THE NOTE: Fred in the Fray

A fond farewell to Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a nice man who never quite broke through in a crowded presidential field. He once seemed like the candidate who could consolidate the social-conservative base, but his distant third-place finish in the Ames Straw Poll in August virtually ensured that he wouldn't be it.

Brownback's numbers were always too low for this to be a major boon to anyone, but his exit highlights a void in the field, at a really interesting time in the race, with the "Values Voters Summit" starting tomorrow in Washington. Paging Fred Thompson . . .

Meanwhile, five sentences we never though we'd write:

1. Stephen Colbert is a presidential candidate.

2. Mitt Romney can't afford a vanilla steamer.

3. Lynne Cheney is lending a hand to her husband's cousin.

4. "Mission Accomplished" is being used to rap a Democrat, not a Republican -- and President Bush actually declared that he's still "relevant."

5. Fred Thompson has a campaign message.

Today is the day that President Bush today finds out just how relevant he really is, as the latest slow-motion car crash pitting him against congressional Democrats crunches to a close with the long-awaited veto override attempt on children's health insurance.

Bush could afford to be combative yesterday, confident as he is (and he should be) that the GOP ranks will close behind him to sustain his veto. "I've never felt more engaged," the president said at his news conference. But when he has to declare that the veto is "one way to ensure that I am relevant," he's speaking to the beleaguered state of his presidency, not to mention the Republican Party.

The Republican presidential candidates, united as they are on fiscal discipline, are giving the president cover on a veto where the public is with the Democrats. That's remarkable: President Bush has a 33 percent approval rating in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, yet none of the major GOP candidates is breaking from Bush in a significant, policy-oriented way.

But all around the president, his party is showing signs of breaking down. Former House speaker Dennis Hastert's early departure provides a punctuation point on a bad GOP sentence: lagging fund-raising, deep philosophical divisions, poor, inconsistent messaging.

And it's social issues that are splitting the Republican Party most seriously these days, as the presidential candidates prepare to address the "Values Voters Summit" tomorrow and Friday.

Enter Thompson, R-Tenn., into the fray that made his candidacy possible in the first place. These are baby steps, but it's a start: Thompson is running new Internet ads that "specifically question the anti-abortion records of fellow Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, piecing together quotes and pictures from the respective candidates," ABC's Christine Byun writes. "The ads also declare Thompson's latest pitch: 'I was a proud conservative yesterday, I remain one today, and I will be one tomorrow.' "

OK, so he flubbed his attack line on Giuliani yesterday, and he's busy touting the endorsement today of a county sheriff in Georgia (yes, a county sheriff, in Georgia). But is Thompson waking up? This is a key stretch for him, and with the values summit followed by another GOP debate Sunday, it's the right moment to start stirring.

Giuliani, R-N.Y., will try to quiet conservative concerns about his candidacy with a speech Saturday, yet the pre-game chatter isn't good for Hizzoner. Think there's anything that can convince people like Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention? On Giuliani's promise to appoint "strict constructionist" judges: "He also promised two previous wives that he would love, honor and cherish them until death do us part," Land tells Bloomberg's Hans Nichols.

Nichols writes, "Still, some evangelical leaders doubt they will be able to make good on the threat to bolt the Republican Party." Says Phyllis Schlafly: "It's not at all clear that the so-called leaders can influence that constituency one way or the other."

As if Giuliani needed any higher stakes for his Saturday speech . . . "Key conservative and religious leaders will continue discussing a mass defection from the Republican Party in a private meeting at a Washington hotel Saturday afternoon, just hours after the pro-choice presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani speaks before thousands of pro-life voters,"'s Michael Sherer reports. Says Howard Phillips, the president of the Conservative Caucus: "There will be some discussion of who would be a viable independent candidate."

