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Top 10 Convention Moments

Sifting through the mass of notable political conventions, RealClearPolitics has chosen 10 to include in its list of most memorable convention moments. In it you'll find three Kennedys mentioned, and one famous Minnesotan appears twice.

Feel free to debate the picks -- these are RCP's Top 10 Convention Moments.

--Kyle Trygstad

McKinney Wins Green Nod

Former Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney will run for president as the Green Party's nominee after winning a four-way fight at the convention in Chicago this weekend.

McKinney represented a suburban Atlanta district from 1992 to 2002, when she lost to one-term Rep. Denise Majette. Two years later, McKinney returned after defeating a crowded field as Majette ran for Senate; but after an altercation with a Capitol Hill police officer in 2005, McKinney lost her bid for re-election to Rep. Hank Johnson.

This weekend, McKinney won on the first ballot among the 350 delegates who attended the Green Party convention. This Fall, she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Green Party expects to be on the ballot in 36 states, and their goal is to secure 5% of the vote.

That may be too ambitious a hurdle to overcome. The party's best performance, from consumer advocate Ralph Nader, drew just 3% of the vote in 2000, and in 2004, the Green Party ticket received just 0.1% of the vote. Still, with both McKinney and Nader -- running as an independent -- in the race, they have the potential to swing a few states, as any Democrat will claim happened in Florida in 2000.

McKinney isn't the only former member of Congress from Georgia to seek the White House this year. One-time Republican Rep. Bob Barr is running as a Libertarian as well.

Candidates Plan Foreign Travel

After events in Indianapolis today, John McCain will make his latest excursion overseas, when he lands this evening in Colombia for meetings with the country's top political leaders. He also has stops planned in Mexico, where he will defend his free trade stance and certainly garner his share of Hispanic media attention here in the United States.

Barack Obama has a major foreign trip planned as well, with stops set in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Israel and Jordan, though exact dates have not been announced for security reasons. Obama will be in the Middle East before the convention, fueling speculation that he might make unannounced stops in Iraq, Afghanistan or both.

Both trips will drive a message: For McCain, it's about free trade and solidarity with two of the country's most important allies to the south (Colombia President Alvaro Uribe is seen as perhaps the most U.S.-friendly leader in an increasingly anti-U.S. South America, led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez). For Obama, it's about focusing on turmoil in the Middle East he will argue has been made worse by President Bush's policies.

There are political components, too. Obama needs to shore up questions about his foreign policy experience, thanks to shots from McCain's campaign and the Republican National Committee, which have hit him for not visiting Iraq in more than two years. With little experience in foreign affairs, Obama needs to show he can be the diplomat as well as the strong commander-in-chief.

McCain, who has always favored a more comprehensive approach to immigration matters than his fellow Republicans, has the opportunity to dominate Hispanic and Spanish-language media and to appeal to a growing minority that will play an important role not only this year, but in the future. If McCain can win the same number of Hispanic voters that President Bush did in 2000 -- around 44%, according to exit polls -- he could easily take the White House.

But time grows short. With a mere eighteen weeks to go before November 4, candidates are shifting into a general election mode during which they will have to hit a certain number of markets with a certain frequency in order to stay in local battleground news media. And, to paraphrase a joke McCain used in a recent speech in Ottawa, there aren't a lot of electoral votes in Colombia or the Middle East.

Still, foreign travel means something, and it almost guarantees stories close to the top of the political news section when candidates tour countries outside U.S. borders. In both cases, whether to bolster support among key Hispanic voters or to shore up foreign policy credentials that are, so far, lacking, foreign excursions can play an important role in a presidential campaign.

Plus, one of these guys has to lose, and the post-election vacation only gets better when Obama or McCain uses frequent flier miles to pay for it.

Obama At $31, McCain's Best Month

As Hillary Clinton bounded to the stage after a mammoth win in Kentucky last night, Barack Obama spokesman Bill Burton did his best to steal her thunder. In an email to reporters, Burton announced details of the camp's fundraising numbers for April, a month in which Obama again outraised both his rivals.

Obama raised $31.9 million in April, though $600,000 of that money has to be saved for the general election. The campaign attracted 200,000 new donors, bringing their fundraising base up to 1.475 million, and still has $37.3 million on hand for the primary election. A staggering 93% of the donations were in amounts under $100 (94% were under $200, leading one to believe the Obama campaign doesn't ask for a lot of $150 checks).

Clinton came in second with a not-unimpressive $22 million raised in April, much of it from her campaign's big win in Pennsylvania on the 22nd. That victory brought in $10 million in 24 hours, the campaign reported, and the total amount does not include the $5 million Clinton loaned her own campaign that month, as Ben Smith points out. It's the second-best month Clinton has had this year.

Bringing up the rear, but with good news of his own, John McCain raised $18 million in April, his best month of the campaign, as ABC News reported yesterday. The Republican is on pace for another good month, after raising an impressive $7 million in one event in early May. He has already hit fundraisers in Illinois, Georgia and Florida, and he travels to California later this week to raise more coin.

Next week, McCain will host an event in Phoenix with President Bush, and the president will also hold fundraisers with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in Utah.

So far this cycle, Obama has raised $264 million, while Clinton has pulled in $193 million to date. McCain's campaign lags far behind, having raised just $89 million to date, a figure almost three times less than Obama's totals.

Pope Brings Up A Point

Pope Benedict XVI lands at Andrews Air Force Base today at 4 p.m. Eastern Time, where he will be greeted by President Bush to kick off his inaugural papal visit to the United States. For the next six days, the Pope will visit Washington and New York, even celebrating his 81st birthday in the country (for which the White House has prepared a special dinner that Il Papa will not be attending).

Benedict's presence is sure to capture the attention of Pennsylvania Catholics, a large segment of the voting population that will head to the polls next week. 29% of Pennsylvania voters are Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, five points higher than the national average. And while ethnic Catholics were once a huge part of the Democratic coalition, that is no longer the case. Still, the group will play a huge role in the Pennsylvania primaries.

Democrats who focus now on winning primary Catholic voters will have a more difficult time wooing that group back in November. In 2004, for the first time in generations, President Bush won more Catholic votes than his Democratic opponent, even though John Kerry is Catholic. When it comes to social issues, Catholics naturally favor the Republican Party, though Hispanic Catholics have increasingly moved toward Democrats.

With John McCain heading the GOP ticket this year, though, his more moderate stance on immigration and his stated anti-abortion views could attract a number of those Hispanic voters. For Democrats, McCain's appeal could spell trouble in heavily Catholic states like New Jersey, New Mexico and Nevada, three potentially swing states where Catholics make up a larger percentage of the populace than the national average.

Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have hired Catholic outreach directors, the New York Times reports, and on Sunday the two headed to Messiah College, a Catholic institution, for a forum on faith and values. Clinton has the backing of prominent Catholics like Robert F. Kennedy's children, who penned an open letter to the state's Catholic voters recently, while Obama has backing from Senator Bob Casey and suburban Philadelphia Rep. Patrick Murphy, both Catholic.

