THE NOTE: Hillary Set to Face Haymakers at Debate

Cheer up, Democrats: The polls look pretty good for you. The autoworkers strike ended while you were sleeping. President Bush has decided to rediscover his conservative credentials by vetoing health insurance for working-class children. There's even a high-powered Democratic reunion of sorts this morning to remind you that the good old days aren't that far in the past.

None of that is going to make tonight's Democratic debate in New Hampshire a feel-good affair (though the Clinton-Gore photo-op may warm Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's heart). Time is running out for the second tier -- and it looks like they know it.

Coming into the debate -- the Democrats' last of the third quarter (and the next one isn't for a month) consider the not-so-nice things being said about the Democratic frontrunner:

Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., is blasting Clinton and other Democrats in a new ad on Iraq (way to get the netroots on your side, too). Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., is warning that any Clinton healthcare plan is going to be ripped to shreds by the GOP -- simply because of its author.

And a more-and-more aggressive Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., is inching toward the argument all of Clinton's rivals want to make. Dodd tells ABC News: "We need a nominee that is attractive to both Democrats and independents, and that does not energize the Republican base." (Will he say it on stage, or stick to paper?)

All of the Democrats need to challenge the notion that Clinton, D-N.Y., is the automatic and inevitable nominee. Yet nothing that's happened in the past eight months -- not Sen. Barack Obama's fund-raising prowess, former senator John Edwards' leftward nudges, or the various stop-and-go attack strategies of the rest of the field -- has shaken that notion.

In time for tonight's confrontation at Dartmouth College, a new WMUR/CNN poll in New Hampshire hammers home the perception that Clinton is stronger than ever: It has Clinton doubling up Obama, 43-20, with Edwards, D-N.C., at 12, and Richardson at 6. (The same poll had Clinton up by just 8 points in July and 20 in August.)

The factoid the Clinton camp wants you to memorize: The poll also has 54 percent of Democrats saying Clinton has the best chance of winning against the Republican nominee next year -- compared with 13 percent for Obama.

The nugget that gives the rest of the field some hope: "The poll also shows that while most likely New Hampshire Democratic primary voters have a preference, fully 55 percent have yet to make up their minds," writes the Union Leader's John DiStaso. (DiStaso also reports that the Republican side of the poll shows Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., "within, or close to, the margin of error" behind the top two Republicans, but those numbers won't be out until later today.)

Clinton has "won" just about every one of the presidential forums so far, but the dynamic could be different once the piling-on begins. "The early strategies of Clinton's rivals -- wait for her to implode, stumble or become too polarizing a figure to advance -- have not come to be," The Hill's Sam Youngman reports. "Now, the only way to weaken Clinton's standings is to start attacking her on what they perceive as her weaknesses. The question is, who will strike out first."

Newsweek's Howard Fineman lays it out for the race's No. 2: "When will Sen. Barack Obama go after -- really go after -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton? For if he doesn't do it soon, and effectively, the contest for the 2008 nomination may well be over before it officially starts." He finds a football analogy for the two Chicagoans: "Unless Obama absorbs the spirit of the riled up '85 Bears, who blitzed on every down, Hillary will continue to dink and dunk her way down the field to victory."

There's an "Obama brand" here to protect. But his big move will have to be more than delivering a speech on the fifth anniversary of another one of his speeches (even though every single Democrat running for president wishes he or she had given a similar address).

Don't forget the end of the fund-raising quarter (and look who has the insurmountable expectations in this cruel game). This is a remarkable sentence on several levels: "Hillary Clinton may blunt one of rival Barack Obama's few advantages in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination: money," Bloomberg's Jonathan Salant and Kristin Jensen write. Says Democratic consultant Peter Fenn: "The Clinton juggernaut is moving if she out-raises him this quarter."

The perception of a static race is surely fueling the sudden reticence of the SEIU, one of the nation's most politically influential unions, to hand out an endorsement in the Democratic primary. "Mr. Edwards has lobbied the union hard," Steven Greenhouse writes in The New York Times. But "some union officials said they were mindful that Mr. Edwards was a distant third in polls of Democrats and that many members favor Hillary Rodham Clinton." Anyone have the sense that we are reading from the script of the inevitable candidate?

