About that inevitability thing . . . just kidding.
Barely 50 days before Iowa, it matters about as much as Dick Cheney's approval ratings, or Barry Bonds' contract situation, or Robert Novak's newest secret source.
Ladies and gentleman, we have ourselves a race.
Toss out the 30-point lead in the national polls, the fundraising edge, the long list of endorsements, the bold predictions of Terry McAuliffe, Mark Penn, even Bill Clinton himself.
The new ABC News/Washington Post poll has Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., up on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., in Iowa -- really in a statistical tie in the state where they could be playing for all the marbles. It's Obama 30, Clinton 26, and former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., 22 -- setting up a three-way scramble for the top spot in a state that's notoriously difficult to call in advance.
The worrisome signs for Clinton aren't so much in Obama's movement (and her lack thereof) as they are inside the numbers.
"A growing focus on fresh ideas coupled with lingering doubts about Hillary Clinton's honesty and forthrightness are keeping the Democratic presidential contest close in Iowa," ABC polling director Gary Langer reports.
"Most Democratic likely voters in Iowa, 55 percent, say they're more interested in a 'new direction and new ideas' than in strength and experience, compared with 49 percent in July -- a help to Obama, who holds a substantial lead among 'new direction' voters," Langer continues.
The comparable number favoring "strength and experience" is 33 percent.
If Iowa isn't quite a must-win for all of the Democrats, it is a must-not-let-Hillary win for all who would presume to interrupt the Bush-Clinton-Bush chain.
"Iowa Democrats are tilting toward change, and Obama appears to be benefiting from it," the Post's Anne Kornblut and Jon Cohen write.
"While about three-quarters credited both Obama and Edwards with speaking their mind on issues, only 50 percent said Clinton is willing enough to say what she really thinks," they write.
And this sentence that matters to anyone who's been in a real-life caucus room: "In another positive shift for Obama, 55 percent now see him as their first or second choice, an important trend in a state where a person's second choice can matter and voters often switch their support at the last minute."
"There is something of anti-Hillary vote among [supporters of] all the other candidates," ABC's George Stephanopoulos reported on "Good Morning America."
"This could really work for Barack Obama on Jan. 3."
You didn't have to look beyond Iowa on Monday to sense the urgency.
Clinton aides made clear that she had only one candidate in mind with this line on the stump in Iowa (and this hit's about the economy, not foreign policy): "There is one job we can't afford on-the-job training for: That is the job of our next president," Clinton said, ABC's Eloise Harper and Sunlen Miller report. "That could be the costliest job training in history."
Maybe she has no choice but to press her experience at her husband's side; without it, as Obama aides like to point out, she's spent less time in elected office than Obama himself. But what happened to running on your own merits?
Radio Iowa's O. Kay Henderson counted Clinton referring to her husband's presidency at least 16 times in just over half an hour on Monday. The back-to-the-'90s theme is just a cheesy VH1 special if voters don't want to go there with her.
Obama isn't ready to concede experience to Clinton.
"My understanding was that she wasn't Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, so I don't know exactly what experiences she's claiming," he said Monday. Per The New York Times' Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny, it's "the economy as a new proxy for their fight over experience" -- and Iowa is the battleground.
Tuesday brings some Clinton pushback against her Republican critics. (This is a primary campaign as general-election campaign -- and it's hard to miss the words "strength" and "experience" in this new TV ad.)
"Here they go again -- the same old Republican attack machine is back.
Why?" the announcer says in the new ad. "Maybe it's because they know that there's one candidate with the strength and experience to get us out of Iraq, one candidate who will end tax giveaways for the big corporations, one candidate committed to cutting the huge Republican deficit and one candidate who will put government back to work for the middle class."
It's Clinton's "first negative ad . . . hitting back at leading Republican hopefuls who in recent weeks have launched assaults at her over the airwaves," Kevin Landrigan reports in the Nashua Telegraph.
Clinton's battle with Obama is cast against the backdrop of the bizarre Novak item and its fallout (which prompted Obama to deny having done what he doesn't know he's being accused of doing, and the Clinton camp to accuse Obama of being naive to think he'd really been accused of doing anything at all).
Take a breath and listen to OpinionJournal.com's John Fund's best guess on the damaging information the Clinton camp is said to be sitting on:
"The murmured charge is that as an Illinois state senator, Mr. Obama engaged in a real estate deal that benefited him in exchange for legislative favors." (Aren't we Rezko'd out yet? In any event, how about we stop murmuring until somebody producing something in the way of actual evidence?)
