THE NOTE: Mitt's Mormon Gamble

Six questions we trust will be answered this week:

1. Is Mormonism a religion or a cult?

2. What does that make Oprah-ism?

3. If this is the "fun part,"what part of the 30-point leads wasn't fun for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton?


4. Which endorsement matters more: that of a crusty Republican publisher in New Hampshire, or that of a freshman Democratic House member in Iowa?

5. Will former governor Mike Huckabee's dimples still be showing when he gets a full week of media scrutiny? (And is that why Jesus never ran for office?)

6. Which former Iowa front-runner's change in tactics -- Mitt Romney or Hillary Clinton -- will make a difference in the final month before the caucuses?

Moving in the wrong direction in Iowa polls, both Romney and Clinton "rolled out new campaign tactics Sunday in an aggressive push to regain lost momentum," Peter Nicholas and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times.

"Both Romney and Clinton would be shaken by a loss in this crucial state. Clinton has cast herself as the inevitable nominee, and a defeat here would shatter perceptions that she can't be stopped. Romney has spent heavily on campaign ads in Iowa."

Poor Romney (certainly not literally). So he does what the PowerPoint presentations told him to do -- he combs his (ample) hair, shows off that loving (and lovely) family, signs the checks, attacks Rudy Giuliani -- and what does he get for the $7 million-plus he's dropped in Iowa? A nice, unobstructed view of Mike Huckabee's (much diminished) backside.

How does he respond? By playing the card he's been holding onto all these months. He's calling The Speech -- scheduled for Thursday morning in College Station, Texas -- "Faith in America," but it may as well be called "Have Faith in Mitt," or maybe just "Mormonism Isn't Weird."

Romney's religion remains foreign (even enough to be a deal-breaker) to a large slice of the Republican electorate, which is what makes this speech an option, if not a necessity. He will command the national press attention on Thursday and in the days leading up to the speech -- one benefit of four days' advance notice.

It will be "the most anticipated speech of his presidential campaign," and the stakes will be huge for the former governor, ABC's John Berman reports.

Aides acknowledge that the "risk is that we focus on the Mormon faith, as opposed to focusing on a candidate who's faith is an important part of who he is." Says a Romney aide: "We will all remember this."

And it's not going to be an easy speech for Romney to deliver. "If he says something about Mormonism as his actual religion, it's not going to please evangelicals too much," Boston College's Alan Wolfe tells Michael Levenson of The Boston Globe.

"But if he gives the kind of Jesus-is-my-personal-savior speech, evangelicals won't buy it and he's going to alienate his own Mormon friends."

"If Romney wants to grab those crucial Evangelical votes in Iowa and elsewhere, he will earn their respect and come across as honest and authentic if he acknowledges the differences between the two religions," writes the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody.

"Evangelicals would trust him more, appreciate him more and respect him more if he came clean about the differences."

This is a defensive move, not an offensive one, which makes for the most uncomfortable of settings as Romney, R-Mass., seeks to explain his faith to the voters of Iowa and beyond.

The speech has been on the shelf so long that the Romney campaign now has three Big Problems, not two: his religion, his flip-flops, and Mike Huckabee -- whose rise is tied closely to those first two items.

Huckabee is finally capitalizing on the surge of interest in his candidacy. Romney's announcement Sunday that The Speech is forthcoming came on the very day that the Des Moines Register poll had Huckabee atop the GOP field in Iowa.

It's Huckabee 29, Romney 24, Giuliani 13.

"The former Arkansas governor is making the most of a low-budget campaign by tapping into the support of Iowa's social conservatives," the Register's Jonathan Roos writes.

It's "the first time in this campaign that a candidate has emerged from the second tier of contenders to challenge the front-runners," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times.

"Mr. Huckabee's gains are powered by support he has among Christian conservatives, who have had friction with Mormons. They appear to be responding to his message that he is the true social conservative in the race despite criticism that as governor he raised taxes and was not tough enough on illegal immigrants."

It will inevitably be called Romney's "JFK" speech -- and in case reporters need more historical ties between the last Bay Stater to reach the White House and the current aspirant, Romney's choice of the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M puts him within easy driving distance of Houston, where Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy gave his speech in September 1960.

But the comparisons are imprecise. ABC's Jake Tapper: "If Kennedy's experience is any guide, one speech will not put the issue to rest. Historical amnesia aside, Kennedy's speech in Houston was not his first big public attempt to address and end discussion of the issue of his faith -- far from it. Nor was not the end of the matter, either."

