THE NOTE: Off Message

Such is the state of affairs in the Republican primary that we will look to a talking snowman Wednesday night to impose some order on the GOP field.

OK, so the snowman may not make an appearance -- but we can be pretty sure that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., will once again be the dominant presence on stage.

And former President Bill Clinton sure seems like he's making his best play to join her there -- and not for the right reasons.

The former president's unambiguous statement Tuesday night in Iowa -- that he "opposed Iraq from the beginning" -- provides the Clintons' many critics (in both parties) with plenty of fodder (as if they needed any more).

It comes in the midst of a raging debate with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., over foreign-policy credentials -- and as every single Republican tries to build himself up by taking Clinton down.

President Clinton has long been critical of the Iraq war, "but like his wife, the former president supported giving President Bush the authority needed to go to war," ABC's Teddy Davis, Eloise Harper, and Nancy Flores report.

This 2003 quote -- still available on the Clinton Foundation's Website -- is just as clear as what he said Tuesday night (and oppo-researchers know there are dozens more like it): "I supported the President when he asked the Congress for authority to stand up against weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

"Advisers to Mr. Clinton said yesterday that he did oppose the war, but that it would have been inappropriate at the time for him, a former president, to oppose -- in a direct, full-throated manner -- the sitting president's military decision," The New York Times' Patrick Healy writes. (And how does propriety figure into the fact that his latest claim came in dead-heat Iowa, five weeks before his wife wants to win the caucuses -- while overcoming her vote for a deeply unpopular war?)

Once again, this is the former president seeming to read from his own playbook. (Anyone think Camp Clinton wants another debate over who was for the war and who was against it? Anyone think Oprah will be as off-message as Clinton when she hits the trail for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., next weekend?)

"All of this refocuses attention where his wife does not want it," ABC's Jake Tapper reported on "Good Morning America" on Wednesday.

And it comes on the heels of Sen. Clinton's efforts to buff up her foreign-policy resume (think Ireland), as well as her mildly surprising assertion Tuesday that she'd call on Colin Powell (yes, President Bush's first secretary of state) to pitch in on a diplomatic push. (Says Powell: "No comment.")

A new front in the Obama-Clinton rumble opens on Wednesday, with Clinton delivering a speech in Iowa at 1:15 pm ET that will press "the idea that you can't call yourself a change candidate if you produce a weak plan for the key domestic challenge facing the country today -- health care," per a Clinton aide.

Obama aides are pushing back by arguing that Clinton in the 1990s opposed an "individual mandate" for healthcare, just as Obama opposes one now, the Chicago Tribune's John McCormick reports.

Clinton, in a 1994 speech circulated Wednesday morning by a "rival campaign" (any guesses?): "The only examples we have of individual mandates are those like auto insurance requirements in many states where, in spite of the fact that the state has access to all drivers through the licensing process, literally thousands and even hundreds of thousands of drivers remain uninsured in states with such an individual mandate."

Counter-spin from Camp Clinton, on "In fact, her 1993 legislation included an individual mandate. Hillary learned a lot from her experience fighting for universal healthcare in 1993, and has changed some of the ways she approaches the issue to reflect that experience.

But she has never wavered from her belief that you simply cannot cover all Americans without including an individual requirement." (The quote, they say, was taken out of context.)

The latest news from Bill and Hillary could rewrite some lines for Wednesday night's GOP forum in St. Petersburg, Fla., when the Republican candidates finally overcome their scheduling conflicts to attend the long-delayed CNN-YouTube debate.

It's been a month since the Republicans last met on stage, and in that time we've seen -- to cite just a few developments: the quick rise of Rep. Ron Paul and former governor Mike Huckabee; the slow slip of former senator Fred Thompson; the resilience of Sen. John McCain; and the schoolyard brawl between the two men who remain the most likely to remain standing come late January -- former governor Mitt Romney and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

USA Today's Mark Memmott and Catalina Camia count the words spoken at the seven previous GOP debates, and see "Reagan" edging out "Hillary," 30-28. Here's guessing that the junior senator from New York is beating the Gipper by at least a touchdown after Wednesday showdown.

"The campaigns of the top candidates are scattering accusations and snippets of 'opposition research' like birdshot in the hopes of winging an opponent," The Boston Globe's Brian Mooney writes in curtain-raising the Florida forum. "Mitt Romney, the poll leader in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Rudy Giuliani, the front-runner in national polls, are the most frequent duelists, but Fred Thompson, John McCain, and, increasingly, the surging Mike Huckabee are also mixing it up in combinations that change depending on the issue, the day, or the latest poll result."

