THE NOTE: The Speech

Until or unless Hillary Clinton decides to give her Monica speech, this will be The Speech -- the kind of nationally covered, doubly capitalized, all-eyes-on-one-candidate address that's almost always reserved for presidents and major-party nominees.

And the pre-speech buildup means we know some of what we can expect from this giant national teachable moment even before former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., takes the stage in College Station, Texas, at 10:30 am ET Thursday (after being introduced by former President George H. W. Bush -- try unpacking that symbolism).

1. This will be called Mitt's "Mormon speech" even if it barely touches on his Mormon faith (and will be criticized for that fact).


2. This will be called Mitt's "JFK speech" even though it won't match (and won't try to match) Kennedy's eloquence (and will be criticized for that fact, too).

3. No voters who have decided they won't vote for a Mormon will change their minds Thursday morning.

4. By waiting until this moment to deliver this address, The Speech will be cast as a defensive maneuver (hello, Mike Huckabee).

5. Since The Speech will anger many someones -- evangelicals, fellow Mormons, atheists, Catholics, Jews, maybe all of the above -- the single biggest thing Romney can accomplish is to appear as if he's speaking from the heart.

It won't answer all the questions facing Romney -- and, per excerpts provided by his campaign, he will not dive into the elements that set his religion apart, saying that doing so would "enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution."

But it's a fascinating address, with a celebration of "our nation's symphony of faith," and the "common creed of moral convictions." And this quote that's destined to be whittled into the most sound bites (listen for echoes, at least, of JFK):

"When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God. If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States."

He includes a call to arms for voters of all faiths: "In recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning.

They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America -- the religion of secularism. They are wrong."

And this sure applause line: "Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me. And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion -- rather, we welcome our nation's symphony of faith."

Watch Romney's speech live at 10:30 am ET by clicking here.

On first glance, the speech appears to meet the expectations set by Newsweek's Jon Meacham, whose book Romney had been reading in preparing for Thursday's speech.

"He should say clearly in his speech that he will not allow his church to dictate to him on public matters," Meacham writes. "Beyond that, he should talk about how religion has shaped us without strangling us, and that the Founders envisioned a nation in which religion would be one factor among many in the life of the country."

Yet expectations are such that this is still pretty close to a no-win situation for the former governor, who has tried to avoid talking theology on the trail for precisely that reason.

This is the context that makes things so difficult: "Some scholars and evangelical Christians, who make up a crucial voting bloc in the Republican Party and consider Mormonism to be heretical, say that many voters would like to hear more from Mr. Romney about exactly what he believes," Michael Luo writes in The New York Times.

That's exactly what he's not doing, and here, in part, is why: "To claim his religion doesn't matter and is a private concern flies in the face of the conservative Christian view. If he suggests that Mormonism is basically like Christianity, Romney could offend Christians even more," Robert Novak and Timothy P. Carney write in the Evans-Novak Political Report.

But Novak and Carney see an opening, if only a slight one: "This could be an opportunity for Romney to tap into a vein of resentment and fear that has been largely ignored by much of the Republican establishment and the mainstream media: Conservative Christians being forced by government to violate their consciences."

ABC's John Berman reports that the 20-minute speech will be attended by between 300 and 400 invited guests, and that a moment of silence will commemorate the victims of the Omaha mall shooting. And Romney staffers are making no efforts at all to downplay this. "They all say, 'we understand the importance of the moment,' " Berman reports.

"Romney's aides said the audience will include James Bopp Jr., a prominent antiabortion activist who is an adviser to Romney, and Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission," The Boston Globe's Michael Levenson reports.

Land told ABC's Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America" on Thursday that he does not consider Mormons to be Christians, but said he has high hopes for the speech he's long been urging Romney to deliver.

"I think he'll change some minds," Land said. "The governor needs to give a speech that can close this deal for many, many, many people."

And the day wouldn't be complete without at least one borderline hateful comment.

Cyndi Mosteller, a South Carolina state co-chair of Fred Thompson's campaign, said the speech won't answer questions about the tenets of Mormonism that are "very unusual to the point that it's almost unbelievable." She cited in particular "the Church's history, and almost theology, on the issue of race -- particularly the black race," in an interview with the Website Palmetto Scoop.

