The Note: Pre-Rumble Dance

As we learn not to mess with Rudolph Giuliani's family -- and as Bill Richardson learns that what happens in Vegas only stays in Vegas until an opposition-researcher finds out about it -- consider the lay of the (heady) Democratic land as we head into Sunday's debate on ABC:

If the three leading candidates have anything to do with it (and here's betting they will), the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination will be waged at the peculiar, uneasy nexus of experience, electability, and revolution. It's with varying doses of those three elements that the frontrunners are pursuing very different paths to the nomination -- and are tangling with each other in this newly aggressive phase of the campaign.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is heaviest on the first quality -- while her opponents portray her as a polarizing creature of the establishment. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., can't claim experience, but he's by nature a consensus-builder, and a true outsider.

And it's the candidate who has most on the line at ABC's debate this weekend -- because he has the most riding on Iowa, where his lead has slipped -- who offers the most intriguing (and explosive) mix of the three key characteristics. Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., is the original Hurricane Dean (as in Howard), challenging Obama on experience, Clinton on electability, and vowing to blow up the Washington system that he portrays as fatally flawed.

That's what Edwards was getting at yesterday when he challenged Obama to join him in calling for the entire Democratic Party to reject lobbyists' donations. And it's the message of the "Fighting for America" campaign bus that's winding its way 31 cities and towns in Iowa this week. "Washington needs change, serious change, and in a really big way, not in a small way," Edwards said yesterday. "I'm that guy [to make it happen.]"

Yet every time Edwards seems to hit his rhetorical stride, another story like this pops up: The Wall Street Journal's Christopher Cooper reports that 34 New Orleans homes have had their owners face "foreclosure suits from subprime-lending units of Fortress Investment Group LLC." That would be the same hedge fund Edwards worked for in 2005 and 2006 -- and that he still has $16 million invested in. Edwards told Cooper that he would personally provide financial assistance to Hurricane Katrina victims who are in danger of losing their homes because of Fortress' actions, and said he will rid his portfolio of any Fortress funds that file foreclosures.

And Obama isn't ready to cede Edwards any ground on the agent-of-change front. He may be brushing aside Edwards' latest ploy on lobbyists' donations, but he is also strengthening the words he has for his rivals. Obama has begun "to sharpen his tone noticeably as he fights for the Democratic presidential nomination, increasingly drawing sharp contrasts with his rivals and seeking to turn criticism of his foreign policy credentials into a fresh argument for change," writes The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny. "The recalibration of the campaign is a marked departure from a laid-back tone Mr. Obama often had taken in the first six months of his candidacy."

Obama's latest volley came yesterday, when he said in Iowa that he's getting "a hard time because I've challenged the conventional wisdom." "After all, the war in Iraq wasn't cooked up by folks in Council Bluffs," Obama said. "It was authorized by politicians in Washington who said they knew better. And if that's what conventional thinking on foreign policy amounts to, conventional thinking has to change."

And a (poker-faced) Obama told the AP's Ron Fournier and Mike Glover that Clinton "doesn't recognize the problem" of Washington lobbyists. "The argument is not that I'm pristine, because I'm swimming in the same muddy water," Obama said (for some reason blurring the distinctions even as he grows pointed in his language). "The argument is that I know it's muddy and I want to clean it up." Clinton's due up next . . .

On the Republican side, former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., makes his long-awaited Iowa debut today at the State Fair in Des Moines. (He made his grand entrance to a much smaller crowd in the lobby of the downtown Marriott about 8:30 pm CT last night -- sleeves rolled up, jacket over his shoulder, and two aides by his side, per ABC's Courtney Cohen.)

Thompson has a private meeting with conservative activists this morning before Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, gives him a tour of the fair. (If you're seriously still "testing the waters," senator, here's a hint: lose the jacket, and make it ice water today to wash down your pork-chop-on-a-stick.)