Obama and Clinton also went as far as issuing statements welcoming Benedict to the U.S. "We are blessed to receive a visit from His Holiness, Pope Benedict, to the United States this week," Clinton said. "Not only is he the spiritual leader of America's great Catholic community, he is a strong and effective voice for the cause of peace, freedom, and justice as well as the fight against poverty and disease." Clinton also noted that Vatican City is a global leader on energy conservation.

"At a time when American families face rising costs at home and a range of worries abroad, the theme of Pope Benedict's journey, 'Christ Our Hope,' offers comfort and grace as well as a challenge to all faith communities to put our faith into action for the common good," Obama said in a statement after extending a welcome from himself and wife Michelle. "It will not only be Catholics who are listening to the Holy Father's message of hope and peace; all Americans will be listening with open hearts and minds."

Few religions vote as a bloc, including evangelical Christians. But Catholic voters from the Philadelphia suburbs to the Pittsburgh area could make the difference next Tuesday if they vote en masse for one candidate over another. It's a big enough segment of the population that the candidates might even try to appeal to them in tomorrow's Democratic debate, to be held at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. In fact, if he's not doing anything, Benedict himself might want to drop by. Certainly both candidates would love to give him a ticket.

Obama Upgrades Plane

Barack Obama is done with his Boeing 737 aircraft and will upgrade to a larger 757 model, The Swamp's John McCormick writes today. On the bigger plane, Obama will ferry his ever-increasing press corps between campaign events, though Obama said the upgrade was also made necessary because the smaller plane was being used for the NCAA tournament.

Huckaplane.jpg
Politics Nation rode Air Huckabee out of Iowa this year aboard
a Boeing 737. Huckabee, campaign manager Chip Saltsman
and wife Janet Huckabee meet the press.
Obama will use an aircraft from North America Airlines, a company that once ran flights from Baltimore and New York to Accra, Ghana and Lagos, Nigeria. Due to rising fuel prices, the company will discontinue commercial flights in May, according to a statement on their website in order to focus on the charter market.

The question of presidential candidates' choice of campaign plans is one that will move approximately zero votes, and really matters only to an irritable press corps that wants to get from one place to another while avoiding death, if at all possible. That may not always be an option, though, as reporters with Mike Huckabee's campaign found out when their plane required an emergency landing at a New Jersey airport, with CNN's Shawna Shepard and NBC/NJ's Matt Berger aboard.

When Mitt Romney and John McCain used JetBlue charters earlier this year, one couldn't help but notice the choice in aircraft: JetBlue flies A320s, a model manufactured by the European aerospace giant Airbus. Both candidates had excuses, though. McCain and Boeing have a long and testy relationship thanks to hearings the senator held on suspicious Defense Department contracts the company was involved with. And Romney, based in Boston, took advantage of one of JetBlue's main hubs in his own backyard.

McCain Trumps NFL

Last year, as both parties scrambled to schedule their conventions at the best possible time, Republicans chose a week that will end Thursday, September 4. One problem overlooked in scheduling meetings: The first Thursday in September has also marked the kickoff of football season. Given the 8:30 p.m. start time of the game, John McCain's acceptance speech in St. Paul would have had to compete with an expected matchup between the Super Bowl champion New York Giants and the Washington Redskins.

To avoid a conflict, NBC and the NFL have agreed in principle to kick off the season at 7:00 p.m. in order to make sure the game is over by the time McCain speaks, the Hollywood Reporter writes today. The schedule has not been set yet, with an official announcement slated for the league's owners' meetings, which begin Monday. Networks, too, have not decided how much of the conventions they will cover, but an hour of prime time coverage has been the norm in recent cycles.

Moving a game for a convention is not unprecedented, the Reporter writes. In 2000, ABC asked the NFL to move the start time of an exhibition game in order to accommodate the Democratic National Convention. This year, it was not the Republican National Committee that brought up the potential conflict, but the NFL itself, according to a spokesman. Good to know the league keeps its civic duty in mind when considering their schedule.

Casualty List Grows

With the resignation Wednesday of former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro from Hillary Clinton's campaign, the list of those no longer affiliated with campaigns thanks to embarrassing personal scandals or ill-advised statements has grown again, and given the amount of attention cable news networks pay to each surrogate's every utterance, the pace shows no signs of slowing.

The LA Times' Scott Martelle has a pretty good list of all those who are no longer with campaigns or had to drop out unexpectedly. Some, like Ferraro and ex-Obama adviser Samantha Powers, needed no assistance from lawyers to step aside. Others, though, are in need of some legal assistance for the faux pas that got them canned.

Our nominees for ex-advisers/aides/supporters of the year have to include: Bob Allen, the Florida state senator who was busted in a public park for soliciting a police officer, an ex-McCain state co-chair. Jay Garrity, Mitt Romney's body man who was accused of impersonating a police officer on a few occasions. And Thomas Ravanel, the wealthy South Carolina State Treasurer and Rudy Giuliani state chair who, for some reason, decided to traffic in cocaine on the side.

Martelle also points out Kristian Forland, a Bill Richardson field director in eastern Nevada, who resigned after his history of bad check-writing came out. Later, it was revealed he was accused of taking money from employees at a local brothel, where he helped out (ex-Clinton backer Eliot Spitzer, Martelle notes in the line of the day, "had the opposite problem").

Should every one of the former aides/advisers/supporters have resigned? Probably not, though most helped their campaign by doing just that. Given the incredible number of reporters, bloggers and cameramen covering the race this year, everyone's going to be caught saying something stupid. Ferraro tried to fight back, though it turns out that didn't work. When will someone successfully defend their comments?

McCain's Ups And Downs

As a new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama leading John McCain, the Republican nominee-in-waiting can find pluses and minuses that will steer his campaign in the coming months. In 2004, much of the presidential campaign hinged on national security. Given recent trend lines, if McCain is able to pull off the same feat, his outlook in six months may be significantly better than it is today.

McAZ.jpg
McCain and wife Cindy meet reporters
at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport on Monday
A month after Democrats took over Congress, in December 2006, the war in Iraq found a new valley. Dissatisfaction with the war drove the party's huge congressional gains, and just 31% of those surveyed thought the U.S. was making progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq. Since then, after the so-called "surge" McCain backed, that number has risen steadily, reaching 43% in this month's survey, compared with 51% who say U.S. forces are not making progress.

Paired against Obama, McCain needs the war in Iraq and national security to play a central role. McCain beats Obama when respondents were asked who they trust to handle the war (48%-43%) and the campaign against terrorism (58%-33%). Obama, though, roles easily on domestic issues, beating McCain on the economy (49%-37%), health care (56%-30%) and even ethics and immigration issues (48%-35% each).

A potential McCain-Obama matchup could follow generally the same arguments Clinton and Obama have been arguing over for months: Are voters looking for a candidate with strength and experience, or for new directions and new ideas? While Clinton's experience argument has not had the desired effect in a primary, more general election voters seem open to the angle than Democratic primary voters have. 45% say strength and experience is more important to them, while 46% prefer a new direction and new ideas.

