The Note: Rocking the Boat

With everyone focused on those feisty Republicans, who trade front-runner status (and write memos about it) about as often as Lindsey Lohan appears in court, something interesting has emerged in the Democratic race for president: stability.

As the new ABC News/Washington Post poll makes clear, the Democratic race is very much in the control of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who sees her support hardening and holds a 45-30 edge over Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C. -- a distant third in the new poll with 12 percent -- essentially occupies his own tier, as the only other Democrat registering above 3 percent.

If you're not named "Clinton," there's not much to like in these numbers, particularly how stubborn they seem to be. That's the national landscape that greets Democrats when they gather tonight at 7 pm ET in Charleston, S.C., for the debate that's most likely to throw a few screwballs their way (and makes the YouTubing of American politics semi-official). It's the first debate sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee, but these candidates already know each other quite well, and it looks like it's time to get personal.

Will Edwards play the aggressor, catering to the liberal base he's done so much to court? (Yes, if his wife and his campaign manager have anything to do with it.) Will Obama muster the chutzpah to utter Clinton's name when offering his verbal jabs? (Doubtful, but you know he wants to.) Will anyone other than Mike Gravel do anything even close to memorable? (Perhaps, but it probably won't matter.)

Clinton may feel good about where she is, yet the Inevitable Candidate is still not the Enthusiasm Candidate. "The challenge for Clinton is that a new direction and new ideas actually are more valued than strong leadership and experience, by 51 percent to 42 percent, among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes. "That means her strongest cards are in a weaker suit; if Obama were able either to challenge her on strength and experience, or -- more likely -- better capitalize on his 'new direction' image, the contest could tighten."

Where is Obama's opening? One clue from the poll: "Clinton's initial support for the Iraq war is not proving a significant impediment to her bid," The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Jon Cohen write. "She has a 51 percent to 29 percent lead over Obama among those in favor of a complete, immediate withdrawal."

The static nature of the campaign hasn't gotten past the confident Clinton. "As opposed to talking hypothetically, if you talk based on the information that we have, I am winning," she told a Des Moines Register editorial board meeting, practically inviting someone to knock her down a peg and point out that nobody votes for nearly six months.

The tussle yesterday on CNN suggests fireworks could be launched tonight. Edwards campaign manager David Bonior attacked the Clinton record (his and hers) on health care and NAFTA: "With all due respect . . . the Clintons did not deliver on health care," he said in an exchange billed as a debate preview. Rep. Artur Davis, appearing on behalf of the Obama campaign, also took on the front-runner: "As much as I admire the Clintons, people are hungering for a new discussion in this country, and they want to look forward," said Davis, D-Ala. The exchanges "could signal that the often courtly tone of the race thus far is about to give way to a more confrontational, negative approach," writes the New York Sun's Josh Gerstein.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the contest -- who wants to be the front-runner, anyway? A top strategist for former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., wrote a memo claiming that mantle for his boss last week, arguing that support for former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., "began to ebb in February." Alex Gage's memo includes a zinger from Romney media consultant Alex Castellanos: "If Rudy is the tough mayor of New York, Fred [Thompson] is the guy they would hire to play Rudy on TV." (Maybe Mitt could land the role in the movie.) Write Chris Cillizza and Shailagh Murray of The Washington Post, "The Gage memo is the first full-frontal assault on Giuliani by Romney's campaign and reflects the way in which the field has changed since the rise of Thompson and fall of [Sen. John] McCain."

Romney himself says he doesn't want the tag -- "I value people who exaggerate on my behalf," he added. (They value him, too, since they're on his payroll, but Jay Garrity isn't any longer, and he won't be pulling over any more reporters anytime soon.)

This talk of front-runners is a game of semantics, but actions do speak louder. First came Romney's attack on Obama's views on sex education, then came comments equating Hillary Clinton with Karl Marx, and now he smiles wide for a photo with a woman holding this sign: "No to Obama, Osama, and Chelsea's moma," [sic] ABC's Jake Tapper reports.

He's sure not acting with the confidence of a front-runner -- or a grown-up, for that matter. His explanation? "I don't have any particular thing to say about someone else's sign," Romney said when asked about the incident yesterday in New Hampshire, per the Union Leader. "Lighten up, slightly." (How lightly will he take it when someone holds up a sign that reads -- to paraphrase the late, great radio host David Brudnoy -- "Say Hi to the Wives"?)

