THE NOTE: Rudy, Mitt Rumble on Fred's Night

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That wasn't so hard, was it, Fred? Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., wasn't terrible, and maybe that was all he needed to be to exceed the ridiculously low expectations (and he can thank Dan Bartlett for keeping them low).

But Thompson also didn't seem like he needed to be on stage last night, and that may be a more worrisome sign for him and his supporters. Amid all those optimistic guys, talking up everything and everyone except taxes and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Thompson had a really good podium position to watch what's fast becoming the main event in the GOP nomination fight.

Either Thompson was right to stay away for as long as he did -- since not even a TV star looks larger than life on a stage stuffed with white men -- or he's a bystander in the tussle that's shaping the Republican race for president (for better for worse). Notwithstanding the awakening of his oppo-research team (welcome to the game, guys), Thompson "largely watched from the sidelines as rivals Mitt Romney and Rudolph W. Giuliani clashed over who can return the party to its fiscally conservative roots," Michael Finnegan and Janet Hook write in the Los Angeles Times.

The spat between the two blue-state some-time moderates -- Romney, R-Mass., and Giuliani, R-N.Y. -- "spilled from the campaign trail onto the stage, with each accusing the other of failing to keep taxes low and to control spending," Michael Shear and Dan Balz report in The Washington Post. Giuliani won the round: His zinger, "I led. He lagged," beats Romney's "It's baloney." (And Romney -- enjoying home-field advantage in Michigan -- has to know the last thing a Republican wants to hear is that the president is going to check with his lawyers before responding to a nuclear threat.)

"Their increasingly fierce confrontation is starting to dominate the race for their party's nomination," Adam Nagourney and Marc Santora write in The New York Times. Both men offered enough statistics to fill the CNBC ticker, and the battle continued in reporters' e-mail inboxes. "Most of all, they clashed over a line-item veto that Mr. Romney said was essential to reducing spending in Washington and that Mr. Giuliani challenged successfully in the Supreme Court." (And Giuliani was unwavering in defending Joe Torre -- splitting the Yankee-fan vote.)

As for Thompson, he didn't stink, but he didn't dazzle, either. He seemed not to realize that the Michigan economy is in shambles, and that three-second pause early on in a question about whether a recession is coming was about two seconds shy of going from "something's caught in his throat" to "wow, this man is silent on stage." But he recovered, even passing the prime-minister-of-Canada pop quiz, and -- considering that any gaffe could have been fatal -- he seemed to have done his homework.

"In time, Mr. Thompson sounded increasingly practiced and prepared, as if he had pulled a series of all-nighters in preparation for his coming-out role," Mark Leibovich writes in The New York Times. "He exuded a certain joylessness for much of the proceeding, speaking in a solemn monotone and almost never smiling. It was as if he were taking an oral examination, and in a sense he was."

"Thompson's performance slowly ticked upward from its low start, but his answers, while often soothing, rarely moved beyond agreeing with other candidates and endorsing broad principles such as free trade," The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos writes. "Luckily for Thompson, it is still two months before most voters start making up their minds, and he can comfort himself by realizing that his performance yesterday wasn't a disaster -- and, for that matter, that it set low expectations for his future debates."

"At times he seemed more co-star than star, making quips based on the remarks other candidates made," ABC's Jake Tapper reported on "Nightline" last night. "A problem for Fred Thompson is that in many ways he's not just running against candidates like Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain -- he's also in a way running against District Attorney Arthur Branch."

Writes Politico's Roger Simon, "I thought that in his first debate Fred Thompson would come across as either bright or dumb. I forgot about dull." Nobody on stage seemed to find the need to engage Thompson, except for Romney, who delivered his (Doug Gamble?) line as the debate was winding up, saying the debates are like "Law & Order": "huge cast, the series seems to go on forever, and Fred Thompson shows up at the end."

It didn't help Thompson that, just in time for his debut, former Bush adviser Dan Bartlett's assessment of the GOP field became public. Thompson wins the label of Bartlett's "biggest dud." "The biggest liability is whether he had the fire in the belly to run for office and be president," Bartlett said at a recent speech. "So what does he do? He waits four months, fires a bunch of staff . . . [and] comes out with his big campaign launch and gives a very incoherent and not very concise stump speech for why he is running for president. I think he peaked last spring, when he said he was thinking about running."

Other Bartlett highlights: On Romney: "I think the Mormon issue is a real problem in the South, it's a real problem in other parts of the country, but people are not going to say it. . . . What they're going to say is he is a flip flopper." On Giuliani: "best message." On Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.: "biggest wild card." And on former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark.: "best candidate."

Bartlett was speaking only for himself -- but could he be providing some clues into the thinking of his former boss? "What Dan was saying yesterday is not that far from what President Bush thinks -- particularly on Mayor Giuliani and Senator McCain and Mike Huckabee," George Stephanopoulos said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "Those seem to be the candidates that the president thinks are doing best right now."