McCain has been aided by the Democratic candidates' recent squabbling over national security, an issue that seemed to help Clinton over Obama in Tuesday's primaries. But where national security debates help McCain, his association with the GOP still hurts him. Appearing with President Bush yesterday at the White House, McCain launched another round of attacks from Democrats, who have come up with a new label -- "McSame" -- and asserted his election would be essentially a third term for the current incumbent.

While Bush promised his party's new nominee that he would do everything possible to help, including campaigning alongside him, McCain may want to think twice. Just 32%, in the Post-ABC survey, said they approve of the way President Bush is handling his job, matching his all-time low, also reached in January. The latest RCP Average shows Bush with an average approval rating of just 32.2%, while 62% disapprove. The only good part of being seen with the President right now: Voters have plenty of time to forget the image of the two standing next to each other, though Democrats will do everything they can to remind them.

There will be hundreds of polls pitting McCain against the eventual Democratic nominee, and in early months, most will likely show the Republican with ground to make up. But there are advantages within the numbers. If McCain can successfully exploit them, by shaping the debate around foreign policy, the war in Iraq and national security, he has a reasonable shot at winning the White House in November. If he avoids the pitfalls by staying away from his own party's President, he will increase his chances even further.

DNC Files McCain Complaint

In a rare Sunday conference call, DNC chair Howard Dean said his party will file a complaint today with the FEC over John McCain's effort to extricate himself from spending limits he originally agreed to months ago. After winning several early primaries, McCain asked to withdraw from the spending limits, a request the FEC generally agrees to if the candidate has not spent any federal matching money, the Washington Post writes.

But McCain has three problems: First, the FEC can refuse to allow a candidate to get out of his commitment if he has used the potential matching funds to secure a campaign loan, something the DNC argues McCain did. In fact, a loan of several million dollars made to his campaign did come when McCain was applying for the matching funds. As the GOP front-runner, McCain has the ability to raise millions more than he was able to in the primary, but the FEC may decide that, by using matching funds as collateral, he has effectively "spent" the money.

Second, McCain, the DNC argues, needs the FEC to act to allow him to withdraw. The commission issued McCain a letter last week making the same argument. Ordinarily, that would not be a problem. But thanks to a spat between Senate Democrats and Republicans, the FEC is currently made up of just two out of the six commissioners it is supposed to have. Party leaders in the upper chamber are at odds over how to fill the remaining four seats, and without a quorum of four, the body cannot act on anything, delaying a decision on McCain's campaign.

Finally, it is highly unlikely that McCain has not already violated some FEC rules. Accepting matching funds means the Arizona Senator would be limited to spending a total of about $54 million in the primary, which doesn't officially end until the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, in early September. FEC reports show McCain has already spent $48.4 million through January 31.

Assuming he did not spend a penny in the four days leading up to Super Tuesday, or in later contests this month, he would be left with just $5.6 million to spend in the remaining seven months of the campaign. But McCain's spending has barely slowed, especially after his camp pulled in more than $12 million in January. When FEC reports for February are due, on March 20, they will likely show McCain has easily busted through the $54 million limit. Then again, because the FEC cannot act on any complaints, he won't face penalties for doing so until at least two more commissioners are approved.

McCain's campaign and the Republican National Committee argued that Dean, in his threat to issue a complaint, was being hypocritical. Spokesman Brian Rogers said McCain is currently trying to pull out of the system in exactly the same way Dean did during his presidential run in 2004.

Until the FEC reestablishes a quorum, after the standoff between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell ends, McCain appears trapped in the system, but the agency cannot punish him. After they return, thanks to the complicated issues raised by the requests and complaints, it is likely the matter will wind up in court. A problem the McCain camp needs to prepare for: How will it look when the candidate who is most seen as a crusader for campaign finance reform is battling the FEC in court?

Popcorn For The Mind

Happy Presidents' Day. As with Congress and the federal government, Politics Nation is taking a little breather today. While we do so, prepare for tomorrow's primary, in Wisconsin, and caucuses, in Hawaii, with these handy statistics:

Wisconsin

Population: 5.6 million (90% white, 6% African American, 4.7% Hispanic, 2% Asian)

According to the 2000 census, a little over 22% of Wisconsin residents over 25 years old had earned a bachelor's degree or more. That's slightly below the U.S. average, estimated at 27%.

At 46.3%, Barack Obama has just a 4.3-point lead over Hillary Clinton in the latest RCP Wisconsin Average.

Super delegates for Clinton: Rep. Tammy Baldwin, DNC member Tim Sullivan
Super delegates for Obama: Governor Jim Doyle, Reps. Gwen Moore and David Obey, DNC member Stan Gruszynski

Hawaii

Population: 1.3 million (41% Asian, 23% White, 18% multiple races, 9% Hawaiian, 7% Hispanic)

Just over 26% of Hawaii residents are college graduates, barely under the U.S. average, while 29% of homes speak an Asian language and 66% speak English, one of the lowest rates in the country.

No polls have been conducted in Hawaii, but remember that Asian Americans broke harder for Clinton than even Hispanics did. It may be his home state, but Hawaii could be tough territory for Obama.

Super delegates for Clinton: Senator Daniel Inouye, DNC member Richard Port
Super delegates for Obama: Rep. Neil Abercrombie

Even GOP Turnout High In DC

WASHINGTON, DC -- Turnout remains heavy throughout the Potomac area today, and on both sides. At Stuart Junior High School on Capitol Hill, just a few steps from Politics Nation Plaza, about 500 Democrats had showed up to cast ballots by 1 p.m., an elections clerk said.

Surprisingly, in a city in which just 19,000 people voted for George W. Bush in 2004, the clerks at Stuart have already run out of Republican ballots. Election officials here said they hadn't expected so many GOP voters to turn out, which they said indicated heavy excitement on both sides of the aisle.

No polls have been conducted of Washington voters, but many assume John McCain will carry the city. Still, the plethora of churches in and around the city suggest Mike Huckabee might have a fighting chance.

On the Democratic side, Barack Obama spent part of the morning shaking hands with voters at Eastern Market and at a Dunkin' Donuts in a popular business district on Capitol Hill. Both Obama and McCain later made their way to the Senate floor, where Obama received congratulations from Washington State Senator Patty Murray, a Clinton backer. Obama carried all of Washington's 39 counties in his romp on Saturday.

Polls close in Washington tonight at 8 p.m.

Veeps: The Case For...

As we wrote this morning, Barack Obama yesterday floated the idea that Virginia Governor Tim Kaine would be on his short list for a position in the administration. Convenient, given that Virginia holds its primaries today and given that Kaine is the most high-profile Democrat in the state who's chosen a candidate (Former Governor Mark Warner, running for Senate, has not backed a candidate, and neither has Senator Jim Webb).

