THE NOTE: Huck Rises Above GOP Squabbles

Maybe Mitt Romney won by kicking more illegal immigrants out more quickly than his major rivals

(and, while tending his backyard, adding another year to Red Sox fans' suffering).

Maybe Rudy Giuliani won by besting King Kong, taming snowfall, and bringing the Yankees World Championships (all in one night where he got away with barely answering the latest charges against him).

Maybe John McCain won by condemning torture (though he does seem to make a Ron Paul exception -- a Hitler comparison? Bet his campaign gets an email or two today.).

Maybe Ron Paul won by spending some of his millions on a plane that circled downtown St. Pete Wednesday afternoon (and, of course, winning the online polls).

Maybe Fred Thompson . . . was present and alert for most of the evening (though his gun-rights defense qualified him least likely to get shot by a questioner -- and his YouTube video is a new strategy, should he choose to accept it).

But maybe the GOP candidates who had all those scheduling problems before agreeing to Wednesday evening's CNN-YouTube debate should have been more worried about one of their rivals than about the questioners. And Maybe there's a reason that former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., is suddenly a top-tier contender in Iowa.

At the first debate since Huckabee's emergence, he was the most consistent and confident star of a scattered, fractured stage -- witty, self-deprecating, and seemingly genuine in a way that his (still better-known) rivals could only envy. (And, thanks to Chuck Norris, he even won the game of spin-room buzz.)

"The debate showcased some of the fierce battles that have raged recently between Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mitt Romney," Michael Cooper and Marc Santora write in The New York Times. Yet it was Huckabee in a "central role, demonstrating how he had come from behind to show strength in several recent polls of Iowa caucusgoers."

Huckabee's rivals can thank him defusing perhaps the trickiest question of the night -- about whether Jesus would believe in the death penalty -- with a response for the highlight reel: "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office."

And on immigration -- now more than ever the top issue in the GOP race -- he issued a passionate defense of a policy that is deeply unpopular with the Republican base (as if such a thing were allowed anymore.) "In all due respect, we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did," Huckabee said while tangling with Romney over his decision to let the children of illegal immigrants apply for state-sponsored scholarships.

The immigration exchange between Giuliani, R-N.Y., and Romney, R-Mass., set the tone for an aggressive evening. They got busy "accusing each other of providing havens for undocumented immigrants -- Giuliani as mayor, and Romney on his lawn," Celeste Katz and David Saltonstall write in the New York Daily News.

"In another indication the Republican nomination is truly up for grabs, their toughest interrogators were each other," ABC's Jake Tapper writes. "In many instances the disagreement among the eight Republican contenders were not just political arguments, there was tangible disdain."

"As the debate continued over two hours, the most frequent target was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has been a leader in the two states that loom largest in the early voting -- Iowa and New Hampshire," Peter Nicholas and Joe Mathews write in the Los Angeles Times.

(Maybe Romney should have stayed on the football field.)

"What was striking is how so many of these candidates are ripe for attack on so many core conservative issues," Adam Smith writes in the St. Petersburg Times. "After two hours of a frequently dramatic and sometimes quirky forum, we still don't know who is the clear Giuliani alternative.

That's good news for the former New York mayor, whose path to the nomination is a lot easier with so many other viable, if flawed, candidates battling for the conservative mantle."

In that scattershot environment, cue Mike Huckabee. "Huck isĀ rising, and now we know why," Michael Goodwin writes in the New York Daily News. "Anyone who watched Wednesday night's debate now understands much better who he is and why he is suddenly the GOP man to watch."

"He has mastered the art of appearing engaging and almost sweet but resolute on social issues," the American Spectator's Jennifer Rubin writes.

"This was the debate he needed to cement his image as an articulate, utterly engaging social conservative. He did so."

For some reason, Huckabee wasn't really attacked Wednesday night (notwithstanding Thompson's clip, featuring a hefty Huck endorsing a tax hike).

"It was Mike Huckabee who may have had the best night," the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody writes.

"Whether you agree with him or not, it seemed like every issue he talked about Wednesday had a well thought out, coherent argument behind it. When he speaks, the tone and words flow harmoniously."

Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen scores three winners: McCain, R-Ariz., Thompson, R-Tenn., and Huckabee.

"McCain had his strongest debate of the campaign. He was forceful and blunt throughout," Yepsen writes. "Thompson hasn't been in that many debates, so this one was easily his best. . . . Huckabee has come out of single digits to play in the big leagues of this campaign, and his good-natured performance Wednesday shows he can swing an oratorical bat with the best of them."

McCain was at his best talking torture: "How in the world someone could think that that kind of thing could be inflicted on people who are in our custody is absolutely beyond me."