Back at the debate -- McCain seemed to like the 4 pm ET start, and was comfortable talking about over-spending, but he was a ("straight talk") non-factor, neither taking on the other candidates nor being challenged himself. ("Of course I would support me," he said, in his best line of the day.) Not as many highlight-reel quips from former governor Huckabee, who needs the kind of momentum money can't buy him. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, said enough to appeal to the sort of folks who want to hear his (unique) message.

But if this battle comes down to Giuliani and Romney -- the national frontrunner vs. the early-state leader, Yankees vs. Red Sox -- Rudy has to feel good about his first head-to-head clash with the former governor. Giuiliani "seemed to get the best of the exchange," writes Mark Halperin of Time and ABC News. "As we always say, every single day he survives on top, he grows stronger and gets closer to the nomination."

Clinton was at least as much of a presence on stage last night as Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., or Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and she's got to be used to the attention by now since it's coming from members of both parties.

In Iowa to outline her plan for retirement security, Clinton yesterday "pushed back against criticism from fellow Democrats that she is too polarizing to unite the country as president, arguing that the political battles she has been through make her uniquely equipped to bring the nation together and build a centrist governing coalition," The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut and Dan Balz write.

In an interview aboard her campaign bus (news in itself), Clinton said: "You can't just wake up and say, 'Let's all just hold hands and be together.' You've got to demonstrate that you're not going to be cowed or intimidated or deterred by it, and then you can reach out and bring people who are of good faith together."

But she still has vulnerabilities on foreign policy. The Washington Post fact-checks Clinton's recent claims that she will "get us out of Iraq," and provides some fodder for her rivals: "The Democratic front-runner has gone back and forth on this question for many months, leaving voters unclear about what she would do in Iraq if she became president," Michael Dobbs writes. "It is only when you examine the details -- like the fine print in an insurance contract -- that you discover that Clinton's pledge to 'get out of Iraq' is far from iron-clad. There are numerous conditions attached."

And New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd weighs in on the question that got Clinton "rattled" over the weekend, over the Iran resolution. "If you know the dingbat vice president is agitating for a conflict with Iran, if you know that Condi is chasing after Cheney with a butterfly net on Iran and Syria, if you know you can't believe anything this administration says, why vote to give them more backing on their dysfunctional Middle East policy?" Dowd writes. "Voters seem more concerned with Hillary's political expediency -- which the vote underscored -- than with her ability to be manly."

With Clinton set to open her Arkansas office tomorrow, the Republican National Committee today plans to post a video clip of Clinton talking about the importance of "openness," with a clip showing her say "everything is going to be available" at the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock. How are those papers from the healthcare task force coming? And how about that donor list, Mr. President?

It's just as well that Wolverines heard plenty about Clinton last night -- since she's pretty much the only Democrat still running in the Michigan primary. Five Democratic '08ers -- including Sen. Barack Obama and former senator John Edwards -- withdrew from the Michigan primary yesterday, citing the DNC's rules about the calendar. That leaves the state to Clinton, who probably had the advantage there anyway, and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.

"While Clinton is now all-but-ensured of coming out on top when Michigan votes on Jan. 15, her rivals are hoping that any media impact will be negligible since she will have prevailed in this delegate-free beauty contest against no real opposition," ABC's David Chalian and Teddy Davis write.

Obama, D-Ill., is citing party rules (as are Edwards and the rest of the gang), but would he have pulled out if he thinks he could have won (like Clinton thinks she can) without setting foot in the state? Is this Obama waving a white flag in a state with big urban centers and a large African-American population? "Tuesday's move means not only will the [Democrats] not make their pitch directly to Michigan, but the state's voters will not even have a chance to vote for many of them," writes Gordon Trowbridge of the Detroit News. Says Detroit resident Anthony Thornton: Obama "can't win the Democratic nomination if he can't win here."

Obama joined other Democrats yesterday in condemning Congress for its failure to pass a bill that would raise taxes on private-equity firm executives. "But he can look no further than his own campaign team for one of the culprits," the New York Sun's Russell Berman writes. Obama "recently hired a top executive at the lobbying firm retained by the Blackstone Group to urge lawmakers against raising its taxes. The executive, Moses Mercado, is not yet on the campaign payroll as an adviser, but he took a leave from his job as a senior vice president at Ogilvy Government Relations late last month."

Michelle Obama was uninjured in a car accident yesterday in Iowa, while she was campaigning for her husband, ABC's Sunlen Miller reports.

Clinton's "Middle Class Express" trip through Iowa is getting positive press coverage. Yesterday, she outlined a plan to match individual personal retirement accounts with as much as $1,000 per person per year. "I think we can't afford not to invest in the American people," she said, per the Des Moines Register's Jennifer Jacobs.

But the trip has really been about establishing an organization, Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown reports. "The primary focus at 10 stops this week in Iowa was not on stagecraft or even the very famous candidate on stage," she writes. "It was to get commitments from potential caucus-goers -- or at the very least the names, cell phone numbers and interest level of every man, woman and (voting-age) child who came to listen but will now likely be contacted repeatedly through January."

