THE NOTE: Obama in Spotlight at Democratic Debate

What we won't see at tonight's Democratic debate in Philadelphia:

1. Donnie McClurkin.

2. Dick Cheney's flag, Fred Thompson's campaign SUV, or Rudy Giuliani's prediction coming true.

3. Mike Gravel.

What we will see:

1. Hillary Clinton's laugh (and patronizing smile).

2. John Edwards' glare (and finger-jabbing anger).

3. Desperation (times four -- or more).

What we might see:

1. An anti-Clinton double (or triple) team

2. A soundbite that doesn't belong to a candidate named Clinton, Edwards, or Obama.

3. A fresh attack from this newly aggressive Barack Obama we've been primed to expect.

If Obama, D-Ill., has some new sharp attack lines in mind, he must be saving them for tonight's debate. It was mostly business as usual on the trail yesterday, with Obama chiding Clinton on Social Security and Iran but passing up some shots at drawing "distinctions" between himself and the Democratic frontrunner, ABC's Sunlen Miller reports. If he hadn't taken the "Ellen" stage with a dance -- to Beyonce's "Crazy Love," for the record -- it might have been any other campaign day.

If that doesn't change tonight, Obama will have some serious explaining to do -- not just to reporters, but to the donors and supporters who are looking for him to rough it up with Clinton, D-N.Y. "Obama seems to have been telegraphing the punches he may throw tonight," Lynn Sweet writes in the Chicago Sun-Times. "The senator will demonstrate either how well he is executing his strategy or will fail to deliver on expectations he's been raising himself."

This time, it's personal (maybe). "The arrows may be pointed even more directly at Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. And they could be coming from more than one direction," The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny writes. "The Democrats have yet to unleash the sharp personal criticisms to the degree their Republican counterparts have against one other."

Obama wants to keep on the issues (no "knee-capping," he's promising), but The Boston Globe's Scott Helman identifies Obama's biggest obstacle: "despite how hard his campaign is working to highlight its differences -- he is vowing again this week to take her on more directly -- he and Clinton are simply not far apart on major issues. . . . That, analysts say, puts Obama in something of a box: If he and Clinton are too alike on substance and policy, Clinton's character should be his prime target -- but to attack that would undermine the unifying, positive message of his candidacy."

Take Iran (as does today): "Clear away the smoke and look beyond the attacks and you'll find they don't differ that much. Both say Iran's Revolutionary Guard supports terrorism. Both want more diplomacy and tougher sanctions to deter Iran's nuclear program. And neither is ready to give Bush authority to go to war."

At the MTV/MySpace debate, Obama was too busy playing defense to get sharp with Clinton. In the wake of his decision to include McClurkin -- a singer who has called homosexuality a choice that can be "cured" -- in his South Carolina gospel tour, Obama was pressed on the issue of gay marriage yesterday, the Des Moines Register's Jason Clayworth reports.

He may want to work on this answer: "You want the word marriage and I believe that the issue of marriage has become so entangled -- the word marriage has become so entangled with religion -- that it makes more sense for me as president, with that authority, to talk about the civil rights that are conferred" with civil unions. Come again?

Asked about his supposed new strategy, Obama said that the "politics of hope was not about holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya.' " And this (hardly sounding like a candidate who's locked and loaded): "This is not about me and her. It's about the American people."

To Camp Clinton, it's about "the politics of hope."

Expect former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., to continue to seek his own one-on-one with Clinton. "Democrat John Edwards is trying to turn the Democratic presidential race into a referendum on honesty and integrity, areas where polling has shown that voters are divided about Hillary Rodham Clinton," AP's Nedra Pickler writes. Says Edwards: "She continues to defend [the status quo]. And I don't think you can bring up the change this country needs if you defend a corrupt system that doesn't work."

The Democrats, at least, can agree to disagree with former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y. He shared his prediction yesterday that "Democrats are gonna change their mind about [Iraq] again," per ABC's Jan Simmonds.

And this line (just a little bit over the top, no, Mr. Mayor?): "It's not this happy, romantic-like world where we'll negotiate with this one, or we'll negotiate with that one and there will be no preconditions, and we'll invite [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad to the White House, we'll invite Osama [bin Laden] to the White House," Giuliani said. "Hillary and Obama are kind of debating whether to invite them to the inauguration or the inaugural ball."

Elsewhere in the campaign, the action was centered on New Hampshire, and some big Granite State endorsements. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the dean of the state's congressional delegation and perhaps the biggest New Hampshire "get" of the GOP race, endorsed former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass.

After mistakenly calling Romney a Democrat (it's OK -- Romney has called himself worse), Gregg said, "if somebody had also said I'd endorse a former governor of Massachusetts for president of the United States, I'd say, well, I didn't think the Red Sox would win the World Series twice in my lifetime, either."

