THE NOTE: Clinton Pressed on Iran, Iraq

Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani knows he looks better from the edge of town (and the rest of the field wants to make him his own worst enemy).

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton knows she's nowhere until people vote (and she gets to wait 'till next year to decide if she'd rather see the Yankees or the Cubs reach the promised land).

Former governor Mitt Romney knows you can't start a fire without a spark (and he'd love to battle Giuliani all the way home).

Sen. Barack Obama thinks he knows you win Iowa by living in the future (and not just counting on a miracle).

Former senator Fred Thompson knows no brilliant disguise will compensate for a bad debate tomorrow (and he'll need to bring more than talk about hopes and dreams).

Former senator John Edwards knows Clinton won't be coming down on her own (and he doesn't care if he's rising on water that's White or Black).

Sen. John McCain knows he's born to run as the underdog (but he's living proof that magic has its limits).

Gov. Bill Richardson thinks he knows that Democratic voters have their eyes on a prize called Iraq, Iraq, Iraq (and he may want to go missing the next time he's invited on a Sunday show).

Three months before game time, the analysis may come from Asbury Park, but the Republican fight is centering on New Hampshire, while the Democrats make it all about Iowa. And new polls confirm what the anecdotes are telling us: Clinton, D-N.Y., and Giuliani, R-N.Y., are the front-runners, but nobody's the boss this far out.

An unexpected encounter on the campaign trail in Iowa over the weekend provided a reminder to expect the unexpected, as Clinton was taken off-message on a subject she'd rather not discuss: Iran. Her vote last month in support of labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist entity was either a textbook centrist move -- looking past the Democratic primaries and toward the general election -- or precisely the kind of misstep that Clinton's rivals have been waiting all these months for.

Clinton was asked to defend her vote, in a testy exchange with a voter who said the resolution could authorize President Bush to use force against Iran. "I consider that part of a very robust and diplomatic effort because [it] wasn't in what you read to me -- that somebody obviously sent to you," Clinton said, per ABC's Eloise Harper. When the voter, Randall Rolph, said he was "offended" because the question was based on his own research, Clinton apologized but still argued that Rolph was misunderstanding the resolution.

Maybe it sounded familiar to her because Edwards, D-N.C., is saying it on the stump -- and he'll continue to hit the Iran message today on the trail in Iowa, according to his campaign. "I differ with her about that and I wonder, if George Bush goes to war, six months later, six months from now, are we going to hear again, 'If only I'd known then what I know now?' " Edwards said Saturday in Iowa City, per AP's Amy Lorentzen.

Newsweek's Howard Fineman sees Clinton trying to conduct damage control in the wake of her vote. "By nature, and now as a front runner, Clinton would rather issue diplomatic communiqués than take one side. Iran may be her toughest challenge," Fineman writes. "But her vote on the Revolutionary Guard measure -- sponsored by the Senate's hawkish, sort-of Democrat, Joe Lieberman -- has given scholars and bloggers in the antiwar netroots fodder; labeling the Iranian Army a terrorist organization, they say, gives Bush the excuse he needs to attack." Says Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.: "It could be read as tantamount to a declaration of war."

While Obama, D-Ill., makes sure Clinton hasn't heard the last of her vote on the Iraq war, he's making his faith a key part of his candidacy. "I cast about after college to see how I could participate in building God's kingdom," Obama said yesterday in Greenville, S.C., ABC's Sunlen Miller reports. "I can be an instrument of God the same way all of you are."

Obama today is talking energy policy in New Hampshire, and he's proposing "$150 billion over 10 years on new clean-energy programs, including proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to develop new energy sources," the Los Angeles Times' Judy Pasternak reports. The proposal "centers on a requirement that polluters pay for every ton of carbon emissions they release, as opposed to having rights to release some or all of the carbon dioxide they already send into the atmosphere."

And then there's the politics: "There are some in this race who actually make the argument that the more time you spend immersed in the broken politics of Washington, the more likely you are to change it," Obama plans to say, per excerpts released by his campaign. "I always find this a little amusing. I know that change makes for good campaign rhetoric, but when these same people had the chance to actually make it happen, they didn't lead."

A helpful birdie points out that Obama voted for the 2005 energy bill, which many Democrats -- including Clinton -- opposed because it was viewed as too favorable to Big Oil.

As if she needed another way to be considered the frontrunner, Clinton tops the field in Iowa in a new Des Moines Register poll; Clinton leads 29-23-22 over Edwards and Obama.

But Register columnist David Yepsen sees warning signs for the frontrunner. "The key to success is beating the expectations of the political community for how you'll do on caucus night," Yepsen writes in his blog. "We're also going to see those back of the pack candidates start feeding on each other as they seek to become that alternative challenger."