ABC's Jake Tapper reports that his Senate papers include two very different position papers on abortion his campaign prepared for his 1996 Senate run -- one marked "(PRO-LIFE)," the other "(PRO-CHOICE)" -- and both accurately describe his record. Tapper writes, "Though the actor and lawyer is being celebrated by social conservatives as a possible answer to their prayers for an electable presidential candidate with whom they agree on key issues, Thompson's foray into the Hawkeye State comes at a time when documents from his Senate and campaign archives provoke further questions about whether he truly is the political savior that conservative Republicans hope he is."

The Des Moines Register's Tom Beaumont reports that the former "Law & Order" actor will visit the WHO radio building and be a guest of conservative radio host Jan Michelson. (Who's Michelson? Ask former governor Mitt Romney.)

Perhaps it's Thompson's looming shadow that's to blame for this debate between Giuliani, R-N.Y., and Romney, R-Mass., over immigration. This is getting fun: They're enlisting surrogates in addition to researchers, and both men have long histories to explain (and explain away). "Romney's advisers would like to narrow the GOP race as much as possible to a two-person contest with Giuliani, and they are seeking to brand Romney as the true conservative in the race, in contrast to Giuliani," write The Washington Post's Michael Shear and Dan Balz. "They also hope to seize the initiative with conservatives before former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.), expected to enter the race next month, can establish his own bona fides with the party's base."

Giuliani wants a fair fight -- no one (not even a New Hampshire voter!) gets to ask about his family. Under a "Rough day for Rudy" headline, the Union Leader's Trent Spiner reports on the pointed and personal question Giuliani fielded at a town hall meeting where he was asked how he could inspire a loyal following from Americans when he is not "getting it from [his] own family." Giuliani replied, "The best thing I can say is kind of, 'Leave my family alone, just like I'll leave your family alone.' " (Doesn't that sound vaguely like a threat from a guy who has a private security service? And can you hear the collective sigh from the Romney campaign when it reads a lede that describes the Giuliani and Romney stances on immigration as "similar"?) A footnote: The same woman who asked Giuliani about his family asked Al Gore in 1999 about a rape allegation against Bill Clinton, Spiner reports.

And perhaps today is not shaping up to be any smoother for Giuliani as he encounters the double-edged sword that is his calling card -- his 9/11 stewardship. Responding to complaints that he didn't guard against health risks at Ground Zero, "he has boasted that he faced comparable risks himself" at least three times, per The New York Times' Ross Buettner. Though no records exist for Sept. 11-Sept. 16, his mayoral archive shows that he spent a total of 29 hours at the site in the three-month period beginning Sept. 17, "often for short periods or to visit locations adjacent to the rubble," Buettner writes. "In that same period, many rescue and recovery workers put in daily 12-hour shifts."

Romney, who yesterday took the Illinois GOP's inaugural straw poll (with 373 entire votes -- remember when this contest was supposed to matter?), "is increasingly casting himself as the 'change' candidate, promising voters that he's the one who would bring conservative reform to Washington," The Boston Globe's Lisa Wangsness reports. "The change argument . . . seems designed to distance himself from President Bush's dismal approval ratings and voters' dismay with the war in Iraq," Wangsness writes. "But . . . he has been a strong supporter of the president across a wide range of policies, including Iraq, raising questions about the legitimacy of his 'change' contention."

Also in the news:

Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., is the very unlucky winner of the contest we all started playing when Nevada won its early caucuses. His eastern Nevada field director, Kristian Forland, was forced to resign from his campaign yesterday after the Associated Press confronted the Richardson camp with the fact that he once worked at a brothel and was wanted on a felony charge in California. "We did not know about all of this," a Richardson spokesman told the AP's Kathleen Hennessey.

The Edwards camp can make up for some of the bad press today by reading and re-reading The New York Times' David Brooks mostly glowing op-ed championing his campaign rationale for running for president. "The Edwards campaign is based on the same conviction that organized his last campaign: no one understands regular people the way he does," Brooks writes. "No one else can get out of a bus in places like Pocahontas, Iowa, and bond with the farmers, nurses and hairstylists the way he can. No one else comes from their ranks the way he does." (The campaign may need to take a brief break from debate prep to make sure every donor and potential donor sees this piece today.)

