of the day.

Craig is not in that position. The best he could do: The Magic Valley Times-News, wherein he argues that he remains an effective senator, having secured large earmarks for several projects around the state. The paper had argued, after Craig's incident in a Minneapolis bathroom and subsequent guilty plea, that Craig was no longer able to do his job representing Idaho.

"Readers can rest assured that I haven't lost the old ways. Fighting for Idaho's water is something I have done since my first days in Congress and beyond. My spurs aren't on the hook just yet, and until they are, I'll keep fighting for Idaho," Craig concludes. It's a safe bet that a similar op-ed will not be appearing in the Idaho Statesman, the paper that spent months on a long investigative piece detailing Craig's extracurricular activities.

In other Idaho news, Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch, the favorite to succeed Craig in the Senate, announced last week that he raised $165,000 in the fourth quarter, leaving him with $172,000 cash on hand. Polls have shown Risch with big leads over his primary rivals and former Rep. Larry LaRocco, the likely Democratic nominee.

Morning Thoughts: Vegas, Baby

Good Thursday morning. Politics Nation lands this afternoon in Las Vegas, where Culinary Workers and teachers are still fighting over a few caucus locations. As they head to court, here's what else Washington is watching:

-- Nevada, once the ignored caucus, is becoming a key battleground where any of the top three candidates may take home a win. And like ethanol subsidies, there are key nerves each candidate should touch to arouse the interests of voters. Hillary Clinton yesterday made sure to remind voters that she's spent years challenging the proposed nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain: "When I am President, Yucca Mountain will be off the table once and for all," she said, per NBC/NJ's Mike Memoli. And, he writes, Clinton again argued that she offers a hands-on approach to governing, unlike chief rival Barack Obama.

-- A few miles south, it was Obama hitting Clinton on Social Security, criticizing her for supporting a cap on incomes over $250,000 and for asserting that the top 3% of wage-earners are middle class. Social Security used to be a third rail in politics. If Obama is going to really run a different kind of campaign, talking about a third-rail issue effectively is certainly one way to do so. The bottom line: The two aren't going after each other on race or gender, having decided those topics help no one. Instead, they're duking it out in a good old fashioned policy war. The candidate who proposes good solutions in 25 words or less may end up taking Nevada, and the entire nomination with it.

-- The Democratic race will finally be a real two-person race if John Edwards does not win here. Sounds like a long shot, right? Well he's only down 5 points in a Research 2000 survey and 10 points in an American Research Group poll. And with his significant labor backing, an important factor here, Edwards may just have a chance at an upset. Sure, they're only two polls, but wouldn't overcoming a 10-point gap be easier than coming back from the 28 points he's down in South Carolina? Despite conventional wisdom, Nevada could end up being Edwards' strongest state.

-- Meanwhile, Obama is tamping down expectations. Campaign manager David Plouffe called The Fix today to say that Clinton remains the prohibitive favorite in the Silver State. Plouffe is right about one thing: Expectations were set when the Culinary Workers endorsed his candidate, as if that mythical beast were somehow the missing piece of the puzzle key to a Nevada win. This campaign season has seen a spate of mismanaged expectations: That Clinton would finish a close second in Iowa, that Obama would run away with New Hampshire, and that Clinton would rack up something, anything bigger than 55% in Michigan. Plouffe, wisely, is trying to manage expectations before they manage him.

-- In South Carolina, top Mike Huckabee adviser David Beasley has a reputation as a tough campaigner. The former governor of the Palmetto State has seen his candidate nix previous negative ads, and if Huckabee is going to win there, he may need to turn negative on front-runner John McCain. We have no special insight into this, but an unnamed Huckabee adviser told CBN's David Brody that McCain's "free pass" is coming to an end. How negative Huckabee goes may depend on how far behind the next polls show him to be. But with just three days left before South Carolina Republicans vote, whatever is coming is coming soon.

-- No one seems to be getting good momentum from their wins this year, evidenced by the fact that no one has won more than a single contest, excepting Romney and his barely noticeable Wyoming victory. After winning Michigan, it is no longer Romney's head on the chopping block, but it may be McCain's. If the Arizonan can't win in South Carolina, his next win likely won't come until February 5. And by then, it might just be too late. Could it be that Mitt Romney, once given up for dead, is about to reassume the front-runner mantle? Substitute the words "John McCain" for "Mitt Romney" and "New Hampshire" for "Michigan" and we could have written this same paragraph a week ago.

-- Back in Washington, Karl Rove is optimistic about his party's chances next year, telling RNC members yesterday that both Clinton and Obama can be defeated, The Hill's Sam Youngman writes. The Architect wants to hit Clinton on spending and failure to extend the Bush tax cuts, along with her difficulties answering a question on immigrants' drivers licenses. Obama's key weakness, Rove says: Inexperience, and a habit of voting "present" in the Illinois State Senate. Will any Republican listen to Rove? In some ways, the Clinton and Obama campaigns are way ahead of him: Those precise lines of attack have been used many times before.

-- Today On The Trail: Edwards is in Henderson before heading to Los Angeles. Obama starts his day in San Francisco before ending in Las Vegas, and Clinton stops in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. On the GOP side, John McCain is in Aiken, Mike Huckabee is in Clemson and Mitt Romney stops in Pauline and Greenville, South Carolina. Fred Thompson's bus tour continues, while Ron Paul stops by Fort Mill and Rock Hill. Rudy Giuliani stays in Florida, with events in Fort Walton Beach, Destin and Tallahassee.

-- Next dispatch comes your way from the Milwaukee airport or from Sin City. Keep watch for our new micro-reporting, as you get the latest details and color straight to your email, cell phone or any other new-fangled technological device.

Ex-Rep Indicted For Al Qaeda Ties

A former Republican Congressman from Michigan was indicted today on federal charges for allegedly participating in a terrorist fundraising ring that funneled $130,000 to "an al-Qaida and Taliban supporter." According to the AP, Mark Deli Siljander "was charged with money laundering, conspiracy and obstructing justice for allegedly lying about lobbying senators on behalf of an Islamic charity that authorities said was secretly sending funds to terrorists." He was reportedly paid $50,000 in stolen money.

A Columbia, Mo., Islamic charity was a centerpiece of the indictment handed down today by a Kansas City grand jury. According to the Kansas City Star, the grand jury also charged the "Islamic American Relief Agency and several of its officers with sending money to Iraq during Saddam Hussein's reign in violation of U.S. sanctions." Siljander, who now runs a public relations firm in D.C. and lives in Northern Virginia, "was hired to lobby Congress to remove the charity from a U.S. Senate Finance Committee list of non-profit organizations suspected of being involved in supporting international terrorism."

Siljander, born in Chicago, began his congressional career in Michigan by winning a 1981 special election to fill the seat of David Stockman. He was reelected to two more terms before losing a reelection bid. In 1987 he began a one-year stint as delegate to the United Nations. In 1992 he ran another unsuccessful campaign for Congress, this time in Virginia's newly-made 11th District.

-- Kyle Trygstad

A Minor Milestone

This post marks the 500th in Politics Nation's short lifespan. Since September 17, it's been our pleasure to keep you up to date on the latest news and notes from races around the country, and we look forward to the next 500 posts. Actually, the way this election season is shaping up, it's likely to be closer to 5,000 before we're finished.

A few ways to keep your finger on the pulse of Politics Nation: Join our Facebook group, now hundreds strong and growing. And sign up for Twitter, which we admit we're just getting used to. You'll get quick one- or two-sentence updates when news breaks, instantly, and be in the know before anyone else.

Again, thank you for making Politics Nation a success. Please come back often, and as always, we're happy to answer any questions. Feel free to email any time with tips, hints, suggestions, corrections and angry rants. Now, for the 501st post...

Rematch Favors NC Dem

After losing his 2006 bid for Congress by just over 300 votes, teacher Larry Kissell wants another shot at Republican Rep. Robin Hayes. A new poll shows that Kissell starts off in great position to steal the seat; he even leads his opponent, which is extremely rare for a challenger.

The survey is a little old; SEIU and the Center for American Progress hired respected Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research to conduct the poll 11/13-15. 400 likely voters were surveyed for a margin of error of +/- 5%. Kissell and Hayes were tested.

General Election Matchup
Kissell 49
Hayes 47

A generic Democrat leads a generic Republican in the district by a wide 52%-39% margin, while a whopping 58% disapprove of President Bush's job performance. The district, based around I-85 in North Carolina's section of the Piedmont, has been competitive for decades. Hayes won just 56% in his easiest election, in 2004, and barely won his first race, in 1998, despite heavily outspending his opponent. After such a narrow loss two years ago, the DCCC is going to make sure that Kissell is well-funded this year.

Labor Spat Growing In NV

The labor movement has undergone significant turmoil in recent years, as major national unions have split, enrollment figures have dropped and the movement has seen its influence in Democratic circles wane. The Nevada caucuses, partially intended to give labor a bigger voice in picking a president, have only increased the tumult.

Barack Obama's endorsement from the Culinary Workers' union has given other labor groups in the state the impetus to work harder for their own candidate, the Las Vegas Sun reports today. Despite the impression given in non-stop press coverage of the Culinary Workers' nod, they are far from the only union in the state. Clinton is backed by eight labor groups, while John Edwards enjoys support from four. Obama has two others.

Even those who back the same candidate are targeting each other. Nevada's SEIU chapter, which announced its backing of Obama the same day as the Culinary Workers, shouted down a suggestion of a joint press conference, the Sun writes, opting instead to get their news out first and beat their rivals.

Now, Nevada's teachers' union, which has not endorsed, has filed a lawsuit to force caucus-goers to meet in their home precincts, stripping caucus locations from some Strip casinos, where culinary workers would have access to them on caucus night. It's a direct shot at the casino workers' organization, which brushes the attack aside as targeting the biggest fish in the pond. The state AFL-CIO is neutral, but other unions in the state back the teachers.

The Culinary Workers backed Democratic gubernatorial nominee Dina Titus in 2006, though they had backed former Republican Governor Kenny Guinn twice. Titus herself is backing Hillary Clinton. A split among labor voters will keep the primary competitive, but should they fail to come together by the time the general rolls around, Democratic hopes of finally winning a state that's been trending their way but has remained just out of reach might be dashed.

McCrory Joins NC Gov Race

After months of bitter feuding in the Democratic primary, the party still seems poised to maintain the governor's mansion as North Carolina Governor Mike Easley is forced out by term limits. Lieutenant Governor Beverly Perdue and Treasurer Richard Moore are feuding over school tuition increases and development of a region known as Roanoke Rapids, and while the fighting has gotten ugly at times, it's better than the Republican field. Each candidate on the other side of the aisle is barely known by anyone.

But all is not lost for the GOP: Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory officially entered the race yesterday, just four months before the primary. The entry is no surprise. McCrory has been making calls to top Republicans around the state for a few weeks, and the state Board of Elections is still trying to determine whether the $600,000 in his Mayoral campaign account is eligible for a statewide race.

Democrats have held the governor's mansion in North Carolina for four consecutive terms, and the state is one of a very few in the South where the Democratic Party has yet to collapse. Still, a recent poll for McCrory showed him running three points ahead of Perdue and a point behind Moore in general election matchups.

McCrory's biggest challenge will be getting through a primary that, while boring, has been going on for months. Attorney Bill Graham, former State Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr and State Senator Fred Smith are all running to the right, likely leaving the middle to McCrory. The same poll from November showed McCrory up just one point on Smith in a primary, giving the other candidates a chance to pile on.

Morning Thoughts: MittMentum

Good Wednesday morning. Was there a better night for politics than last night? There hasn't been for a very long time. Here's what an overwhelmed Washington is watching today:

-- The House meets to discuss a resolution on the death of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and to consider a bill that deals with miner safety. The House Intelligence Committee holds a closed hearing on the destroyed CIA interrogation tapes, while the House Foreign Affairs Committee is dealing with U.S.-Pakistani relations.

-- For the third time in two weeks, a Republican presidential contender took the stage to declare victory in an early state nominating contest. For the third time in two weeks, it was a different candidate. The GOP race teetered on the brink of losing Mitt Romney, but with his win in Michigan last night, the former governor is right back in the thick of what remains a five-person race. Romney's economic message got through -- exit polls showed him leading John McCain among those who said the economy was their biggest concern -- raising the possibility that businessman Romney has, to borrow a phrase, found his voice. Will Romney take the same message with him to South Carolina, or will he revert back to trying to out-conservative everyone else?

-- For McCain, the loss isn't devastating, but it sure looks like a missed opportunity. A win in Michigan likely would have sent McCain to victory in South Carolina and Nevada this weekend, and other states beyond. Instead, he's going to have to fight tooth and nail for the Palmetto State. Recent polls have him leading Mike Huckabee there, but with Romney back on air and coming off a win, expect McCain's lead to shrink. South Carolina Republicans have to be thrilled at the prospect of once again controlling the GOP nomination. Then again, if recent history holds, we'll probably just have a fourth winner.

-- The after-effects of Romney's win will likely only sow more distaste for each other within the GOP field. McCain joined supporters at a party in Charleston about a quarter after 9 p.m. last night to offer his concession, in a backhanded manner, to Romney: "He and his campaign worked hard and effectively to make sure that Michigan voters welcomed their native son with their support," McCain said, per JMart. Of course, few heard that, because just moments into McCain's speech, an ebullient Romney bounded into his own victory party, and the cameras cut to him. The beginning of a dangerous trend? NRO's Geraghty says the campaigns spoke to arrange the timing, but then Romney intentionally stepped on McCain's airtime.

-- On the Democratic side, an interesting and potentially game-changing statistic came from the Wolverine State last night: As Hillary Clinton won the state, where she was running against Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich and Uncommitted, about 68% of African American voters chose to cast their ballots for Uncommitted. The Not Clinton choice won among 18-29 year olds, among those with post-graduate degrees, among independents and among those who make more than $100,000 a year (read: Obama voters). In all, Clinton only won the state with 55% of the vote, not the overwhelming victory it should have been. Is Clinton in more trouble than anyone thinks among African American voters, thanks to recent comments she and her surrogates have made? Could South Carolina and Nevada just be the finishing blows of what Iowa started, an Obama landslide?

-- Many wonder whether Obama could have won the state. Exits show him running 11 points behind Clinton with no effort to turn anyone out, meaning that the 35% of the vote he would have gotten was a baseline, and that any rudimentary turnout operation would have boosted that number. If Obama could have actually won there, he might have ended the race. So why wasn't he on the ballot? Don't forget, it was his own fault. Obama's was the first campaign to declare it wanted off the Michigan ballot and to demand that other candidates follow suit. Every other candidate, not wanting to anger Iowa and New Hampshire voters and hoping to save a little campaign cash by sitting out such a big state, followed suit. Except Clinton. If anyone today tells you that Obama could have won there, remind them it's his own fault he didn't.

-- Obama last night was too busy having a conversation with Clinton and John Edwards on a stage in Las Vegas, where the discussion in large part was civil and restrained. Both Clinton and Obama distanced themselves from any talk of race, the Washington Post wrote: Clinton assured Democratic voters that at the end of the day they are "all family," while Obama said he knew Clinton and Edwards were committed to racial equality. We say he was too busy because he easily out-paced the other candidates with his answers, talking for 34 minutes to Clinton's 27 and Edwards' 22, according to First Read's count. The moderators, like voters, appear to be leaving Edwards out more. He got just a quarter of the 70 questions asked, while Obama and Clinton together took the rest.

-- Clinton's knowledge of everyone's record on Yucca Mountain issues is likely to show up in a mailing very shortly, NBC's Chuck Todd guesses. Clinton, he says, came to the debate armed with a local angle, Obama went with the national angle and Edwards just tried to get noticed. We thought Edwards might be better served with the Nevada angle, but her performance sure looked like Clinton is the one who will wage the most intense fight with Obama for the state's votes. All this just a week after she considered ceding the state, along with South Carolina, had she lost New Hampshire.

-- Sort-Of Endorsement Of The Day: Conservative super-funder Richard Viguerie says he remains uncommitted to any of the GOP candidates, the Washington Post reports, but, he writes, "it is clear that Ron Paul is truly a principled conservative in the grand tradition of Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan." Other candidates, Viguerie said, owe their allegiance to "Big Government Republicanism." Paul had a good day yesterday: Along with Viguerie's kind-of-not-really backing, the LA Times notes he also finished ahead of Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson. For the third contest in a row.

-- Today On The Trail: Nevada, like New Hampshire, is a small state. Unlike New Hampshire, large parts of the electorate are spread over a huge expanse of nothingness. Today, the Democrats are all over that nothingness. Clinton discusses Yucca Mountain in Las Vegas, then holds an economic roundtable in Reno. Obama has a town meeting planned for Henderson before sneaking off for an economic roundtable of his own in Van Nuys, California. Edwards has a town hall in Reno before meeting voters in Henderson and holding another town hall in Las Vegas.

-- GOP attention now shifts to South Carolina, where Huckabee visits the South Carolina Renewal Project in Columbia before making stops in Tigerville and Charleston. McCain rallies in Greenville before holding town halls in Spartanburg and Lake Wylie. The resurgent Romney meets voters in Bluffton, Charleston, Florence and Columbia, while Fred Thompson has a radio town hall in Laurens and meets voters in Clinton, Abbeville and Orangeburg. Rudy Giuliani is, where else, in Florida. He rallies in Panama City before holding a presser in Pensacola.

Sebelius To Give Dem Response

Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius will offer the Democratic response to President Bush's State of the Union address, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced today. Sebelius, in her second term as the Democratic governor of an overwhelmingly Republican state, won re-election with 58% of the vote in 2006.

The American people "demand leadership focused squarely on solving our problems, making the most of our opportunities, and moving America forward," Sebelius said in a statement. "That is exactly the kind of leadership we've demonstrated in Kansas, and I am honored to share that example with the American people in response to the President's State of the Union message."

The Democratic leaders also announced Texas State Senator Leticia Van de Putte would offer the Spanish-language version of the Democratic response. Bush's speech is set for January 28. The last two Democratic responders have hailed from Virginia; Governor Tim Kaine delivered the response in January 2006, while Senator Jim Webb spoke in January of 2007.

Dems To Clash In Sin City

Long neglected through the primary process, by both campaigns and the media, Nevada Democrats are the center of their party's attention tonight as the three (or four) Democrats remaining in the race head to Las Vegas for a two-hour debate tonight. Nevada brings many new twists to the Democratic race, and after a muddied picture following Iowa and New Hampshire, appealing to environmentalists, Hispanics and those concerned with Western issues has a new urgency for Democratic White House hopefuls.

A debate serves as a good time stamp in any race, especially one as convoluted as this. So while Michigan Republicans head to the polls to select their nominee, Democrats can pause and reflect on the state of their race. Each candidate has to have specific goals tonight, and when Tim Russert and Brian Williams let them get a word in edgewise, they have to make them count. Here is what each candidate needs to do not only to "win" tonight, but to advance their cause ahead of Nevada's Saturday caucuses:

Barack Obama: There is no doubt, Obama scored a bigger boost from his Iowa upset, which polls predicted and the media was prepared for, than Hillary Clinton did from her New Hampshire win, which no one foretold. Obama's bump gave him a lead in New Hampshire, which subsequently evaporated in the final hours before the vote.

Tonight, Obama needs to be sharp and confident, not shrill and overconfident. He needs to make his point quickly and succinctly, target Clinton when the situation demands it and move on. His advisers should remind him not to be funny, but to be presidential. Democratic voters know how they feel about his positions; they like his stands as much as they like Clinton's. Now, Obama has to show them that he can look and act like a president. The Clinton camp has long been sowing seeds arguing that Obama is not ready. Here is his chance to show voters he is ready.

Hillary Clinton: There is a long list of things Clinton must NOT do. No using the word "cocaine." No cackling. No references to race, no matter how well-explained, that will make everyone angry all over again. What she can do, though, is continue hammering Obama on his war record. As much as Obama's people spin it, the freshman Senator may be against the war, but Clinton actually voted against some funding measures while he voted in favor.

The distinction Clinton can make, again, is that Obama is a talker and she is a doer. That message seemed to resonate with some New Hampshire voters, and it's one that Clinton can carry through the February 5 states. She should show up tonight armed with a laundry list of things she has done or been a part of that are now either law or on their way to becoming law. And to hammer her point home, when John Edwards comes after her, she should smack him down fast and turn her attention back to Obama. While Edwards is taking some "change" votes from Obama, he's also taking some white votes from Clinton in South Carolina, a factor she is going to have to consider at some point.

John Edwards: Edwards is increasingly the odd man out. We heard little from him, save a statement expressing shock, during the recent Clinton-Obama race feud, and he's in desperate need of some oxygen. Fortunately, their spat gives him the opportunity to get back in the game. One unorthodox method he is unlikely to try, but could prove effective: Pretend the other two don't exist.

Clinton has some big labor endorsements, and Obama just picked up some top union backing in Nevada, but neither can compete on the accomplishments or good will level with Edwards, who is roundly beloved by union members. If Edwards focuses all his attention on them, a significant part of the Nevada Democratic electorate, he might go farther toward building a bigger base than he would if he sniped at Clinton all night. If he talks a big game on water and ranching issues, emphasizes plans that would send more low-income Hispanic kids to college and stays above the fray, he could have an intensely local night while Clinton and Obama go national. That might just speak to Nevada voters.

Dennis Kucinich: One thing Edwards needs that is completely out of his control is for the Nevada Supreme Court to agree with NBC and overturn a lower court judge's ruling that Kucinich must be involved in tonight's debate. Without Kucinich, Edwards not only gets more time but gets to be the only adult on stage. Kucinich, needless to say, has to have the court uphold the previous judgment to even be involved.

For all four candidates, the goals are out there, and the fate of the Nevada caucuses hang in the balance. We will know the outcome of Kucinich's fight first: That outcome is the difference between three and four podiums on stage. But the aftershocks of tonight's debate may not be felt until Saturday, when across the Silver State voters will head to church basements and neighbors' homes to caucus.

If all three front-running candidates spend tonight looking forward to future contests, we may not even know the fallout until South Carolina's primary, a week later. Debates are a good point at which to stop and assess the state of the race. But thanks to Iowa and New Hampshire, the picture is far from clear. Nevada Democrats have to be thrilled tonight: Their contest actually matters.

Gregoire Finally Up Big

Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire, preparing for her third annual State of the State Address tonight in Olympia, got some good news today as an independent poll shows her leading her 2004 rival by a wide margin, the first time the incumbent has seen a big lead after scratching out a win last time around. In 2004, Gregoire took several recounts to end up beating State Senator Dino Rossi by just 133 votes.

The survey, taken by independent pollster Stuart Elway, asked questions of 405 voters between 1/3-6, for a margin of error of about 5%. Gregoire and Rossi were surveyed.

General Election Matchup
Gregoire 48
Rossi 35

Rossi's disappointingly low number is close to the Republican baseline in Washington State. It's less than the percentage conservative candidates John Carlson and Ellen Craswell won in their races for governor, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports, and looks likely to rise.

Gregoire leads among every category of voters except independent voters, among whom she trails by nine, and voters from east of the Cascade Mountains, traditionally the GOP's stronghold in the state. Rossi strategists argued that the survey included too many self-identified Democrats, pointing to a poll in late October that showed Gregoire up just five points.

Jindal Opens Another LA Special

The day before news broke about the ensuing retirement of Louisiana Congressman Richard Baker, Republican Bobby Jindal was inaugurated as Louisiana governor -- the first Indian-American governor in U.S. history. His elevation to the highest level of Louisiana state government leaves his 1st Congressional District seat vacant.

This heavily-Republican district, which encompasses part of the New Orleans metropolitan area, voted 71% for President Bush in 2004, and Jindal was not seriously challenged by a Democrat in either of his two congressional election victories.

The Monroe News Star reports that Republican State Senator Steve Scalise already has a $100,000 campaign account he opened years earlier when first considering a run for the seat. That should give him the early fundraising edge over the other Republicans who have announced their bids for the seat, including former Governor Dave Treen, Slidell Mayor Ben Morris, Jefferson Parish Councilor John Young and State Representative Tim Burns. One Democrat, University of New Orleans professor Gilda Reed, has been actively campaigning for the past year.

In October, Jindal defeated a large field of candidates in the election for governor with 54% of the vote. Since then, special election dates were set to fill the 1st District seat for the remainder of his term. A primary will be held March 8; a runoff will be held April 5, if necessary, followed by a May 3 special general election. If no runoff is necessary, the general will instead be held April 5.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Updated: Morris, the mayor of Slidell, released a poll today conducted for his campaign by Market Research Insight. The survey, conducted 1/8-9, contacted 300 likely Republican voters for a margin of error of +/- 6%. Morris, Burns, Scalise and Young were tested.

