Welcome to the big leagues, Mike Huckabee.
You got a taste of your first dirty trick (nasty little fliers slipped under hotel room doors in Des Moines -- so old school).
You've got your very own Willie Horton (and your own slippery explanations to greet it).
You're being forced to duck pesky questions about your views on creationism and Mormonism (c'mon, you MUST have a view on whether it's a religion or a cult, governor).
You're suddenly No. 2 in a national poll (and now that you're in the top tier, we'll see how good the Lord is at crowd control and media wrangling).
And now you get something of a reality check out of New Hampshire: It's Romney 37, McCain 20, Giuliani 16, and only 9 percent support for Huckabee, compared to 8 percent for Ron Paul and 4 percent for (sixth-place) Fred Thompson.
(Before you dismiss this as part of the secular New England spirit, remember that Huckabee has been spending a lot more in New Hampshire than Iowa of late.)
"The forces pulling Mike Huckabee to the fore in Iowa are fizzling 1,300 miles to the east, where, in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is strong on issues and personal attributes – and unthreatened by the religion issue he'll try to lay to rest in a speech tomorrow," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes in summing up the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll of New Hampshire Republicans.
Write Jon Cohen and Dan Balz of The Washington Post: "Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney holds a wide lead over his Republican rivals in New Hampshire, where he is seen as the strongest leader and most electable presidential candidate in the field, but the GOP race there remains unsettled a month before the nation's first primary."
You can excuse Huckabee for some rookie mistakes -- he's new to this whole top-tier thing. But sometimes veterans act like they're new to the game -- and the consequences can be devastating.
You cannot make this stuff up: Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass. -- who is attacking Huckabee and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Huckabee for not being tough enough on the border issue -- still had illegal immigrants working on his lawn until Tuesday, when The Boston Globe brought that inconvenient fact to his attention.
The morning after Giuliani attacked Romney's "sanctuary mansion" at last week's debate in Florida, "at least two illegal immigrants stepped out of a hulking maroon pickup truck in the driveway of Romney's Belmont house, then proceeded to spend several hours raking leaves, clearing debris from Romney's tennis court, and loading the refuse onto the truck," per the Globe's Maria Cramer, Maria Sacchetti, and Connie Paige.
(And the same crew was working at the nearby home of eldest son Taggart, too.)
Romney's reaction: "Did you hear him? We'll give you a statement." That statement indicated that Romney fired the company late Tuesday, though the Globe has the owner of the landscaping company disputing Romney's account that he insisted that he hire legal workers.
In any event, the political damage was done. Sen. John McCain: "I'm more than pleased with the fact that I live in a condominium."
This is the last thing Romney needs on a week where he's playing defense -- against Huckabee, against Giuliani, and against the great broad question of his Mormonism that he may or may not address Thursday morning in College Station, Texas.
Giuliani is among those who are smiling wider than Romney's lawn, but speaking of issues that should have been put to rest long ago . . . Rudy's post-9/11 business ventures get the Vanity Fair treatment in the new issue.
Headline: "A Tale of Two Giulianis." "It was here, over these last six years, that Giuliani placed calls to make things happen for his clients -- many of them engaged in some aspect of the security industry that boomed as a direct result of 9/11," Michael Shnayerson writes.
"There are, it seems, at least two Rudolph Giulianis. One is the crusading former U.S. attorney and 9/11-bedecked ex-mayor of New York, cloaked in the six core values prominently featured on Giuliani Partners' Web site: Integrity. Optimism. Courage. Preparedness. Communication. Accountability," Shnayerson writes.
"The other Rudy Giuliani is the one who has brazenly built a business on his 9/11 fame." (And we still don't know all of the people and interests that this would-be president has worked for.)
And ABC's Richard Esposito has the details of another Giuliani business partner in serious legal trouble.
"[Hank] Asher, identified by the initials H.A. in Overt Act 59 of a federal grand jury indictment against Orange County sheriff Michael Carona, had handed the diamond-encrusted Cartier baubles to the wives of the sheriff and his deputy, and with that, assured himself a place in a federal indictment that was looming," Esposito writes.
Back on Huckabee's close-up, we're about to hear the name "Wayne Dumond" much, much more.
He's the convicted rapist whom Huckabee fought to see released far short of his life sentence when he was governor -- only to have Dumond rape again, and kill two women.
"I can't imagine anybody wanting somebody like that running the country," the mother of the second victim, Lois Davidson, tells ABC's Brian Ross and Anna Schecter.
Ross reported on "Good Morning America" on Wednesday that Huckabee was made aware of other rape allegations against Dumond, but persisted in his push to see him freed.
