THE NOTE: Happening in Vegas

Will what happens in Vegas go to Iowa? (Yes.)

Does Gov. Eliot Spitzer's change of heart bail out Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton? (No.)

What does it say when a campaign's video is about 11 times more fun than its candidate? (That Mandy Grunwald earns her pay.)

Will Mike Huckabee look as good after his rivals are done unloading on him? (No -- but his rivals won't look so good, either, after Huckabee's done with them.)

Will calling CNN the "Clinton News Network" help Sen. John McCain raise money? (Yes.)

Will that name apply when Clinton's rivals are done with her Thursday night? (Stay tuned.)

More than two weeks after Clinton's Phillies-style stumble in Philadelphia, Thursday's Democratic debate in Las Vegas looms large for Clinton and her major rivals.

If the campaign is "Rocky" -- and, as Sen. Barack Obama suggests -- Clinton is Apollo Creed, the champ's been knocked off balance, is trying to tune out the taunts, and is reminding herself that these kids don't belong in the same ring with her.

But Obama, D-Ill., and former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., have their own trite movie plots to follow.

If this was "Hoosiers," they've just arrived at the moment when Gene Hackman measured the court. Yes indeed, they do belong on the same playing surface as the very human Team Clinton.

If all of this was part of the predictable narrative of the Democratic primary, that doesn't make the Las Vegas debate any less important: What happens Thursday night will shape perceptions through Thanksgiving week and beyond, in the closing window before Iowa.

"As Clinton (N.Y.), the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, seeks to solidify her position atop the race, her main rivals are reshaping the arguments for their candidacies and sparking a broader debate about the future of their party," Alec MacGillis and Perry Bacon Jr. write in The Washington Post.

"The race is more fluid than it has been in months," they write. And the Clinton campaign looks ready for engagement -- no more rising above the rivals with laughs and nonchalance.

Said Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson, on Obama: "His rhetoric may no longer be hopeful, but it sounds like his campaign still is."

Responds Obama strategist David Axelrod: "I heard her say Saturday night that Democrats should not attack Democrats, and I'm sure she'll adhere to that. I'm sure that it has more than a five-day half-life."

Clinton will "try to erase the unflattering image that her chief rivals, and her own mistakes, have helped create," Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times.

"Advisers said in interviews that Mrs. Clinton had not been prepared for the onslaught at the Oct. 30 debate, and would be far more ready for incoming fire in Las Vegas. She has been preparing to point out inconsistencies in Mr. Edwards's and Mr. Obama's positions, and to give yes-or-no answers to convey forthrightness."

But after more than two weeks, she's still dealing with the fallout of the last debate.

She finally brought some clarity on Wednesday to the initial question that tripped her up: Clinton is now firmly against driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.

Her rivals still (rightly) sense vulnerability.

Response from the Edwards campaign: "We're dizzy."

Dodd campaign: "Flip-flopping cubed."

Obama spokesman Bill Burton smacks a double: "When it takes two weeks and six different positions to answer one question on immigration, it's easier to understand why the Clinton campaign would rather plant their questions than answer them."

And add another storyline for Clinton to explain away: "Three recipients of controversial 11th-hour pardons issued by former President Bill Clinton in January 2001 have donated thousands of dollars to the presidential campaign of his wife," ABC's Jake Tapper writes.

Says Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington: "Of course, it's inappropriate and she should return the money. It does raise the appearance that this is payback."

"Clinton faces a potent enemy -- not onstage, but in her own mind," Newsweek's Howard Fineman writes.

"She has a lifelong obsession with seeking out, and trying to control, unruly events and people. She often fails, and harms herself trying. If she doesn't ease up, she risks losing the race. Brainy women don't frighten voters; control freaks do."

"The challenge for Clinton in tonight's debate on CNN will be to prove that she can talk the straight talk. It's a tricky business. How do you unwaffle?" Gail Collins writes in her New York Times column. "The only thing harder than unwaffling is being a mean unifier."

Speaking of the unifier, the debate brings a retooled Obama campaign -- one that, dare we say, finally seems to be hitting its rhetorical stride.

It was shades of the J-J dinner/DNC Obama Wednesday at the Googleplex: "Democrats lose when they are attacked and because they don't know where they stand," Obama said, per ABC's Sunlen Miller. "They end up getting defensive instead of going on the offensive."

Obama now campaigns on the "unembarrassed assertion that he is the only candidate willing to be wholly honest with voters," Ryan Lizza writes in The New Yorker.