Speaking of what we don't know, ABC's Avni Patel and Marcus Baram report that the Clinton library's secret donor list hasn't been all that secret -- for the right price.
"The Clinton Foundation sold portions of the list through a data company headed by a longtime friend and donor," Patel and Baram write.
The firm that handled it? A subsidiary of Vin Gupta's InfoUSA.
Gupta's "ties to the Clintons came under scrutiny earlier in the year when a lawsuit filed by InfoUSA shareholders accused Gupta of wasting millions of dollars of the company's money to 'ingratiate himself' with the Clintons and other personal friends."
And forget the White House papers -- there's still no public access to Clinton's files from her time as first lady of Arkansas.
"Limited staff and delays in renovations for two new archives have prevented processing thousands of boxes of documents from the administrations of former Govs. Clinton and Mike Huckabee, including a handful of files on Mrs. Clinton," AP's Andrew DeMillo writes.
(Is it possible that the Clinton message machine isn't going to find a way out of this cycle of stories? Anyone think this is helping her claim on honesty, integrity, and openness?)
Among the Republicans, a new poll has former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., solidifying his New Hampshire lead. It's Romney 33 -- up eight points in two months -- and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., at 16, down from 24 in September.
By holding steady, it's Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in second place in the WMUR/CNN poll, at 18 percent, though just 8 percent of poll respondents said McCain "has what it takes to win the nomination."
It's not an endorsement, but who will quibble with Sen. Chuck Grassley's, R-Iowa, prediction? Grassley thinks his state's Republican caucus-goers will hand Romney a victory, followed by former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., and Giuliani.
"First of all, Romney's got a state-to-state plan to do well in Iowa; he's putting money, putting resources and organization to get things done, and Huckabee, second, relates very much to Iowans," Grassley said Monday, the Des Moines Register's Abby Simons reports.
"Giuliani because he's waking up and realizes he's got to do third in Iowa if he's going to have a national chance."
Romney and Giuliani are sparring about -- what else? -- immigration. Giuliani on Monday repeated his link between illegal immigration and "reducing illegality" -- as in the crime rate in New York.
Read carefully (since the line was prepared carefully): "The policies that I utilized with regard to illegal immigration [in New York City] were, in the context of overall policies, probably were the most successful in the history of the country in creating an orderly, legal, lawful society," Giuliani said in touring the US-Mexico border, ABC's Jan Simmonds reports.
That's a caveat and a sub-clause too many for Romney to swallow, and his campaign dusted off quotes where Giuliani seemed to welcome illegal immigrants to New York.
"There are many cities in this country that have the rule of law but do not have sanctuary status, and I think when it comes to sanctuary cities the mayor's just frankly on the wrong page," Romney said, ABC's Matt Stuart reports.
Here's one secret to Romney's success: Romney's charitable foundation "gave $253,833 to groups helping the needy and to organizations influential in Republican circles last year," The Boston Globe's Michael Levenson reports.
Wonder if the $10,000 to the Heritage Foundaiton meant anything to Paul Weyrich (and he's accusing former senator Fred Thompson of buying endorsements??).
As for Thompson, R-Tenn., he's fading away like a second-rate actor in a forgettable miniseries. He's at 4 percent in New Hampshire in the WMUR/CNN poll, down from 13 percent two months ago -- and behind Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.
And House members who endorsed him are getting buyer's remorse (though not yet letting their names be published), CQ is reporting. "I think he's kind of done a belly flop," says one House endorser who's standing by his man.
Thompson says about what you'd expect him to say (though he finds a fresh way of saying it). There are "a lot of bullets yet to be fired in this thing," he said Monday, per ABC's Christine Byun. It helps, though, if he actually seems to be hunting.
Also in the news:
Edwards slips a bit in the new Iowa poll, but he brought out some star power Monday in Iowa.
He had Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne playing for him, with a repeat performance coming Tuesday.
"I'm ready for that thing called Edwards love, that's what I'm ready for," Raitt said, per ABC's Raelyn Johnson.
Monday's first musical event was "a populist-themed event dampened by the candidate's chronic tardiness," Tony Leys writes in the Des Moines Register.
Why did the event in Davenport start nearly an hour late? Spokesman Dan Leistikow (learning a harsh lesson in dismissing reporters' queries): "He just had some stuff going on." (Good thing the crowd had nowhere else to be, just like they'll have nothing better to do with their evening come caucus night.)
For the record, Edwards spent the previous night in the area, and "the noon appearance was his first of the day," Leys writes.
Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., running fourth in Iowa, talked healthcare Monday in New Hampshire.
