THE NOTE: Hearting Huckabee

This fight got so messy that Mitt Romney's hair was out of place even before last night's GOP debate started in Orlando. It was so intense that Rudy Giuliani may not have cared that his hated Red Sox were advancing to the World Series over on another Murdoch property. It was such compelling television that Fred Thompson stayed awake -- for the entire 90 minutes, give or take.

But now that we've seen the battle over who's the pure Republican play out in the open on a debate stage, the answer is -- none of the above.

We get it -- they all loathe Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. And when it comes to one another, the top-tier candidates have all memorized the opposition research -- and learned the requisite lines. "The debate stood out for the intensity and personal nature of the exchanges, as Republicans tried to distinguish themselves -- a tactic that risked highlighting the unhappiness among conservatives with much of the field," write Michael Cooper and Marc Santora in The New York Times.

The candidates who were on the offensive last night (that would be all of the Big Four) were sharply attacked themselves, and they came ready for combat. "Former Senator Fred Thompson sought to paint Rudy Giuliani as a liberal," ABC's David Chalian, Jan Simmonds, and Christine Byun report. "The battle for the conservative mantle continued when John McCain attempted to portray Mitt Romney as someone who has shifted his positions and focus on certain issues for political expediency."

But another candidate stayed out of the major dust-ups, and whether it was by design or by circumstance, it could help earn him another look -- and drive the news coming out of a big weekend in the GOP race. A day after his close second at the "Values Voters Summit" straw poll -- and two days after Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., exited stage right -- former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., again brought his humor to bear on real conservative substance at the debate.

Who wouldn't want to be in this position? "Huckabee, who has been crowding his way into the top tier of the race, stood by throughout the early exchanges, then chided the others for attacking one another, saying Americans are 'looking for a presidential candidate who's not so interested in a demolition derby against the other people in his own party,' " Dan Balz and Michael Shear write in The Washington Post.

Huckabee has had his moments earlier in the campaign (particularly out of the Ames straw poll) and has failed to cobble together the fund-raising numbers that would force himself into the top tier. He now reaches a key moment: Do evangelical leaders think he has a chance? If they do, then he does. If they don't, then he doesn't -- it's really that simple.

Other debate tidbits: Thompson, R-Tenn., did his homework this time, unleashing the kitchen sink on Giuliani, R-N.Y.: "sanctuary cities," Mario Cuomo, gun control, abortion. Giuliani "sides with Hillary Clinton on each of those issues," Thompson said, per Michael Finnegan of the Los Angeles Times. Rudy showed that when he's hit, he'll hit back -- and hard: "[Thompson] voted against almost anything that would make our legal system fairer."

The other major mini-battle pitted McCain, R-Ariz., and Romney, R-Mass., against each other. "Governor Romney, you've just spent the last year trying to fool people about your record," McCain said, per The Boston Globe's Michael Kranish. And he drew a standing ovation with this line, about the $1 million earmark Clinton sought for a Woodstock museum: "I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. . . I was tied up at the time."

"Gradually, they shifted their attention away from one another and onto a common foe, Sen. Hillary Clinton," Politico's Jonathan Martin writes. "But it was the scrapping among themselves that summed up the increasingly heated Republican primary race."

"The intraparty battle quickly gave way to the broader war against the Democrats and their front-running candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton," Joseph Curl writes in the Washington Times. "I don't want her as commander in chief," Romney said. "She has never run anything. And the idea that she could learn to be president, you know, as an internship, just doesn't make any sense." (When you mention Clintons and interns in the same sentence, you mean business.)

If Giuliani does win the nomination, this exchange could stand out as a prime example of how he did it. Asked if there was "much difference between you and Clinton," this line brought laughter: "You got to be kidding." "I became a Yankee fan growing up in New York. She became a Yankee fan growing up in Chicago," he said. "Second, she made a statement last week -- and I've been very critical of her, but I want to tell her I agree with this one. Quote, Hillary Clinton, 'I have a million ideas; America cannot afford them all.' I'm not making it up. I am not making it up."

