THE NOTE: Opening Night for Thompson

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Just in time for Fred Thompson to enter (stage right), here's a handy cheat sheet for him, in case he's been too busy chillin' with George Allen, Liz Cheney, and Spencer Abraham to bone up on the gang he's sharing the spotlight with this afternoon:

Rudy Giuliani will be the guy who speaks too fast (though no longer too loose). Likes to talk about: 9/11, tax cuts, the Yankees (though maybe not so much today), Hillary Clinton. Doesn't like to talk about: abortion, gun control, lightning, James Dobson.

Mitt Romney will be the guy with the million-dollar smile (and multi-million-dollar wallet). Likes to talk about: the Olympics, tax cuts, his hair, abortion (now). Doesn't like to talk about: abortion (circa 1994 and 2002), religion (his own), car trips with pets.

John McCain is the guy who looks like John McCain. Likes to talk about: drunken sailors, the "Straight Talk Express," "my friends." Doesn't like to talk about: immigration, fund-raising, polls, George W. Bush.

Mike Huckabee is the funny one -- laugh at his jokes. Ron Paul will say something about the Framers -- probably best to condemn it. Sam Brownback is the religious one -- nod approvingly when he speaks. Tom Tancredo will link immigration to a question about the nuclear non-proliferation -- agree with him, though not too vigorously. Duncan Hunter is also a candidate for president. No, we're serious, he is.

As for you, Fred, you're the star -- for better or worse. Name your acting cliché -- it's showtime, opening night, the big debut, and Thompson, R-Tenn., needs to break a leg. Will he dazzle the crowd with a mastery of details matched only by his physical presence, as he looms over a stage populated by semi-anonymous white men? Or will he stammer something about "American values" and crack a flat joke about the good ol' days, while flubbing questions on the AMT and welfare reform?

Here's already been panned by everyone from Robert Novak and George Will (and Richard Nixon) to the writers on "Saturday Night Live." Now -- in part because he waited as long as he did to jump into the race, and in part because these sorts of forums need to belong to him -- Thompson will be judged harshly on his performance.

ABC's Christine Byun sees Thompson downplaying expectations (is that really necessary in this case?): "I am a little -- probably a little rusty -- on my sound-bite responses," Thompson told reporters. "These other guys are polished, they're very smooth in their responses, they've had a lot of practice, so I just hope I can hang in there with them." Byun points out that his speaking style hasn't won him rave reviews yet -- but at least he's used to speaking without notes.

Look for some policy specifics -- and, of course, plenty of style -- when Thompson takes the stage. "I think our goals are to look presidential and to build on this feeling that people feel comfortable with this notion of Fred Thompson as president," Bill Lacy, Thompson's campaign manager," told The Tennessean's Bill Theobald. "And to look substantive." (Is that different than BEING substantive?)

"Much of the focus will be on the former actor and whether he can seize the moment, not only to distinguish himself from the rest of the field but also to rebut accusations that he is too lazy, too ill-prepared and too vague to be the GOP nominee," writes The Washington Post's Michael Shear. But it's just remotely possible that a candidacy won't be made or broken at an economic debate in Michigan that airs on CNBC at 4 pm ET on a Tuesday. Adds Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention (who always seems to have nice things to say about Thompson): "He may have Reagan's Teflon quality."

Maybe the low expectations are just what the doctor (or the admiral) ordered. "All he has to do is not fall asleep. All he has to do is not throw up. All he has to do is not drool," Politico's Roger Simon writes. "Never has there been an opportunity for any candidate to surprise his critics more."

At least President Nixon isn't alive to weigh in. His assessment of Thompson? "Oh s---, that kid," Nixon said on White House tapes when told of his appointment as a Watergate counsel, ABC's Brian Ross reports. "He's dumb as hell. . . . He isn't very smart, is he? . . . But he's friendly." And this from White House counsel Fred Buzhardt, in 1973: "He said he realized his responsibility was going to have to be as a Republican increasingly." No comment from the Thompson campaign.

On the Democratic side -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's Iran vote is looking more like a rare misstep from the frontrunner, at least from the standpoint of the Democratic primary. It's at least giving her rivals some running room to exploit her perceived strength: foreign policy.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., picked up on former senator John Edwards' line of attack yesterday: "Her willingness to once again extend to the president the benefit of the doubt I think indicates that she hasn't fully learned some of the lessons that we saw back in 2002," Obama, told ABC's Sunlen Miller. (How much does David Axelrod wish Obama hadn't missed that vote? "Well it wasn't a close vote," Obama said. Neither was the Iraq war resolution, but that one was sort of important, wasn't it, senator?)