Looking to advance one negative Clinton storyline (and remembering that The Boston Globe circulates in New Hampshire), will anyone mention this on stage? "In at least some cases, Clinton or her aides directly channeled contributions from [Norman] Hsu and his network to other politicians supportive of her presidential campaign," the Globe's Scott Helman reports. Among those who benefited from Hsu's generosity, via Clinton: former governor Tom Vilsack, D-Iowa, Gov. Jennifer Granholm, D-Mich., and (this makes an attack tonight a bit trickier) Gov. John Lynch, D-N.H.

And there's this story (if anyone cares to try to make sense of it): A close aide/body-man to the former president connected a somewhat shady young Italian businessman (who's dating Anne Hathaway) to the upper echelons of Clintonland, The Wall Street Journal's John M. Emshwiller and Gabriel Kahn report. "As a gatekeeper to the former president's web of business and charitable enterprises, [Douglas] Band helped [Raffaello] Follieri get into business with Mr. Clinton," they write. Ron Burkle is now suing Follieri. (And a special prize to any candidate who can turn this into a 30-second attack.)

On the Republican side, with this week's visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran is turning into a way for the Republican candidates to carve out differences in foreign policy -- including how they would handle the war in Iraq, the Washington Times' Stephen Dinan writes. (Hint: They're all talking tough.)

To recap: former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., wants to indict Ahmadinejad; former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., says he can envision military action against Iran; former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., is calling to halt World Bank funding to Iran; and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., sang his policy to the tune of "Barbara Ann."

"The differences were in tone rather than policy," writes the Los Angeles Times' Scott Martelle. "The top Democratic candidates, who have urged a similarly hard line against Iran's evolution into a nuclear power, also condemned Ahmadinejad but with more muted rhetoric."

Obama, though, is again taking a slightly different tack on Ahmadinejad than his fellow candidates. A day after defending Columbia University's right to invite him to speak -- and saying he'd still be willing to meet one-on-one with him without preconditions -- he blasted the New York tabloids for making such a big deal out of his visit.

"The way to approach petty tyrants is not to inflate them," Obama declared. Per the Daily News' Michael Saul, "In the world according to Barack Obama, it's fine for the President to meet with 'petty tyrants,' but wicked wrong for the press to make a fuss when a despot comes to town." Cue Clinton press guru Howard Wolfson: "New York is the greatest newspaper town in the country."

It's Wolfson's communications shop that's drawing the quiet enmity of the press corps -- and the quiet envy of Clinton's rivals. "Clinton, D-N.Y., is running perhaps the most media-controlled -- and media-obsessed -- campaign in presidential history," per ABC News. "Her aides carefully screen access to the candidate, generally avoid news conferences on the campaign trail and have been known to throw around the Clintons' considerable weight to block negative stories and influence coverage of the candidate they're protecting and promoting." Former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer -- in another sign of Clinton's enviable position: "She sees all downside in access."

Also in the news:

The House last night passed an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, though not by a veto-proof margin. But as the president prepares to veto his first-ever spending bill, "in rhetoric and media coverage the SCHIP debate has become a fight over whether the president cares about sick kids," ABC's Jake Tapper and Z. Byron Wolf report. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pours it on thick in her message for the president: "Please don't give new meaning to the phrase 'suffer the little children.' "

Start rolling the ads. "Even Republican advocates in the House ruefully conceded that they will probably fall short of the 290 votes they will need next week to override the promised veto," The Washington Post's Christopher Lee and Jonathan Weisman report. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill.: "It's about the priorities, and the president has told us his priorities." Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M.: "The administration has come to this debate very late, and, as a result, they're asking us to take one for the team here."

Richardson's new ad on features (virtual) celebrities: Three influential liberal bloggers are shown talking up his plan for a total withdrawal from Iraq. "The subtext of the spot -- that the New Mexico governor cares about the netroots -- is almost more important than the primary message," Sarah Wheaton writes for The New York Times website. "The bloggers stop just short of calling their involvement in the spot an endorsement of Mr. Richardson's candidacy."