Mark Halperin of Time and ABC News gives the debate to McCain and Giuliani, with A- grades, and gives a B to a spotty Thompson. "Started with high energy, bountiful quips, and a bundle of opposition research on his opponents' records of deviating from conservative orthodoxy. Ended with a long, staged joke fending off the 'lazy' charge. Offered up some timid answers midway. Came across as a warrior at times and was way better than he was in his first rodeo, but still not a dominating figure."

Read the transcript of my debate blog here.

As for Huckabee, he's on a steady upward trajectory -- something no other Republican candidate (save Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas) can truly claim. "The potential emergence of Mike Huckabee into the first tier is a significant development in the GOP race," writes John McIntyre of Real Clear Politics. "If the big news coming out of Iowa is Huckabee, and not Mitt Romney, that would be a devastating blow for the former Massachusetts governor's chances. (And a very strong second may be good enough to make Huckabee the big news.)"

Remember that at the "Values Voters Summit," Romney edged out Huckabee, but the victory was too narrow to mean much. "Questions were raised about the way the voting was conducted -- votes were permitted to be cast online as far back as August -- and even top leaders said there did not appear to be any consensus," Michael Luo wrote in The New York Times. "The Romney campaign trumpeted the victory, but there was only a smattering of applause in the auditorium when his name was announced and the event's organizers cautioned against his deriving any kind of mandate from the results."

The American Spectator's Jennifer Rubin called Huckabee's overwhelming win among those who actually saw the candidates speak a "stunning result." "If a substantial number of social conservative activists say Huckabee could be their guy, [that] this is someone who we trust and don't have to compromise with, then Iowa becomes a very, very interesting race. This is true especially if this support materializes and brings with it money."

Concord Monitor editor Mike Pride urges a second look for Huckabee: "Huckabee is just the kind of candidate for whom the New Hampshire primary purports to exist," Pride writes. "While New Hampshire Republicans wait and see, they owe it to themselves - and to the state's primary tradition - to lend Huckabee an ear. He may make you chuckle, but he'll also surprise you with his depth and his manner."

In the Democratic intramurals, the race is coming together as one big question mark about Clinton's electability. "With Clinton consolidating her lead over Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards, her Democratic rivals are increasingly questioning her ability to win the White House in a general election," Jill Zuckman writes in the Chicago Tribune. "The question of electability is often tied up in a candidate's likeability, and in Clinton's case, it could also be an alternative way of asking whether a woman can be elected president."

Obama's latest cut at that argument comes in a new ad he's airing in New Hampshire today, as he kicks off a Granite State campaign swing, ABC's Sunlen Miller reports. Here is Obama's critique of Clinton, masquerading as optimism: "When we break out of the conventional thinking and we start reaching out to friend and foe alike, then I am absolutely confident that we can restore America's leadership in the world," Obama, D-Ill., says in the ad. "We're going to lead with our values and our ideals by deed and by example. I want to go before the world and say America's back. America is back."

The Clinton campaign loves to push back at electability arguments with statistics from her two elections in New York. But The Washington Post's Alec MacGillis finds the comparison to be imperfect -- and locates plenty of upstate voices who don't care so much for Clinton to back up that theory.

"Running for president, Clinton is invoking the inroads she has made Upstate as a kind of talisman against worries in her own party that she is too polarizing to win next fall," MacGillis writes. "But seen from ground level in this swath of rolling farmland and small towns between Buffalo and Rochester, it is unclear whether that argument holds up. . . . She has solidified her initial support, won over voters who were willing to give her a chance -- and made little headway with those who disliked her from the outset."