General Election Matchup
Scalise 27
Morris 22
Young 12
Burns 6

Notice a name missing? The pollster did not include Treen, a former governor, leaving some to speculate that other candidates don't seriously expect him to compete. Then again, they might also leave him out because they don't want to be seen trailing by fifty points to someone who vastly out-performs them.

Morris is not the only one to omit the governor. Scalise, in a Public Opinion Strategies poll out last week that showed him with a 7-point lead over Morris, also left Treen of the list.

-- Reid Wilson

Baker To Leave Congress

Louisiana Republican Richard Baker is likely to announce his departure from Congress shortly, Roll Call (subs. req'd) reports today. The eleven term congressman has agreed to take the helm of the Managed Funds Association, with whom he had begun negotiating just two weeks ago.

Baker, who has long served on the House Financial Services Committee, ran for chair of the panel in 2006 before Republicans lost their majority, losing to Alabama Republican Spencer Bachus. His Baton Rouge-based district, along with three rural parishes, and while about a third of the population is made up of African Americans, still went for President Bush by twelve points in 2000 and nineteen points in 2004.

Baker has not faced a serious challenge since 1998, when he fended off a well-funded and well-known Democratic challenger by just over one percent of the vote. Initially seen as a potential challenger to Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, Baker said last year that he would not make a Senate bid.

Republicans were left scrambling at the news that Baker would retire, though national party leaders and local officials told Roll Call to watch former Baker chief of staff Paul Sawyer, State Rep. Hunter Green and former State Rep. Woody Jenkins, who lost to Landrieu in 1996. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee strategists have been pushing State Rep. Don Cazayoux as a strong candidate, though he had initially planned a run against Baker.

Baker will be the third member of Congress from Louisiana to leave this year. Rep. Jim McCrery has already announced his retirement, and Gov. Bobby Jindal was inaugurated as the nation's first Indian-American governor yesterday. Both are Republicans. Democratic Rep. Bill Jefferson remains a retirement or resignation threat as investigations into his conduct continue to loom.

Solomon To Head Times

Contrary to what Posties might tell you, Washington is a two-newspaper town, and sometimes one paper can reach deep into the ranks of a rival to pluck away some top talent. After twenty years at the Associated Press and one at the Washington Post, investigative journalist John Solomon has been tapped to replace Wes Pruden as the Washington Times' executive editor.

Pruden, the Post's Howie Kurtz reports, ran what many regarded as one of the nation's leading conservative newspapers. Solomon, on the other hand, is not seen as a partisan or ideological journalist. The move was praised by others around the city, including liberal City Paper editor Erik Wemple, who called it "one of the first real, solid moves the Washington Times has made in a long time."

Solomon was AP's assistant Washington bureau chief before moving to the Post to lead their investigative coverage, and in both positions built a reputation as a digger who could produce the big stories. His hiring came at some cost, as Times Managing Editor Francis Coombs said he would quit after being passed over.

The Times has a circulation of around 100,000, while the Post brags of circulation nearly seven times that.

Lineup Of The Week

The Hotline notices the upcoming programs former supermodel Tyra Banks has planned for her talk show this week:

Today: "The Dangers of the Hook-Up"

Tomorrow: "Sex SOS: Can My Sex Problem Be Solved"

Thursday: "5 Ways to Get Over Being Dumped"

Friday: "Hillary Clinton"

For a sneak peak at what Clinton and Banks talked about during their Monday taping, Andrew Malcolm's your guy.

Morning Thoughts: Welcome Back

Good Tuesday morning. People are wearing suits again on Capitol Hill today, as members of Congress return to work after an extended break. Here's what Washington is watching today:

-- The House takes their symbolic first vote to establish a quorum for the Second Session of the 110th Congress this evening, then proceeds to try to override President Bush's veto of the National Defense Authorization Act for this fiscal year. The House Oversight Committee will hear from former Senator George Mitchell, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and players' union chief Donald Fehr on the topic of illegal steroid use in baseball. It's not Roger Clemens and Andy Pettite, but that hearing is going to be packed.

-- Today's a huge day on the campaign trail. Michigan Republicans head to the polls tonight to pick a presidential nominee, and polls show it's a tight race. The latest RCP Michigan Average shows Mitt Romney leading by a single point over John McCain with Mike Huckabee trailing by a dozen. Still, don't forget that Michigan, like New Hampshire, allows independents to choose a ballot as they walk into the voting booth, giving McCain a hefty dose of independents from which to draw. Huckabee's not making Romney's life any easier; an independent 527 backing him sent out a push-poll last night that even managed to ensnare Rep. Pete Hoekstra, Romney's Michigan chairman.

-- Romney needs a win in Michigan or his campaign will be all but over. His situation is complicated by both McCain, who won there in 2000 thanks to his cadre of independents, and Huckabee, who has a better record on Second Amendment issues than the others, with which he can draw hunters into his coalition of social conservatives. To be fair, without winning Iowa, Huckabee would not have made it past single digits in other states. Thanks to Romney's loss there, the Bay Stater now has to contend with the Razorback for social conservative votes throughout the primary. That may kill Romney's chances no matter who his final opponent will be.

-- Complicating matters: It's snowing in Michigan, virtually from border to border. Michiganders are used to such fowl weather, and it's only supposed to bring a few inches (an amount they scoff at, yet would bring Washington to a virtual halt). We're guessing that the Romney campaign is working hard to get registered Republicans' driveways plowed in areas outside Detroit. Then again, they could be sitting back and relaxing. Jim Geraghty points out, via a Romney source, that they were the only ones on television targeting absentee voters, who are older and might remember father George Romney's time as governor.

-- Also today, Democrats meet in Las Vegas for a debate sponsored by MSNBC, and it was going to be a very pleasant, we're sure, conversation between Clinton, Edwards and Obama. That is, until a Nevada judge ruled that MSNBC has to include Dennis Kucinich, as the LA Times writes. Kucinich is holding a press conference in Cleveland now as he prepares to board a plane for Vegas and the debate stage. Still, he may not have a place to stand: NBC is appealing the ruling to the Nevada Supreme Court.

-- The debate comes after a tense few days, in which surrogates from Obama's campaign have accused Clinton of race-baiting and surrogates from Clinton-land have leveled charges that Obama is not the anti-war advocate he claims to be. Yesterday, though, both campaigns held out an olive branch. Obama said the Clintons "have historically been on the right side of civil rights issues," while Clinton issued a statement reading, in part, "when it comes to our heroes -- President John F. Kennedy and Dr. King -- Senator Obama and I are on the same side" (both per Marc Ambinder). The real mover and shaker, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who threatened to endorse Obama thanks to Clinton's comments last week, backed off yesterday and said he hopes to move beyond the incident. Luckily for Clinton, the powerful Clyburn will remain neutral. For now.

-- Filing closed in Mississippi late last week, leaving Senator Thad Cochran little more than token opposition but presenting Senator Roger Wicker with two potentially dangerous Democrats. Wicker, appointed to fill the remainder of Senator Trent Lott's term late last year, will either face former Governor Ronnie Musgrove or former Rep. Ronnie Shows, who lost his seat after the 2002 redistricting forced him to run against Rep. Chip Pickering. Wicker will have to defend the seat in a Special Election called within 90 days of December 20, a judge ruled yesterday, according to the Jackson Clarion Ledger. That gives Democrats more hopes of taking the seat, but both Musgrove and Shows would face a difficult task in beating Wicker, a recent poll showed.

-- Unintended Consequence Of The Day: Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki lost his bid for a second term, exit polls from the International Republican Institute show and McClatchy reports. The polls show challenger Raila Odinga won the December 27 election by about 8%, an 11-point gap from certified results that suggested Kibaki won by three points. The IRI has been conducting exit polls in Kenya since 1992, funded by USAID, having refined them to the point of reliability. Still, with the poll's results being leaked just a week after exit pollsters showed Barack Obama beating Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, it is exactly the wrong time for a pollster to be calling themselves an expert. Further problems, including that interviewers were not where they were supposed to be on Election Day, hampered the survey enough to make it questionable, IRI chief Lorne Craner said.

-- Today On The Trail: All three Democrats head to Las Vegas tonight for a debate to be held on MSNBC. Edwards will meet with Vegas voters beforehand, Clinton rallies with voters afterwards and Obama's only public event is the debate.

-- On the GOP side, Huckabee is in Detroit to meet voters at polling stations before heading to Rock Hill, Sumter and Lexington, South Carolina. McCain greets voters at polling places in Traverse City before addressing the Ann Arbor Economic Club and talking to the press in Ypsilanti. He ends the day watching results in Charleston. Mitt Romney has a rally in Grand Rapids and an election night party in Southfield, while Ron Paul rallies in Detroit and Flint before celebrating in Plymouth, Michigan. Fred Thompson has a radio town hall with voters in Spartanburg before stopping in Rock Hill and York before meeting voters in Columbiana. Rudy Giuliani meets voters in Lake Buena Vista, New Smyrna Beach, Jacksonville and Yulee, Florida.

Ogonowski Tries Heroic Return

Fresh off a narrow loss to Rep. Niki Tsongas in a special election late last year, farmer and Air Force veteran Jim Ogonowski, the closest thing Massachusetts Republicans have to a hero, is making another run for office. Unlike 2007, though, when Ogonowski raised a significant amount of money and had the Washington GOP's establishment behind him, this time he may have picked a mountain too high to climb.

With little name recognition in a state expected to go heavily Democratic in the 2008 presidential race, Ogonowski has set his sites on John Kerry, who is seeking his fifth term. While he has not formally declared his intention to run, Ogonowski said he is contemplating a bid and launched bombs at Kerry, accusing him of being out of touch and the ultimate status quo Washington insider.

Ogonowski, who reported a little over $43,000 in his campaign account at the end of 2007, will start in a deep financial hole. Kerry had raised more than $9.7 million through the third quarter with more than $6.1 million hand, though the Boston Globe reports today that Kerry's available cash is closer to $9.5 million.

Aside from the money, Ogonowski will also face a political challenge. Kerry won his 2002 re-election campaign with 80% of the vote against a Libertarian, though he has had stronger opposition before. In 1996, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld held Kerry to 52% in one of the costliest Senate campaigns that year.

Ogonowski has little hope of overcoming both hurdles, though he is a charismatic speaker who can make debates entertaining. Kerry remains a strong favorite in this overwhelmingly Democratic state, but the challenger will make him spend at least a few days off the surrogate trail and on his own race.

Parties Pick Candidates In Carson Special

Republican State Rep. Jon Elrod and Democratic Indianapolis City-County Councilor Andre Carson will face each other in the March 11 special election to fill the vacant 7th Congressional District seat.

Carson, grandson of the late Democratic Congresswoman Julia Carson, won the Democratic caucus vote on Saturday, defeating seven other candidates. Elrod won two races at the Republican caucus on Sunday: one to be placed on the March special election ballot, and the other to be the endorsed Republican candidate for the May primary.

Should Carson win the special election in March, a rematch will likely take place in November. For more on the Indianapolis-based district, which went heavily for John Kerry and Al Gore but recently chose a Republican challenger over an incumbent Democratic Mayor, click here.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Indecision Sends Mixed Signals

Iowa and New Hampshire voters seemed delighted to tell reporters and pollsters they remained undecided even minutes before heading into a caucus or the voting booth. But indecision occurs for different reasons, and says something about the state of the parties leading toward November.

The latest CBS-New York Times surveys of both parties (GOPers here, Dems here, both PDFs) show Republicans remain undecided because more people dislike other candidates, while Democrats remain undecided more out of an embarrassment of riches. Just 5% of Democrats say they are backing a candidate because they dislike the others, while 13% of Republicans feel the same way.

Democrats say they are much more enthusiastic about voting this year than Republicans. 58% of Democrats say they are more enthusiastic than usual, while just 32% of Republicans say the same thing. 19% of Republicans are less enthusiastic than usual, compared with just 8% of Democrats.

The reason many Republicans seem to be unhappy with their party is the current occupant of the White House, of whom even Republicans have grown weary. Only 39% say their party's nominee should continue President Bush's policies, while 50% say they believe the GOP nominee should change directions. Asked which candidate would be most likely to change from Bush's positions, Republican voters are unsure; John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are bunched together in the poll, with 12%, 11%, 10% and 9%, respectively.

In short, Democrats are reluctant to commit because they are satisfied with any of the three leading candidates and downright excited at the prospect of nominating one of the two candidates who would break a new barrier. On the other hand, if you ask the average Republican voter who he or she likes, they're more inclined to respond by telling you why they don't like everyone else.

That fundamental difference between the two parties could bode ill for Republicans come November. Democrats seem not only to have excited their base but to have expanded it, meaning their turnout task will be much easier. Republicans, on the other hand, may have a more difficult time rallying supporters around their nominee. That could spell serious danger for Republican incumbents and the GOP brand up and down the ballot.

More Florida Flubs

They can't figure out whether someone has punched a chad or not. They can't pick a voting machine to rely on that won't induce a lawsuit. And now, Florida election officials can't seem to spell anyone's name right.

For Rudy Giuliani, who is blanketing the state with advertising and an aggressive bus tour, name recognition should not be a problem. But last week the St. Petersburg Times reported that the Hillsborough County elections office sent out more than 200,000 sample ballots that misspelled Giuliani's first name as "Rudi."

Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson quickly threw an unnamed staffer under the bus, saying the employee will be "disciplined appropriately." Johnson somehow still managed to take "full credit" for the error and apologized to the Giuliani campaign.

But the misspellings don't end with the Mayor. Volusia County issued 2,000 ballots listing a certain Senator from Illinois as "Barak Obama." Contrary to assertions of some, Obama does spell his first name with a "c" in there. Elections Supervisor Ann McFall said all future ballots would be altered to correct the spelling, the Orlando Sentinel reported, and that any vote cast for "Barak Obama" will count toward Barack Obama.

Volusia County has plenty of company on the list of those who have misspelled Obama's name. And to be fair to the county, the candidate himself is probably less offended that he was when CNN called him "Osama" or when Clinton surrogate Bob Kerry mentioned repeatedly that Obama's middle name is Hussein. The Sentinel also pokes fun at themselves, pointing out that Obama's name has been misspelled twice in their own pages.

Early voting begins today in Florida. Hopefully their supporters can maneuver around the Rudi and Barak flubs.

Morning Thoughts: Segment Politics

Good Monday morning. If you thought Iowa and New Hampshire were exciting, wait until the fur really begins to fly this week. Michiganders vote Tuesday, while South Carolinians and Nevadans head to the polls on Saturday. We're all just trying to keep up. Here's what Washington is watching today:

-- Congress returns to Washington tomorrow with a plan to override President Bush's veto of a bill to authorize defense spending. The President nixed the measure over a little-noticed provision that allowed American lawsuits against Iraq under Saddam Hussein to go forward, which might end up costing the fledgling government there millions of dollars. But the authorization also contains new funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, funding with no strings attached. The irony of anti-war Democrats voting to override a pro-war President's veto of a measure that provides funds for more war is pure Washington.

-- As Congress returns, both parties are gearing up to make 2008 a year of change. More precisely, they are preparing to convince voters that theirs is the party of change, and that the other side is for the status quo of a broken Washington. More detail today on RCP. Suffice it to say, while presidential contenders on both sides talk of nothing other than change (skimpy on explanation of what kind or how it might be accomplished), members of Congress are going to prepare their own change talking points for use through November.

-- Out on the Presidential trail, this week features three Republican contests and two Democratic ones, though only Nevada will be meaningful for the Dems. This week is a week of constituencies, both racially and ideologically: In the Silver State, Democrats face a huge Hispanic portion of the electorate. Democrats will have to answer repeated questions about Western issues, like water, grazing rights and the ubiquitous Yucca Mountain, while appealing to labor unions, which play a large role in the state's political class, made all the more important by the caucus system.

-- Republicans will face an electorate in Michigan that features some voters from the state's large Arab-American and African-American communities, while ideologically they face a state widely acknowledged to be in its own localized recession. The three candidates fighting for delegates there -- John McCain, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee -- have spent a significant amount of time talking about the economy, the auto industry, job recovery and growth. With the economy becoming a more important issue lately, three leading Republicans are beginning to test and vet their plans. If the Michigan primary is any measure, watch Democrats do the same thing in coming weeks.

-- The conventional wisdom says Mitt Romneyhas to win Michigan, and with recent polls showing him ahead the campaign has taken on air of confidence: Communications Director Matt Rhoades confirms to Jonathan Martin that the campaign will head to South Carolina on Wednesday. The former Massachusetts governor benefits from being the first candidate to claim a home-state advantage. He grew up in Michigan, and has no trouble reminding voters there of that fact, the New York Times writes. No matter what, though, he can't stop talking about that Rambler his sons gave him for his birthday. We wonder if Team Romney finds any downside to talking about wealthy sons pooling their money to buy Dad a car in a state clearly enmeshed in a recession.

-- On Saturday, while Nevadans head to caucus sites, South Carolina will hold the first of two presidential nominating contests, this one for Republicans. The latest RCP South Carolina Average shows Huckabee ahead thanks to leads in two pre-New Hampshire polls, while McCain trails close behind thanks to two post-New Hampshire polls showing him on top. Mitt Romney is a not-so-distant third, while Fred Thompson languishes in fourth place. Thompson is putting his entire candidacy on the line in South Carolina, and his barnstorming bus tour is getting some good press. Whether that translates into votes is less clear; so far, it looks like it isn't working.

-- One name not mentioned in discussions of either Michigan or South Carolina: Rudy Giuliani, who is still holding his breath (and not paying his staff, a "generous gesture" that "isn't necessary," per NBC/NJ's Matt Berger) in advance of Florida's January 29th primaries. In the Sunshine State, Giuliani appeared to find religion, quoting the Book of Joshua before an evangelical audience on Sunday, ABC News wrote. Perhaps a bit of symbolism for intrepid reporters to find: The following passage, chapter 10 verse 26, has Joshua killing five kings. Count Ron Paul among GOP front-runners and someone on Rudy's staff is pretty clever. But how's that February 5 strategy working out? Giuliani has long stressed that he will do well in Florida, and he's dumping most of the rest of the money he's got into the state in hopes of a boost in advance of the national primary. Perhaps he should have managed expectations better: He's leading in just one of the polls that make up the latest RCP Florida Average, which has McCain up by 1.5 points.

-- Touchy Subjects Of The Day: What else, race and gender. It was a pleasant Sunday until Clinton and Obama took after each other over accusations of downplaying Martin Luther King Jr.'s accomplishments and other race and gender-oriented issues. Truth be told, race and gender can benefit both campaigns, most obviously by destroying the other. Obama's camp has done more to point out Clinton's statements on race, as HuffPo's Sam Stein reports, which brings to mind a hypothesis: When talking about race, Clinton will only get in trouble. If he starts talking about gender, Obama will do the same.

-- Today On The Trail: Edwards is in Georgetown and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, while Clinton has an MLK Day event to attend in New York. Obama's in Nevada for a rally in Reno and town halls in Fallon and Carson City.

-- For Republicans, Huckabee heads to August, Lansing and Yipsilanti, Michigan, before hitting an auto show in Warren. McCain hosts last-minute town hall meetings in Kalamazoo, Holland, Spring Lake and Grand Rapids before hitting a fundraiser in Traverse City. Romney spends his time in Grand Blanc before speaking to the Detroit Economic Club and to an Oakland County GOP fundraiser in West Bloomfield. Thompson will meet voters in Aiken, Greenwood and SImpsonville, South Carolina, and Giuliani has town halls planned for Naples, Fort Myers, Punta Gorda, Sarasota, Clearwater and Lakeland, Florida. Ron Paul has a media availability in Reno and a rally in Carson City.

Who Not To Blame

Hours before reporters rang in the New Year in Des Moines, the topic of conversation among many was a new poll released by the Des Moines Register suggesting not only that Barack Obama had a big lead there but that turnout would exceed anyone's expectations. No one could believe it was true, as every other public poll showed a tighter race.

The pollster who conducted the Register's poll, Ann Selzer, is considered by many to be the best at surveying the tricky terrain of the Iowa caucuses. In the following days, she withstood blistering shots from top strategists to Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, who attacked the poll as fatally flawed and a clear outlier.

But come caucus night, Selzer was proven right: Her margin was closest to the outcome, and her turnout predictions proved true: Most campaigns expected anywhere from 150,000 to 200,000 on the Democratic side. Nearly 240,000 people actually turned out. What the media called a close race with record turnout became an Obama blowout with nearly double the turnout of the previous Democratic record.

In New Hampshire a week later, the media predicted another blowout and an Obama win by double digits. That didn't happen either, as Clinton scored a two-point upset that some have called one of the greatest comebacks in American political history. So how did pollsters and the media get it so wrong both times?

The truth is, everyone gets polls wrong sometimes. And the results and reporting out of Iowa and New Hampshire were no different from any other election.

There are many reasons for Obama's under-performance in New Hampshire, and few would be obvious before an election occurred. The youth vote, which went heavily for Obama in Iowa, was significantly reduced in New Hampshire -- 18-29 year olds made up 22% of the electorate in the Hawkeye State and only 18% up north, dropping Obama's vote total.

Bolstering Clinton, married women not only turned out in greater numbers, they also gave Clinton a bigger plurality in New Hampshire, with 45% going for her as opposed to just 32% in Iowa. In fact, while women comprised 57% of the electorate in both Iowa and New Hampshire, they gave Clinton a whopping 46% of the vote in New Hampshire, compared with just 30% in Iowa.

Anyone can call a thousand people, ask them who they're voting for and call it a poll. As Selzer showed, it takes a lot more talent to correctly predict the turnout and the demographics of those who will show up to vote. Polling New Hampshire is easier than polling Iowa, which would explain why, media hype to the contrary, several pollsters actually did get it right.

Polls come equipped with a margin of error for a reason. Not everyone can be accurately polled, but academic statistics are such that, in nineteen out of twenty times, a sample's result will show the actual state of public opinion within that margin of error. By the end of the race, two pollsters, Research 2000 and Mason-Dixon, actually called the race correctly. Polling for the Concord Monitor, Research 2000 said Obama led by one; polling for MSNBC and McClatchy, Mason-Dixon had Obama up two. Both Obama leads were within the 4% margins of error. Not everyone, in short, got it wrong.

Sixteen polls were released either on January 6 or 7, showing results as divergent as Obama leading by one and Obama leading by 13. It is ironic that the poll-mania came just weeks -- sometimes days -- after the media reported that so many voters were undecided going into both the caucuses and the primaries. This reporter witnessed several people signing supporter cards for one candidate while openly expressing their lack of a firm decision. Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire reserve the right to change their minds, and they take advantage of that right.

In fact, it was those stories that were correct: In New Hampshire, 17% of voters decided for whom they would cast a ballot on Election Day. No polls were conducted on election day, so 17% of the electorate should have been undecided in pre-Election Day surveys. But a poll that shows a large portion of the electorate undecided is not a sexy poll -- just ask anyone who conducts polls in New Jersey, where voters are notoriously reluctant to identify their choices. Media clients want a clear picture of the race, so pollsters push for "leaners."

If a voter is undecided, towards whom are they leaning? That skews results, and at times badly. Final polls probably did not take into account last-minute developments in the race -- Clinton's tears, Obama telling Clinton she was "likable enough" in the final debate -- that either solidified support or cost someone else votes.

Those who decided on their candidate on Election Day were, in fact, most reflective of the electorate's mood. Clinton won 39% to 37% on Election night. Those who made a final decision that day broke for Clinton, 39% to 36%. That puts Mason-Dixon and Research 2000 in an even better light.

To be fair, the Clinton campaign's pollster -- the same one who criticized Selzer's poll -- must have gotten New Hampshire equally wrong. Rumors abound today that the Clinton team thought it was heading for a big defeat, and that they planned to undergo a shakeup that same night, in order to fold the news into one campaign cycle and get over the bad news.

The real culprit, many felt, was the Beltway media, which initially expected a big win for Obama. It's understandable that they did: To many eyes, including my own, Obama's crowds were bigger, lines to attend his events longer and excitement higher. But looks can be deceiving: Mitt Romney held a series of house parties in New Hampshire that drew a hundred or so people, while rallies held by Mike Huckabee drew three or four times more. No one was under the illusion that Huckabee was going to beat Romney.

The basic difference between polls and prognosticators: Predicting is different from reporting. The coverage from New Hampshire was spot-on; something happened that made women break for Clinton. Whether it was her choking up, Obama's likability comment at the debate or a couple of hecklers screaming "Iron my shirt," women clearly rallied to Clinton and away from Obama.