Bottom line is this is a fluid race in Iowa -- nothing like the 30-point edge Clinton has in national polls. "It is unlikely that any candidate will be able to achieve a decisive lead before caucus day," writes Mark Halperin of Time and ABC News. "Furthermore, Clinton's advantage is statistically small enough to allow plenty of room for Obama and Edwards to catch up. This they must do to halt her methodical march to the nomination, since Clinton's current strength in New Hampshire and in national polls mean she must be stopped in Iowa."

"Here Clinton's path remains strewn with obstacles," Dan Balz and Alec MacGillis write in The Washington Post. "Clinton's Iowa problem has been evident from the day she entered the race in January, and it is the result of a confluence of factors that appear to exist nowhere else in the country right now. They include support for Edwards that far outpaces his backing elsewhere, the spillover effect of Obama's next-door-neighbor status as a senator from Illinois and strong organizational efforts by both her rivals."

This may be the most important detail to remember: "Obama has an army of field operators in the state, deployed from 31 field offices, compared with 22 for Clinton and 15 for Edwards."

The sense of urgency surrounding Iowa comes down to this fact: "Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus is looking more and more like a last chance for the Democrats seeking to halt Sen. Hillary Clinton's march to the party's nomination," Michael Saul writes for the New York Daily News. "She could be unstoppable if she takes Iowa."

Among the Republicans, Romney, R-Mass., and Giuliani, R-N.Y., are sparring on fiscal issues in advance of tomorrow's debate on economic policy. With dueling press releases and conference calls, Romney and Giuliani are "engaging each other as never before in the towns and villages of New Hampshire, from Derry to Nashua," write Michael Luo and Marc Santora of The New York Times.

"Don't be fooled by Rudy Giuliani's ranking atop national polls," the AP's Liz Sidoti writes in her snapshot of the GOP race. "Fred Thompson is giving chase to Giuliani nationally. Thompson, Mitt Romney and John McCain are in strong contention in early voting states. Romney leads in Iowa, while New Hampshire and other early states are up for grabs."

And, of course, Giuliani still has to worry about on his right flank. The social conservative leaders who are talking about bolting the party if Giuiliani is the nominee could actually do it -- if only to maintain their relevance, writes Joe Conason for "They may feel they have no choice but to follow through on their threat to support a 'minor party' candidate," he writes. Giuliani "makes the Clintons look dull and even righteous. Moreover, Giuliani deviates from right-wing dogma not just on a single issue but on almost every social issue, including immigration and gun control."

David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network reports that Giuliani does plan to attend the Family Research Council's Value Voters Summit next Friday and Saturday. The speech figures to be another major marking point for the unusual campaign by the GOP front-runner. "The fact that Giuliani would even show up is a good move," Brody writes.

The Register poll has Romney on top in Iowa, and Thompson, R-Tenn., in second place, with Romney enjoying a 29-18 edge among likely GOP caucus-goers.

That's encouraging news for the late-arriving Thompson, but no one has more at stake at tomorrow night's debate than the former actor, who needs to show he's learning his lines. As he pieces together a fiscal plan, "He is looking to lure the party's economic conservatives with an aggressive plan to curb government spending and overhaul the tax code," per The Wall Street Journal's Amy Schatz. "So far, he has provided few specifics, but he appears close to proposing replacement of the current tax system with an alternative aimed at reducing trade imbalances and entitlement spending."

The New York Times' Susan Saulny finds some good Thompson zingers from his 1994 Senate debates. This kind of line might work on Romney: "Today is Thursday, Jim. What's your position on term limits today?" And we'd propose this one if he wants to out-Rudy Rudy Giuliani: "The answer is no. . . . Shut up! Just shut up just a minute!"

And don't forget McCain, R-Ariz. The New York Times' Mark Leibovich captures the senator relaxed on the trail -- jokingly calling his press secretary a "drunk," making fun of Edwards' haircuts, feeling bad for Britney Spears, and generally spreading the word that he is still running for president. "Here is Mr. McCain, the happy warrior on a last mission, an odd mix of liberated and subdued," Leibovich writes. Says McCain: "For whatever reason, it took me a while to hit my stride."

Also in the news:

It's not a speech -- yet -- but Mitt Romney of Belmont, Mass., has echoes of JFK in the letter to the editor he wrote commenting on last week's Newsweek cover. "I am an American running for president, not a Mormon running for president, but I am also very proud of my faith. And I am not a cafeteria Mormon, choosing some parts to accept and reject -- I am 'true blue, through and through.' . . . It is puzzling that when NEWSWEEK looks at me . . . what you mostly see is a Mormon."

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" yesterday that the Bush administration is ready to compromise on S-CHIP.

