This just may be the moment the political world has been waiting for.
The moment when former mayor Rudolph Giuliani -- he of the famous temper, the "nasty" streak, the colorful personal life, and a heretofore preternatural ability to overcome a shady past to remain the national GOP frontrunner -- either does or does not effectively confront the central critiques of his candidacy.
The story about security billing records from his time as mayor comes out at a terrible time for Giuliani, R-N.Y. Emerging five weeks before Iowa, Giuliani called the story a "hit job" on Thursday, and dispatched one his top operatives, Joe Lhota, to attack the reporter who broke the story.
"This was really done to try to focus on my personal life," Giuliani said, per ABC's Jake Tapper and Wonbo Woo. "They were handled openly, honestly, it was the practice that was going on since my first term and the idea was to get the bills paid quickly."
But Rudy is unlikely to get the benefit of the doubt on anything that veers close to involving his personal life -- or his management of New York that constitutes his main rationale for running for president. New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson still doesn't buy it: "If anyone hoped that no one would notice, they were being foolish," he told ABC News.
Maybe it's innocuous -- but the burden is on Giuliani's campaign to prove it.
Aides are going to have to do better than this: "Why it was done this way, I don't know," Anthony Carbonetti, Giuliani's then-chief of staff, told Politico's Ben Smith, who broke the story on Wednesday. Writes Smith: "Neither [Giuliani] nor his aides have questioned any of the facts reported by Politico."
"DOESN'T ADD UP!" blares the New York Daily News. Joe Lhota at first said the billing practice predates Giuliani, but had to backtrack when told that Dinkins and Koch aides disputed that.
"I'm going to reverse myself on that," he said, per David Saltonstall and Michael Saul. "I'm just going to talk about the Giuliani era. . . . I should only talk about what I know about." (And, sometimes, what he's learning about on the fly.)
More 'splainin' to do: "Neither Mr. Giuliani nor Mr. Lhota explained why the travel expenses for the security detail were spread across the budgets of an array of obscure mayoral offices rather than paid out of a single account in the mayor's office," William K. Rashbaum and Russ Buettner write in The New York Times.
And timing is everything: the report broke "hours before Wednesday night's Republican debate and as his campaign geared up for January's Iowa caucuses. The reports also arrived as one of his rivals, Mitt Romney, was raising questions about fiscal stewardship of New York City during his two terms as mayor."
Why not tell this to Ben Smith and the Politico when he first called to ask about these records and the city comptroller's concern about them? Why not share any information with the city comptroller when questions were first asked about this six years ago? Did Bernie Kerik have anything to do with any of this?"
One more question: Would a Giuliani administration pay for the war in Iraq by handing the Department of Education a fistful of IOUs?
If this is all innocuous, Rudy's folks missed a chance to make it go away long ago: Per Rashbaum and Buettner, "Thompson said that "auditors working under his predecessor first raised questions about the travel costs during the Giuliani administration. Their requests to the Giuliani administration for details and justification went unanswered."
ABC's Richard Esposito tosses in another nugget: "Well before it was publicly known he was seeing her, then-married New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani provided a police driver and city car for his mistress Judith Nathan, former senior city officials tell the Blotter on ABCNews.com."
Giuliani's rivals haven't picked the security expenses story up yet on the trail -- but how long will that take in this environment?
"Republican presidential contenders are shredding Ronald Reagan's '11th Commandment' call for party decorum, and acting more like feuding Democrats of yore," Bloomberg's Ed Chen writes.
"The candidates are engaging in escalating personal attacks on each other, turning policy debates into angry exchanges and questioning their foes' veracity."
On the Democratic side, with the Democrats convening just outside Washington for the DNC meeting on Friday, former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., is set to deliver a barn-burner of the speech taking aim at those inside of Washington.
"There's a wall around Washington and we need to take it down," Edwards plans to say, per excerpts provided to ABC News.
"You have to decide what kind of person you want as your next president. Do you want someone who is going to pretend that wall around Washington isn't there, or defend the people who helped build it? Or do you want someone who is going to lead with conviction and tell you the truth, and have a little backbone?"
