The Note: Last Gasps

Wedged between Mike Huckabee's 150-pound watermelon, Tommy Thompson's Harley, Duncan Hunter's Elvis impersonator/ice cream man, and the 90 members of Mitt Romney's family, an actual real-life political event will be taking place in Ames, Iowa, tomorrow.

This is one of the very few marking points of this early period in the cycle, and while this one lacks any suspense about who's going to win (it's Mitt's world, and everyone else is just eating in it), it will bring some long-sought clarity to the GOP race -- and will thin the field. (At least three candidates want to finish second -- do the math.)

While this could mark the end of the dream for two or more candidates (and the fact that Huckabee, R-Ark., is dropping his dimpled grin to let loose speaks to the stakes), Romney, R-Mass., has just as much riding on the event as the lesser-known challengers. The former Massachusetts governor "has come under a furious assault from some of his rivals and the powerful network of abortion opponents in this state," The New York Times' Adam Nagourney and Michael Luo write from Iowa. "The result is that the campaign for this Republican event -- which, by itself, is of questionable political significance this year -- has created an environment with national implications for Mr. Romney."

The Washington Post's Michael Shear and Alec MacGillis write that Ames "has all the markings of a historic mismatch" -- meaning Romney needs not just to win, but to cover the spread. Why is everyone else so intimidated? Could be the $2 million in ads, or the 60 "super-volunteers" who draw monthly salaries to talk Romney up, or maybe it's just the Hickory Park barbecue. "Romney is waging what amounts to a one-sided financial war, bidding himself up against candidates who have raised less money during the entire campaign to date than Romney is likely to spend just for the straw poll," Shear and MacGillis write.

Take some time between the fried food and bites of barbecue to bid farewell to a few candidates, led by Tommy Thompson, R-Wis., who has said he'll drop out if he doesn't finish first or second. "Behind the fair-like atmosphere, the straw poll is a deadly serious exercise," per ABC's preview. "The GOP presidential field will almost certainly be smaller after the votes are counted in Ames -- and the balloting could solidify Romney's front-running status, or blow the race wide open."

Nobody is happier to see Ames draw the political oxygen than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who found herself on the defensive twice yesterday -- first on foreign policy, and then on her husband's record on gay rights.

Clinton said recently that Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was wrong to make "blanket statements" ruling out nuclear weapons, but she sure seems to have made one herself in an April 2006 interview with Bloomberg's Al Hunt, when asked about Iran: "I have said publicly no option should be off the table, but I would certainly take nuclear weapons off the table," Clinton said. Per ABC's Jake Tapper, the Clinton campaign says it's different because she was answering as a senator -- not a presidential candidate (as if she hasn't been running since 2005).

Tapper reports: "Some Obama allies say Clinton is guilty of having made remarks quite similar to the ones she's criticized as unpresidential and careless." And don't miss Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who continued his aggressive tack by criticizing both leading candidates: "These kinds of careless statements expose the difference in the candidates' depth of experience and understanding when it comes to the complex world of foreign policy and military affairs."

At the Human Rights Campaign forum in Los Angeles, Clinton faced tough questions from none other than Melissa Etheridge, "who said President Bill Clinton had disappointed gay activists," the New York Daily News' Michael Saul writes. "Our hearts were broken. We were thrown under the bus," Etheridge told her. Clinton defended the "honest effort" under her husband's administration, though she added that she would have liked to have done more. She added, "Well, I think -- I think I am a -- I think I am a leader now."

Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., also got some heat for having said his religion was at the core of his opposition to gay marriage -- and over Bob Shrum's account of his attitude toward gays and lesbians. ("That's not true," Edwards said.)

But the candidate who did himself the most damage last night appears to be Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M. Asked whether he believes people are born gay or choose their sexual preferences, he responded "It's a choice." Then he dug himself in deeper when asking if he wanted to change his answer: "I'm not a scientist." (Must be the one job he hasn't had yet.) It was "the most tense moment of the evening," writes Joel Rubin of the Los Angeles Times, and he tried to undo the damage with a statement later saying he misunderstood the question. Case in point for why Richardson can't quite break through into serious contention.

Obama was accused by a questioner of being "old school" by opposing gay marriage. ("Oh, come on now," he responded.) But he is endorsing a position that could perk up some ears on the right. He favors an outright repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, a position many legal scholars believe would make gay marriage "more likely to spread from state to state," ABC's Teddy Davis reports. (It has to do with the "full faith and credit" clause of the Constitution -- don't ask.) Obama, who once taught constitutional law, doesn't think it will force other states to recognize gay marriages, but his opinion may be the least likely to matter if this becomes a talking point.

