The Note: Dueling in Des Moines

Just to underscore the significance of the next eight days in the battle for the Republican nomination, consider what's at stake for the candidates.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., faces his rivals on stage for the first time since his campaign went into freefall (did someone say free? He'll take it.).

Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., gets the showdown he's long craved next Saturday in Ames (and can say what he really thinks about the troop surge in the meantime).

Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., gets to show he's serious about the state with the leadoff caucuses (choices, choices -- play to kill off McCain, or find voters elsewhere who believe he's a Republican?).

As for the rest of the field -- two or three could see their dreams end at the state fairgrounds next weekend (and know that when they'll take the stage in Des Moines Sunday morning for ABC's debate).

Read all about our plans for the first network debate of the presidential campaign season here and find where and when you can see George and the Republican field right here.

Only it's not just Republicans facing big moments these days -- the Democrats gather tomorrow in Chicago for the YearlyKos convention of liberal bloggers.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., could welcome them in style if he didn't find himself explaining what looks like his second foreign-policy flub in as many weeks.

Asked about whether he'd consider nuclear weapons to take out terrorists in Pakistan, Obama said, "I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance."

He paused before adding (and can't you just see his mind working here?), "involving civilians." ("Scratch that"? Sorry, do-overs are for the state senate.)

Even a bad candidate could have pounced on this one (recall Obama's boast of having the best foreign-policy judgment in the field?), and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is the consummate pro.

"Presidents should be very careful at all times in discussing the use or non-use of nuclear weapons," she told reporters yesterday, per ABC's Jake Tapper.

Who looks presidential now?

It's "further evidence that she is painting her challenger as unprepared for the job of commander in chief," Tapper writes.

With the new ABC/Washington Post poll showing a three-way virtual tie among Democrats in Iowa, the Clinton camp is feeling good about its strategy today.

Lest anything stay apolitical, it took less than 24 hours for the bridge collapse in Minnesota to become a partisan talking point.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested that domestic infrastructure has been shortchanged because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Since 9/11 we have taken our eye off the ball," said Reid, D-Nev., ABC's Z. Byron Wolf reports.

Democrats pointed out that they want to spend $631 million on federal highway safety than the president proposed, but President Bush threatened to veto the bill. Laura Bush visits the site of the bridge collapse today, and the president makes the trip tomorrow.

All eyes with be on the Republican presidential candidates this weekend, as they gather in Iowa for the first debate of the cycle on broadcast television.

It's been a solid two months since this gang last met, and the field has shuffled even if the basics haven't changed that much. Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla examines an emerging (and mostly overlooked) dynamic: several GOP candidates are softening their language in support of the troop surge.

Romney has gone from saying President Bush's Iraq strategy has a "real chance" of succeeding to now saying that he gives it a "reasonable probability" -- though not a "high probability."

And Giuliani has been calling Iraq a distraction from the war on terror.

"The exception among Republican presidential contenders is Arizona Senator John McCain, 70, who is as closely tied to the war as the president is," Przybyla writes.

Coming into the debate, the biggest dust-up between the GOP candidates continues stage right, with Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., dueling with former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark.

Their argument stems from a Huckabee supporter who urged evangelicals to shun Brownback because he is Catholic. Brownback's camp is now claiming that Huckabee ignored private entreaties to put a halt to the attack.

Per David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Huckabee campaign fired back: "It's time for Sam Brownback to stop whining and start showing some of the Christian character he seems to always find lacking in others."

Ouch. Brody's take: "It means the August 11 straw poll is just around the corner."

As for the Democrats, it's Obama 27, and Clinton and Edwards both with 26 in the ABC News/Washington Post poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa.

This is a statistical tie, and it means it's wide open in the Hawkeye State -- discouraging news for Edwards, who ran a strong second in Iowa in 2004 and has staked his campaign on a win in the leadoff state.

"Iowa Democrats have found their perfect candidate -- in three people," writes ABC polling director Gary Langer. Iowans like Clinton's strength and electability, Edwards' empathy and focus on Iowa, and Obama's youth and promise of a new direction.

Edwards is looking to make a splash at YearlyKos -- and not just with the couches and inflatable chairs he's wooing attendees with. He's calling on congressional Democrats to "take the necessary steps to stop" Rupert Murdoch from acquiring Dow Jones, though he's not saying how they should do it.

This is a two-fer for Edwards: He takes on the owner of Fox News -- a too-easy target at a liberal gathering -- as well as Clinton; Murdoch has hosted a fundraiser for her, and she has received $20,000 in donations from News Corp. officials, the New York Daily News' Greg Wilson reports. "He challenged his rivals to refuse contributions from executives of News Corp., and return any they had already received," Wilson writes.

But The New York Post's Charles Hurt reports that Edwards has earned at least $800,000 for a book published by the Murdoch media empire. (Nice oppo work!)

"The Edwards campaign said the multimillionaire trial lawyer would not return the hefty payout from Murdoch for the book titled 'Home: The Blueprints of Our Lives,' " Hurt writes.

If you can believe it, Edwards' attack on Fox News was the subtle one.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., went directly to the real enemy -- Bill O'Reilly -- and went shout-for-shout with him on radio and television yesterday, reports David Lightman of the Hartford Courant.