In a way, the incorrect predictions are encouraging. Candidates who fall behind often say that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire do not like being told what they will do. That sounds like it smacks of desperation: My numbers are better than you Washington insiders are saying they are. But New Hampshire voters did not do what the pundits said they would, offering hope that many -- perhaps more than the media thinks -- actually pay attention to the race and make an informed, educated decision.

As Dennis Kucinich and some in the blogosphere flail around for an excuse as to why something was crooked or corrupt, they should not blame pollsters, two of whom got it right while others screwed up not their mathematics but their turnout projections (Obama, as he took over the lead in many polls, wisely said that he didn't pay attention to polls when they were behind, and he wouldn't pay attention when they are ahead. If that's true, one outlier or bad sample can ruin a campaign).

The Kucinich backers should not blame reporters, who reported what was happening on the ground and, largely, why. Women had to break for some reason. Younger voters did not, in fact, show up in the record numbers they did in Iowa. And the great weather encouraged older voters to turn out, which boosted Clinton even further.

And they should not blame the pundits. Yes, the pundits got it wrong, but what's the point of actually going to vote if pundits always get it right? It is happily reassuring to know that people's votes actually do matter, and that elections should not be decided through sponsored polls, but rather at the polls. Occasionally, it takes a blunder on the part of a few in order to remind the many that their voices are the ones that matter.

McConnell Up Big, But Polling?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has no intention of suffering the same fate as former Senator Tom Daschle, who, as Democratic leader, lost his re-election bid amid charges of obstructionism and excessive partisanship.

McConnell is likely in better political position than Daschle was, and in a state friendlier to the GOP than South Dakota was to Democrats. But he's clearly worried: McConnell, whose back is nicely adorned with targets for liberal bloggers and Washington Democrats, has stockpiled a huge war-chest and has already run ads touting his successes.

Now, a new poll for McConnell's campaign shows him leading any potential opponent by double digits. The Voter/Consumer Research poll, conducted 1/6-8 of 600 registered voters, indicates that McConnell is concerned enough to begin running a real campaign very early. The poll tested McConnell, businessman and former Lieutenant Governor nominee Charlie Owen, Iraq war veteran Andrew Horne, former Attorney General Greg Stumbo, businessman Greg Fischer and two-time gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lunsford.

General Election Matchups
McConnell 50
Stumbo 40

McConnell 52
Lunsford 37

McConnell 53
Owen 35

McConnell 54
Fischer 32

McConnell 55
Horne 32

McConnell enjoys high 61% approval ratings, but it could be President Bush who pulls him down. In this ruby-red state, where Bush won twice easily, just 39% approve of his job performance as president. The war in Iraq, the economy, health care and education are Kentucky residents' top priorities, with more than 30% each (three responses were allowed), all of which would seem to play into Democrats' hands. Plus, McConnell cannot distance himself from the administration. Not only is McConnell the top Republican on Capitol Hill, but his wife, Elaine Chao, is Bush's Labor Secretary.

Democrats have some momentum heading into the race. After a big win in the state's gubernatorial election this year, the party has the chance -- albeit a tiny one -- to beat McConnell. Stumbo begins with the best name recognition; 47% of the state's voters view him favorably while 27% see him unfavorably. Just 23% say they see Lunsford favorably, while 12% say they see him unfavorably.

Whoever emerges from the Democratic primary will face a huge battle. McCain announced last week that he raised $1.7 million in the fourth quarter, and despite the large television advertising buys, he maintained $7.3 million cash in hand. Both Fischer and Owen might loan their campaigns a significant amount of money, but anyone competing with McConnell's amount could get smacked down.

The race isn't hopeless for Democrats, but it could take some faith to invest there, especially after what looks like a difficult and bruising primary.

Morning Thoughts: Hands Off McCain?

Good Friday morning. It's a cold, ugly, gray day here in Washington. Here's what politicos everywhere are watching:

-- Last night's Republican debate on Fox News, and the way some GOP candidates are behaving, suggest that perhaps the media is getting it wrong. Many have set up the battle between John McCain and Mitt Romney in Michigan, and between Mike Huckabee and McCain in South Carolina. In both states, though, that's not the whole story: Recent polls show Romney in second place (again) and either McCain or Huckabee leading in Michigan. Thanks to December polls, Romney still leads the latest RCP Michigan Average. How is Huckabee doing so well in a state so far from the South? Michigan does have a lot of Second Amendment fans, and more than its share of evangelical voters. The Wolverine State, in short, is a three-way race.

-- In South Carolina, Romney is going to have to come in with some momentum to make it a three-way contest. After peaking near 22% in the RCP South Carolina Average, he's now down to 16.5% while Huckabee and McCain have surged. Things are looking increasingly bleak for Romney, who has pulled his Palmetto State advertising to focus on Michigan: Even with a big win there, he would have just four days to capitalize on any momentum going into South Carolina. Does it say something, too, that he's pulling ads out of South Carolina and Florida to make a final stand in Michigan? He's got a big checkbook, why not use it? Money should never be a problem if he believes he can win. Maybe, like a bad business deal, Romney is prepared to cut his losses.

-- While Romney is in trouble, Huckabee is not exactly on a glide path toward the nomination either. As Fred Thompson collapses in the polls -- from a high of around 23% to a current disappointing 9% -- he's had to make South Carolina what amounts to his last stand. And given his recent debate performances, featuring strong, almost prosecutorial jabs at Romney and Huckabee, the Thompson candidacy looks like it has concluded that it must take votes away from others instead of earning them on their own.

-- Who gets off unscathed? For all the talk of the Republican base despising McCain, we imagined he would be getting more flack from his fellow candidates. Indeed, Rudy Giuliani tried to take a shot last night, but it was a half-hearted attempt. Fred Thompson did a better job on immigration. Are the other campaigns waiting for someone else to pull a Karl Rove and make McCain implode? Are they hoping his temper goes haywire and he punches an autograph-seeker? He's rising in national polls; he's rising in state polls; he's raising new and good money. If someone doesn't go after John McCain, and there are certainly ways to capitalize on the vitriol felt by some in the GOP base over McCain, he's going to win by default.

-- In recent weeks, some have written that, in 2008, Iraq will not be the major issue many forecasted. Instead, the economy, immigration, jobs and other issues closer to home will top voters' minds when they cast a ballot. The LA Times' Don Frederick asks: Is that the reason Rudy Giuliani's fortunes have sunk so dramatically in the past few months? From highs of 38% in the RCP National Average in March, Giuliani has fallen to third place, just under 17%, calling into question his February 5 strategy. Could it be that as national security has become a less important issue, Giuliani's standing has fallen? If so, Barack Obama might have to rethink some of his strategy on the Democratic side as well. One way to answer the question: Are there any Republican voters who care most about the war in Iraq who are not voting for McCain or Ron Paul? The distinctions between the candidates on homeland security are few and far between (who's not for homeland security?) but the Iraq question is dominated by McCain.

-- On the Democratic side, Bill Clinton spent many days in New Hampshire stumping for his wife, though toward the end of the primary he was relegated to counties out west where fewer people -- and perhaps more tellingly, fewer members of the media -- would show up. Still, he said Obama's campaign was based on a fairy tale, and after some bizarre words from Hillary Clinton about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 1964 Civil RIghts Act, some civil rights activists began to seem a little irritated. Chief among them: House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who represents South Carolina, according to the New York Times. Many have said that a conversation on race is needed. But when any conversation over race begins, the candidate who started it always gets hurt. Clyburn, who could seal South Carolina for Obama, is now considering an endorsement after saying last year that he would sit out.

-- Clinton's win in New Hampshire came, she said, as she found her voice there. Swinging through Nevada yesterday, she kept that voice talking, joining State Assemblyman and soon to be kingmaker Ruben Kihuen for a walk through a Las Vegas neighborhood. Politics Nation hears another reason for her New Hampshire win: 500,000 volunteer phone calls poured into the Granite State from around the country, using a program called Activate, offered by a company in Leesburg, Virginia. The program, which lets campaign volunteers dial in at any time from anywhere in the country, was little-used in Iowa, though it found some success in New Hampshire. One source tells us Activate will be deployed heavily in Nevada as well, and if Clinton can hold on for a win there, it may not be her voice that mattered most, but the voices of thousands of campaign volunteers who can have an impact on the race from their kitchen tables.

-- Conspiracy Theory Of The Day: Clinton's surprise win in New Hampshire came courtesy of Diebold, some liberal bloggers are saying. In fact, Clinton did win by 4.2 points in townships that use optical scanners, while losing by 5.8 points in places that utilize paper ballots. Conspiracy? Probably not, write Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta, polling experts for the Post. Optical scan counties gave John Kerry a 14.7-point margin in 2004, while Gore carried the counties by 5.3 points in 2000. Opponents Howard Dean and Bill Bradley beat Kerry and Gore by 1.7 points and 3.3 points in paper ballot counties those years.

-- Today On The Trail: Rudy Giuliani is back in Florida for a town hall in Coral Springs. Mike Huckabee heads to Michigan for a speech to the Detroit Economic Club, followed by a rally in Birch Run, while Mitt Romney campaigns in Warren, Lansing and Hudsonville. John McCain sticks around South Carolina for meet and greets with voters in Pawley's Island, Mount Pleasant and Summerville.

-- On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton gives a speech on the economy in Los Angeles, while John Edwards has town halls scheduled for Summerville and St. Helena Island, South Carolina. Barack Obama heads to Las Vegas to accept the endorsement of the influential Culinary Workers Union and to hold a town hall meeting.

Three More Members Call It Quits

The retirement announcement today from California Republican John Doolittle is the latest in a series of retirements to strike both parties this year. Nineteen Republicans and four Democrats announced last year they would not run for reelection in the House of Representatives. Now, ten days into 2008, three more congressmen have already stated their intentions to retire.

Doolittle's decision to step down, under investigation for a congressional lobbying scandal, comes a week after Democrat Tom Lantos and Republican John Peterson announced their retirements. The latter two, however, were likely to win reelection had they decided to run again.

Doolittle on the other hand narrowly escaped defeat in the 2006 election, winning less than 50% of the vote in a district that gave President Bush 61% in 2004. Doolittle's close ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, along with his wife's questionable work as a fundraiser for his own campaign, allowed his Democratic opponent, Charlie Brown, to attack Doolittle's ethics.

Then in April 2007, Doolittle's Virginia home was raided by FBI agents investigating his wife's work for Abramoff. Doolittle stepped down from his Appropriations Committee seat at the urging of House GOP leadership, but announced he would not resign. With the legal investigation likely to continue through the next election and legal bills mounting, his reelection prospects were not bright.

Before Doolittle even got to the general, he would have faced a tough battle for the GOP nomination. Republicans now planning to run include Air Force reservist Eric Egland, Assemblyman Ted Gaines, State Senator Rico Oller and Mike Holmes, who won 33% in the 2006 primary against Doolittle.

In the Bay Area 12th Congressional District, Lantos announced his retirement after a recent diagnosis of cancer. His district, along with Peterson's, are not likely to be as competitive in the general election as Doolitte's seat. But interesting primary battles could surface.

Lantos, now in his 14th term and the only Holocaust survivor to ever serve in Congress, has regularly won reelection in the 12th District with around 70% of the vote, usually against underfunded, token opposition. This ethnically-diverse district includes parts of San Francisco and has been Democratic territory since the late 1950s.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that two Democrats are already considering a run: State Senator Leland Yee and former State Senator Jackie Speier. Speier had gone as far as to begin raising money for a bid against Lantos; a poll conducted for her campaign in early November showed her leading the incumbent by a 30-point margin.

Yee, the only Chinese-American ever elected to the California Senate, succeeded Speier in the 8th Senate district after she ran an unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor, losing in the Democratic primary by 3 points. Speier, who represented the district for eight years, was once an aide to Congressman Leo Ryan, and accompanied him on the tragic 1978 fact-finding mission to the Jonestown cult compound of the Rev. Jim Jones. Ryan was killed, and Speier was shot five times.

These two well-known candidates should both put up competitive campaigns, and the person who wins the June 3 primary will likely also win in November.

In Pennsylvania, the vast 5th District has been Republican territory since the founding of the party. It encompasses about a quarter of the state geographically, including State College, home of Penn State University's main campus, and Punxsutawney, home of the most famous thing named Phil in the world. In 2006 Peterson won 60% of the vote against his first Democratic challenger since coming to Congress in 1996, when he easily won the open seat.

Peterson's retirement announcement caught many prospective Republican candidates by surprise, the Centre Daily Times wrote. The most likely to run is State Senator Jake Corman, a third-term legislator whose district shares two of the same counties as the 5th. One other Republican name to keep in mind is State Senator Joseph Scarnati, who has feuded over transportation issues with Peterson. However, Scarnati is up for reelection this year and may not want to give up his leadership position for the chance to run for Congress. If a competitive primary ensues, a Peterson endorsement could tip the scales.

A few Democrats will likely file for this seat, but the national party is unlikely to help much financially for a district with such a Republican tilt. The DCCC's money may be better spent on districts more likely to flip, and defending districts that flipped in 2006.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Safe Dems In Montana

First-term Governor Brian Schweitzer, oft-mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate at some point in his young political career, looks set to cruise to re-election, a new poll for the Billings Gazette showed last month. Schweitzer will appear on the ballot alongside fellow Democrat Max Baucus, the state's senior Senator, who also appears to be in good shape.

The poll, conducted 12/17-19 by the highly respected firm Mason-Dixon, quizzed 625 registered voters for a margin of error of +/- 4%. Schweitzer and opponent State Senator Roy Brown along with Baucus and his opponent, State Representative Mike Lange, were tested.

General Election Matchups
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind / Men / Wom)
Schweitzer 55 / 89 / 28 / 52 / 52 / 58
Brown 30 / 3 / 59 / 26 / 32 / 28

(All / Dem / GOP / Ind / Men / Wom)
Baucus 63 / 90 / 38 / 63 / 62 / 64
Lange 25 / 5 / 49 / 19 / 28 / 22

Both incumbent Democrats are widely popular around the state. Baucus is viewed favorably by 57% of Montanans, while just 15% have an unfavorable opinion. Schweitzer is seen favorably by 54%, as 22% see him unfavorably. The state has been trending Democratic in recent years, electing Senator Jon Tester in 2006. Democrats control the State Senate, but in one of their few defeats last year lost control of the State House.

On a statewide level, Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg has not faced serious competition in years, though Secretary of State Brad Johnson is the only other member of the GOP elected statewide. Three other lower-ballot elected officials are all Democrats.

Allen Will Not Make Gov Bid

Former Senator George Allen will not run for governor in 2009, he told Virginia newspapers this week. Allen, who lost a close re-election race to Jim Webb in 2006, was elected governor in 1993 before winning the Senate seat in 2000. The move leaves the GOP nomination open to either Attorney General Bob McDonnell or Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling.

On the Democratic side, State Senator Creigh Deeds, who narrowly lost a battle for Attorney General in 2005, and State Delegate Brian Moran, brother of U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, have said they will run. Incumbent Governor Tim Kaine is barred from seeking a second term due to the state's unique one term limit.

Virginia, for decades a solidly red state, has been on an inexorably blue march in recent years, beginning with the 2001 governor's race, in which Mark Warner beat a well-known Republican. Warner helped rebuild the state's Democratic Party, leading to Webb's and Kaine's victories. This year, Democrats even took control of the state senate for the first time in decades. Warner himself is running for the Senate seat being vacated this year by longtime Republican Senator John Warner.

His likely opponent, former Governor Jim Gilmore, begins the race as a big underdog. A poll a few months ago showed Warner up by 30 points.

Inhofe Keeps Wide Lead

The netroots like State Senator Andy Rice, but helping him beat Senator Jim Inhofe looks like a longshot. A poll conducted by SoonerPoll.com shows the incumbent leading by a wide margin, and confirms that Oklahoma remains comfortable with their elected officials.

The poll, conducted 12/16-19, surveyed 735 registered voters for a 4% margin of error. Rice, Inhofe, Senator Tom Coburn and Governor Brad Henry were tested.

General Election Matchup
Inhofe 60
Rice 19

A poll for Rice taken a week before this one showed him trailing Inhofe by 14 points, but this survey has nothing but bad news for the Democrat: 56% of the state's voters approve of Inhofe's performance as Senator, while just 24% disapprove.

The state's junior senator, Tom Coburn, is also popular, with 58% approving of the job he's doing, while only 22% disapprove. Democratic Governor Brad Henry, meanwhile, is virtually beloved: 76% say they approve of his job, while only 16% disapprove.

Date Set To Replace Carson

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels Monday set March 11 as the special election date to replace Democratic Congresswoman Julia Carson in the the state's 7th District. Carson died of lung cancer in December.

The Indianapolis Star reports that eight potential Democratic candidates for the seat gathered at a forum last night, likely the only time the candidates will meet before the some 600 Democratic precinct committeemen caucus on Saturday to nominate a candidate.

Republicans will hold a nominating caucus for the special election on Sunday, and will also endorse a candidate for the seat in the May primary.

Andre Carson, grandson of the late congresswoman, announced January 3 that he had filed for the Democratic nomination for the seat, one day after being sworn in as an Indianapolis city-county councilor. Carson had been seen as an eventual successor to his grandmother even before her death, but he declined to announce his intentions to run now until last week.

Other Democratic candidates include Marion County Treasurer Michael Rodman, attorney Randle Pollard, and state representatives Carolene Mays, David Orentlicher and Gregory Porter. State Rep. Jon Elrod has been mentioned as a candidate for the Republican nomination.

This competitive district includes all of Indianapolis and most of Marion County, which has trended Democratic despite the seven surrounding counties continuing to be strongly Republican. Indianapolis had elected a Republican mayor for some 30 straight years until 1999, and in November voted out Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson in favor of Republican Greg Ballard. Still, the district leans Democratic, as John Kerry won here with 58% in 2004 and Gore won 55% in 2000. If Andre Carson wins the nomination on Saturday, his name-identification advantage and the Democratic tilt of the district give him the best shot of holding the seat for Democrats.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Morning Thoughts: Romney, Edwards Crunch Time

Good Thursday morning. It's good to be back in Washington, even as presidential campaigns fan out to the four corners of the country. Here's what's got our interest today:

-- Mitt Romney will make his stand, AP reports, in his home state of Michigan. The former governor has pulled all his advertising from South Carolina and Florida in order to flood the market in Michigan, where he and John McCain are locked in a tight battle. Both candidates held rallies there yesterday before heading to South Carolina for tonight's debate. Both candidates have something of a home-field advantage: Romney was born and raised in Michigan, while McCain won the state in 2000. Now, it looks like the once-front-running Romney is going to lay it all on the line in the Wolverine State. It doesn't help his case that most Democrats are not running on their side, giving independents a big reason to cross over and vote McCain. Come back to RCP tomorrow to read more on that.

-- Romney isn't completely toast yet, and he still has some powerful and deep-pocketed friends. Yesterday, after a disappointing finish in New Hampshire, the camp still managed to raise about $5 million in their second annual National Call Day. Most of that amount, though, is off limits for now: Just $1.5 million of that is available for the primary, the Salt Lake Tribune reports. The event last year, which formally kicked off Romney's fundraising efforts, pulled in an impressive $6.5 million. Even after two disappointing finishes, this year's showing is impressive for a one-day haul.

-- One candidate is complete toast: Bill Richardson has decided to back out of the race, the New York Times and AP report. Richardson made the decision after meeting yesterday with top advisers in New Mexico and is set to make an announcement at a press conference today. Two fourth-place finishes, in which he earned less than 5% of the vote, chased him from the race before he even got to Nevada, where he had put plenty of resources and hoped to compete strongly.

-- Is John Edwards far behind Richardson on his way out the door? After a narrow second-place victory over Hillary Clinton in Iowa and a distant third place finish in New Hampshire, how long can John Edwards continue his bid? Edwards headed to South Carolina yesterday to begin what he was pitching as a homecoming tour, though campaign manager David Bonior was on a mid-day flight back to Washington out of Manchester.

-- Edwards has tweaked his stump speech a little, NBC's Tricia Miller writes, in that he emphasizes his Southern roots. "We have to make certain that every primary voter in South Carolina knows that I was born here," he told supporters in Clemson. Edwards is currently unning another distant third in the latest RCP South Carolina Average at 15%, well below leader Obama's 44% and Clinton's 31%. If Edwards can't win in his home state, will he ever win?

-- And what about Rudy Giuliani? Hizzoner will stay in the race through Florida, and from there it's only a week away from February 5, but without a win there will he choose not to continue? As other candidates start receiving a bounce from wins in other states, Giuliani's slim 5 point lead in the latest RCP Florida Average could slip. But don't question his commitment: Giuliani will spend next Tuesday in Florida as Michigan holds their state's primary, the St. Pete Times reports, meaning New Hampshire is the only state in which he's stuck around to find out what happened.

-- Hillary Clinton's big win in New Hampshire remains something of a mystery: How'd she pull it off? Some answers are filtering out. She won with huge margins in the Southern part of the state, per this map, which sure has a lot more purple (Obama) than green (Clinton). But remember that 80% of the state's population lives in the Southern part of the state, and that region is where Clinton chalked up big margins. Then again, maybe voters -- especially female voters -- did not like the idea of the first female candidate's campaign collapsing, the New York Times writes. Did Obama err when he told Clinton she was "likable enough" at the debate on Saturday? Many women, Politics Nation's mother included, thought so.

-- In Washington yesterday, what may be a battle crucial to both parties' hopes in 2008 came to the Supreme Court as lawyers for both sides argued over a new Indiana law requiring voters to present identifications before casting a ballot. A majority of justices appeared not to accept plaintiff's arguments, the New York Times writes, while they may even go farther and determine that the suit itself was brought in an improper manner, making it that much more difficult to challenge any future statutes that come up. If the court upholds the law, as looks likely, several other states could follow close behind and pass their own voter ID laws.

-- The case has attracted briefs from the Bush Administration, the Republican National Committee, the ACLU, Democratic Secretaries of State from Missouri, Ohio and Vermont and Republican Attorneys General from Texas, Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Michigan, Nebraska and South Dakota, Stateline reports. The case is drumming up some serious partisan rancor, and could have effects far beyond Indiana: Georgia and Florida have similar laws, potentially giving Republicans a leg up come November in those states.

-- Running Mate Of The Day: "You promised me that you would be my running mate," Mike Huckabee told Stephen Colbert on Colbert's show last night. The interview, found here, showed off Huckabee's deadpan humor: He said he would "charge hell with a waterpistol, if necessary," to get Osama bin Laden, and that he still thinks evolution is a farce. Asked by Colbert whether he's the candidate who thinks Jesus and the Devil are brothers, Huckabee had fun with the Romney shot: "No, that's, that's not us. But I'll send you a memo on that and I'll underline all the parts in red that we need to believe," he said. "Stay Huckabee, not a Huckawas," Colbert implored his future running mate.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton hits Las Vegas for a rally, Edwards volunteers at a food bank in the Lowcountry before rallying the troops in Charleston, and Obama holds a big event there too, before going home to Chicago. Republicans debate tonight in Myrtle Beach, and on the way there, Romney stops in Greenville and McCain has a press conference in West Columbia, a town hall meeting in Greenville and a party with supporter before the debate in Greenville. Giuliani meets supporters at a cafe, Huckabee fundraises and hits a Fair Tax fundraiser in Myrtle Beach, and Ron Paul visits local businesses in Myrtle Beach.

Clinton Tops Obama In 4thQ

Speaking on a conference call with reporters and fundraisers today, Hillary Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe crowed that the campaign had raised more than $24 million in primary money in the final quarter of 2007. McAuliffe said it is the second quarter in a row they had outraised rival Barack Obama in funds available for the primary season.

Bolstered by last night's surprising win in the New Hampshire primary, McAuliffe said the campaign had raised $3 million in the first nine days of January alone, along with $5 million in additional commitments in the past two days. In Clinton's victory speech, the candidate mentioned her website, and despite the lack of a direct ask, the campaign has brought in $1.12 million over the internet alone. Since midnight last night, the campaign said it had been signing up 500 new supporters every minute on the call through the website.

"That victory last night was just something spectacular," McAuliffe said. "We are going to beat Senator Obama's campaign in January in fundraising." McAuliffe said the campaign was finalizing Clinton's schedule for the nearly four weeks leading up to February 5. He himself is set to head to Nevada to lay groundwork for that state's January 19 caucuses.

Clinton national finance director Jonathan Mantz said the campaign was planning a late January fundraising blitz throughout the country. While campaigns are reluctant to send candidates to fundraise in crucial and waning days before a primary, February 5 states include New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Arizona, Massachusetts and a few other states that serve as campaign cash cows in the race. Holding a fundraiser, followed by a rally, in Phoenix or Los Angeles or New York City or Boston would be politically as well as financially beneficial.

