THE NOTE: Last GOP Debate Means Last Chances

Five questions (plus a bonus for the Democrats) worth pondering as Republicans convene in icy Johnston, Iowa, for the last GOP debate before the caucuses:

1. How has Mike Huckabee accomplished in two weeks what it took 10 months (and a healthy chunk of his kids' inheritance) for Mitt Romney to achieve? (And as his opponents try to that away from Huckabee in less than three weeks, do statements like this help or hurt -- Huck's "innocent voice" aside?)

2. Now that Romney's broken the seal on negative ads (albeit gently), who will follow? (And Huckabee may yet take down Huckabee on his own, but does anyone other than Romney really have a stake in stopping him in Iowa?)

3. Can Rudy Giuliani afford a waxing in Iowa if he doesn't follow by winning in New Hampshire? (And how far right can he run on immigration?)

4. Is the Romney campaign (not-so) secretly happy that Iowa will matter now? (Though wouldn't he rather save his bankroll for a battle with Giuliani?)

5. Can Ron Paul recapture his mojo? Did Fred Thompson ever have mojo, or did we miss that part? And is Alan Keyes really a presidential candidate? (Seriously -- in this year's election?)


BONUS: If Bill Clinton is so frustrated with his wife's campaign that it's making it into (whispered) print, can anyone explain how or why nobody's acting on it? (And does he have the authority to pull himself off the trail?)

It may not have been the battle we saw coming, but the GOP race in Iowa is a two-man show (with apologies to Mr. Keyes, itching for that rematch with Sen. Barack Obama). Less than three weeks out, it's Huckabee vs. Romney, and the whole field knows it, meaning the stage will tip toward them in the final scuffle of the caucuses at 2 pm ET.

And those two same candidates are the only ones moving in the right direction in the national polls. It's Giuliani 25, Huckabee 19, Romney 17, Thompson 14, and McCain 12 in the new ABC News/Washington Post survey.

"With a rally among evangelical Protestants, Huckabee's advanced sharply in this national ABC News/Washington Post poll, while Romney's made some progress allaying concerns about his Mormon religion. Along with Giuliani's diminished lead, his one-time chief competitors, John McCain and Fred Thompson, are near their own lows," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes.

"The upheaval reshapes the possibilities in the Republican contest, reflecting an electorate whose core groups have been uneasy with Giuliani and McCain, and uninspired by Thompson." And the ups and downs of the candidates aren't the only moving terrain. "Concerns about the economy are on the rise and assessments of current conditions in Iraq have eased slightly, propelling the nation's economic picture and jobs to the top of people's concerns," Jon Cohen and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post.

"Although the range of issues could further destabilize the nomination battles, most of the uncertainty stems from more basic questions about the candidates." Wednesday marks the last time the GOP candidates will be in one place before the caucuses, and could play a big role in the Des Moines Register's endorsement decisions.

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