The Note: Aiming for the Top

It's a dangerous time to be a frontrunner. There's former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who wants us to know that he loves children (though sometimes, perhaps, he's not nuts about his own). There's former governor Mitt Romney, whose ride to Ames aboard the Mitt Mobile will be quite bumpy if Sen. Sam Brownback has anything to do with it (not that Mitt's making the trip any easier for himself). Former senator Fred Thompson doesn't even need to become a candidate to draw heat.

And there's Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., whose defense of lobbyists (they're people too!) has earned her the double-team of Sen. Barack Obama and former senator John Edwards (not to mention the pressure from the labor movement). Obama, D-Ill., and Edwards, D-N.C., are joining forces -- sort of -- to make Clinton's decision to continue to accept lobbyists' donations (her message out of YearlyKos) as famous as they can.

They both see this as a defining issue, with clear lines of demarcation, and it will be among their messages when the Democratic presidential candidates gather again in Chicago tonight -- this time for a labor forum at 7 pm ET at Soldier Field. (17,000 tickets? Will it be the first presidential debate to feature the wave?) It's hard to imagine lobbyists' contributions becoming the overriding issue in a campaign where no one is seriously alleging corruption. But the Clinton camp knows that this figures be a tough year to be the establishment candidate (a stubborn fact that shines through all of those spin-heavy campaign memos).

The issue is fundamental to both Obama's freshness and Edwards' populism. "This campaign is going to come down to whether you believe that it's enough just to get somebody other than George Bush in the White House to fix what ails Washington, or do you think we need to set a fundamentally new course," Obama told the AP's Mike Glover yesterday.

Edwards yesterday linked the influence of lobbyists with his call for rethinking trade agreements (up to and including NAFTA, which was championed by Sen. Clinton's husband). He's trying to woo labor leaders who appear unlikely to make national-level endorsements in 2008, The Washington Post's Dan Balz reports. "His tough rhetoric was the latest effort aimed at persuading the leaders of organized labor to support his presidential candidacy," Balz writes. "For Edwards, who will be at a significant financial disadvantage against both Clinton and Obama, the support of unions could give him organizational resources that he would not otherwise have at his disposal."

At Soldier Field, Clinton in particular may have to move further away from free trade to win union support, Bloomberg's Kim Chipman and Nicholas Johnston report. Says Teamsters president James Hoffa, "Obama's not talking about it and Hillary isn't. . . . I'd like to see Hillary walk picket lines."

Not a great day for Clinton to see this pop: The Los Angeles Times' Peter Nicholas becomes the latest to report on the "a backlash over the business ties of a top campaign aide who has angered the labor movement." Strategist Mark Penn has already recused himself from his firm's labor practices, but some labor leaders -- including Hoffa and AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman -- say that's not enough. "Learning that Mark Penn was CEO of a company that in fact conducts some of its business busting unions was very, very problematic to the AFL-CIO, as well as to many other unions, and we made that clear" to the Clinton campaign, Ackerman said.

As for Romney, R-Mass., his patronizing description of Brownback yesterday on ABC's "Good Morning America" ("sweet" but "pretty desperate") did nothing to quiet the feud that got rolling at Sunday's debate. Brownback, R-Kan., fired back yesterday with a video his campaign posted on YouTube, though the only eyes and ears he really cares about this week belong to the Republicans who plan to make the trip to Ames on Saturday. "This is the key moral issue of our day, and we don't need people equivocating on it or rediscovering things -- we need people leading on it," Brownback says in defending his anti-Romney robo-calls. "It's not a political position with me. It's something I believe."

And Romney is giving Brownback more ammunition. Asked if he supports a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution and federal legislation extending 14th Amendment protections to the unborn, Romney told George Stephanopoulos yesterday that he does. That's well further than he said he'd go as recently as February, when he told National Journal that he rejects a "one-size-fits all approach" and would "instead allow states to make their own decisions in this regard" -- something that requires reversing Roe v. Wade, but not amending the Constitution, per ABC's Teddy Davis.

Giuliani was also talking about abortion yesterday, but his message was stepped on by a family member (again). Slate's report that 17-year-old Caroline Giuliani is an Obama girl (or, at least she was until she was contacted by Slate) provided the day's amusement, and teed up another round for the late-night comics. "Mr. Giuliani, whose strained relationship with his children has been widely reported, alluded to his daughter's differing political outlook during a campaign stop in Iowa, noting, apparently with regret, that his children 'don't work on my campaign,' " per The New York Times' Marc Santora. (Responded Obama, "I can't wait to meet her.")

ABC's Jake Tapper tracked down Andrew Giuliani for a response. "I love my sister very much and I respect her opinions," he said. "One of the great things about our parents is they've always encouraged us to see the world for ourselves." He added that his relationship with his father isn't as bad as media reports suggest. "That story was overdone," he said.