McAuliffe, assessing the race, took a shot at John Edwards who, after Clinton finished third in Iowa, suggested she was out of the contest. "It is a two-person race. I think you have John Edwards coming in a distant third," McAuliffe said. Saying the race will likely be over by February 5, McAuliffe hopes for more nights like Tuesday. "It's a lot more fun winning," he said.

NH Winners And Losers

NASHUA, New Hampshire -- Headlines this morning are dominated by Hillary Clinton's surprise victory and the culmination of John McCain's comeback, but beneath the surface, other candidates had moments to be proud of, or depressed about, on their own.

Winners

Barack Obama -- Yes, he finished in second place when polls had him way up. But in the long run, Obama may look back on New Hampshire as a win in at least one sense: With John Edwards again finishing behind him, it is clear that Obama has won the "Anybody-But-Clinton" primary. While Edwards promises to stay in the race until the convention, his stock is severely damaged, and he is in imminent danger of becoming old news. Obama's votes plus Edwards' votes, both in Iowa and New Hampshire, overwhelmed Clinton's portion of the electorate, giving him hope that, by adding Edwards people to the coalition, Obama can still beat Clinton.

Rudy Giuliani -- The February 5 strategy remains dangerous, but it all kicks off a week earlier in Florida, where Giuliani hopes to compete strongly. Recent polls had shown Mitt Romney gaining on him in the Sunshine State, but with Romney's second consecutive loss and his looming showdown with McCain in Michigan seeming to favor the New Hampshire winner, Romney could be less of a factor -- and could be out of the race altogether -- by January 29. Giuliani, with one less big-moneyed opponent, can be happy for McCain and somewhat more pleased with his situation at the same time.

Losers

John Edwards -- Clinton's win probably sealed Edwards' fate. After finishing second in Iowa, Edwards did his best to characterize the race as between himself and Obama. Now, he is a distinct and distant third, reports suggest his money is drying up and he trails both Clinton and Obama badly in the state where he was born, South Carolina. Add to that two big Nevada unions who have cast their lot with Obama and Edwards' chances further dim. He never performed well in New Hampshire, and this year, unlike 2004, it could prove the fatal blow.

Ron Paul -- New Hampshire was supposed to be Paul's state. The libertarian tilt of the Granite State, combined with a surprisingly strong enthusiasm for Paul among younger voters, had everyone -- this writer included -- predicting a bigger than expected showing, putting Paul as high as third place on the GOP side. It wouldn't have been hard: Third-place winner Mike Huckabee won just 11% of the vote. But Paul's supporters were either vastly overstated or didn't bother to show up, and he finished what has to be a disappointing fifth, with just 8%. Paul's insurgent campaign could have done something special in New Hampshire; instead, they underperformed even their own showing in Iowa. There may be a budding libertarian movement, but it's becoming clear that Paul is not the right messenger to help it on to victory. Add to that a New Republic article citing Paul's political newsletter, which published racially insensitive writings in the early 1990's, and it's been a very bad week for the Paul campaign.

Morning Thoughts: Fired Up

NASHUA, New Hampshire -- Janitors in a dozen locations around the state are still sweeping up confetti this morning as candidates abandon the Granite State and journalists prepare to follow close behind. With eleven days until Republicans go to the polls in South Carolina and voters of both parties in Nevada head to their respective caucuses, here's what Washington is watching this morning, struggling once again to get a grip on a confusing and exciting race:

-- So, did something happen last night? Seems like there was a lot of commotion all around our hotel. That's probably because Politics Nation is camped out next to the Crowne Plaza in Nashua, where eight years ago John McCain celebrated a huge win over then-Texas Governor Bush. Last night, at the same hotel, he celebrated again, with a 37%-32% win over Mitt Romney.

-- Hillary Clinton, who late yesterday faced buzz about a possible major campaign staff shake-up and whispers of impending calls for her withdrawal from the race from Washington insiders, scored a stunning come-from-behind win that had pollsters scrambling to explain why their models were wrong. Two reasons for her upset: women, who flocked to Clinton in droves, and independents, many of whom picked McCain on a Republican ballot instead of Obama on the Democratic side.

-- How did Clinton do it? Female turnout -- 57% of the Democratic electorate -- broke strongly for her, while a slumping John Edwards underperformed among his traditional Democratic blue collar base, a population among which he tied Clinton in Iowa. Clinton carried voters who were worried about the economy, unlike in Iowa, and more importantly, she won among registered Democrats, which she failed to do by a convincing margin in Iowa, Amy Walter writes.

-- The pollsters, at the end of the day, just got something wrong. Don't, however, let anyone tell you that they got Obama's numbers wrong: He finished with about 36%, which was well within the range of most pre election polls. But the polls did badly underestimated Clinton's support, with most pegging it between 28-34% while she finished well above that with 39%.

Of course, some pollsters were less wrong than others: We got a note this morning from Research 2000, which, in a 1/4-5 poll, showed Obama at 34% to Clinton's 33%, with a 5% margin of error. Technically, that's the most accurate poll of the last few weeks, and on the GOP side, the firm got it spot on, predicting a 6-point, 35%-29% McCain victory. In fact, he won 37%-32%. So, next time Del Ali and company come out with a poll, pay attention.

-- We took heat last week for suggesting that Obama's Iowa win was overblown because he won just 16 delegates to Clinton's 15 and Edwards' 14. But we stand by the sentiment: In the lead-up to a convention, it is the race for delegates that really matters, but it's the incessant horse racing of each little state that makes the media go wild. Last night, Obama actually kept his one-delegate lead in allocated delegates (that is, not the super-delegates, who may switch their votes at will). He earned nine in a two-point loss to Clinton, the same number she did, while Edwards scored four. Why do we keep paying attention to this? Because a contested convention remains possible, and it's a great metric to follow. Not to diminish anyone's wins, but keep in mind the fascinating "what if" of a battle in Denver over a few delegates.

-- Candidates flying out today face some harsh realities, none more so than Mitt Romney. Romney poured millions into ads and infrastructure in Iowa and New Hampshire only to finish second in both states (though he won Wyoming) and now he faces an uncertain future in the Michigan primary a week and a half out. Romney has a few advantages there: His dad was governor, he's spent time there, he event won the Mackinac Island straw poll put on by the Michigan GOP. But his hurdles could be too high to overcome. Mike Huckabee is becoming more popular among social conservatives, and with Obama having pulled off the ballot, independents are free to pick McCain on the Republican side. The Wolverine State is Romney's last stand, Marc Ambinder writes, though his strategists hold out some hope.

-- Romney can also take solace from McCain's path to the nomination, which is about as clear as mud. So is Huckabee's, Thompson's and Giuliani's, but McCain seems the most plausible nominee at the moment. Where does the race stand heading into Michigan? In just about the same place we thought it stood going into New Hampshire: A big McCain win there would likely knock Romney from the race, while a Romney upset would send McCain into another tailspin. These two don't like each other much, and the next week doesn't promise to do much to mend their friendship as they go head-to-head in Michigan.

-- Obama's strong Iowa win will still have an impact, as he is likely to pick up a nod from the Culinary Workers' union in Nevada at a 9:30 a.m. local time meeting of the union's top board members. Obama would be in the state to accept the nod on Friday, Ambinder notes, making it the most important union to back Obama thus far. Last night, he picked up the SEIU's Nevada chapter as well, the LA Times reports, which represents about 17,000 members in the Silver State. Insiders suggested the choice came down to a contest between Obama and John Edwards, with Clinton nowhere in the picture.

-- He's had an awkward relationship with labor, Ben Smith wrote last week: Campaign manager David Plouffe had to make the case against special interests attacking Obama and backing Clinton in Iowa, most of whom were labor groups. Both she and John Edwards have strong labor support, but none of those unions have power over one state like the culinary workers do over Nevada. Obama could have waited until just the right time to win back labor.

-- For the two top GOP candidates who have not finished first or second in the initial primaries, the fact that New Hampshire is finally over has to be a weight off their shoulders. Rudy Giuliani headed straight for Florida today, while Fred Thompson did not even wait for the votes to come in before jetting off to South Carolina, which he did last night. Giuliani's strategy is dangerous (he left for Florida before the votes were even counted last night, AP reports), while Thompson's could be fatal, Dan Hoover writes. "I'm staking an awful lot on South Carolina," the former Senator told the Greenville News. Thompson gets to take his shot at vaulting back into contention first, on the 19th, while Rudy has to wait another ten days after that. Both are going to have to run as hard as they can to beat back the McMentum and HuckMentum, as well as Romney's financial prowess.

-- New Guys Of The Day: As the Culinary Workers' nod suggests, Obama still has momentum, and Clinton is by no means out of the woods yet. The major staff shakeup seems less likely to happen, but some new faces are on their way in. The Fix reports that both former Clinton White House political director Doug Sosnik and former Hillary Clinton Chief of Staff Maggie Williams will join the campaign, Sosnick in an informal role and Williams as a top campaign coordinator, a role that may force campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle out the door. Clinton may get the best of both worlds: New blood in the form of top advisers and a surprise win with which they have the chance to seize back the momentum.

-- Today On The Trail: Victorious Clinton heads to New York for interviews, while Obama holds a rally in Jersey City followed by fundraisers in the Big Apple. Edwards will hold rallies in Clemson and Columbia, South Carolina and once again assert that he's the native son.

-- On the Republican side, we just saw McCain's private jet take off from the Nashua airport (we think) as he heads to rallies in Grand Rapids and Waterford, Michigan, followed by a rally in Charleston, South Carolina tonight. Huckabee is headed down south too, hitting Spartanburg, Greenville and Myrtle Beach. Romney is in Boston before heading out to Grand Rapids and East Grand Rapids for events with voters. Fred Thompson's bus tour heads through Sumter, Florence, Conway and Myrtle Beach, and Rudy Giuliani is still in Florida, with events in Melbourne and West Palm Beach.

One Night, Two Comebacks

NASHUA, New Hampshire -- Eight years ago, John McCain stood at a podium in the Crowne Plaza hotel here and thanked New Hampshire voters for giving him a surprisingly big win over then-Texas Governor George Bush. Tonight, just months after his campaign imploded to a point at which pundits and supporters all but declared his candidacy toast, McCain again thanked Granite Staters for giving him a come-from-behind win.

Recent polls had shown McCain pulling ahead of Mitt Romney, and by the end many expected a win. In recent days, Romney's campaign even began downplaying expectations. On the other side of the aisle, though, as Barack Obama pulled ahead in polls and appeared to be peaking at just the right time, election night proved a real surprise: Voters in the Granite State gave Clinton a shocking victory even as some top political watchers privately predicted a double-digit Obama win.

Clinton's position in polls was so bad that rumors abounded on Tuesday of an imminent major campaign shake-up. Senator Dick Durbin, Obama's top backer in the Senate, hinted that several members of the upper chamber would rush to back his candidate after a resounding victory here, and an influential union in Nevada, seen as key to a victory there, seemed set to give Obama their nod.

Thanks to late-breaking women and a stronger than expected preference for Republican ballots among independent voters, Clinton avoided calls for her to pull out of the race and opened the door to the possibility of seizing back momentum.

Both campaigns depended on New Hampshire, though for different reasons. For Clinton, the state represented a potential firewall against an Obama win in Iowa. That strategy appeared destined for failure as Obama surged, and Clinton's team began preparing to virtually cede Nevada and South Carolina, falling back on February 5 states as a last chance for victory. For McCain, the state represented a starting point from which his team could gain much-needed momentum heading into Michigan, South Carolina and Florida.

McCain's reversal of fortune invited comparisons to Bill Clinton, whose surprise second-place showing here in 1992 propelled him to the nomination. "I'm past the age when I can claim the noun 'kid,' no matter what adjective precedes it," McCain told supporters. "But tonight we sure showed them what a comeback looks like."

Those who chose Republican ballots in New Hampshire were much less satisfied with the Bush Administration than Republicans in other candidates, the exit polls showed. It was McCain, who long fought against what he called a losing strategy in Iraq and called for then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation, who benefited from that dissatisfaction. McCain held a 14-point lead among the 49% who said they were dissatisfied with the incumbent administration, while Romney led by just five among those who viewed Bush in a satisfactory light.

As in 2000, McCain won a substantial majority of independents, who favored him by 13 points. Romney held just a one-point advantage among registered Republicans, who made up 61% of the electorate. McCain's independents, comprising 37% of voters, put him over the top. McCain also did well among voters who said a candidate saying what he believed was the most important quality for a candidate, along with those who valued experience most.

Clinton's own turnaround was bolstered by conventional wisdom, which suggested she would lose by a wide margin. The startling results could ensure that both the Democratic and Republican races will continue well beyond the February 5 "Super Duper Tuesday." Since Iowa, Obama took over the front-runner mantle from Clinton. Now, there is no clear leader, and both candidates are in the contest for the long run.

The Democratic race was decided by women and by older voters. Exit polls showed Clinton held a 13-point margin over Obama among women, who made up 57% of the Democratic electorate. Clinton also held an eight-point and 15-point lead among those between 50-64 and those over 65 years old, who made up 31% and 13% of the electorate, respectively.

Obama, whose Iowa victory was largely based on huge turnout among first-time caucus-goers, also held a big twelve-point lead among those who attended their first New Hampshire primary. But those first-timers only made up 20% of the electorate. Clinton, by contrast, had a six-point lead among those who had voted in a primary before, a whopping four-fifths of voters who turned out. Obama's large twelve-point lead among independent voters, who made up 43% of Democratic voters, was largely negated by Clinton's eleven-point lead among registered Democrats, who comprised 54%.

As candidates prepare to move on, Romney's campaign and Obama's campaign will spend sleepless nights plotting their next moves. Relieved strategists helping Clinton and McCain are looking to their next contests -- Nevada, for Clinton, and Michigan, for McCain -- with new hope. Two opportunities for fatal blows to one-time front-runners were averted, and on both sides of the aisle, a campaign that feels like it has dragged on forever only extended itself tonight.

At Clinton Site, Obama Love

EAST CONCORD, New Hampshire -- As the convoy shepherding Hillary Clinton around New Hampshire pulled out of a school parking lot here, Steve Gordon parked his car and walked in to cast his ballot. Despite the Clinton sign-wavers, Gordon voted for Barack Obama. "He is the best opportunity to bring about a change," Gordon said, "after eight years of hell."

The independent, who says he always votes Democratic, says he is satisfied with the Democratic field, but he decided about four months ago to vote for Obama. "I think she's a wonderful Senator," Gordon said of Clinton.

Voters in this suburb of the state capitol, an area that votes largely Democratic, repeatedly expressed preferences for Obama, even as the Clinton bus pulled away. "He's going to follow through," said Marie Leighton, an independent who has voted for both Democrats and Republicans. "I'm looking forward to the change [Obama] is going to bring." Leighton said she would not consider voting for Clinton even in a general election.

Both front-runners, along with John Edwards, have been accused of speaking largely in generalities, though, and voters concerned that details were lacking were not afraid to cast a protest vote. "All the other candidates were side-stepping the issues," said Joe, who would not give his last name. He voted for Bill Richardson, who he felt offered more specifics.

Turnout around the state is reportedly massive, and with the sun shining and mercury heading north to near 60 degrees in the southern part of the state, long lines are expected to continue late into the day. If this Democratic precinct is any indication, the night will end early. Even as Clinton met with voters in a last-ditch effort to find their support, Obama owned the lion's share of voters' energy.

Voters Could Top 500K

CONCORD -- More than half a million voters could turn out in today's New Hampshire primary, turnout statistics and the Secretary of State said yesterday. That astounding number will affect the outcomes of both races, though who turns out remains an open question.

In 2000, the last time both parties had primaries, 44% of New Hampshire's eligible voting population turned out. That number is impressive in itself: It's only slightly lower than the national average for general presidential elections. Eight years ago, that equaled 396,000 people. After an explosion that has seen the state's population rise nearly 30% in the intervening time, a similar turnout percentage would equal just over 500,000 people.

Still, this year Iowa saw a much higher turnout than expected, roughly double the number of Democrats who showed up in 2004 and a sizable improvement from 2000 for the GOP as well. With both parties facing competitive elections and multiple candidates targeting the youth vote at colleges and high schools around the state, it is highly probable that, like Iowa, New Hampshire will see a much bigger turnout than any previous year.

With such a high turnout expected, no campaign really knows what to do. None would offer turnout estimates, even privately. We'll provide updates throughout the day as the campaigns get a handle on the ground game. Some votes have already been cast: We ran into more than a few wise voters who picked up an absentee ballot today in order to get the ordeal over with. Expect long lines, Granite Staters, if you plan to cast a ballot tomorrow.

NH Crucial To Mitt, McCain

MANCHESTER -- Conventional wisdom holds that, if Mitt Romney fails to win today's New Hampshire primary, any hopes he maintains of the presidency will disappear as the results trickle in. Romney's initial strategy, to win Iowa and New Hampshire, seemed so sound that he chased John McCain and Rudy Giuliani first from competing in the Iowa straw poll and second from the first caucus state itself. But now that he has lost Iowa, and looks as if he may succumb to McCain in New Hampshire, his strategy is in tatters.

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John McCain needs a New Hampshire win
As Romney's dip in the polls continues, McCain has seen a corresponding rise. He now leads Romney in the latest RCP New Hampshire Average by 3.6 points, and some believe a win here would propel him to the GOP nomination. But it's not as simple as that. With Romney catching up in some polls, and with McCain running low on cash, McCain is relying on a New Hampshire win as much, if not more, than Romney.

"McCain is a one-state candidate," Romney backer Bay Buchanan said in the spin room at Saturday's debate on ABC. In a vacuum, Buchanan is right. McCain has to win New Hampshire in order to build the momentum to continue his campaign. Without a victory and the attending press coverage, McCain has little chance to catch up to rivals who lead him in Michigan, South Carolina, Florida and in February 5 states.

McCain won Michigan's primary in 2000, has put considerable investment into South Carolina and hopes to compete in Florida. But RCP Averages for all three states show McCain leads in none of them. A win in New Hampshire, and the attending press coverage, would certainly boost his standing in all three states, creating what he hopes is unstoppable momentum leading up to the February 5 mega-contests. A loss here means McCain would have to find another way, if it's even possible, to create that momentum.

Those who begin shopping for a running mate for McCain are, in short, several steps ahead of themselves. On Saturday, while McCain got in sharp, biting responses to Romney's attacks, many felt he went too far and alienated viewers. On Sunday, a much more subdued McCain faced a feisty Romney, who many felt won the encounter among five top candidates.

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But so does Romney, pictured here
at a house party in Bedford
With much more money to spend, Romney was able to buy two full minutes of television time for his closing argument, which aired last night on New Hampshire stations. McCain has much less money, and has not unveiled a game-changing closing spot. After losing his New Hampshire lead in December and stumbling badly in Iowa, Romney seems to be on the uptick going into today's voting. McCain, while not slumping here, looks to have plateaued.

Politics does not happen in a vacuum. Hillary Clinton is learning this as she watched her already slim New Hampshire lead evaporate virtually over night after Barack Obama won Iowa convincingly. Romney and McCain cannot simply give up on New Hampshire, say they never intended to win it and move on to the next state. Instead, each needs to get a big boost coming out of the Granite State.

For both candidates, that means a win and nothing short of it. Romney can rely on his personal fortune to stay financially afloat after a loss, though his chances of winning the nomination after losing the first two primary states would be slim. McCain does not have the same option. He needs a New Hampshire boost to earn delegates and money to keep his campaign above water through the rest of the primary season.

Both candidates face voters in perhaps the most important single contest of the primary season today. When polls close, the hopes of the GOP nomination will stay alive for one of them. Staffers for the other will likely have to begin thinking about their next places of employment.

No Republican in the modern era has ever won the nomination without winning Iowa or New Hampshire. In this year where all bets seem to be off and something new happens every day, that trend seems like one that is destined to continue.

Morning Thoughts: Rock Solid

Good Tuesday morning. The clouds are parting, the weather is warm and everything is cooperating beautifully on primary day. Here are the last-minute headlines to watch:

-- Today On The Trail: Barack Obama rallies at Dartmouth College, then at a high school in Nashua. John Edwards has a meeting with voters and an election night party in Manchester, while Hillary Clinton will meet supporters at a post-voter rally in Manchester.

-- John McCain will visit polling places and hold a party in Nashua today as fellow front-runner MItt Romney meets voters at a Manchester church, a Bedford high school, a Nashua school and at events in Salem and Derry. His election night party will be held in Bedford. Rudy Giuliani stops at his campaign headquarters, hits a senior center and a restaurant and then offers remarks in Manchester, while Mike Huckabee hits churches in Manchester and Dover, middle schools in Bedford and Manchester, an East Rochester VFW hall and a Londonderry high school, all before the post-tally rally in Manchester. Ron Paul visits polling places in Manchester and Concord before going to his party in the state capitol. Fred Thompson, meanwhile, is holding events today in Greenville, Lexington, Camden and Columbia, South Carolina.

-- The results are in! Everybody can go home now. Tiny Dixville Notch, just minutes from the Canadian birder in Northern New Hampshire, voted just after midnight, giving Obama a big win on the Democratic side and handing four of seven GOP votes to McCain. Obama won seven out of ten Democratic votes. The town is one of five, including Millsfield, Hart's Location, Ellsworth and Waterville Valley, that cast their votes just after midnight in an effort to go first and steal some of the spotlight. They don't have a very good record of picking winners, though: Wes Clark, George Bush and Bill Bradley all won here while losing the state in the primary.

-- Yesterday's big news: Hillary Clinton is not a robot. Responding to a question about the stresses and strains of the campaign trail, Clinton teared up yesterday, raising once again the difficult question of how women should act on the campaign trail. Act tough, and people use bad words to talk about you. Act nice and sweet, and people will say you're not tough enough. Clinton easily handled two hecklers in Salem last night, and she's run her campaign well enough to be near the top of the pack and to have raised more than $100 million. But no one can quite get this right yet. Wait until a woman governor runs for president, maybe?

-- The road only gets tougher from here. Several senators, who have thus far stayed neutral, are in talks with the Obama campaign about getting on board, Jackie Calmes reports, the first sign that the party is coalescing around a nominee. And the Culinary Workers' union in Las Vegas, which has yet to back a candidate, is considering an Obama endorsement as early as tomorrow, a week and a half before that state's caucuses. If Clinton hopes to win the nomination, she has to push back, hard, on several new fronts. Her window of opportunity, already tight, might be closing with even more finality.

-- Nevada will be the next Democratic primary landscape, and the American Federation of Teachers, in unusually detailed FEC filings, is already there and playing the game. The union has spent more than $150,000 on radio ads on Clinton's behalf, targeted, according to the filings' purpose lines, at women over 25 years old (see filings here and here). If that's not telegraphing one's next move, we don't know what is.

-- Mitt Romney has a new best friend, and it just so happens to be Obama. The Democrat attracts a lot of independent votes, great for the primary because it means more Republicans will make up the Republican electorate -- to McCain's detriment. Obama has also become a lightening rod on experience, with Romney saying as often as possible that he's the one who has turned things around, while Obama has not. When she came up in Republican stump speeches, Clinton was often a punch line. Romney, though, is using Obama in a more substantive way, and it's helping the Republican on both the nominating and general election contests.

-- Annoyance Of The (Year) Day: Think Iowa was bad? New Hampshire has just over 1/3rd the people of Iowa and has seen more than half the advertising revenue the Hawkeye State did. $30 million has been spent to woo Granite State voters, CNN reports, the most money coming from Romney, who's dropped $8 million, Clinton and Obama, each at $5 million, and McCain, who's spent $4 million. The ads are non-stop; Politics Nation counted seven political commercials in a row at one point. Nielson, writes James Pindell, reports a total of more than 17,000 political ads in the New Hampshire and Boston media markets alone. Where to next? Watch out, South Carolina and Nevada.

Clinton Mocks Hecklers

SALEM, New Hampshire -- Speaking to a packed high school auditorium just hours before polls open in the nation's first primary, Hillary Clinton offered her closing argument and faced down hecklers to loud and sustained applause.

Fifteen minutes or so into Clinton's speech, two high school age children stood up with signs reading "Iron my shirt" and began to chant. Clinton tried to talk over them as security personnel rushed to remove the miscreants.

After a futile minute, she stopped. "Ah, the last remnants of sexism," she joked. The hecklers removed, Clinton used the moment to her advantage. "As I think was just abundantly demonstrated, I am also running to break through the highest and hardest glass ceiling," she said, drawing a standing ovation.

