THE NOTE: Short on Funds, Can Edwards Compete?

Where's Ann Coulter when John Edwards needs her?

Just three days before the end of third-quarter fund-raising -- and in wake of the SEIU's decision to hold off on endorsing a candidate: He's accepting public financing for the primaries, which means (more than any of the spin) that his campaign is admitting that it can't compete financially with the big girl and the big boy in the race.

This will mean a boost of cash -- probably $10 million in January -- but it also means Edwards, D-N.C., can only spend about $1.5 million on ads in Iowa and $800,000 in New Hampshire (and he's already about a third of the way there in both states). His campaign is already identifying loopholes that will allow him to spend more, but (beside the moral incongruity of talking clean and playing dirty like that) here's all you need to know: If this was such a good idea -- politically and financially -- everyone would be doing it.

VIDEO: President Bush misspeaks while endorsing No Child Left Behind.Play

Edwards is quickly making this part of his populist narrative, a challenge to the other Democrats (and one that will be quickly ignored by those who have the financial means to ignore it). "Washington is awash with money, and the system is corrupt," Edwards said.

Yet if this is a choice, why didn't he make it when he started the race, or at any point before the very end of an important fund-raising period? Has money gotten dirtier? Or it just that he's not finding enough of it?

Let's ask Joe Trippi -- no, not today's Joe Trippi, Joe Trippi 2003 (whose candidate, Howard Dean, was rolling in the cash). The "campaign believes that any Democratic campaign that opted into the matching-funds system has given up on the general election," Trippi said four years ago. Yesterday, he told The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut and Matthew Mosk: "It's a different time. A different year." Indeed. The move raises the stakes for Edwards, and the announcement's timing -- right after a strong debate performance -- reflects the seesaw nature of his campaign: He remains a leader in the "ideas primary," with a strong rationale for his candidacy, yet every time he starts to gets some traction, something causes him to slip.

The decision on public financing is "a political blow, but it's probably also the only lifeline he has to stay in the race," Politico's Jeanne Cummings reports. It also means that if he wins the nomination, he may have to go dark for six months or more -- until the general election begins, with the Democratic convention. The Democratic base has got to be jazzed by the prospect of Mitt or Rudy dumping millions on his (well-coiffed) head.)

Cummings' colleague, Ben Smith, lands Edwards' campaign talking points -- and he's made his move "proudly." And this: "Today, Edwards is challenging Sen. Clinton to prove that she means what she says. If she doesn't agree, she should have to look the American people in the eye explain why their money isn't good enough."

But remember that Edwards is truly the candidate who must win Iowa; now he'll have to win it with at least some limitations on his ability to advertise there. (Michelle Obama, it turns out, didn't quite pronounce the state make-or-break for her husband; the Quad City Times corrected the quote where she was purported to have said that without a victory in Iowa, "it's over.")

The GOPer who's flirting with taking public dollars (again, because he has to) has his must win-state: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is pinning his revival hopes on the good graces (and long memories) of New Hampshire voters. McClatchy's Matt Stearns sees McCain's new ad -- featuring footage of him as a POW in Vietname -- as the "most striking political ad of the 2008 presidential campaign -- and the most harrowing in recent memory."

We will know soon if there's anything to a McCain revival -- and it will be the numbers (though not the polls) that tell the truth. "Days before hard financial numbers will deliver hard facts, increments of movement are suggesting to John McCain that he is on his way back to being a presidential contender," writes USA Today's Jill Lawrence. "Resurrection is exactly what McCain and his aides are planning."

But for the GOP, yesterday was a day for the second tier to have a turn in the spotlight. The PBS debate on African-American issues went off despite the absence of the GOP's Big Four, and the rest of the field took their free shots at the empty chairs, per ABC's Ron Claiborne. Former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark.: "I'm embarrassed for our party, and I'm embarrassed for those who did not come. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.: "I apologize for the candidates who aren't here. I think it's a disgrace that they aren't here."

"The no-shows meant a larger share of the spotlight for contenders all polling in single digits," report the Baltimore Sun's David Nitkin and Matthew Hay Brown. "But it came with challenges: The event's hosts and some questioners voiced skepticism that the Republican Party offered any opportunities for people of color."