This is a lot of conservative to swallow: Per the Union Leader's John DiStaso, Romney said the endorsement "underscores that I'm a conservative who believes in conservative principles. Am I the most conservative on every issue? Absolutely not. But I'm a conservative who believes in all three pillars of conservatism -- social conservatism, economic conservatism and foreign policy conservatism."

Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., was endorsed yesterday by Mayor Steve Marchand of Portsmouth, N.H. "The endorsement is the most significant development in Richardson's New Hampshire campaign so far," The Boston Globe's James Pindell blogs. Somehow, some way, Richardson sticks around. . . .

Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., was in New Hampshire, briefly, to file papers for the ballot. (The Wall Street Journal called it a "cameo," while the Union Leader has him "squandering" early excitement about his campaign by only visiting New Hampshire twice so far in his campaign.)

But he was in town long enough to have a fight with Romney over immigration. Romney started it by calling him a "Freddie-come-lately" to the issue, according to the Union Leader's Tom Fahey, and Thompson slapped back: "Surprisingly, he's changed his position."

Another anti-Clinton video is becoming a Web sensation, the AP's Jim Kuhnhenn writes. It's a "stinging 13-minute video by a bitter Clinton foe," Peter Paul, and has gotten more than 1.7 million views so far. Paul, a former Clinton fundraiser who's entangled in a lawsuit with the Clintons, "is getting help from two technical producers who set up the Web site for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," Kuhnhenn reports. Says Camp Clinton: "Peter Paul is a professional liar."

As for Bill Clinton, The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut sees him largely as a "free agent -- attending occasional strategy meetings with senior advisers at the couple's home in Chappaqua, N.Y., and serving as a surrogate in places his wife cannot be, but rarely making his presence felt at the campaign's headquarters." "Clinton has seemed convincingly on his own, arguably promoting his own causes as much as hers."

Also in the news:

Former governor Mike Huckabee's mini-wave continues. "Obviously I'm doing something right," Huckabee, R-Ark., said on ABC's "Good Morning America. "It's beginning to catch just at the right time, as I had hoped and prayed it would." On why he's the best candidate to take on Clinton: "Nobody knows her better than me, and nobody has successfully run against the Clinton political machine in Arkansas as I have." And the one rocker he wants to share a stage with? Keith Richards, so he can "just turn it loose."

Huckabee gets the David Yepsen treatment in the Des Moines Register: "Talk has escalated to a new level of buzz: Huckabee's doing so well in Iowa, he just might be able to win the Iowa Republican caucuses. Wow," Yepsen writes. "At a time when GOP candidates are falling all over themselves to rekindle the spirit of Ronald Reagan in their party, Huckabee's coming as close as anyone."

Sen. John McCain's wife, Cindy, sits down with ABC's Cynthia McFadden tonight on "Nightline," and offers some behind-the-scenes tidbits. On whether she wanted her husband to run for president again: "I said, 'hell no.' I just didn't think I had wide enough shoulders for this again, and I really had to think long and hard." On her role in the campaign: "I am the one person he can trust." And on whether she'd ever tap her personal fortune to help his financially struggling campaign: "My husband has never believed that we should do that, he has always said, you know, 'I run on my own merits.' "

Sen. McCain, R-Ariz., is profiled in the Chicago Tribune today. "McCain's Vietnam experience offers a way to understand what he is all about and his deep support for the Iraq war -- an issue that has helped hobble his campaign since the beginning of the year when he began his quest as the unquestioned front-runner for the Republican nomination," Jill Zuckman writes.

Who knew Giuliani was moonlighting back at his old job? "Ten months into his presidential bid, Rudolph W. Giuliani continues to work part time at the security consulting firm he promised to leave this past spring to focus on his pursuit of the Republican nomination," John Solomon writes in The Washington Post. "Giuliani's continuing involvement with a firm catering to corporate clients makes him unique among Republican contenders. It also complicates the task of separating his firm's assets from his campaign spending."

With Giuliani talking healthcare this week, he may want to check his math. Per ABC News, he's citing an outdated (and probably erroneous) statistic in his new ad where he criticizes the national healthcare system in Britain, and the campaign said it made no effort to verify the numbers Giuliani found in an article published over the summer. Giuliani pegged the prostate cancer survival rate in England at 44 percent -- some 30 points below the five-year survival rate cited in official statistics.