Obama argues that honesty is worth the gamble: "What happens when we finesse the big issues during the campaign is we never build a mandate," he tells Lizza. Lizza writes, "there is a political aspect to his argument: he wants voters to contrast what he sees as Clinton's cynical calculation with his brave honesty."

A choice nugget: "I asked Obama whether he thought that journalists 'respect' Clinton for being so good at politics. 'Absolutely. I don't think that -- ' he began, at which point Robert Gibbs, his communications director, interrupted to say that the correct word was 'revere.' "

A new twist in the tale of the planted questions: "New videos have surfaced on YouTube with young voters asking her questions that are similar to the fake question posed by a Grinnell college student last week," The Nation's Ari Melber reports.

"There is no direct indication that the new footage, apparently taken from an October 16 event at a high school in Salem, New Hampshire, demonstrates any concerted effort by the Clinton Campaign to plant questions."

Obama is also attacking Clinton anew on secrecy, blasting her for how she handled the healthcare task force: "They took all their people and all their experts into a room and then they closed the door and they tried to design the plan in isolation from the American people," Obama said Wednesday, per the New York Sun's Josh Gerstein.

Yet the issue of documents and records leaves Obama with his own vulnerability: He is claiming not to have any records from his tenure as a state senator.

"I don't maintain a file of eight years of work in the state Senate because I didn't have the resources available to maintain those kinds of records," Obama said, per the AP's Mike Baker and Christopher Wills. "It could have been thrown out. I haven't been in the state Senate now for quite some time."

("Quite some time" would be three years. We're pretty sure we still have pay stubs in a file folder somewhere from 1993.)

Among the Republicans, it's an immigration smackdown -- with both former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., running immigration-themed ads (to say nothing of Rep. Tom Tancredo's ad, which is more tied to the apocalypse than the border crisis.)

But be careful when you take on Huckabee, R-Ark.

Responding to Romney's criticism on his immigration stance, Huckabee said yesterday: "I guess Mitt Romney would rather keep people out of college so they can keep working on his lawn." Per ABC's Teddy Davis, "The campaigns of both Romney and Fred Thompson see Huckabee's record on 'tuition breaks for the children of illegal immigrants' as key to their hopes of slowing his momentum in Iowa, a state where anti-illegal immigration passions run high."

Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., is also swinging back at Romney.

He had "probably has the worst record on illegal immigration," Giuliani said in Iowa, per the Des Moines Register's Jonathan Roos.

Responds Romney spokesman Kevin Madden: Giuliani "openly advocated more illegal immigration to New York City, and he advocated sanctuary city policies that turned a 3 million illegal immigrant problem into a 12 million illegal immigrant problem."

Thursday marks the deadline for obtaining health insurance or having to pay tax penalties, under the universal healthcare plan Romney shepherded into law.

AP's Glen Johnson writes that his rivals are doing more to mark the day than Romney. "Before I forget, for all of you in Massachusetts who aren't signed up for health insurance, you have until Thursday before you get stuck with a fine," Maria Comella, Giuliani's spokeswoman, wrote in signing off her daily schedule update for political reporters.

And the Thompson campaign sent out an e-mail to supporters Thursday morning to mark "Tax Penalty Day."

"For individuals, the amount will be on average $219 this year and they will receive a punitive fine as much as $2,000 over the next year," communications director Todd Harris writes. "Small business owner? It's even worse; you'll be fined $295 per employee who isn't enrolled in Romney's government-mandated health care plan!" The campaign is also highlighting the $50 copayment for abortions.

McCain continues to cope with the fallout of the "excellent question" where an Iowa (female) voter referred to Clinton with the B-word.

ABC's Bret Hovell reports that McCain "reiterated his respect for colleague Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., in the face of a media swirl over whether or not he should have reprimanded a questioner who called the New York Democrat a 'bitch.' "

Said McCain: "I have treated and will continue to treat Senator Clinton with respect. . . And I've said that many times. I'm sure that's good enough for the American people."

(Seriously -- what was he supposed to say?)

Also in the news:

Fire back up the great debate over religious voters.

"Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, saying the Democratic Party has been persistently hostile to opponents of abortion rights, asserted yesterday that the support of many Catholics for Democratic candidates 'borders on scandal,' " The Boston Globe's Michael Paulson writes.

Said O'Malley: "I think the Democratic Party, which has been in many parts of the country traditionally the party which Catholics have supported, has been extremely insensitive to the church's position, on the gospel of life in particular, and on other moral issues."

