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McCain Up In AZ

Nervous about several recent polls that show Barack Obama competing in John McCain's home state, the Republican has launched a first round of robo-calls to Arizona voters, sources tell Politics Nation.

Several polls, both public and private, show McCain leading Obama, but within the margin of error, as we wrote for the Arizona Capitol Times. Arizona is the second-fastest growing state in the union, growing so fast that Governor Janet Napolitano estimates that a quarter of the state's voters have never seen McCain's name on a general election ballot, just four years after he was last elected to the Senate.

Still, to be so close in one's home state is not a good sign for any presidential candidate. Overall, McCain leads in the Copper State by just 5 points in the latest RCP Arizona Average.

Updated: The full text of the robo-call: "I'm calling for John McCain and the RNC because Barack Obama is so dangerously inexperienced, his running mate Joe Biden just said, he invites a major international crisis that he will be unprepared to handle alone.

"If Democrats win full control of government, they will want to give civil rights to terrorists and talk unconditionally to dictators and state sponsors of terror. Barack Obama and his Democratic allies lack the experience and judgment to lead America. This call was paid for by the Republican National Committee and authorized by McCain-Palin 2008."

Ridge's Sour Grapes

Ex-Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge thinks John McCain needs to carry Pennsylvania to win the White House, and says he's the guy who could have helped, per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

"I think the dynamics would be different in Pennsylvania," Ridge told the paper. McCain "had several good choices and I was one of them."

Ridge hasn't run in Pennsylvania since he was re-elected in 1998, but as a moderate from the Pittsburgh area, he may have helped McCain exploit what looks like a natural divide between more culturally conservative voters and Barack Obama.

Ridge may be right, but it's hard to see how any vice presidential nominee could overcome the 10.7 points by which McCain trails in the latest RCP Pennsylvania Average.

This Says It All

In advance of tonight's vice presidential debate, some Republicans are still infatuated with Sarah Palin, regardless of recent missteps. The latest evidence, spotted on a car here in Washington:

sarah bumper sticker

The Fighter Takes The Stage

ST. PAUL, Minnesota -- John McCain casts himself as a fighter. After a rough and tumble primary campaign in which his campaign was counted out more times than one, the Arizona Senator tonight accepted his party's nomination for President of the United States and once again prepared for the most important battle of his political career.

Entering a packed arena of Republican activists, some of whom once opposed him with ferocity, McCain accepted his party's nomination for president with self-described "confidence" in the coming contest with Democratic rival Barack Obama. "Let there be no doubt, my friends, we're going to win this election," he said.

A day after his vice presidential nominee electrified the Xcel Center in St. Paul, McCain faced a convention that had become as much about Sarah Palin as it had about the party's presidential nominee. In the week since nominating Palin, McCain has reaped benefits as conservatives rallied to his ticket after spending months enjoying only their most tepid support.

McCain used his acceptance speech to assert his own control over a party he has long antagonized, and to reestablish himself as the maverick who captured independent voters during his 2000 bid for president. His service to his country and his dedication to its future dominated, with red meat for those same conservatives so in love with Palin sprinkled liberally throughout.

"You know, I've been called a maverick, someone who marches to the beat of his own drum. Sometimes it's meant as a compliment and sometimes it's not," McCain said. "What it really means is I understand who I work for. I don't work for a party. I don't work for a special interest. I don't work for myself. I work for you."

Never seen as one with a strong background in economic policy, McCain also used his acceptance speech to project empathy with those in dire financial straits. "These are tough times for many of you. You're worried about keeping your job or finding a new one, and are struggling to put food on the table and stay in your home. All you ever asked of government is to stand on your side, not in your way. And that's just what I intend to do: Stand on your side and fight for your future," McCain said.

The matchup with Obama is a study in contrast, one that McCain seems comfortable making. Facing a challenger whose name is becoming almost synonymous with change, McCain pledged his own new, and he asserts safer and more trustworthy, direction for the country. "Let me offer an advance warning to the old, big spending, do nothing, me first, country second Washington crowd: Change is coming."

"When we tell you we're going to change Washington, and stop leaving our country's problems for some unluckier generation to fix, you can count on it," he said. "We've got a record of doing just that, and the strength, experience, judgment and backbone to keep our word to you."

McCain embraces the image of a fighter, and facing a Democratic ticket that does not feature a veteran for the first time in decades, the Republican relied heavily on military symbolism. Obama was frequently interrupted with chants of his name, while McCain was interrupted by chants of "USA! USA!" Then again, McCain, the candidate most closely associated with the troop surge in Iraq, was interrupted multiple times by protesters brandishing anti-war messages.

Still, McCain's campaign clearly thinks the war is a winning issue for him. "I fought for the right strategy and more troops in Iraq, when it wasn't a popular thing to do," McCain said to wild applause. "And when the pundits said my campaign was finished, I said I'd rather lose an election than see my country lose a war."

McCain pledged his respect and admiration for the Illinois Senator. "Despite our differences, much more unites us than divides us. We are fellow Americans, an association that means more to me than any other," McCain said. But McCain also revisited an attack on Obama that has proven effective in the past, casting himself as the real candidate compared with a celebrity. "I'm not running for president because I think I'm blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save our country in its hour of need," he said.

"I don't mind a good fight. For reasons known only to God, I've had quite a few tough ones in my life. But I learned an important lesson along the way. In the end, it matters less that you can fight. What you fight for is the real test," McCain said.

And McCain has a fight ahead of him, one he made clear tonight. "I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it," he said.

Republicans on Capitol Hill think they have found a winning political issue in expanded domestic oil production. By picking the ardently pro-drilling Palin and in his speech tonight, McCain signaled energy will also be a key part of his presidential campaign. McCain cast it as a new Manhattan project: "We're going to embark on the most ambitious national project in decades. We are going to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don't like us very much. We will attack the problem on every front. We will produce more energy at home. We will drill new wells offshore, and we'll drill them now."

After eight years of unpopular Republican rule, McCain walks the fine line of distancing himself from President Bush without distancing himself from the GOP activists who still approve of Bush's job performance. Energy development, he showed, could be an avenue toward that balance. His plan "is an ambitious plan, but Americans are ambitious by nature, and we have faced greater challenges. It's time for us to show the world again how Americans lead," McCain said.

The nearly forty-minute address demonstrated again the contrast both candidates will draw over the next two months. John McCain is no Barack Obama, either ideologically or stylistically. But McCain, known at times for his awkward and halting speeches delivered from TelePrompTers, showed a marked improvement in front of as many as 25,000 adoring fans.

McCain's goal tonight was to connect with voters who might not otherwise give a Republican candidate a second look. Even with the popular McCain, independent and moderate voters have an attractive choice in Obama. Seeking to reestablish himself as a maverick who bucks his party while not alienating those same activists could be the Republican's best chance at victory.

But it will take a fight, and McCain knows history is not on the side of a party holding the White House after eight years of an unpopular president. "Stand up, stand up, stand up and fight. Nothing is inevitable here," McCain said. "We're Americans, and we never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history."

Keep An Eye On This

ST. PAUL, Minnesota -- Republicans are trying out new lines of attack against Barack Obama at the national convention in St. Paul and Minneapolis, auditioning zingers they hope can undermine the Democratic candidate. It's a task activists and message-makers from around the country are undertaking, as opposed to the campaign itself.

Here's a good one we heard this morning: "They want to change America. We want to change Washington." That was Americans for Tax Reform's Grover Norquist, addressing the Arizona and Nevada delegations this morning at a hotel just steps from the Xcel Center and riffing off Obama's massive speech in Denver.

It could be an effective line. Sure, four in five voters think the country's off on the wrong track, but, argues Norquist, a stringent fiscal libertarian, it's Washington that needs fixing, not the rest of the country. Norquist urged Republican activists to focus on what he characterizes as Democratic meddling in people's affairs.

Will the McCain campaign use the line? If so, give Norquist credit.

Pawlenty To NPC

As buzz grows around Tim Pawlenty's chances at being named John McCain's running mate, the Minnesota Governor will make a stop at the National Press Club next week, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported on Friday. Pawlenty, a two-term governor, will meet the media at the downtown Washington venue on August 6.

Pawlenty will focus on a critical swing group that could be key to rebuilding the Republican Party. The governor will focus his address on "Sam's Club Republicans," a reference to the Wal-Mart division that competes with Costco.

The increased buzz has led to speculation not only that Pawlenty is among those who remain on McCain's short-list for the number two slot, but also that an announcement one way or the other will come in a matter of days, not weeks.

Most suspect that McCain and rival Barack Obama could name their vice presidential selections before the beginning of the Olympics, on August 8, though McCain might wait until nearer to the start of his own convention starting the first week in September.

Laying Odds On McCain's Veep

The vice presidential buzz is mounting, and many think a pick from John McCain is imminent. His campaign floated the possibility of a pick this week, and the Arizona Senator will host a barbeque for 75 top supporters and donors this weekend at his ranch in Sedona. Comments out this week suggest he's narrowed the list way down, and may even have his mind made up, waiting only until the timing is right.

The timing is always right for laying odds on various possibilities, so here's our look, perhaps only days before the pick is announced, at the candidates widely seen as finalists. We're basing these odds on a number of factors, from media buzz to level of comfort with McCain:

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty (2-1): He's one of McCain's biggest backers, and he spent hours at McCain headquarters this week giving interviews and meeting with staff. That set off serious alarm bells with Politics Nation, and while the media buzz has died down a bit, we think Pawlenty remains the favorite.

Ex-Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (3-1): The favorite of the Bush Administration, Romney brings economic credibility to a ticket that lacks just that. McCain is under pressure to pick his one-time rival, who could raise gobs of money for Republicans, and by all accounts the two have a better rapport now than they once did.

Ex-OMB Director Rob Portman (7-1): From the swing state of Ohio, Portman has good political skills, and his buzz shot way up when he joined McCain on the Straight Talk Express yesterday. But the big knock on Portman's resume is that he served in the Bush Administration. That's like being a former Enron executive: It doesn't matter if you didn't do anything wrong, everyone still thinks you did.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist (15-1): There have been few more dedicated surrogates than Crist. He's youthful, getting married soon (Hello, good press) and can attack with a smile. But we think the offshore drilling position change could hurt more than help, given how desperate it looked at the time. Plus, his media buzz is way down.

Ex-Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge (20-1): He's always been a McCain backer, but Ridge would irritate social conservatives because of his pro-life beliefs. If McCain's map must include a win in Pennsylvania, Ridge is a good pick, but other than that, why tick off the base further?

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham (20-1): Always by McCain's side, the South Carolinian seems more a best friend than a veep wanna-be. But we have it on reasonable authority that Graham would love to be the number two, and McCain does value loyalty above many other qualities. Could be a surprise pick that seemed too obvious to even guess at.

RNC Victory chair Carly Fiorina (20-1): She's a good surrogate, and her business background could help. But the DNC research shop is just waiting to point out how many job cuts she made at Hewlett-Packard, and the media buzz around her is all but gone.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (30-1): Yes, he's popular, and yes, he's a reformer in a state that's in desperate need of reformation. But what better way to make an issue of McCain's septuagenarian status than to pick someone who's nearly half his age? Jindal seems more likely to run for president in 2012 or 2016. After all, the guy's only 37!

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (75-1): She may be a reformer with fans inside the new righty generation, but no one's ever heard of her, and as far as we can tell she hasn't been in the same room with McCain for years. Plus, it's Alaska, which is probably her biggest drawback.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (1,000-1): The potential candidate with the most vocal supporters has unquestioningly eliminated herself from the field. As a part of the Bush foreign policy team, there's no one less interesting to McCain. Sorry, Rice fans. Try again in four or eight years.

The Field (10-1): We think there could still be a surprise or two left up McCain's sleeve. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is in Minnesota talking him up today. Senator Joe Lieberman would be an off-the-wall pick to counter Obama picking, say, Nebraska's Chuck Hagel. When you need the news coverage, as McCain does, the Field's odds go way up.

McCain Addresses Latino Voters

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In remarks to one of the country's leading Latino organizations, John McCain focused heavily on his plans to reverse a flagging economy through comprehensive unemployment insurance, tax and health care reform, only briefly addressing battles he has fought for comprehensive immigration reform. Instead, in his speech to the League of United Latin American Citizens, McCain spent time on his plans for energy independence and health care reform to a largely friendly audience.

"The economy isn't the sum of an array of bewildering statistics. It's about where Americans work, how they live, how the pay their bills today and save for tomorrow," McCain said. Citing the two million Hispanic-owned small businesses, he urged tax cuts for small businesses, which have created jobs this year while other sectors have shed employees. Most notably, McCain said he would reduce the business tax rate from 35% to 25%.

McCain also called for doubling the child tax credit, reducing the estate tax to 15% and a $5,000 health care tax credit. On energy, McCain again promoted his Lexington Project, to build 45 new nuclear power plants and to develop clean coal, a project he estimated would create "millions" of new jobs.

Too, the Arizona Senator continued his focus on free trade, an issue he spent last week discussing during trips to Colombia and Mexico. "When have Americans ever been afraid of competition? America is the biggest exporter, importer, producer, manufacturer, and innovator in the world," McCain said. "That's why I reject the false virtues of economic isolationism."

Hispanic voters care more about education than the electorate at large, strategists on both sides of the aisle agree. McCain, said former LULAC vice president David Rodriguez, has always been attentive to education needs, and the senator's biggest applause line came when he declared "the civil rights challenge of our time rests in education."

McCain also hit rival Barack Obama for refusing to share the stage with him in a town hall-style meeting. McCain had offered an invitation, he said, but Obama declined. Once an issue on which Obama took heat, few have brought up the town hall meetings McCain once proposed and Obama subsequently rejected.

One cannot leave a meeting with Hispanic voters without addressing the elephant in the room. One of the most prominent backers of comprehensive immigration reform, McCain -- who once received an award from LULAC for his position -- said the fight was not over, but that it would take new work. "We must prove to [opponents of immigration reform] that we can and will secure our borders first, while respecting the dignity and rights of citizens and legal residents of the United States," he said. Still, "we have economic and humanitarian responsibilities as well, and they require no less dedication from us in meeting them."

Perhaps no Republican candidate could appeal to Hispanic voters as well as McCain. "I represent the great state of Arizona where Spanish was spoken before English was, and where the character and prosperity of our state owes a great deal to the many Arizonans of Hispanic descent who live there," McCain said. "And I know this country, which I love more than almost anything, would be the poorer were we deprived of the patriotism, industry and decency of those millions of Americans whose families came here from other countries in our hemisphere."

Speaking from a teleprompter, McCain demonstrated an easier speaking style than he has in earlier appearances. After several disastrous speeches, in which McCain's presentation was halting, at best, the Arizona Senator even paused on applause lines today. While Obama still offers a better presentation, McCain's performance at LULAC showed a much better candidate than the one in January who thanked New Hampshire voters for handing him a primary win.

McCain's Veep Meet

About two dozen people will join John McCain at his Sedona ranch this weekend, and though not all of them are potential vice presidential candidates some are certainly on McCain's short list. Word of who was invited continues to spread, so here's a quick look at the guest list and what they might bring to the party:

Governor Bobby Jindal: Jindal's youthful experience -- he's been an official at the Department of Health and Human Services, ran Louisiana's health care program and served as governor and he's only 36 -- would be a marked contrast, and he'd likely add to the impression McCain is trying to convey that this is no longer President Bush's Republican Party. He could also bring a good jambalaya recipe.

Governor Charlie Crist: Not a creature of Washington, Crist would bring a fresh, and very tan, face to the Republican ticket. He's only been governor for a year and a half, but he's hugely popular in Florida and would likely guarantee the crucial swing state for the GOP. He's got maturity, at 51, but he's not too old, and executive experience, and he's got a tough-on-crime reputation that earned him the nickname "Chaingang Charlie." But can he barbeque?