Clinton later offered to answer any questions the crowd might have. "If there's anybody left in the auditorium who wants to learn how to iron his own shirt, I'll talk about that," she said.

Later tonight, Clinton heads to Manchester where she will hold a rally with husband Bill just three and a half hours before residents in Dixville Notch and Hart's Location head to town halls to cast the traditional first ballots of the New Hampshire primary.

HuckaBurger!

CONCORD, New Hampshire -- "The road to the White House starts at the Barley House," owner Brian Shea said as the crush of media and supporters of Mike Huckabee subsided, forty-five minutes after arriving. The occasion: The introduction of the HuckaBurger, the first time the pub, directly across from the Statehouse in Concord, had named a burger after a presidential hopeful.

The meal is not for the faint of heart. Atop a whole wheat English muffin, the patty (beef, but substitute bison for a healthier meal) is surrounded by a bed of spinach and a tomato slice. Accompanying the feast, straight from Arkansas, comes a fried pickle. At $7.95, though, how can you pass it up?

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Bloomberg's Sooner Spotlight

Major minds in American politics from both sides of the aisle head to Norman, Oklahoma today to sit down and discuss ways to unify the country around the next president. Former Senators Sam Nunn, Jack Danforth, William Cohen, David Boren and Chuck Robb and current Senator Chuck Hagel, former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman and others will have a morning-long meeting followed by a panel discussion and press conference, Reuters reports.

Cynics will say the gathering is nothing more than a stalking horse for the man who will certainly be the star of the show, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. The Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent continues to deny interest in a presidential bid while continuing to fan the flames that he's going to jump in.

Those close to him say he has recently become more serious about a race, speculating openly to friends and associates about his chances. Should Bloomberg find, in mid-March, that he is faced with Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Mike Huckabee, his path down the middle will be easiest. If others end up with the nominations, as looks likely in both cases, Bloomberg's calculations would certainly change.

The combination of Bloomberg, a seasoned executive with two terms as mayor under his belt, with a Washington expert like Nunn or Boren could prove a powerful force, especially if they fill niches others have neglected. If John McCain is not the GOP nominee, someone like Chuck Hagel might consider taking a vice president's job.

The subject of whether a ticket should be formed may come up this morning. If it does, watch as it is kept under wraps until both parties' nominees are known. Then, what will likely be the last media boomlet Bloomberg enjoys will play out, and it will finally be time for the mayor to decide whether to fish or cut bait.

To give everyone something to talk about in Norman, the New Yorker today argues that Bloomberg should stay well clear of the race, calling a self-funding third-party candidate "unseemly."

Romney Prepares Closer

Speaking direct to camera, Mitt Romney offers a two-minute summary of why New Hampshire voters ought to choose him tomorrow in a spot set to run across New Hampshire tonight. The spot, called "Tomorrow," sticks mostly positive with a negative twist -- associating a certain Senator with a certain Beltway-enveloped city -- and sticks with a theme Romney has been going back to frequently in recent days.

"Everywhere I go people say Washington is broken. And they know that those who've spent their careers in Washington can't change Washington," he says. Yes, the word "Washington" shows up three times in two sentences. Seven times in the first 51 seconds. And nine times over all. Never has one city been so maligned for something its residents can't even influence.

Romney asserts that change is coming, whether we like it or not: "We're going to see more dramatic change in the next decade than we've seen in our entire lifetimes," he says to camera, standing outside on a Manchester roof deck. "How will all the change affect you? Will someone in China or India take your job? Or will your job be selling American products to them? Will your children fear attack from violent Jihadists? Or will they be safe and secure in a stronger America?" he asks.

Romney spokesman Kevin Madden would not specify where, when or how often the ads would run, except to say that they will run in New Hampshire markets tonight. The closing ad is Romney's last attempt to turn around sagging poll numbers in advance of tomorrow's vote, as the long-time New Hampshire front-runner finds himself falling behind John McCain. Two minutes alone with voters is a good way to start that turnaround. Romney's camp just hopes it's able to finish the job as well.

Morning Thoughts: Oh Boy Obama

It's the day before the New Hampshire primary, an event more than a year in the making. Candidates are all over the place, packing in so many events that some are running hours behind schedule. Somebody's got to win, and we'll find out who tomorrow night. Here's what to watch to get the head start on picking a winner:

-- Today On The Trail: Hillary Clinton meets voters in Portsmouth, Dover and Salem before holding a big rally in Manchester tonight. Barack Obama stops in Claremont, Lebanon and Rochester. John Edwards is in the middle of his second successive 36-hour tour of a key early state, visiting Berlin and Littleton early this morning before heading to Claremont, Lakeport, Bedford, Hampton and Dover. Not enough events for you? He'll later campaign in Somersworth, Rochester and Durham. Bill Richardson drops by a Manchester Dunkin' Donuts, holds a town hall in Durham and stops in Rochester and Portsmouth for drop-ins. Final events tonight in Stratham, Exeter and Manchester follow.

-- On the GOP side, Mike Huckabee will be in Mason before heading to Concord for the inauguration of the Huckaburger (this reporter feels compelled to bring you that event live) and later heading to Rochester. John McCain has rallies in Nashua, Keene, Hanover, Concord, Exeter and Portsmouth, while Rudy Giuliani stops in Nashua, Hudson, Merrimack and Derry. Mitt Romney starts his day in Nashua, then hits Derry and Stratham before swinging back through Nashua on his way to Salem, Bedford and Manchester.

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Obama in Derry, New Hampshire yesterday
-- The buzz in New Hampshire is all about Obama today. While John Edwards makes another all-night bus trip around the state and Clinton hits Obama on fake change, one look at the RCP New Hampshire Average and it's no wonder the Clinton camp is starting to spin for the worst. Nine polls came out yesterday or Saturday, and in every one Obama led; he leads the RCP New Hampshire Average by 7.8 points, and finds himself up by double digits in some polls.

-- Gary Hart has chosen a candidate, throwing his weight to Obama just a few days before the primary, joining Bill Bradley on the bandwagon. Hart won the 1984 New Hampshire primary, while Bradley gave Al Gore a good scare here. Couple these candidates, who ran largely in opposition to the Democratic establishment, and it starts to make sense: After decades of pent-up frustration with Washington Democrats, Obama has become an outlet for two decidedly anti-Washington mavericks. Could their decades of coming in second to the establishment be over?

-- Obama won Iowa and looks like he might win New Hampshire, two of the whitest states in the union. But the problem with an African American running for president is not that a majority of people will not vote for him -- in fact, polls show that nearly 90% of people say they would vote for a woman or a black man, making each much less an issue than, say, an old guy or a Mormon -- but that thanks to a few nutjobs, their safety would be an issue. Colin Powell, for one, ruled out a presidential bid when his wife said she was afraid he might be shot. After winning Iowa, Obama is getting increased Secret Service details, the Washington Times writes. The Derry police, under the watchful eye of the Secret Service, swept an event and reporters' equipment yesterday with bomb-sniffing dogs, an apparently routine occurrence that this reporter had not witnessed before at campaign rallies.

-- Meanwhile, Republicans were some of the biggest proponents of the idea of Hillary Clinton as presidential nominee, or even Clinton as president. The idea of the Clintons in the White House sends shivers up the spines of many conservatives, but facing a seriously wounded party base, what better way to reinvigorate the GOP than by uniting around a common enemy? The idea, though, of running against Obama keeps some Washington Republicans up at night, the Washington Post writes today. Obama does get a number of Republicans at his rallies -- a self-described "reformed Republican" spoke on Obama's behalf at the rally this reporter went to on caucus night in Des Moines -- and independents. If he wins New Hampshire, which, given the RCP Average above, looks likely, the RNC should start making serious plans in the event of an Obama nomination. Sticking to calling him a liberal, it looks like, will not be enough.

-- In early debates, the promise of beating Hillary Clinton was a guaranteed applause line. Even that's changed now; Republican hopefuls were asked Saturday how they would beat Obama, and Sunday McCain went out of his way to assert to the Post that he would be able to win what would amount to a generational battle between the two. To be sure, Obama's message of change seems to be beating Clinton's message of experience. What happens if Obama has to run against a combined change-with-experience message? We can't help but think a McCain-Obama matchup remains the most likely scenario for November. Others, like American Thinker's Richard Baehr, think the matchup is Republicans' only hope of keeping the White House.

-- Speaking of Republicans, they sat around a table at St. Anselm College last night for a Fox News forum that a lot of campaigns got to claim they won. Jim Geraghty says Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain did the best, while Mitt Romney was most improved. Romney won the Frank Luntz focus group, though how accurate any of those things are is anyone's guess. In fact, even the Fox News debate had the feeling of an audition for the role of Obama foe, Chuck Todd writes.

-- Looking ahead, Democrats will have eleven days to recuperate and relax after New Hampshire, leading up to the Nevada caucuses on January 19. Republicans have a week of down time, minus a debate in South Carolina on Thursday, before Michigan voters head to the polls, followed by Palmetto primary-goers the same day as Nevada for the Democrats. After spending millions in Iowa and New Hampshire in recent days, the candidates can get precisely one night of real sleep before they embark on a new and crucial task: Replenishing their coffers for what now looks like a guaranteed long campaign, as the Boston Globe writes today. For some, like Huckabee and Obama, that task will prove significantly easier than it will for others.

-- Questionable Decision Of The Day: No, we didn't pull a Fox News and exclude Ron Paul from our "Today On The Trail" segment for no good reason. Instead, he's canceled his events in New Hampshire today, according to New Hampshire Presidential Watch, in order to fly to Los Angeles and tape a show with Jay Leno. Instead, Barry Goldwater Jr. and Rand Paul, the candidate's son, will stump for him in the Granite State. Look, Leno's good publicity, but Paul actually has a chance to do something interesting in New Hampshire. Should he really have passed on the opportunity to spend one more day here?

Huge Crowds Across State

WINDHAM, New Hampshire -- Granite State voters present an easy target for presidential candidates. About 80% of the state's population is wedged into the southern third of the state, meaning a huge percentage of New Hampshire voters are within an easy half hour drive of Manchester, the state's largest city.

As hopefuls fan out across the state in search of votes today, thousands of voters are spending the final Sunday before the primary to take a last look at their favorite candidates. A crowd interested in seeing Mike Huckabee was supposed to enjoy clam chowder from the Lobster Tail, but Huckabee's newfound celebrity status required he move to the elementary school gymnasium here in Windham. About 500 people showed up to see Huckabee, conservative columnist Star Parker and Chuck Norris, with people still looking for parking an hour after the event started.

Hillary Clinton drew a crowd her campaign said measured at 3500 to Nashua High School, where Barack Obama saw a similar-sized crowd yesterday. Obama held a rally in Manchester today that topped out at 900 attendees with hundreds stranded outside because the venue had reached capacity. John McCain hosted 1100 at a town hall meeting in Salem, his campaign said.

Given expected good weather on Tuesday -- temperatures will reach nearly 60 degrees -- and heavy voter interest, New Hampshire could follow Iowa's lead and turn out a record number of voters. Campaigns each have their turnout models and vote goals, but if Iowa was any indication, revisions upward are likely in the cards.

Morning Thoughts: Who's On First

Good Sunday morning. Bad news for anyone hoping for low turnout on Tuesday: Weather forecasts show temperatures will approach 60 degrees on primary day. The temperature will stay well above freezing until the primary, meaning most of the snow should be gone as well. Aside from the weather, here's what New Hampshire and the political world is watching today:

-- Today On The Trail: Barack Obama kicks off his day in Manchester, followed by events in Exeter, Derry, Salem and Keene. Hillary Clinton begins in Manchester before heading to Nashua and Hampton. John Edwards is beginning another 36-hour blitz with events in Keene and Derry.

-- On the GOP side, five candidates will appear in a Fox News forum tonight. Before they show up there, John McCain has an event in Salem, Rudy Giuliani has a house party in Hollis and a press conference in Nashua and Mitt Romney holds a town hall in Nashua. Mike Huckabee will head to Chowderfest in Windham, while Fred Thompson, again, has no events other than the forum scheduled. Ron Paul, who Fox has excluded from the forum, instead heads to a GOP brunch in Milford and gives a speech in Nashua.

-- Last night's debates, from St. Anselm College, produced two clear victims: Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney. Multiple candidates on their respective sides took on the two candidates, both of whom were front-runners here as recently as a week ago but now find themselves trailing. The biggest difference: Clinton fought back. Romney had little choice, facing criticism from four candidates, and at times he seemed almost overwhelmed. Romney put a good spin on it this morning on ABC's "This Week": "The guy with the ball is the guy everybody's trying to tackle," he said. Yeah, but last night was a clothesline.

-- Obama has taken the lead in recent polls, as has McCain. Still, both were largely off the hook last night. McCain at times contented himself to watch everyone else go after Romney, occasionally joining in with top-notch zingers, while Obama, in his second debate as front-runner, actively engaged Clinton. At some point, someone's going to have to find a way to bring McCain down a peg or two, while others are going to have to make sure that charges are leveled Obama's way.

-- Some good news for Romney: He is eight delegates closer to the nomination than he was when yesterday started, having pulled off a win in Wyoming, the New York Times reports. Romney won eight delegates to Fred Thompson's three and one for Duncan Hunter. It's not South Carolina, but at least it's something. Romney and wife Ann visited the state several times, while sons Josh and Craig stumped in several counties during the last few days. Iowa caucus-goers did not technically allocate any delegates to the national convention, meaning Romney is ahead in committed delegates.

-- Altercation Of The Day: Fox host Bill O'Reilly, trying to get a shot for his show, ended up screaming at Obama trip director Marvin Nicholson during a stop in Nashua, CNN writes. Regardless of who is right and who is wrong, that takes either guts or bad judgment: Nicholson is just a few inches shy of seven feet tall, and he's not the kind of guy you would want to mess with.

-- Politics Nation hits the trail today, so check back for frequent updates.

Republicans Discard 11th Commandment

ST. ANSELM COLLEGE, New Hampshire - As the Iowa caucuses came to a close last week, exit polls showed that 30% of the GOP electorate made up their mind in the final three days. Republican voters are wary of each of the five major candidates, and whichever candidate can convince voters not only here in New Hampshire but through the rest of the primary calendar that they are most deserving of their trust will end up accepting the party's nomination in August in Minneapolis.

In an at times chaotic debate in which candidates spoke over each other, lobbed the toughest face-to-face criticisms of the campaign and scrambled to convince New Hampshire voters that they are the best qualified candidate for president, the race solidified around that singular issue of trust.

But while each candidate spent significant periods of time lauding their own talents and backgrounds, each took the opportunity to undercut the others' arguments. With McCain leading in polls in New Hampshire and Huckabee coming off a big win in the Iowa caucuses, both faced some criticism that a front-runner can expect. But four of the six Republican hopefuls on stage seemed to have decided on a common target beforehand, and it was Romney who took the brunt of the criticism.

On issues ranging from immigration to health care to the war in Iraq, Romney has been repeatedly accused of altering his positions. Tonight, other Republicans stepped up their attacks on what they characterized as a record of flip-flopping. "We agree on a lot of issues, but I just want to say, you are the candidate of change," McCain joked. In another sharp exchange, Romney urged Huckabee to stick to his own history. "Governor, don't try to characterize my position," Romney said. Huckabee shot back: "Which one?" The hundreds of journalists watching in the media room reacted audibly.

Romney's theme as New Hampshire voters head to the polls is, as McCain joked, change. "Washington is broken. That was the message coming out of Iowa," said Romney, who finished behind Huckabee in the first nominating contest but pointed out earlier today that both candidates came from well outside the Beltway. McCain used a similar theme, saying that the reason immigration reform failed last year was that the American people do not trust Washington politicians.

The debate started slowly, as most candidates seemed hesitant to take the first shots. It was Fred Thompson who initiated what became a frequent tactic. Thompson criticized Huckabee for calling American foreign policy arrogant, and Romney piled on. Still, early in the debate the only whipping boy was Ron Paul, who heard critical comments from Giuliani, Romney and Thompson.

Republicans ganging up on Romney and Paul spoke to each candidate's positions in the race. Romney remains a contender, and his campaign spun the performance as indicative of his strong position. "If they're ignoring you, that means they're not worried about you," Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said. Later, jokingly recalling an old saying, Madden said "criticism is mediocrity's way of paying tribute to genius."

Still, Romney's frequent complaints about the attacks against him did not ring true, said McCain strategist Mark Salter. Citing negative ads run by the former Massachusetts governor, Salter was incredulous. "Of all the ludicrous suggestions, Mitt Romney whining about being attacked," he said. "You've got a candidate out here who's run his whole campaign on tearing down the other candidates. That has been his core strategy."

Candidates on stage were equally harsh on the subject of Romney's prolific advertising. Ronald Reagan, Giuliani said, had offered amnesty to illegal immigrants. "I think he'd be in one of Mitt's negative commercials," Giuliani joked. Later, McCain defended his own record, calling Romney's charges that he supports amnesty. "You can spend your whole fortunes on these attack ads and they still won't be true," McCain said.

When contestants were giving Romney a break, several turned on Paul. Paul is the race's scapegoat candidate. After the debate's lazy start, the three candidates who attacked Paul virtually mocked him, more like high school jocks taking on someone lower on the social ladder than like presidential candidates. In fact, Thompson, who spent virtually the entire debate attacking others on stage, came across as without ideas of his own and simply critical of those of others.

Giuliani, largely absent from recent headlines, stayed mostly positive while trying to reestablishing himself as a factor in the race. Asked whether he would run his campaign on President Bush's foreign policy, Giuliani offered a strong alternative. "I think the president got the big decision of his presidency right," Giuliani said, citing the opening offensive against terrorists in Afghanistan. But most candidates, aside from Thompson, avoided attacking Giuliani, showing that few believed he is a factor, at least in New Hampshire.

The two with the most to look forward to, though, remained largely untouched by scrums involving others. McCain stayed silent for long stretches of time. As the front-runner, that meant he was not being attacked, and in this instance, McCain was happy to fly under the radar. Still, when Romney pounced, he was ready. Huckabee, too, is still avoiding serious scrutiny. He was frequently left out of squabbles between the other candidates and later allowed to offer his own take on health care, on immigration and on differences between himself and Obama. Allowing the most eloquent speaker to offer his plans virtually unchallenged, other candidates may find, is a dangerous proposition.

At the end of the evening, in a debate marked by the sharpest personal and political attacks of the year, anyone hoping to lay a glove on McCain or Huckabee walked away disappointed. Those hoping to get in a good shot at Romney, though, largely succeeded.

As Republican voters make up their minds among four candidates fatally flawed in the eyes of the base, tonight's debate offered a final chance for candidates to show they are the most trustworthy. Most, though, took the opportunity to show why their opponents are less trustworthy. Whether GOP voters buy their arguments or are simply turned off enough to stay home is a question that will be answered on Tuesday. But based on tonight's free for all, it is safe to assume that Reagan's mythical eleventh commandment - that thou shalt not speak ill of fellow Republicans - will be largely abandoned.

Debate Preview: Eyes On Romney, McCain

ST ANSELM COLLEGE, New Hampshire -- In seventy two hours, results from the nation's first presidential primary will trickle in to nervous campaign headquarters across the state. Tonight, as candidates from both parties gather at this small private college on the outskirts of Manchester, the survivors will have their final opportunity at a statewide -- and indeed nationwide -- audience before voters cast ballots. As each candidate arrives, they come with specific goals that could make, or break, their candidacies, both here in the Granite State and beyond.

The Republicans take the stage first with a very clear vision of the state of the field. A new poll out just hours before the debate kicks off, conducted for debate sponsor WMUR-TV and CNN, shows John McCain continuing his upward momentum, taking 33% of the vote for the lead, up from 29% the last week of December. Mitt Romney is on the opposite track, dropping to 27% after being tied with McCain in the last survey. The rest of the field, as in Iowa, battles for third; with Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul all within a few points of each other, hovering near the double-digit threshold.

John McCain's goals are clear: Remain the front-runner by withstanding the onslaught of scrutiny sure to come with a lead in the polls. Until now, McCain has largely been unscathed, even receiving praise from other Republicans as he floundered in the polls. Romney has already made McCain a target, associating him with a broken Washington in Romney's closing argument.

Voters in New Hampshire, unlike Iowa, are more receptive to shots the candidates take at each other. McCain can serve notice that he will not take Romney's shots unanswered with a strong rebuttal early, and his legendary temper makes it all but certain he will do so. Temper is rarely a good thing in politics, but McCain frequently puts his to good use. Flashing irritability with what he will certainly cast as desperation could play well while neutralizing Romney's later shots.

Romney has a good temperament for debates. While his pre-canned jokes often fall flat, he is an accomplished speaker and appears calm and collected, most of the time. His goal tonight: Take McCain down a notch without looking like he's beating up on an old man and a war hero while withstanding attacks from McCain, Huckabee and others. The key to achieving these goals may be a longer-term strategy, and may lie in Romney's own biography.

The change message Romney is auditioning could work -- his campaign had better hope it does -- and perhaps a better strategy would be to lay groundwork for the final push. If Romney surprises the field by talking about a broken Washington without mentioning McCain, or perhaps offering backhanded praise for McCain's long history of service in Congress, he might avoid any negative stigma as an attack dog while appearing, as he has in previous debates, as a competent manager who specializes in turning around broken organizations.

The rest of the field has little chance of winning in New Hampshire, or even securing more than a delegate or two. That doesn't mean this debate or this contest is meaningless. In fact, it may prove as crucial to those who make up the second tier in New Hampshire than to McCain and Romney.

Rudy Giuliani, at this point, needs to prove to people that he is alive. Largely absent from the Iowa caucuses, Giuliani has pulled back advertising here in New Hampshire, where he once hoped to compete, and has for now hunkered down in Florida, hoping for a win that gives him crucial momentum going into February 5. Once half of the main Republican storyline as he clashed with Mitt Romney, Giuliani is now all but ignored by the rest of the GOP field.

Giuliani needs a snappy answer, an angry exchange or anything else that will grab a crowd's attention and reassert himself as a contender. He has plenty of opportunities to earn the oxygen he will need to survive. Whether it is re-engaging with Romney, taking on Mike Huckabee or establishing a dramatic new position separate from the rest of the field, Giuliani can get back in the game, but it's going to take a lot more work than he has done in recent weeks.

On Thursday, McCain and Giuliani, happy to see Mike Huckabee defeat Romney in Iowa, called to offer their congratulations. Both callers and the callee made sure to let the press know they had spoken, while Romney did not. Tonight, Huckabee's goal should be less geared toward New Hampshire, where he has little hope of competing for a win, and more aimed at showing off his skills for voters in South Carolina in subsequent states. Huckabee can do that by repaying McCain and Giuliani for their generosity.

McCain has a target on his back, and sources in both campaigns say he and Huckabee share a genuine affection for one another. If McCain is attacked, from any side, it would behoove Huckabee to come to the Arizonan's defense. Doing so will guarantee Huckabee shows up as more than a side note in tomorrow's news stories while simultaneously taking the focus off his description by many as a Baptist minister, a descriptor some in his campaign are beginning to tire of.

Granite State voters enjoy their reputation as libertarians, and while Ron Paul won 10% of the vote in Iowa, he is likely to exceed that total here. Paul has a hard ceiling, as most regular Republican voters cannot stand his anti-war message. But his supporters are with him for precisely that reason. Tonight, Paul needs to show off his mainstream libertarianism to attract as many voters as possible without turning anyone else off.

Fred Thompson is not a contender in New Hampshire. In fact, he is little more than an asterisk. But because of his standing in national polls and some early fundraising momentum, he will stand on stage alongside others who will perform better. Thompson showed up after all his competitors, held no events today and seems almost resigned to giving up the ghost.

If that is not the case, tonight is the time to prove it. Like Huckabee, Thompson should aim his message at South Carolinans and Floridians, the next two states in which he has a significant following. Whether anything can work at this point, after perhaps the most disappointing campaign in the last two decades, is still up in the air.

Six candidates will stand on stage tonight. Targets rest squarely on the backs of John McCain and Mitt Romney, and how they respond to the grenades lobbed their way will likely decide the New Hampshire primary. McCain has the momentum, putting the onus on Romney to outperform. If he can, he has a chance to continue his campaign. Those in the second tier, looking out for their own chances, will make Romney's task all the more difficult.

NH GOP Out Of Fox Forum

MANCHESTER -- The New Hampshire Republican Party today ended their sponsorship of a forum, to be held tomorrow, that was to include five leading GOP candidates. The forum, hosted by Fox News, did not meet with the spirit of the Granite State's primary.