Thompson was mostly ignored by his rivals -- but if he follows up with anything nearly as aggressive as his YouTube submission,

Shades of a new strategy: "A guy shoots a pea-shooter at you, and you punch him in the side of the head," Thompson cheerleader Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., told ABC News after the debate. "These guys can't defend their records."

And look for Romney to start hitting Huckabee as well starting on Thursday. New line unveiled on the talk-show rounds: Romney says he can't imagine Republicans voting for someone who's "soft on immigration and hard on taxpayers."

Read the transcript of my live debate blog here.

So Huckabee may or may not be getting more scrutiny -- here's guessing that's an affirmative -- but Giuliani hasn't even begun to face the implications of the latest revelation about his past.

Politico's Ben Smith has the scoop -- complete with suggestions of security expenses that could be related to his then-secret dalliances with Judith Nathan.

"The mayoral costs had nothing to do with the functions of the little-known city offices that defrayed his tabs, including agencies responsible for regulating loft apartments, aiding the disabled and providing lawyers for indigent defendants," Smith writes. "It's also impossible to know whether the purpose of all the Hamptons trips was to see Nathan.

A Giuliani spokeswoman declined to discuss any aspect of this story, which was explained in detail to her earlier this week."

Forget the details of billing (though it's fun to reminisce about how cheap gas used to be): This is the chapter in Rudy's life that he does not want to be discussing five weeks before the Iowa caucuses. And the Giuliani campaign has a (small) window to get out in front of this story, instead of airy dismissals that won't make it go away.

"The prospect that the declassified financial records presage a string of similarly embarrassing stories emanating from his time at City Hall could, at the least, topple Mr. Giuliani from the front-runner status he currently enjoys in the Republican presidential race," Nicholas Wapshott writes in the New York Sun.

Meanwhile, among the Democrats, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is Time's new (glowing) coverboy. He says in an interview with the magazine that he would hire the "talented" former President Bill Clinton "in a second," and would bring on board former Vice President Al Gore "in a minute."

And this on the state of play in the campaign: "If you look at every public statement I've made over the last two months, you'd be hard-pressed to say that at any point we've been gratuitous, nasty, personal."

And maybe Obama will be playing some defense himself on Thursday. The Chicago Sun-Times writes up the details of another odd real-estate deal involving Obama. As a board member on a charity, Obama voted to award $1 million to a former boss who was seeking a grant to help with a development.

"It's not clear whether Obama told other board members of his ties to [Allison] Davis, whose family would go on to donate more than $25,000 to Obama's political campaigns, including his bid to be president of the United States," the Sun-Times' Tim Novak reports.

Pushback from the Obama campaign: "The facts are clear -- 7 years ago while serving in a charitable board position for a foundation that helps redevelop underprivileged communities, Barack Obama voted with many others in support of a project, funded with other foundations, to help build more affordable housing and bring new retail options to low income neighborhoods that were considered too risky for traditional investors."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., was oddly missing from the Republican debate (notwithstanding Huckabee's readiness to punch her ticket for Mars). She used the lull to step up her attack on Obama over his healthcare plan, saying that his plan does provide universal coverage: "When it comes to truth in labeling, his plan simply flunks the test."

"The New York senator's unusually harsh tone on the subject came with Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses five weeks away," Seema Mehta writes in the Los Angeles Times.

"For most of the year, Clinton has avoided criticizing her Democratic competitors, taking the position of the above-the-fray front-runner. But lately she has traded charges with other candidates, reflecting the pressures all candidates face to perform well here."

But that storyline isn't getting the traction of Bill Clinton's claim Tuesday night that he opposed the Iraq war "from the beginning." Per ABC's Sunlen Miller, Obama found it humorous: "Well if he did . . . I don't think most of us have heard about it."

Obama's in the former president's (adopted) backyard Thursday night, with a 7 pm ET fund-raiser at Harlem's Apollo Theater.

AP's Ron Fournier looks at Bill Clinton's latest campaign appearance by the numbers. "He was unscripted, in-depth and generous," Fournier writes in his "On Deadline" column.

"He also was long-winded, misleading and self-absorbed." How many performances like this before he becomes scarce on the trail? Fournier: "He used the word 'I' a total of 94 times and mentioned 'Hillary' just seven times in an address that was as much about his legacy as it was about his wife's candidacy."

Democratic strategist Dan Payne calls the surrogate battle for Oprah in his Boston Globe column: "Tiebreaker: When was the last time average women bought millions of books recommended by Bill Clinton?"

And this one's not Clinton's fault -- but CNN has some explaining to do for letting a Clinton supporter ask a question of the Republican candidates (and then follow up with a televised diatribe).

