THE NOTE: Clinton Goes Nuclear on Obama

Say this about the denizens of Camp Clinton: They don't use a machine gun when a fly swatter might do the job. They detonate a nuclear warhead.

How else to explain this blast (couched, of course, as something other people might say about Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.)?

This from Billy Shaheen -- national and state Clinton campaign co-chair, husband of the former New Hampshire governor, and frequent campaign presence: "It'll be, 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?' " Shaheen tells The Washington Post's Alec MacGillis. "There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It's hard to overcome."


Republican dirty tricks? Remind us again, which campaign has had to dismiss two volunteers in recent days for forwarding e-mails that say Obama is a Muslim? Who's trolling for dirt about Obama's Chicago years?

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign says Shaheen was freelancing (and he's sorry now) -- just like other low-level operatives like Charlie Rangel and Tom Vilsack were reading from their own playbooks, right? And we're to accept that Shaheen was off the reservation in a direction that fit ever-so neatly with the Clinton campaign's argument about electability?

Don't forget the timing: There's Thursday's 2 pm ET debate in Johnston, Iowa -- the last time the Democrats will gather in one place before the Jan. 3 caucuses. And Shaheen's comments came just "hours after the release of a CNN/WMUR poll showing Obama in a statistical tie with Clinton for the first time among New Hampshire Democratic voters," ABC's Jake Tapper writes.

Says Obama campaign manager David Plouffe: "Now she's moved from Barack Obama's kindergarten years to his teenage years in an increasingly desperate effort to slow her slide in the polls." (Good line.)

This does put the issue of Obama's past drug use -- the stuff he owned up to in his memoir -- before voters in the run-up to Iowa. But does Hillary Clinton really want a debate with Barack Obama about their pasts? (Ready to break out the "didn't inhale" clip?) And would she want that debate to turn on what Republicans are likely to say about them?

Let's not call it panic -- but coming in to the final Democratic debate before the caucuses, may we suggest that there may be a tough of concern, of worry, of (heaven forbid) doubt over at the Clinton campaign?

The not-so-secret weapon keeps making the wrong kind of news.

Public polls show Iowa to be a dead heat, and the New Hampshire firewall is crumbling.

Clinton operatives are dropping loads of oppo-research on Obama's head nearly daily -- sometimes elegantly, sometimes less so.

Now they're trying to sell change -- but what if Obama and former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., have already cornered that market?

All the campaign angst seems to have shifted to Clinton as the momentum has flowed to Obama. "Clinton campaign insiders are increasingly questioning the cautious, poll-driven approach taken by Mark Penn, Hillary Rodham Clinton's top political aide," Newsday's Glenn Thrush reports. "Bill Clinton -- along with former White House hands -- have counseled her to adopt a far more aggressive approach with Obama." Said one "top Clinton ally": "Mark wanted to run her, basically, for re-election, and we are seeing what happened."

The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut has the nifty detail of a Clinton Iowa summit in October -- held in Chicago, of all places.

"It was not until October that senior officials at Clinton headquarters realized there was something of a disconnect between the candidate and the sentiments of participants in Iowa's quirky system, two campaign insiders said. And it was Clinton who sounded the alarm bell," Kornblut writes.

James Carville (who always seems close enough to the orbit to know, if not quite to be moving the pieces himself): "The level of worry is, they feel like they're in a damned close race," Carville tells Kornblut. "I don't really think there's going to be any kind of, quote, shake-up or anything like that. . . . But will there be some moving around? Sure."

And the audacity of spin: "Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist, said she never expected to glide to victory in Iowa; if anything, she was simply pleased that 'at some point this became a competitive race.' " (Try reading that sentence without laughing -- we dare you.)

Columnist Robert Novak sees the new Clinton tack backfiring. "The attack strategy has not affected Obama, and Clinton's aura of inevitability is fading. Not only has she fallen behind in Iowa, but polls show that primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina." Sentence worth pondering: "Howard Dean was in a much stronger position in post-Iowa primaries in 2004 than Clinton is today when his third-place finish in Iowa was followed by his national collapse."

John DiStaso of the New Hampshire Union Leader weighs in: "New Hampshire is no longer her firewall. It's a battleground, a free for all, and -- dare we say? -- a potential last stand for the former Granite State Democratic frontrunner."

(Which makes one wonder if the timing of this story is coincidental. "Though the focus of the 2008 presidential campaign is on Iowa and New Hampshire, the states with the earliest contests, Clinton suggested that California's influence might be larger than was commonly believed," Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times.

"You've got to realize that people in California will start voting absentee about the time Iowa and New Hampshire happen," she said at a closed-door fundraising reception Tuesday evening.)

