Here with 10 battles that could determine the presidency:
1. Mitt Romney vs. Rudy Giuliani (and not just over hairlines).
2. Fred Thompson vs. Mike Huckabee (and not just over comedy chops).
As attention to turns to Iowa (and the turkey must be juicier there for all the candidates who are planning on spending Thanksgiving in Des Moines and Dubuque), the campaign has become a scattershot of charges, countercharges, dirty tricks, and accusations.
All it took was a few sentences in a Robert Novak posting to roil the Democratic field in the wake of the Las Vegas debate. Novak offers this shadowy mini-nugget of (presumed) reportage: "Agents of Sen. Hillary Clinton are spreading the word in Democratic circles that she has scandalous information about her principal opponent for the party's presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama, but has decided not to use it." (Agents? The Clinton campaign has "agents"? Are we in "The Manchurian Candidate"? Is Novak watching too many Oliver Stone flicks?)
We're not sure who's attacking whom here, but the (sort of) target is happy to talk about something other than the last debate. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is taking the rumor very seriously, ABC's David Wright reports. "The Clinton campaign refuses to answer two simple, direct questions: Are 'agents' of their campaign spreading these rumors? And do they have 'scandalous' information that they are not releasing?" says Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.
Responds the Clinton campaign: "A Republican-leaning journalist runs a blind item designed to set Democrats against one another. Experienced Democrats see this for what it is. Others get distracted and thrown off their games." (Novak said on Fox News this morning that the information came from a Democrat: "I haven't talked to a single Republican on this.")
Time's Joe Klein calls it "a smear that tarnished both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama." And he declares war on Novak: "There are two possible reasons why Novak is peddling unconfirmed [information]: (a) he is getting too old to do the actual legwork long-associated with his column (and respected even by those of us who find his views reprehensible) or (b) he has simply abandoned all pretense of being a journalist."
The intra-party bickering has Iowa Democrats concerned, Jason Clayworth reports in the Des Moines Register. "At issue are a growing number of news releases, public appearances and speeches by Democrats that directly or indirectly target each other in hopes of swaying Iowa caucusgoers," Clayworth writes. (Here's guessing they provide lots of quotes that will simply need lots of explaining away later.)
Obama's out with a new ad Monday in Iowa, again speaking to the middle class, ABC's David Wright reports. And he's stepping up his criticism of Clinton over NAFTA (joining a chorus led by John Edwards): "I think it's important to note that Senator Clinton was a cheerleader for NAFTA for more than a decade," Obama said Sunday in Iowa, according to The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny.
It is early for dirty tricks, but Republicans have their share already as well. Somebody's behind the 20-minute phone calls that slam former governor Mitt Romney's, R-Mass., faith and draft deferments.
Romney used the occasion to slam Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. (via McCain-Feingold), while the rest of the GOP field distanced themselves, ABC's Matt Stuart reports. Said the McCain campaign (which probably lacks the infrastructure to launch such attacks anyway: "It is appalling, but not surprising, that Mitt Romney would seek to take advantage of this disturbing incident to launch yet another hypocritical attack."
Romney is dismissing Web chatter that his own folks are behind the "push poll." But mostly Romney can fight back by featuring his own family. "It's just essential to have a home where faith, where love of country, where determination, where all of these features that are so much a part of America's culture are tied to our kids," Romney says in a new ad, with his wife, Ann, by his side.
The fast-paced arena of mini-controversy and quasi-storylines is a tough environment for anyone to break through in. And it presents the greatest challenge to candidates who have spent the least time defining themselves -- whether by strategy or by circumstance.
Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who let a non-answer on the Terri Schiavo case define his early candidacy, on Sunday did little to clear things up. Try to unpack this response: Thompson told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "This Week" that he thinks the states -- not the federal government -- should get involved in family disputes over right-to-do issues.
But in the Schiavo case, where Congress tried to get the federal courts to intervene, "I would side with the parents in, you know, keeping that child alive." (So it's a states' rights issue, except when it's sort of OK to make it a federal issue, and except when Fred Thompson thinks there might need to be an exception?)