"There's a lot of things you say are vile on a daily basis in my view," Dodd said. O'Reilly was silent -- no, that's a joke. What he really said: "You're a propagandist, senator. You're a propagandist. I used to respect you. I don't have any respect for you."

O'Reilly's isn't the loud voice whose support the Democrats crave, of course. Seven Democratic candidates are making the trip to Chicago to participate in the presidential candidates' panel at YearlyKos tomorrow. That list includes Clinton, who this week shunned the Democratic Leadership Council -- the centrist group that vaulted her husband to the presidency, and gave her a leadership role in previous annual gatherings.

"Her attendance underscores two seemingly contradictory realities: blogs' growing influence as powerful backroom players in Democratic circles and the fact that they don't reflect the views of most Democrats, much less the general public," writes Jose Antonio Vargas of The Washington Post.

Also in the news:

More on Obama -- who has to be secretly glad that this is a big news week off the trail as he does himself zero good in answering concerns that he lacks the experience to be president.

"Obama boasted last month his foreign policy judgment is superior to that of the other candidates and often notes he opposed the war in Iraq long before Hillary Clinton became a critic," writes Michael Saul of the New York Daily News. "His struggle with the nuclear question gave Clinton another opening to portray her rival for the Democrats' White House nod as inexperienced and naive on world affairs."

"American officials have generally been deliberately ambiguous about their nuclear strike policies," reports Michael Luo of The New York Times. And it wasn't just Clinton who pounced: Dodd called Obama's comments "confusing and confused. He has made threats he should not make and made unwise categorical statements about military options."

Does it matter if Obama's answer was right? "He's certainly right to say you would never use a nuclear weapon to get Osama bin Laden," Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution tells The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut.

Obama may be locked in a battle with Clinton over African-American voters, but his top strategist views the black community as his candidate's "base." "I think he has a strong base in the African-American community that in some states is going to be very, very helpful," David Axelrod told Linda Douglass in the latest issue of National Journal magazine. "No one brings the kind of background and history that he does," he told Douglass, adding, "no one brings, I think the sense of identification with people who are struggling to be heard."

Alas, ABC News consultant Donna Brazile reminds ABC News' Jennifer Parker and Lindsey Ellerson that "if Clinton was the first black president, she was married to him."

Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., won't be on stage Sunday (he's not a candidate, he just plays one on TV), but his federal financial filing provides a window into where his support may come from. "Of the $3.46 million that Mr. Thompson raised during June, very little came from donors who had previously given to the other Republican candidates," write Michael Cooper and Aron Pilhofer of The New York Times. "And when he did get money from donors who had already given to other campaigns it was most likely to have come from donors to Mr. Romney." This telling quote from Georgette Mosbacher, who had been raising money for McCain and also started helping Thompson: "I found people very reluctant to cross over and make that switch from who they were committed to -- at least until Fred actually announced."

Huckabee is playing up an issue that's gotten Thompson in trouble recently: replacing all federal taxes with a national sales tax. "Imagine replacing that tax code that is so difficult to understand that two consecutive [Internal Revenue Service] agents can't interpret it the same, to a tax code so simple that a child running a lemonade stand would be able to understand it," Huckabee said Thursday in Iowa, per the Des Moines Register's Jared Strong. He also lobbed this little grenade at Brownback: "The sad thing is, I've never seen a candidate so desperate."

As for Tommy Thompson -- he's not saying he has to win in Ames, but he does want to make sure everyone considers it a real contest. "They are participating," he said of Giuliani and McCain, who have said publicly and repeatedly that they're not playing in Ames, reports Ed Tibbetts of the Quad City Times.

Congressional Democrats are working on boosting those approval ratings. As part of what they're calling a "Month of Action on Iraq," they're going up with a series of ads praising Congress for its accomplishments -- and calling on the president to work with Democrats to end the war. "America wants change. . . . Tell George Bush it's time to listen," say the ads, paid for jointly by the DNC and the House and Senate campaign committees (glad they're talking to each other these days).

Congress isn't leaving town a moment too soon. Politico's Patrick O'Connor calls it "an unprecedented low": "In a massive flare-up of partisan tensions, Republicans walked out on a House vote late Thursday night to protest what they believed to be Democratic maneuvers to reverse an unfavorable outcome for them." Seems like just yesterday that it was Republicans reversing their own unfavorable outcomes.

Another gut feeling? "Capitol Police officials have stepped up the department's security presence on Capitol Hill in response to intelligence indicating the increased possibility of an al-Qaeda terrorist attack on Congress sometime between now and Sept. 11," Roll Call's John McArdle reports.

The kicker:

"He's a remote-control freak." -- Cindy McCain, on her husband's most annoying habit.

"Candidates woo me/ Some just use me/ They think they're OK./ But if they aren't completely pro-life/ I just walk away." -- "Brownback Girl" -- part Church Lady, part Madonna.

It's not enough to watch the action on TV -- follow all the ins and outs of the Republican presidential debate Sunday in Des Moines online at I'll be back with a special edition of The Note on Sunday morning, and I'll be blogging during the debate while my colleagues in the political unit provide real-time fact checking and analysis. 

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