Obama's public mullings about who would fill his cabinet and got us thinking, and the popularity of Veepstakes, over at the RCP Blog, got us wondering: Who would be a good fit for Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain? Today, we're offering the case for a few candidates for each contender in three different posts: Four real contenders, a long-shot hail Mary pick and one candidate to strike from the list.

We'll begin with the junior senator from Illinois, and that governor he was talking about:

Tim Kaine: Watch Virginia's voting pattern today. The incumbent governor, his predecessor and Webb have all won with huge margins in Northern Virginia's suburbs and exurbs, along with increasingly close contests in the state's southern third. If Democrats can tip Virginia toward their column, it will do a lot to getting the party back in the White House. John Kerry tried to woo North Carolina to his side by pulling John Edwards on board, a strategy that didn't work. Virginia is much closer to going blue than North Carolina, and picking Kaine could do the trick. Kaine is young, has management experience Obama lacks and can speak with a southern accent, which would help Obama at least keep the South close.

Kathleen Sebelius: The Kansas governor, like Kaine, helps Obama with management experience he lacks. Obama's outside-the-Beltway message would work well with a Midwestern Democrat elected in the reddest of red states, not once but twice, and he sort of owes her: Her endorsement, the day after the State of the Union, went a long way in advancing the storyline that Obama was starting to gain big-time red state backing, a great way to make the electability argument. And here's a bet to take odds on: If Obama picks Sebelius, she could even put her home state in play. That's not as crazy as it sounds; the Kansas Republican Party has long been split between conservatives like Sam Brownback and more moderate members like Pat Roberts and Bob Dole. Those moderates voted for Sebelius twice, and while they would most likely go with McCain, there's a chance for a big red state coup.

Claire McCaskill: After McCaskill's Obama endorsement, the two seemed attached at the hip. And while Obama won Sebelius' Kansas easily, he needed more help in McCaskill's Missouri, a state so close that several media outlets initially called it for Clinton before switching their projections. Missouri is a bellweather state, and a vice presidential nod could solidify its place in the Democratic camp this year. Plus, Obama the nominee will have just beaten Clinton, the first woman with a real shot at the White House, and he'll need to smooth some ruffled feathers with an important part of the Democratic base. As with Sebelius, picking McCaskill would go far toward healing those wounds. Don't forget, as well, that she was an auditor before winning the Senate seat. "When I was an auditor, stopping corruption in my home state," she could begin, feeding nicely into Obama's change message.

Jim Webb: Virginia's junior, and soon to be senior, Senator would, like Kaine, help move the state into the blue column. While Kaine brings managerial experience, Webb brings a military background, both as a member of the armed services and as former Secretary of the Navy, that both Democratic candidates lack. Webb fits the Obama message of bringing people together as well: A former Republican, he endorsed George Allen in 2000, then ran against him and beat him in 2006. A gun-toting ex-Marine former Republican Southerner would open a lot of new doors to Obama, probably as many, if not more so, than Kaine would.

Longshot: Mike Bloomberg: The billionaire Mayor, like Kaine and Sebelius, brings managerial experience to the table, and in a big way. Whether it's a Fortune 500 company he built himself or the largest city in America, he's been there, run that. And now that McCain looks like the GOP nominee, and assuming Obama wins the Democratic side, Bloomberg's hopes of swooping into the middle and attracting any votes for himself in the top spot have faded. The former Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent doesn't add anything geographically, but he embodies competent management that remains a nice contrast with the Bush Administration. If Democrats keep hammering the notion that any Republican embodies a third term for President Bush, they're going to have to come up with someone who has made government work, and Bloomberg could be just that candidate.

Never Going To Be: John Edwards: The one-time vice presidential pick is old news. Obama wants his endorsement, and he wants Edwards' voters, but picking him for the number two spot brings too many negatives. Obama's argument that he was right the first time about Iraq is a powerful contrast with McCain, so why have someone on the ticket who voted the wrong way? In fact, why have someone who has apologized for a number of votes he took? Republicans are going to hammer Obama for lack of experience and, therefore, a lack of judgment. Picking Edwards only gives the GOP more fodder.

Check back in an hour for Hillary Clinton's veep possibilities.

What's Wrong With WA?

In 2004, Washington State Republicans screamed bloody murder when Attorney General Christine Gregoire won election to the governor's mansion by a margin of barely more than 100 votes. In recent years, several Washington State elections departments have lost absentee ballots, been woefully slow in reporting results and generally made a mess of the system.

This year, it is the state Republican Party that is coming under fire for mishandling results from Washington's Saturday caucuses. With 87% of precincts reporting, John McCain held a narrow lead of about 1.7% over Mike Huckabee, and Huckabee's camp was understandably unhappy when GOP chairman Luke Esser called the race for the Arizonan.

In a statement, Huckabee campaign chairman Ed Rollins, a veteran political operative, said it was a move he hadn't seen in four decades in politics. "It would be a disservice to every voter in Washington state to not pursue a full accounting of all votes cast," Rollins said. "That is an outrage."

The Huckabee campaign has dispatched lawyers to the state to sort the mess out, the second time in four years attorneys have argued over Washington's voting process. The Huckabee team is well aware of that fact: "Washington Republicans know, from bitter experience in the 2004 gubernatorial election, the terrible results that can come from bad ballot counting," the campaign said in a statement, according to the Seattle Times.

Meanwhile, state Republicans will allocate half their delegates to the national convention based on next Tuesday's primary, with which there have also been complications. The Associated Press writes thousands of ballots are being thrown out because voters aren't signing an oath declaring themselves Democrats or Republicans. In King County, the state's largest and home to Seattle, more than one in five ballots have been thrown out, elections officials said.

Though Politics Nation is a proud Evergreen Stater, it looks like Washington is getting better at botching elections than Florida is. The Sunshine State made a mess, regardless of final results, of the 2000 presidential contest as well as a 2006 congressional race -- though Rep. Vern Buchanan was found to have won in the end, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office released last week, it still took fifteen months to make that determination. The Rainy State took a lawsuit to decide the governor's race and now might have screwed up the Republican caucuses.

If the state has one more misstep, Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury might begin to get ideas about annexing Washington's elections department. He might have to: After the retirement of longtime Secretary of State Ralph Munro in 2000, no one in Washington can seem to get it right.

Super Saturday Thread

10:45 -- It was, as expected, a good night for Obama. A clean sweep, in fact, winning by huge margins in NE and WA and what looks to be a double digit margin in LA, if it holds. He also picked up 3 pledged delegates from the US Virgin Islands, according to Ben Smith, which is nothing to sneeze at given the way this race is going. Prior to this evening, Clinton held a 62 delegate lead over Obama (including super delegates), but when the smoke clears tomorrow morning Obama should probably edge ahead by the slightest of margins. - TOM BEVAN

9:35 -- Finally some results for the GOP in Washington. With 16% in: McCain 27, Huck 26, Paul 21, Romney 17. - TOM BEVAN

9:30 -- Exits in Louisiana look good for Obama and show a close race between Huck and McCain. - TOM BEVAN

9:05 -- With Louisiana polls just closed, it appears Obama will carry Louisiana as well. Still, exit polls appear to show Obama with less than a ten-point win, leaving the nets unable to make a call just yet. African Americans made up 44% of the electorate, which is high for a national average, but probably low for Louisiana, where 30% of the total electorate in 2004 was black. As Louisiana's population fled after Hurricane Katrina, did Mary Landrieu's chances of winning re-election to her Senate seat flee as well?

