THE NOTE: Bill Off-Message for Wife’s Campaign

Five reasons we know Saturday's Jefferson Jackson Dinner in Des Moines is a Big Deal:

1. Bill Clinton is taking the blame for collapse of healthcare reform. (Was the driver's license answer his, too?)

2. Sen. Barack Obama is taking on two Clintons for the price of one. ("My understanding is that President Clinton is not on the ballot" -- does his understanding dictate the race?)

3. Sen. Hillary Clinton is taking an off day to let her voice recover (and working on new tipping techniques, no doubt).

4. Obama is taking his call for troops to black-and-white. (Is there a message there?)

5. Former senator John Edwards can take all the Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia he can eat. (Does "Un-Hillary" work as an ice-cream flavor?)

If it's getting late early in Iowa, the Bill Clinton solo tour is welcoming the evening. The former president -- on his own this week in the Hawkeye State -- remains an undeniably popular phenomenon, a crowd-pleaser, fund-raising weapon, and strategist wrapped into one neat political package.

Or maybe not so neat. The last few days have shown that the former president is consulting his own playbook. "She has taken the rap for some of the problems we had with healthcare . . . that were far more my fault than hers," he said Thursday in Iowa. (What is that "experience" she's citing, then, anyway?)

This comes in the wake of the post-debate "swift-boating" comparison (which was hyped into more than it was, as ABC's Jake Tapper reminds us, but remains a distraction for the campaign. And, of course, there's those still-sealed Clinton presidential library records, as well as the continuing aftermath of Sen. Clinton's weakest debate performance of the cycle.

Could it be that -- at this critical moment -- Camp Clinton can't control its chief surrogate? (As if anybody could?) "His unexpected difficulty with the media freakshow may be a matter of style," Ben Smith writes in a smart take.

"Though Clinton is justifiably heralded as perhaps the quintessential retail politician and political communicator of his generation, contemporary political coverage -- broken up as it is into tiny blog items and wire dispatches, further chewed on by partisan blogs and opposition research shops -- doesn't favor his style," Smith writes. "He plays jazz to her classical music, as one longtime Clinton associate puts it."

Obama, D-Ill., was curt in his response. "If part of your basis for experience is that work that you did on health care, then presumably when it didn't work that's part of the experience as well," Obama said, per ABC's David Wright and Sunlen Miller.

Obama was more expansive on the bus with The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray -- and his goal remains nothing short of blowing up American politics as we know it. (Really, senator -- Mississippi?) Obama: "Whatever arguments you want to make for Hillary Clinton, I don't think anybody believes that somehow the election is going to be significantly different than 2000 or 2004, that different states or different congressional districts suddenly come into play, that she brings in a whole new group of voters that might not have voted before."

And/but (in three sentences that will alternately enrage and delight Obama's supporters): "I'm not going to paint a caricature of Senator Clinton. I think she's a smart, able person. I think anybody who tries to paint her as all negative is engaging in caricature, and when you start slipping into that mode, it's hard to come back."

Obama is taking on Edwards, D-N.C., more directly as well. "I've been consistent about where I've stood and what I've believed," Obama told the Chicago Tribune's John McCormick. "I don't think John can say the same. He's a very different candidate now than he was four years ago or even two years ago."

Only one can be the anti-Hillary, but one is already being dubbed the "un-Hillary." Edwards comes to the J-J dinner with the biggest news to announce: Iowans for Sensible Priorities (which is promising to deliver 10,000 caucus-goers but may be off by 9,800 or so) is endorsing him on Friday, ABC's Teddy Davis reports.

The group, founded by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's, advocates cuts in defense spending. "He has staked out the position quite convincingly of being the un-Hillary," executive director Peggy Huppert told Davis. "There's a rhetoric gap with Obama. . . . He talks around the edges. He never gets to the heart of it in strong, bold language."

As for Clinton, Time's Karen Tumulty and Jay Newton-Small take their look at Democratic trepidation about her candidacy. "A fear among Democratic candidates has been growing along with Clinton's lead in the Democratic presidential primary, though few care to talk about it on the record," they write. "While recent national polls show Clinton matching up well against every potential Republican competitor, the picture looks very different in Republican and swing states. Says a purple-state Congressman who is nervous about holding onto his seat if Clinton is the nominee: 'She certainly will get Republicans riled up.' "

On the Republican side, former mayor Rudy Giuliani is coping with the fallout of the Bernie Kerik indictment. He told ABC's Jake Tapper that he "made a mistake" by not vetting his protégé and former police commissioner, and compared him to Richard Nixon -- a "complex" man with both flaws and accomplishments.