Speaking of voting age, The Wall Street Journal's Elizabeth Holmes has details of Obama's efforts to reach out to 17-year-olds, who will be able to participate in the January caucuses even if they're not 18 "because of a quirk in Iowa election law." The campaign is hosting "BarackStar" nights for teens, and "is also actively cultivating teachers, along with high-school principals, using them for entree to the youngest voters."

Edwards, D-N.C., is in Iowa as well, and he's not pursuing a TV strategy -- "as much for effect as necessity," Christine Hauser writes in The New York Times. (Though "necessity" might edge out "effect," no?) Says Edwards, of Clinton and Obama: "They have spent millions of dollars on television advertising. It is a little more difficult to figure out what is going on with me, because I haven't spent any money on television advertising."

Also in the news:

First Lady Laura Bush is stepping up her political activism over the protests in Myanmar. In an interview with USA Today's David Jackson, she warned that her husband's administration "is prepared to slap additional sanctions on Burma's military government if it does not start moving toward democracy 'within the next couple of days.' " She said, "My influence is really in being able to shine a spotlight on human rights situations that I want the American people to look at, and I want the people in those countries to know that the American people are with them."

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, she delivers more messages from the Bush administration: "This swelling outrage presents the generals with an urgent choice: Be part of Burma's peaceful transition to democracy, or get out of the way for a government of the Burmese people's choosing. Whatever last shred of legitimacy the junta had among its own citizens has vanished. . . . The regime's position grows weaker by the day. The generals' choice is clear: The time for a free Burma is now."

Bloomberg's Ed Chen talks to some of the families of soldiers killed in Iraq for insights into those private meetings with President Bush. "Participants and witnesses say the sessions provide a window onto Bush's compassionate side," Chen writes. "They also reveal his distaste for engaging those who question his policies. Rather than entering into a substantive debate with angry relatives, he disengages."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is pushing back at the perception that Democrats are caving to President Bush on a new wiretapping law. "This isn't about Democrats being concerned about the next election," she told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor lunch, per ABC News. "This is about Democrats saying: The law needs to be followed, and we will collect whatever information -- intelligence -- we need to protect the American people under the law."

And Pelosi -- who will be Stephanopoulos' guest on ABC "This Week" on Sunday -- is sounding a bit testy when it comes to war critics -- who are blasting her leadership, even though she wants to end the war, too. "Her spirits soured instantly when somebody asked about the anger of the Democratic 'base' over her failure to end the war in Iraq," The Washington Post's Dana Milbank writes. Says Pelosi: "If they were poor and they were sleeping on my sidewalk, they would be arrested for loitering, but because they have 'Impeach Bush' across their chest, it's the First Amendment."

Wonder why Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., was the one delivering the GOP's harsh request that Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, make good on his resignation promise? It's Ensign "the enforcer," as the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee "National Republican Senatorial Committee -- handed a simply awful electoral map -- "has become one of the GOP's most aggressive players," Roll Call's Erin Billings writes. "He not only jumped headfirst into the party's thorniest public relations battle of the year, but also has recently waded willingly into some of his leadership's more contentious legislative fights."

A 9/11-themed ad is airing in the special election for former rep. Marty Meehan's, D-Mass., House seat. Republican candidate Jim Ogonowski -- whose brother, John, was aboard hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 -- has a new ad up that features "a photograph of one of the planes about to strike the World Trade Center," The Boston Globe's Eric Moskowitz reports.

The "pledge" must not apply to the man who's charged (in part) with enforcing it: DNC Chairman Howard Dean was in Florida yesterday for a fund-raiser, and he addressed the tiny little dust-up that has senators and congressmen suing the Democratic Party and has Floridians issuing angry denunciations. "Do I wish this fight weren't happening? Yes," Dean said, per Jennifer Liberto of the St. Petersburg Times.

Another snippet of buzz around Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y. "A small band of enthusiasts is trying to keep interest in a candidacy alive and says it is being aided in the effort 'behind the scenes' by City Hall," Raymond Hernandez writes in The New York Times. The effort's New York chair "said that her group was receiving advice on how to run the organization from former aides to Mr. Bloomberg, though she declined to identify them."

With Al Gore in the running for a Nobel Prize, comedian Mo Rocca reminds the former veep that he has some competition for his award sweep -- and blogs that Gore should go for the Tony instead of settling for a trip to Stockholm. "Jimmy Carter already has a well share in an Oscar for Jonathan Demme's documentary 'Man From Plains'. An Emmy could soon follow. (Carter has always been fiercely competitive. Pundits long ago dubbed him the Chita Rivera to Gore's [Rita] Moreno.)" Rocca writes. "For Gore to secure his singular status -- winner of the Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, Tony and Nobel ('The Gore Crown'?) -- he needs to grab his dance shoes and head to the Great White Way."

The kicker:

"Can I tell you how amazing it was to me to realize that, after I'd been doing this for nine months, October rolled around? My husband did not announce for president until October of 1991. I could have had a baby." -- Clinton, in one of those sentences that could not have been uttered by any other presidential candidate.

"If I were some of these guys, I'd have to be sitting in a warm tub of water with razor blades." -- Huckabee, optimistically (sort of) handicapping his chances after the debate.

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