The Note: On to Ames

This post-debate snapshot brought to you by Rudolph Giuliani's priest: Either former governor Mike Huckabee or Sen. Sam Brownback -- but not both -- could still matter in this race. Sen. Barack Obama is now enough of a player to be the designated GOP punching bag (though Vice President Dick Cheney is suddenly a close second). Rep. Ron Paul no longer has a lock on the farthest-out-there debate lines (think the Saudis will let Rep. Tom Tancredo near their border?). And it's time for former governor Tommy Thompson and Rep. Duncan Hunter to turn out the lights (with Ames on Saturday to make it semi-official).

As for the top tier, former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., walked on to the stage as the frontrunner in Iowa, and left the stage the same way. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had his moments (got to love the visual of Cheney heading up a telecommunications task force) but missed too many others as he seemed to fade into the set. And while Giuliani, R-N.Y., drew laughter by saying that only a priest (perhaps including George Stephanopoulos' father) could hear the list of his mistakes, Iowa was and remains slightly foreign territory for Hizzoner. (Dissing David Yepsen in Des Moines is a bit like throwing Cal Ripken out of Camden Yards.)

It was Romney who had the best zinger of the morning (Obama has "gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week," he said.) It was Romney whose stage presence again made him the focal point (while he put just enough distance between himself and President Bush). And most importantly, it was Romney who was prepared for the inevitable attacks, which he parried like a pro. ("I get tired of people that are holier than thou because they've been pro-life longer than I have," he said of Brownback's criticism of his abortion record.)

Mostly, it was a day defined by attacks on Democrats, with Obama, D-Ill., replacing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., as the favorite target. "Each of the contenders sought to carefully cast themselves as a forceful agent of change for a White House besieged by criticism though hewing a line of not directly attacking President Bush's leadership," writes Rick Pearson of the Chicago Tribune. "Instead the GOP contenders largely teed off on Democratic candidates' calls to quickly bring U.S. troops home and for adopting a 'political correctness' that refused to identify terrorists as radical Islamic extremists."

Most of the field stood by the troop surge in Iraq -- even Romney, who offered no further hints of straying from the reservation. "Over all, the candidates were adamant about continuing the fight," write Adam Nagourney and Michael Cooper of The New York Times. "For the most part, the candidates made little effort to distance themselves from President Bush and Republicans in Congress, reflecting how they are trying to appeal to a decidedly conservative electorate that will vote in the caucuses here."

The Brownback-Romney abortion tussle added to an "air of urgency" at the debate, with the Ames straw poll looming this weekend -- a contest that's expected to thin the ranks of GOP candidates, writes Thomas Beaumont of the Des Moines Register. "The Brownback-Romney exchange illustrates the party base's concern with core issues going into the Ames straw poll," Beaumont writes. Huckabee, R-Ark., and Brownback, R-Kan., are competing for the same slice of Republicans (a cohort that may have been in church instead of watching the debate).

Romney told ABC's George Stephanopoulos this morning that Brownback's attacks are borne (Bourne?) of desperation. "Sam Brownback, he's a sweet guy, but he's obviously in a pretty desperate situation at this point," Romney said on "Good Morning America." "He ought to get to his own campaign and stop worrying about mine." And this on the his differences with the president over the war in Iraq: "Right now, I don't have a different view than he does with regard to the surge." (Which are the two most important words in that sentence?"

The ABC/Washington Post poll in Iowa lines up the field as Romney, Giuliani, and Fred Thompson, followed by McCain and Huckabee tied for fourth. "A strong presence in Iowa has lifted Mitt Romney over his Republican rivals in overall support and ratings of personal attributes alike," ABC's polling director Gary Langer writes. "But his support is not strong, and likely caucus-goers overall are less than thrilled with their choice of candidates."

Outside the debate hall, the spotlight falls on Jeri and Judi -- a pair of GOP spouses who may or may not be doing their husbands any favors.

The Washington Post's Alec MacGillis and John Solomon took a critical Sunday look at Jeri Thompson, and identify her as the hold-up in a range of campaign-related decisions, including "direct-mail efforts, personnel choices and the timing of the campaign kickoff." Another takeaway: Jeri Kehn seems to have hitched her wagon to Fred's (does that make him a trophy husband?). "Kehn left three court judgments behind her in Nashville, one of which remains unpaid today, and a court twice garnished her wages," MacGillis and Solomon write. "But after meeting Fred Thompson, Kehn began establishing herself in Washington Republican circles, and marriage more than consolidated her place in the city."

Speaking of upward social mobility, after Judith Giuliani was diced up by Vanity Fair, the Giuliani campaign has begun its pushback: Judith sat down for a two-hour interview with The New York Times where she confirms that Rudy asked her out at a Manhattan cigar bar in May 1999 -- while the then-mayor was still married. On her inexperience as a political spouse, Mrs. Giuliani says, "I'm sure that's something that can get one into, you know -- " she told the Times' Eric Konigsberg in a Sunday piece. "But I try to remain me. And again, part of that is not doing anything more than I have to in terms of making myself in any way a distraction from what my husband is trying to do for America."