As for the message Giuliani wanted to deliver yesterday, Newsday's Tom Brune calls it a "straightforward" (if not necessarily easy) strategy: "to clinch the GOP nomination, he has to win just enough of the social-conservative vote." "To woo conservatives, Giuliani has carefully crafted a stump speech that works both sides of the issue," Brune writes. "In it, he acknowledges he believes a woman has a right to an abortion, but he also outlines steps he would take that could limit or even end that right."

On the Fred Thompson front, ABC's Tapper explores his time on the Watergate committee, and finds that "the reality is far more complicated than conventional wisdom and campaign puffery would have it." Thompson writes in his own book that Thompson he tipped off the Nixon White House that investigators knew about the secret taping system, "even though I had no authority to act for the committee." And "new transcripts from the Nixon White House tapes reveal that the Nixon administration regarded Thompson as a useful idiot -- 'dumb as hell,' in President Nixon's words, but 'friendly,' " Tapper reports.

For the Fred watchers out there, his non-campaign yesterday unveiled "Version 2.0" of its Web site, (if there was a new version for every staff shakeup, wouldn't we be getting into the double digits soon?). To quote Nixon, if you're "dumb as hell" and need a hint, ABC's Christine Byun reports on this update from the site: "One can't help but see that Thompson again might be hearing the call to serve." "Can't help but see" that he "might be hearing"? Clear to me . . .

The New York Sun's Seth Gitell looks at Thompson's wait-it-out strategy and finds the thinking to be "flawed." "Since when has 'strategy' been an excuse for laziness?" Gitell writes. "The next four years is not the time for a slacker president."

Also in the news:

The Obama camp tells us to ignore the national polls, and they'll surely want that treatment of the new USA Today/Gallup Poll as well. Clinton is up eight points from just three weeks ago, with Obama down two from where he was. "The 22-point gap between the two leaders is nearly double the margin found in the July 12-15 poll," USA Today's Susan Page reports.

Obama is still facing the fallout from his speech last week on Pakistan. It was the focus of the second question he was asked at a forum in Sioux City, Iowa, yesterday, and Obama blamed "misreporting" of his comments for an audience member's confusion. "I never called for an invasion of Pakistan or Afghanistan," reports Bret Hayworth of the Sioux City Journal.

The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut peers behind Clinton's foreign-policy duel with Obama, highlighting the "small but important caveat" she often includes in discussing her desire for and end to the war in Iraq: the possibility of leaving residual forces behind to support democracy-building. "Clinton has developed something of a 'third way' of talking about the war, by emphasizing the future and what she would do as president," Kornblut writes. "Some of her advisers refer to her as 'antiwar and pro-defense,' a stance skewered by advisers to Obama, who has said that he is the only viable Democrat who opposed the war from the beginning." l

Before heading to Chicago, Clinton today will work to address economic anxieties with a speech in New Hampshire, as she becomes the latest to take aim at "unscrupulous brokers," The New York Times' Patrick Healy and Michael Cooper report. "She would require mortgage brokers, in their dealing with borrowers, to explain that they make more money when borrowers' mortgage rates and fees are high," they write.

Is it time for Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., to move beyond the comedy act? Politico's Ben Smith thinks so, casting Richardson as more George Costanza than Josiah Bartlet. "Though he's having a good run in the polls in Iowa, the seriocomic tone of his ads, coupled with Richardson's bobbles during debates and in interviews, leaves open the question of whether his garrulous style may do him more harm than good," Smith writes. He's still mixing up his facts, too: Smith quotes him as telling the story of President Ronald Reagan demanding to Mikhail Gorbachev's face that the Berlin Wall come down -- not quite right.

President Bush's victory in the wiretapping (mini-)dispute means the White House can still out-maneuver Congress from time to time, The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg writes. "There is at least one arena in which Mr. Bush can still hold the line: terrorism. (See, 'Democrats, Republican accusations of being weak on ...')" Said Obama, "Everybody was afraid they might be branded as soft on terrorism."

Ready for Obama-Keyes, the rematch? Keyes supporters (they appear to exist) are planning to attend the Ames straw poll on Saturday "to get Keyes' name before the public as a possible Republican presidential candidate," per the draft-Keyes Web site. "I've told my supporters -- who, by the way, are undertaking this effort on their own -- that if they can demonstrate sufficient grassroots support for me to run, I will do so," Keyes says on the Web site.

The kicker:

"The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal is even more right wing and irrational than most of the commentators on Fox News. And completely predictable . . . it's like Pavlov's dogs." -- Former President Bill Clinton, sounding off on Rupert Murdoch's bid to purchase The Wall Street Journal at a closed-door session over the weekend that was secretly taped, per HuffingtonPost's Blake Fleetwood. Clinton said he wouldn't oppose the deal as long as Murdoch agrees not to "do that 'Fair and Balanced' Fox deal on the newspapers."

"So far no one's gotten to the sign way up there, but they will," Park Ridge, Ill., city manager Tim Schuenke, on the "Rodham Corner" sign that city officials have had to place 15 feet up on a light pole to keep away souvenir hunters.


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