At a forum sponsored by Families USA and the Federation of American Hospitals, he pitched himself as the best candidate to bring an overhaul of the healthcare system.
"I'm a diplomat," he said, CQ's Emily P. Walker reports.
Richardson told a Boston Globe editorial board that he needs to finish in the top three in the four early-voting states. "I want to come in under the radar at the end," he said.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., unveils his energy plan Tuesday, complete with a requirement that all cars sold in the US be capable of running on flex fuel by 2017.
"If we don't change our policy, oil will further empower the countries that produce it, restrict our options, and undermine our economic and physical security," Biden plans to say, per his campaign.
Obama turns to education on Tuesday, with a plan "that calls for affordable preschool for every child, higher pay for better teachers and the option of more class time for students," the Union Leader's Mark Hayward reports. He's broaching merit pay -- watch for that fallout.
The Obama campaign has its own fact-checking organ up, to counter Clinton's.
This is a bit wonky to become a major election issue, but McCain is promising to abandon the Bush-era practice of appending "signing statements" stating legal quibbles with bills he signs (like the one the president issued on the anti-torture bill).
"I would never issue a signing statement," he said Monday in New Hampshire, per The Boston Globe's Charlie Savage and James Pindell.
Campaigning in New Hampshire on Monday, McCain was asked about the attacks he weathered during his 2000 campaign in South Carolina, and his response is worth reading in full.
"I think one of the greatest problems in the political environment in America today is that we dwell on injuries and we dwell on insults and we question each others patriotism and love of country," McCain said, per ABC's Ron Claiborne. "I question no one's patriotism and love us country. I am going treat Senator Clinton with respect when I beat her in the next election."
In that vein, Time's Ana Marie Cox wonders why McCain is going easy on Clinton.
"McCain's unwillingness to make the 'anyone but Hillary' argument endangers one of the most substantial rationales he makes for his candidacy: the idea that he, alone among the Republicans, can beat Clinton in the general election," she writes.
"But McCain firmly believes he can accomplish that without engaging in the kind of politicking that was on display, say, between the Clinton and Barack Obama camps this past weekend."
Salon.com's Walter Shapiro and Michael Scherer are fans of the new Huckabee ad, the one featuring Chuck Norris as border enforcer (and playing straight man to Huckabee's jokester).
"Here is a serious candidate running for the most powerful post in the world -- on the strength of Chuck Norris' facial hair," they write. "And it's damn funny. And it makes sound political sense. And here's why: Most American voters care about politics, but they can't stand the politicians or the politicking."
But Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen gets serious in asking Huckabee -- not Romney -- to give the long-awaited JFK-style speech.
"I call on Mike Huckabee to give the speech that others have urged from Romney," Cohen writes. "Tell us how your religious beliefs, your rejection of accepted scientific knowledge, will not impinge on your presidency. We know your faith matters to you. We want to know whether it will matter to us."
The Los Angeles Times' Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar looks at the holes in the GOP healthcare plans.
"If the arguments against the Democratic presidential candidates' healthcare plans include higher taxes and greater government involvement, then the Achilles' heel of the GOP plans is their dependence on the private market, which often rejects applicants with health problems," he writes.
Lou Dobbs didn't quite slam the door on an independent presidential run Tuesday morning on "Good Morning America.
"That's not where my interest lies right now," he told ABC's Diane Sawyer. "I doubt very seriously that anything like that could even possibly emerge."
ABC's Charlie Gibson interviews the president Tuesday at Camp David. Stay tuned to ABCNews.com and tonight's "World News" for highlights and excerpts.
Just when you'd had enough of primary debates, we've got our general election dust-ups set. ABC's David Chalian reports that the Commission on Presidential Debates made its big announcement on Monday, and get ready for Sept. 26 at the University of Mississippi, Oct. 7 at Belmont University in Nashville, and Oct. 15 at Hofstra University on Long Island. (The veeps will go at it Oct. 2 at Washington University in St. Louis.)
If Clinton is the nominee, this gives her a home game less than three weeks before the general election -- pretty close to Rick Lazio's old congressional district, just for good luck.
"I know he needs the money, but he does have $80 million." -- Charles Barron, New York City Council member (and Obama supporter), on the $50-a-ticket entry fee for a fundraiser Obama's holding in Harlem next week.
"The Hulkster, maybe." -- Romney, asked if he had any martial-arts experts to counter Huckabee's endorsement by Chuck Norris. It was an apparent reference to Hulk Hogan, whose martial-arts skills are undocumented at this time.
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