The Note: Scrutiny Time

Just to relish the little surprises that define national politics, here are five things (we think) we know today:

1) The leading 2008 Republican is pro-choice, and a Mormon candidate is bursting into the top tier. 2) The leading Democrats are a woman and an African-American man. 3) Two non-candidates -- a Democrat who isn't likely to run, and a Republican who's just about in -- hold the power to scramble the race as we've known it. 4) A billionaire from New York City can change everything by himself. 5) The current president has one last best chance at a major domestic accomplishment, if only his base would stop hating his guts.

Just to remember how much difference a week can make, here are five things (we think) we'll know by the end of the week:

1) Whether Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., have the fund-raising pull to compete with their rivals. 2) Whether former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., has the dexterity to pull out of an early tailspin. 3) Whether The Boston Globe's globe-trotting examination of former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., knocks him off his game. 4) Whether The Washington Post's probe of Dick Cheney helps Congress or the White House decide if the vice president's office is part of the executive branch. 5) Whether, in the great battle of Talk Radio vs. The Bush Legacy, real, tangible legislation is possible.

Though money's no issue for him, perhaps no one has higher stakes this week than Romney, the subject of a seven-part scrub in the Globe that -- like the paper's 2003 book-length examination of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass -- has the power to define perceptions of a candidate who is being treated as a top contender. That's not necessarily bad for the Romney camp; two days into the series, Romney is coming off rather well, if a bit nerdy -- and his Boston crew can sleep easier if this means no biographical surprises down the road.

The Globe has fresh details of a fatal car crash Romney was involved in while working as a Mormon missionary in France (not Romney's fault, but the candidate who loves to hate on France sure has uttered his share of "bon jours"). We're also learning about Romney's deep idolization of his father, as well as his family's "journey from the fringes to the mainstream" that tracks the "transformation of the [Mormon] church itself."

Most intriguingly, the Globe's Michael Kranish and Michael Paulson write today, Romney's ancestors were leading men and women in the Mormon hierarchy as well as polygamy hold-outs, part of a contingent that fled the United States for Mexico to escape persecution and continue the practice of "plural marriage." Romney's great-grandfather took wife No. 5 in 1897 -- seven years after the church banished polygamy from official doctrine -- notwithstanding Romney's statement that he "can't imagine anything more awful than polygamy."

The series publishes at a moment where Romney's faith has come under renewed scrutiny, with scattered whispering campaigns aimed at spreading LDS gossip. And it comes at a point in the campaign cycle where Romney has arrived -- meaning he'll have to clear a higher bar than his GOP rivals in the second-quarter race for dollars just to meet expectations. Dan Balz's Washington Post piece today pronounces Romney's early strategy a success: "Romney's rise is an instructive story of seizing opportunities, maximizing small advantages, attention to detail and a few lucky breaks."

Another newspaper series, this one running in the Post, offers enough tidbits to devastate a political career -- if the politician in question cared even a whit about his public standing. Today's installment (the second of four) has Cheney's office moving to strip accused terrorists of legal protections and lift bans on "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" interrogation methods within four months of 9/11. "The vice president's office played a central role in shattering limits on coercion in US custody, commissioning and defending legal opinions that the Bush administration has since portrayed as the initiatives, months later, of lower-ranking officials," write Barton Gellman and Jo Becker (who also pulls a page-one byline in The New York Times today -- that you don't see every day).

This might all be fodder for the history books if not for the current debate over Cheney's constitutional placement -- which Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., is elevating to a political issue this week by teeing up a congressional battle over funding for his office. And the debate may have implications for embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales: Gonzales "never responded" to the National Archives office's pleas for Cheney to be forced to safeguard classified documents, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff reports.

Also in the news:

Giuliani isn't getting much help in turning around his campaign storyline. Christie Whitman, the former Environmental Protection Agency head, heads to Capitol Hill today to testify that the Giuliani administration blocked efforts to require Ground Zero workers to wear respirators. "We were certainly frustrated at not being able to get people to wear respirators because we thought that was critically important to workers on The Pile," Whitman said in a television interview broadcast yesterday. The Giuliani camp issued a lengthy pre-buttal in anticipation of the testimony, but he hardly needs another voice questioning his "America's Mayor" reputation.

Both sides are confident going into Take Two of the great immigration reform debate. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., declared on ABC's "This Week" that "we're going to pass this bill" because doing nothing is the worst option, though he had to acknowledge that the opponents remain strong. A presidential appearance at a fund-raiser hasn't swayed Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.: "Support for it continues to erode," he said. Chest-thumping seldom augurs well for legislative accomplishments, and don't forget that progress in the House could be tougher than the Senate.

And the stakes for Bush are deeper than just one bill, the Washington Times' Jon Ward reported yesterday. "The White House should keep in mind that if they have a direct confrontation with House Republicans on [immigration], it could affect the vote on the Iraq appropriation in September," warned Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.

Maybe the White House is getting the message. "The Bush administration has begun exploring ways of offering Congress a compromise deal on Iraq policy to avert bruising battles in coming months," Paul Richter and Noam Levey report in the Los Angeles Times. No details yet, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates and UN Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad are among those talking to Congress.

Roll Call's Paul Singer has a jaw-dropper on the local earmarking industry constructed by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., raising new questions that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would rather not answer. Murtha has used his perch atop Defense Appropriations to steer millions of dollars in federal contracts to a pair of lobbying firms with close ties to him, including one that used to employ his brother. "But in many cases the money is not for local companies, it is for companies that move to the district, and frequently it is for start-ups that essentially would not be in business were it not for Murtha's largesse," Singer writes.

Call it the Punjab purse: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., hauled in $2 million yesterday from Indian-American donors, in the wake of the Obama opposition-research memo that some in the community found offensive, Michael McAuliff and Helen Kennedy report in the New York Daily News.

As Obama sheds more Tony Rezko-related donations, Clinton may have her own Rezko problem: A lawyer referenced in the Rezko indictment -- though not himself accused of wrongdoing -- "is among the hosts of a Chicago fund-raising dinner tonight," the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

Elizabeth Edwards supports gay marriage, though her husband doesn't. "I don't know why somebody else's marriage has anything to do with me," she said yesterday, Carla Marinucci reports in the San Francisco Chronicle. Take that, Bob Shrum.

A post-party-switch national poll including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., confirms that he's going to have to spend some serious money to become a contender. No match-up gives him more than 14 percent support, and he appears to draw support from Democrats and Republican in roughly equal numbers. (Clinton, incidentally, bests each of the top four Republican candidates in Newsweek's hypothetical head-to-heads.)

Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., is set to unveil his Nashville campaign headquarters tomorrow, WSMV-TV reports. With trips to South Carolina and New Hampshire on tap for later in the week, if this doesn't make him a candidate, what does?

The kicker:

"This is Pete Wilson on steroids," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on -- no, not Arnold -- the stakes for the GOP in the immigration debate, per Bloomberg's Al Hunt.

"We're all just waiting for this nincompoop to be gone. I think we all finally are on the same page on that," Ann Coulter, on President Bush, on ABC's "Good Morning America" this morning.