Tapper adds that "for Romney, there are pitfalls that Kennedy did not have. The Catholic vote in the U.S. was and is a significant voting bloc," while Mormons represent about 2 percent of the population.

The timing means Romney has lost the clear shot he might have once had, if he delivered the speech as the far-and-away frontrunner in Iowa and New Hampshire. The American Spectator's Jennifer Rubin recalls that it was just Nov. 12 when Romney said there was "no particular urgency [to deliver The Speech] because I'm making progress in the states where I'm campaigning."

The only thing that's changed since then is Huckabee's emergence: "The Speech gives a shot to deflect the press from the 'Romney collapse/Huckabee surge' storyline," Rubin writes. "However, The Speech seems a huge gamble-- risking stirring up the hornet's nest of concern and sending commentators into a new round of discussion of whether Evangelicals will support a Mormon."

Among the Democrats, if this is Clinton's "fun part" -- well, let's just say we all have our own definitions of fun, senator. "I have been for months on the receiving end of rather consistent attacks -- but now the fun part starts," Clinton, D-N.Y., said on Sunday, per ABC's Eloise Harper and Sunlen Miller said.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., plays fun police: "This presidential campaign isn't about attacking people for fun." And the Obama campaign is already up with a new Website to chronicle and respond to the attacks.

Whether or not she's actually having fun, she is undeniably now on the giving end. Follow the bouncing attack ball: After spending most of last week flogging Obama over healthcare, Clinton's campaign pressed Obama to shut down his PAC on Sunday, and is blasting Obama for his plan to encourage out-of-state college students to stick around in Iowa for caucus night.

Camp Clinton even launched a fresh attack on when Obama first harbored presidential aspirations, citing essays he wrote in Kindergarten and third grade. (Oppo alert: We're pretty sure a young Hillary Rodham told playgroup friends she wanted to be a princess, and she may or may not have had a crush on Ike.)

Clinton is getting serious in her efforts to take down Obama. "Sunday, in a dramatic shift, she made it clear that her goal is to challenge Obama not just on policy but also on one of his strongest selling points: his reputation for honesty," The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut writes.

"There's a big difference between our courage and our convictions, what we believe and what we're willing to fight for," Clinton said. Asked directly whether she intended to raise questions about Obama's character, she replied: "It's beginning to look a lot like that."

"Clinton aides made three hits on Mr. Obama within just a few hours -- on health care, campaign spending, and candor -- yet denied that they were acting out of concern about the new Register poll, which showed Mr. Obama in a statistical dead heat with Mrs. Clinton with less than five weeks to go until the Jan. 3 caucuses," Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times.

Denials aside, the Register poll provides context here as well: "Obama, an Illinois senator, leads for the first time in the Register's poll as the choice of 28 percent of likely caucusgoers, up from 22 percent in October," writes Thomas Beaumont.

"Clinton, a New York senator, was the preferred candidate of 25 percent, down from 29 percent in the previous poll."

But before any of that happened, Clinton got a chance to display herself as crisis manager -- in a situation she of course would have much rather never have had to face.

Friday's bizarre hostage standoff in New Hampshire showed Clinton in control, making all the right moves. "She directed one group of aides to work on reaching parents of the hostages. Another team was talking to New Hampshire officials," ABC's Kate Snow reports.

"The senator herself stayed in touch with the police commander in charge, the governor, the Secret Service and the FBI."

When she faced cameras at the end of the day, this was -- dare we say -- presidential: "It affected me not only because these were my staff members and volunteers," Clinton told reporters, "but as a mother, it was just a horrible sense of bewilderment, confusion, outrage, frustration, anger, everything at the same time."

This is Oprah week -- Des Moines and Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Columbia, S.C., on Sunday, and Manchester next Monday. Newsweek looks at how the Oprah-Obama relationship began with some bonding over "O" names, during a trip to help Hurricane Katrina victims.

This from Quincy Jones: "I think she saw his giving spirit and that really touched her. . . You can't fake the funk in those horrible circumstances." (Why would we try?)

Oprah's challenge: "Senator Barack Obama's campaign is trying to turn years of feminist thinking on its head and argue that the best candidate for women may, in fact, be a man," Robin Toner writes in the Sunday New York Times.