And as Obama and Edwards, D-N.C., hammer Clinton, the Iran vote clearly has the Clinton camp spooked. "Hillary Clinton has mailed an unusual, direct defense of her stance toward Iran to Iowa voters, suggesting that she thinks her tough talk toward the country threatens to alienate some Democrats, and that her rivals' suggestions that she is too hawkish on Iran may be having an effect," Politico's Ben Smith reports.

Writes Clinton: "After the problematic language was removed, it was clearly a vote for stepped-up diplomacy, not military action." And don't miss this tweak at Obama, who missed the vote: "I was there, I exercised leadership, and I explained my vote at the time."

The Washington Post editorial board stepped in yesterday to play referee, and Obama can't like this call. "In fact the two leading Democratic candidates have advocated pretty much the same policy for Iran, just as they have for Iraq," the editorial reads." Now, trailing in the polls and sensing a political opportunity, Mr. Obama is trying to portray Ms. Clinton as a reckless saber-rattler. That is irresponsible and -- given the ease with which the charge can be rebutted -- probably naive, as well."

Edwards is hitting his I-can-win-in-red-states theme, and ABC's Jake Tapper dissects his recent language. Edwards at a recent Iowa event: "I think the easiest way to do it, honestly, is to just picture in your head, each of us, running in a tough place -- we're in one right now -- and which one's gonna be more helpful and which one's not. 'Cause I think that does matter." Tapper writes, "For weeks I've rejected the notion that Edwards is making this appeal on anything other than cultural values, his Southern twang and roots. . . . but that 'picture in your head' clause is interesting."

Before we hear any more about how Clinton is above the fray, remember that Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., is now the second prominent Clinton supporter to unload on Giuliani's personal life, Tapper writes.

The New York Observer's Jason Horowitz: "Referring to Andrew Giuliani's reportedly distant relationship with his father since the ugly bust-up of Mr. Giuliani's marriage with Donna Hanover, Mr. Rangel said it was because 'sons respect and admire their fathers, but they love their mothers against cheating goddamn husbands.' " And Rangel says he is sorry "that all the personal problems surfaced so soon in the electoral process." Says Rangel: "I'm sorry this damned thing turned out so early because, really, just like [Bernard] Kerik, it would have bombed his ass out."

None of this may matter if Matt Drudge rules the universe. The Clinton campaign and Drudge seem to have found mutual advantage in their continued coexistence -- giving the frontrunner a key advantage in driving news cycles. The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg calls it a "development that has surprised much of the political world: Mrs. Clinton is learning to play nice with the Drudge Report and the powerful, elusive and conservative-leaning man behind it."

"That people in Mrs. Clinton's campaign orbit would tip off the Drudge Report to its fund-raising numbers is in part a reflection of her pragmatic approach to dealing with potential enemies, like Newt Gingrich or Rupert Murdoch," Rutenberg continues. "The early advantage on the Republican side, in the view of several Republicans, seems to have gone to Mitt Romney, who hired the former Bush political aide who had been the central party's prime point of contact with Mr. Drudge, Matthew Rhoades."

Stephen Colbert, D/R-S.C./N.Y./Comedy Central, made his first Sunday-morning appearance as a (sort of) presidential candidate. The highlights include: Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, is on his short list of running mates; his approach to governing would be "Nixonish or Nixonoid"; and he doesn't want to win, but is very much running. "This is not a dream, you're not going to wake up from this. I'm far real-er than Sam Brownback, let me put it that way," Colbert told NBC's Tim Russert.

Also in the news:

This is why Iran matters: The Bush administration employed Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday to issue its "sternest warning to date" that Iran will not be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons, ABC's John Hendren reports. "The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences," Cheney said. Per Hendren, "The rising rhetoric could signal that President Bush intends to take action -- possibly military action -- to halt Iran's nuclear program before the president leaves office on Jan. 20, 2009, some analysts said."