"Huckabee made a rare, personal appeal to the parole board on behalf of Dumond," Ross said, contradicting comments Huckabee made earlier this week: "I did not ask them to do anything."
On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's battle with Sen. Barack Obama paused long enough on Tuesday for former President Bill Clinton to make news yet again.
This time he's complaining about the media coverage -- surely, if reporters just paid more attention to wife's record, she'd be handed the nomination on the silver platter her husband thinks she deserves. "One percent of the press coverage was devoted to their record in public life," the former president said.
(We can think of two ways to get the press to focus more on Sen. Clinton's record. The first has to do with a couple million documents sealed away in Little Rock. The other has to do with not allowing the would-be "first laddie" anywhere near the trail -- or, at least, anywhere near the commission of news on the trail.)
And on the comment last week where he got his wife's campaign off-message by saying he was against the Iraq war "from the beginning," he says this to the Los Angeles Times' Michael Finnegan: "I regret that they were falsely represented by the press, who wants to make it a political story." (Surprising, since the appearance was non-political and all. . . .)
It's another rough stretch for Camp Clinton -- and we're not even counting the sudden, unexplained ditching of her theme song (yes, the Celine Dion number that was voted on with such fanfare a few months back is gone, ABC's Eloise Harper reports).
There's more legal woes for Norman Hsu, which "may see her confront potentially harmful fundraising questions of her own," Newsday's Martin C. Evans writes.
The AP's Seanna Adcox reports that Clinton's endorsement list in South Carolina black religious leaders isn't quite as long as it seems.
"Some of the backers were affiliated with religious ministries and outreach groups rather than churches, some were wives of ministers, two were church elders and at least two were not members of the churches listed beside their names," Adcox writes.
And count Clinton among those who can't be happy about President Bush's news conference on Tuesday, where he said the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran wasn't changing his policies.
At Tuesday's (mostly tame) NPR debate, "This led to insinuations from several candidates that by casting her vote for economic sanctions," Christopher Cooper writes in The Wall Street Journal.
Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C.: "I think it's very clear that Bush and Cheney have been rattling the saber about Iran for a very long time." Clinton's response: "I understand politics and I understand making outlandish political changes but this really goes way too far."
"The timing of the new National Intelligence Estimate interfered with Clinton's game plan and forced her -- for an afternoon, at least -- back on the defensive," Newsweek's Richard Wolffe reports.
Obama slapped Clinton anew in a Des Moines Register editorial board meeting, saying that only he can create a "working majority for change" by attracting independents and Republicans to the Democratic ticket.
"Now what we know is that that will not happen with Senator Clinton. That's guaranteed," Obama said, per the Register's Thomas Beaumont.
Obama tries to rise above the fray again on Wednesday, with an endorsement by former senator Harris Wofford, D-Pa., and his own version of a JFK speech: "A Call to Service."
"We need your service, right now, in this moment -- our moment -- in history," Obama plans to say, per excerpts released by his campaign.
"I'm not going to tell you what your role should be; that's for you to discover. But I am going to ask you to play your part; ask you to stand up; ask you to put your foot firmly into the current of history."
Edwards is enjoying his front-row seat at this fight. "On a six-day swing through Iowa a month before the caucuses on Jan. 3, Mr. Edwards lightened up and reprised the role of the upbeat optimist he had in 2004, when he ran a close second in the caucuses," Julie Bosman writes in The New York Times.
Edwards: "Listen, I don't think America benefits from any personal fighting between candidates. . . . They don't care about fighting between politicians." (But he does.)
"The daily rhetorical sparring between Obama and Clinton has only made the Edwards campaign more confident that the best tactic to distinguish its candidate is to rise above the intraparty bout, which Edwards was largely instigating as recently as mid-November," Politico's David Paul Kuhn writes.
The deeper look: "The Democratic presidential candidates have transformed the race into a battle almost entirely over character and electability as the three leading candidates scramble for position in a tight race in Iowa and beyond," per ABC News.
Edwards deputy campaign manager Jonathan Prince: "We're happy to let them have their little spat. . . . When campaign comes to caucus time, the caucusgoers make their decisions on what really matters to them. It's about who these people are, and where they are going to take the country, and whether you can trust what they say."
Also in the news:
Giuliani has a new TV ad up today -- and it's him as commander-in-chief, invoking memories of Ronald Reagan's ending of the Iranian hostage crisis. "The best way you deal with dictators, the best way you deal with tyrants and terrorists, you stand up to them. You don't back down."
The Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll shows Huckabee's Iowa surge is translating into nation-wide support -- with most of it coming from Giuliani. "Huckabee has pulled into second place, close behind Giuliani, in the national survey of Republican-leaning voters," the Times' Janet Hook writes.