Thompson's campaign strategy puts a premium on Iowa -- and he may as well write off New Hampshire, The Tennessean's Jennifer Brooks writes. "Remember how Fred Thompson skipped the New Hampshire Republican debate in September so he could make his political debut on Jay Leno's couch instead? New Hampshire remembers," Brooks reports. Says talk show host Arnie Arnesen: "He's the most disliked Republican in the state."
Thompson knows he needs to halt former governor Mike Huckabee's, R-Ark., momentum, who is also counting on a big Iowa showing to propel his campaign forward. Thompson is calling Huckabee a "pro-life liberal" -- and he's clearly more read up on Huckabee's record than the other candidates in the race (including his own?).
Huckabee's new ad is produced to resemble a farce, but it couldn't be more Huckabee: "My plan to secure the border: Two words: Chuck Norris."
As for the Republican frontrunner, former mayor Rudolph Giuliani -- the last top-tier contender to run television ads -- may start to see himself defined by his enemies on TV
Per ABC's Tahman Bradley, "A group of 9/11 firefighters and victims' family members with eyes on derailing Republican Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign is close to a decision on forming an entity that would run issue ads in key early nominating states." That would be a 527, which would bring with it a Swift-boat style campaign, and it "would target what is believed to be one of Giuliani's greatest strengths -- that he is a proven leader who is strong on national security."
Giuliani still isn't doing much advertising, but he's engaged in a quiet strategic shift could cut to the heart of Romney's early-state strategy. Giuliani "is stepping up his efforts to compete in the Iowa Republican caucuses, complicating Mitt Romney's effort to nail down a clean victory here and underscoring the fluid nature of the contest less than seven weeks from the voting," The New York Times' Adam Nagourney writes.
This from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, (who has said he's unlikely to endorse): "Giuliani is putting increased emphasis on Iowa, and he is getting good, solid Republican support."
And where there's Rudy, there's 9/11. "Giuliani is trumpeting his leadership in the wake of 9/11 in campaign mailings to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire," the New York Post's Carl Campanile reports. Says the mailing: "After the worst attacks on US soil, Rudy Giuliani went to work rebuilding New York City and faith in America." Writes Campanile, "While Giuliani's supporters have long boasted about his performance after the attacks, he himself had not, until now, mentioned it as prominently." (Really?)
McCain on Sunday laid out his new strategy -- taking the argument directly to Clinton. "I'm the conservative Republican with the best chance of defeating Senator Clinton, or whomever the Democrats nominate, and take on the challenges that confront us," he said, per ABC's Ron Claiborne and Bret Hovell.
Displaying a "pointed but respectful approach he will take for the rest of the campaign, Mr. McCain sought to tap into the anti-Clinton sentiment seen to be driving many Republican primary voters, particularly in New Hampshire," Marc Santora reports in The New York Times. "At the same time, he tried to do it in a markedly different way from his two main rivals, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mitt Romney, who have both harshly attacked Mrs. Clinton in making their own cases for electability."
McCain today will be endorsed by Tom Kean, the chairman of the 9/11 Commission, "as part of a high-stakes new push by the campaign to focus voters on national security," Politico's Mike Allen reports.
McCain is planning to spend Thanksgiving in Iraq with US troops "as if to underscore" his poimt that "he's been knee-deep in foreign policy and military affairs for more than two decades in Congress," Jill Zuckman reports in the Chicago Tribune.
And in a campaign defined by the lack of access to candidates, McCain is once again setting himself apart. "Unlike many candidates who shun lengthy, unstructured talks with journalists, McCain remains uniquely available to the reporters who trail his campaign," the Concord Monitor's Margot Sanger-Katz reports. "In nearly every moment away from voters, the senator makes himself available, urging reporters to 'ask me anything' as he chats in the back of his bus between campaign stops."
Karl Rove makes his Newsweek debut with a pep talk and some advice for Republicans who are worried about beating Clinton. "Don't be afraid to say something controversial. The American people want their president to be authentic," Rove writes. "And against a Democrat who calculates almost everything, including her accent and laugh, being seen as someone who says what he believes in a direct way will help."
But with Iowa fast approaching, the Republican field is as divided as ever. The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos travels to Liberty University and sees signs for just one candidate: Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. "Many students say the campus is divided between at least five Republican presidential candidates, including Paul, and some support for Democrats, as well," Canellos writes. "With just weeks remaining until primary season, leaders and foot soldiers of the religious right have come to a surprising conclusion: Their bloc of voters, considered by many to be the largest single constituency in the Republican Party, is not going to break for any one candidate in 2008."
