The Note: GOP Smack-Down:

With tonight likely to be the last time the Republican presidential field gathers without Fred Thompson's imposing presence, look for a memorable smack-down in New Hampshire. Members of the proud second tier know that their chances for a breakthrough are disappearing faster than DA Arthur Branch can bark, "Get me a conviction." And it's not as if the top GOP contenders have even needed a debate stage to mix it up of late.

Immigration is likely to dominate, and that's just what Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wants. McCain's speech yesterday in Florida, where he suggested that critics of the immigration bill "would intentionally make our country's problems worse," has already elicited a rebuke from former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., who wants this fight every bit as much as McCain does. And that doesn't even account for Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who is launching his campaign to oust Republicans who support the bill today in Manchester, just hours before the debate.

Throw into that tinder box Sen. Sam Brownback's, R-Kan., latest attack on Romney for not labeling abortion "murder," new questions over former mayor Rudolph Giuliani's, R-N.Y., abortion position, and the always entertaining 9/11-themed sideshow matching Giuliani against Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas., and it should be an entertaining evening.

Yet it could be "testing-the-waters" Thompson who provides the highlights: As soon as the 10 men on stage wrap up their two shared hours CNN, Thompson will have 20 minutes to himself on Fox News. "He'll get to review (pan?) their performances and offer a preview of his own campaign, without so much as a divergent peep out of them and no pesky red light telling him to wrap it up," The New York Times' Katharine Q. Seelye writes.

Remember the good old days, when it was Republican members of Congress getting indicted, and polls showed the GOP congressional leadership in freefall? Seems like a long time ago for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. The cold, hard cash in Rep. William Jefferson's, R-La., freezer finally resulted in an indictment yesterday, ABC's Jake Tapper reports, with "charges right out of 'The Sopranos,' including money laundering, racketeering, and obstruction of justice, with allegations of corruption spanning years and two continents."

Jefferson is proclaiming his innocence and promising to see his name cleared, but the $90,000 in cash found in takeout containers in Jefferson's freezer provides a more memorable image than anything the Abramoff affair has produced. How long can Democratic leaders protect Jefferson from being expelled and still lay claim to running -- in Pelosi's words -- "the most honest, ethical, and open Congress in history?"

Handling Jefferson's situation is delicate for Pelosi, given the testy relationship she's had with the Congressional Black Caucus. The Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman reports that Jefferson's indictment "could rekindle a smoldering dispute between the speaker and black lawmakers who were once pillars of her power." Said Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill.: "A person in America is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty." Remember that Jefferson's district reelected him last year despite knowing that he was all but certain to be indicted.

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