"He did a very good job. . . . I know people don't like to hear it, but he did," Giuliani, R-N.Y., said of Kerik. "You have to judge that in the overall context in everything that I did, and how many right decisions did I make and how many wrong decisions did I make. . . . I must have been making the right decisions if the city of New York turned around."

Tapper looked at Giuliani's years as a prosecutor on "Nighline" last night. The Kerik indictment "is no small irony, because Giuliani first made a public name for himself as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, one who aggressively -- and successfully -- prosecuted major cases involving public corruption and the mob."

Kerik, who's expected to be arraigned on Friday, "is at the very least a big distraction for Rudolph W. Giuliani's presidential campaign," The New York Times' Michael Cooper and William K. Rashbaum write. "Of course, a trial during the heat of a presidential campaign could prove another challenge for his bid at a crucial time."

Kerik's indictment "highlights a potential weak spot for the Republican presidential front-runner: his judgment in picking associates," The Wall Street Journal's Mary Jacoby writes. "Mr. Kerik isn't the only Giuliani intimate facing questions about unethical or illegal actions. The common thread in these relationships is Mr. Giuliani's unswerving loyalty to people who have earned his trust."

Get ready for this question to come back again (and again). "Rudy Giuliani refused to say if he'd consider pardoning his old friend Bernie Kerik," the New York Daily News' Mary Rae Bragg and David Saltonstall report. Giuliani: "It wouldn't be fair to ask that question at this point." (That won't stop it from being asked.)

It's time to stop being surprised by the rise of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, the Houston Chronicle's Julie Mason writes. "The quirky Lake Jackson congressman shifted from national political asterisk to respectably funded, potential New Hampshire wild card -- where his anti-war stance is resonating with some early-state Republicans," Mason writes. "His exasperation with big government and tart denunciation of federal spending strikes a nerve with fiscal conservatives, particularly Republicans who have grown ill at ease with social conservatives' influence in the party."

He dropped a fundraising "bomb" on the race with a new online record. Find out why Ron Paul is ABC's Buzz Maker of the Week.

Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., gets specific (he promises) on Social Security today, with a 2 pm ET speech in Washington.

Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., gets specific (and combative) in taking on Democrats on immigration.

And Mike Duncan gets specific in taking on those rascally early-voting states. The Republican National Committee is punishing the five states schedule to hold primaries before Feb. 5, ABC's Karen Travers reports. "New Hampshire, Florida, South Carolina, Michigan and Wyoming will lose half of their delegates to the national convention." But with no sanctions applying to the candidates -- and the possibility that the delegates will be restored at the convention anyway -- the announcement "will probably not have much impact on the way Republican candidates campaign," Travers writes.

Also in the news:

So it looks like the Clinton campaign did in fact leave a tip, a big one at that, when visiting the Maid-Rite diner. The National Public Radio story sent the Clinton campaign into all-out damage control, and ABC's Eloise Harper caught up with the Maid-Rite's manager, who confirmed the $100 tip but conceded "it might have not been disbursed properly."

But even a hefty share of that tip won't make waitress Anita Esterday happy. "I don't think she understood at all what I was saying," Esterday told NPR's David Greene. She thinks her picture in the local paper led to her having her hours cut at one of her other jobs. "It hasn't helped me. It's made things worse," she said.

Henceforth, the Clinton campaign will not have to worry about misinformation poisoning the media well. Apart from running its own news site, Camp Clinton has now taken on the task of fact-checking media reports as well. (Who rules the world?)

"In another new example of how the Web is empowering campaigns to get their word out, Team Clinton used the story on a new Web site that it says it will use to defend against reports, or, for that matter, opponents' charges, that it views as being off base," The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg writes.

The new Web site will be plenty busy if the New York Sun's Josh Gerstein is right. "The process for releasing records from President Clinton's library in Little Rock seems to have gathered speed in recent days," Gerstein reports. National Archives spokesman Susan Cooper: "There should be a significant addition of materials coming up in the next few weeks."

On Thursday, the Archives released a batch of records, mostly related to UFOs. (Tell Rep. Dennis Kucinich's oppo-team to get on that.)

But don't expect much in the form of records from the candidate of openness, honesty, integrity, and change. Obama told the Chicago Tribune that he has no plans to release records from his years in the state senate, because he doesn't have enough to release (?): "Whatever remaining documents that I have are inevitably incomplete and then the question is going to be where's this, where's that. . . . Once I start heading down that road, then it puts me in a position that could end up being misleading." (So it's better to stay off the road entirely?)