"Do you want someone who is going to hope that the people who spent millions of dollars and decades building that wall, and have billions more invested in keeping it up, are going to be willing to compromise, to take it down voluntarily? Or do you want someone who is going to stand up to those people and fight for your interests, when the chips are down, when your backs are against the wall, every single day?"
That attack aside, here's five extremely different storylines that add up to one extremely large point that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign can't be happy about:
1. Former president Bill Clinton is talking -- in defensive detail -- about all those records that remain in sealed boxes at the Clinton library, Friday evening on C-SPAN.
2. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is eating power meals, with the Rev. Al Sharpton on Thursday, and with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., Friday morning.
3. The Washington Post has noticed that ABC's Kate Snow (and dozens of other journalists) can't manage to shout a question in the candidate's direction.
4. Clinton, D-N.Y., likes to say lobbyists represent "real" people -- but only, it seems, if most real people work for drug companies.
5. The campaign appears to have conducted actual real polling on the crucial question of how Barbra Streisand's endorsement would play in Iowa. That's the way we are, Babs.
Obama did his star turn at the Apollo Theater Thursday night -- just down the street, of course, from the former president's Harlem office.
"Obama made references to civil-rights issues and drew laughs with a clear reference to Clinton, saying, 'I'm not running because I'm trying to fulfill some long-held plans. I'm not running because I somehow think this is owed to me. I never expected to be here,' " write the New York Post's Maggie Haberman and Rosie Dalton. Obama: "Poll-testing positions because we're worried about what Mitt [Romney] or Rudy [Giuliani] might say about this just won't do."
But one appearance won't clinch him the black vote, per ABC's David Wright, Sunlen Miller, and Jennifer Parker. Harlem resident Herbert Matthews: "Obama, now, we never seen him out here, for him to come out of the blue because it's primary time and now we need the votes, we're not with that, we need people that are here to support the people here in the community."
It was a different sort of day for Clinton. One of the unlikelier sights of the campaign to date: a standing ovation at Pastor Rick Warren's church. "The video speeches given by other candidates did not elicit nearly the applause or attention that Clinton received," ABC's Eloise Harper writes.
"Many evangelical Christians have taken issue with Hillary Clinton for promoting abortion rights, gay rights and teen condom use, but you wouldn't have known it from the standing ovation that greeted her at Saddleback Church this afternoon," Martin Wisckol writes in the Orange County Register. "Although all leading presidential candidates were invited, Clinton was the only one to show up for the annual Global Summit on AIDS and the Church."
But . . . The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz writes up the closed-down Clinton press operation -- including a body block that prevented Kate Snow from getting within questioning range of the candidate.
"Such is life spent trailing the Clinton juggernaut, where reporters can generally get close enough to watch but no further, as if separated from the candidate by an invisible sheet of glass," Kurtz writes. "National correspondents are increasingly frustrated by a lack of access to Clinton. They spend much of their time in rental cars chasing her from one event to the next, because the campaign usually provides no press bus or van."
Then there's Clinton's assertion that it's OK to accept lobbyists' money because "a lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans. They represent nurses, they represent social workers."
Per Lindsay Renick Mayer of the Center for Responsive Politics, "Clinton's assertion doesn't quite hit the mark. While some lobbyists certainly do represent 'real' people and large corporations, those who are contributing to the 2008 presidential candidates -- including the senator from New York -- aren't on Capitol Hill to talk about the issues of nurses or social workers, or firefighters or cops."
One little (big) example: "Lobbyists who represent health professionals, including the nurses Clinton singled out, account for $82,805 in contributions to her, while those representing the pharmaceutical industry paid out $562,900."
And there's the former president sitting down with C-SPAN's Brian Lamb for an extended interview -- and an extended explanation about why so many millions of documents from his presidency remain sealed away.
It's the National Archives' fault, he says: "I want this stuff out there. . . . I have asked them already on two occasions if they would speed up a particular release, and they declined to do so. That's OK. But the American public just needs to know, we're getting this stuff out as soon as we can. . . . I think I'm entitled to the benefit of a doubt here."