ABC's Jennifer Parker writes up the developing ground game in Iowa, including Obama's efforts to get out-of-state college students to caucus for him. "In a move that is legal, but politically risky, Obama's campaign has distributed 50,000 brochures on Iowa college campuses telling college students they can caucus for him even if they aren't from Iowa," Parker writes.

"Many students who attend college in Iowa are from Obama's neighboring home state of Illinois -- something that could give Obama an advantage considering his strong support among young voters."

Says Camp Clinton: "The Iowa caucus should be for Iowans." Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen doesn't like it either: "They do politics a little differently in Illinois than they do in Iowa."

Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., unveils a new campaign ad Monday in New Hampshire, with a double-barreled attack on Clinton that doesn't need to name her (or Obama) to make its point. He's blaming lobbyists for keeping 47 million Americans from getting health insurance, per the AP's Philip Elliott.

"You're going to sit at a table with drug companies and oil companies and they're going to give away their power. Right," Edwards says to a crowd in the ad.

Edwards held steady in the Register poll of Iowa caucus-goers, at 23 percent. He nabs the endorsement Monday of the first Democrat from Iowa's congressional delegation to choose a candidate, per the Quad City Times' Ed Tibbetts. Freshman Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa: "John Edwards has always fought for people who don't have a voice to speak for themselves."

It's Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., picking up the most coveted New Hampshire media endorsement: the Union Leader's.

"His record, his character, and his courage show him to be the most trustworthy, competent, and conservative of all those seeking the nomination," read the Hearstian words of publisher Joseph W. McQuaid. "Simply put, McCain can be trusted to make informed decisions based on the best interests of his country, come hell or high water."

Yet fresh off a New Hampshire swing, it's Huckabee who's riding the biggest wave coming into the week. (Notwithstanding the fact that, per ABC's Kevin Chupka, this is still a candidate who arrived in Des Moines commercial last night about 11:30 pm with no entourage to greet him. Let's hope his campaign does a better job on caucus night getting Grandma Betty from the assisted-living center in Ottumwa to the caucus site.)

Whatever he's doing is working in the small rooms that define campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa.

"What people are finding is a strong echo of the speeches and style of George W. Bush's 2000 GOP caucus campaign as Huckabee uses a smile instead of a hammer to portray himself as a non-confrontational conservative," Rick Pearson and Tim Jones write in the Chicago Tribune.

"With success comes scrutiny, though," Pearson and Jones continue. "Critics contend Huckabee's jovial campaign style contrasts sharply with a thin skin for criticism during his days as governor. His opponents say his conservative social ideology belies a decade-plus of liberal-style tax-and-spending as Arkansas' chief executive."

And, of course, there's immigration. Huckabee may have given his critics more ammunition on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," when he "hedged Sunday on whether illegal immigrants who have gone to school in the United States should become eligible for federal student aid such as Pell grants and subsidized federal student loans," per ABC's Teddy Davis.

Huckabee is coming in for his first sustained stretch of media scrutiny, and we'll see how voters react to his brand of compassion -- and how the media reacts to a candidate who once explained his politics thusly: "I drink a different kind of Jesus juice."

The quote explained why he opposed a bill that would deny public benefits to illegal immigrants, part of a "heterodox" record as Arkansas governor, Richard Fausset writes in the Los Angeles Times.

Also in the news:

The New York Daily News' Celeste Katz and Michael Saul don't find many voters caring about Giuliani's affair and security billing scandal, but they got former governor Robert Ehrlich, a prominent Rudy backer, in an unguarded moment.

"If the substance of the story is true, he's got a lot of explaining to do," said Ehrlich, R-Md. "It would certainly haunt him."

Ehrlich told the AP yesterday that he spoke to a top Giuliani campaign official and was assured "that the New York Police Department had deemed the security details necessary because of threats related to [Judith] Nathan."

That's great that the Rudy people got to Ehrlich that quickly, but doesn't this tie Judith Nathan to the story even more than before?

President Bush will be in the Rose Garden at 10 am ET Monday to make a statement on Congress "legislative priorities for the remainder of the year," per the White House. Appropriations, anyone?

Karl Rove offers some unsolicited advice to Obama in the Financial Times. "Stop acting like a vitamin-deficient Adlai Stevenson," Rove writes.

"Her record is weak, her personality off-putting and her support thin. If she wins the nomination it will be because her rivals -- namely you -- were weak when you confronted her and could not look her in the eye when you did." (And this gem of a line: "Hillary comes across as cold, distant and conspiracy-minded, more like Richard Nixon than her sunny, charming husband.")