Ex-Governor Mitt Romney: We always thought Romney's biggest mistake in his presidential campaign was not playing up his business credentials more. If the economy's an issue come November, McCain could benefit from a running mate who can brag about turning around a number of companies and the Olympics. Romney is 61, but he looks 50, and vetting would be a cinch. Still, is the water completely under the bridge between the two old rivals? Romney seems like the type to bring a side dish to the barbeque to compliment the host's cooking. He might compliment the host's presidential aspirations nicely too.

Senator Joe Lieberman: He's been mentioned by a few for the short list, but the Independent Democrat is more at McCain's side for moral support than anything else. Picking Lieberman, a pro-choice Senator with a long history of a pretty liberal record, would inflame McCain's conservative base, so it's probably best if the Connecticut Senator plays ambassador to independent voters. Plus, no good barbeque comes from Connecticut.

Senator Lindsey Graham: McCain's closest friend in the Senate will be at the gathering this weekend, but it's not likely he will find his way to a short list. Graham would help with social conservatives, and at 52, he's young enough to be a pleasant but not jarring contrast with McCain. But two Senators on the same ticket could hurt a candidate needing to appear not of Washington. Then again, Palmetto-style barbeque sauce is tough to beat.

Governor Tim Pawlenty: Invited, but he won't be there (He's attending a wedding this weekend). Pawlenty has all of the above: A two-term governor who's young enough to contrast with McCain, a base in what could be a swing state, and a positive reputation in Washington conservative circles. Perhaps most importantly, Pawlenty was one of McCain's first backers, through thick and thin, and loyalty is a consideration in McCain's mind. Pawlenty is the guy who calls on his way to the barbeque to see if McCain needs anything picked up. "Like, maybe, a vice presidential candidate? I got one of those."

Ex-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge: Invited, but he's got a prior commitment in Europe. The one-time governor of Pennsylvania brings a background in a swing state that has trended Democratic in recent years, and as the first head of a department dedicated to protecting the country he could help focus the debate more on national security, an issue on which McCain thrives. Added bonus: He was governor during the 1990's, when the economy was doing just fine, meaning he can take credit for adding jobs. Plus, he would be able to remind McCain not to order swiss cheese on the inevitable cheese steak.

Ex-Governor Mike Huckabee: Invited, but his anniversary is this weekend (Probably a wise choice to stick close to home, given that wife Janet likes grenade launchers). With impeccable credentials among social conservatives and an affable personality, Huckabee is conservative but not in a way that would scare anyone. A two-term governor, he doesn't bring any electoral votes, but he could serve as ambassador to the conservative base better than most. And imagine him debating any Democratic rival; Huckabee could run circles around most. But fiscal conservatives in Washington (especially at the Club for Growth) loathe him, which could cause trouble. In lieu of attendance, Huckabee could send a gallon of barbeque sauce from Sims' in Little Rock, makers of the best 'que we've ever eaten.

Sorry, Condoleezza Rice fans: Despite the most organized efforts of backers advocating a veep pick, the Secretary of State doesn't look like she was on the guest list. Interestingly, though, she happens to be in California, just a hop, skip and a jump away from Arizona, with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who might just want to meet this McCain character.

McCain Goes Green

Fresh off a two-day swing to the Pacific Northwest, where he talked up his climate change plans and focused on the importance of the environment, John McCain wants you to know he's going green, and he wants you to join him. "This week our campaign is promoting John McCain's long-term commitment to providing market-based solutions to climate change and highlighting ways we can all protect our environment," campaign manager Rick Davis emailed supporters yesterday.

But that's not all: "We're also taking this week to launch a new section of our store - complete with eco-friendly items."

Fill those Chirstmas stockings early with an embroidered polo shirt or t-shirt, 70% of which is bamboo and the other 30% of which is cotton. Take your support to the grocery store, with an organic cotton tote bag woven in the United States. And it's never too early to head back-to-school shopping, especially not with a recycled notebook with pages lined and colored with organic-based inks.

On Monday, McCain gave an address on climate change in Portland, and even the state's Democratic governor, Ted Kulongoski, showed up to take a listen. Yesterday, McCain went to North Bend, Washington, just east of Seattle and at the foot of scenic Mt. Si, to continue touting his green plans and to take a quick hike in the woods (an outing that traveling press secretary Brooke Buchanan looks very unhappy with, as Jonathan Martin's photo shows).

Had he been wearing one of his new shirts, McCain might have rethought wearing them. What's the point, Politics Nation is left to wonder, of wearing a shirt that's biodegradable? Wouldn't it just fall off? Such environmentally-conscious fashion considerations are not exactly our forte. Perhaps it's time to invest in a biodegradable polo shirt.

A Tale Of Two Veeps

After folding their campaigns, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee promised to do everything they could to get John McCain elected this Fall. But both former contenders are also busy plotting their own comebacks, positioning themselves either as good vice presidential selections for McCain or as strong candidates themselves for 2012, should McCain's bid fall short.

Romney has been the most active, appearing for McCain this week at a Lancaster, Pennsylvania Republican dinner, shepherding McCain around Utah for a major fundraiser and promising to hit the stump in the future. Romney has also said he will raise $15 million for McCain, as the Associated Press' Glen Johnson reports.

The issues McCain is going to face in November could auger well for Romney, something of an economic whiz whose background as a businessman included helping Staples, Domino's and the Olympics turn themselves around. As more voters pay attention to the economy, McCain may decide he needs a running mate with serious economic credentials, and though animosity is still said to exist between the two, Romney would fit that bill.

Huckabee, too, is staying active. He signed a contract with a Hollywood talent agency this week, and next week he will launch a new venture with a major speech, to which his website is counting down (four days, five hours, forty-one minutes and twenty five seconds from the time this post was written). Huckabee brings executive experience, and though the Club for Growth dislikes him, his "Fair Tax" plan could be a compelling addition to a McCain-led ticket.

Then again, McCain can't choose both former rivals for the number two slot, and if McCain loses this year, the two will likely fight it out for the GOP nomination down the road. Fortunately for both, Iowa and New Hampshire are swing states, which voted differently in 2000 and 2004 (Iowa flipped from Gore to Bush, while New Hampshire flipped from Bush to Kerry). Which surrogate is going to park themselves in Des Moines to ensure the state's seven electoral votes go to their guy? Not a bad way to build the brand for 2012.

McCain Chief Optimistic, Sees Challenges Ahead

SANTA ANA PUEBLO, New Mexico -- Entering to a standing ovation of Republican National Committee members, John McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis told the GOP leaders he is optimistic about the general election campaign, but that challenges lie ahead.

Nearly a year ago, few would have thought Davis would be standing before the RNC as the representative of the party's nominee-designate. "He has engineered what will go down in history as perhaps the greatest comeback in politics," RNC chair Mike Duncan told the crowd.

Calling the campaign "the greatest return to victory that has ever been seen," Davis said he's not ceding anything to Democrats. "The Democrats like to talk about the future. They like to talk about change. It's interesting to me that that has become the media's favorite topic. And I want to say that we want to talk about change, and we want to talk about the future too." McCain, though, will offer "change that we can talk about in specific terms," Davis said.

"I'd rather have a candidate who can walk the walk than can talk the talk," he continued, offering direct parallels with Barack Obama. "We're actually going to do it."

In a short video, McCain thanked RNC members and asked that the party come together. "It's going to take a team effort," McCain said. "Sure, we had our differences. Campaigns and primaries are tough," he said, acknowledging former Republican candidates.

Aside from the fissures within the Republican Party, Davis acknowledged larger challenges the party faces. Noting a recent New York Times/CBS News poll that showed voters favor a generic Democratic White House candidate by a fifteen-point margin over a generic Republican. "We cannot win the election if our party is viewed 15 points less as a solution to the problems of America than the Democrat Party," Davis said.

Davis pointed to five subgroups he said would be key to a victory in November. Those include "WalMart Moms," frugal suburban voters lower on the economic scale who Davis estimates will make up 17% of the electorate, and "Rehab Republicans," historically GOP voters who have grown disaffected, and a group from which Davis estimates McCain needs four out of five voters to win.

Younger voters, Davis said, will be a new frontier for national Republicans. While thousands pack rallies with Barack Obama, the campaign and the RNC will work together to figure out new ways to attract those younger voters. Acknowledging Obama's popularity and the higher turnout his candidacy has generated, Davis said he won't give up on the demographic. "If Barack Obama wins the nomination, we need to fight him for every youth vote we can," Davis said.

Reaching out to social networkers, which Davis defined as "Facebook Independents," will be key as well. Fiscal conservatives -- "There's a reason there's no taxation on the internet," he said -- the group is more likely to become an activist on their candidate's behalf.

Finally, Davis focused on Hispanic voters, a group that cast 72% of its ballots for McCain in his last Senate re-election campaign. Calling a strong performance among Hispanics "critical to our success," Davis said the McCain campaign will spend their time and money wooing the demographic that has increasingly broken for Democrats in recent years. Davis also promised that most television advertisements the campaign released would have Spanish-language versions running concurrently. "We need to perform as a party the way George Bush did in 2004," he said.

But the campaign, he promised, "won't be a third term of George Bush that we endeavor to define. It will be a third term for the Republican Party." It will take what Davis described as a "second look" to get voters back into the fold. "We know something about second looks in this campaign, and I know we can get a second look for our party by this November."

Of course, while McCain has secured his party's nomination, Democrats continue to fight amongst each other. Pointing out that Democrats have yet to settle on a nominee, Davis joked: "Frankly, I'd just as soon they not figure that out for a while longer."

Yesterday, Davis sat down with Politics Nation to chat about the race. Look for more of his analysis of the race on Monday.

Guess Who's Back

John McCain is cruising to the GOP nomination, having already secured close to 400 more delegates than he needs to carry the convention in St. Paul. Despite the inevitability, Texas Rep. Ron Paul is still on the hustings, campaigning this weekend in Pennsylvania. Paul, who easily won his bid for renomination to Congress and will likely win the general there, was in Pittsburgh yesterday for a rally and press conference, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

Paul spoke to a packed house and later blamed his loss on his lack of media coverage. Still, his fans know about him somehow: Many drove several hours to see him. As the paper's Timothy McNulty writes, while Hillary Clinton handled calls for her to withdraw from the race by comparing herself with Rocky, Paul might consider himself more of a Sisyphus, the mythical man cursed to roll a stone up a hill only to watch it plummet to earth again.

We sincerely hope that Mr. McNulty's email inbox is big enough to handle the flood he's probably receiving right now.

Paul's supporters, unimpressed by McCain's majority of delegates, have recently made a point of crashing county conventions across the country. At the RNC meeting just north of Albuquerque this week, several Republican state party executive directors told Politics Nation that they are already planning to have sheriff's deputies at the ready if Paul backers make a scene at their conventions.

One thing to keep an eye on: How, or when, does Paul get to speak at the Republican National Convention this summer? He's a Congressman who has won delegates, which should give him a shot at a speaking slot. But with one hour of prime time coverage a night, don't expect Paul to lead off the nightly newscast. We'd be surprised if Paul's speaking slot was any time after 2 p.m. Eastern, when only C-SPAN junkies tune in.

Graham On Sanford: Nah...

Few members of Congress are as close to John McCain as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. Through hard times and good times, from the snows of Iowa to McCain's recent trip to the Middle East, Graham has been by McCain's side, offering comic relief and a valuable surrogate for the nominee-in-waiting. Back home in South Carolina, few politicians are closer than Graham and Governor Mark Sanford; the two ascended through the House and into more senior positions together, both endorsed McCain in 2000, and Graham is even the godfather of one of Sanford's children.

Given the two degrees of separation, it is no wonder that Sanford should be considered a prime candidate for the vice presidential nomination. He's a conservative's conservative, he has governing experience as well as party experience, and -- perhaps even more appealing to McCain -- Sanford is seen as something of a maverick who doesn't always fall into perfect party orthodoxy. Graham's closeness with McCain could help get Sanford's foot even farther in the door.

But in a meeting with The State (video here), Columbia's biggest newspaper, last week, Graham strayed a little off the path if he's going to help his buddy secure the number two slot. "To be honest with you, from South -- I don't see any of us in South Carolina bringing a whole lot of value to the ticket. I mean, we're talking about winning a national race that's going to be very competitive," Graham said.

"I'm just telling you that when it comes time to pick a vice president, that the smart money I think would be trying to add to the national security -- you know, reinforce that aspect of the ticket," he continued. "If we lose South Carolina, it's going to be a very bad year for Republicans."

The comments raised eyebrows in South Carolina political circles, and at least some Sanford advisers were reportedly upset with Graham. It's hardly the first time the senator has irritated his own party. Graham, who is running for re-election this year, is not the favorite Republican in the state, thanks to his involvement in the Gang of 14 and for his more moderate stance on immigration. Despite efforts of some in the Palmetto State to find a challenger to the first-term Republican, only Republican National Committeeman Buddy Witherspoon stepped into the race.

Then again, Sanford may have wounded his own chances by staying neutral this year as governor, eight years after, as a Congressman, endorsing McCain and, with Graham, co-chairing his campaign in the state. This year, he rebuffed McCain's requests for support at least three times, the Wall Street Journal reported this weekend. Now, the relationship between McCain and Sanford is "cordial," one McCain strategist told the paper, and Sanford may have blown his chance.

McCain And The AZ Press

John McCain has enjoyed great relations with the national press in recent years, thanks largely to his accessibility. But the candidate who spends hours a day riding along with journalists, always on the record, and even invites them to his ranch house in Sedona, Arizona, does not have great relations with the home-town media, Politico's Michael Calderone writes.

While national reporters get unfettered access, reporters with the Arizona Republic have not always had cozy relations with their senior senator. After a scandal involving savings and loan figure Charles Keating, which ensnared McCain, and after the paper wrote on Cindy McCain's battle with a prescription drug addiction, McCain's relations with the paper reached an all-time low.

It's not only the Republic, though. This writer, who has the privilege of covering Arizona members of Congress for the Arizona Capitol Times on occasion, has heard complaints from writers and editors about a lack of access as well. At a recent press conference in Phoenix, the day after barbecuing for journalists in Sedona, few local reporters were in attendance, and many, we heard later, hadn't even gotten word of the event.

Still, McCain has been treated largely with kid gloves during this year's primaries, JMart observes. Barack Obama has had to deal with Lynn Sweet and tough Tribune scribes, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani have had to endure countless New York Post and Daily News headers and the New York Times' investigating teams, and Mitt Romney had to endure a Boston press corps that never goes lightly on its home-town candidates.

Even Mike Huckabee has had journalists from his home state on his back. Arkansas journalists, hardened by years following Bill Clinton (an adventure which gave rise to such experienced scribes as AP's Ron Fournier), know how to cover their candidates as well. The Republic, and other Arizona papers, haven't given McCain the same scrutiny that other states have given their candidates.

By most accounts, the relationship between Arizona papers and McCain has now grown cordial, but distant. That could work to McCain's favor in November, when Clinton or Obama have to face the hard-hitting hacks who know them best.

McCain, Close To Win, Benefits From Dem Squabbles

PHOENIX, Arizona -- A day before his campaign hopes to finally lock up the Republican nomination, John McCain voiced his own optimism but refused to declare premature victory while meeting with reporters in his home town. "You know of my superstitions," McCain joked.

McCain's confidence was obvious, though, as he spent a casual weekend with top strategists and members of the national media at his ranch in Sedona instead of stumping in Ohio and Texas. And while other candidates might take a ceremonial turn at the barbecue, McCain showed off his talent over the grill, feeding reporters dozens of racks of ribs using his own special recipe. "He knows what he's doing," one reporter and barbeque fan told Politics Nation.

Flanked by wife Cindy and former Texas Senator Phil Gramm, McCain expressed concern about recent foreign events, including Russian elections, rocket attacks on Israel and rising tensions between Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. Asked by one reporter about Hillary Clinton's recent television ad hypothesizing a telephone call to the White House at 3 a.m., McCain said he is most qualified to handle a crisis.