Still, it's not a distraction Clinton, D-N.Y., needs. "Already on the defense for her vote to authorize use of force against Iraq, the Democratic presidential frontrunner now has another vote to defend among the anti-war liberal Democratic base," ABC's Jake Tapper writes. Tapper also explores the language that's whipped up all this controversy: "the issue, these Clinton opponents say, is the linkage of Iran and Iraq in legislation -- not the declaration that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are terrorists."

The New York Times' Adam Nagourney sees the Iran vote through the prism of a campaign run on caution. "In trying to appeal both to the Democrats' liberal base and to a more centrist general-election audience, Mrs. Clinton, like her husband before her, risks feeding into the assessment of critics that she is more about political calculation than about conviction," Nagourney writes.

"The campaign is entering what promises to be a turbulent period in which Mrs. Clinton will come under greater attack from both inside and outside her party," Nagourney continues. "And if past campaigns are any guide, this will also be a time of 'Clinton in trouble' accounts in the press, inspired by missteps or any signs of slippage, real or merely perceived."

With that added to new questions about her ties to Sandy Berger -- a "friend" now best known for swiping documents from the National Archives, though he has no formal role with the campaign -- now is a great time to climb aboard the "Middle Class Express." Next up: Clinton delivers an 11 am ET speech on "retirement security" today in Iowa (and we notice she didn't take any questions from voters yesterday).

Clinton "has toned down her message of 'change' over the last few days," The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut reports. "Instead, she is rolling across Iowa in a campaign bus with the [words] 'Middle Class' emblazoned across the side -- a not so subtle signal of her shift in emphasis."

Check out this bit of positioning: Clinton thinks NAFTA should be reevaluated and "adjusted," as she "distanced herself Monday from one of her husband's signature White House achievements," per USA Today's Susan Page. Clinton tells Page: "Part of leadership is continuing to evaluate what we currently do to figure out if we can do it better."

Clinton is advancing an economic agenda that includes expanded college scholarships, more 401(k)s, and ways for homeowners to avoid foreclosure. "Many of Mrs. Clinton's proposals are familiar, but they have been packaged into what she calls 'a new economic blueprint for a 21st century economy,' " Jackie Calmes reports in The Wall Street Journal. She also is ruling out a special tax to pay for the war, and is distancing herself from the proposal she floated last month for $5,000 "baby bonds." "Mrs. Clinton said her priorities for health care, deficit reduction and energy alternatives 'are really more pressing,' " Calmes writes.

Something is working for Clinton: The Boston Globe's Sasha Issenberg sees her doing something that was thought to be undoable: Shifting negative perceptions of her that had baked in over 15 years. "For at least a decade, the inflexibility of voter attitudes toward Clinton had come to be treated as an immutable law of American politics," he writes. "Yet over the summer, some voters appear to have changed their minds about the senator. On the key question asked by pollsters -- do you view her favorably or unfavorably? -- the numbers ticked in small but significant ways in Clinton's direction."

Obama, meanwhile, rolled out his energy plan yesterday -- complete with the requisite swipe at inaction during the Clinton years. "The energy speech was the latest effort by Mr. Obama to cast himself as a critic of how business has been conducted in Washington," The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny writes. "Though he did not mention his campaign rivals by name, Mr. Obama criticized those who opposed gradual increases in gasoline mileage standards for cars, which included Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York."

Obama is seeking "to spark a debate that he hopes will generate more light than heat: phase out the old-fashioned incandescent light bulb by 2014," ABC's David Wright reports. "The idea comes as part of Obama's comprehensive energy strategy unveiled today in New Hampshire. It's a dossier that would do Al Gore proud -- thick with proposals that he says would cut greenhouse emissions by the carbon load."

This one hurts: The SEIU has decided against making a national endorsement in the Democratic primary, saying there are too many good candidates to choose from. But this also just about says that the union isn't convinced that Edwards, D-N.C., can win. "The long-anticipated announcement is a setback for former Sen. John Edwards, the North Carolina Democrat who came close to scoring the nod," Christina Bellantoni writes in the Washington Times.

"Sometimes no news is the worst news of all," Tim Dickinson writes on his Rolling Stone blog. He quotes top SEIU official Anna Burger as telling him earlier this year about the union's "special relationship" with Edwards. Dickinson writes: "With his modest fundraising to finish the third quarter, and recent slippage in the polls in Iowa, Edwards really needed this kind of momentum booster."

While Edwards dials up the rhetorical heat on Iran, he's not worried about the polls. "People look much more intensely at you as a candidate the closer you get to the caucuses, and a lot of the celebrity fades away," he said in Iowa, per the Des Moines Register's Jonathan Roos. "So I think, as a practical matter, that bodes well." (So he doesn't want to be a celebrity?) And this: "I lived through the inevitability of Howard Dean."

And Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., was talking about policy when he referenced Hillary Clinton's "old stuff," right? Well -- kind of sort of. "It's really not her fault," Biden tells The New York Times' Michael Cooper. "But you know, and people know, there is going to be that great 'vast right wing conspiracy' -- it's going to mobilize. And I think people are going to start sitting there thinking, whoa, wait a minute. Do we want to go there again?" And on that Iran resolution (which he voted against): "The idea of giving the president an excuse to be able to go to war with Iran I found absolutely mindless."

Also in the news:

When former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., starts railing against Hillary Clinton this afternoon, remember that he not-so-secretly wants her to look like the inevitable nominee, writes's Chris Cillizza. "He needs her a lot more than she needs him these days," he writes. "The stronger that Clinton looks in the Democratic primary -- and she looks pretty darn strong at the moment -- the more Giuliani's 'head over heart' appeal to conservatives will resound." (This is all well and good -- but where does Hizzoner stand on the pressing matter of Joe Torre's fate?)

The Chicago Tribune's Tim Jones profiles former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass. "Is the smartest guy in the room trying too hard to prove to GOP voters that he's what they want him to be?" Jones writes. Here's a comparison Romney won't like, on the subject of shifting positions: "The changes have provoked the inevitable comparisons to the resolute George Romney."

Beware the latest e-mail hoax, Iowans: Bob Vander Plaats, Iowa chairman for former governor Mike Huckabee's, R-Ark., campaign, says he is "not leaving my guy any time." The e-mail says that Vander Plaats has become a Romney supporter.

While the national media swarms, Thompson is charming the pants off of local media outlets, right? Wrong, blogger Jennifer Rubin argues, as she sums up the ways he's been panned in New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. "While it is always convenient and indeed a crowd pleaser with conservatives to blame the national media, in this case the perception seems to extend to all corners of the press and across the political spectrum," Rubin writes. "As an actor, Thompson should know that the fault may lie not in the stars (or the Tribunes or the Posts) but in himself."

Time to wake up the liberal blogosphere. "Two months after insisting that they would roll back broad eavesdropping powers won by the Bush administration, Democrats in Congress appear ready to make concessions that could extend some crucial powers given to the National Security Agency," Eric Lichtblau and Carl Hulse write in The New York Times. "Although willing to oppose the White House on the Iraq war, [Democrats] remain nervous that they will be called soft on terrorism if they insist on strict curbs on gathering intelligence."

For what it's worth (not a lot), former mayor Ed Koch, D-N.Y., doesn't like Obama's reason for not wearing a flag pin: "Does he now believe the United States response of waging war in Afghanistan after 9/11 was wrong? Does he believe the U.S. flag now belongs only to supporters of the war against Iraq, which war he opposed?" Koch writes in his weekly commentary, per the New York Daily News' Elizabeth Benjamin. But he still thinks Clinton will choose Obama as her running mate.

It looks like the four-state "pledge" is being taken seriously: It's not just the candidates but their spouses, too, who are shunning Florida. All are skipping this month's state Democratic convention, the Miami Herald's Beth Reinhard reports: "As far as the Democratic presidential campaigns are concerned, Florida has cooties."

Remember that 12-year-old boy Democrats used as their S-CHIP poster child, even getting him to deliver their weekly radio address two weekends ago? Conservative bloggers do, and that's created a firestorm surrounding Graeme Frost and his family, per ABC News. Yesterday, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused GOP leadership aides of "pushing falsehood" in an effort to distract from the political battle over S-CHIP.

Things couldn't get too much worse for the GOP -- could they? What if there's a recession, ask Bloomberg's Catherine Dodge and Matthew Benjamin. "Just a lingering slowdown would undercut one of the few topics Republican politicians can still boast about to voters -- an almost six-year economic expansion. That in turn might compound Republicans' electoral woes, turning a difficult election into a disastrous one."

The kicker:

"Who's the author of the cold case Emmett Till legislation? Who's the author of that? Who's the author? Who? Who is?" -- Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., in his very own heated exchange with a voter in Iowa. (The answer is Chris Dodd.)

"None of us wants to end up with a President Cheney." -- Elizabeth Edwards, explaining in New Hampshire why it wouldn't make sense to impeach President Bush. She added that impeaching Bush and Cheney would leave Condoleezza Rice or Michael Chertoff as president: "We'd end up like a dog chasing its tail."

I'll be live-blogging during tonight's Republican debate, starting at 4 pm ET. Watch it on CNBC and join the conversation here.