At Wednesday night's Democratic debate, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., pulled his punches. But there was nothing subtle about what he did the next day. Who knows what the true number is (since all that matters is the visual), but perhaps 20,000 people crammed into a corner of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's backyard to hear Obama speak last night.

Obama argued "that only a fresh candidate could truly change Washington," per The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny. "Twice, he singled out Mrs. Clinton. 'Even your senator from New York wasn't clear about the Yankees,' he said, laughing at his own joke. 'I know who I'm rooting for!' "

As the new fund-raising numbers will (again) confirm, Obama has tapped into something very real. We may be about to find out if he can turn that into something substantive: Next Tuesday -- the fifth anniversary of the anti-war speech he gave in Chicago -- is shaping up as one of those defining campaign moments. And will we finally see him connect his 2002 position to his 2007 plan for Iraq?

Also in the news:

Now that he's, you know, a presidential candidate and everything, maybe someone should get former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., a newspaper -- or, at least, an Internet connection. "I hadn't heard that. I didn't know," he said yesterday, when asked for his response to a federal judge's ruling that lethal injection procedures are unconstitutional in his home state of Tennessee. And this stunner: "Nobody is perfect and no campaign is perfect, but I really don't see anything out of the first few weeks but good news."

It's her position now that's right -- sorry, Bill. The Clinton campaign "belatedly explained that her flip-flop to oppose torture was an evolution inspired by talks with retired generals," the New York Daily News' Michael McAuliff reports. "Clinton (D-N.Y.) came out against all torture -- 'period' -- in Wednesday's Democratic debate after previously telling the Daily News last October it would be okay to torture a terrorist to foil 'something imminent.' Clinton's transformation on torture now aligns her perfectly with the voters she's trying to woo."

In another piece of debate fallout, former president Bill Clinton said yesterday that he "will not reveal the names of donors to the Clinton Presidential Library unless he is required to by law, rebuffing pressure from his wife's rivals for more disclosure," per ABC News. Follow this (Clintonian) answer: He's happy to release the names of his donors -- if his wife is elected, and if a law passes requiring presidents to do so -- and he only wants to name those who give in the future. "We don't believe in one set of rules for us and another set for everybody else," he said yesterday. (And we don't believe we know if Norman Hsu gave to the library.)

Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times sees rocky times ahead for Sen. Clinton, if Wednesday's debate is any indication. "Clinton's rivals are moving closer to translating that innuendo into full-bore attacks on some of the more unpleasant memories of the Clinton years, with its failed healthcare plan, impeachment and frequent showdowns with the GOP," Wallsten writes. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., probably came closest to delivering the line when he referenced "the old stuff" at the debate.

Clinton, of course, has the backing of the Democratic nominee from 1992 and 1996 -- and now she's reaching back to 1972 to secure the endorsement of George McGovern, ABC's Jake Tapper reports. Says McGovern: "She and her boyfriend, Bill Clinton, took over the McGovern organization in Texas. They did a terrific job against impossible odds. I never forgot that. They worked night and day in that state." For the record, McGovern went with Wesley Clark in 2004.

See why Clinton is this week's "Buzz Maker of the Week."

The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation holds its legislative conference today, and Clinton will be the headliner, while Obama hits a smaller conference room to talk about . . . climate change? Per Bloomberg's Julianna Goldman, his choice of topics "underscores the delicate balance Obama, 46, is trying to maintain as he competes for votes with Clinton, 59, whose husband, former President Bill Clinton, was called the 'first black president' at the same event six years ago."

These MTV/MySpace forums could be fun. Edwards' was the first, and while he dressed down for the event, it quickly turned serious, per The New York Times' Julie Bosman. While Edwards "may have been expecting the playful questioning associated with MTV forums in the past (like Bill Clinton being asked about his underwear preferences), the students in the auditorium stuck stubbornly to questions on policy issues ranging from higher education to the violence in Darfur."

Newt Gingrich kicked off his "American Solutions" workshops with a speech last night in Atlanta. The former House speaker, R-Ga., is flirting with a presidential run, but that's just the start of what he wants to do, ABC's Teddy Davis reports. "It cannot only be about the presidency. The fact is that in our constitutional structure the president is only one of 513,000 elected officials," Gingrich said.

The Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody gets former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., to talk about faith and family. "I pray to God, and I pray to Jesus for guidance, help," he says. On family, he says, voters "can have confidence that my private life is not terribly different from most other people -- it's probably more difficult than some and less difficult than others." And why he took that cell-phone call from his wife: "It was quite an honest act. . . . It's me. I'm spontaneous."

Giuliani helped his California primary prospects -- though probably not his general-election chances in the Golden State -- by picking up the endorsement of former governor Pete Wilson, R-Calif., yesterday. The endorsements links "the Republican presidential contender with a strong supporter of Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative that still echoes among California's Latino voters," per the Los Angeles Times' Scott Martelle. Those aren't the good kind of echoes, by the way.

Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., was also in California yesterday -- and he was not impressed by the endorsement. "They're both pro-choice. That's probably pretty expected," he said, per the Sacramento Bee's Peter Hecht. He also had this to say, on immigration: "Mayor's Giuliani's posture as having been a mayor that welcomed illegal immigrants to his city and presided over a 'sanctuary city' is a problem for Rudy Giuliani and a distinction between us."

With a new poll showing him dropping by 10 points in New Hampshire, the Romney camp is playing the memo game to recalibrate expectations. "By no means do we expect to win both Iowa and New Hampshire -- no Republican in the modern era ever has," strategist Alex Gage writes, in boldface type, The Boston Globe's Lisa Wangsness reports. But, under the "kindling" strategy, wouldn't that be nice?

McCain loves the support of the uniformed military, but he's got to be careful. "Seven on-duty Army personnel participated in a campaign event for Senator John McCain earlier this month in Londonderry, New Hampshire, in an apparent violation of a Pentagon directive against partisan political activity," Sasha Issenberg reports in The Boston Globe.

The Senate last night passed the State Children's Health Insurance Program expansion by a veto-proof margin, but that won't change President Bush's mind. "Regardless of the immediate political cost over a possible veto of SCHIP, these are fights the President welcomes in his last 16 months in office," Time's Jay Newton-Small writes. "After the largest expansion of government since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society four decades ago, he is bending over backward to show committed budget hawks that he is really one of them."

Here's something that will make Democrats' weekend (and beyond) a little more pleasant. The California Republicans' electoral-college scheme -- the one that would essentially cede the GOP an extra Ohio -- is in "shambles," its consultants quitting and its major donor defecting after being named publicly, the Los Angeles Times' Dan Morain reports. "Backers said Thursday that they believed the measure was all but dead, at least for the 2008," Morain writes. Says Chris Lehane, who's organizing efforts to make sure it's dead: "We will treat this the same way Ronald Reagan treated the Commies -- trust but verify."

The Democrats may have their version of the ad to attack. They're piling on Rush Limbaugh for saying on his radio program that that troops who favor withdrawal from Iraq are "phony soldiers." The statement "has the potential to be equally explosive [as the ad was], since some troops who are currently fighting in Iraq, and a handful who have died there, have questioned the war in the media," Talking Points Memo's Greg Sargent writes. By last night, Democrats were condemning Limbaugh on the House floor.

If John Dean thinks what President Bush has done is "worse than Watergate," where does that put Giuliani on his scale? "If a Rudy Giuliani were to be elected," Dean tells Huffington Post's Jon Wiener, "he would go even farther than Cheney and Bush in their worst moments."

Don't miss Jenna Bush tonight on ABC's "20/20," as she sits down with Diane Sawyer for her first TV interview. On why she doesn't worry about her father's poll numbers: "Because nobody knows him as a person. I mean, he's my father. I separate it, you know? He's a different person to me than what they portray him as. He's a totally different person. I think that's normal, I mean, he's my dad."

The kicker:

"Next step? . . . Maybe have some of my opponents' legs broken?" -- McCain, discussing the dinner he shared this week with "Sopranos" star James Gandolfini.

"The story didn't end up fully satisfying." -- GQ Editor Jim Nelson, on why he killed a story on "Hillaryland," per Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post.

"GQ told me the Clintons were unhappy and threatened to revoke access to Bill Clinton if the Hillary story ran." -- Joshua Green, on why he was told his story on "Hillaryland" was killed.


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