Giuliani's Saturday trip to the lion's den of the conservative forum went about as well as he could have expected. Key line: "You have nothing to fear from me," Giuliani said, per ABC's Kevin Chupka. (If only that were true in the other direction as well. . . . )

"Giuliani laid out his best material and full arsenal in a pitch to get their votes," the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody writes. "The case was compelling and if Giuliani keeps making speeches like this, he has a good shot to gather enough social conservatives to his side to win the nomination."

On ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., had harsh words for Clinton's Iran vote, but even harsher words for Giuliani and the other leading Republican candidates. "They know virtually -- except for John McCain -- virtually nothing about foreign policy," Biden said. "[Giuliani has] been the mayor of a city, a great city. How does that qualify him to be -- what has he demonstrated he knows about . . . national security?"

Ryan Lizza looks at Romney in the new issue of The New Yorker, with a critical eye on his corporate as well as his religious background -- and his "habit" of doing issue 180s. "Romney not only shifts positions; he often claims to be the most passionate advocate of his new stances. It's one of the reasons that his metamorphosis from liberal Republican to committed right-winger seems so jarring," Lizza writes. "But, while giving customers exactly what they want may be normal in the corporate world, it can be costly in politics."

"Whatever gene causes hyper-competitive perfectionists always to go one step beyond their adversaries, or anyone else, Romney has it," Lizza writes. And don't miss these details from the office of campaign manager Beth Myers: "On the wall were maps of the first states to vote in caucuses and primaries -- Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan. On a bookshelf opposite were thick binders of research on Romney's top opponents. The spine of one binder said 'John McCain, an Unreliable Republican.' Another said 'Rudy Giuliani, Left . . . Not Right.' "

On CBS's "Face the Nation" yesterday, Romney said Mormon leaders would have no impact on his presidency, Bloomberg's Nicholas Johnston reports. "No president could possibly take orders or even input from religious leaders telling him what to do," Romney said. "My church wouldn't endeavor to tell me what to do on an issue, and I wouldn't listen to them on an issue that related to our nation."

It certainly sounds like he's been reading the JFK speech, if he's not quite ready to deliver one of his own. Kennedy's words: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President  -- should he be Catholic -- how to act."

Thompson pre-debate Florida appearance, at the state Republican convention on Saturday night, lasted all of four minutes. (His rivals took about 20 each. Did he have a rerun to catch?) "Mr. Thompson walked slowly onto the stage, kissed his wife, Jeri, on the cheek, made a joke or two, claimed to be a 'consistent conservative' -- and said good night," Marc Santora writes in The New York Times.

Thompson was concerned that attendees had already been in the room "a long time," per Adam Smith of the St. Petersburg Times. Senior Thompson adviser Rich Galen: "He said, 'Then why don't we give them five minutes of pure, grass roots rah-rah and let them get to the bar.' "

Clinton is getting heat from other Democrats for acting like the frontrunner, and she appears to be struggling with that label herself. She told a crowd in Iowa over the weekend that she doesn't consider herself the frontrunner: "I like to feel as though I'm running 10 or 20 points behind," she said, per ABC's Eloise Harper.

But humility only goes so far. Clinton added: "I am very pleased that I am doing so well in the country and that I have opened up some real distance with the Republican nominees at this point in the campaign. That I have by far the greatest number of endorsements from colleagues that are from red states, big states, small states -- all kinds of states."

The California wildfires didn't keep Rob Reiner from singing "Happy Birthday" (a few days late) to Clinton yesterday in Brentwood, ABC's Eloise Harper reports. "Despite the massive fires miles away in Malibu, celebrities like Ted Danson, Bridget Moynihan and Chelsea Handler made the trip to the famous director's house to catch the Senator from New York," Harper writes.

More Clinton scrutiny: How about those library papers? "Nearly three years after the Clinton Library opened -- and more than 21 months after its trove of records became subject to the Freedom of Information Act -- barely one half of 1 percent of the 78 million pages of documents and 20 million e-mail messages at the federally funded facility are public," Newsweek's Michael Isikoff reports.