"I'm not running against their qualificantions," McCain said of Clinton and Barack Obama. "I'm running for mine." McCain again joked that he is not the youngest candidate in the race, but made sure to note that he is no longer the oldest, either. "I'm glad to see Mr. [Ralph] Nader is in. He's older than I am."

McCain's concentration on national security and foreign policy is an integral part of his general election strategy. If the race is determined based on voters' perceptions on the war in Iraq and instability throughout the world, McCain has more than a fighting chance. Voter attitudes are slowly beginning to change on Iraq, and no politician has been more associated with the so-called surge strategy than McCain. Too, tumult around the globe can make voters nervous and eager for an experienced candidate. Those voters, especially against a young senator like Obama, can be convinced to cast ballots for McCain.

The recent feud between Clinton and Obama on national security, most epitomized by Clinton's telephone ad, only serves to swing voter attention back to international situations. While each candidate is focused, at least at the moment, on winning the Democratic nomination, both are aiding McCain's effort to drive the conversation back to his turf.

McCain still has to lock up his own nomination, and though his notorious superstitions make him too nervous to call for rival Mike Huckabee to leave the race, campaign advisers think the race will end tomorrow. "If we win the four [states in play tomorrow], we will" reach the magic number, adviser Steve Duprey told Politics Nation.

McCain's Math Problem

Technically, the Republican race is not through yet. John McCain still finds himself short of the 1,191 delegates necessary to win the GOP nomination, even though Mike Huckabee, the last remaining serious challenger in the race, is still doing his best in Texas and Ohio. While Huckabee can't win either, he's become such a problem that McCain has severely altered his schedule this week to handle what has to be an increasingly irritating pest.

Last week, McCain began what looked like a general election schedule. He raised money in Indianapolis, met workers at a Ford plant in Wayne, Michigan before raising money near Detroit, and even spent some time in Washington. He started helping down-ballot candidates as well, holding a fundraiser for businessman Jim Oberweis in Illinois that raked in $250,000.

But this week the story has been different. After today, McCain will have held events in four cities in Texas and four cities in Ohio so far this week. His campaign has not made public events in any other states in the near future.

McCain, it seems, just wants this thing over with, something he could, hypothetically, achieve come Tuesday. By RCP's count, McCain is 172 delegates shy of taking the nomination. Together, Ohio and Texas offer 228 delegates, plus 17 from Vermont and 20 from Rhode Island. Vermont and Rhode Island are likely to give the lion's share of their delegates to McCain -- the Green Mountain State delivers all its delegates to the statewide winner, while Huckabee has expended no effort in Rhode Island.

Still, McCain will need a big margin to finish the race off on March 4. Assuming he takes every delegate from the two New England states, he will need 135 of the 228 Texas and Ohio delegates to secure the nod. With McCain up by nearly 30 points in the latest RCP Ohio Average and ahead by 18.7 points in the last RCP Texas Average, he just might do it.

If he falls short, the March 11 primary in Mississippi will be the last chance for him to end the nominating contest before Pennsylvania, on April 22. Until he reaches 1,191 pledged delegates, though, McCain will have to deal with Huckabee. His public travel schedule sends a clear message: McCain wants this thing over with.

McCain's Happy Irony

Over the weekend, the Northern Mariana Islands allocated all nine of their delegates to the Republican National Convention to John McCain, putting him that much closer to officially locking up the Republican nomination, the Associated Press reported.

It is something of an irony that McCain, who led one of the investigations into imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff's illicit dealings, would pick up delegates from the Marianas. Abramoff served as a top lobbyist for the islands and helped steer legislation through then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay's office, actions that got both men in trouble. McCain's investigation of Abramoff centered on his use of non-profit anti-gambling organizations through which to direct money.

McCain has used his investigation of Abramoff to bolster his reputation as an outsider in the Beltway. "Ask Jack Abramoff if I'm an insider in Washington -- you'd probably have to go during visiting hours in the prison -- and he'll tell you and his lobbyist cronies of the change I made there," McCain said during a Fox News debate in South Carolina in January.

McCain will gladly take the delegates, but he might want to dispatch some talking points to island Republicans. "With [McCain] as president, I feel that we will have a better chance of being heard in Washington, D.C.," local GOP vice chair Ana Teregeyo told the AP. Some of the higher-ups who worked with Abramoff probably thought they already had an in.

This is the first year Republicans from the Northern Marianas have a say in their party's presidential election. The territory was admitted to the national GOP after the 2004 elections, AP says.

For the record, a flight from Saipan to Minneapolis from August 31 to September 5 would run delegates an affordable $1629.

McCain Hits The House

Presumed Republican nominee John McCain returned triumphantly to the House of Representatives yesterday, a body in which he served in the early 1980s, to address the House GOP conference about his presidential bid. His old colleagues, according to several Congressmen in the room, welcomed him back with open arms.

McCain meets the press along with, from left,
Roy Blunt, John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Adam Putnam
Republican leader John Boehner introduced the Arizona Senator, reminding colleagues how many districts McCain had visited to aid them with their own re-election bids, and while McCain himself acknowledged that there would be differences on the issues, "he struck all the right chords," one Republican said.

"There have been some that have been less than enthusiastic in the past," the Republican, who is close to McCain, recalled. But yesterday there was no grumbling, multiple congressmen told Politics Nation. The conference, another member said, has no choice but to back McCain, "He's the best shot we've got. And it's a good shot."

McCain revealed to the group that his son, Jimmy, a Marine, had landed safely in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Monday, home after a seven-month deployment. CNN reports McCain told members his son began his tour by witnessing improvised explosive devices frequently, but that, as a testament to the success of the surge, he ended his tour of duty handing out soccer balls to Iraqi youth. That elicited a standing ovation.

Later, at a press conference at the Capitol Hill Club across the street, McCain was endorsed by Boehner, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, chief deputy whip Eric Cantor and Conference chairman Adam Putnam. McCain told the media the group had agreed there was work to be done to unite the party, First Read reports. Still, the show of unity is important, sending the message from top Republican leaders that their nominee deserves to be rallied around.

McCain's success depends not only on his appeal to independent voters, but to his ability to turn out the base and make sure mainstream Republicans are satisfied with his candidacy. Yesterday's conference with House Republicans will not fix long-strained relations completely, but members of Congress recognize, at least, that they have little choice other than to rally behind their party's new leader.

McCain's Bad Timing

Last night, John McCain stopped a recent trend of losing primaries by sweeping the Potomac contests, and today, instead of racing back to the campaign trail, he is taking a victory lap on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, he picked a time when several members could find a good reason to skip out.

House Oversight and Government Reform chairman Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who serves as a watchdog for everything in Washington, is currently reading an opening statement as New York Yankees ace Roger Clemens and his former trainer wait patiently to be grilled. McCain supporter Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican who once chaired the committee, is perched next to Waxman, ready to jump in.

The hearing is one of the rare times members of Congress find themselves on a wide range of television stations. Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and ESPN are carrying the hearing live, and as Waxman gets going, it is clear Clemens and Brian McNamee are not going to have an easy day. Congress, unlike former Senator George Mitchell, has the power to subpoena, and so far, they have used it.

It is somewhat ironic that McCain is speaking to Republican members of Congress as Clemens testifies on the Hill. McCain has long been an advocate of cleaning up sports, from boxing to baseball. While Waxman and his committee are taking a look at steroid use in baseball now, McCain began looking into testing players for drug use in 2004, when he served as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee. "Don't you get it?" McCain asked players union chief Donald Fehr at a September 2005 hearing.

If McCain misses a few members today because they prefer to nail Clemens down for his alleged steroid use, he's probably okay with it. If the hearing were happening in the Senate, McCain would probably be there himself.

Veeps III: McCain's Minion

Our third look at potential vice presidential contenders tackles John McCain, the all-but-crowned Republican nominee. Unlike Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, McCain has problems with his own base, which will likely play a major factor in the selection process. Still, McCain has a history of seemingly intentionally irritating conservatives, so he could throw those concerns out the window and just pick whoever he likes.

Again, here are four serious choices, a long-shot contender and someone you'll never see on McCain's ticket:

Tim Pawlenty: The governor of Minnesota was one of McCain's earliest and loudest supporters. Unlike some, when McCain's campaign seemed to collapse, Pawlenty didn't abandon ship. McCain values loyalty, and Pawlenty's loyalty could be repaid with a nomination. Pawlenty has found electoral success, though by the skin of his teeth in 2006, in a traditionally Democratic state, and balancing the ticket with a Midwesterner could be just what Southwestern McCain needs. Republicans need Ohio to win an election, though Pawlenty could make the case for the GOP ticket in nearby Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, three states that chose presidential candidates by very narrow margins in 2004.

Mike Huckabee: In what has to be the most polite campaign in generations, Huckabee is still running against McCain, and though he can't win the race mathematically, he can prevent McCain from getting the necessary delegates to do so. That might force McCain's hand and make him hire Huckabee, or it could prove that the former Arkansas Governor is scrappy enough to be the attack dog. When thinking about running mates, McCain has to consider the possibility of a vice presidential debate, and regardless of who the Democrats pick, Huckabee could wipe the floor with them for a solid hour. McCain has never had the closest relationship with evangelical voters, something Huckabee knows about, and while anti-tax groups would scream bloody murder, picking Huckabee could go a long way toward healing McCain's rift with the base.

Mark Sanford: The governor of South Carolina would be the closest thing McCain could do to picking someone who irritates conservatives just for the heck of it. Sanford is widely admired by his constituents, but the Republican establishment in the Palmetto State are not fans. Sanford stayed on the sidelines this year, but in 2000 he, along with now-Sen. Lindsey Graham, were big McCain backers as members of Congress. Sanford is conservative, has a record of management, and while he doesn't bring anything geographically, he could solidify the GOP base in the South, something every Republican needs if they're to have even a chance at winning the White House. Picking Sanford could be tantamount to admitting McCain needs help in solid red country, but he still brings benefits as a governor.

Chuck Hagel: A fellow Vietnam veteran, if the war in Iraq once again comes to dominate the debate, Hagel would be a good choice if McCain tries to tack back toward the center. That's not to say McCain will change his position; he is invested, both personally and politically, in the success of the war. But Hagel's opposition to some parts of the war could send the message that McCain is more interested in success now than success later. Hagel, a businessman, would probably make business Republicans happy. Like McCain, though, Hagel's record on social issues is solid, but with little advocacy to which he can point. Some social conservatives might think Hagel, like McCain, is not really one of theirs despite voting records that tell the opposite story.

Longshot: Charlie Crist: The only reason the extremely popular Florida governor, who has a record on taxes and social issues that conservatives love but who attracts support from Democrats too, should be considered a long shot is his relatively short two-year tenure in the governor's mansion. Other than that, Crist is nearly perfect: He's well-tanned (and it looks real), he's from a swing state critical to any candidate's fortunes, and he is one of the most personable people in politics. His last-minute backing gave McCain just enough momentum to overcome Mitt Romney in Florida, a result that essentially made McCain the front-runner. Crist may not be on a ticket this year, but watch to see if he joins a ticket in the near future.

Bonus Longshot: Mitt Romney: As we wrote for Clinton, she could conceivably be forced to pick Obama if neither has the delegates necessary to carry the convention on their own. Should McCain's surprising underperformance against Mike Huckabee continue to an extent to which McCain cannot achieve delegates necessary to winning the nomination, Mitt Romney's 200-plus delegates could come into play. If McCain needed delegates to get over the top, and if he somehow cannot reach an agreement with Huckabee, Romney's collection could be the answer. The two men seem to intensely dislike each other, and Romney as vice president might be marginalized, but at least he would be vice president.

Never Going To Happen: Condoleezza Rice: More people selected Rice than any other candidate in RCP's Veepstakes, but the Secretary of State will simply never make her way onto McCain's list, short or long. An African-American woman on a Republican ticket would be great for the party, of course, but choosing Rice goes against McCain's needs for two reasons: He has so far resisted comparing himself with President Bush, and by selecting someone from the same administration that he is essentially running against, McCain would reverse himself on a central tenet of his campaign. Secondly, as Democrats at all levels of government crank out press releases accusing any member of the GOP of being a Bush Republican, if McCain picked an actual member of the Bush Administration, he would give the "third term" argument that much more plausibility.

Everything To C Here

Republicans head to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Northwest Washington today, preparing to be wowed by the biggest names and brightest lights in the GOP. Vice President Dick Cheney joins Texas Governor Rick Perry, Bob Novak, George Will, Grover Norquist and, for the first time in his eight years in the White House, even President Bush will stop by to address the fawning masses.

So too will John McCain, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, and the stakes could not be greater. On Super Tuesday, McCain did not perform all that well among conservatives, and many in the movement say they would even be willing to undergo four years of Hillary Clinton if they could avoid McCain as their party leader. Romney was trying to set himself up as the conservative alternative, though his efforts fell short, thanks at least in part to Mike Huckabee's presence in the race.

Romney will head to the hotel today around noon, while McCain is set to be there around 3:00 p.m. How conservatives act toward both of them will be key not only to Romney's increasingly long-shot bid for the nomination but for McCain's own chances in November.

It's not as if McCain is unaware of the issue: He's already enlisted backer and conservative Senator Sam Brownback to reach out to Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, and other righty leaders to soothe tensions and help McCain's cause, The Hill reports.

McCain had initially planned to show a video comparing himself to Ronald Reagan, though he has reportedly scrapped those plans and will be introduced instead by conservative Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn. The idea of a video had met with scorn from some conservative bloggers, who suggested it might backfire.

Will conservatives accept McCain and decide to back him, for the good of the party? Or will their leaders, led by Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, convince them to stay home? Check Politics Nation this afternoon for a full report on McCain's CPAC speech.

McCain's Arizona Problem

John McCain will win all of Arizona's allocated delegates when polls close this evening. But come November, and even earlier if the Republican primary race continues beyond today's primaries, the Copper State could become a serious albatross around his neck.

McCain's legendary temper and maverick streak have irked members of the GOP on virtually all sides. No one knows that better than those who should be his biggest backers, the top leadership of the Arizona Republican Party. Instead, they are some of his most ardent foes, and McCain's actions earlier this year have done little to assuage their anger.

"The Senate immigration bill put everything into a complete tailspin out here," said one top Arizona Republican who didn't want to be named in order to offer an honest portrait of the situation. After McCain's strong support for comprehensive immigration reform, a bill on which he worked with Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, some in the state Republican Party made it their goal to derail his entire campaign.

One of those opponents is Rob Haney, chairman of an important legislative district for the Republican Party in Phoenix. "[McCain] has been disregarding us for years," Haney said, "siding with liberals against conservatives for years." Haney says that on issues beyond immigration, McCain is an unreliable vote. "When you take your chance with John McCain, you come out the big loser."

McCain and some more moderate Republicans have for years tried to steer their home state's party to the middle, especially on immigration, though they have been less than successful in doing so. In two key battles, McCain allies lost tough fights to replace foes who could cause harm. Former Governor Fyfe Symington ran against Haney for district chair, and came up short, while a former campaign aide to President Bush -- hardly a McCain flak, but pegged as one nonetheless -- ran for state party chair only to lose by four votes to Randy Pullen, another anti-immigration activist.

Activists' focus on immigration has damaged relations with more state politicians than just McCain. "The immigration debate of last year did create a stir, and there were a lot of folks who were not happy with Senator McCain or me," said Senator Jon Kyl, McCain's national campaign co-chairman and one of his top national surrogates. Haney criticized Kyl, along with Reps. Jeff Flake and John Shadegg, both of whom are backing McCain. "They want that Senate seat, so they're tripping over each other" to support McCain, Haney said.

