The Note: Straw-Poll Strikes:

Five questions to ponder on a steamy summer day: Which endorsement matters more -- Angelina Jolie's or Colin Powell's? Will Centro and 801 Grand in Des Moines stay open Christmas Eve (and if not, will the caucuses still matter)? Forget revolving-door laws in Congress -- can't Fred Thompson's campaign institute one of its own? Will Dennis Kucinich "win" another Democratic forum tonight (legalizing gay marriage means for this crowd approximately what spiking NAFTA meant to the AFL-CIO audience)? How much food-on-a-stick can Mitt Romney eat (and will fried dough upset the chemical balance that keeps his hair in place)?

We'll know the answer to that last question Saturday in Ames, where Romney, R-Mass., is set for a straw-poll romp that matters only for how it matches up with expectations. But he made things more interesting yesterday by attacking former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., over the issue of illegal immigration. "If you look at lists compiled on Web sites of sanctuary cities, New York is at the top of the list when Mayor Giuliani was mayor," Romney said in Iowa.

Romney's sourcing (and his own Guatemalan lawn help) aside, this is a tactical strike (delivered, of course, in Romney's aw-shucks style) that aims to burnish Mitt's conservative credentials more than take Rudy down a peg. (Though doing both doesn't hurt.) The exchange marks "one of the strongest conflicts yet between Republican presidential front-runners," ABC's Jake Tapper and Ron Claiborne report, and it comes on one of the most "compelling issue for conservative Republicans": illegal immigration. The Giuliani camp responds, "The mayor's record speaks for itself" -- sort of making Romney's point for him.

The ride aboard the Mitt Mobile was already bumpy this week -- and not just because managing expectations is a dangerous game. Romney's getting pressed on his right by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and his attacks on abortion, so he'd rather be talking about immigration. He also succeeded in (partially) redirecting the storyline away from his thud of a joke equating military service with his sons' decision to campaign for him.

"One of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping to get me elected, because they think I'd be a great president," Romney said. He's right -- spinning around Iowa in a luxury (unarmored!) Winnebago paid for by your multimillionaire father is grueling work when you could be out on your Jet Skis at the lake house. Josh Romney told The New York Times' Michael Luo that "his family is doing what it can to support the troops." "My dad's made a big point of trying to support the troops," he said, adding that military service is "just something none of us have done."

As for the Democrats, the field (minus Dodd and Biden) converges in Los Angeles at 9 pm ET tonight for the second presidential forum in three nights. Following up on the AFL-CIO debate, this event will focus on gay and lesbian issues (think anyone's afraid of running left?), with panelists to include Melissa Etheridge. Look at how the discussion is shifting: All of the Democrats support civil unions, if not gay marriage, and all want to reverse "don't ask don't tell" and at least part of the Defense of Marriage Act. "The party's enthusiasm for expanding gay rights will be on prominent display Thursday night, when six Democratic candidates -- including the four who are topping national and state-level polls -- participate in a forum on gay issues," per ABC News' preview.

With the candidates broadly agreeing on most issues, it's the subtle signs that could count for the gay community, the Chicago Tribune's Mike Dorning reports. "While opposition operatives will be watching for a video moment that later can be used to portray a candidate as out of the social mainstream, gay-rights advocates will be alert to signs of discomfort or hedged commitment," Dorning writes.

No endorsement came out of the AFL-CIO debate, but it wasn't without its highlights. High on the list: Sen. Barack Obama's attacks on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's decision to continue to accept lobbyists' contributions. But The Boston Globe's Scott Helman examines the record and finds Obama, D-Ill., to have received "hundreds of thousands of dollars from lobbyists and PACs as a state legislator in Illinois, a US senator, and a presidential aspirant." "In Obama's eight years in the Illinois Senate, from 1996 to 2004, almost two-thirds of the money he raised for his campaigns -- $296,000 of $461,000 -- came from PACs, corporate contributions, or unions," Helman writes. And 8 percent of the money he raised in his US Senate campaign account came from PACs -- compared with 4 percent of the cash raised by Clinton, D-N.Y., he reports.