Among the Democrats, a new ABC News/Washington Post poll has Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., hanging tough in New Hampshire -- but it's close. The numbers: Clinton 35, Obama 29, Edwards 17, and Richardson cracking double digits at 10.

"Hillary Clinton is holding off Barack Obama in New Hampshire with a single-digit but seemingly solid lead, scoring more committed and enthusiastic support, higher trust to handle pressing issues and broad margins on leadership, experience and electability," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes.

Not a bad poll for Clinton, giving the campaign's currents, but this is a firewall in need of some asbestos (or proxy servers). "Obama is taking full advantage of Clinton's weaknesses," Langer writes. "A perceived lack of forthrightness continues to dog her; 41 percent in New Hampshire say Clinton's not willing enough to say what she really thinks, twice as many as say that about her chief competitors."

"As in Iowa, New Hampshire voters see Obama and Edwards as more candid than Clinton," Dan Balz and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post. "While more than seven in 10 said Obama and Edwards are sufficiently willing to say what they really think about the issues, fewer, 55 percent, said so about Clinton."

(What kind of world do we inhabit where Joe Biden + Chris Dodd = Dennis Kucinich?)

From the department of glass houses . . . just one day after accusing Obama supporters of bullying Clinton supporters on the phone, the Clinton campaign on Wednesday acknowledged that a volunteer Iowa county chair helped circulate a scurrilous e-mail that accused Obama of being a Muslim.

The story broke on Daily Kos, when a Dodd supporter wrote that he had received the message.

Clinton campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle dismissed the county chair and sought to contain the damage: "There is no place in our campaign, or any campaign, for this kind of politics," she wrote. "This was wholly unauthorized and we were totally unaware of it. Let me be clear: No one should be engaging in this."

AP's Ron Fournier has advice for the would-be candidates of 2048: Fire up the shredders, since Kindergarten essays are now fair game.

"Clinton and her strategists, including husband Bill, studied the polls and decided that the Illinois senator needed to be brought down a peg," Fournier writes. "Like throwing a stone into a calm lake, Clinton's decision had a ripple effect: She forced Obama and Edwards to reassess their strategies, and may see her own reputation suffer among the play-nice voters of Iowa. She already has the highest disapproval ratings in the field. Going negative could drive more voters away."

Speaking of Kindergarten . . . new Clinton TV pitchman Wesley Clark says Obama's to blame for the newly negative tone of the Democratic race. "I think it is clear who started the attacks and why," Clark said, The Hill's Sam Youngman reports.

Clinton traveled to Wall Street Wednesday to press the Bush administration on the issue of home foreclosures.

"She proposed a foreclosure moratorium of at least 90 days for distressed holders of sub-prime mortgages who live in their own homes," Peter G. Gosselin and Peter Nicholas write in the Los Angeles Times.

And Clinton does not own the issue alone.

"John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, upped the ante by calling for a seven-year freeze on rates for families with mortgage problems and creation of a federally financed 'home rescue fund' to help low-income homeowners negotiate more sustainable mortgages," Gosselin and Nicholas write.

Edwards, in South Carolina on Thursday at an event designed to register students as voters, is on the air with a new ad in New Hampshire that "returns to his strident populism," The Boston Globe's Foon Rhee reports. Edwards, in the ad: "This system is corrupt. And it's rigged. And it's rigged against you."

Also in the news:

Huckabee's first week in the spotlight has hardly gone as he might have hoped.

On top of the new questions raised about his role in having a convicted rapist set free, he seemed oblivious to the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program.

On Wednesday, he blamed his staff for not looping him in. "It would have been nice had someone been able to first say, 'here's some things that are going on, that are taking place,' " Huckabee, R-Ark., said on CNN. And this doozy: "It's going to happen again."

Romney spokesman Kevin Madden takes the lay-up: "Since he seems to have time for every media interview available, he ought to be able to find time for getting even a basic briefing on Iran," Madden tells ABC's Teddy Davis.

In the new issue of GQ, Huckabee complains that he's being subjected to more scrutiny over his religion than Romney is. (Really?)