"The first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary serves a national purpose by giving all candidates an equal opportunity on a level playing field. Only in New Hampshire do lesser known, lesser funded underdogs have a fighting chance to establish themselves as national figures," New Hampshire Republican Party chairman Fergus Cullen said in a statement. "Consistent with that tradition, we believe all recognized major candidates should have an equal opportunity to participate in pre-primary debates and forums."

"The New Hampshire Republican Party believes Congressmen Ron Paul and Duncan Hunter should be included in the FOX forum on Sunday evening. Our mutual efforts to resolve this difference have failed," Cullen continued.

Fox News had excluded Paul and Hunter, though the Paul campaign -- which likely outraised every other Republican candidate in the fourth quarter and is polling in fourth place in the latest RCP New Hampshire Average -- said the network had not given them any explanation, and that phone calls to Fox weren't returned.

"The New Hampshire Republican Party did the right thing by pulling its sponsorship for Fox's candidate forum," Paul spokesman Jesse Benton said. None of the other five candidates participating -- John McCain, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani -- have pulled out of the forum yet.

Romney Closing Hits McCain

BEDFORD, New Hampshire -- Speaking to supporters in this affluent Manchester suburb, Mitt Romney offered his closing argument to New Hampshire voters as the race for the Granite State draws to a close. Romney only briefly touched on his usual topics -- tax cuts and health care -- and his background as a business executive who successfully turned around the Salt Lake City Olympics and neighboring Massachusetts, instead focusing on a new message of changing Washington that clearly targeted rival John McCain.

"I'm looking forward to the opportunity to go to Washington and shake things up," Romney told the gathered crowd. "I've spent my life changing things. I've not spent my life in the political arena, where talking about something is considered a success." Romney sounded optimistic about his chances of winning what is shaping up to be a state critical to getting his campaign back on track. "I need one thing to make that happen, which is all your money and all your votes," he joked.

After coming in a disappointing second place in the Iowa caucuses, Romney needs to win here. But the candidate says Iowa sent a message that works in his favor. "The person who was known for all his years in Washington, John McCain, came in fourth," Romney said. "Some new guys came in number one and number two."

Few in the crowd felt the caucuses diminished Romney's chances for a win here. Joe Nasser, of Manchester, dismissed Iowa going for Mike Huckabee. "The religious aspect won for him there," he said. Nasser likes Romney's message of changing Washington, and says it's one reason he prefers Romney to McCain. "There is absolutely no change coming from" McCain, he said.

Romney "speaks so the average person can understand him," said Mike Lomazzo, a Romney backer from Windham, New Hampshire. Lomazzo said he considered supporting Democrat Barack Obama, but the campaign event he attended had a circus atmosphere. When Romney speaks, "it's not a pep rally," he said.

Lomazzo and Nasser each think Romney will win New Hampshire. To do so, though, Romney has to get past a difficult field that includes front-running McCain. Romney's closing argument uses the change theme to take direct aim at McCain. While the GOP field has several "excellent" candidates, "some of them have been in this battle for years and years," he says. "They've had their chance."

Trying to tie a candidate like McCain is difficult, though. Many Republicans dislike McCain particularly because he has been about as anti-Washington as possible, bucking his party, often alone, on ethics reform and issues like the financing of campaigns. McCain has even used his unpopularity in television ads in New Hampshire, saying he didn't go to Washington to become Mr. Congeniality.

Romney, though, is running out of options. Tying McCain to Washington, an atmosphere unpopular among Republicans as well as independents who might consider voting in the GOP primary, may be his best shot at righting his campaign. Whether he can recover could be determined at a debate tonight in Manchester. Given Romney's focus on Washington today, McCain should prepare to be a target. Whoever comes out on top tonight may find themselves in the winner's circle on Tuesday night.

Morning Thoughts: Fight Night

Good Saturday morning. There's a lot more snow in New Hampshire than there was in Iowa, though candidates seem to be having no troubles getting around the state. Heading into tonight's back to back debates, here's what politicos from Washington to Des Moines to Manchester are watching:

-- Today On The Trail: Mitt Romney is in Derry, Hampstead and Bedford before heading to the 7 p.m. debate. He's scheduled a rally in Manchester after the debate. Mike Huckabee holds an event in Londonderry before going to the debate, while Rudy GIuliani hangs out with voters in Litchfield and Manchester after the big event. John McCain is in Peterborough, debates and rallies in Manchester, and Ron Paul hosts an event in Milford before heading debate-side. Fred Thompson has no public events today, but his third-place Iowa finish guarantees him a spot in the debate.

-- On the Democratic side, John Edwards begins his day in Portsmouth before rallying in Concord and Lebanon. Later, wife Elizabeth will hold events in Derry and Peterborough. Hillary Clinton's only public event is in Penacook, though she then hands the reins over to surrogate Bill for remaining events in Bow, Amherst and Brentwood. Barack Obama also holds just one event, a rally with voters in Nashua, though Michelle Obama will hold a forum in Manchester as he prepares for the debate. Bill Richardson has events in Hooksett and Manchester before the debate and another Manchester stop afterward.

-- Look for our round-up of what's at stake in the back-to-back gatherings, sponsored by ABC News, WMUR and Facebook, at St. Anselm a little later on. Suffice it to say: Everything. Obama has to act the front-runner. Clinton has to find an effective and devastating attack. Edwards has to break through. And can Richardson do anything at all?

-- Huckabee has to make his tax plan not sound nuts. Romney has to engage McCain, who has to hold on to the cranky New Hampshire voters who back him now. Giuliani has to do something to make himself relevant again. Paul has to go all libertarian on everything he can without sounding whiny, and Fred Thompson has to do something spectacular and make a good impression on South Carolinians.

-- In case you missed it, today is caucus day! Iowa is so important it gets a second pick. No, that's not quite true, but Romney has dispatched two of the vaunted five brothers to Wyoming, which will hold some 23 caucuses around the state to begin allocating Republican convention delegates. Romney has invested the most in Wyoming, though it isn't much. Still, he, Paul and Thompson have all visited, while McCain, Huckabee and Giuliani have not, Campaign Spot writes. Thompson won the Right to Life of Wyoming endorsement yesterday, giving him what we think is momentum, but here's how important the event actually is: "Wyoming GOP caucuses futile," opines the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle. Can you imagine a similar headline in the Des Moines Register?

-- Several months ago, many wrote Obama's political obituary, or at least an obituary for his presidential campaign. Now, some are ready to write off Hillary Clinton's chances too. She was booed twice at the New Hampshire Democratic Party's largest-ever gathering, some 3000 people, last night in Milford, as Jay Newton-Small writes. And yesterday, Edwards went as far as to say there are only two choices in the presidential race now -- himself and Obama -- and that Clinton will not win the primary, CNN reported. Politics Nation hasn't been to any Clinton events in New Hampshire yet, but today's papers are filled with stories on her campaign's retooling (just see the RCP homepage for examples). It is never good to write that someone is completely toast -- that's a surefire way to bring them back into contention -- but it's amazing to see these rumors of Clinton's demise even being written.

-- Huckabee, we mentioned, will focus more on his tax plan than on the socially conservative views that shaped his Iowa win as he campaigns in New Hampshire. The candidate doesn't have to win here -- in fact, he'll likely finish third if he's incredibly lucky -- though if he wants to win the nomination his momentum has to carry through to South Carolina. But Huckabee is clearly getting a second look. One reporter we talked to said Huckabee's first event yesterday drew a crowd several times larger than the biggest one he's had up here so far.

-- We wrote a while ago that the other candidates just don't seem to like Mitt Romney. And while Huckabee might not do very well in New Hampshire, he's going to see if he can't just help John McCain. "We are going to see if we can't take Romney out," campaign chief Ed Rollins told the New York Times. Huckabee has raised $2 million in recent days, Rollins said, and is even doing his own polling for the first time. How many polls do you think Romney conducted in Iowa?

-- Missed the Straight Talk Express bandwagon way back when? Now's your chance to hop on board. McCain's top fundraiser and campaign manager held a conference call urging fundraisers to go back to old sources, even those who have said no, Jonathan Martin reports. Finance chair Tom Loeffler told money men to use McCain's momentum in New Hampshire -- a state which, at last check, has not voted yet -- to make sure donors get on board soon. Campaign manager Rick Davis said he sees a win here helping McCain top Romney in Michigan before heading to South Carolina, where Huckabee will be the primary target, and Florida, where they will pay attention to Rudy Giuliani.

-- Must-See TV Of The Day: Excluded from the debates after a dead-last performance in Iowa and little more than an asterisk in New Hampshire, Mike Gravel reportedly has a rival gathering scheduled to coincide with tonight's big event. Unfortunately, Gravel scheduled his event for 7 p.m. That's when the Republicans debate, not the Democrats. Oops.

Previewing An Obama-McCain Showdown

HUDSON, New Hampshire -- The battle for New Hampshire, much more so than the battle for Iowa, rests largely on the shoulders of the 44% of the state's voters who refuse to align with either party. As in 2000, independents -- who may choose either party's ballot on election day -- are being fought over by a candidate from both parties. Unlike 2000, when John McCain succeeded in convincing a large portion of those voters to choose GOP ballots, many see the contest this year much more evenly divided, with McCain having to contend with Barack Obama's popularity among independents.

The two candidates, seen now as top contenders to win their respective nominations, each poll higher than their opponents among independent voters when paired against potential nominees from the other party. In essence, an emerging feud between Obama's and McCain's campaigns offers a compelling preview of a general election matchup that would be fought almost entirely over independent voters. Thanks to both campaigns' seeming momentum, an eventual Obama-McCain showdown is becoming more likely, making the choices of independent voters all the more predictive of November's outcome.

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Obama and admiring news photographers
at the Iowa Jefferson Jackson Dinner
in November
As Barack Obama basks in the glory of a big win in the Iowa caucuses and builds momentum toward Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, the candidate is becoming more bold about his chances at the nomination and in November. "New Hampshire, if you give me the same chance that Iowa gave me last night, I truly believe I will be the president of the United States of America," Obama told a crowd of supporters gathered to greet him at the airport in Manchester yesterday morning.

Obama's momentum here, and the potential for a successive victory in South Carolina, where his poll numbers have risen as well, have catapulted the freshman Senator from a strong candidate who nonetheless trailed an overwhelming favorite to the race's front-runner, literally overnight. Political pundits who last week expected Hillary Clinton's so-called fire wall in New Hampshire to succeed and stop Obama now openly wonder where Clinton would find her first victory, if she would find one at all.

Likewise, McCain's chief rivals for the nomination -- Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani -- all face challenges that make the second-time presidential contender the favorite in the GOP contest. Romney faced a devastating defeat in Iowa, making New Hampshire a must-win for him, though McCain now leads here. Huckabee does not have the national profile of McCain, and his path to victory relies so heavily on Southern conservatives and evangelicals as to be murky, at best. And Giuliani, once the race's clear national front-runner, has seen national support drop from a high near 40% to just 20.2% in the latest RCP National Average.

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McCain at a town hall meeting
in Hudson, New Hampshire
McCain is by no means the run-away favorite for the Republican nomination. Nonetheless, a path to victory that takes him through Michigan, where he also won in 2000, and many of the February 5 states seems at the moment the most plausible.

While McCain publicly feuds with Romney and Obama has his hands full with Clinton and Edwards, each campaign is depending upon independents to put them over the top. But politics is a zero-sum game, and one candidate's success will come at the price of another. Both, in their darkest moments, have to be concerned that the other could steal votes from them. And occasionally, the tension that is building between the two campaigns will peak through.

"John McCain ... is someone who is going to tap into" the independent voting bloc, former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle told National Journal's Linda Douglass on XM Radio's POTUS '08 channel in an interview that ran Friday.

Daschle, who is backing Obama, explaining why his candidate would outperform McCain among independents in the primary, perhaps inadvertently tipped McCain off to a battle the two campaigns will fight if they are the nominees. "It will be interesting to see how the two candidates do. My feeling is that Barack is more youthful, Barack is more energetic, Barack is the future. John may represent a little bit more of the past."

McCain's campaign will not allow the argument to be framed as one between the future and the past, though, and a top adviser quickly fired back. "This isn't about a candidate's future. It's about the country's future," Mark Salter, McCain's longtime Senate chief of staff and confidante on the campaign trail, said at a town hall meeting here. "Who are you going to go to when you want to solve a problem like Social Security solvency and Medicare solvency: The guy who's done nothing or the guy that's proven?"

"There's one guy with all the right experience, and there's one guy with negligible experience," Salter said. The Obama campaign declined to comment.

Daschle's comment may have been peremptory, said GOP consultant Mike Murphy, who also attended McCain's town hall at Hudson's VFW post. "Both Barack and John McCain are the kind of candidates who are at their best and at their most comfortable running positive campaigns about the future of the country," he said. "I doubt Barack Obama would want to be associated with those kind of comments." Murphy, who worked for McCain during the Senator's 2000 presidential bid, is staying neutral this year because of his close relationships with both McCain and Romney.

Murphy predicted that Obama would defeat Clinton in New Hampshire, largely because the New York Senator does not have the time needed to overcome Obama's momentum. And, he said, while both McCain and Obama are vying for independent voters in their bids for the nomination, "there are enough independents to go around." In 2000, McCain lost among registered Republicans, a scenario Murphy does not envision now. "The regular Republican voters are going to be the base of support, and McCain's very competitive there." Murphy would not offer a prediction for the race's outcome, but said McCain "is definitely surging."

Entrance polls in Iowa showed that Obama performed nine points better among independents than among Democrats, while Clinton pulled more Democratic voters than independent voters by a 14-point margin. McCain relied heavily on independent voters in his 2000 win; he won 62% of independents that year, compared with just 38% of Republicans, while then-rival George W. Bush managed only 19% of independents while beating McCain among Republicans, with 41%, according to exit polls.

Change is a core message for both candidates: Obama says he is running a different kind of campaign and rails against the ways of Washington, while McCain has a long history of legislation aimed at fixing the system from within. The two even worked together on ethics reform in 2006, before a nasty exchange of public letters derailed their cooperation.

Should both candidates make it to the general election, polls show each candidate would largely consolidate their base. Independents, therefore, would be key to electoral success. And while each candidate professes a distaste for negative campaigning, they will be forced to draw contrasts to differentiate themselves. Changing Washington, a familiar topic for both and an issue popular with independents, could be a compelling debate: Do independent voters choose the outsider promising whole-scale overhaul, or the maverick who is often alone complaining about both parties' unwillingness to police themselves?

Answer that question and the riddle of who would win an Obama-McCain showdown would follow. Independent voters in New Hampshire have the chance to do just that in Tuesday's primaries, and how they decide may hint not only at the prospects of an impending general election matchup, but also the very question of whether that matchup will occur at all.

Edwards Sticks With Message

NASHUA, New Hampshire -- Sticking largely to the same theme of fighting against corporate greed that served him in Iowa, John Edwards spoke to a ballroom of supporters today in Nashua, urging them to build on what he hopes can be momentum enough to vault him into another three-way race in New Hampshire. After a narrow second-place finish ahead of Hillary Clinton in Iowa, Edwards needs to compete well in the Granite State to continue his campaign.

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Edwards meets the press -- for two and a half minutes
-- at a campaign stop in Nashua
Edwards and supporters cast the battle as movement against opponents buoyed by huge campaign accounts funded by special interests. "We are against lots of money on the other side," Elizabeth Edwards told supporters. "You know, the great machines."

Joined by children Emma Claire and Jack, Edwards sounded similar themes. "This is a grassroots campaign, this is a grassroots movement, and this grassroots movement is going to take back this democracy for the American people," he told the more than 300 volunteers gathered in a local hotel.

Having trailed Obama by eight points in Iowa, Edwards, who in recent weeks has begun attempting to seriously engage his junior rival. Change, he said, "will not happen on its own. And it's not going to happen by just being nice. It's going to take a fight." Edwards also repeated attacks on Clinton. "If we're going to be tough on [lobbyists], if we're going to restore the democracy for the American people, what we cannot do is nominate a candidate who's taken more of their money than any Republican candidate. You have to have somebody, like me, who has stood up to them, fought them, has been willing to take them on."

After hoping for, and failing to get, a win in Iowa, Edwards' campaign now faces few options. Another second-place finish in Iowa is unlikely to produce a bounce here, though the campaign points out that it has a much bigger field operation in New Hampshire now than it did in 2004. Obama and Clinton have poured millions into the state, while Edwards has spent much less, though he professed optimism. "The people of New Hampshire have a little bit of an independent streak, don't they," he asked. "We're not going to have an auction here on Tuesday. We're going to have an election."

In order to remain a top-tier candidate, Edwards has to finish well here. Still, he is mired in third place, 16 points behind Clinton and ten back of Obama in the latest RCP New Hampshire Average. Edwards repeatedly encouraged volunteers here to make a strong push in the final five days, and a sizable crowd in a state he has payed less attention to should be encouraging. But Edwards backer Dave Gottesman, a state senator from Nashua, summed up what the candidate needs to do to get back on top. "We really have to win this thing," Gottesman said.

All About Perception

Barack Obama thumped Hillary Clinton in Iowa, right? His eight-point victory was enough to stun the political world, right? That's how the media plays it, and that's how voters around the country will hear about it today. But what would the story going into New Hampshire be if this were the headline:

"Virtual Iowa Tie, Obama Up One"

That headline might be more accurate. Based on where the candidates earned their delegates, CNN projects Obama will likely get 16 of the pledged national convention delegates, while Clinton, who finished third in the raw vote but won delegates in more strategically valuable places, will get 15 and Edwards will have 14.

On the GOP side, things were more lopsided. Mike Huckabee won 17 delegates to Mitt Romney's 12, three each for Fred Thompson and John McCain and two for Ron Paul. That's right, come rain or shine, Ron Paul will have at least two delegates to the national convention (three, including himself as a super delegate).

When the votes were tallied yesterday, Clinton still leads with 169 total delegates, including super delegates who told CNN they would cast their lot with the New York Senator. That's a whopping 52% of the committed delegates, compared with 20% for Obama, 14% for John Edwards and 6% for Bill Richardson. Dennis Kucinich, who remains in the race, has himself to count on for a vote.

Obama did score a huge win last night. But, at the end of the day, the fact that he earned just one more delegate than Clinton does speak, perhaps, to the undue influence the media -- this reporter included -- places on Iowa and the hunger to get some real actual voter casting a real actual vote.

Or maybe we just love porkchops on sticks.

Morning Thoughts: To The Victor...

MANCHESTER -- Oh what a night. Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee are the first candidates to actually take a lead in the hunt for delegates to their respective national conventions. After a late-night flight aboard HuckAir (Huckaplane?), Politics Nation is coming to you live and in color from the Manchester airport. Here, now, is what Granite Staters and the rest of the political universe is watching:

-- It's A Final: Huckabee 34%, Mitt Romney 25%, Fred Thompson 13%, John McCain 13%, Ron Paul 10%, Rudy Giuliani 3%, with 96% of precincts reporting. Obama 38%, Edwards 30%, Clinton 29%, RIchardson 2%, Biden 1%, with 100% of precincts reporting.

-- Today On The Trail: Several candidates have already landed in New Hampshire, and most held rallies at airports where the cold defied belief (We thought Iowa was bad; it was exactly zero degrees when HuckAir landed). Later this morning, Edwards rallies in Manchester, meets supporters in Nashua and holds a town hall in Portsmouth. Clinton starts her day in Nashua then ends with supporters in Milford. Obama stops in Concord, his only event of the day. Bill Richardson, the last remaining second-tier candidate, meets voters in Manchester.

-- On the GOP side, Mitt Romney starts his day in Portsmouth, where he has already held an airport rally. Later stops include Concord and Manchester. John McCain meets voters in Hollis, then has town hall meetings in Nashua and Hudson. Rudy Giuliani, finally back in the picture, is set to hold town halls in Salem and Nashua.

-- Obama's victory was not a surprise. The size of the victory was the surprise. Helped by rumored deals with Richardson and Biden supporters, and a very public endorsement from Dennis Kucinich, Obama ran away with a victory called far earlier than most expected, fueled in larger part by younger voters than by independents, Ben Smith reports after delving into CNN exit polls. Obama also won liberals, and as previous national surveys have shown, he does very well among independents when paired with a Republican. That should give a big boost to any Obama advisers who think the electability argument wins the day. The bottom line: The mythical candidate who can turn out the youth vote might not be a myth after all.

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Huckabee and campaign
manager Chip Saltsman
-- Huckabee expressed surprise at the size of his win, as well, suggesting that perhaps the media establishment has understated his organizational power, or at least the willingness of Christian evangelicals to turn out and vote. Campaign manager Chip Saltsman told reporters last night in Des Moines that the evangelical vote was not the only part of Huckabee's winning coalition. They did make up a hefty portion of his support, though: 46% of self-identified evangelicals backed Huckabee, while 33% of non-evangelicals backed Romney, the highest of any candidate. Huckabee also drew broad support from women and voters under 30; 40% of each group supported him. Bottom line: Anyone hoping for a strong South Carolina finish had better watch out for Huckabee. If Huckabee wins the same percentage of evangelicals he did in Iowa, the Palmetto State promises to be a lopsided contest as well. (Side observation: If both Obama and Huckabee win their nominations, we could see the highest youth turnout, on both sides, of any election in history)

-- This column did not see Obama's victory speech, by virtue of it taking place at almost the same time as Huckabee's speech. We were in the Huckabee ballroom when he gave a solemn and solid victory address, and having read press accounts and hearing feedback, we gather Obama did pretty well too: One Democratic strategist backing Clinton told Politics Nation Obama's speech was "incredible" and "transcendent." After the Jefferson Jackson Dinner in November, the last Democratic debate in December and the victory speech last night, it is clear Obama has hit a rhetorical stride that few will be able to match. Huckabee is one of the few, and his almost somber and serious speech calling for change reflected a new tack he's taking: Yes, he's a good jokester. Now he actually looks presidential as well, a trend he will have to continue if he becomes the nominee.

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Huckabee chats with reporters on board
-- Huckabee was in a jovial mood as reporters boarded a chartered 737-400 for the speedy two and a half hour hop to Manchester. On take-off, an orange rolled down the center of the aisle from the front of the cabin, taking a light-hearted shot at campaign manager Saltsman. After leveling off, Huckabee ventured back to a flight crammed with top political reporters like Dana Priest, Judy Woodruff, Kelly O'Donnell, AP's Libby Quaid, ABC's Jake Tapper and Washington Post's Perry Bacon, taking questions for fifteen minutes or more after his staffers tried to cut him off. Enjoying herself as well, Janet Huckabee took the time to introduce herself to everyone she could find.

-- One big winner last night: Dr. J. Ann Selzer, who conducts polls for the Des Moines Reigster, as the LA Times notes, echoing conversations Politics Nation has had in recent hours. Selzer not only got the margins right -- 7 points for Obama (actual results had him up 8) and 6 for Huckabee (actually at 7). Further, Selzer predicted Democratic turnout would hover around 220,000, a notion that many very wise political strategists and pollsters found insane. That would have been 100,000 more caucus-goers than turned out in 2004, they said; impossible! Instead, 239,000 showed up, proving once again that anyone who knows anything about Iowa does not mess with Selzer.

-- Speaking of huge turnout, 239,000 people is truly remarkable. Republicans, too, saw surprisingly high turnout, as more than 110,000 cast ballots. But Iowa, in recent years, has been a swing state. In 2006, it broke heavily for Democrats, who took back the state legislature and two Congressional seats while winning the governor's mansion for the third consecutive term. In a state about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, if Democrats are able to double up the other guys, 2008 could be a second huge year for the party around the country.

-- Rumors of Fred Thompson's demise, for the moment, are greatly overstated. Well, somewhat overstated. "We're going to have a ticket to the next dance," Thompson told supporters at his Urbandale headquarters last night. "The fight goes on, my friends." Thompson eked out a third-place finish, narrowly edging McCain by just a fraction of a percent, meaning he won one of the three tickets out of Iowa. McCain didn't need one; he was already in New Hampshire as the votes were tabulated. California Rep. Duncan Hunter, who finished behind every candidate on the ballot except Tom Tancredo, who dropped out last week, says he will stay in the race, Mark Preston reports.

-- For two Democratic candidates the fight did end last night. Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd ended their bids for the presidency after disappointing showings. A disclaimer: This reporter worked for Senator Dodd, and can only hope that he stayed as impartial as possible during Dodd's campaign. Dodd never seemed to catch fire, while rumors of a Biden surge did not pan out. Somehow, Mike Gravel remains a candidate.