8:58 -- Once again, Democratic turnout is massive. Washington State Democrats say they're close to 200,000, which could more than double the previous record, set in 2004, the Seattle P-I reports.

8:33 -- The Seattle Times has virtually called the race for Obama. "Barack Obama coasting to victory in Washington," the Times' headline reads. "Obama way ahead in early returns," the Seattle P-I heads. No calls from the networks yet.

8:24 -- With 35% in, Obama leads with about 67% of the delegates from Washington State, compared with 32% for Clinton.

8:19 -- With 73% of the vote reporting, Barack Obama has won the Nebraska caucuses, NBC News projects. He's got 69% of the vote compared with 31% for Clinton. Washington State and Louisiana are still out. Clinton speaks at the Virginia Jefferson-Jackson dinner momentarily.

7:55 -- Just asking, it's now four hours after Washington's caucuses began. Both Democrats and Republicans are done. In Nebraska, it's been a similar length of time. Where are our results? AP expects Nebraska to begin reporting in about 5 minutes.

6:21 -- A heavily Democratic precinct in South Seattle gave four delegates to Obama and just one to Clinton. Nearly a hundred people attended that particular caucus, in the city's diverse 37th Legislative District, which has large African American, Latino and Asian populations. Meanwhile, Seattle Times political guru David Postman reports just 100 people showed up to caucus in all the district's Republican precincts -- of which there are 140. Don't extrapolate that to the entire state: The 37th District votes overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates in general elections. Still, it's yet another measure of massive turnout on the Democratic side.

6:10 -- The Clinton camp wants to make sure the media keeps results in proportion: "The Obama campaign has dramatically outspent our campaign in these three states, saturating the airwaves with 30 and 60 second ads. The Obama campaign has spent $300,000 more in Louisiana on television ads, $190,000 more in Nebraska and $175,000 more in Washington," the Clinton camp said in a statement released just now. "Although the next several states that hold nominating contests this month are more favorable to the Obama campaign, we will continue to compete in them and hope to secure as many delegates as we can before the race turns to Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania."

6:06 -- A sign of how lopsided tonight's Washington Democratic caucuses could be: At a precinct in Bellingham, a very liberal college town twenty minutes from the Canadian border, 83% of caucus attendees chose Obama. Clinton backers scored one delegate, undecided voters won a delegate and Obama will take ten delegates to the Whatcom County convention.

4:41 -- Not to kill the suspense, but we're not going to have any exit poll or entrance poll information to report today. The consortium is not conducting the polls today, saving their ammunition, perhaps, for the Potomac Primary.

4:20 -- Barack Obama currently holding a town hall in Bangor, Maine. The rest of today's schedule: Huckabee visits Walter Reed in Washington. Clinton and Obama are both in Richmond, Virginia, for state Democrats' Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. Tomorrow, Huckabee's on Meet the Press and Face the Nation. Obama's in Alexandria and Virginia Beach, while Clinton holds events in Catonsville, Maryland and Roanoke, Virginia

4:11 -- Just a thought: If Huckabee does well in today's Washington caucuses, as we wrote yesterday, credit his performance to an emergence of evangelical voters on the east side of Lake Washington. But along with Nevada, Washington has a smaller church attending population than any other state in the country.

4:07 -- Huckabee is already in the Potomac Primary states, addressing the media today in College Park, Maryland, just north of Washington D.C. Huckabee, who has long praised John McCain for being what he calls an American hero, took after his rival on campaign finance reform and other issues on which the two disagree. "We genuinely I think like each other," Huckabee said. Still, "there are contrasts."

4:01 p.m. ET -- As Washington State voters begin to caucus, one set of results is already in. With 76% of the precincts reporting, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has won the Kansas Republican caucuses by an overwhelming 62% to 22% margin. In the Evergreen State, expect a big day for Barack Obama.

A Tale Of Two Candidates

John McCain and Hillary Clinton entered last night as something like frontrunners -- indisputably for McCain, tenuously arguably for Clinton -- and left in very different states.

This morning, McCain will hold a press conference after winning nine states and somewhere around half the delegates available last night. Clinton, meanwhile, flies from New York to Washington to take votes on the economic stimulus package after winning at least eight states, including six of the nine largest, and nearly as many delegates as rival Barack Obama. Later, she will hold a press conference in Arlington, Virginia.

A measure of their relative success, though, can be found in how they will spend their time over the next week: Sky News, via First Read, reports McCain will likely head to a European security summit in Munich he has attended in recent years, and has requested a meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown during a stop in London.

Clinton, on the other hand, wants to spend more time debating Obama, AdAge writes. Only two kinds of candidates ever want to debate more: Those who are behind and those who have no money. Clinton's team certainly isn't running out of money, after raising $13 million in January (though it sure looks like it when Obama raises $32 million), but they may be starting to suspect that they're behind.

The normal reaction of a candidate in the lead, like Obama, is to stall on making commitments to future debates. With just a few days before the rapid-fire contests, though, Team Obama won't have to stall for long. It is likely, though, that the two will meet somewhere in the Washington, D.C. area on Monday before Tuesday's Potomac Primary.

Early Exits: Good For Clinton?

The first wave of exits, which only characterize the demographics of the voting population, may show an early advantage to Hillary Clinton, though Barack Obama has reason to smile as well. And as AP reports, turnout is once again higher among Democrats than among Republicans.

About half of Democrats said the economy was the most pressing issue, while just 3 in 10 said the war in Iraq mattered most to their vote. Clinton has done better among economic voters, while Obama has done best among Iraq voters. Health care, another issue on which those who care most favor Clinton, makes up the top concern of another two in ten voters.

Younger voters are once again making up a smaller portion of the electorate, down from the 22% of the electorate in Iowa that was under 30. In general, the older the electorate, the better it's been for Clinton. As in other primaries, a much higher percentage of Clinton voters cited experience as most important -- about half -- while three quarters of Obama voters cited change as the top reason for favoring their candidate. Experience has generally made up a larger portion of Clinton's vote in previous contests.

Half of voters had made their mind up a month ago -- seemingly a good sign for Clinton, who led in many polls in Super Tuesday states -- while about one in ten voters made up their minds today and another tenth within the last three days. Those proportions are approximately the same as exit polls showed in Iowa and South Carolina, while more New Hampshire voters tended to make up their minds late. Still, that could be good for Obama: When voters broke late in New Hampshire, they broke away from him. If they're not breaking late in Super Tuesday states, they may not be breaking toward Clinton.