Another critic of lobbyists' money, former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., is still the favored candidate of trial lawyers, though the other Democrats are making inroads with the constituency, reports Leslie Wayne of The New York Times. "It is hard to overstate lawyer donations' continuing importance to Mr. Edwards's campaign," Wayne writes. "While he may trail Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama in the polls and in overall fund-raising, he is ahead, though slightly, in such contributions."

Over in Fred Thompson land, it's starting to look like the Reds' bullpen. Now it's Bill Lacy in charge -- not Tom Collamore, or the more recent team of Randy Enwright and Spencer Abraham. (That's three sets of leaders for a campaign that isn't a campaign.) Lacy will have "full operational control of the Friends of Fred Thompson committee and will report directly to Thompson," the Thompson camp said yesterday, per ABC's Christine Byun. No word on where Jeri Thompson falls on that flow chart.

Lacy gets his formal welcome to the race via a memo revealed yesterday by the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody. In 1994, a memo from the state Republican Party chairman -- addressed to Thompson and Lacy -- warned that the local Christian Coalition chapter had "serious concerns about [Thompson's] candidacy," since he appeared to be "no different" than his Democratic Senate opponent on key issues. Score one for a savvy oppo-research staff; someone had this one just ready to pop for the right moment.

Flashing some dramatic timing of his own, Thompson, R-Tenn., has chosen August 17 -- six days after the straw poll -- for his first visit to Iowa, reports Thomas Beaumont of the Des Moines Register. The appearance "is expected to reset the Republican field in the leadoff caucus state in the wake of the GOP straw poll in Ames on this Saturday," since the contest is likely to knock two or more candidates out of contention, Beaumont writes. "Thompson's decision to come to Iowa in the immediate aftermath of the straw poll could blunt the momentum of candidates who are expecting to perform well on Saturday, especially former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney."

Whip out your calendars! It's Jan. 19 for the South Carolina Republican primary, "a decision almost certain to spark a cascade of calendar changes that could push the start of voting to New Year's Day or even to before Christmas," The Washington Post's Michael Shear writes. If New Hampshire moves up a week to Jan. 8, that could place the Iowa caucuses (for Democrats and Republicans) in 2007, Shear reports. The South Carolina GOP's formal announcement comes today in New Hampshire.

If the chain reaction produces a December Iowa caucus, "its 'bounce' would pretty much go flat," writes the Union Leader's John DiStaso, capturing at least the hopes and dreams of the Granite State powerbroker set. "One thing is for sure. [Secretary of State Bill] Gardner will not -- repeat, not -- set the date of the New Hampshire primary today."

But it remains unlikely that any state will hold caucuses or primaries before New Year's Day, Politico's Roger Simon writes. "One solution: Gardner could hold the New Hampshire primary on a day other than a Tuesday, giving Iowa the breathing room it needs to hold its primary in early January," he writes.

None of the candidates can like the compressed schedule, though they will like some certainty to emerge. "Less well-funded candidates, such as Democrats John Edwards and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and probable Republican contender Fred Thompson, are making different calculations," writes Bloomberg's Kristin Jensen. "Edwards and Richardson are betting almost exclusively on single contests -- the Iowa caucuses for Edwards and the scheduled Jan. 19 Nevada caucuses for Richardson -- to give them momentum."

President Bush, headed for his annual August break in Crawford, gets one more bite at the Washington news cycle this morning with a 10:30 am ET press conference at the White House.

Also in the news:

The latest issue of People has an excerpt from the new chapter Elizabeth Edwards has written for her book. It's blunt, emotional stuff: "We are not in denial. I will die much sooner than I want to," she writes. "I have lots of energy -- no pains," Edwards tells People about her cancer. "Everybody wants to hear that the tumors are gone. I think that's an aberrational result, but it doesn't mean I'm not going to hope for it."