The Jackson family feud spills onto the op-ed page of the Chicago Sun-Times on Monday, with Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., swinging back at his dad for accusing Democrats -- including Obama -- for having "virtually ignored the plight of African Americans."

Writes the son, in a letter to the editor: "While causing quite a stir, Jackson's comments unfortunately dimmed -- rather than directed -- light on the facts. . . . As a national co-chairman of Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign, I've been a witness to Obama's powerful, consistent and effective advocacy for African Americans."

It gets better.

Per Lynn Sweet of the Sun-Times: "While the reverend and his namesake son support Obama, Jacqueline, [Jesse Sr.'s] wife, is supporting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and another son, Yusef, is a major Clinton fund-raiser.

The Sun-Times has learned from the Clinton and Obama campaigns that Rep. Jackson and his mother will be hitting the campaign trail for their respective candidates in the early presidential voting states.

Clinton's caught in a bit of a union flap in Nevada, with two union leaders "accusing Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign of using their names on a list of endorsers without their permission," per the AP's Kathleen Hennessey.

Clinton on Monday jumps on the housing crisis, with a call for a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures and a five-year freeze on adjustable-rate mortgages.

"The Democratic presidential front-runner's move signals a likely priority shift for political candidates, from one dominated by foreign affairs and domestic issues such as health insurance to one that more directly addresses the economic well-being of individual Americans," Christopher Cooper writes in The Wall Street Journal.

"High oil prices, plummeting home values and an increasingly volatile stock market are making consumers nervous, and a credit crunch has them fretting about their personal liquidity." Washington Post columnist David Broder has the solution to the GOP's woes (and we're pretty sure it would make Tom Tancredo's head explode -- and convince Lou Dobbs to run for president): "If the Republican Party really wanted to hold on to the White House in 2009, it's pretty clear what it would do. It would grit its teeth, swallow its doubts and nominate a ticket of John McCain for president and Mike Huckabee for vice president -- and president-in-waiting."'s Michael Scherer dubs Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, the "baby elephant" in the GOP room. "His message -- a vocal opposition to the war in Iraq, a strict libertarian interpretation of the Constitution and a wholesale rejection of the nation's economic policies -- have caused tens of thousands to rally to his cause, including many who typically shun the political game," Scherer writes.

Don't miss this from the Paul supporter who's producing gilded chocolate coins with Paul's face on them: "I would love to get raided by the feds . . . because I would eat all the evidence."

So Newt Gingrich isn't running for president, but the former House speaker can't stay away long enough to rule out No. 2. "Depending on the circumstances, I'd be honored to be considered and under some circumstances I'd probably feel compelled to say 'yes,' " Gingrich, R-Ga., said in a C-SPAN interview, as written up by the Washington Examiner's "Yeas and Nays" crew.

Three months after Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, pleaded not gay, the Idaho Statesman finds five men who think otherwise -- and four who are willing to say it on the record.

"They say they had sex with Craig or that he made a sexual advance or that he paid them unusual attention," the Statesman's Dan Popkey writes.

How wide is this stance? (Jiminy, couldn't stop myself there.) "The Statesman's investigation, which included reviews of travel and property records and background checks on all five men, found nothing to disprove the five new accounts.

The men offer telling and sometimes similar details about what happened, or the senator's travel records place him in the city where sex is alleged to have occurred, or his accusers told credible witnesses at the time of the incident."

The kicker:

"I found this rather odd because I always feel like blowing myself up after hearing Hillary Clinton speak." -- Former radio host John Ziegler, introducing former senator Fred Thompson and making a "joke" about the hostage situation at her New Hampshire field office. Per ABC's Christine Byun, Ziegler quickly added: "By the way, the opinions expressed during this portion of the presentation are not necessarily those of Fred Thompson, the Fred Thompson campaign or anyone affiliated in the Republican Party."

"We try to [be] organizing the campaign, but it seems like the grass roots is organizing us." -- Ron Paul.

"I just hang up, but my son thinks its fun. He has fake conversations with her. He's 13." -- Iowa resident Jennifer Stanley, on the 12 robo-calls she's gotten from "Hillary Clinton" already this year.

"Other than that, not much has changed. Dick Cheney is still a war criminal, Hillary Clinton is still Satan and I'm back on the radio." --Don Imus, in his Monday morning return to the airwaves, which included as guests senators McCain and Chris Dodd, D-Conn.

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