Saturday will bring a conference straw poll, and don't expect Rudy to win. But this is encouraging for Giuliani: "Christian conservative leaders are unlikely to drop their differences and throw their collective weight behind a single Republican presidential hopeful by Sunday, as they once hoped," Ralph Z. Hallow writes in the Washington Times. "The heads of several Christian and conservative groups are slated to try to settle on one candidate, but agreed that if no consensus is reached, they will be free to go public with their disunity and support various candidates."

And Giuliani isn't quite Ronald Reagan on another front. ABC's Teddy Davis and Mike Chesney report that, by saying yesterday he would "rule out a tax increase" to shore up Social Security, "the national GOP front-runner retreated from the flexibility the former president used to reach a bipartisan accommodation in 1983." Giuliani's comments seemed designed to assuage previous concerns voiced by the Club for Growth.

Romney, R-Mass., plans to use his speech tomorrow at the values forum to "take aim at the problem of single motherhood," per Michael Levenson of The Boston Globe. (Is anyone getting a Murphy Brown flashback?) "Number one on my list is we have to teach our kids that before they have babies, they should get married," Romney said in Iowa, previewing his message. He mocked Clinton's now-abandoned proposal to give $5,000 to every baby "regardless of whether they have a mom and dad or not." (So should kids with two parents get Mitt bonuses, governor?)

As the Republicans circle around Giuliani, the Democrats are trying new ways to engage Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. -- while keeping a wary eye on their newest rival, Stephen Colbert (how ridiculous is that sentence?)

Not to be outdone late at night, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., hit Leno yesterday, and he mocked Clinton's early lead in polls. "Hillary is not the first politician in Washington to declare 'mission accomplished' a little too soon," he said, in a line he's already raising money off of, ABC's Sunlen Miller reports. And he'll take a spousal match-up any day: "My wife is no slouch. If there was a debate between Michelle and Bill, I'm putting my money on my girl."

ABC's Teddy Davis reports that Clinton strategist Mark Penn pushed back on that line this morning at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast: "This race is certainly not over. We're running an all-out primary campaign that also seems to be playing well with general election voters."

Penn also said that polling conducted during Giuliani's aborted Senate campaign bodes well for Clinton's chances against Giuliani in a potential general-election match-up.

Clinton was "seven or eight ahead," said Penn.

"We've actually had a run-through cycle with Giuliani," he added.

Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., today launches his most direct and comprehensive challenge to Clinton's electability. His campaign is announcing its "True Blue Majority" campaign, where Edwards and his surrogates "will blanket the country arguing that the stakes are too high in this race . . . for the Democratic Party to nominate a candidate who may not perform the strongest in a general election," per the campaign. Edwards supporters kick off the effort today with events in Oklahoma, Georgia, and Wisconsin, while Edwards tomorrow plans to speak on electability in California.

Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen writes that it's too late to declare Edwards "toast." "Iowa Democrats may still give this guy a new lease on political life," Yepsen writes. "Edwards has argued he could attract votes just about anywhere in the country. And as y'all know, Democrats historically don't win the White House without a Southerner on the ticket."

For her part, Clinton is spending the week above the fray. "The last couple of weeks I've been getting a lot of attention from the men in this race," she said yesterday, the New York Daily News' Michael McAuliff reports. "I'm not interested in attacking anyone," Clinton added. Writes McAuliff: "Her new high-road pledge contrasts sharply with an earlier promise: If anyone attacked her, she'd 'deck 'em.' " (It's hard to deck someone who's not near eye-level.)

By talking more openly about motherhood and her struggles as a working mother, Clinton is emphasizing her gender in new ways, Marcella Bombardieri writes in The Boston Globe. "Clinton is increasingly portraying herself more as motherly and traditional than as trailblazing and feminist, sometimes playing up the differences between men and women," she writes. "On the campaign trail, voters see Clinton, who has long been a lightning rod in gender politics battles, trying to soften one persistent image of her as a strident career woman in a pantsuit."

The primary calendar is beginning to sort itself out (sort of). New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner this afternoon delivers a speech on the history of the state's primary that will be subjected to Talmudic interpretations for hints about The Date.