Also in the news:
A Clinton snub is angering prominent Sikhs in California. "Traditional food, elaborate costumes, and ritual sword fighting were on display as thousands of Sikhs celebrated a religious festival here yesterday, but the expected guest of honor, Senator Clinton, was a no-show," Josh Gerstein writes in the New York Sun. The cancellation appears to be security related, but "many of those who attended yesterday's festival and parade were upset, underscoring the risks of a backlash against Mrs. Clinton as her campaign tightens its standards in an effort to avoid another fund-raising scandal."
John Heileman of New York magazine profiles former senator John Edwards, D-N.C. "Edwards's anti-Clinton tack is neither desperate nor impetuous," Heileman writes. "Everything that is happening now is part of a thoroughly calculated plan, long in gestation." Context would probably strip the meaning from this Joe Trippi quote: "It's like we're in a burning building and there are two fire exits. We gotta pick one and head through that door as hard as we can."
Edwards, meanwhile, is facing some possible fund-raising problems. "John Edwards doesn't accept contributions from political action committees, but the lion's share of his contributions have come through one particular PAC -- ActBlue. And that could be a multimillion-dollar problem for the Democrat's presidential campaign," Politico's Kenneth P. Vogel reports. "If the FEC rules against Edwards, it would be an ironic and troubling twist for a campaign that has struggled to keep pace financially with the field leaders."
The Wall Street Journal's June Kronholz looks at the immigration issue from a Democratic perspective -- and it's not just driver's licenses that should have the party nervous. "Democratic strategists believe that Hispanic voters could swing a decisive handful of states -- including Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada -- to the Democrats in 2008, ensuring the election of a Democratic president and cementing a Democratic majority for years to come," Kronholz writes. "But the party's blue-collar, middle-income and African-American supporters are increasingly angry about illegal immigration, much of it Hispanic."
A few storylines that may or may not be related:
Item: "The American military said Sunday that the weekly number of attacks in Iraq had fallen to the lowest level since just before the February 2006 bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra," The New York Times' Cara Buckley and Michael R. Gordon report. "The figures added to a body of evidence, compiled by American and Iraqi officials, indicating that the violence had diminished significantly since the United States reinforced troop levels in Iraq and adopted a new counterinsurgency strategy."
Item: "After more than two years of being buffeted by one political disaster after another, President Bush and his strategists think they may finally be getting back at least a bit of their footing," The Washington Post's Peter Baker writes. "Through much of 2005 and 2006, as he cratered politically, Bush had no particularly prominent rival to contrast with. But now he has the Democrats, who took over Congress in January and have provided him ammunition as their poll numbers fall." Says Rove, playing pundit: "There's a reason they've become unpopular."
And/but: "Democrats in Congress failed once again Friday to shift President Bush's war strategy in Iraq, but insisted that they would not let up," David M. Herszenhorn reports in The New York Times. "Their explanation for their latest foiled effort seemed to boil down to a simple question: 'What else are we supposed to do?' "
President Bush is losing another key aide on Monday: Homeland Security adviser Frances Townsend is departing the administration at the end of the year, ABC's Ann Compton reports. "She has been a steady leader in the effort to prevent and disrupt attacks and to better respond to natural disasters," the president said in a statement Monday morning.
Because we'll miss these quotes when they're gone, let's just let Bill Gardner say it one more time with regard to the date of the New Hampshire primary: "We haven't completely ruled out December," he tells the Miami Herald's Lesley Clark and Beth Reinhard.
And with questions about Michigan's date continuing to delay New Hampshire's, one more quote from Gardner (even though we're not sure what he means): "It will be a humdinger."
"I'm glad to see as an American League fan, as a Yankees fan, we're keeping him in the American League, we're keeping him on the Yankees." -- Giuliani, on the Yanks' effort to re-sign Alex Rodriguez, and in another hedge regarding his baseball loyalties.
"I support Dennis Kucinich because not only have I been a friend of his for 40 years, but I believe he offers an essential, viable and exciting option to the candidates that are more popular at the moment." -- Larry Flynt, per the Washington Examiner's "Yeas and Nays" blog.
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