Voting Problems In AZ

Amid largely trouble-free elections so far this primary season, at least one campaign is worried about serious troubles in Arizona, where voters today are casting their ballots. John McCain is likely to score a big win on the GOP side, but among Democrats, the race is a fierce battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Clinton leads by 6 points in the latest RCP Arizona Average, but Obama has support from Rep. Raul Grijalva and Governor Janet Napolitano, giving him an organization on which to rely.

Clinton's camp, though, says funny business is going on at polling places around the state. Polling place locations have been changed and some names are missing from voter rolls. The Clinton camp just released a statement reminding voters they can cast provisional ballots. If problems are widespread, Obama's vote total could be affected as well, putting a new spotlight on what is already a closely watched barometer.

Still, it has been remarkable that the two biggest voting problems -- running out of appropriate stickers at some Democratic caucuses in Iowa and temporary shortages of ballots in New Hampshire -- have been relatively minor. Voting reforms must have come a long way since debacles in Florida and Washington State in recent years. A good sign of things to come for November?

Everything's A Push Poll

In an era when the latest radio ad a candidate broadcasts can get more listens on the web than over the airways, when everyone is connected by blogs and sites like this, chock full of constantly updated news, everything can be spun to look sleazy. But this year is nothing new: Candidates poll, and they don't always poll their own positive ratings. The only difference is that now, we all know when and where they're polling, and from that information we can gather just what kind of poll they're conducting.

Consider this LA Times report, in which retiree Ed Coghlan, who used to direct news for a local television station in California, received a call from a pollster asking questions about the three leading Democrats (before John Edwards dropped out) and John McCain. Every question asked about Clinton was positive, while many questions about the other candidates were generally negative.

The call was clearly a push poll, right? Not at all. The survey lasted 20 minutes, far too long to be effective in reaching a wide number of voters in time for that state's massive primary. That it was a Clinton poll is in little doubt, and it shouldn't be viewed as malicious. Candidates on all sides need to know the most effective arguments for their own candidacies and against their opponents. Politics is, after all, a zero-sum game: If Barack Obama or Clinton get more than 50% of the vote in a poll, their opponent cannot win by building his or her vote total; they have to take votes away from the other candidate.

Obama's camp has not, as far as we've seen, responded to this poll, and they shouldn't. One of their great lines, that Obama is running a different kind of campaign, is a little misleading: Obama is doing well, some might say leading the Democratic race, precisely because he is running a normal campaign better than Clinton is. It is certain that his campaign has conducted similar polls; how else could they explain their effective use of messages against Clinton? Further, by not reacting to every perceived insult, Obama's team stays on their message and on their game.

But, in this day of constant twists and turns, when literally thousands of media outlets, both new and old, are chasing every angle of every story possible, everything starts to look sinister. No matter how perfect someone's preferred candidate looks, if they're still in the race they're doing something right, and polling an opponent's flaws is an important part of a winning campaign.

Every report of a push poll, in short, needs to be taken with two grains of salt: First, remember that these campaigns, and the outside groups trying to influence them, are run by political professionals whose first job is to win. Second, their methods aren't always underhanded, and not every call that asks about someone else's negatives should be met with a righteous outcry.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Turnout.jpg

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.

iowa -- pork chop on stick.jpg
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.

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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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.

RichPizza.jpg

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.

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.

Weather Looks Good

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

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

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

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

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

Plenty Of News From CNN Poll

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

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

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

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

Clinton 54
Romney 43

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

Clinton 54
Huckabee 44

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

Obama 54
Romney 41

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

Obama 55
Huckabee 40

Edwards 53
Giuliani 44

Edwards 59
Romney 37

Edwards 52
McCain 44

Edwards 60
Huckabee 35

Oh, To Be In St. Pete

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

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

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

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

Calendar Not Set Yet

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

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

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

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

Are Expectations Already Set?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gardner Sets Primary Date

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michigan In Trouble

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Your Calendars

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Access

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quotes Of The Day

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

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

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

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

First Of Many?

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

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

Book your rooms now.

Michigan In Chaos

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only In Iowa

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

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

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

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

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

Dem Race Actually Interesting

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

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

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

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

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

GOP Previews Clinton Tie-Ins

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

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

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

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

Mark Your Calendars

The Iowa Democratic Party Central Committee is scheduled to meet this Sunday at 8 p.m., when they will discuss a date on which to hold the caucuses, according to Radio Iowa and The Page. IDP spokesperson Carrie Giddens confirms to both that state chairman Scott Brennan will recommend to the Central Committee that they hold the caucuses on January 3rd, the same date state Republicans will hold their caucuses.

Now that Iowa has set their schedule, it's New Hampshire's move next. Asked to wager, Politics Nation would put chips on January 8th as the date Secretary of State Bill Gardner sets for the Granite State primary, followed by Michigan one week later.

Regardless of the next move, at least the Iowa piece of the puzzle is in place.

Theater Of The Absurd

The chaos over the primary calendar is getting worse, not better, and quickly. We pointed out Roger Simon's strong suspicion that New Hampshire's primary will be held in December of this year, and residents of the Granite State seem just fine with that, if it means they stay first.

Today's front page of the influential New Hampshire Union Leader:

NH_UL.jpg
(click for a bigger image, courtesy the Newseum)

That's a front-page profile of New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner (Headline: "Gardner the Guardian"), who has sole discretion over when the primary is held. The profile, penned by senior political writer John DiStaso, appears above a front-page editorial from publisher Joseph McQuaid calling on Gov. Mitt Romney to reconsider his decision to participate in the Michigan primary and chastising the "double-talking" Sen. Hillary Clinton.

In turn, the editorial appears above DiStaso's regular column, Granite Status, complete with a picture of Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, who has made it his business to challenge New Hampshire's early privilege (caption: "Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan menace"). The picture, we're sure, will appear on more than a few New Hampshire dart boards before the day is out.

Even NBC Political Director Chuck Todd has had enough. This column has had the privilege of knowing the NBC guru for quite a while, and it's shocking, given his strong feelings on the way college football chooses a champion, to read this sentence: "In fact, I can't believe I'm saying this, but the presidential nominating process has become so ridiculous and convoluted that it makes college football's 'Bowl Championship Series' seem orderly."

Morning Thoughts: Tourists Rejoice!

Good Thursday morning. Summer keeps sticking around Washington, though every morning we swear we feel the tide turning. It's judgment day at Fenway Park, but in Washington, here's what's driving the day:

-- The Senate continues debating the Labor, HHS and Education Appropriations bill, while the House takes a critical vote on overriding the president's veto of SCHIP legislation. The veto is likely, many say, to be sustained by a comfortable margin. Still, emboldened by the public's support for the program, House and Senate Democrats have shown little willingness to compromise. In committees, a vote on reforming the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was pulled from the House floor yesterday after Republicans employed a parliamentary maneuver, so the Senate Intelligence Committee takes up the matter today instead. Judge Michael Mukasey undergoes a second day of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, as they weigh his appointment as Attorney General.

-- Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the Republican who served longest in that post, will resign his seat soon, two sources told CNN's Deirdre Walsh yesterday. Hastert, one source said, "is just done with being a member of Congress." Hastert was House Speaker from 1999 to the end of 2006. The move sets up a special election in Illinois' 14th District, a seat that leans Republican, though a wealthy Democrat, businessman Bill Foster, will be competitive here. Top Republican candidates include State Sen. Chris Lauzen, businessman Jim Oberweis, Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns.

-- Mitt Romney's people are doing nothing to dissuade the notion that it's a two-person GOP race. One adviser on the campaign's payroll emailed fellow Christian conservatives yesterday urging them to back Romney so that Rudy Giuliani doesn't win the GOP nomination, writes Jonathan Martin. While many have wondered whether Romney's Mormonism will hurt him in South Carolina (and it doesn't, with Bob Jones III, at least), we wonder what happens when Christian conservative leaders make a more strenuous push against Giuliani. That could wound his campaign more than Romney's religion, by the end of the day.

-- FEC details keep sticking out like so many sore thumbs, and Washington Post's Paul Kane takes a look at some members in legal trouble who may not be around next year. Rep. William Jefferson, the Louisiana Democrat indicted in the Spring under many counts of corruption, has just $33,000 cash on hand and finds himself in $260,000 worth of debt, most of which comes in the form of loans to himself. He raised just $15,000 in the 3rd Quarter, only $150 of that from someone other than a fellow member of Congress.

-- Rep. John Doolittle, a California Republican, is another ethical retirement threat. He's seen at least nine staffers questioned by authorities, and under threat of indictment he raised just $50,000 and retained just $38,000 cash on hand, and close to the same amount of debt. Doolittle spent more than $2.3 million to beat his Democratic opponent by a narrow margin last year, and that opponent is running again -- though this time Charlie Brown has $380,000 cash on hand, more than ten times what Doolittle has. Chris Cillizza thinks his seat is the most vulnerable Republican seat in the House, assuming Doolittle remains on the ballot. Still, three Republicans are already running against the long-time incumbent, and his chances of surviving a primary look thin.

-- Two big endorsements on the Democratic side today: Washington Post reports that Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a former Clinton Administration official and only the second African American governor in modern history, will back Obama, his fellow Harvard Law graduate. For former Sen. John Edwards, his support comes from former Congressman Ben Jones, of Georgia (who later ran in Virginia). If the name doesn't sound familiar to you, consider another way of looking at it. Jones played Cooter Davenport, the mechanic on the Dukes of Hazzard, from 1979 to 1985. M.E. Sprenglemeyer has photos of the grease monkey campaigning through Iowa with his fellow Southerner.

-- Stephen Colbert is running for President. No, really, check out Tom's post yesterday. Very funny, right? Turns out, according to Vanity Fair's Wilshire & Washington, that a Colbert representative contacted the South Carolina Democratic Party weeks ago, and that South Carolina GOP chief Katon Dawson said his office had received a phone call as well. This can't be serious, right?

-- Real Lede Of The Day: Playbook puts it second. The Express ledes with it. It's on the bottom right front page of the Washington Times, bottom left of the Washington Post. That's right, Washington, D.C., cabs will switch from zoned fares to metered fares, per an order by the city's mayor, Adrian Fenty. For years, it was rumored that zone one, which encompassed the Capitol all the way to George Washington University, was established to give members of Congress a cheap ride downtown. No more, says the Mayor. And no more do cabbies get to cheat tourists who know not where they are.

-- Today On The Trail: Fred Thompson is in Kennesaw, Georgia, to accept an endorsement, then fundraises in Atlanta and Powder Springs. John McCain holds town hall meetings in Spartanburg and Greenville, South Carolina, while Rudy Giuliani meets voters in Minneapolis and Chicago. Mitt Romney holds events in Pawleys Island, Florence, Spartanburg and Fort Mill, South Carolina. Mike Huckabee delivers remarks at Franklin Pierce College, then holds events in Peterborough, Concord and Amherst, New Hampshire. On the Democratic side, Clinton attends a health care forum in Washington, Barack Obama has town hall meetings in Reno and North Las Vegas, Joe Biden stops in Sheldon, Cherokee, Storm Lake, Laurena and Lohrville, Iowa, and Bill RIchardson gives a talk in Des Moines, then meets voters at separate events in Nevada (remember, governor: "Ne-vey-da, Iowa") and Des Moines.

What Women Want

A new ARG poll out yesterday, showing Hillary Clinton leading the Democratic field by 25 points and Rudy Giuliani up on the GOP side by 8 points shows an interesting gender gap developing in both parties: Women are flocking to certain candidates, and those candidates are winning.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton could not have reached 45% without an even half of the women surveyed backing her bid. Just 39% of men support her candidacy. Barack Obama, in second place with 20%, scores better among women than among men as well, by a 21% to 18% margin. Many more men favor John Edwards (third place, 13%) and Joe Biden (fourth, with 5%) than women.

Among Republicans, Giuliani benefits from a sizeable 11-point gender gap. The front-runner, with 24%, scores 30% with women and just 19% with men. The gender gap reverses in second place, as more men back Fred Thompson (21%) than women (11%), giving him 16%, and Mitt Romney's 15% comes with a four-point male advantage. In fourth place with 14%, John McCain scoops up women voters, who favor him by a 10-point margin over their male counterparts.

The gender gap among Democrats is understandable -- Clinton, as the first woman front-runner in history, benefits from a sizable lead. On the GOP side, could Giuliani's head start among women come from his post-September 11th mystique and concerns about crime and safety? If so, the issue may be a tool Giuliani, as the GOP nominee, could use to cut into what would likely be an even larger gender gap in the general election.

The Third Party Gambit

Reports last week suggesting that social conservative leaders would bolt the GOP nominated a pro-choice candidate (read: Rudy Giuliani) were met with defiant statements, not denials, from those same conservatives. Republicans, some social conservatives said, need to be sent a wake-up call, and while bolting the party would help a Democrat win the White House, they argue that the religious right needs to reassert itself as a driving force in the GOP.

But there's a hidden upside for Republicans, if not in the near term, then in the long run. By leaving Republicans and founding a party based solely on a social conservative agenda, the new team could help woo African American voters away from Democrats. Socially conservative African Americans, who have more in common with the white religious right but are loathe to cast a ballot for Republicans, are the targets of some early outreach, the Washington Times reports today.

African Americans are likely to feel more strongly against gay rights, more strongly pro-life and more strongly identified with a church. "As black conservative leaders, we would not be opposed to a third party that brings us together with our fellow Christians," Bishop Harry Jackson, who runs a mega-church near Washington, told the Times.

Still, socially conservative African Americans will need a lot of convincing to go with a candidate other than the Democratic nominee. Just 11% of African Americans voted for President Bush in 2004. Two other factors make life difficult for a socially conservative third party: First, African Americans remain hugely supportive of both Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Second, both leading Democrats, and others running for the nomination, are talking more openly about faith. Obama gave a guest sermon at an African American mega-church in Greenville, South Carolina, this weekend. Obama, said former Ohio Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell who works at the Family Research Council, "hijacked the language" of African American evangelical leaders. But Obama, Clinton and others are less shy about discussing their faith, which could delay a third party's success.

