THE NOTE: Last GOP Debate Means Last Chances

Thus the stakes: "The Huckabee surge makes today's debate different from previous debates, including the previous GOP Iowa debate held in August, or even the most recent debate in Florida two weeks ago," Tom Beaumont writes in the Des Moines Register. Former state party chairman Steve Grubbs: "For the first time, Huckabee is in the cross hairs."

He's already taking his share of fire, and all those commutations and pardons are ready ammunition. "None of the prosecutors were ever told why Huckabee felt compelled to have a hand in freeing so many prisoners, though all of them speculate that his deeply religious nature led to a strong belief in repentance and forgiveness," ABC's Jake Tapper reports. "In some cases, prosecutors say, evangelical leaders attested that a prisoner had found Jesus and that seemed to influence the governor's thoughts."

And Romney, R-Mass., sounds like he's ready to make this an issue: "I read he gave over 1,000 pardons and commutations. The number I gave is zero," he tells The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder. You tell us who's tougher -- but zero, in four years?

(He must not have read up on Huckabee's record two years ago. This is Romney in August 2005, during a visit to Arkansas: "Most likely, we'll all stay as governors or find other offices, but we need to make sure that we have a strong person who can take the baton from President Bush, and Governor Huckabee is certainly one of those individuals. He'd make a fine president." Hat-tip: Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody.)

As Romney already knows those magazine covers cut both ways: Huckabee gets himself in some more trouble in an interview in the forthcoming New York Times Magazine, which will now be read primarily to find this quote: "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers." The campaign is calling for context, but good luck untangling those horns.

Romney responded Wednesday morning on "Today": "Attacking someone's religion is not the American way. And, people will reject that." And this: "I think Mike was hoping we'd get through this without anybody taking a close look at his record."

Huckabee says he's willing to meet with Ryan White's mother -- but that won't quiet questions about his 1992 statements on AIDS and homosexuality. "As Huckabee's underdog candidacy has had a surge in support -- he's now the leading Republican candidate among likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers -- the former Arkansas governor has faced new scrutiny," Seema Mehta writes in the Los Angeles Times.

Romney gets a boost coming into the debate. National Review endorses him just in time for this final pre-caucus exchange. "At a time when voters yearn for competence and have soured on Washington because too often the Bush administration has not demonstrated it, Romney offers proven executive skill," the editors write (in what reads like a wrenching choice among a field of flawed candidates).

"More than the other primary candidates, Romney has President Bush's virtues and avoids his flaws," the endorsement continues. "His moral positions, and his instincts on taxes and foreign policy, are the same. But he is less inclined to federal activism, less tolerant of overspending, better able to defend conservative positions in debate, and more likely to demand performance from his subordinates."

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