The Republicans had their last joint forum before the caucuses on Wednesday, and not even Alan Keyes could keep it popping (not that he didn't try). That was good news for former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., the new Iowa frontrunner who was probably praying (and we mean that literally) for a boring final debate.

But the highlight of the afternoon actually happened shortly after the debate ended. Huckabee apologized to former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., for asking (in that "innocent voice") whether Mormons believe Jesus and the Devil are brothers.

It was "the latest instance of the newly ascendant Huckabee having to explain his statements now that he is facing closer scrutiny," per the Los Angeles Times' Mark Z. Barabak and Michael Finnegan.

(For what it's worth, The New York Times Magazine editor who handled the Huckabee piece said Huckabee aides "raised no concerns when briefed on that specific quote prior to publication," Politico's Michael Calderone reports. And the fact remains that Huckabee volunteered his query, when asked whether he thought Mormonism was a religion or a cult.)

Thomas Burr of the Salt Lake Tribune writes that Huckabee appears to be "raising the issues of Romney's faith as a campaign tactic."

He's "using Mitt Romney's Mormon faith as a wedge issue to attract evangelical voters in the early states, political scientists say, a move that in part seems to be helping Huckabee stay ahead in Iowa polls," Burr writes.

On Good Morning America on Thursday, Huckabee told ABC's Chris Cuomo that he was legitimately interested in the answer to his question about Mormons' belief in the relationship between Jesus and the Devil.

"The writer of the story actually knew more about Mormonism than I did, and I was asking him, because he was telling me things that I didn't know," Huckabee said. (Next time you're curious, start with Wikipedia instead of a writer for the most influential newspaper in the country.)

He also dismissed as "total nonsense" the notion that he's asking for votes because he's a Christian. (This from a candidate whose ad refers to himself as a "Christian Leader.") But he's still not weighing in on the question of whether Mormons are Christians: "I'll be happy to discuss what I believe. I'm not going to try to get into somebody else's heart, mind, and soul."

As for the debate, it was "a giant missed opportunity for Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and all the rest of the would-be Iowa contenders," per our post-debate analysis at "Nobody really engaged Huckabee, and he was able to speak (mostly unchallenged) in the forthright, plainspoken manner that's won him raves on the stump."

"Nothing that happened . . . threatened his lead," Newsweek's Holly Bailey writes. "There could have been fireworks over his pitch to expand funding for arts and music programs at school; after all, the GOP is in crisis over how the party has strayed from its fiscally conservative principles. But none of his major rivals went there."

"The biggest surprise of the otherwise tedious debate was that none of Huckabee's rivals criticized the former governor's record of ethical lapses, criminal paroles, tax increases and tolerance toward illegal immigrants," per the AP's Ron Fournier. "Instead, they left him to his own formidable devices."

The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos: "There was no big winner and no loser, though the focus on domestic issues played to the strengths of Romney, Huckabee, and former senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee."

Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen scored it for Thompson, who needs an Iowa revival. He "was specific, good-humored and exuded an executive persona during the low-key, 90-minute session," Yepsen writes. "Because he's so far back, he had the most to gain Wednesday by turning in a presidential performance, and he produced."

But Thompson also can kiss goodbye any chance at the Register's endorsement -- that's what you get for slapping down the newspaper's editor in public. After the debate, he called debate hand-raising "monkey business," per ABC's Christine Byun.

Also in the news:

HuffingtonPost's Tom Edsall and Sam Stein have the scoop: "Bill Clinton has severed business ties with Los Angeles billionaire Ron Burkle, fearful that their deals could erupt into bad publicity damaging his wife's presidential bid," they write. "The break-up is a major development in the world of political fundraising, where Burkle has risen to the top ranks, credited with channeling $50 million or more into Democratic coffers over the past 15 years."

The Clinton campaign is denying it, but The Wall Street Journal's John R. Emshwiller writes that Clinton and Burkle are moving in separate directions, even though the divorce isn't finalized yet.

"The move appears to be part of an effort to reduce the potential for conflict-of-interest controversies that could hamper Mrs. Clinton's presidential bid," Emshwiller writes.

"Mr. Clinton for the past five years has been a senior adviser to Mr. Burkle's investment operation, Yucaipa Cos., and has held stakes in several Yucaipa investment funds.

Some of those investments -- including one involving Yucaipa's acquisition of a car-hauling firm and another involving a troubled business deal with an Italian businessman -- have been controversial."

The New York Post's headline: "Hypocrisy 101." "After hitting Barack Obama's campaign hard for his bid to get thousands of out-of-state college kids at Iowa colleges to vote for him, Hillary Rodham Clinton's team launched its own effort to urge students to take part in the caucus on Jan. 3," Maggie Haberman writes.