And the Clinton fact-checkers have a fresh piece to dissect on Friday: "Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) has won tens of millions of dollars more in federal earmarks this year than her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, even though two of them have significantly more Senate seniority," The Hill's Alexander Bolton reports. "Clinton has successfully requested at least $530 million worth of projects." (How long until we hear a GOP candidate cite that figure?)

The Democrats are getting some unsolicited advice, and there's competition for which piece will be ignored more completely. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said Thursday that Democrats are beholden to a "hyper-partisan, politically paranoid" liberal base that will harm their chances in the general election. "The Democrats' guiding principle is distrust and -disdain for Republicans in general and for Mr. Bush in particular," Lieberman said, per the Financial Times' Edward Luce. (And?)

Karl Rove lectures the Democrats in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. This from the man whose candidate was beaten by 500,000 votes in 2000 (and didn't remember that while governing): "The Democratic victory in 2006 was narrow. They won the House by 85,961 votes out of over 80 million cast and the Senate by a mere 3,562 out of over 62 million cast. A party that wins control by that narrow margin can quickly see its fortunes reversed when it fails to act responsibly, fails to fulfill its promises, and fails to lead."

Tom Delay saves his advice for his fellow Republicans. "Don't kid yourself. She will be the next nominee, and if Republicans don't get their act together -- and it is pitiful -- she will be the next president," Delay, R-Texas, said in England. (If you don't know who she is, you're reading the wrong Web site.)

The Boston Globe's Sasha Issenberg sees Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., having trouble with his internationalist message in Iowa -- and it's not just immigration that's causing him fits. "On issues of globalization, McCain has carved out a position without parallel in either party's primary - and one without a natural base of support among early-state voters: He is an unapologetic defender of global markets on all fronts," Issenberg writes. McCain, in Mason City, Iowa: "All I can tell you is I'm a free-trader, so I'm not your candidate. I'm sorry, but I'm not."

McCain joins his mother (!) tonight on "Hardball."

Former governor Mike Huckabee's, R-Ark., rise continues, Michael Luo writes in The New York Times. "There are signs that Mr. Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor for whom Bible verses flow easily off the tongue, is charming, quipping and sermonizing his way from a long shot ensconced in the second tier of the Republican presidential sweepstakes to a possible contender here," Luo writes. Says Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Iowa GOP: "The candidate du jour right now is Mike Huckabee."

Huckabee took time with's Michael Scherer, and had this to say about former governor Mitt Romney's, R-Mass., Mormon faith: "I don't know what he believes. Even if I knew what his church believes, I don't know that I can say what he believes until he expresses it."

It's all about Pakistan as far as Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., is concerned. "I would very quietly in back channels work out a deal," says the man who's telling everyone that he's talked to both President Pervez Musharraf and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

The sound and fury signifies confirmation for Michael Mukasey as attorney general, with a 53-40 Senate vote last night making if official. Six Democrats crossed party lines "despite Democratic criticism that he had failed to take an unequivocal stance against the torture of terrorism detainees," Carl Hulse writes in The New York Times.

Mukasey's confirmation "has aggravated a rift between two key Democratic senators, Patrick Leahy and Charles Schumer, raising the question of who's running the Judiciary Committee," Bloomberg's James Rowley reports. "The fight bolsters the perception that Leahy, who opposed Mukasey, can be outmaneuvered by Schumer, a forceful if less senior senator." Said Leahy, D-Vt.: "You know, I never comment on those things. . . . He said with a smile."

President Bush has had his first veto overridden -- killing pork ain't kosher, bud. "The legislature has proved impotent in its efforts to challenge President Bush on such matters as the Iraq war and the waterboarding of prisoners," Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post. "But the president learned an important lesson yesterday: Don't mess with lawmakers' pet projects."

With Romney launching his "Mitt Market," the DNC is selling a "Mitt Romney Flip-Flop Kit." (And it's nice to know that eBay user thedemocraticparty has a rating of zero.)

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are George Stephanopoulos' guests on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday.

The kicker:

"You got the quote." -- Obama, responding tersely to President Clinton's newfound ownership of the healthcare failure of 1993-94.

"I think she's held up pretty well. Looks good for a 60-year-old girl, I think. So don't worry about that." -- Bill Clinton, on his wife.

"I'm a fan of many blogs. I visit them frequently and I learn a lot from them. . . . But there also blogs written by angry kooks." -- Karl Rove, in a speech about politics and the Internet.

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