Exclusive: Paul Tops $5 Mil For Quarter

Texas Congressman Ron Paul, an anti-war libertarian making his second run at the White House, will report having raised $5.08 million in the third quarter. The number, which rivals those of John McCain and Bill Richardson, was boosted thanks to last-minute online fundraising that brought in more than $1.2 million in the last week of the quarter alone.

Paul has drawn himself in sharp contrast with the rest of the field, often engaging in loud exchanges with fellow candidates over his vehement opposition to the war in Iraq. His campaign has been marked by frugal spending and a surprisingly strong online fan base; he routinely wins online straw polls after debates.

This is the second quarter in a row Paul has shown fundraising strength. Last quarter he reported having more cash on hand than McCain, a sidebar that contributed to stories of McCain's collapse.

Whether Paul will be a major factor in the GOP nominating contests remains to be seen, but his money totals - it is likely he will have outraised several second-tier Republicans and Democrats combined - mean he will be in for the long haul. Paul's campaign announced they will begin running television spots earlier this week.

Money Troubles

As Blake notes today, with the fundraising quarter ending this weekend, campaigns are getting heavily involved in the expectations game. Money numbers make for excellent news copy, and the mainstream media has its own questions for which they will seek answers. Among them:

-- How big will the drop-off be? One campaign spokesman said recently that the third quarter is an historically bad time to raise money. It's the summer, everyone's on vacation. But when $100 million was raised, by Democrats alone, during the first six months, we should still see some pretty big numbers. Low-hanging fruit is gone, the big donors have maxed out, and even bundlers not named Hsu are running out of friends to call.

-- Who wins the Democratic expectations game? Clinton's camp expects to hit between $17-20 million, while putting Obama's numbers at a probably unreachable $30 million. If Obama outraises Clinton for a second quarter in a row (third, if you don't count the $10 million Clinton transfered over from her Senate account), will more people begin to buy the idea of a long campaign that stretches into late February or even March?

-- Can either John McCain or Mike Huckabee impress enough to get on a few more radar screens? (See the NYT for top-notch analysis) McCain's disappointing -- to say the least -- second quarter cash-on-hand number has to come way up, while Huckabee's strong showing at the straw poll in Ames means expectations are on him to top the seven-figure mark for the quarter, something he hasn't done yet.

-- Whither Fred Thompson? Missing fundraising expectations in his first month of campaigning hurt, and worked to tamp down the myth of Thompson as knight in shining armor. Does he have to come in third, behind Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, to stay relevant? Or should we all start buying the Thompson to withdraw contract at RCP's Fantasy '08? Thompson does have a big upside, though. He's scheduled five fundraisers in Tennessee, and while, as mentioned above, other candidates have exhausted their low-hanging fruit, Thompson's still got plenty ripe for the picking. While other candidates have down quarters, Thompson's could be decidedly impressive, especially by comparison.

-- How much lighter will Mitt Romney's wallet be? The former Massachusetts governor gave his campaign about $9 million in the first half of the year, including $6 million in the second quarter to pay for early advertisements. Will he continue to dip into his personal reserves to give himself a big leg up, or is he waiting for the fourth quarter, when he can do so more efficiently to react to a rapidly-changing situation?

-- Who's got the final leg up? Cash on hand, as AP's Jim Kuhnhenn writes, is the number to watch. The campaigns have just three months to go before the first nominating contests, and while several have run their first ads (Kuhnhenn reports the Democratic Iowa numbers: Obama, $2.7 million so far; Clinton, $1 million; Richardson, $2 million), everyone starts the cash dump pretty soon. Media buyers, beware: Your phones will be ringing off the hook.

-- Who is thinking strategically about responses? Some campaigns are going to have to go very negative to cut down their rivals. If campaigns have the money to hold back, might McCain save an ad defending his immigration record? What about Romney fighting off the very word "Massachusetts"? Thompson not remembering Terri Schiavo? Perhaps the biggest challenge is Giuliani's: He's got to deal with GOP voters' anger when they hear about his record on gays, abortions and guns (especially now that the NRA is considering getting involved in the GOP primary). Of course, this question isn't answered by 3rd quarter FEC numbers alone, but outlines will begin to form.

Candidates are laying low lately, making the mad dash for cash in the final days before the quarter ends. How they answer the questions above may well determine who's still raising money in the first quarter of 2008, and who's simply trying to get rid of debt.

Taking On HillaryCare

Speaking in Des Moines this morning, Senator Hillary Clinton offered version two of her health care plan, hoping for a dramatically better reception than she got in 1994 when HillaryCare crashed and burned.

The campaign claims the plan would cover all 47 million uninsured Americans. The plan was quickly endorsed by business, including Kodak CEO Antonio Perez, and unions backing the New York Senator, including the Machinists Union.

The plan would offer new coverage choices, including the same health care plan options that members of Congress receive. It would lower premiums by cutting some taxes and focusing on prevention and efficiency, end insurance companies' practice of denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions and offer a tax credit to families to make health care more affordable.

The campaign calls the plan a "net tax cut" for taxpayers, and says the bulk of the plan would be paid for by a repeal of the Bush tax cuts for individuals making over $250,000 and through savings from modernizing the health care system and reducing excess spending.

Just moments after she unveiled her American Health Choices Plan, many of Clinton's rivals have taken it upon themselves to knock it down, though in very different ways.

"HillaryCare continues to be bad medicine," said former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. "Hillary Clinton fundamentally believes in Washington. She doesn't believe in the American people." Romney compared Clinton's health care package to "European-style socialized medicine," saying "it's a plan crafted by Washington, centered in Washington -- not by states. It's government insurance, not private insurance. It's frankly the wrong direction."

"If you liked Michael Moore's 'Sicko,' you're going to love HillaryCare 2.0," said Katie Levinson, communications director for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Levinson said the plan "includes more government mandates, expensive federal subsidies and more big bureaucracy -- in short, a prescription for an increase in wait times, a decrease in patient care and tax hikes to pay for it all."

For Democrats, Clinton's 1994 effort is also the launching pad for attacks. While Republicans attack the scope of the program, Democrats point to the fact that the plan failed to pass. "The real key to passing any health care reform is the ability to bring people together in an open, transparent process that builds a broad consensus for change," Senator Barack Obama said, referring to the legendary secrecy that surrounded Clinton's first health care reform effort.

Former Senator John Edwards attacked Clinton more directly. "The cost of [the 1994] failure 14 years ago is not just somebody's political fortune or their scars," he said, according to The Swamp. "It's the millions of Americans who have now gone for almost 15 years without health care."

"I don't believe you can sit down with lobbyists, take their money and cut a deal," Edwards continued. "If you defended the system that defeated health care, I don't think you can be the president who brings health care."