ABC's Jake Tapper has the latest piece of fodder for those who would bring down Obama. In a 2003 questionnaire, he said he would repeal the PATRIOT Act (he subsequently voted to reauthorize it) and said he did "not support legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (he changed his mind in 2004.

Another flip-flop -- perfect for the Florida sun. "Democrat Barack Obama supported the 'normalization of relations with Cuba' when he was a US Senate candidate in 2003, taking a more liberal position than he has espoused as a presidential candidate," the Miami Herald's Beth Reinhard writes.

"His stance was brought to light . . . as supporters of rival Hillary Clinton contend that the Illinois senator's record would make him an easy mark for Republican attacks in a general election campaign."

Edwards is still ducking the fire flying over his head. And he has a big Iowa advantage: caucus veterans. USA Today's Jill Lawrence:

"As he fights to stay in contention in Iowa's leadoff presidential contest, he does have at least one thing that Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama don't have: most of his supporters already have experience with this state's sometimes daunting system of caucuses held in each of 1,784 precincts."

The senators running for president have a vote to cast Thursday morning, on the energy bill, but should be in Iowa in time for the debate.

But it may not be enough to pass the legislation: "Some of the details were still being worked out late Wednesday as Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada mapped out strategy to overcome a certain GOP filibuster against the bill's $21.8 billion tax package, including repeal of $13.5 billion in tax breaks enjoyed by the five largest oil companies," the AP's H. Josef Hebert reports.

Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., hasn't been in control of a news cycle in a good clip now.

He's looking to change that on Saturday, with a "major speech" in Florida, Politico's Jonathan Martin reports. "Rudy's camp wouldn't provide specifics, but they are plainly trying to do two things: Shift the focus of the campaign away from the stories about his relationship with then-girlfriend, now-wife Judith Giuliani that have dogged his bid in recent weeks and move away from a tit-for-tat with Mitt Romney that they believe makes their candidate look small."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is the latest in The Washington Post's "Frontrunners" series.

"The McCain of December 2007 is very much like the McCain of December 1999," the Post's Michael Shear writes.

"He's strapped for cash, and everyone is betting against him. The people around him -- and the candidate himself -- somehow believe that he can still win the GOP nod, perhaps simply by force of his own will. But this is not how it was supposed to be."

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., is Charlie Gibson's latest subject in the "Who Is?" series, airing Thursday on the World News Webcast and broadcast.

On overcoming a childhood stutter: "I'd stand in front of the mirror and repeat Emerson's 'Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty,' watching the muscles in my face. . . . I knew I had to talk. I knew I had to overcome this."

And on his suicide thoughts after death of his wife and infant daughter: "I'd get up in the middle of the night, go out and take out a bottle of Scotch . . . and I'd sit at the table and I'd try to make myself just lose it. I couldn't bring myself . . . but the hardest part is you feel guilty when you realize you want to live. If the love was as great and as profound as you believed it to be, why would you still want to live?"

Romney rolls out an endorsement Thursday morning: Gov. Dave Heineman, R-Neb., the third sitting governor to sign on with his campaign. "With exceptional leadership experience and outstanding values, Governor Romney is the only candidate who can bring true conservative change to Washington," Heineman says in the campaign's press release.

Check out our new video -- the World News Webcast Campaign Ad Awards, with the good, the bad, the ugly, and the hilarious so far this year.

ABC's debates on Jan. 5 -- the Saturday between Iowa and New Hampshire -- are set for Manchester, N.H., and the Republicans will lead off at 7 pm ET, with the Democrats to follow immediately thereafter, under the order chosen Wednesday.

"New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner placed two balls -- one blue for the Democrats, one red for the Republicans -- into a bottle and mixed them up," ABC's Tahman Bradley reports. (And we just may have a new way to choose the primary date, Mr. Secretary.)

The kicker:

"No, no, no, pointing right over there." -- Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., after Romney mistakenly thought he was offering his congratulations to him -- not Mike Huckabee -- for "leading the pack now."

"You're gonna do something which people won't expect, which is give me a victory. And then I'm going to New Hampshire where I'm pretty solidly in the lead in New Hampshire. And I'm gonna be in Nevada and I'm gonna win Nevada. And I'm gonna be in Wyoming and Ill win that one. And Michigan -- we're gonna end up doing real darn well. That's at least what I plan. . . . Brian over here was afraid I was gonna scream as I was saying that. The Howard Dean moment. But I'm not gonna do that. No predictions like that. No screaming allowed." -- Romney, just barely avoiding a Dean moment, per ABC's Matt Stuart.

I'll be live-blogging during Thursday afternoon's Democratic debate, starting at 2 pm ET. Be part of the conversation here.

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