It turns out that Retired Brig. Gen. Keith H. KerrĀ is a co-chairman of Clinton's "National Military Veterans" group (and the conservative blogosphere is not amused).

This from the Clinton campaign Thursday: "Keith Kerr is not a campaign employee and was not acting on behalf of the campaign."

Also in the news:

Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., has found another new way to engage Clinton in a fight. He's seeking "to sign up one million voters who promise they won't vote or caucus for any candidate who 'accepts campaign contributions from Washington lobbyists' and lobbyist political action committees," The Wall Street Journal's Christopher Cooper reports.

"The target is clear: Of the three leading Democrats -- Mr. Edwards, Mrs. Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama -- only Mrs. Clinton hasn't turned down special-interest money."

The new Edwards Web site:

Edwards is Charlie Gibson's subject in ABC's "Who Is?" series on Thursday, on the "World News" broadcast and Webcast.

This on how his son's 1996 death affected him: "It makes you think more about what you're spending your life doing -- whether you're actually spending your life in service of others, in service of the greater good. It makes you examine yourself."

And this on what makes him different in this campaign: "When I was running in the nomination process in 2003 and 2004, I'd spend most of my time thinking about being a candidate. And since that time, I've spent most of my time thinking about what I'd want to do as President. And those two things are not the same."

Yet another damaging storyline emerges for Edwards: His secret "ticket wishlist" at the University of North Carolina. "Exact details of what Edwards asked of the Tar Heels remain a secret," AP's Mike Baker reports.

"Neither the school nor the Democratic presidential candidate is willing to release a 'ticket wishlist' described in an e-mail between an Edwards adviser and the school's former law school dean." (The Edwards camp may want to cough this one up before talking more about secret documents and sleazy influence-peddling.)

If Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., has a moment left in him, this could be it. The International Association of Fire Fighters on Thursday kicks off an eight-day, 20-city bus tour on Dodd's behalf, ABC's Donna Hunter reports.

"Firefighters are at their very best when they are told that something is impossible to achieve, that characteristic is what makes them so politically effective," IAFF president Harold Schaitberger says. It worked for Sen. John Kerry . . .

(That's a lot of white hair rolling by in Iowa . . . )

Dodd tells AP's Mike Glover that he's still in the game: "Iowans make up their minds late in this process and the door is still wide, wide open here in terms of people deciding," Dodd said. "The last two weeks, they will make up their minds."

And Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., sets his expectations -- and does so honestly. He says he needs a top-three finish in Iowa to continue, per Radio Iowa's O. Kay Henderson. "I think one of us is going to end up supplanting one of the so-called top tier candidates," he said.

Biden on Thursday will press his Iraq plan in a speech in New Hampshire. "Remember, the stated purpose of the surge was to allow Iraqis to come together politically," he plans to say, per his campaign. "There is no evidence -- none -- that that has happened.

And there is no evidence -- none -- that it will happen so long as the Bush Administrations and its supporters stick to the failed strategy of trying to build a strong central government in Iraq that wins the trust of its people."

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, knows how to explode a "money bomb" -- the tally was $4.2 million during his 24-hour haul. But "attempts by other campaigns to light their own money bombs have flopped," ABC's Z. Byron Wolf reports.

"When Obama's campaign tried to light a money bomb online recently attempting to raise $5 million on 'Barack Friday,' on November 16th, they was no boom. Not even a fizz. Just some empty wind and $4,600 from 72 people, according to the temperature gauge on Obama's website."

As Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., heads to the money mill, his brother-in-law is facing an indictment in an alleged bribery connected to a Hurricane Katrina lawsuit.

"High-profile attorney Richard 'Dickie' Scruggs, his son Zach Scruggs and three cohorts offered a state court judge $50,000 in cash bribes to rule their way, a federal grand jury charged Wednesday," Anita Lee and Robin Fitzgerald write in the (Mississippi) Sun Herald. "The grand jury returned the indictment in U.S. District Court in Oxford, where Dickie Scruggs' main office is located. FBI agents searched the office Tuesday."

The writers' strike claims a casualty (Katie Couric). The Democrats' Dec. 10 debate in Los Angeles, which was scheduled to be broadcast on CBS, is off. "There are no plans to re-schedule," said DNC Communications Director Karen Finney.

The kicker:

"Honey, I shoot my mouth off like a neophyte!" -- Roberta McCain, in a People magazine spread. The issue hits newsstands on Friday.

"This is my favorite site since I've been campaigning." -- Obama, campaigning in Iowa over the smell of manure, with a sign behind him touting the "Bred Cow Policy."

"Instead of grabbing my flag, like they're supposed to, my son, Matt, tackled me. But fortunately he didn't throw me to the ground and make me eat grass."

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