But why compromise when you win on the politics even if you lose on the policy? "Democrats believe they have Republicans -- short on campaign cash, contending with a spurt of retirements and quarreling -- on the run over the legislation," The New York Times' Carl Hulse writes. "Party leaders say the willingness of so many House Republicans to stick with Mr. Bush in the face of bipartisan backing for a $35 billion expansion of the program to provide insurance for poor children will prove costly as Election Day looms a year from now."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she needs to find just 14 more Republicans to defy the president to override his veto on children's health insurance. "The president calls himself the decider, but I don't know why he would want to decide that one child has health care and another does not," Pelosi said on Fox News Sunday, per ABC's Tahman Bradley.

This is not the kind of surrogate help the Clinton campaign wants. Retired Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy told the Union Leader's John DiStaso that she doesn't consider Clinton to be an anti-war candidate. "I have not ever heard [Clinton] say, 'I oppose the war.' I've heard her say that we need to begin withdrawal under a plan led by the military and defense secretary," Kennedy said.

Edwards jumped on those comments yesterday in Iowa: "How do you end the war if you don't oppose it?" he said, per Ed Tibbetts of the Quad City Times. Responds Camp Clinton: "As Sen. Edwards knows, Sen. Clinton opposes this war and is trying to do everything she can to end it as quickly as she can -- a goal that she and Gen. Kennedy share."

And here comes Richardson, D-N.M., attacking Clinton's Iraq plan for its political caution. "What Senator Clinton is talking about is she's cautious," Richardson said on ABC's "This Week." It's a calculating message. I am decisive. I say that I will get all of our troops out."

Here comes the electability argument -- almost in unison now. The Rocky Mountain News' M.E. Sprengelmeyer writes that "irony followed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to a show barn" when she appeared alongside George McGovern, who was blown away by Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election. Said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., "Even though people want change, we Democrats have to have a candidate that's electable."

Toss in this from Edwards yesterday, on NBC: "I am the candidate running for president on the Democratic side whose actually won an election in a red state, running against the Jessie Helms political machine."

Obama's not the only Democrat talking religion on the stump. "Among the White House hopefuls, the Democratic candidates are talking more about their faith -- and engaging in more early outreach to religious voters -- than Republicans are," per ABC News. Says David Kuo, a former Bush adviser on faith-based programs: "It is amazing: You have Democrats as evangelicals, and Republicans behaving as secularists."

The Washington Post's Matthew Mosk profiles Obama's finance director, Julianna Smoot. Smoot, on competing with the Clinton machine for Democrats' wallets: "People want someone different now. . . . And you know what? It's not a hard sell." Some luck helps too: Norman Hsu was among the Clinton fundraisers who rebuffed Smoot's entreaties to defect to Obama. Mosk got this quote from Hsu before his highly public implosion: "She knew I was loyal to Senator Clinton. I told her she was asking the wrong person. We both respected each other well enough not to talk about it after that."

The headline serves up the attack line in this Bloomberg News column: "Hillary Clinton Reigns as Queen of Federal Pork." "Republicans had their 'bridge to nowhere.' Hillary has her knitting mill," writes Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute. "Clinton has deftly spread federal taxpayers' money around to parochial projects of questionable public value, sending, for example, $250,000 to the Seneca Knitting Mill, and $200,000 to the Buffalo Urban Arts Center."

If Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., is going to be a factor in the race, it's because he's got the Iraq plan -- and "the juice," writes Brad Warthen, editorial page editor for The State. "He's got the experience to have the knowledge, he has sound ideas based on that knowledge, and he's got the credibility to sell the ideas," Warthen writes. "That's his deal: He's the guy with the plan, and the juice to get it done. And last week, he had the cred to make folks believe it."

With Al Gore looking to cap his Oscar and his Emmy with a Nobel Prize this week, get ready for another round of will-he-or-won't-we stories that have no connection to Gore's actual plans and desires. "State movements to draft Al Gore for a presidential bid are strengthening, with his fans from Iowa to California pledging not to give up and saying they are undeterred by the former vice president's insistence that he won't run," Christina Bellantoni writes in the Washington Times.

Elsewhere in non-candidate action, the buzz around Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., "seems to have fizzled, as he has publicly retreated from the idea and an opening in the field of candidates has not materialized," Diane Cardwell reports in The New York Times. "Of late, Mr. Bloomberg, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has generally stopped making jokes suggesting that he is weighing a run and has been issuing stronger denials of interest."

The kicker:

"I generally try to avoid signing pictures of scantily clad women." -- Romney, campaigning at the New Hampshire Grass Drags and Water Crossing.

"Everybody wants me to come, and the problem is I'm just flat out too lazy. I tell them . . . can't I just talk to them on the Internet?" -- Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, in an interview with the Concord Monitor's Margot Sanger-Katz, as he enjoys some -- but not all -- of the new attention he's getting.

"Anything for a vote . . . Bill Bradley washed my pickups Anything for a vote . . . Kucinich cured my hiccups." -- Lyrics from "Caucus! The Musical!," now in rehearsals at a theater in downtown Des Moines.

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