USA Today's Martha T. Moore profiles the candidacy of Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., 20 years after a debate performance (and accusations of plagiarism) ended his first White House run. Now it's all about experience and ideas: The other Democrats are in "a race to see who could get [US troops] out the quickest," Biden tells Moore. "The facts are the facts. You can't get them out in less than a year."

With the Club for Growth stepping up its attacks on former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark. -- the "John Edwards of the GOP," in Club parlance -- ABC's Teddy Davis and Leigh Hartman looks at Huckabee's campaign pitch. Other than Huckabee's support for the "Fair Tax," he has yet to put policy meat on the populist bone -- and isn't even saying in which areas policies will be forthcoming.

The retiring Coach/Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., tells Rick Pearson of the Chicago Tribune that he felt he was a "prisoner" to the speaker's office during his tenure as the longest-serving Republican Speaker of the House. "You really didn't go out of your office because they had 26 people asking you for something without an appointment, just trying to grab you," Hastert, who is announcing his retirement today, tells Pearson. "You were vulnerable [to a request] every time you walked out."

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, may not be enjoying the current congressional recess as much as most. The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times both spill some ink exploring the scandal currently engulfing his political establishment back home in Alaska.

FBI Director Robert Mueller's account of the dramatic scene in John Ashcroft's hospital room in March 2004 seems much closer to former Deputy Attorney General James Comey's account than to Alberto Gonzales' version of events, per The New York Times' David Johnston and Scott Shane.

Is Tony Snow the next White House aide out the door? He tells's Hugh Hewitt that he expects more resignations before Labor Day -- and holds out the possibility that his will be among them. "I've already made it clear I'm not going to be able to go the distance, but that's primarily for financial reasons," Snow said. "I've told people when my money runs out, then I've got to go." For the record, Snow earns $168,000 a year -- the top of the White House pay scale.

Wondering what the Republican National Committee is preparing for the debate? An early draft of the RNC's pre-debate talking points focus on votes where Clinton, Obama, and Edwards opposed ethanol initiatives and other pro-farm measures. And the RNC does its version of a Democratic debate with the Web game "Show of Hands." (Notice that the "DONATE" button is just as prominent as "PLAY AGAIN.")

The kicker:

"This is not a serious boyfriend. I hate to have to be the one to say it on television, but he's a very nice young man." -- Laura Bush, to ABC News' Charlie Gibson, Feb. 1, 2005, on Henry Hager, the man who is now engaged to first daughter Jenna Bush.

"It was terrifying. . . . What I do for my 9-year-old." -- Obama, after taking a whirl on the "Big Ben" ride at the Iowa State Fair, which "thrust the family dozens of feet in the air," per the Chicago Tribune.


It's The Note -- video edition. Check out "Notes from The Note" today on the "World News Webcast," live at 3 pm ET and through iTunes any time after that.

I'll be live-blogging during Sunday's debate, from inside the debate hall at Drake University, starting at 9 am ET Sunday. Join the conversation here.


"This Week with George Stephanopoulos" will produce the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2008 presidential election to be aired on broadcast television. The debate will be moderated by ABC News' George Stephanopoulos with additional questioning from David Yepsen of The Des Moines Register and will be held at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

FORMAT On Sunday, August 19th, ABC News is bringing a Democratic presidential debate to Sunday morning television. The debate will be moderated by George Stephanopoulos with additional questioning from David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register. The debate will be largely a moderator driven event aimed at sparking a conversation between the candidates on the big issues of the day. To ensure a free flowing conversation that covers a lot of ground, candidates will aim to answer direct questions from the moderator in 60 seconds and follow-ups in 30. has also been soliciting questions submitted by viewers for possible inclusion in the debate. There will be no opening or closing statements and no audience questions. The audience will be compromised of Iowa voters, event sponsors, and candidates' guests. There will be two commercial breaks in the first hour and no commercial breaks in the last half hour.


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