Romney vs. Rudy is one big game of "He likes Hillary" -- "No, eww, HE likes Hillary." "He was all roses and petals for Hillary's [healthcare] plan," Romney, R-Mass., said yesterday of Giuliani, R-N.Y., per the New York Post's Carl Campanile.

The Giuliani campaign's response: "Governor Mitt Romney passed a mandate and tax hike laden health care plan in Massachusetts which Hillary Clinton's own legislative director said was just like HillaryCare."

"As with all decent fighters -- and both men are agile pols who can give as well as take a punch -- they are both going after each other's perceived glass jaws," ABC's Jake Tapper writes on his blog. "Romney wants to paint Giuliani as liberal. Giuliani wants to paint Romney as an ineffective leader."

The political terrain invites the slaps. "If one could be judged conservative by association, then each of the leading Republicans would be golden. Leading up to the debate, the candidates have been touting endorsements from prominent conservative leaders," Wes Allison writes in the St. Petersburg Times. "But the list may say more about the fractured state of the right -- and the uncertainty of the outcome of the Republican race -- than about who's the true conservative."

Says Tony Perkins: "If you could do a mix and match among the candidates, you could probably create a perfect candidate within the mix." (Surely if there's a way, YouTube has found it.)

If the last YouTube debate is any guide -- and if the YouTube users themselves have anything to do with it -- Wednesday's debate should toss the candidates some curveballs. (There's a reason they were scared of the format.)

Get ready for a "dip in the culturally and politically treacherous waters of YouTube," per Gannett's Chuck Raasch.

Going into the debate, Romney's on the offensive, but he's also being forced into playing some defense. In the wake of the Tuesday's Christian Science Monitor op-ed, alleging that Romney said he "cannot see" appointing a Muslim to his Cabinet, Talking Points Memo's Greg Sargent has details of another occasion where the subject of Muslims came up.

Sargent reports: "Irma Aguirre, a former finance director of the Nevada Republican Party, paraphrased Romney as saying: 'They're radical. There's no talking to them. There's no negotiating with them.'"

Romney's response to the mini-controversy -- "I don't have boxes that I check off as to their ethnicity" -- is the "right" answer. But this is a candidate who still has questions about religion dogging him like a campaign tracker.

He's gotten plenty of advice on whether to give the big Mormon speech at some point, though this voice may be worth listening to. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told a group of college students Tuesday that Romney needs a "JFK moment," per the Salt Lake Tribune's Donald W. Meyers.

Hatch went further afterward, in an interview with the AP. "There's a concern that his religious beliefs might interfere with serving all people. There's no question they do not," said Hatch, also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "He needs to put that problem to bed."

"That problem" is awake and roaming around Iowa in large part because of Huckabee's rise. "The religious divide over Mitt Romney's Mormon faith that his supporters had long feared would occur is emerging in Iowa as he is being challenged in state polls by Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor who has played up his faith in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination," Michael Luo writes in The New York Times. "Mr. Huckabee's advisers admit privately they are cognizant of how Mr. Romney's religion can work against him and how Mr. Huckabee's evangelical roots are to their advantage at least among some voters."

"Social conservative single-issue voters seem to have decided, en masse, to coalesce around Huckabee and use Iowa to prove to the world that they still matter in the Republican Party and are tired of being taken advantage of," The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder writes. "This dynamic, which Republican operatives working for all candidates perceive, is hard to break. And Huckabee can run what would be, in effect, an anti-Mormon campaign solely by legitimately appealing to evangelicals' identity interests."

Romney doesn't sound like he thinks The Speech is necessary (though it's ready to go when the big man says the word). "I think as people come to know my faith they'll recognize that the values of my faith are -- they very much flow from the Judeo-Christian tradition of this country. I believe in God, I believe in Jesus Christ, I believe in the equality of all humankind," Romney told the Washington Times' Joseph Curl. (When, exactly, is he convinced that the people will study up on Mormonism without his prompting?)

Let's see what he says when and if the snowman comes calling Wednesday night. And just in time for the debate, the DNC wants you to make your own Republican blooper videos. The party on Wednesday launches a new site compiling embarrassing moments featuring the GOP candidates on the trail -- free for the public to use however they wish.

Also in the news:

Sen. Clinton escalated the endorsement battle on Tuesday -- and no, not with Colin Powell. I see your Oprah and raise you a Barbra. "Madame President of the United States," Barbra Streisand mused, per the New York Daily News' Helen Kennedy. "It's an extraordinary thought."