-- More than $45 million was spent on advertisements on broadcast television in Iowa alone, AdAge reports, by the twelve candidates and eighteen groups who bought television time there. Add in $6 million on local cable, and they're over $50 million. New Hampshire voters are experiencing a similar onslaught. The state has already seen $26 million in ad spending.

How Clinton And Romney Come Back

MANCHESTER -- The campaign for president is about more than just Iowa. For the recent few weeks, the attentions of the national media and most major campaigns have been focused mainly on the nation's first caucus state, but as any candidate, from the ones who beat expectations to the ones who fell flat, will tell you, the contest continues. Not even twelve hours after Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee were declared the season's first winners, the focus has shifted here, to New Hampshire.

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Clinton addresses fans at a
pre-caucus rally in Des Moines
Hillary Clinton, who finished third on the Democratic side despite outspending second place John Edwards and committing huge amounts of time and resources to Iowa, and Mitt Romney, who finished well behind Huckabee in second place despite outspending him by millions of dollars, are cast as the biggest losers in media reports this morning. Each campaign now faces major stumbling blocks in New Hampshire, but each campaign also has the time, and the intelligence, to retool their approaches and rebound.

Clinton's initial inevitability is gone. In fact, she might reasonably be considered an underdog now. Recent polls have suggested Obama is closing rapidly on her lead in New Hampshire, which stands at 7 points in the latest RCP New Hampshire Average, down from a high of twenty points as recently as mid-November. Even worse, Clinton holds just a fraction of a point lead in the latest RCP South Carolina Average. If Obama benefits from a big Iowa bounce in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, many may start asking the same question of her campaign that they do of one-time GOP front-runner Rudy Giuliani: Yes, they both led national polls, but where do they get their first win?

Clinton told disappointed supporters in Des Moines Friday night that the results showed voters want change, in the form of a Democratic president. The record turnout Democrats saw Tuesday night, which amounted to more than 100,000 more caucus-goers than the previous best, validated her point. Clinton, though, must become that agent of change, a message Obama has largely dominated. 51% of voters who said they most wanted a candidate who could bring change chose Obama, entrance polls showed. That group accounted for more than half of all caucus-goers -- 52%.

While she may no longer be the odds-on favorite to win the contest, Clinton remains in strong position. She has the money and the organization to continue, even without overwhelming victories, until large states vote on February 5. But it is in New Hampshire where she should make her stand. Clinton has the Democratic establishment behind her, including the organization that elected Governor Jeanne Shaheen to three terms and in 2006 delivered more than three quarters of the vote to Governor John Lynch (neither are backing a candidate, though top advisers to both have chosen Clinton).

Importantly, Clinton still has a significant lead in New Hampshire, something she did not enjoy in Iowa for a month leading up to the caucuses. With a renewed advertising campaign, a new message of change and a bigger focus on turning out her voters on Tuesday, Clinton could reinvigorate her campaign with a win. If she doesn't, Obama will pull out a second victory in a row, and his momentum could begin to prove insurmountable.

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Romney greets a young fan at a
New Years Eve event in Des Moines
Romney faces a much different challenge than Clinton. He spent the last month in Iowa attacking Huckabee on any number of issues. Now, he must continue to attack, but unlike Clinton, his competition has changed. Now, Romney faces John McCain, who has recently taken a lead in New Hampshire.

This is not news to Team Romney, and they have already tweaked their message to highlight the target on McCain's back. At an early morning rally in Portsmouth this morning, Romney repeatedly cited Washington politicians, according to Politico, a clear reference to McCain's nearly thirty years serving in the capitol city. Even Republicans, who still largely approve of the job President Bush is doing, are angry with Washington. Their anger caused many to stay home, or even vote Democrat, in 2006, handing the reins of Congress to the other party rather than continuing to tolerate an increasingly corrupt and ineffective majority of their own.

Romney enjoys a major advantage over both Huckabee and McCain. While both have seen upticks in fundraising in recent weeks, Romney can still write himself a major seven- or eight-figure check and play serious offense in New Hampshire. And if he can win New Hampshire, the ability to self-bank roll will come in handy down the road. "Congratulations for the first round to Mike," Romney said on Fox News last night after the results were clear. Romney's campaign account makes him a George Foreman-like figure: He can survive a lost round financially, at least, and with a Granite State win, Romney will be back in the electoral game.

Romney's fortunes beyond the first primary state will be fatally damaged by a New Hampshire loss. But Romney, like Foreman, needs just one powerfully landed punch to take back the lead. To change his fortunes and get back on track, Romney must hammer the Washington theme and tie McCain to the Republican Party of old. Only Romney, he will argue, can represent the Republican Party of the future. Add to that message a financial wallop with which no candidate can compete and Romney, though wounded, still has a fighting chance.

Thursday's Iowa caucuses were hard shots for Clinton and Romney to take. But with strong performances in New Hampshire, both candidates can regain their positions as front-runners. It appears that a recovery is a stronger possibility for Clinton than for Romney, but each candidate still retains the option to let Iowa be a knock-out blow or the cold shower that revitalizes their campaigns.

Journey's Just Begun, Huck Tells Crowd

DES MOINES -- Mike Huckabee, whose insurgent, under-funded and at times ignored campaign pulled out a big win in Iowa's first caucuses, told a crowded ballroom at the downtown Embassy Suites tonight that while the journey begins here in Iowa, there is still a long way to go. "Tonight, it starts here in Iowa, but it doesn't end here. It goes all the way through the other states and ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," he said. "I'm amazed, and I'm encouraged."

"I wasn't sure that I would ever be able to love a state as much as my home state of Arkansas. But tonight, I love Iowa," Huckabee said. "The people of Iowa made a choice, and their choice was clear. Their choice was for a change."

The campaign, vastly outspent by Mitt Romney and outside interest groups, overcame the constant barrage with the aide of undecided voters who broke to Huckabee, manager Chip Saltsman said. Huckabee alluded to being so vastly outspent to those in the ballroon. "Tonight, I hope we will forever change the way Americans look at the way their political system worked," he said. ""People really are more important than the purse. And what a great lesson for America to learn."

Claiming a twenty to one spending deficit versus Romney and outside groups that worked against them, Huckabee did not take any direct shots at his rival, but his campaign team couldn't resist. Romney "had the best consultants, the best media people, all the polling in the world, all the money in the world. And he just lost, and lost pretty badly," said Ed Rollins, Huckabee's national campaign chairman. "A campaign is very important, but a candidate is even more important."

Backstage, Huckabee backers David Beasley, the former governor of South Carolina, and actor Chuck Norris were giddy, and Saltsman admitted that, while he had recently downplayed the importance of a victory, "after winning it does feel a little different."

Huckabee fielded congratulatory calls from rivals John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, Saltsman told the media, though to his knowledge Romney had not called.

The campaign now moves to New Hampshire, where Huckabee is running 22 points behind McCain in the latest RCP New Hampshire Average. Rollins predicted a bounce coming out of tonight's strong performance. If Huckabee can translate his success into an improved standing in the contest's first primary, the campaign could find itself on an historic roll.

Dodd To Drop Out

Sources tell RealClearPolitics that Chris Dodd will drop out of the race later tonight.

-Blake Dvorak

More Than 220K Turn Out

Updated -- DES MOINES -- With 95% of precincts reporting, more than 221,000 Iowa Democrats have turned out, a stunning increase over the 122,000 who turned out in 2004, the Iowa Democratic Party is reporting. Republican numbers are not yet available. IDP officials are predicting the final tally will top 230,000.

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Voters sign in at a precinct in South Des Moines.

Turnout Way Up In South Des Moines

DES MOINES -- The Society of Italian Americans played host tonight to hundreds of Democrats from south Des Moines, and judging from just one of the 1781 precincts around Iowa, turnout will shatter any previous records. With just fifteen minutes to go before the party-imposed 7pm deadline, nearly fifty people remained in line to register. "I happen to know that we have a theoretical capacity," caucus chairman Max Nauer joked. "And I don't think our fire fighters would want to know that."

On one side of the room, fans of Hillary Clinton are mostly older, and mostly women. Barack Obama's fans sit across the room, made up more of younger voters who nonetheless showed up early enough to win front-row seats. In the middle, John Edwards and Joe Biden supporters hoped to win one of the eight delegates at stake. The credentials are uncomplicated: Gold badges denote eligible caucusers; red badges identify observers and press.

The system is far from perfect. "We ran out of badges," Nauer said. "That shows the success on this January night." 146 people caucused here in 2004. This year, 254 boiled in chairs, and despite temperatures hovering in the twenties, windows were thrown open. It will take 38 caucus-goers backing a candidate for that candidate to remain viable.

Candidates' representatives are given two minutes each to sway the crowd. Afterwards, supporters will break off to gauge numbers. More updates after round one. It could be a long night: John Edwards' representative, speaking first, took a liberal interpretation.

Politics Nation: Heretic

DES MOINES -- The dead period between the end of the last pre-caucus events and the actual caucusing provides time to reflect on the Iowa experience. Des Moines is a great town with plenty to do, good restaurants at which to eat and a State Fair that, as any local will constantly remind you, can't be beat.

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Politico's Jonathan Martin enjoys a pork chop
on a stick at the Iowa state fair this year
Photo credit: Some guy
But there is one myth about Iowa that must be debunked. John McCain, campaigning in Le Mars today, said that he wants to come back to Iowa to enjoy another pork chop on a stick. Hillary Clinton has eaten one, and Mike Huckabee even broke a diet to taste one. It is supposedly the quintessential Iowa food.

We will hereby sacrifice all our Iowa readers who will leave in disgust when they learn that Politics Nation did not think the pork chop on a stick was all that great. First of all, it's not on a stick, it's on a bone. Second, we much preferred the pork loin sandwich.

Others, perhaps understandably, have different tastes (see picture). If any reader finds themselves in Des Moines in mid-August, we look forward to, erm, feedback.

Previewing The Caucus

DES MOINES -- This is it. After millions of dollars, hundreds of visits, uncountable phone calls and doors knocked, the presidential contest actually gets a solid result tonight as Iowans head to their local caucuses to pick a presidential nominee. A campaign that has lasted a year, though, is not coming to a close, it is in fact speeding up. And the media, hungry for a metric spun not by a campaign but by voters, will overhype and overplay the results here so much as to make a good showing -- or at least the appearance of a good showing -- crucial.

The Democratic race comes down to three likely contenders, all of whom have invested incredible resources in the state and all of whom have a legitimate shot at winning. Their chances come down to factors somewhat beyond their control, and the question to ask is this: Who does the other guy turn out?

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have seen levels of excitement unlike virtually any candidate in modern history. Outside groups have pushed Clinton on Iowans, especially women, hard. The caucus-going population is made up of a strong majority of women (some expect women to make up as much as 60% of attendees), and EMILY's List and other groups have been working to boost that number. A strong turnout from women means a big boost for Clinton.

Obama has enjoyed unheard-of support from younger voters. That's at once positive and risky. He has the ability to run away with a win here, but only if his people show up. That's hardly unique; seemingly every year one candidate benefits from the "once-in-a-lifetime" mantle and will surely be the first to turn out so many younger voters. Every year, that candidate loses. And yet every year, for some reason, many think a youth turnout operation will be different. This year, indeed, the idea is plausible, thanks to hugely increased excitement and Obama's reliance on older caucus-goers to get him close. Top Iowa advisers call youth votes the "icing on the cake," and if that's all they are, Obama will win big. If younger caucusers are the foundation of the campaign, the candidate could be in trouble.

No one has invested more, and no one needs a better return from Iowa, than John Edwards. After a strong finish in 2004, Edwards made the Hawkeye State the cornerstone of his 2008 bid. But battling Obama for the Anybody-But-Clinton mantle has robbed Edwards of some of the advantages he enjoyed four years ago -- Obama is the fresher face and can outspend Edwards easily. But Edwards is trying something that others have not. While every leading candidate has staff in rural counties, Edwards has been to each of the state's 99 counties twice. That attention could reap huge rewards if he wins counties few others visited. If Edwards is to win, it will be because of his rural strategy. If he loses, because of his focus on Iowa, his road to the White House will likely come up short.

The Republican side is a two-tiered contest, and each tier has two leading candidates. The top tier features a close contest between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, and while conventional wisdom is coalescing around Romney as the favorite, don't be surprised if the race is closer than expected. Huckabee still leads the RCP Iowa Average, but Romney's superior organization makes the 3-point deficit smaller than Huckabee wants.

If Romney pulls out the win, his team will still face a hurdle, thanks to a surging John McCain, in New Hampshire. But like the straw poll in August, in which Romney invested heavily and won easily, a win is a win, and anything provides a boost. Romney's mission in the Granite State will be considerably easier -- but by no means simple -- if he wins in Iowa.

On the other hand, a Huckabee victory could harm Romney more than it helps Huckabee. His campaign's turnout operation is largely decentralized, making it vulnerable to breakdowns, and is based on the hope that evangelical voters will turn out. It is difficult to see where Huckabee goes after Iowa. He polls far behind in New Hampshire, and while South Carolina will provide a hospitable environment, Huckabee will not have the time, the money or the organization to compete strongly in February 5 states. His win in Iowa will either be seen as the beginning of a snowball, if he begins bounding upward in New Hampshire, or as the beginning of the end of Romney, who might then find the McCain challenge insurmountable.

The second tier of the GOP race is a battle for third place. McCain, who has spent little time and effort on Iowa, seems to have the most to gain from a third-place finish. His camp has long said they can hope to finish no better than fifth or sixth, and while that seems ridiculous now, it wasn't out of the question for most of last year. Even a weak third-place finish would boost McCain's campaign.

Fred Thompson, though, has worked harder to achieve that third place finish. Thompson has run television advertisements, embarked on a two-week bus tour and realized that his entire race depends on a good finish in Iowa. In fact, insiders told The Politico that without a good finish, Thompson's race is over. The early hype, which Thompson failed to live up to, has been proven all the more disappointing as the candidate actually tried to win: Not only did he appear lazy at the beginning, when he actually worked hard his message did not connect.

The wild card on the GOP side is Ron Paul, who owns the most committed supporters in the GOP field. No one in the media quite knows how to gauge supporters who do not make it through polling screens. If Paul beats a major candidate -- say, Thompson -- his supporters will crow loudly. But that's unlikely because of the organizational power Iowa requires. Paul has a few hundred volunteers on the ground in Iowa, fewer than most other candidates. Paul's supporters should not be disheartened by a weak finish in Iowa, but no one should be too surprised in a fourth place finish.

The non-factor, surprisingly, is Rudy Giuliani. After months of dominating the GOP field, Giuliani has been largely absent from headlines in recent weeks. His support is minimal in Iowa and fading in New Hampshire and nationally. It remains to be seen exactly what combination of flaws may have doomed Giuliani's campaign in early states, but unless he shows up somewhere, the one-time front-runner will end up little more than a footnote in history.

Iowans have their chance to make their feelings known today. When they do, they will fundamentally alter the state of each race. As the votes roll in and the campaigns spin the results, half a dozen campaign planes will take off for Manchester while another half dozen inner circles will begin plotting their exits from the race. Once again, Iowa has the opportunity to change the national political landscape, and with two neck-and-neck races, just one thing is certain: Every pundit will be wrong about something.

Morning Thoughts: Game Day

DES MOINES -- It's Christmas for political junkies, and here at the downtown Des Moines convention center, everyone's giddy already, as early morning news anchors finish their stand-ups. The last stories Iowans will see and read before they caucus:

-- Today On The Trail: John Edwards meets volunteers in Des Moines, speaks at a restaurant in Iowa City and greets fans in Cedar Rapids before heading back to Des Moines. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will celebrate the results at different events tonight in Des Moines. Joe Biden has rallies planned in Waterloo, Dubuque, Davenport and Des Moines, while Chris Dodd has events in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines.

-- On the GOP side, Mike Huckabee makes last-minute stops in Burlington and Grinnell before hisparty tonight in Des Moines. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has an event in West Des Moines and Waukee before his celebration party tonight. John McCain will host his last Iowa events in Council Bluffs, Sioux City and LeMars before heading to Manchester and Derry, New Hampshire. Rudy Giuliani hosts a town hall in Bedford, New Hampshire before returning to Florida for a rally in Hialeah. Ron Paul is in Des Moines for a speech, media availability and caucus events, while Fred Thompson meets voters in West Des Moines, Council Bluffs, Sioux City and Des Moines.

-- Just hours before Iowans head to the caucuses, all the buzz is centered on Obama, who seems to be surging at just the right moment. In the final weeks, Obama seemed to have peaked, and when history is written, it could be the timely Des Moines Register poll, splashed across Iowa front pages two days before caucus day, that halted the beginnings of a slide and restarted his momentum. Clinton has drawn big crowds as well, including a capacity crowd last night at a huge venue in downtown, but if you push most reporters and politicos, people are starting to guess Obama.

-- Most people in Iowa will tell you that Mike Huckabee hit his apex last week, and that Mitt Romney's closing argument reasserted the former governor as the top dog in Iowa. We argued a few months ago, when Huckabee first took the lead in Iowa, that his ascendence might actually be a good thing for Romney: Team Mitt was inevitable in Iowa, so when he won there would be no surprise. When Huckabee robbed him of the sheen of inevitability, it gave Romney the opportunity to surprise again. Sure, Huckabee and everyone else will make the argument that Romney outspent everyone in Iowa, but don't forget that people were signing death certificates for the Romney campaign just a month ago, and now he seems to have regained the lead.

-- In October, it was unthinkable that Obama would be the Iowa winner. Throughout the year, Romney was dogged by doubters and critics, and the campaign had its share of low moments. John McCain is building a huge head of steam in New Hampshire after nearly going broke this summer. The lesson: Never write a political obituary so far out from an election. A campaign has to go through rough patches before it blossoms. The campaign that rebuilds from an unexpected valley is going to be the one that hangs around at the end of the day.

-- Having said that, a valley needs to come significantly before the first votes are cast in order for that whole pesky recovery thing to work. For one candidate, the discussion around Washington is that the slump came too late, and the vultures are already circling. Politico's Allen and Martin report today that Fred Thompson is likely to end his campaign if he does not earn a good finish here, and that he will back McCain if he does. Thompson has seen poll numbers slump in recent weeks despite a long bus tour, and many speculate that his campaign is rapidly running out of money.

-- Clinton will not drop out if she loses Iowa, but it's certainly not good news for her campaign. Backers of the once-inevitable New Yorker are already spinning a possible loss, ABC's Rick Klein reports. What happens if Clinton goes down here? She probably finds herself engaged in a two-way race with Obama that's much tighter than pundits had anticipated.

-- The campaigns are all attracting huge crowds, but there are clear differences. Barack Obama pulled 2000 people to a Des Moines rally, while Clinton packed a downtown location with 1000 people. Clinton's campaign has revised its turnout model up to 150,000 people, Marc Ambinder reports, well above an all-time record. Conventional wisdom is that the more voters who turn out, the better Obama does. Still, it is likely that the campaign that turns out the most first-time voters will win, and Clinton has her own backers among those who have not caucused before.

-- What of Edwards? After a great finish in 2004, Edwards parked himself in Iowa, and a bad finish here would be devastating to the campaign. The question is how the media defines a bad finish. Third place, most agree, is out of the question for Edwards. But after spending so much time and energy here, Edwards could find that anything short of an outright win is an underperformance. Don't assume, though, that Edwards is completely out of the race. He has a strong organization, along with union backers who are dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race and outside groups that are organizing for him. Today will either be very good or very bad for Edwards; there is little middle ground.

-- We apologize for the late post. Having some serious internet issues that will have to be dealt with soon. More as the day goes on.

McCain Parachutes In

URBANDALE, Iowa -- The state of Iowa must be out of fire marshals. The packed houses candidates are speaking to as they make their final appeals to supporters to give that extra ounce in the next twenty four hours have to violate some kind of safety laws. Perhaps surprisingly, even the candidate who has spent little time here drew a spillover audience.

John McCain landed in Des Moines this evening, injecting himself into a state he has largely avoided. His timing could not be better. Volunteers and supporters -- and even one staffer from a Democratic campaign -- packed McCain's headquarters in this Des Moines suburb, spilling out into a night cursed with temperatures in the low single digits. Two heat lamps helped, but the more than 150 supporters couldn't possibly fit under both.

McCain, twenty minutes late after aircraft delays, joined Senators John Thune, Lindsey Graham and Sam Brownback, and senior advisers Mark Salter and Charlie Black patrolled the room, doling out predictions and managing expectations. The consensus: Shooting for third place. "Bronze is gold for John," Graham said. "We're moving in the right direction in Iowa, and we're really red hot in New Hampshire."

Despite all but ignoring the first-in-the-nation caucus state, McCain has shown a marked rise here in recent weeks. The latest RCP Iowa Average has him in third place, with 12.8%, edging out Fred Thompson by a point. Still, the insurgent trails front-running Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney by sixteen points. But the glass is half full. Even a third-place finish, said Graham, could fuel McCain's startling rise in New Hampshire, where he leads Romney in the RCP Average by 3.7%.

With an organization long neglected, only a small paid media presence and a prolonged absence from the state's campaign trail, a third-place finish would be telling. Perhaps a Republican electorate somewhat dissatisfied with their choices are returning to McCain as the default candidate. If so, that spells bad news for the rest of the field.

Theater Of The Absurd

DES MOINES -- It's getting a little crazy here at caucus central at the convention center in downtown Des Moines. Hundreds of reporters, dozens of television crews and what must be millions of dollars of equipment have been shipped in, though some networks are going a little overboard.

Case in point: Fox News host Shepard Smith just kicked it over to the channel's political correspondent, Carl Cameron. Both are in Des Moines, so why not just have Cameron join Smith? Because clearly they were too far away from each other, as this hard-to-see photo proves:

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Paul Eats Dinner

DES MOINES -- How popular is Ron Paul? The poor guy can't even have dinner in peace. Then again, his own campaign had something to do with that. When Paul and wife Carol made dinner plans at Centro, a swanky downtown restaurant, the campaign's press shop helpfully alerted the media.

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All Paul wanted was a little dinner
When Paul showed up for what we're sure he hoped would be a brief respite from the madness of a presidential campaign, the media was waiting, and the candidate, sans coat, happily took questions. Paul said he hadn't expected his message to earn the support it has. "The country's in worse shape than I thought," Paul said. "I thought when the country went really down to the depths, they would get excited and rally around this message."

Spokesman Jesse Benton said the campaign had probably visited more than half of Iowa's 99 counties. More than 300 college students, participating in Paul's Christmas Break in Iowa program, are stationed in YMCA facilities across the state, knocking on doors and making phone calls to get Paul supporters to caucuses tomorrow.

Paul spent much of the last week in New Hampshire, a state with stronger libertarian tendencies than Iowa, but Benton said Iowa remains a focus. "We're not prioritizing. Iowa and New Hampshire are both important to us," he said. "We have a real strong fifty state strategy. We have the money now."

Neither Paul nor Benton would predict where the campaign would finish tomorrow, and both expressed dismay at a decision by Fox News to exclude Paul from a forum in New Hampshire this weekend. "I think they've embarrassed themselves. I think they don't know what to do right now," Paul said. Benton elaborated, saying Fox chiefs would not return campaign phone calls seeking an explanation. "By all metrics, we're stronger than several candidates that they're including," he said, singling out Fred Thompson, who trails Paul in New Hampshire polls and pointing out that Paul likely outraised the entire field this quarter.

Asked if he would crash the event and try to be included, though, Paul said no. "It's their thing. I wouldn't do that," he said. But, he added, "I might have my own."

Paul has a rally with veterans planned tonight at the Hotel Fort Des Moines, followed by a full day of interviews tomorrow. The campaign will hold a post-caucus rally at the downtown Marriott tomorrow before heading back to New Hampshire. Hopefully, someone will get him food before then.

Clinton On Letterman

Access Hollywood reports that Hillary Clinton will make an appearance on The Late Show tonight with David Letterman. In his first show back since an early November strike shut down new material, Letterman was originally slated to host actor Robin Williams.

Clinton's visit is made possible because Letterman's company, Worldwide Pants, reached a separate deal with the striking Writers' Guild of America. Without a deal, Clinton never would have crossed a picket line.

The issue came up earlier today when the AP asked Mike Huckabee whether he was willing to cross a picket line in order to appear on Jay Leno's Tonight Show from Burbank. Huckabee was unaware that only Letterman had reached a deal. "I support the writers, by the way. Unequivocally, absolutely," Huckabee told the AP. "I don't anticipate that it's crossing a picket line."

The AP told him he was wrong, but Huckabee offered no response beyond "Oh." Another gaffe for the now-error prone former governor? One would imagine that Clinton's people not only made sure there was a deal with the Letterman strikers but that they made sure WGA officials were okay with Clinton's appearance.

