The Note: Bye-Bye ‘Bush’s Brain’

Five things we've learned since Friday:

1) Mitt Romney's millions bought him a whole mess of barbecue and red foam "mitts" -- and just enough of a win (at $800 a vote?) to declare a real victory in Ames with a straight face.

2) A Karl Rove-less White House is happening much faster than anticipated (isn't two weeks' notice the standard at IHOP, too?), and Rove is spinning his way home to Texas.

3) It's Mike Huckabee -- and not Sen. Sam Brownback -- who'll ride a mini-wave of publicity as the (possible) candidate of social conservatives (thank the watermelon -- or the stand-up act -- or maybe just Fred Thompson's timing).

4) Not all profiles of Rudy Giuliani unearth crypts full of skeletons (though we'll see how Placido Domingo plays in the heartland).

5) Profiles of Sen. Barack Obama (still) dwell on the improbability of the fact that he's even a serious presidential contender (and that's a nice place to stay as long as you can).

Five things we hope to learn by next weekend:

1) Whether Romney, R-Mass., will be "pleased as punch" with his victory lap (and whether he can go four days without talking about his dogs' car trips and sons' lack of military service).

2) Whether Rove's departure hastens a further breakdown of this White House's vaunted discipline -- and whether remaining staffers begin working on their own legacies before they follow Rove out the door.

3) Whether Huckabee, R-Ark., will get his wish of one-fourth of Romney's press following (and whether it will matter when Fred himself comes to Iowa at the end of the week).

4) Whether Tommy Thompson, R-Wis., is the only candidate savvy enough to take a cue from Ames (attention, Duncan Hunter).

5) Whether Obama, D-Ill., will shed his nice-guy image once and for all at ABC's debate Sunday in Des Moines (and whether former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., stands ready to join him in attacking Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. -- even while Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., takes on all three of them).

Romney gets a bounce out of the Ames Straw Poll, where his 32 percent was slightly better than his true competition -- George W. Bush's 31 percent in 1999. Whether this is a high-water mark for the former governor -- or, in his words, he's "just getting started" -- will depend in part on the four-day, 10-state victory lap starting today, ABC's David Chalian reports. "Romney's first place showing also allows him to grab the national spotlight -- if only for a brief moment -- which his campaign hopes will further introduce him to Republicans nationwide," Chalian writes.

Don't expect any sort of victory lap from Rove, who becomes by far the biggest name in the White House exodus. "I just think it's time," he tells The Wall Street Journal's editorial page editor, Paul Gigot, in dropping the bombshell that he's resigning effective August 31. We did hope he'd do better than this explanation: "I've got to do this for the sake of my family" (though it does have a more pleasant ring than, "I've got to do this to avoid indictment").

But Rove does leave us with some parting prognostications (not likely to be his last): "He will move back up in the polls," he said of the president he's been serving for 14 years. And Democrats "are likely to nominate a tough, tenacious, fatally flawed candidate" -- Hillary Clinton. We'll hear more from Rove -- and his boss -- at 11:30 am ET, as the president departs for Crawford.

Rove's name joins Hughes, Miers, Bartlett, and Card as Bush confidantes who have moved on from the inner circle before the home stretch. "This is the end of an era," ABC's George Stephanopoulos reported on "Good Morning America" this morning. "And it also I think represents the end of some of Karl Rove's larger ambitions."

Back on the straw poll, Romney's victory means far less than his campaign had once hoped, given the fact that the other front-runners skipped Ames -- and that 10,000 fewer Iowa Republicans showed up this time than did in 1999 (not to mention the voting machine malfunctions -- what does his portend about the 2008 cycle?). "It doesn't mean much to win a fight when the other prize fighters don't get in the ring," Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen wrote yesterday in summing up Ames. "Republicans seem lethargic about their choices."

It's Huckabee who was Ames' biggest surprise, prompting a round of "meet the real winner" stories. Huckabee "may have more to show for himself than" Romney, per the Chicago Tribune's Rick Pearson and John McCormick. "Another way to look at the results -- considering the fact that the party's longtime heavyweights, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, weren't participating in the straw poll -- is how many of the 14,000 Iowans voting cast their ballots for someone other than Romney."