With the news that the NRA may make an endorsement in the primaries, Giuliani is (again, and sort of) explaining his position on guns. His views have been influenced by (surprise!) 9/11 and a recent federal court ruling. "You have to look at all of these issues in light of the different concerns that now exist, which is terrorism, the terrorists' war on us," Giuliani tells the AP's Liz Sidoti and Libby Quaid.

The California electoral college scheme is being backed (very generously) by a Giuliani donor, Charles A. Hurth III, a lawyer in Union, Mo., per The New York Times' Jennifer Steinhauer. The Giuliani camp says it's not involved, but this from Chris Lehane (who's ginning up opposition to the ballot initiative from his California perch): "Since almost all the roads lead to the Giuliani for President campaign, it raises the question of what does Rudy know and when did he know it?"

As Biden racks up endorsements among Iowa lawmakers, he "is dispatching almost all of his senior national staff to the state for the final months before the state's caucuses,"'s Chris Cillizza reports -- "quieting rumors (for now) that the Delaware senator might drop his candidacy before the end of the year."

Amid the mess over the Florida primary -- and now comes a lawsuit Florida Democrats are preparing against the Democratic National Committee -- Clinton is vowing to stay away from the Sunshine State, the Orlando Sentinel's John Kennedy reports. "I intend to abide by the pledge I signed," she said, referring to the commitment she and the other major candidates made to avoid states that violate Democratic Party rules by holding early primaries.

Get ready for the spousal invasion of Florida, led by Bill Clinton, who has been invited to the state party convention next month, the Miami Herald's Beth Reinhard reports. "The candidates themselves would typically attend the annual pep rally, with about 3,000 activists, but they've vowed to bypass Florida because the state's early primary breaches national party rules," Reinhard writes.

The Florida Republican Party is jumping on the turmoil, Adam Smith reports in the St. Petersburg Times. "Has being a Florida Democrat brought you to tears?" asks the mailer sent to Florida Democrats, complete with the registration form for voters to switch party affiliation (and a touching photo of a senior citizen wiping away tears). "There is hope. You'll find it with the Republican Party of Florida."

The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz reports that the White House wanted its Juan Williams interview of President Bush to appear on National Public Radio -- but NPR turned it down, leaving the interview for Fox News to broadcast. NPR didn't want the White House to select its interviewer, but this from Williams: "I was stunned by the decision to turn their backs on him and to turn their backs on me."

The Republican National Committee is creating some mischief in New Hampshire with a Web ad mocking the Democratic candidates (and we love how they got their little eyes to blink).

The public got "a glimpse of how the President sees his speeches" yesterday when a draft version of his UN speech -- complete with pronunciation tips and speechwriters' cell phone numbers -- was . It's "[sar-KOzee]," the "[moo-GAHbee] regime," "[KEYRgeez-stan]," and "[moor-EH-tain-ee-a]."

Wondering about a casino magnate's politics? to Cynthia McFadden that he's rooting for New York City Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y.: "I think he's an extraordinarily capable man and whether its Mrs. Clinton, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney -- a businessman, or Rudy Giuliani -- who's a terrific guy, or Michael Bloomberg, what America needs is competent leadership, competent management." His wife, Elaine, is supporting Obama.

The kicker:

"I'm not part of the administration. You know, I'm just my father's daughter." -- Jenna Bush, about whether it was "tricky" to write about issues that brush up against Bush administration policies on AIDS, condom use, and sexual choices.

"Ms. Clinton, a private citizen, was not consulted prior to this picture being displayed, and thus, her permission was not given for you to do so. While she may have dined at your restaurant, this does not serve as an endorsement."target="external" -- Douglas Band (in the news a lot today) in a letter demanding that a photo of Chelsea Clinton with the owner of a New York Italian restaurant be taken out of the front window it's been displayed in for five years.

"I have very competent lawyers." -- Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, explaining why he's staying in Washington while his attorneys argue for his guilty plea -- entered into without a lawyer -- to be overturned in Minneapolis.


I'll be live blogging during tonight's MSNBC Democratic debate, starting at 9 pm ET. Be part of the conversation.

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