As for Obama's big celebrity backer -- Clinton's an Oprah fan (sort of). "I am a great admirer of Oprah," she told the Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet. "But people are going to decide based on the candidates, about our experience and our qualifications, our plans for the future and whether, you know, we actually can bring about the change that we are advocating." (In other words, my surrogates = good; his = irrelevant.)

But (and this will happen with Oprah as well) some of those who come out to see the former president aren't necessarily enamored with his favorite candidate. The fact that he draws big crowds "doesn't necessarily mean all the Clinton-era nostalgia is rubbing off on Hillary," the Rocky Mountain News' M.E. Sprengelmeyer writes. "It's a powerful supplement to Sen. Clinton's solo credentials. But it's hardly a panacea."

The New York Times' Adam Nagourney plumbs the depths of the 2000 Senate race that never was, for clues as to what a general election match-up might look like. (Here's guessing it won't be an uplifting and enlightening discussion of the major problems and issues that confront the United States of America.)

"Mr. Giuliani was going to portray Mrs. Clinton as inauthentic, inexperienced, a liberal champion of big government and a carpetbagger," Nagourney writes. "Mrs. Clinton was going to paint Mr. Giuliani as divisive and undignified, temperamentally unsuited for the Senate, and profoundly uninterested in national and international affairs."

Rudy was planning a TV ad slamming her for not having ever attended a Yankees game, while his aides had compiled 11 pages under the heading "Stupid Actions and Remarks." (How long would her section on him have been?)

And Clinton adviser Howard Wolfson seems more scared about 2008 than he was about 2000: "I am surprised at the way he has kept his anger in check."

The Boston Globe's Susan Milligan also picks up on the possibility of "the political equivalent of a subway series for the White House: a battle between two Empire State politicians that could bring attention and money the state has not seen in decades."

Obama was thinking philosophical foreign-policy thoughts Tuesday in New Hampshire -- but with a political purpose. "Amid stepped-up attacks by Hillary Clinton claiming that Obama lacks the experience to face a dangerous world, the Obama camp turned loose a half dozen of the foreign policy experts in his fold to show the world the kind of high-caliber minds that are advising the first-term senator, who joined the panel of experts after nearly two hours of their deep ruminations," Alec MacGillis writes for The Washington Post.

A glimmer of hope out of Maryland (with apologies to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad): "Israeli and Palestinian leaders pledged yesterday in Annapolis to begin negotiations next month for a possible peace agreement, but their speeches before representatives of 40 countries -- including Arab nations with no diplomatic ties with Israel -- laid bare the deep grievances between them and the tough compromises that will be necessary to forge a lasting deal," The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler reports.

"They're now ready to go," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America." "The United States will be a strong partner. We will be a strong facilitator."

The New York Times' Steven Lee Myers and Helene Cooper: "Its success, both sides said, will depend in part on how vigorously President Bush pushes Palestinians and Israelis toward resolving the core issues that have bedeviled peace negotiators since 1979."

Another day, another White House departure: Alan Hubbard, President Bush's top economic adviser, will step down at the end of the year, ABC's Ann Compton confirms.

"Mr. Hubbard's departure comes as the White House confronts one of the biggest economic challenges of Mr. Bush's presidency, the mortgage crisis that has triggered big losses on Wall Street, rising foreclosures and recession fears," John McKinnon reports in The Wall Street Journal. "It also appears to further cement the position of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson as the administration's pre-eminent voice on economic matters."

More fun Rudy associations: "A Pennsylvania man convicted in a notorious corruption case played host to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani at a fundraiser last night, despite the Giuliani campaign's public efforts to distance itself from the man," ABC's Avni Patel and Richard Esposito report.

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., doesn't like the Clinton campaign suggesting that Clinton's rivals will be part of her team. (Examples?) "I think here's this kind of a sell out there coming from the Clinton camp that you can have me as president, you can probably have Barack as vice president and you can have Biden as secretary of state," Biden tells the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody.

The kicker:

"One of the great pleasures of running for president has been, you know, to go to some tiny town in Iowa and you've got some guy in overalls and a seed hat say, 'what do you think about the situation in Burma?' You know, and you think he is going to ask you about corn -- and he asks you about Burma." -- Obama, on the campaign trail.

"They don't last long in the cookie jar." -- Last instruction in the recipe for Great-Grandma Gravel's Biscuits a la Creme Sure, as submitted to Yankee Magazine.

"We'll have as much spine as we possibly can, under the circumstances." -- Sen. Clinton, on the trail.

"It is time for our party, the Democratic Party, to show a little backbone." -- Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., in a recent campaign ad.

I'll be live-blogging during Wednesday night's Republican debate in St. Petersburg, Fla., starting at 8 pm ET. Be part of the conversation here.

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