THE NOTE: Inevitability Equals Vulnerability for Clinton

Nowhere in the Penn/Wolfson/Solis Doyle textbook does the following equation appear: Inevitability = Vulnerability.

But the microtargeting and triangulating in the Democratic race these days takes aim at the aura of invincibility surrounding Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. And the only thing that looks inevitable now is that a race is on for the Democratic nomination.

It's enough to make the Clinton campaign feel the walls are closing in -- or maybe that the stage is falling down.

To the careful answers, the closed-off access, and the slash-and-burn rapid response team, we add this damaging element: Questioners as plants (gasp!). Two incidents of staffers coaching "real people" have emerged publicly, and you know the drill from here: The Clinton campaign admitted that it happened, said the senator didn't know it was happening, and promises that it won't happen again, ABC's Eloise Harper reports. (Anyone think they really did it only twice?)

It is easier to have a conversation with voters when your campaign has a pretty good idea of what they're interested in before you step in the room. But tradition trumps all in the Iowa caucuses (and New Hampshire primaries), and caucus-goers don't like to feel played.

Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., didn't need prompting: "What George Bush does is plant questions and exclude people from events, and I don't think that's what Democrats want to see in Iowa," Edwards said yesterday, per the Des Moines Register's Tony Leys.

Per The Nation's Ari Melber: "The reports of a planting pattern come at a tough time for Clinton, who was widely criticized for being evasive during the last presidential debate. Faking questions is a particularly serious charge in Iowa, where caucus-goers are notoriously proud of their unique democratic process."

It's grist for the liberal blogosphere, who see shades of Bush "town hall meetings" and fake FEMA news conferences.

And it feeds the arguments of Clinton's top rivals, just as the race is giving them the opening they need. ("Turn up the heat," Clinton rallied on Saturday night. Advice taken.)

"The same old Washington textbook campaigns just won't do it in this election," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said at Saturday's Jefferson Jackson Dinner in Des Moines, Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray report in The Washington Post. "That's why not answering questions because we're afraid our answers won't be popular just won't do it."

The weekend belonged to Obama, from the J-J through "Meet the Press." "The Obama campaign owned the theatrics," David Chalian writes in the ABC write-up of Saturday night's dinner. "Obama supporters silently waved their O-shaped symbols of hope back and forth welcoming their competition to the stage. Obama's entrance came courtesy of the voice of the Chicago Bulls introducing the candidate onto the stage at which time his supporters were cued to turn on their light sticks which carried the names of each of Iowa's 99 counties."

"Barack Obama's speech at tonight's Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa took him back to the roots of his stardom," writes the New Republic's Michael Crowley.

Only one candidate could wow David Yepsen, and that one was Barack Obama. "The passion he showed should help him close the gap on Hillary Clinton by tipping some undecided caucus-goers his way," Yepsen writes in his Des Moines Register blog. "His oratory was moving and he successfully contrasted himself with the others -- especially Clinton -- without being snide or nasty about it."

It's a nice little wave for Obama -- but now his challenge is to keep the momentum going in these two weeks before Turkey Day helps lull us into political torpor.

And another element to add to Clinton's tough storyline: the incredible shrinking New Hampshire lead. Her lead is sliced down to just 11 points in the new Marist poll, and 9 in the University of New Hampshire/Boston Globe poll.

"The poll shows that Clinton's support has dropped as Obama and Edwards have stepped up their criticism of her positions and her forthrightness -- attacks that have escalated since the presidential debate late last month, where they accused her of equivocating on illegal immigration and other issues," The Boston Globe's Scott Helman writes.

"Voters polled believe Clinton is less 'trustworthy' than Obama -- 19 percent said she was the most trustworthy candidate, compared with 26 percent who said Obama was," Helman continues. "Only half of those who said they would vote for Clinton listed her as the most trustworthy."

Asks the New York Daily News' Michael McAuliff: "Where did Hillary Clinton's mojo go? That's what her campaign has to be asking after a rough two weeks. And more importantly, they have to be wondering how to recapture that fading aura of an unstoppable juggernaut."

Edwards isn't moving much in the polls these days. (Was that really Joe Trippi leading Obama staffers in bellowing their new chants at the bar of the Hotel Fort Des Moines Saturday night? And if John Mellencamp doesn't draw Edwards-style Democrats -- Mr. "Small Town" himself -- what kind of concert could Edwards avoid the boos at?)

Newsweek's Richard Wolffe finds Edwards losing key supporters in Iowa. Four county chairs tapped by the Edwards campaign have defected, in addition to a few other prominent Iowans. "Four years ago, news of defections hurt Dick Gephardt over the summer and Howard Dean just before caucus night," Wolffe reminds us.