The Union Leader's John DiStaso profiles the man himself, who is careful not to break new ground with regard to this thinking. "His biggest day of the current cycle will be when he attempts to out-maneuver New Hampshire's detractors and sets the date for the primary," DiStaso writes. "Gardner has yet not shown his hand, except to say that with other states moving forward, the primary can not, under the law, be held later than Jan. 8. He has not ruled out a mid-December primary."

With politics spilling into the holidays, no candidate wants to play Grinch, Jim Rutenberg writes for The New York Times' front page. "The presidential candidates are hurriedly making plans to cope with the challenge of conducting all-out campaigns smack in the middle of the holidays," he writes. "The campaigns, which have spent years trying to plan for the final and most important stage of the campaign season, are to some extent in suspended animation, unable to finalize plans for advertising spending, candidate schedules and campaign rallies."

As for Colbert, he's pursuing the paperwork to get himself on the ballot in both the Democratic and Republican primaries in South Carolina, ABC's Jake Tapper reports. "We do not know what Colbert's platform would be. Presumably anti-bear in some way, as viewers of his show know that he hates bears," Tapper writes. "The Republican White House hopefuls have been debating who among them is a 'real Republican.' That's a debate where Colbert can definitely distinguish himself from the rest -- he is totally unquestionably fake."

Also in the news:

Time's Joe Klein flatly declares that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is back. "It's John McCain, rising from the crypt, but not as a zombie," Klein writes. "The foolishly conventional Republican McCain of last year was the zombie. No, this is the funny, free-range McCain reincarnated, the independent who dares speak to an environmental forum in New Hampshire, touting his green credentials, actually supporting a return to the Kyoto global-warming negotiations, which is anathema to most Republicans. That guy -- the interesting one -- is back."

McCain is taking Romney on directly in South Carolina (can't you just tell he flat-out doesn't like the guy?). "That's a product of inexperience," McCain told The State's Aaron Gould Sheinin, referring to his debate comment about consulting lawyers on presidential authority. And he had this to say about the Romney campaign ad where he calls the State House in Boston "the toughest place": "If that's the most difficult place, then we have very differing views about what difficulties are."

What better way to answer the age question than through your mother? Ninety-five-year-old Roberta McCain hit the trail with her 71-year-old son yesterday, and she even munched on a chili dog in South Carolina, ABC's Bret Hovell reports. And she met a 104-year-old, making everyone else feel young. "I'm almost in your league, but not quite," Mrs. McCain said.

Is Giuliani serious about Iowa? "For skeptics, there's plenty of evidence that the answer is no," Politico's Jonathan Martin reports. "Giuliani's entire strategy, as made plain by candidate and campaign alike, is based on performing well in the large states that will hold their primaries after the traditional early contests." He adds this intriguing (and obfuscating) detail: "Asked about how many more visits Giuliani would make in the 78 days before the caucuses, a senior campaign aide said it would be 'more than in the last six weeks but perhaps still fewer than other candidates.' "

Rudy does have a new cut on his electability argument. "If we're not careful -- if you don't elect me -- this country could be to the left of France," he said yesterday, Radio Iowa's O. Kay Henderson reports. (Bad marital news today for Rudy's friend Nicolas Sarkozy -- but Giuliani can probably recommend a divorce attorney or two.)

Romney, as the latest candidate to visit Clinton, Iowa, isn't a fan of the French much, either: "She couldn't get elected president of France, let alone president of the United States," he said yesterday, per the Des Moines Register's Grant Schulte.

The Wall Street Journal's Brody Mullins has a major look at "bundling" in the 2008 race, beyond the Norman Hsu scandal. "The number of bundlers working for presidential campaigns has nearly doubled since the last election, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from campaigns and watchdog groups," Mullins writes. "The volume of cash they funnel to individual campaigns, as a percentage of all money raised, has soared as well. Bundled donations account for more than one-quarter of presidential campaign contributions this year, up from 8% in the 2000 race."