As for the Democrats -- who get their Des Moines debate in two weeks -- the weekend brought triumph to the liberal blogosphere at YearlyKos -- and handed Sen. Clinton a mixed bag. After former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., promised to make his wife, Elizabeth, the official White House blogger, Obama and Edwards double-teamed Clinton on the issue of accepting donations from lobbyists. "I don't think, based on my 35 years of fighting for what I believe in, anybody seriously believes I'm going to be influenced by a lobbyist or a particular interest," she said, to boos.

The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Jose Antonio Vargas write that Clinton entered the "lion's den" and came out alive. "In contrast to past debates, Clinton was on the firing line because of her often-difficult relationship with bloggers over her initial support for the Iraq war, and because her opponents saw a chance to paint her as the Establishment candidate before an audience hostile to inside-the-Beltway power politics," they write.

Politico's Roger Simon writes that Clinton should be happy with the fact that she was only booed twice; the other episode came when she told the Chicago audience that she likes the Cubs, not the White Sox. "Any debate Hillary Clinton doesn't lose, she wins," Simon writes. "And she didn't lose the debate at the YearlyKos Convention here Saturday." This quote from DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas: "Half the battle is getting the proper respect, and she got that. She doesn't have to get total agreement."

The Netroots came away the big winner -- but the savviest bloggers know they haven't won anything yet. "Even amid projections about how well Democrats will do in 2008, there was a palpable sense of uncertainty about how to harness all the energy, enthusiasm, and anger to any particular effect, especially as far as the 2008 presidential election goes," writes The Boston Globe's Marcella Bombardieri. "Several attendees noted that it was the whitest group they'd ever been in. It was fairly male, too, and surprisingly gray."

Edwards was the best-received at YearlyKos, and he surely delight the blogosphere further with a speech on trade he's set to deliver today in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A day before a labor forum in Chicago, Edwards has prepared jabs at both Bill and Hillary Clinton as he calls for "trade policies in America that put workers, wages and families first," per excerpts provided to ABC. "The trade policies of President Bush have devastated towns and communities all across America. But let's be clear about something -- this isn't just his doing," Edwards plans to say, referencing Bill Clinton's push for NAFTA. And this line comes fresh off the spat with Senator Clinton over donations from lobbyists: "Real change must first begin with ending -- once and for all -- the influence lobbyists have on trade policies and on our government. It's time Washington worked for the American people, not for lobbyists and insiders."

Also in the news:

Giuliani is staying on in Iowa for a few days (after arriving in Des Moines with less than an hour to spare before the debate). He plans to talk about his support for abortion rights head-on, the New York Daily News' David Saltsonstall reports. "Finding any common ground may seem impossible in the abortion debate, where both sides generally believe a candidate is either with them or against them," Saltsonstall writes. "But Giuliani has tried to find a middle road in recent months by talking up two key points: his record as mayor of boosting adoptions as an alternative to abortion and his support of 'strict constructionist' judges like Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas."

After demurring at the debate, Romney told ABC News afterward that he was wrong to say in March that Giuliani supports gay marriage. "I was expressing what I thought were his difference of views," Romney told ABC's Teddy Davis and Matt Stuart. "Turned out that I was wrong. I didn't realize he was opposed to gay-marriage but he's in favor of civil unions." Actually, the Giuliani camp says the former mayor supports domestic partnership benefits, but not civil unions that approximate marriage.

Meanwhile, Gov. Deval Patrick, D-Mass., had harsh words for his predecessor -- Romney -- in an interview with Bloomberg TV's Judy Woodruff. He said Romney is hedging his bets on the health care law he helped craft. "If it's a wild success, he will probably claim credit for it," said Patrick. "And if it doesn't work, then he will probably try to put some distance between himself and it."

Clinton is getting more pressure over her lack of a health care plan. "She conveys the impression that there's not much difference between her policy positions and those of the other candidates -- but she's offered few specifics," New York Times columnist Paul Krugman writes. "It worries me that Mrs. Clinton is showing an almost Republican aversion to talking about substance."

Congress squeezed in an approval of an expanded surveillance program just before skipping town, but you almost would have had to tap the Capitol's phone lines to know anything special was going on. The bill was "a sudden victory for the White House despite loud criticism from advocates of civil liberties and privacy rights," per The Boston Globe's Charlie Savage. "Privacy rights groups . . . accused Democratic leaders of 'spinelessness' in the face of Republican threats to blame them for any coming terrorist attack if they did not give the president the new power before leaving for their annual August recess."

It could get really complicated for Democratic congressional leaders when they come back to work in September, with the Iraq war and a looming spending battle set to produce fireworks, The Wall Street Journal's David Rogers reports. "The new Democratic majority is determined to avoid the sort of government shutdown Washington experienced when Republicans took over Congress in 1995 and challenged then-President Clinton," Rogers writes. "But the situation is more unpredictable today because of the relative weakness of both sides, and the Iraq war added to the political equation."

The kicker:

"Vast right-wing conspiracy." -- Clinton, responding to a technical glitch at YearlyKos.

"The State Department, boy, when they start complaining about the things I say, I feel a lot better about the things I say." -- Tancredo, R-Colo., defending his threat to destroy the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina as a way to deter a nuclear attack by Islamic terrorists.

"What's next? The bombing of my religious shrine in the Baptist church: Kentucky Fried Chicken?"-- Huckabee, R-Ark., in response to Tancredo, per M.E. Sprengelmeyer of the Rocky Mountain News.


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