Jackie Calmes of The Wall Street Journal sees Huckabee's finish as a threat to Brownback and former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who makes his first campaign-style trip to Iowa on Friday -- after the Ames buzz has moved on. "Mr. Thompson's still-undeclared candidacy has been propelled by the argument that he could fill the perceived void of a true conservative, and a Southerner, among the field's front-runners," Calmes writes. "But Mr. Thompson has delayed entering the race, to some supporters' chagrin."

The New York Times' Adam Nagourney credits the jokes with vaulting Huckabee into second. "Mr. Huckabee is probably about to find out if he gets the attention he said on Sunday that he deserved," Nagourney writes. "But for now, his humor may go a long way in explaining why he finished ahead of a decidedly more somber Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas."

Brownback, who invested more than Huckabee in Ames but got back less, said on ABC's "This Week" yesterday that while he "wanted to win" the straw poll, he is confident he can stay in the race. "I think third is a ticket on forward to the caucuses," he said. "And so in that sense, I think we are still in." He added that Romney still hasn't put to rest questions about his abortion position: "Mitt Romney has probably hit up on top of his ceiling."

Sixth place does not equal first or second, and so it's goodbye Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor whose resume never produced a compelling message -- and who had the wrong first name for this election anyway.

What's next in the Republican race? The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Michael Shear see a Romney vs. Giuliani battle emerging that pits Romney's "traditional early-state strategy against a more unorthodox approach by national front-runner" Giuliani. "Romney's strategists see value in trying to narrow the competition to a race between their candidate and Giuliani, in hopes of setting up a conservative-vs.-moderate contest," Balz and Shear write. "But [Sen. John] McCain and [Fred] Thompson are wild cards who could redraw the battle for the nomination by the time of the Iowa caucuses."

Romney was all bluster yesterday on Fox News Sunday: "If they thought they could have won, they'd have been here," he said of his top-tier rivals. But the interview got sidetracked on Seamus the dog as well as that pesky Planned Parenthood donation Ann Romney made back in 1994. Ann doesn't remember it. "I mean, how do you remember all the checks you've written?" she said. (Quick -- somebody from the McCain finance team find Ann Romney's number.) She does, however, remember shifting her position on abortion -- and wonder of wonders, "it came pretty much at the same time" as her husband's switch.

Wrapping up the news:

Here's an agenda-setting story the Clinton camp wanted to keep under wraps for, well, forever. "Democratic leaders quietly fret that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at the top of their 2008 ticket could hurt candidates at the bottom," writes AP's Ron Fournier, quoting mostly (and understandably) anonymous Democrats. "They say the former first lady may be too polarizing for much of the country. She could jeopardize the party's standing with independent voters and give Republicans who otherwise might stay home on Election Day a reason to vote, they worry."

Giuliani, R-N.Y., is the subject of a long Peter Boyer profile in The New Yorker, which touches on the odder moments in his personal life (friend Elliot Cuker takes credit for putting him in drag -- and said they used the Actors Studio to teaching him to deliver speeches) and his well-documented contortions on major issues (abortion, immigration, gun rights). Then there's his penchant for loyalty: "I guess you need a Bernie Kerik without the back­ground problems that Bernie Kerik had," he said when asked who he would choose as Homeland Security secretary. Boyer also credits Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, with returning Giuliani to "his old form" after their fight at a Republican debate. "Giuliani's calculation is that Repub­lican voters are not as disappointed in Bush's policies as they are in the execu­tion of them," Boyer writes.

The New York Times' Marc Santora looks at the emerging style of the Giuliani campaign, from his cigars to his reading list to his inability to "do the soft and cuddly thing." "The stylistic side -- the way he interacts with voters and presents himself at rallies, the music he uses to announce his entrances -- seems to be a work in progress as he tries to balance his New York persona with his heartland campaign," Santora said. His campaign song -- so far -- is Brooks & Dunn's "Only in America" -- a rip-off from Bush, and very un-Rudy. Says Giuliani himself: "I don't think the crowds are ready for me to pick out who is singing 'Nessun dorma,' whether it is Placido Domingo or Luciano Pavarotti."