(Somehow, the word "Giuliani" does not appear in this story.)

Time's Michael Duffy looks at the Giuliani-Kerik relationship that saw the two "inseparable for the better part of a decade."

"Loyalty isn't just any virtue for Giuliani; in his memoirs he called it 'the vital virtue,' " Duffy writes. "That's an interesting plug from a man who has been married three times and informed one of his ex-wives that their marriage was over at a press conference. Loyalty, an attractive virtue in friendship, is an alarming one in politics, when faithful cronies are promoted in public service simply because they show fealty to the boss."

Giuliani is Charlie Gibson's subject on ABC's "World News," featured on the Thursday afternoon Webcast and the evening broadcast.

Though the interview was taped too soon to ask his opinion of A-Rod return to pinstripes, Giuliani gets to the roots of his fandom: "My mother required my father to live in Brooklyn, and he never really appreciated that, because he was living with her family. So he made me a Yankee fan. Kind of secretly. Almost as revenge to my mother's family, because they were all Dodger fans. And I would get harassed constantly as a Yankee fan. And maybe some of my individuality sort of developed with 'well, I'm going to be different. I'm going to be a Yankee fan.' "

And on why he decided not to become a priest: "Probably, honestly, it was the celibacy, that first said to me, I can't do this."

The New York Times' David Kirkpatrick profiles a college-era Romney who was slightly dorky and largely apart from the campus tumult of the 1960s.

"His letters from the period are snapshots of his late adolescence, by turns earnest and silly. In one letter, he quoted Snoopy, referred to himself as 'a lonely duck'and signed off, 'Love & Kisses, Daffy.' He closed another with 'May the Lord keep you until we meet again,' adding 17 exclamation points. In a mock news release, he called himself 'His Holiness Monsignor Willard Mitt Romney.' "

And this from a letter Romney wrote as a 21-year-old, explaining why he was bequeathing a book to two friends: "Having only one book to present created the same kind of dilemma that Brigham Young would have had with only one wedding ring. And so, I give it to you both."

(How's that speech coming, anyway?)

Edwards is profiled in The Boston Globe, with Jenn Abelson seeing his political transformation begin with Elizabeth's cancer diagnosis.

"The days and months that followed changed John Edwards. He and Elizabeth say the awareness of their mortality made them recommit themselves to helping the downtrodden. Others say that Edwards's personal agony and political disappointment hardened him in other ways, firming up his beliefs but also infusing him with an undercurrent of urgency and, at times, anger."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, knows he's a "long shot," but he's relishing his role.

"I'm the one candidate who is running for president who has the ability to stand up to the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies -- the other candidates have already capitulated," he says in an interview to be aired Thursday on ABC NewsNow's "Politics Live." "I'm the real Democrat in the race, and so it's just a matter of time for that awareness to catch on."

Another clash on the Iraq war is playing out between Congress and President Bush.

"The House approved additional military funding but only after Democrats attached conditions that set the goal of ending U.S. combat operations by the end of next year," David Rogers writes in The Wall Street Journal.

A court date Thursday in Michigan could finally lock in the last big piece of the primary calendar.

"If the Jan. 15 primary there is upheld, [New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill] Gardner is expected to set the date of the New Hampshire primary for the second week of January, most likely Tuesday, Jan. 8," John DiStaso reports in the Union Leader.

With Las Vegas hosting its first big debate of the cycle, the Las Vegas Sun has a primer on Nevada (Ne-VAAH-duh) politics.

"Last year, the state controller was murdered by her husband, Clark County commissioners were convicted in a strip club bribery scandal and a candidate for governor was accused, although never charged, of getting grabby with a cocktail waitress after drinks at a seafood joint," the Sun's J. Patrick Coolican writes. "Really, it's not always like that."

Thursday's debate will bring the Democrats to 22 1/2 hours of debating so far this cycle -- that's nearly a full day of Clinton laughs, Edwards scowls, and Mike Gravel bombs -- and 480 mentions of the word "health," 452 of "war."

The kicker:

"There is nothing worse than losing to Barack Obama. . . . You never hear the end of it." -- Reggie Love, former Duke basketball star and current Obama "body man," on pickup games on the trail.

"Exercising is hard." -- Voice-over in Clinton campaign video, as Bill Clinton huffs on a treadmill while visions of a cheeseburger dance in his head.

I'll be live-blogging during Thursday night's Democratic debate in Las Vegas, which will air on CNN starting at 8 pm ET. Be part of the conversation here.

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