Could there be room for one more on the Republican side? Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., told The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny that three "very significant Republican fundraisers" have approached him recently to ask him to consider a run, and he said he sees a void in the field with none of the top-tier GOP candidates calling for an exit from Iraq. "There might be an opening for me on this," said Hagel, adding that he will make a decision "in the next few weeks."

Back to the Democrats, Al Gore's daughter seemed to rule out a run for her father. (We thought that was his son's job.) "He's really not going to get in the race," Kristin Gore said Friday at a bookstore in Washington, per ABC's Teddy Davis. "He's really liberated working on things he cares about."

Rounding up the weekend:

Coming off Edwards' poverty tour, The New York Times' Leslie Wayne looks at the flip-side of Edwards' Iowa-or-bust strategy: If he doesn't win there, his campaign is finished. "Mr. Edwards is facing new challenges and could be in danger of being toppled from his front-runner perch here as Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have been stepping up their Iowa campaigns in recent weeks," Wayne writes.

Elizabeth Edwards was the subject of a Saturday Wall Street Journal profile, with writer Monica Langley marveling over her "unprecedented mingling of private trauma and public policy." This powerful and revealing quote comes from longtime friend Hargrave McElroy: "John just can't face that Elizabeth won't be around. . . . Elizabeth is getting her ducks in a row . . . and isn't tiptoeing around death."

Giuliani had his mayoral record on race explored in Sunday's New York Times. (So this is why Al Sharpton won't be endorsing him. . . .) His frank talk about the need to end "subdivisions" based on race "resonated with white voters who formed the backbone of his electoral coalition," the Times' Michael Powell wrote. "What is less certain is whether a man raised and schooled in a white world understood the force with which his harshest words rained down on black New Yorkers."

Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., is talking about censuring President Bush again. "We need to have on the historical record some kind of indication that what has happened here is . . . disastrous," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press." Feingold is getting good at this game, which makes him a hero in the anti-war blogosphere but makes him a pariah back in the Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wants nothing to do with this, and here's Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., reminding him why: "The kind of stunt that Senator Feingold just recommended on the heels of the all-night theater of Tuesday night gives you a sense why this Congress has a 14 percent approval rating.

It had been a good few days without a story delving into the turmoil in the McCain campaign, so The Wall Street Journal's Jackie Calmes gets us our fix today. New campaign manager Rick Davis was in large part responsible for the profligate spending that leaves McCain, R-Ariz., with so little money in the bank, Calmes writes. "Mr. Davis stood to benefit from campaign expenditures to an Internet-services company he formed with lobbying partner Paul Manafort. And he steered campaign funds to another company owned by a lobbyist-friend's client, an Indian-casino developer."

The Democratic edge in the money race is extending all the way down the ballot. "Democratic candidates have raised $100 million more in campaign contributions than Republicans, putting them on track to win the money race for the White House and Congress for the first time since the government began detailed accounting of campaign fund raising three decades ago," write the Journal's Mary Jacoby and Brody Mullins.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., is running a one-issue campaign these days -- and his issue is Romney (maybe at least one person considers him the front-runner, then). The latest in the Brownback campaign's weekly hit piece on Romney takes issue with a 1994 statement where Romney endorsed participation in the Boy Scouts "regardless of . . . sexual orientation," the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody reports.

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, gets The New York Times Magazine treatment. He's never heard of Jon Stewart or GQ. "Paul has in recent weeks become a sensation in magazines he doesn't read, on Web sites he has never visited and on television shows he has never watched," Christopher Caldwell writes.

Welcome back, Cindy Sheehan. With her promise to run against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., if Pelosi won't push to impeach the president, "the coming Golden Gate Bridge Brawl is a pivotal proxy fight . . . for a much bigger existential conflict within the Democratic Party between the D.C. establishment and the grassroots," Dan Gerstein writes for Politico.

The kicker: Pop culture edition

"I'm actually a Bart fan, despite the fact Time named him one of the 100 most influential people, and I didn't make the list." -- Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on his favorite "Simpsons" character.

"Is that the soldier who was captured in Iraq?" -- Vice President Dick Cheney, in 2003, when told that Jessica Simpson was at a baseball game he was attending, according to a forthcoming biography. (That would be Ms. Lynch the veep was thinking of.)

Live debate blogging

I'll be blogging tonight during the CNN/YouTube Democratic debate, starting at 7 pm ET. Be part of the conversation at here.