THE NOTE: Trading Places

Just in the short window since the Democratic candidates last met on a debate stage, Hillary Clinton became Barack Obama, and Barack Obama became Hillary Clinton.

It's Obama, D-Ill., playing frontrunner -- talking policy, chiding the No. 2 for slinging mud, and having a hearty laugh over "silly season."

And it's Clinton, D-N.Y., launching scattershot attacks (a new one or two or three every day) -- while looking up at Obama in the Iowa polls.

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(If you're into omens -- and this one works on several levels -- consider the smoking, sputtering Clinton press plane that arrived for the candidate's speech at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa -- where Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens played their last gig on "the day the music died.")

A new national poll reinforces the perceptions out of Iowa: Clinton and her fellow national poll leader, former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., are slipping mightily in the USA Today/Gallup Poll.

"Clinton's standing among Democrats dropped by 11 percentage points from early November, and Giuliani's standing among Republicans fell by 9 points, though both continue to lead their fields," Susan Page writes in USA Today. "Clinton and Giuliani, who have topped each of 21 USA Today Polls taken this year, had never suffered such steep month-to-month drops before."

Clinton's latest critique(s): that Obama's all hope and no action, that he "started running for president as soon as he arrived in the United States Senate," and that he's taken a pass on tough votes in the Illinois state Senate and the Congress. "Without mentioning Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., by name, she all but accused him of weakness and laziness as a legislator and suggested his ambition exceeds his effectiveness," ABC's David Wright and Eloise Harper report.

This is not where Mark Penn thought Clinton would be back when he was bragging about how Republican women were coming on board.

This is not what Terry McAuliffe thought she'd have to be saying when he confidently declared that of course Clinton could win, since she was already winning.

And this is not where Clinton herself though she'd be back in the days when she could afford to brush off her rivals' attacks. "As the race here enters its final month, she is once again fighting to fend off concerns that have dogged her from the start of her campaign in the state," The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Anne Kornblut write. "Penn said the goal is to prevent the caucuses from becoming a referendum on Clinton and forcing voters to make a choice among candidates whose weaknesses and strengths have been put on public display."

This rocks the dynamics of the race.

It roughs up Obama, who has really not been aggressively challenged in this race, but it could also hand him (and the other Democrats) a critical advantage: Hillary Clinton can no longer make the inevitability argument.

This is not what shoo-in candidates do.

And so we have a Democratic race on our hands.

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