Nowhere has the immigration debate caused such rifts within a state Republican Party. The top Republican who asked not to be named criticized what he sees as a party overwhelmingly focused on immigration. "One of the reasons they're not being a successful state party is because they're essentially an anti-immigration PAC," he said. "They have essentially thumbed their noses at the business community and the bigger donor community."

State Republicans last year lost two U.S. House seats -- those of retiring moderate Jim Kolbe and immigration hardliner J.D. Hayworth -- as winning Democrats held largely more moderate positions than their GOP counterparts. That, said Kyl, a former state party chair himself, shows what Arizona Republicans need to focus on this year. "Candidates and office-holders take positions on issues and have to stand or fall on the basis of how people react to that," he told Politics Nation. "The party can't possibly represent everybody on a particular issue. Their primary responsibility is to help support their candidates."

Still, those who oppose McCain were emboldened by wins at the state party level and set out to derail his candidacy. Several straw polls were set up, rigged, the top Arizona Republican said, to ensure another candidate would win and cause McCain embarrassment in his home state. Arizona has also been good to candidates other than McCain, most notably Mitt Romney, who's picked up about half the amount of money from the state -- $1.3 million -- that McCain has. McCain has earned close to $2.8 million from his home state, through September 30, according to the FEC.

There is little Haney or other anti-McCain advocates can do about today's results. Polls conducted in recent weeks show McCain with a significant lead of 16.3 points, according to the latest RCP Arizona Average. The state's winner-take-all rules mean even a narrow McCain win will give him a big boost of more than 50 delegates. "At this point, they are in a complete flailing spin trying to discredit McCain as much as they can, and they will do it to no avail," the Republican said of activists in his own party.

But while Haney and others won't be able to boost their favored candidate -- Romney -- to victory tonight, they might just make sure that McCain remembers them as thorns in his side long after polls close tonight. And if they do, McCain's already troubled relations with conservatives around the country could be exacerbated.

Immigration, after all, was the issue that harmed McCain's campaign so much last Spring, bringing his poll numbers down to a miserable level just near the double-digit barrier. Immigration hard-liners from McCain's own state reminding Republicans about his stands might be just the thing for Romney to investigate.

McCain Plays Down CA

Many in the media have decamped to sunny California, and for good reason: The state not only provides the biggest targets to campaigns on both sides looking to score their share of the hundreds of delegates available tomorrow, it also allows reporters to stay up late as results roll in. Going to bed at 1 a.m. after the rest of the country has reported is a lot easier than going to bed at 4 a.m.

For at least one candidate, though, California will not be the story. John McCain, once an afterthought, then the front-runner, is seeing his poll numbers in the Golden State sink again. After enjoying leads as high as 19 points, just days after his New Hampshire win, and 13 points, in a CNN/Politico/LA Times poll last week, McCain now owns just a 2-point lead in the latest RCP California Average.

The news may be worse than that. A tracking poll for C-SPAN and Reuters, taken by Zogby, shows distinct movement toward McCain's chief opponent in California, Mitt Romney. After taking the lead yesterday, Romney is now up by eight points. A victory by such a small margin would only give Romney a few extra delegates -- the state allocates most of their Republican delegates in a winner-take-all by Congressional District fashion.

In anticipation of such a result, McCain's team has started downplaying expectations and California's relative importance. "We're going to do very well in the winner-take-all states in the Northeast," spokesman Brian Rogers told Politics Nation today. "California is a toss-up that, at the end of the day, won't be the big story [as long as] we pick up some delegates."

Rogers promoted the importance of states like New York and New Jersey, which award delegates to the statewide winner and in which McCain is far ahead. In fact, if Romney wins a majority in each of California's districts, he would win 170 convention delegates, twelve short of what McCain would win from victories in those two states and his home state of Arizona.

Even if a win in California left Romney at a disadvantage in the rest of the country, it would be a huge boost for a candidate who has looked, if not resigned to his fate, at least on the ropes and badly in need of a victory. A Golden State win could prove to the former Massachusetts governor that a one-on-one race against McCain really could turn to Romney's advantage, and in the end, that could make for a renewed interest in a long-term crusade against the Arizona maverick.

Romney Keeps On McCain

Speaking to bloggers and reporters before jetting off to Colorado, Mitt Romney continued to hammer rival John McCain today, calling the choice facing Republican voters "a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party." This year's race reminded him of the 1976 contest, he said, when Republican voters picked insider Gerald Ford over outsider Ronald Reagan. "The cost of that was Jimmy Carter and four years of malaise," he said.

"Today we have a race that pits a quintessential Washington insider ... against an ousider," Romney said, arguing that McCain "has favors to repay and has scores to settle." "If we post him up against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, it'll be seen as the candidate of the past ... versus the candidate of the future, of hope and optimism."

Romney maintained the contest is a virtual tie between the two, saying rival Mike Huckabee is becoming less of a factor. Both McCain and Romney have won three contests, he pointed out, blaming his Florida loss on McCain's late endorsements from Governor Charlie Crist and Senator Mel Martinez, "not to mention John McCain's false accusation" that Romney backed a timetable for withdrawal, he said. That attack "obviously did cost me some votes in Florida."

Exit polls showed voters in Florida most concerned with the economy, an issue Romney dominates, went with McCain, another factor Romney attributes to the Crist endorsement. "I scratched my head on that," he admitted, before launching into another sustained barrage on McCain's economic record. Romney continued to imply that McCain is out of his league on the economy, characterizing a recent McCain answer in a debate as "stream-of-consciousness" and "rambling."

Looking ahead to February 5, Romney said he likes his chances. "We have a number of states we think we can win. We have a number of states we think we have a shot in," he hedged, refusing to enumerate which states fell in which categories. Other states where delegates are apportioned by Congressional District provide opportunities, the former governor said. "We may decide to play in some of those states as well."

Asked about the delay in getting ads on the air in Super Tuesday states, Romney admitted, "We waited a day." After losing the Sunshine State, Romney said the delay was for top advisers to figure out the landscape following Rudy Giuliani's exit from the race. "We wanted to figure out which states have the best shots for us," he said. The new media buy will include both national and state-by-state purchases, according to Romney.

Still, he stuck to what became his mantra long before any other candidate picked it up, suggesting that the presidential contest is going to drag out. "It's very possible that nothing will be decided on Tuesday," he concluded.

A Giuliani Post-Mortem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McCain Wins Florida

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

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

Is FL Crucial To Romney?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geographic Coalitions Key To FL Win

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaming Out FL Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giuliani's Flawed FL Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romney's Delegate Fight Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romney Done With SC?

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

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

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

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

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

NH Crucial To Mitt, McCain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Romney Prepares Closer

Speaking direct to camera, Mitt Romney offers a two-minute summary of why New Hampshire voters ought to choose him tomorrow in a spot set to run across New Hampshire tonight. The spot, called "Tomorrow," sticks mostly positive with a negative twist -- associating a certain Senator with a certain Beltway-enveloped city -- and sticks with a theme Romney has been going back to frequently in recent days.

"Everywhere I go people say Washington is broken. And they know that those who've spent their careers in Washington can't change Washington," he says. Yes, the word "Washington" shows up three times in two sentences. Seven times in the first 51 seconds. And nine times over all. Never has one city been so maligned for something its residents can't even influence.

Romney asserts that change is coming, whether we like it or not: "We're going to see more dramatic change in the next decade than we've seen in our entire lifetimes," he says to camera, standing outside on a Manchester roof deck. "How will all the change affect you? Will someone in China or India take your job? Or will your job be selling American products to them? Will your children fear attack from violent Jihadists? Or will they be safe and secure in a stronger America?" he asks.

Romney spokesman Kevin Madden would not specify where, when or how often the ads would run, except to say that they will run in New Hampshire markets tonight. The closing ad is Romney's last attempt to turn around sagging poll numbers in advance of tomorrow's vote, as the long-time New Hampshire front-runner finds himself falling behind John McCain. Two minutes alone with voters is a good way to start that turnaround. Romney's camp just hopes it's able to finish the job as well.

Republicans Discard 11th Commandment

ST. ANSELM COLLEGE, New Hampshire - As the Iowa caucuses came to a close last week, exit polls showed that 30% of the GOP electorate made up their mind in the final three days. Republican voters are wary of each of the five major candidates, and whichever candidate can convince voters not only here in New Hampshire but through the rest of the primary calendar that they are most deserving of their trust will end up accepting the party's nomination in August in Minneapolis.

In an at times chaotic debate in which candidates spoke over each other, lobbed the toughest face-to-face criticisms of the campaign and scrambled to convince New Hampshire voters that they are the best qualified candidate for president, the race solidified around that singular issue of trust.

But while each candidate spent significant periods of time lauding their own talents and backgrounds, each took the opportunity to undercut the others' arguments. With McCain leading in polls in New Hampshire and Huckabee coming off a big win in the Iowa caucuses, both faced some criticism that a front-runner can expect. But four of the six Republican hopefuls on stage seemed to have decided on a common target beforehand, and it was Romney who took the brunt of the criticism.

On issues ranging from immigration to health care to the war in Iraq, Romney has been repeatedly accused of altering his positions. Tonight, other Republicans stepped up their attacks on what they characterized as a record of flip-flopping. "We agree on a lot of issues, but I just want to say, you are the candidate of change," McCain joked. In another sharp exchange, Romney urged Huckabee to stick to his own history. "Governor, don't try to characterize my position," Romney said. Huckabee shot back: "Which one?" The hundreds of journalists watching in the media room reacted audibly.

Romney's theme as New Hampshire voters head to the polls is, as McCain joked, change. "Washington is broken. That was the message coming out of Iowa," said Romney, who finished behind Huckabee in the first nominating contest but pointed out earlier today that both candidates came from well outside the Beltway. McCain used a similar theme, saying that the reason immigration reform failed last year was that the American people do not trust Washington politicians.

The debate started slowly, as most candidates seemed hesitant to take the first shots. It was Fred Thompson who initiated what became a frequent tactic. Thompson criticized Huckabee for calling American foreign policy arrogant, and Romney piled on. Still, early in the debate the only whipping boy was Ron Paul, who heard critical comments from Giuliani, Romney and Thompson.

Republicans ganging up on Romney and Paul spoke to each candidate's positions in the race. Romney remains a contender, and his campaign spun the performance as indicative of his strong position. "If they're ignoring you, that means they're not worried about you," Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said. Later, jokingly recalling an old saying, Madden said "criticism is mediocrity's way of paying tribute to genius."

Still, Romney's frequent complaints about the attacks against him did not ring true, said McCain strategist Mark Salter. Citing negative ads run by the former Massachusetts governor, Salter was incredulous. "Of all the ludicrous suggestions, Mitt Romney whining about being attacked," he said. "You've got a candidate out here who's run his whole campaign on tearing down the other candidates. That has been his core strategy."

Candidates on stage were equally harsh on the subject of Romney's prolific advertising. Ronald Reagan, Giuliani said, had offered amnesty to illegal immigrants. "I think he'd be in one of Mitt's negative commercials," Giuliani joked. Later, McCain defended his own record, calling Romney's charges that he supports amnesty. "You can spend your whole fortunes on these attack ads and they still won't be true," McCain said.

When contestants were giving Romney a break, several turned on Paul. Paul is the race's scapegoat candidate. After the debate's lazy start, the three candidates who attacked Paul virtually mocked him, more like high school jocks taking on someone lower on the social ladder than like presidential candidates. In fact, Thompson, who spent virtually the entire debate attacking others on stage, came across as without ideas of his own and simply critical of those of others.

Giuliani, largely absent from recent headlines, stayed mostly positive while trying to reestablishing himself as a factor in the race. Asked whether he would run his campaign on President Bush's foreign policy, Giuliani offered a strong alternative. "I think the president got the big decision of his presidency right," Giuliani said, citing the opening offensive against terrorists in Afghanistan. But most candidates, aside from Thompson, avoided attacking Giuliani, showing that few believed he is a factor, at least in New Hampshire.

The two with the most to look forward to, though, remained largely untouched by scrums involving others. McCain stayed silent for long stretches of time. As the front-runner, that meant he was not being attacked, and in this instance, McCain was happy to fly under the radar. Still, when Romney pounced, he was ready. Huckabee, too, is still avoiding serious scrutiny. He was frequently left out of squabbles between the other candidates and later allowed to offer his own take on health care, on immigration and on differences between himself and Obama. Allowing the most eloquent speaker to offer his plans virtually unchallenged, other candidates may find, is a dangerous proposition.

At the end of the evening, in a debate marked by the sharpest personal and political attacks of the year, anyone hoping to lay a glove on McCain or Huckabee walked away disappointed. Those hoping to get in a good shot at Romney, though, largely succeeded.

As Republican voters make up their minds among four candidates fatally flawed in the eyes of the base, tonight's debate offered a final chance for candidates to show they are the most trustworthy. Most, though, took the opportunity to show why their opponents are less trustworthy. Whether GOP voters buy their arguments or are simply turned off enough to stay home is a question that will be answered on Tuesday. But based on tonight's free for all, it is safe to assume that Reagan's mythical eleventh commandment - that thou shalt not speak ill of fellow Republicans - will be largely abandoned.

Debate Preview: Eyes On Romney, McCain

ST ANSELM COLLEGE, New Hampshire -- In seventy two hours, results from the nation's first presidential primary will trickle in to nervous campaign headquarters across the state. Tonight, as candidates from both parties gather at this small private college on the outskirts of Manchester, the survivors will have their final opportunity at a statewide -- and indeed nationwide -- audience before voters cast ballots. As each candidate arrives, they come with specific goals that could make, or break, their candidacies, both here in the Granite State and beyond.

The Republicans take the stage first with a very clear vision of the state of the field. A new poll out just hours before the debate kicks off, conducted for debate sponsor WMUR-TV and CNN, shows John McCain continuing his upward momentum, taking 33% of the vote for the lead, up from 29% the last week of December. Mitt Romney is on the opposite track, dropping to 27% after being tied with McCain in the last survey. The rest of the field, as in Iowa, battles for third; with Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul all within a few points of each other, hovering near the double-digit threshold.

John McCain's goals are clear: Remain the front-runner by withstanding the onslaught of scrutiny sure to come with a lead in the polls. Until now, McCain has largely been unscathed, even receiving praise from other Republicans as he floundered in the polls. Romney has already made McCain a target, associating him with a broken Washington in Romney's closing argument.

Voters in New Hampshire, unlike Iowa, are more receptive to shots the candidates take at each other. McCain can serve notice that he will not take Romney's shots unanswered with a strong rebuttal early, and his legendary temper makes it all but certain he will do so. Temper is rarely a good thing in politics, but McCain frequently puts his to good use. Flashing irritability with what he will certainly cast as desperation could play well while neutralizing Romney's later shots.

Romney has a good temperament for debates. While his pre-canned jokes often fall flat, he is an accomplished speaker and appears calm and collected, most of the time. His goal tonight: Take McCain down a notch without looking like he's beating up on an old man and a war hero while withstanding attacks from McCain, Huckabee and others. The key to achieving these goals may be a longer-term strategy, and may lie in Romney's own biography.

The change message Romney is auditioning could work -- his campaign had better hope it does -- and perhaps a better strategy would be to lay groundwork for the final push. If Romney surprises the field by talking about a broken Washington without mentioning McCain, or perhaps offering backhanded praise for McCain's long history of service in Congress, he might avoid any negative stigma as an attack dog while appearing, as he has in previous debates, as a competent manager who specializes in turning around broken organizations.

The rest of the field has little chance of winning in New Hampshire, or even securing more than a delegate or two. That doesn't mean this debate or this contest is meaningless. In fact, it may prove as crucial to those who make up the second tier in New Hampshire than to McCain and Romney.

Rudy Giuliani, at this point, needs to prove to people that he is alive. Largely absent from the Iowa caucuses, Giuliani has pulled back advertising here in New Hampshire, where he once hoped to compete, and has for now hunkered down in Florida, hoping for a win that gives him crucial momentum going into February 5. Once half of the main Republican storyline as he clashed with Mitt Romney, Giuliani is now all but ignored by the rest of the GOP field.