"No candidate gets quizzed to the depth that I do about faith," Huckabee said, per ABC's Kevin Chupka. "He hasn't gotten nearly as much for his Mormonism as I have for being a Baptist."

The New York Times' Jodi Kantor and David Kirkpatrick profile Huckabee's time on the pulpit.

"While he says he is running based on his career in the Arkansas governor's mansion, not the pulpit, he has grounded his views on issues like abortion and immigration in Scripture, rallied members of the clergy for support, benefited from the anti-Mormon sentiment dogging a political rival and relied on the down-to-earth style he honed in the pulpit to help catapult him in the polls," they write. "And winning souls trained him to win votes."

New Hampshire Union Leader publisher (and newly minted McCain supporter) Joseph W. McQuaid has some fun with Romney's lawn-care workers: "For someone touting himself as a brilliant manager, he has fumbled badly an issue that should have been easily resolved long before now," he writes.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has his predictions set for the state he knows so well: Romney will beat Huckabee "narrowly" with his "tremendous resources and putting so much into infrastructure." And Clinton, he says, may finish third, behind Obama and Edwards.

With Grassley sitting out the endorsement game, Bloomberg's Hans Nichols profiles Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, "who's positioning himself as the state's Republican kingmaker." He may just be in that position because of where he is (and where he's insisting the candidates be) on immigration: "If you're not willing to send someone back to their home country under U.S. law, then you are by definition supporting an amnesty," King says. (Hint-hint: he's saying nice things about Romney.)

And Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen has his own (almost) predictions for the state HE knows so well: Big turnout among Democrats will help Clinton and Obama -- and hurt Edwards.

More state legislative endorsements for Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del.

On Thursday, he's announcing that he's received the support of New Hampshire Assistant House Majority Leader Dan Eaton, and two state representatives from neighboring Massachusetts: Charles Murphy and Robert Rice.

Obama's Oprah event in South Carolina is looking enormous: "The 18,000-seat Colonial Center is just too small to hold an Oprah event," The State's Gina Smith writes.

What did President Bush know, and when did he know it? ABC's Martha Raddatz: "The White House made a stunning admission Wednesday that appeared to suggest President Bush has directly contradicted himself about when he learned U.S. intelligence that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program." Bush said he didn't know about the NIE's conclusions until last week, but the White House said Wednesday that he "had been told in August that Iran suspended it's covert nuclear weapons program," Raddatz reports.

Vice President Dick Cheney sits down with the Politico crew, and -- surprise -- he's not happy with what Democrats in Congress are doing.

"They've produced absolutely nothing that I can see that's of benefit or consistent with the promises that they made when they went out and ran for election," Cheney said.

Per the Politico pooh-bahs, "Most striking were his virtually taunting remarks of two men he described as friends from his own days in the House: Democratic Reps. John Dingell (Mich.) and John P. Murtha (Pa.)." Cheney: "They are not carrying the big sticks I would have expected."

Republican Senate leadership elections take place Thursday morning, with Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., set to take over for Trent Lott, R-Miss., as minority whip. As for Kyl's old job, per Roll Call's Erin P. Billings: "Republican Senators still appeared poised to elect Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) over Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) as the next GOP Conference chairman when they meet behind closed doors today to fill holes in their leadership hierarchy."

Sorry, Florida: "A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the Democratic National Committee has every right to strip Florida of its 210 delegates as punishment for moving its primary date to Jan. 29," Mary Ellen Klas writes in the Miami Herald.

With Romney opening a Pandora's box on Thursday, Republican strategist Todd Domke uses Greek myths to put the GOP race in perspective. "Only Zeus knows. Republicans want a nominee who will win in November, but that depends on which Democrat is nominated. There's no oracle to reveal who that will be."

The kicker:

"They are going to kill me. I'll be in so much trouble." -- Jenna Bush, egged on by Ellen DeGeneres to prove that she can dial straight through to talk to her parents at the White House. (She got through.)

"Difficult. He's -- I'll leave it at that. He's difficult." -- Vice President Dick Cheney, asked by Politico's Jim VandeHei, John Harris, and Mike Allen what it's like to work with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

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