The Note: Mitt's moment

While President Bush was looking for his watch and Fred Thompson was screening clips of himself on "Sex and the City," an interesting thing happened in the Republican race for president: A new front-runner emerged.

Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., now tops the polls in both New Hampshire and Iowa. Sure, he's spent more than $4 million on television ads to get himself there -- and is placing fourth in recent national polls with Thompson's impending entry into the race -- but Romney suddenly looks like a lock to be one of the last men standing in the campaign.

Consider: He's now No. 1 in the most recent Des Moines Register and CNN/WMUR-TV polls. His Iowa organization scared former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., out of the Iowa straw poll that once was viewed as crucial to any GOP candidate. His superior speaking skills will "win" him just about any debate he shows up for. And while McCain scrambles to meet his numbers in the quarter's final two weeks and Thompson just starts to build an organization, Romney has built the most impressive GOP fund-raising machine -- and has vast resources of his own to fill in any gaps.

Romney clearly faces obstacles: His shifting positions on social issues could be why he's seen as "most likeable" but far from "most believable" in the CNN/WMUR poll. (Do voters know he's flip-flopping and not care?) But he can go a long way toward shaping those impressions by keeping up his advertising pace even as his opponents struggle to raise cash. "Someone who's unknown has an opportunity to be introduced," Romney media adviser Alex Castellanos tells The New York Times' Michael Luo, who reports that Romney is increasing his media buy.

But maybe Romney's got the right strategy but the wrong year by putting so many chips on Iowa and New Hampshire. Truth is, nobody knows what the front-loaded primary calendar will mean for this year's nomination fight, but it has plenty of smart people gaming out paths that circumvent the historically crucial earliest-voting states. "These contests that have meant so much in past elections could, in 2008, become a series of preliminary competitions, with the results being interesting but not decisive," Politico's Elizabeth Wilner writes.

As for Thompson, R-Tenn., no Arnold-style announcement last night on Leno, but he had this to say when asked about whether he would "like the job" of president: "I've never craved the job of president, but I want to do some things that only a president can do, so the answer is yes." It was all laughs last night, but he is fast reaching put-up-or-shut-up stage. "How much deeper can Fred Thompson wade into the presidential waters without actually announcing that he is a candidate?" asks Katharine Q. Seelye of The New York Times.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., isn't worried about anyone else's finances -- quick, someone let her staff know. "It would mean nothing to my campaign. Nothing at all," Clinton said yesterday when asked what it would mean if Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., raises more money than she does in the second quarter.

But Clinton is working hard to make sure that doesn't happen: Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times reports that Senator Clinton and President Clinton scheduled 26 fund-raisers over the last 31 days of the quarter, and predicts a Clinton haul of at least $20 million in the second quarter -- with Obama likely to exceed $25 million, if not the $40 million figure that's been making the Washington rounds. This is not an expectations game Obama wants to be winning.

Also in the news:

President Bush's visit to Capitol Hill -- aimed at resuscitating the immigration bill and revivifying his presidency -- doesn't appear to have accomplished much. "Bush did not emerge from the meeting as cheerfully as he'd entered," ABC's Jake Tapper reports. This sounds brutally final: "I don't think the president and his top advisers understand the fundamental flaws in the bill. They just don't," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is dialing up the pressure on GOP senators, writing in a letter sent to nine die-hard opponents after Bush's meeting: "As the President said today, the status quo is unacceptable. Failure to act on this legislation will deny the country the safety and security provided by these enhanced enforcement measures."

Obama wrote letters to local officials on behalf of a project controlled by indicted real-estate dealmaker Tony Rezko, the Chicago Sun-Times' Tim Novak reports. "The letters appear to contradict a statement last December from Obama, who told the Chicago Tribune that, in all the years he's known Rezko, 'I've never done any favors for him.' " (The Obama camp is casting it as an attempt to increase housing for seniors.)

On a day that Obama gave a speech calling for a new low-carbon fuel standard, his past support for coal-derived fuel (a heavier polluter than conventional fuels) got new scrutiny -- and prompted a "clarification" from the Illinois senator's office. Reports Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times, Obama "backtracked from his long-held support for a controversial plan to promote the use of coal as an alternative fuel to power motor vehicles."

The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz profiles McCain ad guru Russ Schriefer -- and explores how a man charged with bringing the Arizona senator down in 2000 is now in charge of "McCain 2.0." "The updated model is employing an aggressive style more closely associated with the Bush operations of the past," Kurtz writes.

Giuliani outlined his "12 Commitments" yesterday, a list that includes tax cuts for health insurance, more adoptions, a national database for immigrants, school vouchers -- and no mention of the war in Iraq, per the Daily News' David Saltonstall. "This is how I want to be judged," Giuliani said yesterday. (Memo to the mayor: Sorry, you don't get to choose such things.)

Get ready for this surface in a campaign ad: Clinton has the second-highest number of earmarks of any Democrat in the defense authorization bill, per The Hill's Roxana Tiron and Ilan Wurman. And from 2002 through 2006, Taxpayers for Common Sense counts Clinton securing 360 special projects for New York, worth a combined $2.2 billion.

Fred Thompson sure is putting together a nice little team for a not-yet-candidate. Former senator Al D'Amato, R-N.Y., has endorsed him (settling an old score against Rudy?), and Liz Cheney is on board for his run as well, Stephen F. Hayes reports on the Weekly Standard's Website.

Non-candidate-but-hey-you-never-know Wesley Clark blasts Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., in a Huffington Post blog entry that takes issue with Lieberman's recent statement that the US needs to be prepared to use force to confront Iran. "Only someone who never wore the uniform or thought seriously about national security would make threats at this point," the former general writes, in a posting that will win him friends on the left.

Former congressman Bob Barr, R-Ga., is calling out all 10 GOP presidential candidates for saying they support keeping the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy in place. "Americans want strong, moral leadership, and they are quick to sniff out pandering and expediency," Barr writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

The kicker: "[Lynne] Cheney's spokeswoman would neither confirm nor deny the speculation; she has not returned messages left by the Associated Press," AP story on the Wyoming US Senate vacancy, in a heart-warming display of open government.

"He is the most intellectually dishonest human being in the history of politics," Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., issuing a nuanced historical analysis of Romney.