"[Senator] Clinton's appointment calendar as First Lady, her notes at strategy meetings, what advice she gave her husband and his advisers, what policy memos she wrote, even some key papers from her health-care task force -- all of this, and much more documenting her years as First Lady, remains locked away, most likely through the entire campaign season," Isikoff writes.

The New York Post followed up on the Los Angeles Times report about the questionable Chinatown contributions. "Hillary Clinton's campaign has been raising huge piles of money in Chinatown, but some of it has come from donors who can't be located or who were improperly repaid for their contributions," Charles Hurt and Elaine Chan report. "Hsiao Yen Wang, a cook in Chinatown, is listed as giving Clinton $1,000 on April 13. Contacted yesterday, she told The Post she had written a check. But it was on behalf of a man named David Guo, president of the Fujian American Cuisine Council, and Wang told The Post that Guo had repaid her for the $1,000 contribution."

The Boston Globe's Marcella Bombardieri profiled Clinton yesterday, with a focus on how 1960s turmoil shifted her politics leftward. "If elected, Clinton would be the first president from the great postwar middle class who grew up around large cities -- a background so unlike the multigenerational wealth of the Bush family or the struggling small-town Southern world of the young Bill Clinton," Bombardieri writes. Says Clinton: "My philosophy has evolved over time to reflect what I hope represents the best of the values I was exposed to and absorbed [as a child] and the exposure to the world by my education and other opportunities that were given to me."

Oprah's endorsement of Obama could break new ground in the world of celebrity backings, USA Today's Martha T. Moore writes. "The more she does, the more her first venture into presidential politics will test the limits of what a personal endorsement can -- or can't -- do," she writes.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., is moving his family to Iowa for the rest of the campaign, ABC's Donna Hunter reports. "We want our family to be together as we talk to as many caucus-goers across Iowa as possible -- to talk about why Chris is running for President and what separates him from the field," Dodd's wife, Jackie Clegg Dodd, said in explaining the move.

Anyone remember how well the I'm-your-neighbor strategy worked out for the last Connecticut senator to give it a shot?

Dodd and Biden have plane-pooled to cut costs on at least one occasion, but that won't help them in the long haul. Biden only have about $800,000 to spend on the primaries -- "an even thinner billfold than Biden's handlers said months ago would be needed to be competitive in the early voting," Nicole Guadiano writes in the Delaware News Journal. "In July, Biden's communications director, Larry Rasky, said the campaign had to 'catch a wave between now and November so that we can bank five million bucks that we're going to need for Iowa and New Hampshire media.' "

Congrats to Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La., who swept to victory in the Louisiana governor's race -- and provided a dose of good news to the GOP in the state's first post-Katrina gubernatorial election. "In a campaign that had the air of both inevitable and the historical, Bobby Jindal was elected governor Saturday, claiming the electoral prize that eluded him four years ago," Jan Moller writes for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "The 36-year-old Jindal becomes the nation's youngest governor and the first chief executive of any state who is of Indian-American descent."

The final haul on the Harry Reid letter to Rush Limbaugh: $2.1 million. "A private foundation made the winning bid, which eBay spokeswoman Catherine England said set a record for the most expensive item sold for charity by the online auctioneer," per the AP's write-up. Limbaugh is matching the bid with $2.1 million of his own, with proceeds to go to the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation, (Fan mail is always welcome . . . )

The kicker:

"I often find myself ahead of the curve. . . . Unfortunately, 'I told you so,' is an incredibly unsuccessful campaign slogan." -- DNC Chairman Howard Dean, reflecting on how little advice he's giving to the 2008 candidates.

"I know the first hour, I would go into the Oval Office and close the door, and pray for the wisdom to know what was right." -- Thompson, speaking Friday at the "Values Voters Summit."

"First, I'd say a prayer for myself and for the country that I'm about to lead." -- Dan Quayle, answering the same question, in 1988.

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