Clinton takes her turn before the National Association of Black Journalists today in Las Vegas, and she plans to unveil a six-part "Youth Opportunity Agenda." Her plan comes with some big numbers: $10 billion for universal preschool, a new $100 million internship initiative, and $200 million to help ex-cons reenter society, per her campaign. Obama visits the same gathering tomorrow.

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., tells Newsweek's Sam Stein in an interview that Obama is not yet ready for the presidency, just like he wasn't ready in 1988. "I think he can be ready, but right now I don't believe he is," Biden says. "It's not something that lends itself to on-the-job training. You have to have a clear notion of what you want to do."

Ames is huge for former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark. -- or so he's been telling us for months. Huckabee now, per the Rocky Mountain News' M.E. Sprengelmeyer: "We think it's a pivotal moment, not a seminal moment, if that makes any sense." Actually, no, it doesn't.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., yesterday became the first presidential candidate to receive a check from former secretary of state Colin Powell, per ABC's Bret Hovell. McCain is getting some new leadership, too: Robert Mosbacher Sr. will serve as campaign chairman, per The Wall Street Journal's Jackie Calmes, giving the campaign the welcome news of announcing an addition instead of a subtraction. "But Mosbacher's ex-wife, Georgette, herself a leading party fund-raiser, has signed on as an early bundler for Fred Thompson's not-quite-yet official campaign," Calmes writes.

Forget Romney: The politician who presents the biggest threat to Giuliani is his successor as mayor, Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., writes Steven Stark of the Boston Phoenix. "One thing is clear: when Bloomberg so much as thinks about running and the press picks up on it, Giuliani's standing drops like a stone," Stark writes. "It's hard enough to run for the presidency on your record as New York City mayor -- no one has ever made the jump from East End to Pennsylvania Avenue. But it's nearly impossible if your successor is out there talking about how most of your accomplishments are really his -- especially if that successor can back up his claim with a couple hundred million dollars in ad expenditures."

President Bush is looking for his next domestic move as he prepares for his vacation -- and when in doubt, cut taxes! Bush told reporters yesterday "he was 'inclined' to send a corporate tax package to Congress, although he expressed uncertainty about its political viability," The Washington Post's Peter Baker reports. (You don't think Democrats would have something to say about it, do you?) "The focus on economic issues on Bush's last day in Washington before leaving town today for most of the rest of the month reflected a White House strategy to confront Democrats on tax and spending issues," Baker writes. "With most of his second-term domestic legislative agenda in tatters and his strategy in Iraq under bipartisan fire, Bush appears eager to return to familiar issues that animated the beginning of his presidency and might rally disaffected Republicans behind him again."

Who are all these politicians with their sunny talk about Iraq? Troops routing al Qaeda elements? The surge sparking "tactical momentum"? Arguing that US troops could be winning? The comments are coming from Democrats, a development that's "somewhat surprising, considering the bitter exchanges on Capitol Hill between the Democratic majority and Republicans and Bush," per the AP's Kimberly Hefling. "Democrats have long said Bush's policies have been nothing more than a complete failure. The Democrats' choice to acknowledge the military's progress in Iraq signals support for the troops, a message that voters want to hear."

The kicker:

"There are many false stories that circulate about me, but the one I feel I need to address, because it is about such an important topic, is that I have not decided to endorse John Edwards, or any other presidential candidate." Angelina Jolie, in a statement.

"Thirteen." -- Romney, when asked by a voter how many counties are in Massachusetts. An aide piped up to suggest that the correct answer was 10, but Romney persisted: "Oh, no, I think it's 13." The correct answer is 14.


It's an impressive political lineup for a special "20/20" this week on the Rev. Billy Graham. All four living presidents and four first ladies sit down with ABC to discuss the life and legacy of a man who's been a White House guest of every president since Harry Truman. "Each one I've known long before they ever became president, been in their homes many times; always called them by their first names, until they became president," Graham tells Charlie Gibson in the program, which airs at 10 pm ET tomorrow.


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Next up: The Democratic presidential candidates debate on August 19, as a special, 90-minute edition of ABC's "This Week."

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