The entire field got a lesson in the danger of accepting invitations to forums like last night's on LGBT issues -- it means getting nailed down on some dicey issues. Can anyone figure out why the major Democrats don't favor gay marriage? (Other than, of course, the fact that they want to win the election.) "Their reasons for opposing equality in civil marriage tonight became even less clear," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese, per USA Today's Jill Lawrence.

On the calendar front, it was the very picture of comity yesterday in New Hampshire, with South Carolina GOP officials choosing the Granite State to announce that their primary will be held Jan. 19 -- two weeks earlier than the original plan called for. But as we wait for the chain reaction that leaves some (very slight) chance of seeing the Iowa caucuses in December, The Washington Post's Dan Balz wonders if this could be the undoing of the whole system. "The issue is how much the current system can be bent and stretched and warped before it finally breaks apart," Balz writes. "Tradition, self-interest and pure envy have shaped the 2008 calendar and they ultimately could be the system's undoing."

Next up: New Hampshire, where Secretary of State Bill Gardner has all the discretion in the world to make sure New Hampshire casts its primary ballots at least a week before any other state. "With the current circumstances, the question is: Tuesday or January?" writes Lauren R. Dorgan of the Concord Monitor. "If Gardner keeps the primary on its traditional Tuesday, then it would be held on Jan. 8. In that case, Iowa -- which under its laws must hold its leadoff caucus eight days before any other -- would be faced with plunking its contest in the midst of December's holidays."

As for the word from Iowa -- plenty of bluster, no clarity. "We have to stay first, even if it means going to November," state Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald told the Des Moines Register's Thomas Beaumont and Jonathan Roos.

Befitting his non-campaign, non-candidate non-senator Fred Thompson non-responded with non-concern. "Changes to primary dates are only a problem for long-running candidates," said Randy Enwright, national political director (is that his title now?) of the Thompson committee. The campaign chaos, you see, is all part of a grand plan -- just ask Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Bet Romney's jealous now . . .

Also in the news:

Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., yesterday "handed his critics new ammunition regarding his role surrounding 9/11," ABC's Jan Simmonds reports. Asked about the health risks at Ground Zero, Giuliani responded, "I was at Ground Zero as often, if not more, than most of the workers. . . . I was there working with them. I was exposed to exactly the same things they were exposed to. So in that sense, I'm one of them."

Wondering what the firefighters will have to say about that? "That's insulting and disgraceful. He's a liar," Fire Capt. James Riches, whose firefighter son died on 9/11, told the New York Post's Carl Campanile.

The Bush administration is set to get tough on the border, with the unveiling today of a new plan to "enlist state and local law enforcement in cracking down on illegal immigrants," Politico's Mike Allen reports. "The announcement is aimed at restoring President Bush's credibility with conservatives who were dismayed that he pushed so hard for broad immigration reform, including a guest worker program for people now here illegally, before the border was more secure," Allen writes.

A worth-the-read step-back piece in the new issue of The Atlantic -- "what went wrong" with the "Rove presidency." "Bush will leave behind a legacy long on ambition and short on positive results," Joshua Green writes. "History will draw many lessons from his presidency -- about the danger of concentrating too much power in the hands of too few, about the risk of commingling politics and policy beyond a certain point, about the cost of constricting the channels of information to the Oval Office."

New York Times columnist David Brooks has an interesting take on a Romney campaign he sees as selling the candidate short. "Instead of emphasizing data and pragmatism, he emphasizes creed and conviction," Brooks writes. "His stump speech features generic Republican lines that could be uttered by any candidate at any time, almost as if they were originally designed for someone else and implanted onto him."

We know the stakes in Ames for Tommy Thompson and Huckabee (and we're not forgetting the House troika of Ron Paul, R-Texas, Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., and Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., either). But it could be a make-or-break moment for a candidate who's presumed to have the resources to stick around a while: Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. "Ames is a major messaging and organizational test for Brownback," writes Chris Cillizza of "His profile as a Senator representing a major agriculture state in the middle of America has obvious appeal to Iowans, and his strong social conservative message should be in line with those most likely to turn out in the 90+ degree heat to cast a straw ballot vote."

The Democratic National Committee is funding an ad campaign by the leading GOP candidate. Meet "None of the Above," starting with an ad in today's Ames Tribune.

The kicker:

"I'm not just spending my time trying to bash other candidates." -- Huckabee, on Wednesday, per Salon's Michael Sherer.

"The problem is not so much where [Romney] is but where he was and the fact that that's a change and not just on that issue but on a number of others." -- Huckabee, on Thursday, per The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza and Dan Balz.


The Note is going video. Check out "Notes from The Note" today on the "World News Webcast," live at 3 pm ET at and available online and through iTunes any time after that.


It's an impressive political lineup for a special "20/20" 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 tonight.


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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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