Giuliani needs a snappy answer, an angry exchange or anything else that will grab a crowd's attention and reassert himself as a contender. He has plenty of opportunities to earn the oxygen he will need to survive. Whether it is re-engaging with Romney, taking on Mike Huckabee or establishing a dramatic new position separate from the rest of the field, Giuliani can get back in the game, but it's going to take a lot more work than he has done in recent weeks.

On Thursday, McCain and Giuliani, happy to see Mike Huckabee defeat Romney in Iowa, called to offer their congratulations. Both callers and the callee made sure to let the press know they had spoken, while Romney did not. Tonight, Huckabee's goal should be less geared toward New Hampshire, where he has little hope of competing for a win, and more aimed at showing off his skills for voters in South Carolina in subsequent states. Huckabee can do that by repaying McCain and Giuliani for their generosity.

McCain has a target on his back, and sources in both campaigns say he and Huckabee share a genuine affection for one another. If McCain is attacked, from any side, it would behoove Huckabee to come to the Arizonan's defense. Doing so will guarantee Huckabee shows up as more than a side note in tomorrow's news stories while simultaneously taking the focus off his description by many as a Baptist minister, a descriptor some in his campaign are beginning to tire of.

Granite State voters enjoy their reputation as libertarians, and while Ron Paul won 10% of the vote in Iowa, he is likely to exceed that total here. Paul has a hard ceiling, as most regular Republican voters cannot stand his anti-war message. But his supporters are with him for precisely that reason. Tonight, Paul needs to show off his mainstream libertarianism to attract as many voters as possible without turning anyone else off.

Fred Thompson is not a contender in New Hampshire. In fact, he is little more than an asterisk. But because of his standing in national polls and some early fundraising momentum, he will stand on stage alongside others who will perform better. Thompson showed up after all his competitors, held no events today and seems almost resigned to giving up the ghost.

If that is not the case, tonight is the time to prove it. Like Huckabee, Thompson should aim his message at South Carolinans and Floridians, the next two states in which he has a significant following. Whether anything can work at this point, after perhaps the most disappointing campaign in the last two decades, is still up in the air.

Six candidates will stand on stage tonight. Targets rest squarely on the backs of John McCain and Mitt Romney, and how they respond to the grenades lobbed their way will likely decide the New Hampshire primary. McCain has the momentum, putting the onus on Romney to outperform. If he can, he has a chance to continue his campaign. Those in the second tier, looking out for their own chances, will make Romney's task all the more difficult.

Romney Closing Hits McCain

BEDFORD, New Hampshire -- Speaking to supporters in this affluent Manchester suburb, Mitt Romney offered his closing argument to New Hampshire voters as the race for the Granite State draws to a close. Romney only briefly touched on his usual topics -- tax cuts and health care -- and his background as a business executive who successfully turned around the Salt Lake City Olympics and neighboring Massachusetts, instead focusing on a new message of changing Washington that clearly targeted rival John McCain.

"I'm looking forward to the opportunity to go to Washington and shake things up," Romney told the gathered crowd. "I've spent my life changing things. I've not spent my life in the political arena, where talking about something is considered a success." Romney sounded optimistic about his chances of winning what is shaping up to be a state critical to getting his campaign back on track. "I need one thing to make that happen, which is all your money and all your votes," he joked.

After coming in a disappointing second place in the Iowa caucuses, Romney needs to win here. But the candidate says Iowa sent a message that works in his favor. "The person who was known for all his years in Washington, John McCain, came in fourth," Romney said. "Some new guys came in number one and number two."

Few in the crowd felt the caucuses diminished Romney's chances for a win here. Joe Nasser, of Manchester, dismissed Iowa going for Mike Huckabee. "The religious aspect won for him there," he said. Nasser likes Romney's message of changing Washington, and says it's one reason he prefers Romney to McCain. "There is absolutely no change coming from" McCain, he said.

Romney "speaks so the average person can understand him," said Mike Lomazzo, a Romney backer from Windham, New Hampshire. Lomazzo said he considered supporting Democrat Barack Obama, but the campaign event he attended had a circus atmosphere. When Romney speaks, "it's not a pep rally," he said.

Lomazzo and Nasser each think Romney will win New Hampshire. To do so, though, Romney has to get past a difficult field that includes front-running McCain. Romney's closing argument uses the change theme to take direct aim at McCain. While the GOP field has several "excellent" candidates, "some of them have been in this battle for years and years," he says. "They've had their chance."

Trying to tie a candidate like McCain is difficult, though. Many Republicans dislike McCain particularly because he has been about as anti-Washington as possible, bucking his party, often alone, on ethics reform and issues like the financing of campaigns. McCain has even used his unpopularity in television ads in New Hampshire, saying he didn't go to Washington to become Mr. Congeniality.

Romney, though, is running out of options. Tying McCain to Washington, an atmosphere unpopular among Republicans as well as independents who might consider voting in the GOP primary, may be his best shot at righting his campaign. Whether he can recover could be determined at a debate tonight in Manchester. Given Romney's focus on Washington today, McCain should prepare to be a target. Whoever comes out on top tonight may find themselves in the winner's circle on Tuesday night.

Journey's Just Begun, Huck Tells Crowd

DES MOINES -- Mike Huckabee, whose insurgent, under-funded and at times ignored campaign pulled out a big win in Iowa's first caucuses, told a crowded ballroom at the downtown Embassy Suites tonight that while the journey begins here in Iowa, there is still a long way to go. "Tonight, it starts here in Iowa, but it doesn't end here. It goes all the way through the other states and ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," he said. "I'm amazed, and I'm encouraged."

"I wasn't sure that I would ever be able to love a state as much as my home state of Arkansas. But tonight, I love Iowa," Huckabee said. "The people of Iowa made a choice, and their choice was clear. Their choice was for a change."

The campaign, vastly outspent by Mitt Romney and outside interest groups, overcame the constant barrage with the aide of undecided voters who broke to Huckabee, manager Chip Saltsman said. Huckabee alluded to being so vastly outspent to those in the ballroon. "Tonight, I hope we will forever change the way Americans look at the way their political system worked," he said. ""People really are more important than the purse. And what a great lesson for America to learn."

Claiming a twenty to one spending deficit versus Romney and outside groups that worked against them, Huckabee did not take any direct shots at his rival, but his campaign team couldn't resist. Romney "had the best consultants, the best media people, all the polling in the world, all the money in the world. And he just lost, and lost pretty badly," said Ed Rollins, Huckabee's national campaign chairman. "A campaign is very important, but a candidate is even more important."

Backstage, Huckabee backers David Beasley, the former governor of South Carolina, and actor Chuck Norris were giddy, and Saltsman admitted that, while he had recently downplayed the importance of a victory, "after winning it does feel a little different."

Huckabee fielded congratulatory calls from rivals John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, Saltsman told the media, though to his knowledge Romney had not called.

The campaign now moves to New Hampshire, where Huckabee is running 22 points behind McCain in the latest RCP New Hampshire Average. Rollins predicted a bounce coming out of tonight's strong performance. If Huckabee can translate his success into an improved standing in the contest's first primary, the campaign could find itself on an historic roll.

McCain Parachutes In

URBANDALE, Iowa -- The state of Iowa must be out of fire marshals. The packed houses candidates are speaking to as they make their final appeals to supporters to give that extra ounce in the next twenty four hours have to violate some kind of safety laws. Perhaps surprisingly, even the candidate who has spent little time here drew a spillover audience.

John McCain landed in Des Moines this evening, injecting himself into a state he has largely avoided. His timing could not be better. Volunteers and supporters -- and even one staffer from a Democratic campaign -- packed McCain's headquarters in this Des Moines suburb, spilling out into a night cursed with temperatures in the low single digits. Two heat lamps helped, but the more than 150 supporters couldn't possibly fit under both.

McCain, twenty minutes late after aircraft delays, joined Senators John Thune, Lindsey Graham and Sam Brownback, and senior advisers Mark Salter and Charlie Black patrolled the room, doling out predictions and managing expectations. The consensus: Shooting for third place. "Bronze is gold for John," Graham said. "We're moving in the right direction in Iowa, and we're really red hot in New Hampshire."

Despite all but ignoring the first-in-the-nation caucus state, McCain has shown a marked rise here in recent weeks. The latest RCP Iowa Average has him in third place, with 12.8%, edging out Fred Thompson by a point. Still, the insurgent trails front-running Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney by sixteen points. But the glass is half full. Even a third-place finish, said Graham, could fuel McCain's startling rise in New Hampshire, where he leads Romney in the RCP Average by 3.7%.

With an organization long neglected, only a small paid media presence and a prolonged absence from the state's campaign trail, a third-place finish would be telling. Perhaps a Republican electorate somewhat dissatisfied with their choices are returning to McCain as the default candidate. If so, that spells bad news for the rest of the field.

Paul Eats Dinner

DES MOINES -- How popular is Ron Paul? The poor guy can't even have dinner in peace. Then again, his own campaign had something to do with that. When Paul and wife Carol made dinner plans at Centro, a swanky downtown restaurant, the campaign's press shop helpfully alerted the media.

All Paul wanted was a little dinner
When Paul showed up for what we're sure he hoped would be a brief respite from the madness of a presidential campaign, the media was waiting, and the candidate, sans coat, happily took questions. Paul said he hadn't expected his message to earn the support it has. "The country's in worse shape than I thought," Paul said. "I thought when the country went really down to the depths, they would get excited and rally around this message."

Spokesman Jesse Benton said the campaign had probably visited more than half of Iowa's 99 counties. More than 300 college students, participating in Paul's Christmas Break in Iowa program, are stationed in YMCA facilities across the state, knocking on doors and making phone calls to get Paul supporters to caucuses tomorrow.

Paul spent much of the last week in New Hampshire, a state with stronger libertarian tendencies than Iowa, but Benton said Iowa remains a focus. "We're not prioritizing. Iowa and New Hampshire are both important to us," he said. "We have a real strong fifty state strategy. We have the money now."

Neither Paul nor Benton would predict where the campaign would finish tomorrow, and both expressed dismay at a decision by Fox News to exclude Paul from a forum in New Hampshire this weekend. "I think they've embarrassed themselves. I think they don't know what to do right now," Paul said. Benton elaborated, saying Fox chiefs would not return campaign phone calls seeking an explanation. "By all metrics, we're stronger than several candidates that they're including," he said, singling out Fred Thompson, who trails Paul in New Hampshire polls and pointing out that Paul likely outraised the entire field this quarter.

Asked if he would crash the event and try to be included, though, Paul said no. "It's their thing. I wouldn't do that," he said. But, he added, "I might have my own."

Paul has a rally with veterans planned tonight at the Hotel Fort Des Moines, followed by a full day of interviews tomorrow. The campaign will hold a post-caucus rally at the downtown Marriott tomorrow before heading back to New Hampshire. Hopefully, someone will get him food before then.

Romney Hits Seven Events To Seal Deal

CLIVE, Iowa -- With three new polls out showing three different results, even candidates can get confused. "The polls just don't know what to do," Mitt Romney mused at a house party today. "There's one poll this morning that says I'm behind by a few points. There's another poll that says I'm ahead by a few points. And then the poll that's probably the most accurate says it's all tied up."

Romney addresses a
well-to-do crowd in Clive
Speaking to supporters in an affluent suburb of Des Moines, one of seven stops Romney is making today, the former governor offered a shortened version of his stump speech and urged people to venture into the cold Iowa night on Thursday. "Go out on caucus night. Vote a couple of times if you will," he joked.

Local radio host Mac McKoy and wife C.J. hosted Romney and nearly a hundred others. Calling other Republicans "yesterday's news," McKoy said he backed Romney because he is the only candidate who will help lay a foundation for McKoy's nine year old grandson. "It's time to bring peace to this world, and I think Mitt Romney's the kind of guy that can get that done."

McKoy told reporters that religion played a part in his choice to back Romney. In this case, though, McKoy's opinion is one the Romney camp has to hope others share. "I think Mitt Romney's one of the only few candidates that will never, ever let his religion make a difference in what he does in Washington."

"Mitt Romney said it's not an issue. And that's one of the reasons I value his values," McKoy said. "People who make it about religion are bigots. I know that's a harsh statement but I'll make that statement."

Minutes later, Romney arrived in a frigid wind with Craig, his youngest son, daughter-in-law Mary and their son, Parker. After the speech, Parker made a dash for the McKoy's seemingly long-suffering dog, Sinatra. Thanks to Mary Romney's timely intervention, both Parker and the pooch were unscathed.

Huck Backs Off

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

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

Photo credit: Mark Halperin

Final Huck, Romney Moves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Republicans Battle For Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Far He's Come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huckabee's Turnout Machine

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

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

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

Photo Of The Day

mccain salter.jpg

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

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

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

Tancredo Backs Romney

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

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

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

Romney Gamble Pays Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romney Survives Russert

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

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

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

Other takeaways from the appearance:

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

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

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

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

Two Saturday Endorsements

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

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

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

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

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

More Races To Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thompson Misses Ballot

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

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

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

Rudy's Dangerous Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

A Powerful Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning Thoughts: Romney's Graduation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheney "More Optimistic" Than McCain

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

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

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

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

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

Surrogates Barnstorm New Hampshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romney's Big Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click below for excerpts from the campaign.

Continue reading "Romney's Big Moment" »

Romney: Iran Still A Threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bush And The Next Guy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Can This Not Rock?

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

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

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

Romney Giving "The Speech"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take That, RNC

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

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

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

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

Phones Target Romney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Real Deal

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

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

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

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

More Huckabee/Dobson Evidence

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

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

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

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

Giuliani's Kerik Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Paul, GOP Or Bust

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

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

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

Iowa Field Getting Crowded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Smashes Online Record

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mixed Day For Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloodbath Coming?

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

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

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

Rudy Hits Dems, Not Romney

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dem Race Actually Interesting

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluating Huckabee

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is, by many accounts, someone the Republican Party could use to bring independents into the GOP fold. He's pro-life and pro-gun, and as he likes to say, he's conservative but he's not angry at anyone about it. George Bush's compassionate conservativism may not have played out for him, but for Huckabee, the label fits.

An ordained minister, Huckabee outperforms his fellow candidates in debates, and while he has yet to offer detailed policy proposals on a number of issues, he has important backers among social conservatives, especially from backers of home schooling and those advocating the so-called Fair Tax. Put him up against any Democratic vice presidential nominee in a debate and he draws clear contrasts, plus he would run circles around any but the best debaters.

So why are many in the conservative base writing him off completely? Huckabee, some conservatives assert, was a liberal when it came to taxes, social welfare spending and immigration, writes the Washington Times today.

It's an argument the anti-tax Club for Growth has been pushing for months. The group has gone so far as to run radio ads against Huckabee in Iowa, and their goal is clear: While few think Huckabee can win the GOP nomination, the Club wants to remove him from consideration as a potential veep.

Rule number one for vice presidential pickers: The choice must do no harm. By making Huckabee radioactive, the Club and other groups, including Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, hope to keep him off a Giuliani- or Romney-led ticket, both of whom would benefit from a Southern social conservative on the ticket.

Still, will the groups' efforts work? One prominent Republican strategist working for a front-runner this year literally laughed at the idea when asked by Politics Nation. No way, the strategist said, would small, inside-the-Beltway groups be major factors in eliminating Huckabee from Vice Presidential consideration. If the Club and Schlafly decide to redouble their efforts, look for more nasty ads before Huckabee faces the veep vetting process.

Rethinking McCain

Here's an intriguing thought: With Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson spending little time in Iowa, virtually ceding the territory to Mitt Romney, there are still a lot of undecided voters looking for a candidate. That vacuum isn't right for a Ron Paul -- caucus-goers are too traditionally Republican. Mike Huckabee's doing all he can to fill it, but he doesn't have the money. And try as they might, no one is seriously considering Duncan Hunter or Tom Tancredo.

