The Note: Dueling in Des Moines

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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.

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