There's a conundrum emerging for Obama and Edwards. The Boston Globe's Marcella Bombardieri: "Despite the apparent emphasis on Clinton, Obama and Edwards are competing most of all against each other to come out of Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus, on Jan. 3, as the only viable alternative to Clinton," Bombardieri writes. "The three are more or less tied in Iowa polls, but Clinton is so far ahead nationally that it is hard to see both of them finishing Iowa with momentum to challenge her for the Democratic nomination." Bombardieri notices Obama attacking Edwards, but Edwards refusing to return fire.

This is an anti-Clinton storyline they can agree to push together: "Hundreds of pages of memos and correspondence involving the healthcare plan of the early 1990s have been withheld, leaving a gap in a historic period when Clinton undertook one of the most ambitious domestic policy forays ever attempted," the Los Angeles Times' Peter Nicholas.

Don't miss this from former senator Bob Kerrey (showing that he really does love his day job): "It's hard to make the case that a meeting with Bob Kerrey in 1993 ought to be redacted, other than for political reasons," said Kerrey, D-Neb. "If these documents were negative to [Clinton campaign rivals] Barack Obama, John Edwards or Rudy Giuliani, they would be out yesterday."

The Chicago Tribune's Mike Dorning travels to Little Rock and finds gorgeous inaugural ball gowns on display -- but an empty library reading room, with little paper available documenting Clinton's eight years as first lady.

"Documents that might shed light on the first lady's role in scandals such as the White House travel office firings, the fundraising scandals of the 1996 election and pardons received by people who made payments to her brothers Hugh and Tony Rodham remain closed," Dorning writes. "Also closed are papers that might provide insight into roles she apparently played in substantive policy debates such as the Clinton administration's reversal on welfare reform and its early reluctance to intervene in Bosnia and later decision to do so."

Not that the Tribune or the Chicago Sun-Times has had much success with Obama's records. Politico's Mike Allen: "Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) dodged questions Sunday about releasing papers from his eight years as an Illinois state senator, and his campaign has not answered records requests from the state's two largest newspapers."

We welcome an old friend to the race for the White House: An "independent expenditure" organization is boosting a presidential candidate. And that candidate is . . . Sen. John McCain? McCain, as in, the Arizona Republican? As in a little bill called McCain-Feingold? And this is on top of that $3 million loan you're flirting with?

"It represents the first trickle in a flood of hundreds of millions of dollars that are expected to pour from all sides into groups reminiscent of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," Jim Rutenberg and David Kirkpatrick report in The New York Times. "Mr. McCain has crusaded for years against just this sort of unencumbered political spending and has publicly called upon the foundation to stop the advertisement, a request competitors say seems half-hearted and the group's leader has ignored."

"The group was started by Rick Reed, whose firm helped produce the 2004 Swift Boat advertisements that questioned Senator John Kerry's war record in a way that Democrats, and even Mr. McCain, said was unfair -- but, also, in a way that both sides agree did great damage to Mr. Kerry's presidential campaign," Rutenberg and Kirkpatrick write.

With McCain sparring with frontrunner Rudy Giuliani on torture, Bernie Kerik, and foreign-policy experience, ABC's Jake Tapper explores a friendship that a campaign is severely straining. In 2000, Giuliani, R-N.Y., refused to attack McCain even though he had endorsed George W. Bush, and "Giuliani and McCain are legitimate pals, friends since 1998."

"But in the past few weeks, the tone and tenor between the two seems to have shifted," Tapper writes. "What seemed almost like a non-aggression pact between them has been rescinded."

McCain's mother, Roberta, was never friends with former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., and she sure didn't sound like she's had many Mormon friends during her 95 years.

Romney talked a good deal about religion over the weekend -- but not in the Big Way. Marveling at the large leaves on a Manchester tree, he said: "Adam and Eve would not have looked as promiscuous if they had had leaves this big." Writes Tapper: "Adam and Eve looked promiscuous? . . . Is there something in the Book of Mormon that might explain this? (I ask that seriously and sincerely.)"

(What if Romney himself -- not his religion -- is what's weird? Is there a speech that can address that?)

Later in the day Saturday, Romney was clearly joking about Mormonism: "I love my wife and my five sons and their five wives. Wait a second. Let me clarify that: They each have one."

But ABC's Matt Stuart reports that Romney said that while he "liked the idea" of giving a "special speech" on his religion, he's being told not to. "The political advisers tell me, 'no, no, no, it's not a good idea. Draws too much attention to that issue alone.' But I sorta like the idea anyway, and will probably do it at some point."