That leaves John McCain. What if we've been looking at the effect of Giuliani and Thompson taking a pass all wrong? Here's a new angle: With the big candidates out, Iowa provides the oxygen for smaller candidates to grow. Could John McCain's campaign find its rebirth not in New Hampshire, but in Iowa?

If they didn't think so , we wonder why McCain's people have dropped two rounds of mail, hitting more than 100,000 households, in the past two weeks. Jonathan Martin has copies of both. McCain doesn't have to win in Iowa, and given the commitment Romney has shown to the state, he likely won't. But a strong second-place showing would make McCain an important part of the stories for the next week. It would be just the boost McCain needs going into New Hampshire.

We've said it before, we'll say it again: Don't count McCain out of this race. He's going to be a difference-maker, one way or another (By the way, we argued that very point in an article today).

No Brownbacking Today

THE CAPITOL -- Sen. Sam Brownback and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani sat down for what Brownback called an "excellent meeting" today in Brownback's Senate office this afternoon. Still, said Brownback, Giuliani won't benefit from his support just yet. "I am not making any endorsement at this time," Brownback told gathered reporters.

Giuliani, seeking to ameliorate concerns among conservatives that his positions on life and same sex marriage issues were more liberal than the Republican base, thanked Brownback for his time and advice, and seemed to make some headway with Brownback. "I'm much more confident on the mayor's positions," Brownback said.

Brownback cited Giuliani's promises to appoint strict constructionist judges in the molds of John Roberts and Sam Alito as evidence that the New Yorker's positions were compatible with his own. Giuliani, though, promised not to impose a litmus test on any nominee.

Giuliani has used the promise to appoint conservative judges as a tool to circumvent his past statements, which many social conservatives take to be virtually pro-choice.

Addressing reports that he may have been the subject of a discussion by leaders of prominent New York mob families in the 1980s, Giuliani said he did not recall that particular threat. Other threats, he said, had been relayed to him by the FBI, which he praised for protecting him during his time as a federal prosecutor.

Giuliani's Tardiness

When will Rudy Giuliani's constant tardiness, a subject on which we've heard many complaints lately, come back to haunt him? Iowa voters don't like it. New Hampshire voters don't like it. Sitting Senators certainly don't appreciate it.

He's already 20 minutes late to his meeting with Sen. Sam Brownback. Could this be the day?

GOP Narrows Its Scope

Back to something we touched on briefly in Morning Thoughts: How are campaigns deciding where to put their resources? Recent trends and FEC filings show a pretty clear-cut picture, and while no campaign will admit to pulling out of an important primary state, some candidates are barely investing in what they think would be a lost cause for them.

The Des Moines Register has an important breakdown of how campaigns are spending their time and money in Iowa these days. Mitt Romney, polling first with 26.3% in the latest RCP Iowa Average, 11 points higher than Fred Thompson and 12.5 points higher than Mike Huckabee, has clearly invested the most in the state. He has by far the most staff, 67 (next highest number: Thompson and Rudy Giuliani, with 12 each) has run the only television ads, and has won the most state legislator endorsements, at 15.

Other campaigns, it appears, have all but ceded Iowa to Romney. Yes, as John McIntyre wrote this weekend, Huckabee has a shot at winning Iowa. But the caucuses take organization, and with 67 staffers versus just eight, Romney can outwork the Huckabee campaign many times over. And if, as they say, Rudy Giuliani is not giving up on the state, why would he stay away for more than two months, before returning last week? A Thompson adviser told Politics Nation last week that the campaign will make a serious push for Iowa, but none has emerged thus far.

For the GOP, the real first fight will come in New Hampshire. Romney leads in the state by just 4.2 points, according to the latest RCP New Hampshire Average. Romney's lead was much bigger, though Giuliani has pulled closer over the end of the summer. As in 2004, John McCain will make a strong push in the Granite State -- he's visited a total of 17 times, more than any candidate save Romney, at 28, according to numbers compiled by The Hotline.

Meanwhile, writes The Hill, Thompson is again largely absent from New Hampshire. He will go so far, a source says, as to send a surrogate to Concord to file candidacy papers for him. In a state where candidates file, then offer a speech and get pages of free media, surrogate campaigning is frowned upon, to say the least. State GOP chair Fergus Cullen offers this shot: "We would welcome him here to start campaigning any day now."

After New Hampshire holds its primary, Michigan is next in line, slated to hold its primary on January 15. The latest RCP Michigan Average has Romney up 5.2% over Giuliani, though the two latest polls show Giuliani leading narrowly -- and an Insider Advantage Poll has the four top-running candidates within five points of each other. Our bet: If Romney or Giuliani's campaigns decide they might lose New Hampshire, watch for a surge of advertisements in Michigan to prevent any more blood loss. If either, or both, decide to dump money into the Wolverine State, will Thompson be able to spend here as well?

Thompson's first real shot at a victory looks like it will come in South Carolina, where he trails Giuliani by just 0.2 points in the latest RCP South Carolina Average. Romney, who had trouble getting traction in the Palmetto State over the first eight months or so of the campaign, goes up with a new ad in the state today, and has recently signaled he will invest heavily in the state, which could spell trouble for Thompson and Giuliani.

Giuliani and Romney will spend resources in the Palmetto State, and Thompson, it seems, is banking on being "the" Southern candidate. Whether or not he can actually win a state at all, much less the nomination, will likely depend on how he does in the first Southern state to cast its ballots.

Romney will likely win Iowa. Romney, Giuliani or McCain will likely win New Hampshire. Romney and Giuliani have leads in Michigan that would be expensive to beat. And Thompson, Romney and Giuliani are all in the hunt in South Carolina. Campaigns have narrowed their focuses to states they can win. Now, it seems, whichever candidate is given the snowball mantle first can roll through February 5th and on to the nomination. Unlike the Democratic field, this one is anyone's ballgame.

Explaining The RNC's Move

The Republican National Committee yesterday notified several states planning to hold early nominating contests that it would strip them of at least 50% of their delegates for non-compliance. Blake posted the story yesterday. One important factor to keep in mind: While some states may be sanctioned now, it is likely that most, if not every state, will enjoy its full compliment of delegates once convention time comes.

Here's a quick explanation of how Democrats and Republicans are approaching delegate nominating rules:

The Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee sets rules by which the party selects delegates. The RBC, as it's called, meets occasionally, as it did last month, to approve every state's nominating plans. If a state is granted a waiver, it may hold its contests before February 5th. This year, New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada were granted waivers to hold early primaries.

Michigan and Florida, which will also hold January primaries, were not granted waivers. The Rules and Bylaws Committee punished Florida at its most recent meeting. Michigan's early primary plan was submitted after that meeting, and the committee is expected to punish Michigan with the same severity as it did Florida, by taking away all of Michigan's delegates. While the committee can vote to reinstate delegates from any punished state, the vote to punish Florida attracted just one "no" vote -- from Florida's representative on the committee.

The Republican National Committee has no standing committee to deal with the selection of delegates. Their rules are clear, having been set at the 2004 Republican National Convention: States either hold their delegate-allocating nominating contests after February 5th, or they lose delegates. Unlike Democrats, no early states are granted waivers by the GOP. That means New Hampshire, South Carolina, Wyoming, Michigan and Florida would lose 50% of their delegates for holding early primaries.

Iowa and Nevada, which hold caucuses, technically do not allocate their delegates until later conventions, and are therefore unaffected by the ruling. Any state that changes its rules after the call to the convention goes out, a call required by the end of the calendar year, is subject to losing 90% of its delegates.

Democrats, in short, have the ability to punish states as their Rules and Bylaws Committee sees fit. Republicans have no such power and are confined to punishing any state that breaks a rule.

At the end of the day, though, it will be up to each convention's Credentials Committee to decide whether to seat full slates of delegates for each state punished. Practically speaking, no presidential candidate is going to want to irritate any swing state (and of the seven early states, only South Carolina and Wyoming can be considered safe for one party) by neglecting to seat their entire delegate slates.

Interestingly, it is Democrats who are catching the most flack for their move to strip Florida's delegates, thanks in large part to the ruckus raised by Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Alcee Hastings, who have sued the DNC and the State of Florida. But Democrats' Credentials Committee is much more likely to allow Florida to seat their delegates despite breaking the rules. For the GOP, on the other hand, it only takes a few members of the committee to object to prevent a state's full delegate slate.

Huckabee's Opportunity

ORLANDO -- "I'm kind of glad I wasn't in on the first few minutes, because it was all about these guys fighting each other," said former Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Huckabee has a lot riding on the debate tonight; he's recently seen a bump in poll numbers, and this weekend won a key straw poll among attendees of a so-called "Values Voters" summit in Washington.

He's started off well, though a bit late -- at 22 minutes into the debate, he started after the first pitch of the Red Sox-Indians game 7 had started -- earning the biggest applause of the night thus far.

If Huckabee converts tonight and performs well, John McIntyre wonders whether he can win Iowa.

Charlie Crist's Big Day

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist just welcomed viewers to Orlando, touting himself as a bipartisan leader. Though he denied ever thinking about the vice presidency in an interview today with Real Clear Politics, Crist would certainly be an attractive number two contender.

Live, From Orlando...

ORLANDO -- Ahead of the Republican presidential debate tonight, at the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort and live on Fox News, top Florida Republicans profess their neutrality in the race for the GOP nomination. And while many think the large number of debates have watered down the effect of each individual forum, every stop comes with its own subplots. Tonight's event will go farther in answering some important questions:

-- Does Fred Thompson matter? In the last debate, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani spent more time going after each other than after Thompson. Have those campaigns already decided he's a non-threat? And if they have, can he do anything tonight to rebuild the excitement that once swirled around his candidacy? He didn't do himself any favors yesterday, when he addressed Florida Republicans for about five minutes, just a short while after Giuliani went on for about half an hour and Romney spoke for twenty minutes.

-- Can anyone stop Giuliani? Iowa may be Romney's stomping grounds, and there's a battle for New Hampshire. But make no mistake, Florida is Giuliani country. Social issues, for which some conservatives can't stomach Hizzoner, seem to matter less to Floridians assembled here, many of whom, even if they back another candidate, are still effusive in their praise of Giuliani. Thompson, Romney and the rest will do everything they can to close the gap in the Sunshine State. That means Giuliani better watch his back tonight.

-- Is Romney stopping or starting? Dogged by questions after the last debate, we estimate he will mention talking to lawyers approximately zero times tonight. People thought his debate performance last time was so-so, at best. Can he reassert himself as one of the best top-tier debaters tonight? And if not, will it keep stories of his stalled campaign alive until the next time the GOP candidates meet?

-- Will John McCain rebound? Last debate's topic was way outside his strike zone. A better performance tonight will only do more to further stories of a comeback. A lousy performance, and those stories disappear. Maybe no candidate faces more pressure than McCain tonight.

-- Is Huckabee for real? A few good Iowa poll numbers, a few good straw poll showings, and people are wondering whether Mike Huckabee belongs in the top tier. Add in kind words from Newt Gingrich and others and Huckabee's window may be opening. He will never perform at the financial level of the four leaders (or even at the level of Ron Paul) but he always does well at debates. He, more than any other candidate, is probably most irritated with the Cleveland Indians' inability to seal the deal last night, robbing him of a few hundred thousand viewers.

-- Who gets the biggest applause tonight? We're going out on a limb here and guessing the candidate who has been around the conference the most: California Congressman Duncan Hunter. A surprising number of the delegates we've talked to express admiration for Hunter, though they recognize in the same sentence his long-shot status. On a less risky limb, we'll also guess Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, for whom tonight is something of a national coming-out party. No presidential candidate inspires the same kind of reaction than Crist among his Florida GOP faithful.

Plenty of questions to answer. Don't flip over to baseball. By the time the debate ends, at 9:30, the game will only be in the third or fourth inning. I'm offering instant reaction and analysis at M.E. Sprengelmeyer's Back Roads to the White House, so tune in and follow along, then check back here for our wrap-up after the debate.

Fox News Hates Curt Schilling

ORLANDO -- The Boston Red Sox thumped the Cleveland Indians last night, leaving several Fox News producers on-site for tonight's Republican Presidential debate morose. No, they have no links to the BoSox, nor did they lose a bet. But now tonight's debate, broadcast at 8 p.m. on Fox News, will appear opposite game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

So how bad will ratings be tonight? Previous Fox debates have drawn larger audiences than similar events on CNN and MSNBC, but some Fox employees worry that many would-be viewers will flip the channel to catch the ballgame instead. One top official working on a GOP campaign even joked he would be watching the game instead of the debate.

But Fox's glass is half full: Game 7 appears on the Fox network, so the company won't lose too many sets of eyeballs.

Huckabee, Romney Chalk Up Wins

In a straw poll held at this weekend's Values Voters Summit in Washington, social conservatives sent two messages and previewed how an important segment of the GOP electorate will react after one of their own, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, called it quits.

Voters could cast ballots both on-site, at a Washington hotel, or online. As expected, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee performed well in front of voters he will need if he has any hope of overcoming chronic money woes in early primary states. No one, however, expected Huckabee to perform this well. Among on-site voters, Huckabee attracted a stunning 51% of the nearly 1000 ballots cast.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, by comparison, finished second with 10%. Still, Romney's campaign has something to brag about. In the online portion of the poll, Romney finished first, though less than one half of one percent ahead of Huckabee.

If the results are any indication of where supporters of now-former candidate Sam Brownback will go, Huckabee can count on strong backing from Christian conservatives, while Romney's campaign must be breathing easier knowing that, for a significant portion of Christian voters, his Mormonism is not a deal-breaking issue.

For John McCain, who has lately made a stronger push for social conservative votes, the results are not inspiring. Even after a speech to the group yesterday that received some applause, McCain finished close to the bottom in both polls. Rudy Giuliani, as expected, finished behind most candidates as well. Summit-goers yesterday were skeptical of his efforts to make peace with voters whose ideology he has largely opposed through his career.

The straw poll, conducted yesterday and today, comes a day before Republicans meet in Orlando for a debate broadcast live on Fox News. Politics Nation will be on-site as the Florida Republican Party holds its Presidency IV event for young political activists in conjunction with the debate. Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Romney have all put campaign resources in Florida.

The full results:

On Site
Huckabee 488 (51.3%)
Romney 99 (10.4)
Thompson 77 (8.1)
Tancredo 65 (6.8)
Giuliani 60 (6.3)
Hunter 54 (5.7)
McCain 30 (3.2)
Brownback 26 (2.7)
Paul 25 (2.6)
Undecided 11 (1.2)

Romney 1595 (27.6%)
Huckabee 1565 (27.2)
Paul 865 (15)
Thompson 564 (9.8)
Brownback 297 (5.1)
Hunter 140 (2.4)
Tancredo 133 (2.3)
Giuliani 107 (1.9)
McCain 81 (1.4)
Undecided 329 (5.7)

At FRC, Searching For A Giuliani Alternative

Speaking to a mostly full room at the Family Research Council's Washington Briefing today, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson made every effort to hit the socially conservative group's top issues, and to set himself up as the conservative alternative in the Republican presidential contest. Still, with a cheering section of Thompson fans waving signs, the candidate elicited just one standing ovation, and many in attendance were not completely impressed.

Thompson repeatedly asserted his conservative record during eight years in the Senate, stressing his consistency, an implicit shot at front-runners Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. "That's who I was then, that's who I am today, and that's the kind of president I would be," Thompson said.

Conservative leaders gave optimistic reviews of the speech. "Senator Thompson helped himself here today," said Gary Bauer, a former presidential candidate and top voice in religious political circles. "I think he did well. He's got a solid conservative message," agreed FRC chief Tony Perkins.