Polls As Unintentional Comedy

DES MOINES -- Polling companies don't just ask political questions. The other ninety percent of their business is market research for corporations. Major national pollsters like Strategic Vision and Zogby International will sometimes tack on a few questions for corporate clients on the ends of their political polls as well.

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Most pizza?
Zogby, running an Iowa tracking poll, has done just that, and the numbers, out about 24 hours before caucuses convene, are hysterical. The Pizza Hut Pizza Political Poll, conducted 12/14-15 among 504 likely Iowa caucus-goers, found that Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee were the two candidates voters would most like to have pizza with, at 30% and 28%, respectively.

That's a good sign: Many voters will choose the candidate they would most like to have a beer with. Making voters comfortable with a candidate is a huge project.

Asked which candidate Iowans thought ate the most pizza, Rudy Giuliani came out atop the Republican field at 18%. He's from New York, right? Lots of pizza there, the city's famous for it. Voters' reasoning on the Democratic side, though, is somewhat more suspect. More than 15% said they thought Bill Richardson scarfed down the most slices. That's probably a poll the governor's people wish he hadn't led.

Biden Keeps His Chin Up

INDIANOLA, Iowa -- Some candidates, like John Edwards, are high-energy, shouting into a microphone to the delight of their fired up troops. Others, like Hillary Clinton, speak in more measured tones most of the time, as their supporters listen with rapt attention. No candidate, in either party, can pull off both the energetic highs and the silence-inducing lows like Joe Biden.

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Biden and grandson welcome the crowd
Listening to Biden deliver his stump speech is like riding a roller coaster. In a packed room at the Warren County administration building on the first day of the new year, Biden, pacing around a lectern with a faulty microphone, at times looked both like an Edwards-style fiery preacher and a Clinton-esque sober realist. It is a long way from Biden's perch as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to this sleepy bedroom community south of Des Moines, and a long way from Biden's position near the bottom of the Democratic pack and where he needs to be to pull off an upset of any measure.

But while Biden may not have the money to compete with any of the three front-runners, his supporters are just as enthusiastic as any in the field, and lately, Biden says, his crowds have been growing. "The events we've been having the last month, the crowds have been exceeding our estimates by four or five times, most of the time," he told Politics Nation. A rally in Des Moines earlier in the day had attracted somewhere north of 500 people, comparable to crowds the front-runners pull in.

Biden has been around Washington a long time, and he is savvy enough to know how the media works. "It's not a complaint, [but] most of the national press has not covered me," he said, implying that the oversight may work in his favor. "If John Edwards comes in third, he's probably done. Fair or unfair, that's the bar that's been set for John. If Hillary Clinton beats Barack by ten points, Barack is probably mortally wounded. If Hillary gets beat by five or six points, the inevitability is gone. If I come in a solid fourth or a third, I'm a winner."

Any candidate who argues that they are the most experienced would have a difficult time convincing voters that they have more background than Biden. At times throughout the campaign, he has appeared almost frustrated as he listens to others describe what he sees as naive or incomplete proposals. Others, he says, have knowledge gaps to fill. "The next president is going to have virtually no margin for error," Biden told about 150 people in Indianola. "Can we afford to turn over, at this moment in history, the reins to people who are still learning?"

Biden is unapologetic about seeing himself as much more experienced than others in the race. The devil, he points out, is in the details. "While all the other candidates have talked about, and I believe are very concerned about Iraq, and would like to end the war, none of them have put together a specific plan. I mean, they had two years to do it," he said. Biden's plan, for a decentralized government and division of oil revenue, passed the Senate with dozens of Republican votes and virtually every Democrat's support.

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Biden listens as campaign manager Valerie Biden Owens
introduces her older brother
"You don't have to imagine what the next crises are going to be in the United States. There's a half a dozen sitting right there, right now," Biden said in an interview. In early November, Biden laid out the need for a new policy on Pakistan and his proposed approach to President Pervez Musharraf. Now, other Democratic candidates "are all now scrambling to figure out what their policy is on Pakistan."

With sixteen years of combined Senate experience between them, Clinton, Obama and Edwards are far behind the thirty four years Biden has served. But like other candidates with more experience than the top three, Biden faces a question of viability. Most Biden supporters say they have already decided on a second choice candidate, in the likely event that they will fail to meet the fifteen percent support threshold.

"I don't know the math, but he won't be at the top like the others," said Roy Hampton, of Indianola. Hampton and his wife decided on Biden almost a year ago. Tomorrow night, if they cannot rally the support, they will join the Edwards camp. Edward Thornton, a supporter of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson from Des Moines, says his friends would all rather decide on one of the second-tier candidates. "They would rather go with Biden or [Chris] Dodd or Richardson, but they all think they haven't got a chance, so they're going to have to go with somebody else," he said.

"We have so many choices, which is unusual, I think, to have four or five that are viable to get news coverage," Thornton said. Still, talk of viability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, he said. It's also part of the reason why, a day before the Iowa caucuses, many Democrats remain undecided. "If they could make up their mind and think that Biden or Dodd or Richardson's got a chance, then they'd have their mind made up." Instead, backers of the three others think "'He hasn't got a chance in hell,' so they're not making up their minds," he said.

While Biden can seem frustrated with the lack of experience and wisdom his colleagues on the debate stage show, he has nice things to say about the front-runners. "The Democratic Party, and I as well, am rightly proud of the fact that we have two extremely qualified people who will be breaking a barrier that I have fought my whole life as a senator to break, on race and on gender," he said, adding a backhanded compliment: "Both have been able to raise tens of millions of dollars from interest groups."

Despite the long odds, Biden is optimistic that experience will win out. "If you stand up for Joe Biden on caucus night, you're going to be surprised at how many people stand with you," he told the cheering crowd. "I expect to win the nomination," he told Politics Nation. "I wouldn't trade places with any other candidate at this moment."

Hillary The Hawkeye

One of the best predictors of the way a race is going is to find out who wants debates. By and large, the candidate calling for the most debates is probably the candidate who is losing; they need the extra exposure in order to get their message out, and it gives their opponent the opportunity to stumble.

Iowa and New Hampshire are increasingly seen as akin to debates: They are just one chance to earn delegates, and if a candidate isn't doing well in one, he or she should just skip it. Rudy Giuliani is largely skipping Iowa, while Fred Thompson has pulled out of New Hampshire, for example.

As Iowa inches toward what looks like an incredibly close finish, Roger Simon smartly wonders, why is Hillary Clinton subjecting herself to the prospect of losing the first contest she enters, and with it, her inevitability? Why not just treat the event as the first debate challenge from an opponent, ignore it, and focus instead on winning New Hampshire, where she might have been stronger?

Well, the Clinton campaign actually considered that, in a now-infamous memo penned half a year ago by deputy campaign manager Mike Henry. Henry argued for skipping Iowa and focusing more on a national campaign. And while Edwards fans are excited and Obama crowds are massive, Clinton's supporters seem more content with their candidate than thrilled.

The momentum does not look good for Clinton, either: As two front-runners pack venues, Clinton drew abut 150 to an event in Indianola, RCP's Tom Bevan reports. Edwards and Obama are hitting as many events as possible with short summing up speeches of ten minutes or less. Clinton, Tom says, finally asked supporters to head to the caucuses at a lethargic 51 minutes in, then wraps up at 55 minutes.

If Clinton wins the nomination, the point is moot. If she doesn't, second-guessing her campaign's decision to compete for Iowa delegates -- risking so much for something not inherently necessary to a win -- will begin. To move on would have made Iowa meaningless; a win for Edwards or Obama would not be a win if they weren't competing with Clinton. Her continued presence is allowing her opponents the opportunity to bring her down.

Morning Thoughts: GOTC

DES MOINES -- Good Wednesday morning. Be happy, oh gentle reader, that you live outside of Iowa: One undecided Democratic voter who spoke with Politics Nation yesterday said she receives about a dozen phone calls, three visits from canvassers and up to two mail pieces per candidate every day. If you're an undecided voter in Iowa, our sympathies. Here's what the political world is waking up with today:

-- Today On The Trail: Hillary Clinton has events slated for Indianola, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Ottumwa and Des Moines while Barack Obama stops in Coralville, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Des Moines. John Edwards continues the 36-hour tour he started last night with stops in Ottumwa, Fairfield, Mount Pleasant, Fort Madison, Burlington, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Grinnell and Des Moines. Sound like a busy day? He's already hit two events in Creston and Centerville. Joe Biden is in Burlington, Ottumwa, Oskaloosa, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, while Chris Dodd stops in Ames, Indianola, Ottumwa and Burlington. Bill Richardson finishes up his job interviews in Dubuque, Decorah, Mason City, Storm Lake, Centerville and Iowa City.

-- On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee is in Fort Dodge and Mason City before appearing on the first original Tonight Show since early November. Mitt Romney is in Bettendorf, Cedar Rapids, Clear Lake and West Des Moines today, while Fred Thompson has events planned for Mason City, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids and Davenport. Rudy Giuliani is still in New Hampshire, where he hits Wolfeboro and Somersworth before having a town hall in Hooksett. John McCain is there for stops in Pembroke, Londonderry and Derry (with Joe Lieberman) before jetting off to Dubuque and making a pre-caucus appearance in Iowa. Later, he will hold media availabilities in Davenport and Urbandale. Speaking of Iowa appearances, Ron Paul is back, with stops in Des Moines followed by two press availabilities.

-- Read the above item again. You see the same city names over and over. Democrats have a definite rotation from Des Moines to the eastern half of the state that each is hitting one last time before caucus night: From the city, they either travel north to Ames and Fort Dodge or east along Interstate 80, hitting Newton on the way. Big rallies in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Davenport, all near the Mississippi River out east, are required. Then, follow the river south to Burlington, Fort Madison, perhaps even Keokuk in the southeast corner of the state, before heading back west with stops in Fairfield, Mount Pleasant, Ottumwa, Pella, Knoxville and Indianola. The loop is home to a huge percentage of Democratic primary voters, which is why virtually every Democrat has made the trip at least twice in the last week.

-- Campaigns are focused heavily on GOTC efforts -- Get Out To Caucus, they are telling their supporters. At a rally last night, John Edwards had more than 100 Steelworkers making phone calls until 9 p.m. at one location in Des Moines alone, while NBC/NJ's Athena Jones reports that Clinton's camp will contact all of its ones and twos -- those who have committed, either in writing or verbally, to caucus for her -- before tomorrow at 6:30. Each campaign is doing their version of the same thing.

-- By the way, the above link features Clinton spokesman Jay Carson saying that 60% of the ones and twos in Camp Clinton have never caucused before. Obama relies heavily on new and younger voters as well. James Carville has a saying: We have a name for those who rely on the youth vote. We call them losers. Is Obama and Clinton's reliance on new people the reason that Edwards strategists are so enthusiastic going into the caucuses? Their finance team held a big dinner at the major steak house in Des Moines last night, while his strategists are not so privately predicting a win.

-- Still, Edwards could have done without the metaphor early this morning when a campaign bus had to be abandoned on the way to Council Bluffs. The bus, which pulled out of Des Moines around 8:30 p.m., began making funny noises, so the candidate and top aides took vans instead, the Los Angeles Times reported. Edwards, who showed up to a planned stop in Des Moines about half an hour late, was 45 minutes late to the Council Bluffs appearance, a trend that is being noticed by at least a few fans and supporters.

-- Edwards' public optimism is not reflected in the Des Moines Register poll, out late on New Years' Eve, which showed Obama eight points ahead of the former senator and seven points up on Clinton. That caused some worry in the Clinton campaign, the New York Times reports, though they were not alone in questioning the poll's survey makeup; Obama's backers wonder about its accuracy as well. The model shows some 40% of Democratic caucus-goers will be independents and Republicans. If that's accurate, Clinton will be hard-pressed to beat Obama, and may end up losing badly.

-- Mitt Romney, much maligned for having changed his positions on several issues, could face more criticism today after comments made late yesterday that have some wondering if he just took on the Bush Administration. Lately, Romney has latched on to the president and defended him from criticism leveled by Mike Huckabee. That's not always how it's been: From Iraq to spending, Romney has run against the Republican Party as it is perceived to exist today, promising a new beginning. There's reason for the buddy-buddy talk: The 30-something percent of Americans who still favor President Bush are all Republicans, and anything Romney can do to ingratiate himself with them can help. Still, comments like this reported by Reuters, made to reporters in Johnston, Iowa, do not help: "I think we did a less than effective job in managing the [Iraq] conflict following the collapse of Saddam Hussein. ... I think we were under prepared for what occurred, understaffed, under planned and, in some respects, under managed."

-- Those sound similar to observations made by John McCain, so perhaps Romney is hitching his wagon to that rhetorical star. He looks too far behind for any surge to work here, but McCain has been on a dramatic and increasingly upward track in recent days, fueled in some part by Fred Thompson's collapse here and in other part by a reliance on the electability argument, which McCain makes well. He looks on track to finish in a strong third place, which would be a boost for his camp going into New Hampshire. The candidate is making a final Iowa swing over the next two days to solidify his position. Just wondering, if McCain wins the nomination, and perhaps even the presidency, without trying very hard in Iowa, will he diminish the importance of the caucuses even more?

-- Undecided Voter Of The Day: Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, one of the most powerful Republicans in the Senate, keeps giving interviews to the Des Moines Register and keeps back-peddling on his predictions. A few months ago, Mitt Romney was destined to win, the senior statesman told the paper. Now, he thinks McCain is "very viable," and that his Romney prediction was "a little bit in question." Some journalists have expressed frustration that Iowans don't make up their mind fast enough. When even a Senator has to change his mind, it could be true.

Round Two For Edwards, McCain

DES MOINES -- Eight years ago, John McCain beat back a much better funded, better organized rival campaign to pull out a surprise win in the Republican primary in New Hampshire. Four years ago, John Edwards' momentum showed up at the end of the long campaign, catapulting him to a strong finish in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. Today, just hours before the first ballots are cast, both candidates are making their second run at the presidency. Like the last time out, both candidates find themselves in strong positions, though for very different reasons than their previous bids.

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Edwards rallies the troops
In 2000, running against then-Texas Governor George W. Bush, McCain was the decided outsider. His insurgent campaign never took off among rank and file conservatives, despite a largely right-leaning voting record in the Senate and the House. Conservative opinion makers simply could not accept a candidate who led on the campaign finance reform that McCain so enthusiastically championed.

Lacking the traditional platform on which to build a successful Republican campaign, McCain instead won over independents, first in New Hampshire and later in other states where anyone could vote in a GOP primary. His so-called maverick streak endeared him to those looking for a different kind of politician; his free-wheeling chats with the media aboard his campaign bus endeared him to the media, who helped make him a star. Ultimately, though, the Straight Talk Express got a flat, and McCain was sent back to the Senate.

This time out, McCain has fine-tuned his campaign and made needed and necessary corrections. Asked what had improved from four years ago, senior adviser Charlie Black said the ground organizations are broader and deeper. Further, he went on, McCain now enjoys the backing of the influential New Hampshire Union Leader and more than a dozen other Granite State papers, which he did not have in 2000. Those nods, said Black, are "about as big a thing as you can get here in New Hampshire."

The national landscape helps McCain significantly as well. "In 2000, everybody was running in a peacetime election," Black said. "Now, the dominant issue is national security." McCain's long criticism of the Bush Administration's policies in Iraq, which led to increased violence, and his support for this year's troop "surge," which has thus far led to a reduction in violence, have given him a credibility on the war that perhaps no other politician enjoys.

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McCain talks to voters in
Milford, New Hampshire
McCain's association with an Iraq strategy that seems to work has boosted his electoral prospects among Republicans. "He's getting a little bit more support from the traditional Republicans this time," said Black. Still, with an unpopular war and Barack Obama proving an enticing option for independent voters, McCain's performance among unaffiliated voters could suffer. "He may be getting a few more mainstream Republicans and a few less independents than last time."

After starting out as an unknown commodity in 1999, McCain built his reputation and his momentum, peaking at just the right moment to catapult to the front of the field. This year, the campaign started down a path toward projecting inevitability. That failed miserably, bottoming out in July when McCain was forced to dramatically cut staff as others left. Many pundits left him for dead, and he had to virtually start anew and rebuild his support from the ground up. That, as it turns out, could have been a fortuitous turn of events: Maverick McCain is a much better candidate than Establishment McCain.

The year is different, and the experiences have been different, but somehow a similar result could be in the cards. "The history and evolution of the campaign is totally different," Black said. But, he noted, "what's happening hear is very similar to what happened in 2000."

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McCain hosts a town hall
at the Timberland company's
headquarters in New Hampshire
Edwards did not win Iowa in 2004, but his above-the-fray nice-guy attitude, plus a populist message that stressed the bringing together of two separate and unequal Americas caught on at just the right time. Edwards managed a strong second-place showing, with levels of support well above what polls had predicted. Suddenly, instead of the anticipated John Kerry versus Howard Dean race that many had expected, it was Edwards who was left with a one-on-one matchup. Many have suggested that, had the caucuses been just a few days later and Edwards' rise allowed to peak, it would have been up to Edwards to choose Kerry as a running mate instead of vice versa.

The former senator, who ran for the White House without seeking re-election to the seat he held for just one term, learned his lesson after pouring over Iowa election returns, and by 2007 he was ready with a new strategy. During his first campaign, much of Edwards' strong performance came from Polk County, the state's largest and home of Des Moines. There, Edwards beat Kerry 40% to 36%, as Howard Dean was the only other candidate finishing in double digits.

Polls have repeatedly shown that while Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are relying on new caucus-goers to give them a boost, Edwards still enjoys a lead among those who have caucused before. Many of his supporters from 2004 remain on board, and even the converts are valuable: Someone who has caucused before is seen as a more reliable attendee than someone who has yet to show up.

This year, too, Edwards has focused much of his energy on rural counties. He has emphasized his roots outside the city and pitched a plan his campaign says will "restore hope" to rural America. Last weekend, Edwards sent three top advisers -- campaign manager David Bonior, former Congressman Ben "Cooter" Jones, who appeared on "The Dukes Of Hazzard," and political strategist Dave "Mudcat" Saunders -- to meet undecided voters around the state. "We needed to do better [in rural areas], and we have, and we will," Bonior told Politics Nation.

Bonior himself has already been to 61 counties, while his candidate will tell voters, just moments into his stump speech, that he is the only Democratic candidate to hold events in all 99 counties. Edwards strategists say privately that, with so many candidates competing for votes in Des Moines and other urban areas around the state, the rural vote is a deciding factor. And since their candidate is the only one who has been to every county, they believe he is in prime position to sneak off with under-appreciated rural delegates.

In short, unlike 2004, when much of Edwards' support was focused in Des Moines, this year many suspect he will outperform in more far-flung reaches of the state. There's a big benefit to that strategy: If Edwards' campaign is the only one to have contacted a caucus-goer, they are much more likely to earn his or her backing. Edwards' appearances in rural regions could give him a boost where other candidates have not gone. A delegate from a forgotten corner of the state, though, is just as valuable as one from downtown Des Moines.

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A Steelworker phone banks for Edwards
If Edwards can combine those rural delegates with the many in Des Moines and other urban areas who backed him four years ago, the same momentum that carried him to the number two spot may work even better this year and earn him a victory. And while his lack of organization in New Hampshire prevented his 2004 momentum from carrying over, the campaign has even stocked up on field staff there.

For both McCain and Edwards, having been through the presidential process once before provided irreplaceable experience that they now find useful. Whether it is broadening their political reach, as Edwards has done, or broadening their ideological reach, like McCain, both identified weaknesses from the last attempt and patched them. Now, both are in good positions to win in their respective favorite states.

McCain, in South Carolina, and Edwards, in New Hampshire, each faltered in states where they could not capitalize on their momentum. This time, both have put significant resources into the state that robbed them of a chance at the nominations on their first tries. If they emerge as winners in early states, they will get a second chance to get it right. So far, each has proven adept at a second try.

Friends Like These

DES MOINES -- Late in the race for Iowa, Barack Obama and John Edwards each won new fans over the last few days, giving them potential boosts as the contest comes to a close.

The quirky rules of the Iowa Democratic Party's caucuses Thursday open the door for some good old fashioned deal-making. Four years ago, Rep. Dennis Kucinich lent his support to Edwards, urging his fans to vote with Edwards if Kucinich failed to reach the 15% viability threshold. This time, Kucinich has told his backers to join Obama's forces. Kucinich said he and Obama had "one thing in common: Change."

The move could give Obama a needed boost in what remains a razor-thin contest. Kucinich earned one percent in the latest Des Moines Register poll, and if a majority of his supporters move to Obama when his viability expires, Kucinich could help push the senator over the top. Obama issued a statement today thanking Kucinich for his support.

Edwards has a new backer to take Kucinich's place, though. Two-time presidential contender Ralph Nader said yesterday that he will back the former senator, urging liberals to get behind Edwards on caucus night. In an interview with the Politico in Muscatine, a small town on the Iowa-Illinois border, Nader took the opportunity to lash out at Hillary Clinton for using empty rhetoric.

Backing from Nader is a two-sided proposition for Edwards. On one hand, Nader's endorsement sends a signal to the most liberal Iowans who might otherwise have caucused for Kucinich or stayed away altogether. On the other, many in the Democratic base still blame Nader for throwing the 2000 election to President Bush.

Romney Hits Seven Events To Seal Deal

CLIVE, Iowa -- With three new polls out showing three different results, even candidates can get confused. "The polls just don't know what to do," Mitt Romney mused at a house party today. "There's one poll this morning that says I'm behind by a few points. There's another poll that says I'm ahead by a few points. And then the poll that's probably the most accurate says it's all tied up."

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Romney addresses a
well-to-do crowd in Clive
Speaking to supporters in an affluent suburb of Des Moines, one of seven stops Romney is making today, the former governor offered a shortened version of his stump speech and urged people to venture into the cold Iowa night on Thursday. "Go out on caucus night. Vote a couple of times if you will," he joked.

Local radio host Mac McKoy and wife C.J. hosted Romney and nearly a hundred others. Calling other Republicans "yesterday's news," McKoy said he backed Romney because he is the only candidate who will help lay a foundation for McKoy's nine year old grandson. "It's time to bring peace to this world, and I think Mitt Romney's the kind of guy that can get that done."

McKoy told reporters that religion played a part in his choice to back Romney. In this case, though, McKoy's opinion is one the Romney camp has to hope others share. "I think Mitt Romney's one of the only few candidates that will never, ever let his religion make a difference in what he does in Washington."

"Mitt Romney said it's not an issue. And that's one of the reasons I value his values," McKoy said. "People who make it about religion are bigots. I know that's a harsh statement but I'll make that statement."

Minutes later, Romney arrived in a frigid wind with Craig, his youngest son, daughter-in-law Mary and their son, Parker. After the speech, Parker made a dash for the McKoy's seemingly long-suffering dog, Sinatra. Thanks to Mary Romney's timely intervention, both Parker and the pooch were unscathed.

Morning Thoughts: Brevity

Happy 2008. If anyone got the license plate of that truck, kindly send it over. Before a full day of events, here's what Iowans are bombarded with this morning:

-- Today On The Trail: Hillary Clinton holds rallies in Ames, Sioux City, Council Bluffs and Iowa City, John Edwards is in Ames, Fort Dodge, Des Moines and Council Bluffs, and Barack Obama makes stops in Des Moines, Sioux City, Council Bluffs and Dubuque. Joe Biden is in Des Moines, Indianola, Knoxville, and Davenport, while Chris Dodd has events planned for Clinton, Davenport, Cedar Rapids and Marshalltown. Bill Richardson, meanwhile, watches football in Pella before holding events in Oskaloosa, Ottumwa, Fairfield, Mount Pleasant and West Burlington.

-- On the GOP side, Mike Huckabee is in Sergeant Bluff, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines while Mitt Romney watches football at supporters' houses all around the Des Moines area. Fred Thompson has afternoon events. John McCain will stop in Tilton, Bridgewater and Laconia, New Hampshire, and Rudy Giuliani is off today.

-- The story everyone's talking about: The Des Moines Register poll, which has Obama leading Clinton by seven and Edwards by eight, while Huckabee leads on the GOP side by six. The poll was in the field Thursday through Sunday, and before anyone criticizes it, the pollster, Ann Selzer, is considered one of the top in her field. Two other polls out yesterday have Clinton up by 2 points (CNN) and 4 points (Zogby), underlining the difficulty of polling a caucus-going population.

-- That's it for now. Hitting the trail with John Edwards, Joe Biden, Mike Huckabee and Chuck Norris today. Check in with Politics Nation for continuous updates.