But -- between the lines -- he acknowledges some hold-up on his end: Bruce Lindsey's only gone through 20,000 of the 26,000 documents the archives sent to him before final release, and the archives won't release any of those documents until he's finished.
No volume of documents will keep this from sticking around as a campaign issue. (The RNC is leading its Web site Friday morning with "Hillary's Library Lockdown.") And if the former president is right and his wife's schedules from the White House years become public in January, expect a silly season of blogospheric dissections.
Surely Clinton supporters can be pleased with the support of a Kennedy -- right? Well . . . "Robert F. Kennedy Jr. endorsed Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton for president today, and headed out to campaign for her in Iowa -- a state where he once told residents, 'large-scale hog producers are a greater threat to the United States and U.S. democracy than Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network,' " writes The New York Times' Patrick Healy.
In the endorsement game, Clinton picks up another interesting one, even as Obama was at the Apollo. The Rev. Jesse Jackson's wife, Jacqueline, tells Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times: "Hillary is ready to lead on her first day in the White House and immediately begin delivering the change this country needs." Jesse and Jesse Jr. are both on board for Obama.
Obama has a piece of unwelcome news to explain away as well. The story of Obama's PAC contributions is getting more interesting -- and potentially more troubling for Obama.
"Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign helped recommend several of the donations his political action committee made in recent months to politicians in key primary states as the campaign was working to secure endorsements," The Washington Post's John Solomon writes.
"The acknowledgment alters the campaign's original account of how donations were directed and raised questions among some legal experts about whether the presidential committee was using Obama's leadership PAC to benefit his campaign."
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman takes the Clinton/Edwards side in the healthcare debate with Obama: "Mr. Obama, who just two weeks ago was telling audiences that his plan was essentially identical to the Edwards and Clinton plans, is attacking his rivals and claiming that his plan is superior. It isn't -- and his attacks amount to cheap shots."
And CNN is having a bad few days as well. It wasn't just the gay general: "Several Internet commentators said the cable-TV network should have screened out Democratic partisans," James Rainey writes in the Los Angeles Times.
"In postings that popped up throughout the day Thursday, they said that: A Texas woman identified only as 'Journey,' who asked if women should be punished for having abortions, had appeared in another YouTube video wearing a 'John Edwards '08' T-shirt; a man asking a question during the debate about gay rights had also appeared on a social networking site as a supporter of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and a Manhattan Beach man -- while tasting an ear of corn and asking a tough question about farm subsidies -- had once worked as a summer intern for Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice)."
Also in the news:
We can call off the watch for former governor Mitt Romney's Big Mormon Speech -- at least for now.
"As outside pressure mounts on Mitt Romney to deliver a 'Mormon speech' in the style of John F. Kennedy's 1960 address on his Catholicism, the Romney campaign has reached an internal decision to delay such a speech at least until early next year," Belief.net's Dan Gilgoff reports.
Gilgoff: "The anti-speech faction has won the debate at least for the time being, arguing that such an address could be given only once, and that the news environment is too cluttered for one speech to break through in a lasting way. But perhaps the strongest argument against the speech is Romney's success in early primary and caucus state polls."
Romney, R-Mass., is being targeted in a new radio ad from the Log Cabin Republicans, which have tangled with Romney going back to his years as governor. "Mitt Flops -- sounds like something you'd wear to the beach, but they could cost you," the ad states.
Former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., is riding another wave of free media attention in the wake of Wednesday's debate in Florida. "How far can Mike Huckabee take this thing?" writes Newsweek's Howard Fineman.
"Huckabee is no rube; he is a practiced, focused politician with communications skills that are equal to or exceed those of any of his rivals, Republican or Democrat. His serious weakness -- and it is a big one -- is his utter lack of foreign policy or military experience or exposure. In the end that may be fatal. In the meantime, he is complicating the calculus of the race."