Romney doesn't look like he needs to explain himself much in New Hampshire. "Mayor Giuliani's hold on the front-runner's perch in the Republican presidential nomination is eroding, with two new polls showing that Mitt Romney is opening up a widening lead in New Hampshire, site of the first primary," the New York Sun's Russell Berman writes.

Then there's the Fred fade. Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., isn't even in the top five (!) in the new New Hampshire polls, and new Florida numbers have him dropping fast. "Fred Thompson is proving to be nowhere near the force many had expected when he entered the race in September," Adam C. Smith writes for the St. Petersburg Times. "The poll showed him in fifth place with 8 percent support, behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, with 9 percent, McCain with 12 percent, Mitt Romney with 19 percent and Giuliani with 36 percent in the state he declares a must-win."

He's getting more animated on the trail, but everyone has their limits. "If you're expecting somebody to leap off the stage and start singing show tunes, you're not going to get that," campaign adviser Rich Galen tells the Los Angeles Times' Michael Finnegan, mercifully.

Also in the news: Enjoy them while they last, since this could be the last Norman Hsu story you read that has anything interesting in it at all. A four-person (with two additional contributors) Wall Street Journal team dissects the rise and fall of Hillary Clinton's least-favorite "bundler." "Politics was a world where his schmoozing and fund-raising talents were powerful currency," the Journal reporters write. "He befriended Mrs. Clinton and other Democrats, decorating his SoHo loft with their photos. He displayed a saxophone autographed by former President Bill Clinton, bought for $26,000 at a Red Cross benefit. He sported a chocolate-brown leather bomber jacket with the presidential seal."

Clinton gets some more gender card advice: "In this case, pandering to female voters is a big mistake. The sisterhood is famously fickle. Besides, in order to win, Clinton must grow her vote," writes Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi. "Clinton should get out of that kitchen, ASAP. There aren't enough women in it to elect her president of the United States."

If Obama's challenge is to keep the momentum going, does it matter if some think he's already letting it drain away?'s Walter Shapiro saw Obama finding his voice Saturday night -- only to begin to lose it Sunday morning. "The fiery Obama of Saturday night had been replaced on Sunday morning by a replicant, a tepid candidate mostly concerned with avoiding mistakes rather than winning converts," Shapiro writes. "If Obama really wants to be the one who knocks Hillary off her pedestal, he should remember that statues rarely topple without a hard push."

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., is playing to his strength, with an op-ed today in the Baltimore Sun outlining his plans for Pakistan.

Senate Banking Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "This Week" Sunday that a recession is looking likely. "It's certainly pointing in that direction," Dodd said. And he had this to say on reports of the Clinton camp planting questions: "The idea that this is a contrived setting, been orchestrated and set up ahead of time, I think would hurt you here."

For as static as the Democratic field seems, the Republican side is proving impossible to narrow down. Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla looks at former governor Mike Huckabee's, R-Ark., ability to scramble Iowa. "Though he's a Scripture-quoting champion of social conservatives, his populist economics may limit his ability to broaden his support among Republican constituencies," she writes. "The result is a kind of populist fusion -- he's also anti- abortion, pro-gun and a foe of gay marriage -- that has catapulted Huckabee to the first tier of Republicans in Iowa."

As for Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, "the Internet has harnessed him," Katharine Q. Seelye and Leslie Wayne write in the Sunday New York Times. "Mr. Paul's once-solo quest has taken on a life of its own. It is evolving from a figment of cyberspace into a traditional campaign, with yard signs, direct mail and old-fashioned rallies."

And AP's Ron Fournier catches up with Iowa waitress Anita Esterday after the media sensation blew through town. "When I got home, there were 60 messages on my machine," Esterday says. "Are you guys nuts? . . . There's a war going on and the price of oil is going crazy. Look at all the toys being recalled right now. Just look at the news! Isn't there something else you can be writing about?"

The kicker:

"If it were Bartholomew, that would be a different story." -- Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom, explaining why the campaign is having fun with the name "Mitt."

"The views of my mothers are not necessarily the views of mine." -- McCain, jumping in on "Hardball" after his 95-year-old mother said of Romney: "He's a Mormon and the Mormons of Salt Lake City had caused that scandal. And to clean that up, again, it's not a subject."

"Are we nuts thinking Hillary Clinton could be president of this country? Honest to God, just stand back and think about it." -- Joel Surnow, executive producer of "24." He's leaning toward Rudy.

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