THE NOTE: Hillary Inevitable No More?

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.

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