"Mike Huckabee's rise in the Republican nomination fight is rekindling memories of Democrat Bill Clinton, circa 1992," AP's Ron Fournier writes.
"Though polar opposites in political ideology, these two men of Hope, Ark., came to the national stage with similar strengths and weaknesses. Huckabee hopes his measure of the former outweighs the burdens of the latter, as they did for twice-elected Clinton."
With attention comes attacks, and anti-immigration groups are picking up on a theme that the Club for Growth has been hitting for months: "Groups that support a crackdown on illegal aliens haven't settled on their champion in the race for the White House, but there's little doubt which Republican scares them most -- former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee," Stephen Dinan writes in the Washington Times.
On Friday, Huckabee starts a three-day trip to New Hampshire -- a state that, for some reason, he's visiting far more often than he is Iowa. "Huckabee, whose campaign lacks the money of his competitors, is employing one of the oldest strategies in the book: Do well in Iowa, ride the surge to New Hampshire, then take on the nation," the Concord Monitor's Melanie Asmar writes.
George Stephanopoulos will interview Huckabee on Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
And find out why Huckabee is ABC's Buzz Maker of the Week.
Edwards is getting more specific in his healthcare plan: He'd garnishee the wages of those who can afford healthcare but don't obtain coverage. Per ABC's Teddy Davis: "Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards is hoping to stand-out from rivals on health care by portraying the plan of rival Barack Obama as leaving 15 million uninsured and portraying Hillary Clinton as lacking the candor needed to get to universal coverage."
The Des Moines Register's Thomas Beaumont looks at the changing style and substance of the Edwards campaign. This is the change from 2004 that counts the most: "A glaring difference between Edwards' two campaigns is the expectation he faces this time in Iowa's leadoff caucuses. His success in 2004, when he finished in second place in Iowa, and his nonstop effort since then put pressure on him to do well again."
The Nation's Ari Berman looks at the split loyalties of anti-war voters in Iowa.
"This year, antiwar activists are having a much harder time picking a candidate; many . . . back Bill Richardson because of his pledge to pull out all troops within a year, but there are Barack Obama and John Edwards supporters here too," he writes. "One thing they agree on, though, is mistrust of Hillary Clinton."
Like any good baseball fan, Giuliani likes his numbers. But is he the new purveyor of "fuzzy math"? "In almost every appearance as he campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination, Rudolph W. Giuliani cites a fusillade of statistics and facts to make his arguments about his successes in running New York City and the merits of his views," The New York Times' Michael Cooper writes.
Cooper mention a whole mess of Giuliani numbers, and then writes: "All of these statements are incomplete, exaggerated or just plain wrong."
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., dares to utter the I-word: "The President has no authority to unilaterally attack Iran and if he does, as foreign relations committee chairman, I will move to impeach," Biden said in New Hampshire on Thursday, per the Portsmouth Herald's Adam Leech. And he didn't stop there: "If you're going to impeach George Bush, you better impeach Cheney first."
How big is the Rep. Ron Paul fund-raising juggernaut? He's on track to surpass "his $12 million fourth-quarter fundraising goal by the weekend -- a full month ahead of schedule," per USA Today's Fredreka Schouten.
Think this comment will have legs as Congress ponders its next move in Iraq? "I think the 'surge' is working," says Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., after returned from a brief trip to Iraq. (There's crucial context here, but it's unlikely to be remembered when Republicans start quoting Murtha back to him.)
The Chicago Tribune's Jim Tankersley breaks down the presidential race with . . . game theory. Welcome to the "truel" that's a duel with three participants.
"You'd say, 'I had that white lady! What was I thinking?' " -- Comedian Chris Rock, on how black people would react if they supported Clinton, and Clinton beat Obama.
"Send more!!!" -- Rep. Duncan Hunter, D-Calif., in a letter to Clinton, regarding the openly gay retired general (and Clinton supporter) who asked Hunter to defend "don't ask, don't tell" at the CNN/YouTube debate.
The Clinton campaign has denied having anything to do with the question from retired general Keith Kerr, and CNN has apologized for using his question at the debate.
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