Brian Mooney of The Boston Globe tracks Giuliani's shifts on social issues -- starting with gay rights, where he has backed away from his support for civil unions and now "favors a much more modest set of rights for gay partners." "More than any candidate in the Republican presidential field, rival Mitt Romney has been tagged with the flip-flopper label," Mooney writes. "But Giuliani, with late shifts on civil unions and federal campaign finance laws, is a political makeover in progress."

Obama nabs the cover of GQ -- the magazine's first political cover since Bill Clinton and Al Gore were branded "Huck and Tom" in that space in 1992. Ryan Lizza writes of the "dissonance" between "the image of Obama at the height of his rhetorical powers and the slight and professorial candidate they meet in person." He finds him "ambitious, prickly, and occasionally ruthless" -- but also in it for the right reasons. And don't miss this gem of a quote from strategist David Axelrod (and remember the lag time for magazine pieces when you read it): "If we go out headhunting, if we go out and become a gratuitous, blood-sucking, run-of-the-mill, garden-variety politician, then we'll have taken what is best about him and we'll have destroyed it."

Obama's face (three times over, on a slot machine) adorns the cover of yesterday's Washington Post Magazine as well, with author Liza Mundy comparing his political ascent to -- we are not making this up -- the creation of life on Earth. "Had any one of thousands of factors not been present, our planet might have been a wasteland," Mundy writes. "Similarly, had any number of events fallen out slightly differently, Barack Obama might have a lot more time to spend with his family just now."

Some fallout from last week's LGBT forum: An Obama adviser sees Clinton's refusal to endorse an outright repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act as a "symbolic insult" to gays and lesbians. "I guess Hillary Clinton may have a complicated set of agendas here because many people were troubled when her husband as president signed DOMA," Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Tribe told ABC's Teddy Davis.

But Clinton's still playing it tough on foreign policy, per The Boston Globe's Marcella Bombardieri. "Clinton has taken extraordinary pains, not only on the campaign trail but in her years in the US Senate, to position herself as the candidate who would be the strongest commander in chief, even as she has infuriated some Democrats who believe her desire to appear tough made her slow to criticize the Iraq war," Bombardieri writes.

Edwards, who today starts a week-long Iowa bus tour that culminates with Sunday's debate, may think twice now before he picks another fight with Rupert Murdoch. We already knew that Edwards took a $500,000 advance from a Murdoch subsidiary for his 2006 book. Now Politico's Ben Smith reports that Murdoch's HarperCollins "paid portions of a $300,000 expense budget for the book to Edwards's daughter and to a senior political aide, Jonathan Prince." (And the book's been a flop: It "might have earned back roughly $100,000 royalties, a fraction of the $500,000 advance," Smith reports.)

Meanwhile, in the second tier, it's Dodd who's starting to look like the aggressor, as he abandons all subtlety in an attempt to break through. He's calling Obama "irresponsible" for the way he talks about foreign policy, per the New York Sun's Seth Gitell. Dodd is harsher on Clinton, saying this about her oft-stated contention that she "bears the scars" associated with her failed healthcare initiative: "Political scars are one thing. But the scars from mismanaging an issue that people have had to pay [for] because they haven't had any health insurance or coverage for the past 15 years is a lot more serious in many ways."

It looks like the Republicans won't be able to avoid talking snowmen after all. The CNN/YouTube GOP debate looks like a go for Nov. 28 -- the Wednesday after Thanksgiving -- in St. Petersburg, Fla. Giuliani and McCain are both in, though no word yet from the Romney camp.

The kicker:

"I've got a wife, four daughters, and a female dog." -- Long-shot GOP candidate John Cox, starting to count his way toward the 41 votes he received at the straw poll.

"I'm really at the center. And all the other candidates are to the right of me." -- Long-shot Democratic candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, on the Democratic presidential field, on ABC's "This Week."


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