But rank and file social conservatives were less impressed. Russell May, of Virginia, who attended the forum with his wife, is not sold on Thompson just yet. "At this moment, I don't think of any area where I disagree with him," he said, adding "I would not necessarily place him above other Republican candidates." "I wouldn't necessarily say that he is the most charismatic of the presidential candidates," added David Gruver, of North Carolina.

Gruver, like many, is waiting for more details from Thompson. "He'll have to take substantial positions on issues that are important to people who are conservatives." Thompson tried to assuage criticism that he brings less substance to the race than style, offering his views on a number of issues Christian conservatives find important. Calling government overspending a moral issue, Thompson said he would end the practice of passing debt on to the next generation; he reminded the audience that he fought for the Defense of Marriage Act; he criticized a Maine school district for offering birth control pills to some middle school students; and he told the audience that after seeing a sonogram of his daughter, "my heart is now fully engaged with my head." "No legislation will pass my desk that funds or supports [abortion] without my veto," he promised.

Thompson, like other candidates, placed a high premium on judges. Noting that President Bush asked him to shepherd Chief Justice John Roberts' nomination through the Senate, Thompson promised to appoint similarly conservative judges. "I believe he will go down as one of the great cheif justices. We just need more of 'em," Thompson said. "Judge Roberts proved that quality will win out in the end." He also promised to fight for his nominees. "That is a fight we can have with the American people, for the American people, all day long. And if we're persistent, we can win."

Values conservatives milling around the Washington Hilton seemed to be searching for a candidate to represent them against the moderate Giuliani, and Thompson, along with Romney, is one who might slake that thirst. "At the end of the day, I suspect one of those two will end up emerging as the main alternative to Giuliani," Bauer said. Romney takes his turn in front of the crowd tonight, in a speech his campaign says will focus on ending unwed pregnancies.

Giuliani, who addresses the crowd tomorrow, looms large over the summit today. While his previous positions put him at odds with attendees, "he realizes that this is an element of the conservative movement that he has to deal with, and I think he realized he could not be the only Republican candidate not to come out," Perkins said. Still, he added, "I don't think Giuliani is at risk of winning the straw poll tomorrow."

Some conservatives, though, urged values voters to keep an open mind. Rep. Jeanne Schmidt, an Ohio Republican, told the audience to stand up for their candidate in the primary, but "stand behind the person that is at least the better alternative" in the general election. Otherwise, she warned, "that woman" might occupy the White House.

Brownback Out

The Associated Press is reporting that Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback will drop his White House bid in an announcement tomorrow. Brownback, a Christian conservative, had sought to build a base in Iowa, though a disappointing third-place finish in the straw poll in Ames in August hurt him with donors.

He raised just $800,000 in the third quarter, bringing his total for the cycle to over $4 million.

The immediate winner appears to be former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, another candidate who identified heavily with the religious right. The two had clashed earlier this year as each tried to court social and religious conservatives. Huckabee came in a surprising second in Ames, and has recently polled much higher than Brownback.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will also be pleased with the announcement. In the run-up to the straw poll, Brownback hammered Romney relentlessly.

Brownback, first elected to the Senate in a special election in 1996, promised to serve just two full terms. When his seat is up in 2010, the AP reports he is widely anticipated to make a run for governor, seeking to replace term-limited Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

Is Paul's Military Support Significant?

The Houston Chronicle today reports that more members of the Armed Forces have ponied up to Texas Rep. Ron Paul's presidential campaign than to any other candidate. Significant? Perhaps, but some would be right to be skeptical.

Paul supporters will argue that the amount of money military men and women have given him -- $63,440, more than any other contender -- is because he is the only Republican who supports ending U.S. involvement in Iraq. Military personnel tend to lean Republican, and given the outlet of an anti-war candidate (and surely at least a few members of the military are against the war, despite what those on the right or left will tell you), they flocked to Paul.

Bolstering that claim: Second on the list, another war opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, at $53,968.

Every time candidates are required to file FEC reports, media outlets will rush to show that some received hundreds of thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars from one law firm or one Wall Street brokerage, or, in this case, members of the military. Don't buy into it.

Ron Paul has raised an astonishing $8.2 million. The $63,000 from members of the military represents less than one percent of his campaign haul. The $53,000 Obama received represents less than one-tenth of one percent of the nearly $79 million he's raised.

Small fractions of a candidate's treasury, from any group, are insignificant representations of a candidate's support. They are also insufficient grounds on which to accuse a candidate of being bought, as we're sure Democratic and Republican campaign committees will do to their opponents often this year (the NRCC sent one out just the other day).

Paul's support, in the end, goes a lot deeper than just one crowd. So does Obama's, and, for that matter, virtually every candidate's. No one should get credit, or be pigeonholed, for the sources of tiny bits of their campaign treasuries.

Though Paul may want to take credit for some of his more creative donors, per WSJ's Susan Davis: One donor listed his occupation as "tax slave to the Federal Govt." Another's employer: "Our children." Other great occupations: "Curmudgeon" and "Citizen Fighting Tyranny."

The campaign has set an incredibly ambitious goal of raising $4 million in October and $12 million total in the 4th Quarter. With 13 days to go, Paul is up to $1,119,052 for the quarter, a statistic measured in real time on his campaign's website (as of 9:35 am -- it changed three times while this column was looking at the site).

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.

Giuliani Stumps At CfG

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is proud of his city. Rather, he's proud of how he tamed what he sees as the out-of-control fiscal beast that was the Big Apple. Meeting with the fiscally conservative Club for Growth today in Washington, Giuliani sought to continue building the narrative that, as a tax- and spending-cutter, he ought to be the group's ideal candidate.

"You really need to take a look at that record," Texas Gov. Rick Perry told the audience, after endorsing Giuliani earlier in the morning. "It is a powerful story that those of us who are fiscal conservatives can shout from the mountaintop."

Giuliani used the speech to lay out his own agenda, based on cutting taxes and spending, reducing lawsuits and moderating government regulation, while taking a few veiled shots at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and more overt shots at Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

"My ideas on the economy and economic philosophy are proven," Giuliani said. "In my case, I can support what I believe with results. And I think that is a very big distinction between me and the other candidates." Asked to contrast his health care plan with that of Romney, Giuliani demurred, saying he would rather contrast his plan with HillaryCare. "With regard to my Republican opponents, I try not to criticize them unless they criticize me, and then I can't help it," he joked.

Clinton's plan, he said, would drive up costs, something he implied Romney's plan would do as well. "She's going to mandate that you have health care, which Governor Romney did in Massachusetts," he said. "The minute you mandate something, the cost of it goes up."

While an early Romney campaign memo suggested the former governor would use his campaign to contrast himself with France, a paragon of big government, Giuliani took virtually the opposite track, pointing out the positives in new French President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to cut corporate tax rates and eliminate the estate tax. Sarkozy's moves on taxes, Giuliani suggested, was partially borne out of his experience as mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine.

Like many groups Giuliani addresses, there are aspects of his record with which Club for Growth members find fault. Club president Pat Toomey asked Giuliani pointedly whether his views on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which he initially supported, had changed. "It's one of my many occasions on which I can point out to you that I'm not perfect," Giuliani said. The bill, which he called a "mistake," is "a process that needs to be reviewed."

Still, Giuliani promised not to make the same mistakes he's made in front of other groups. Noting that some who aren't insured have at least enough money to buy a cell phone, he brought up something of a sore subject, given criticism he underwent after answering a call in front of the National Rifle Association last month. "I put mine off this morning, by the way," he joked, eliciting laughter.

Former Sen. Fred Thompson and Romney will address the group later today.

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.

Giuliani To Get Big South Carolina Endorsement

A rumor floating around South Carolina Republican circles suggests South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has picked a candidate in the 2008 Republican race. As Rudy Giuliani makes a campaign swing through the Palmetto State, the campaign says it will unveil a "significant" endorsement at a press conference tomorrow in Charleston. Palmetto Republicans are giddy with the prospect that it could be Sanford.

Trouble is, one source inside the Giuliani campaign told Politics Nation that tomorrow's announcement will not be Sanford.

A Republican familiar with the state GOP's top elected officials suggested the event's location in Charleston could indicate that Lieutenant Gov. Andre Bauer could throw his support to Giuliani. Bauer has a home in Charleston and has not endorsed a candidate yet. A call to Bauer's office was not immediately returned.

The state's political leaders are strangely divided over the question of whom to endorse. Sen. Lindsey Graham is one of John McCain's top backers, as is state Attorney General Henry McMaster. Sen. Jim DeMint uses his time to advise and support Mitt Romney. Rep. Gresham Barrett is on board with Fred Thompson. Sanford and Bauer, though, have been silent on the race.

Speculation continues that Sanford, as a Southern governor, would be a strong compliment to Romney or Giuliani, two Republicans from the Northeast, as a Vice Presidential contender.

The Market Gauges Thompson's Performance

Prices in the Real Clear Predicts Market Fantasy '08 as the GOP debate begins, with today's price changes in parentheses, as of 4:06 p.m.:

Giuliani 38.9 (-0.6)
Thompson 21.9 (+0.3)
Romney 23.6 (-1.6)
Paul 5.7 (-1.6)
McCain 5.2 (+0.3)
Huckabee 3.4 (-1.3)

All other candidates have no contracts and no change on the day.

Republicans Lining Up In Dearborn

Fred Thompson is set to make his big debut in just half an hour at the CNBC/MSNBC debate in Dearborn, Michigan. RCP's Tom Bevan is there. Check back to RCP tonight for Tom's report, and check out the five questions he's looking to answer tonight..

New Gallup Poll Has Giuliani Up

A Gallup Poll, conducted 10/4-7 and released on the eve of the big Republican debate today in Dearborn, Michigan, shows Rudy Giuliani still in command of the race, at least nationally. The poll surveyed 409 Republicans and leaners, for a margin of error of approximately +/- 5%.

The big news: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee seems to be on a measurable rise. Huckabee is at 7%, up from 1% as recently as May, while candidates like Mitt Romney have remained largely stagnant, finishing at 9% today, down just 1% since May.

Primary Election Matchup
Giuliani 32 (+2 from last poll, 9/14-16)
Thompson 20 (-2)
McCain 16 (-2)
Romney 9 (+2)
Huckabee 7 (+3)

Taking a look at the favorable ratings for each candidate, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani have little upside remaining. Both are very well-known -- just 13% have not made up their minds about Giuliani, and 15% remain undecided about McCain. High name identification is a good thing, but when people have yet to make up their minds about other candidates, it means those candidates have more of a potential upside.

For Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney, about 40% of the electorate still needs to learn more about them before formulating an opinion. Those who can learn more about Huckabee: 65%. Thompson, Romney and Huckabee have the potential to win many more supporters, while fewer new voters are available to flock to McCain and Giuliani.

Giuliani 72 / 15
McCain 61 / 24
Thompson 53 / 10
Romney 45 / 15
Huckabee 26 / 9
Paul 14 / 14

Thompson Announces National Team

The day before his first appearance in a Republican debate, former Sen. Fred Thompson used Columbus Day to make sure stories tomorrow begin by announcing his national campaign co-chairs, rather than leading with the importance of a stellar performance.

National co-chairs include former Sen. Howard Baker, who long served as a mentor to Thompson and virtually shoved him into the race, and former Sen. Spence Abraham, who has been a major part of the nascent campaign for months. Former Sen. George Allen, himself once thought to be a top-tier presidential contender, and former State Department official Liz Cheney round out the campaign's top team.

Allen's addition will help Thompson reach out to conservatives he needs to woo if he has any hope of the nomination, while the addition of Cheney, whose father, of course, is also employed within the administration, seems set to imply that Thompson is the choice of some (indeed, much) of the GOP establishment. Remember, on the GOP side, the establishment choice usually wins the nomination.

We noted earlier that Thompson's former debate prep coach, former Sen. Al D'Amato (R-NY), is filling that role for Rudy Giuliani this cycle. Cheney, the release from Thompson's campaign notes, managed vice presidential debate prep for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000 and 2004. If she works hard today getting Thompson ready, she may be managing the top of the ticket's preparation in 2008.

UPDATE: Giuliani Hits Back

Not content to let former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hit Mayor Rudy Giuliani's record for free, the Giuliani campaign today went a step further than they did yesterday, when they let surrogate speakers respond to Romney's claim. Today, Team Giuliani dumped a little oppo research of their own.

Among their claims, that Romney raised taxes on out-of-state residents who worked in Massachusetts as governor -- critical for the thousands of workers coming in from a certain early primary state immediately to the north of Romney's home state. Taxes raised included employment taxes, deferred compensation, vacation pay and other income. During Romney's tenure, the state's tax burden rose 10.75%, while New York City's tax burden fell 17% under Giuliani.

Hitting back at Romney's broadsides indicates the mayor's campaign sees a win in New Hampshire as important, just like Romney's team does. While Giuliani has largely focused on later states, like Florida and the February 5th giants, what happens if his campaign decides to put more chips on New Hampshire? If Giuliani decides to spend more money in the Granite State, Romney will have to dig deeper into his own pocket to protect the investment he's already made.

Romney Aims At Giuliani

As Republicans descend on Washington today to address anti-tax activists, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is taking a hard line with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani while defending his own record on taxes and spending. At a forum yesterday in Manchester, Romney lambasted Giuliani's lack of support for a line-item veto, which small government advocates see as key to keeping spending in check.

"Mayor Giuliani was the mayor who fought the line-item veto -- went to court to stop the line-item veto. And he won, and because he won, he killed the line item veto," Romney said. "It is the single most important tool we have to stop excessive spending. And that was a serious mistake."

Giulaini's administration filed suit in federal court in 1997 challenging the constitutionality of the veto, a suit that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled in Giuliani's favor. The mayor, who had sued to keep a federal Medicaid reimbursement in place, called the win a "very, very big victory for New York City and New York State."

Giuliani has now pledged to propose a Constitutional amendment establishing the line-item veto. Yesterday, former Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci, who is backing Giuliani, hit back at his successor. "It's a pretty weak argument from a governor who in four years really had no tax cuts for the people of Massachusetts," Cellucci said on a conference call, according to National Journal/NBC's Matt Berger.

The spat comes as Romney debuts a new radio ad, running in New Hampshire beginning today, that seeks to distinguish him from the pack. "I'm proud to be the only major candidate for President to sign the Tax Pledge," he says, referring to the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, an initiative of Americans for Tax Reform. Senator Sam Brownback, former Governor Mike Huckabee and Reps. Ron Paul and Tom Tancredo have also signed the pledge.

Taxes and spending weren't the only issues on which the Red Sox fan took on the Yankee. Speaking to reporters after the event in Manchester, Romney did not hesitate to spotlight a few other distinctions between the rivals. "Mayor Giuliani is pro-choice, and I'm pro-life -- that's probably the most stark and dramatic difference," the Politico reports Romney said. "I oppose same-sex marriage and civil unions and he is in favor of civil unions."

The barrage comes as Romney has seen his support in New Hampshire slip in recent weeks. Once riding high at more than 31% in the RCP New Hampshire Average, Romney now sits at 25.2%, just 3.8 points ahead of Giuliani, whose support in the Granite State has risen of late.

Romney has also been dogged by recent reports that his campaign's momentum is slowing down. His efforts to distinguish himself from Giuliani, the harshest comments any top-tier candidate has made about another top-tier candidate, are a way to both slow down the surging mayor and to reestablish himself in New Hampshire.

Rudy's $11 Mil Quarter

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani will report having raised $11 million for the 3rd Quarter. Check out Tom Bevan's post for the details.

Romney To Report $18 Mil 3rd Quarter

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will report more than $18 million in total receipts for the third quarter, bringing his total to $62 million for the year, according to spokesman Kevin Madden.

The campaign will report about $10 million in primary contributions and another $8.5 million in loans from Romney himself. That makes a total of $45 million raised in contributions and about $17 million in loans from Romney's personal bank account.