Barack Obama -- the lost years? Obama "suggests in his book that his years in New York were a pivotal period: He ran three miles a day, buckled down to work and 'stopped getting high,' " The New York Times' Janny Scott writes. "Yet he declined repeated requests to talk about his New York years, release his Columbia transcript or identify even a single fellow student, co-worker, roommate or friend from those years." This from a man who remembers intricate details of his early childhood in two memoirs: "He doesn't remember the names of a lot of people in his life," said Ben LaBolt, a campaign spokesman.l

More Obama tidbits from the MTV/MySpace event: Will Smith would play him in the movie "because his ears match mine," and he's ready for a "grit-off" with Stephen Colbert in South Carolina. "I'm going for the Jon Stewart endorsement to off set the Colbert factor," he said, per ABC's Sunlen Miller. (Factor? Maybe he does know how to tweak an opponent. . . . )

ABC's Jake Tapper and Avery Miller report on the "promise and pitfalls" of the scrambled primary calendar, focusing on Obama's efforts to get college students to caucus on a date that they'll be on break. Said Obama: "We actually want kids in Ames and kids in Iowa City, we want them to go home, we don't need to rack up some huge vote total in just concentrated areas we'd rather have focused all around." Write Tapper and Miller, "Just in case, Obama is also talking about an issue of importance to older Iowans -- attacking rival Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., in town hall meetings and over the airwaves for not being honest about Social Security."

More on the strategy front: Giuliani is doing more than focus on Feb. 5, Mike Allen and Jonathan Martin write for "Rudy Giuliani, whose presidential campaign strategy originally downplayed New Hampshire, is now making a major bid to win the Granite State primary," they write. "The shift in strategy is motivated by both opportunity and fear."

The Wall Street Journal's Amy Schatz looks at Thompson's Southern strategy -- which means Iowa and New Hampshire just aren't big priorities. "Mr. Thompson's 'red-state' focus could have a particular payoff if the nomination comes down to a delegate count competition, since the party gives extra weight to states that voted for President Bush in 2004, or elected Republican governors and members of Congress. Most of those states lie in the South, the Midwest and the Rocky Mountains."

As Romney seeks to explain his religion, "he is getting some unusual advice on how to explain his Mormon faith: Don't try to be one of us," Bloomberg's Hans Nichols and Christopher Stern write. Says Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention: "When he goes around and says Jesus Christ is my Lord and savior, he ticks off at least half the evangelicals. . . . He's picking a fight he's going to lose."

Another vice-presidential hunting trip is making news -- or, at least, making Al Sharpton stir. "Nobody got shot, but Vice President Cheney still fired up controversy Monday when he went hunting at a private club that hangs the Confederate flag," write Joe Gould and Dave Goldiner of the New York Daily News, which has a picture of the flag hanging inside a garage at the hunting club in Dutchess County, N.Y. Said spokeswoman Lee Anne McBride: "The VP did not see the flag and neither did anyone on staff." (Isn't that what happened to Harry Whittington?)

Sharpton put out a statement condemning the vice president even before he knew for sure that a Confederate flag was hanging at the club, ABC's Jake Tapper reports. Said Sharpton: "He ought to leave immediately, call for the flag to be brought down at once, and apologize for being connected to an institution that would be insensitive enough to fly it in the first place." Sharpton went on to threaten that if the vice president doesn't leave the club, he "will bring a delegation of clergy to lead a prayer vigil in the immediate future." Writes Tapper: "Forgive me for asking this . . . but does this seem rash at all to anyone?"

The Wall Street Journal's John R. Wilke examines "Murtha Inc." -- the Johnstown, Pa., defense cottage industry constructed almost entirely by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. "If John Murtha were a businessman, he'd be the biggest employer in this town," Wilke writes. "Johnstown's good fortune has come at the expense of taxpayers everywhere else. . . A review by The Wall Street Journal of dozens of such contracts funded by Mr. Murtha's committee shows that many weren't sought by the military or federal agencies they were intended to benefit."

Ready for the next political twist in the Blackwater case? "State Department investigators offered Blackwater USAsecurity guards immunity during an inquiry into last month's deadly shooting of 17 Iraqis in Baghdad -- a potentially serious investigative misstep that could complicate efforts to prosecute the company's employees involved in the episode," David Johnston writes in The New York Times.

Finally, a fun DC tale from Libby Copeland in today's Washington Post (and read carefully for cameos): "Those who work in politics are well aware of the dangers of trying to juggle two whiny, unpredictable and demanding creatures at once," Copeland writes. "That's why they often plan their babies around the election cycle."

The kicker:

"It's a truthful statement of my position. I'm basically an American League fan and [in pro football] an NFC fan." -- Giuliani, explaining that he's back for rooting for the Yankees after spending roughly a week as a Red Sox fan. But here come the undefeated New England Patriots to test your loyalties, Mr. Mayor.

"Every time you're somewhere, that means you're not somewhere else." -- Fred Thompson, explaining why his promise to be in New Hampshire "early and often" has resulted in a grand total of two trips to the state so far.

 "Disappointed in Fred Thompson? Conservatives are choosing Huckabee." -- Text of an ad placed on for, making it the first link to come up when you google "mike huckabee."

I'll be live-blogging during tonight's Democratic debate from Drexel University in Philadelphia, starting at 9 pm ET. Watch it on MSNBC and join the conversation here.

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