The Note: Mitt's moment

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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.

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