"The results signal that Huckabee's candidacy is catching fire beyond Iowa -- where several recent polls have shown him with a slight lead or in a virtual dead heat with Mitt Romney, who long had led in the state where the nomination process officially starts."
On the Democratic side of the survey, "front-runner Hillary Clinton maintains a large lead over her closest competitor, Barack Obama, and is seen by her party's voters as the candidate most likely to beat a Republican," Bloomberg's Kristin Jensen writes.
Counter-point sentence: "The new poll shows Obama doing better than Clinton in theoretical matchups against leading Republicans."
This may not have been what Obama had in mind but he talked about "silly season," but it's already impossible to track the swirling allegations of dirty tricks.
ABC's Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller have details of a flier that appeared under reporters' doors at the Des Moines Marriott, on the very night that Huckabee was staying at the hotel.
"A mysterious group calling itself Iowans for Some Semblance of Christian Decency has begun waging a campaign against former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, insinuating that not only is the Republican presidential candidate not a true conservative, he's not a real Christian," they write.
Romney is complaining to the Iowa attorney general about a pro-Huckabee group that's making calls promoting Huck's candidacy.
Try to sort this one out: Clinton campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle sent out a fundraising appeal late Monday alleging "possible dirty campaign tactics in Iowa and New Hampshire" -- complete with strong suggestions that the Obama camp is behind them. Obama spokesman Bill Burton: "This flat-out falsehood is the latest attack in a silly season [!] where our opponents have promised to stop at nothing in an effort to tarnish Barack Obama's character."
Things get weirder (and more pointless): "Also yesterday, a North Country Clinton supporter accused a John Edwards campaign worker of calling her last Friday, during the height of the tense hostage situation in Rochester, and trying to convince her to vote for Edwards," the New Hampshire Union Leader's John DiStaso writes.
"Edwards' campaign spokesman responded by accusing the Clinton campaign of using 'Friday's frightening situation to attack other campaigns.' "
The New York Daily News' Stephanie Gaskill interviews the New Hampshire hostage taker.
"My intent was actually almost like a suicide by cop," Leeland Eisenberg says. "But I wanted to make a message first." (Next time, ask a question at a town-hall meeting.)
More on the NIE: The president sees it differently than the Democrats (surprise). "Once again facing criticism over the handling -- and meaning -- of intelligence reports, Mr. Bush said the new assessment underscored the need to intensify international efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," Steven Lee Myers and Helene Cooper write in The New York Times.
A few more minutes of fame for Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff, the college student who asked Clinton a question that had been planted by a Clinton campaign staffer. Her question for Obama on Tuesday didn't appear to be planted, per ABC's Sunlen Miller: "Is it really possible to reach this level of national politics without altering your morals?"
Obama: "You don't have to compromise who you are. You have to make compromises. But not your core values."
McCain, R-Ariz., gets a pitch from Curt Schilling Wednesday in New Hampshire, but here's an intriguing hint from the Red Sox star about who he'd support if McCain isn't the nominee: "Other than Sen. McCain . . . Sen. Obama intrigued me the most," he tells the Boston Herald's Jessica Heslam.
ABC's Jennifer Parker has details on Huckabee's efforts to line up evangelicals in Iowa. Parker writes, "Huckabee's consistent anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage stance is a plus for many Christian evangelicals in Iowa.
An estimated 40 percent of likely GOP caucus voters in Iowa consider themselves to be born-again Christians or Christian evangelical."
Mark Penn says the Kindergarten attack was a joke. At least now we know that members of Camp Clinton are allowed to have a sense of humor.
House Republicans hold a 10 am ET press conference to attack Democrats' record on the economy. "An undeclared war is being waged against American jobs by the 110th Congress," per the GOP's report.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., is back with another TV ad -- nothing explodes, but he starts with the bodies of 28 apparent victims of South American gang violence. "It's strong, I know . . . but there's no way to sugarcoat it," Tancredo said, per the Des Moines Register's Jason Pulliam.
"I may not be the expert as some people on foreign policy -- but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night." -- Huckabee, on Don Imus' new radio show, and marking the moment when his comedy act may have officially grown old.
"What Americans are looking for in their next president is a commander in chief, not a Court Jester." -- Bob Haus, executive director of Iowa Friends of Fred Thompson, who is still a candidate for president.
"I could have won by a landslide if I had shut down the Boston media . . . and jailed my opponents." -- Romney, a few hours before The Boston Globe broke the news that his lawn was still being cared for by illegal immigrants.
"I'm buying Iowa toys. They're going to eat Iowa food." -- Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., correctly calculating that no caucus-goers live in China.
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