While Romney's momentum might have slowed of late, as some are suggesting, the campaign is happy with the way the third quarter progressed. They held more than sixty "Ask Mitt Anything" forums in the quarter, won the Iowa straw poll, crossed the 100,000 contributor threshold, and maintains about $9 million cash on hand.

Unlike other campaigns, Romney is not raising general election funds yet, so every penny of the $9 million, plus whatever else Romney loans himself, can be spent to win the nomination.

Every major candidate has now disclosed their fundraising performance except former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose totals are expected shortly.

Thompson Aide Heads To CN8

Robert Traynham, a senior communications adviser to former Sen. Fred Thompson, has left the campaign to take over as Washington bureau chief for CN8, a Comcast network. The network announced Traynham will start next Monday, October 8th.

Traynham, a former top press aide to Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), joined the campaign in its "testing the waters" phase in late June. A campaign spokesman says Traynham left the campaign shortly before the official announcement, early last month, for the new job. "The campaign regretted losing him but was supportive of him in this new endeavor," said spokesman Jeff Sadosky.

Traynham did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Traynham is one of many communications staffers who left just before the campaign became official. Others, including senior advisor Mark Corallo, spokesman Jim Mills, communications director Linda Rozett and press secretary Burson Snyder all left in August or early September.

Thompson's communications shop is now run by veteran Republican communications specialist Todd Harris, his deputy, Karen Hanretty, and spokesman Jeff Sadosky. Harris and Hanretty are veterans of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2003 campaign, while Sadosky came to his post after serving as communications director for the Florida Republican Party.

McCain In Debt

Politico's Jonathan Martin reports Arizona Senator John McCain will report raising about $5 million this quarter, though his money hemorrhaging hasn't totally stopped. The campaign will still show more than $2 million in debt.

So, when McCain floated that trial balloon about accepting federal matching funds, it looks like he may have been serious. But if he abides by spending caps, while he will be outspent in Iowa and New Hampshire, his grassroots skills, especially in the Granite State, could keep him competitive in a state that still swoons every time he shows up.

Hunter Gets Hacked

For Congressman Duncan Hunter, nothing seems to be going right. He's near the bottom in the polls, can't raise any money and hasn't had a good finish in any straw polls of note. Now, his website got hacked:


When it rains, it pours.

Paul To Surprise Again?

As the fundraising quarter draws to a close at midnight tonight, candidates are scrambling to boost their numbers by any means necessary (we've received two fundraising pitches signed by candidates with the subject line "Hey," and one from a spouse headed "Re: Hey"). And while he's gotten little attention outside his fervent and fanatic fan base, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who finished the second quarter with more cash on hand than Sen. John McCain, could have another surprise in store for the media establishment his supporters so often malign.

In the run-up to the filing deadline, Paul's supporters were asked to help the candidate raise $500,000 in just a few days. That's more than former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee raised in the entire first quarter, by the way. Yesterday, the Paul campaign revised its goal -- supporters had raised $850,000 already, and the campaign was shooting for $1 million by midnight tonight.

The campaign reached the $1 million mark last night, a full day ahead of schedule.

Paul won't outraise any of the front-runners, but the frugality with which he is running the campaign, as well as the fervency of his supporters and his presence in Iowa and New Hampshire, mean that he will be one second-tier candidate unwilling to drop out before the nominating process takes its course. Paul could cause some serious problems for the front-runners, and it looks increasingly like he will have the money to compete in at least a few early states.

Romney's New Massachusetts Dilemma

BOSTON -- Former Gov. Mitt Romney is not popular in his adopted state. Polls toward the end of the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, when Romney decided against a second term, showed the public narrowly disapproving of the incumbent, and after months of bashing the state to Republican primary voters around the country, Bay Staters think even worse of him. "He should be impeached," one close friend and Massachusetts native told me, apparently unaware of the requirement that Romney still be in office.

While the former governor is shy about discussing Massachusetts in the primary, if he makes it to the general the message is going to change in a heartbeat, to a much friendlier bipartisan message. Yet there are still things Romney can brag about in Massachusetts, and still things his opponents can hit him on. Yesterday was a perfect example, and proves why the Boston media is one of the toughest crowds in the country.

A recent FBI report showing an increase in violent crime for the past two years spurred the Boston Herald to investigate just how much crime changed while Romney was governor. The results: Not good for Mitt. Murder was up 7.5%, outpacing the national 1.8% increase.

But anyone listening to WBUR, Boston's National Public Radio station, yesterday would have been hard pressed to miss news that new data out of the U.S. Department of Education showed Massachusetts kids scored higher than any other state on three out of four National Assessment of Educational Progress exams, and tied for first on number four. The state also won top honors the last time the test was administered, in 2005, when Romney was in office.

So, does Romney brag about his success in educating Bay State children? Does he defend himself from charges that crime spiked under his watch? Or does he just artfully change the subject and pray no one remembers he's from liberal, lefty Massachusetts?

Rudy's Phone Flap: Good Call?

This didn't really fit in my story from Friday, but during his address to gun rights advocates in Washington, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani paused to take a phone call from his wife, Judith Nathan. The crowd, at first, seemed a little taken aback, but when he ended his call with, "Okay, have a safe trip. Bye-bye. Talk to you later, dear. I love you," the crowd broke out into applause.

The media, too, seemed divided. New York Post's Charles Hurt wrote of the incident under the header, "Bad Call By Rude Rudy." The New York Daily News writes that the "laughing audience applauded," a much more positive tone.

This isn't the first time Giuliani has answered his wife's call during a speech, as Marc Ambinder noted. Still, was the call rude? The audience's laughter and applause seemed genuine -- and as I noted today, it was an audience not inclined to be nice to Giuliani.

But was it rude? Was it endearing? Would you allow your candidate to go on stage with a live cell phone? Email thoughts and comments and I'll post them later in the week.

Perry For Veep?

This year is the first, since 1984, that no major presidential candidate has hailed from the Lone Star State. Thanks to Ronald Reagan's choice of George H.W. Bush as Vice President in 1980, 1976 was the last time no Texan showed up anywhere on the national ticket. In 2008, only Rep. Ron Paul comes from Texas, and he runs well behind front-runners.

So, where is someone to find a Texan to compliment a ticket? How about a governor with a great reputation with conservatives to compliment more moderate nominees like Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani? Gov. Rick Perry, the man who succeeded President Bush, has ramped up his travel schedule lately and is raising his national profile.

After heading to Iraq and Afghanistan a few months ago, Perry made a stop in Israel, where he accepted an award for fostering international cooperation. Then, just over two weeks ago, Perry headed to California to address the state's GOP convention. While California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger offered platitudes about working with Democrats in a bipartisan matter, Perry won applause for throwing the crowd some serious red meat.

Asked about Perry's travel schedule, spokesman Robert Black made all the right noises, emphasizing Perry's positives while saying his boss isn't campaigning for the job. "The vice presidency isn't something you run for." Still, Black says, Perry has an important role to play. "Since Texas doesn't have a native son on the ballot," he said, "you can anticipate him doing any kind of surrogate speaking he is asked to do."

A general election candidate, aside from assuaging the base with the conservative Perry, might also be attracted to Perry's fundraising ability. As chair of this year's Republican Governor's Association dinner, in late February, Perry pulled in $10.4 million -- a record for the event, held in DC and keynoted by his predecessor, according to an RGA spokesman.

Perry, maintains Black, isn't thinking about the job. "He thinks he's got the best job in the country," Black said. "Just ask the current occupant of the White House."

Romney Wins Mackinac Poll

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney came out on top this weekend at the biggest gathering of Michigan Republicans before their January 15th primary. At the Michigan Republican Leadership Conference, Romney, whose father served as governor of the Wolverine State, took 39% in a straw poll sponsored by The Hotline.

Romney led Arizona Senator John McCain, who received 27%, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), with about 11%. While the 979 people who cast ballots are much more die-hard than the Michigan electorate as a whole, the results indicate that top Michigan Republicans are skewed toward their prodigal son. If Romney's lead holds in Iowa and New Hampshire, a win in Michigan could make it hard for the rest of the field to find their first win.

Romney, McCain, Paul, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Rep. Duncan Hunter and former Senator Fred Thompson all addressed Michigan Republicans during the conference. The poll was conducted Friday and Saturday, and the results were unofficially certified by the Michigan Republican Party.

The results, which come close to mirroring recent polls (Romney leads by 7.6% in the latest RCP Michigan Average) again show that Thompson's rise to the top will not be easy. McCain's second-place finish, despite a blow he suffered when Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox left his camp last week, may mean he still has some fight left in him, though he places fourth in the RCP Average. And Paul, who beat out both Thompson and Giuliani, continues to show surprising grassroots-level support. Whether he can translate that into votes remains, however, to be seen.

Full results after the jump.

Continue reading "Romney Wins Mackinac Poll" »

Romney's "Open Letter"

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is trying everything he can to separate himself from the field. His "open letter" to his own party, which will run Sunday in the New Hampshire Union Leader and in Roll Call on Monday as full-page ads, takes the GOP to task using some of the same themes as in a recent ad he launched in early primary states.

"The blame, we must admit, does not belong to just one party. If we're going to change Washington, Republicans have to put our own house in order." Using the same lines he does in the television spot, Romney continues: "We can't be like Democrats -- a party of big spending. We can't pretend our borders are secure from illegal immigration. We can't have ethical standards that are a punch-line for Jay Leno."

The goal of the letter: Distance himself from President Bush as publicly as possible while saying what many Republicans privately believe. Still, when 73% of Republicans approve of President Bush's job performance, according to the latest CBS Poll [PDF], it's a dangerous ploy.

One thing is certain: American voters are not happy with Washington. Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who stayed home, or abandoned the GOP altogether at the polls in 2006, need to hear something like contrition before they come home. The lack of a candidate Republicans believe can move them out of the doghouse is a big reason just 19% say they're satisfied with the GOP candidates, according to the latest CNN poll [PDF].

If Romney, or Fred Thompson, or Rudy Giuliani for that matter, can convince Republican primary voters that they're the candidate to move the party forward, they'll find themselves facing the Democratic nominee next year. In fact, with opinions about the Republican Party running so low among independents, a candidate seen as willing and able to change the party's direction is just the start Republicans need heading into 2008.

At NRA Forum, Rudy Gets Tepid Response

WASHINGTON -- Before a gathering of gun rights activists in Washington today, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who as mayor took stands that were seen as pro-gun control, took pains to assure the audience that, as president, he would be an ally. Despite his previous positions, Giuliani told the crowd, "there are many more things that we have in common."

"You never get a candidate you agree with one hundred percent. I'm not even sure I agree with myself one hundred percent," he joked.

His pro-gun control positions, he said, allowed him to "take a city that was the crime capitol of America and make it the safest large city" in the country. After crime rose thanks to what Giuliani called "left wing policy choices," his administration's move to hold people accountable for their actions reduced crime. "The results speak for themselves," he said. "It's people that commit crimes, not guns."

Voicing support for a recent court decision striking down a ban on handguns in Washington, D.C, Giuliani maintained that "the Second Amendment is a freedom as important as the freedoms in the other ten amendments."

The mayor also took the time to blast for a recent advertisement critical of General David Petraeus, and took a veiled shot at Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who voted against a resolution yesterday condemning the group's attack., said Giuliani, "spent hundreds of millions on the politics of personal destruction, which happens to be a Clinton phrase, by the way."

"You have absolutely no right to impugn [Petraeus's] integrity," Giuliani said, earning his biggest applause of the day. "That is precisely what did."

Asked about his support for a 2000 lawsuit aimed at holding gun companies liable for shootings, Giuliani said the lawsuit had taken turns he doesn't agree with, and that the events of September 11th redefined his thinking on gun ownership. "I was taking advantage of every law and every interpretation I could think of to reduce crime in New York City," he explained. "I didn't anticipate the lawsuit would go in the direction it is now."

Giuliani closed by urging NRA members to back the candidate they found most electable, and to seek common ground. "Who is going to be the best president overall to lead this country?" he asked. "I would like us to respect each other because we have very similar views."

Second Amendment activists greeted the mayor with little enthusiasm but polite applause. The constituency is one that will likely never be Giuliani's number one fan base, yet one that plays an important role in a Republican primary fight. "To get elected, I need your support," Giuliani said.

Giuliani refused to take questions afterward, though he did tell memebers of the media that "I think we did well." As his three-car caravan pulled away from the Capitol Hilton, the mayor has to hope that those inside thought the same way. If not, Second Amendment activists could prove a prickly thorn in Giuliani's side.

Bad News For McCain, Thompson

Blake reported both of these items in today's Daily 2008, but I thought they deserved another spotlight.

Coming off a fundraising quarter after which his campaign found itself deep in debt, after months of staff departures and after losing prominent supporters, most recently Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, Senator John McCain thought he'd turned a corner. His recent "No Surrender" tour won him good press in three early primary states, while his poll numbers have recently begun ticking up.

The Washington Times' Ralph Z. Hallow, though, reports today that McCain's money woes are still a major concern. The campaign set a goal of $4.5 million for this quarter, though one confidante says McCain has raised just $3.7 million so far. After a good month of press, the last thing McCain needs is a new round of stories questioning his campaign's ability to continue.

One-time McCain supporter Fred Thompson, who was once seen as the savior of conservatives, isn't getting any better news of late. Evangelical Christian leader James Dobson, in an email message to friends, said he could not support the former Tennessee Senator, according to the AP.

"Isn't Thompson the candidate who is opposed to a Constitutional amendment to protect marriage, ... favors McCain-Feingold, won't talk at all about what he believes, and can't speak his way out of a paper bag on the campaign trail?" Dobson asked. "He is apparently the Great Hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians? Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me!"

The mention of campaign finance reform underscores a point one conservative strategist brought up in a conversation with Politics Nation when he referred to the "McCain-Feingold-Thompson" bill.

McCain and Thompson will have a better day tomorrow, when the two candidates go before the National Rifle Association's confab in Washington. Both have a long record of support for gun rights, while other front-runners Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney will face tougher questions on their records.

The four front-runners' continued misfortune and lack of complete alignment with conservative orthodoxy is the reason Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback are sticking around. A nod from someone like Dobson could provide the kind of boost that helps one of them gain some traction.

New Romney Ad

Is it coincidence that three of the four Republican front-runners are not Washington politicians? Is it any wonder that the one front-runner who works on Capitol Hill, John McCain, is struggling to keep up, both in polls and financially? If Republican primary voters are really concerned with the direction of their party, they have the option of choosing "change" without choosing a Democrat.

That, at least, is what Mitt Romney is hoping as he constantly hypes his "change" themes. His latest ad, running in Iowa and New Hampshire, makes Romney out to be the candidate best able to turn around a party that's lost its way, on immigration, ethics and spending: "If we're going to change Washington," Romney intones solemnly, "Republicans have to put our own house in order."

"We can't be like Democrats, the party of big spending," Romney says, in "Change Begins With Us." "When Republicans act like Democrats, America loses."

Red meat for the base while dissing Democrats as much as possible: Two birds, one stone.

Did "No Surrender" Work?

As we mentioned this morning, Senator John McCain finished up his "No Surrender" tour through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina with a massive rally at The Citadel. The tour sought to capitalize on McCain's unapologetic support for the war in Iraq and for the troop surge; fittingly, the first event was held just hours after McCain participated in questioning General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker on Capitol Hill.

McCain's poll numbers have been inching up of late, from its bottom last week, around 10%, to nearly 16% in the latest RCP Average, presumably as more Republicans show their support for the war. But in New Hampshire, the latest poll, at least half of which was conducted when McCain was in the state, shows him dropping -- down 3% since Franklin Pierce's last poll, in June.

McCain's numbers are stable at 12.5% in RCP's New Hampshire Average, but if they don't start going up soon, in a state that vaulted McCain into contention in 2000, the "No Surrender" tour may not work beyond the Beltway. Wait for the next poll to see if McCain's team made any difference.