HuffingtonPost's Tom Edsall reports on another source of GOP money woes: "The defense industry this year abandoned its decade-long commitment to the Republican Party, funneling the lion share of its contributions to Democratic presidential candidates, especially to Hillary Clinton who far out-paced all her competitors," he writes. "An examination of contributions of $500 or more, using the Huffington Post's Fundrace website, shows that employees of the top five arms makers - Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop-Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics -- gave Democratic presidential candidates $103,900, with only $86,800 going to Republicans."

Check out these big spenders: Clinton spent $11.88 on iTunes last quarter. "That's one way to get a copy of Celine Dion's 'You and I,' which won out as the former first lady's campaign theme song earlier this year," ABC's Jennifer Parker and Nitya Venkataraman write. "Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., the feisty defender of the Constitution who raked in over $5 million in summertime donations, spent $7.60 at the International House of Pancakes. And, ever blazing a new age path, Sen. Barack Obama's, D-Ill., campaign paid out $20 to Blue Turtle Yoga in Charleston, South Carolina."

And there will be more details forthcoming from Obama. The candidate "did not provide a full accounting for where his campaign had spent money on travel, catering or a variety of other expenses," The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny writes. "The report filed late Monday shows dozens of payments to credit card companies that were not accompanied by a specific explanation of what the money was spent on. As much as $1.2 million in credit card charges in July, August and September did not contain detailed information of hotels, airfare and campaign expenditures."

Obama has been endorsed by the nation's only black governor, The Boston Globe's Frank Phillips reports. Gov. Deval Patrick, D-Mass., "could give the Illinois senator a boost in the crucial New Hampshire primary and may help Obama blunt some of Senator Hillary Clinton's recent success in winning African-American support." Phillips writes, "Patrick chose Obama because the governor believes the country is hungry for a fresh leadership style, one that stirs up strong voter enthusiasm."

Lynne Cheney isn't voting for Clinton -- but no word yet on her feelings about her husband's newly discovered relative, Mr. Obama. "I'm certainly not going to be a supporter of Mrs. Clinton's and I have been troubled by the fact that you can't know what sort of president she would be, particularly on national security," Mrs. Cheney told the AP's Mary Clare Jalonick. "I kind of like politicians that are more in the Dick Cheney mold, who say what they mean and mean what they say." (And are kind of mean when they say it? This is definitely the story that will take down Sen. Clinton's candidacy, don't you think?)

Hastert, R-Ill., "is expected to announce Thursday that he is resigning his seat in Congress effective later this year, eventually setting up a special election to succeed him," Roll Call's Lauren W. Whittington and Matthew Murray report.

Michael Mukasey isn't likely to run into serious obstacles in his confirmation hearings for attorney general, "but much of the Bush administration's legal and legislative strategy for prosecuting the war on terror could wind up badly bruised," Josh Gerstein reports in the New York Sun.

Democrats are planning their next move on S-CHIP. "With little expectation of overriding President Bush's veto, Democrats in Congress said Wednesday that they would pass a new bill to provide health insurance for 10 million children, but were willing to tweak it to address some White House concerns," Robert Pear writes in The New York Times. "But Democratic leaders, believing they have public support for expanding the program, said they saw no urgent need to negotiate the central elements of the bill."

Remember Cynthia McKinney? The former congresswoman has moved from Georgia to California, "where she still may be considering a run for president on the Green Party ticket," Jeffry Scott reports for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "McKinney's name already is on the ballot in California, along with six other Green Party candidates, including Ralph Nader. She and the six others were nominated by a Green Party convention in September in California."

The kicker:

"I can't picture Stephen eating grits, but who knows?" -- Obama, questioning the South Carolina credentials of new rival.

"He's clearly overqualified for the job." -- Romney South Carolina director Terry Sullivan, trying the opposite approach in welcoming the newest candidate to the race.

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