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.

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."

The Romney camp is now trying to set Huckabee up as the favorite in Iowa, so that a win there would give Mitt some momentum. "Romney's director of strategy, Alexander P. Gage, said the campaign was not concerned about Huckabee's rise in Iowa," Michael Levenson writes in The Boston Globe.

"Gage attributed much of Huckabee's move to demographics, saying 45 percent of Iowa caucusgoers are evangelical Christians, which he called a 'natural constituency' for the former Baptist preacher." Gage: "Iowa was a sweet spot for him."

There's no place like home -- except when everyone back home seems to hate you. We look at the hometown haters who are dogging the three former executives who are leading the GOP race: Romney's feud with his two immediate GOP predecessors; the Arkansas conservatives who are out to bring Huckabee down; and the New York City firefighters and 9/11 victims' families who are making things interesting for former mayor Rudy Giuliani, R-N.Y.

And keep in mind that the window on this campaign is closing even faster than the calendar suggests. The true campaigning stage of the Iowa campaign -- before Christmas shuts everything down, and crowds out everything except a wildly unpredictable final sprint -- has about 10 days left in it.

"Starting sometime soon, the state of the race in both parties is going to go 'behind the moon,' " Matthew Dowd writes in his blog. "We will not be able to get a true picture until the actual caucus voting in Iowa occurs on January 3rd -- which takes place 48 hours after New Years Day. . . . And keep your seatbelt fastened cause this is going to be a wild ride, until the radio contact is restored on the night of the Iowa caucus in less than three weeks."

Among the Democrats, the latest national poll numbers seem to have quieted some of the rumblings of panic inside Camp Clinton (you know they're feeling good when Mark Penn's poll memos resume their jaunty tone).

Clinton's back to her 30-point comfort zone in the new ABC/Washington Post poll: She's up 53-23-10 over Obama and Edwards nationally (with everyone else in the low single digits).

Yet there's just enough behind the innuendo and tabloidese to make it look like Ken Bazinet and Tom DeFrank are onto something with their lede in the New York Daily News: "Bubba to the rescue!"

"Alarmed by his wife's slide in the polls and disarray within her backbiting campaign, a beside-himself Bill Clinton has leaped atop the barricades and is furiously plotting a cure -- or coup," they write. "He's unhappy with her operation -- once hailed as a juggernaut -- and concerned she could lose the Democratic nomination without major alterations in strategy and staffing. . . . Campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle is the biggest target, sources said."

One anonymous source: "They all want to kill each other."

Nothing conveys turmoil like a staff shakeup, and no campaign -- and certainly not the Clinton campaign -- is dumb enough to blow up its infrastructure so close to the caucuses (or, at least, dumb enough to let the press catch on that it's happened).

But what if the shakeup kind of already happened -- and nobody fully noticed? "Nowhere is the Clinton campaign -- which to some Iowans had appeared ignorant of the political subtleties, if not arrogant about them -- working more urgently to recalibrate and head off defeat as the Jan. 3 caucus approaches," Adam Nagourney and Patrick Healy write in The New York Times.

" 'Here's the bottom line: They had not worked this state,' said Teresa Vilmain, the Iowa state director, who was brought in here in a quiet campaign shake-up that took place early last summer, when Mrs. Clinton first saw signs of problems here."

Howard Wolfson is set to join much of the rest of the senior staff in Des Moines, and while Hillary works the Des Moines Register for an endorsement, Bill's getting restless: "her aides described former President Bill Clinton as increasingly frustrated that his wife's campaign has not fought back even more forcefully against efforts by Mr. Obama and former Senator John Edwards to raise questions about Mrs. Clinton's character. They said that Mr. Clinton had warned for weeks that they were taking a toll on his wife's candidacy," Nagourney and Healy write.

Another Bill gem, quoted by the Washington Times' Christina Bellantoni: "I literally don't know a single Palestinian in America who is not a college professor or a millionaire." (Maybe you should get out more?)

Building on a cleanly executed oppo hit Tuesday, Clinton is trying to turn the campaign to questions of Obama's electability in advance of Thursday's Democratic debate in Iowa.

If Iowa doesn't work out -- get ready for Comeback Kid: The Sequel. "Clinton's Democratic team is preparing television ads [in New Hampshire] criticizing Barack Obama's health care plan and working to build what campaigns call a firewall," the AP's Beth Fouhy and Philip Elliott report. "The Clinton campaign ordered focus groups in New Hampshire last weekend to test television ads against Obama on his health care plan, which does not mandate universal coverage as Clinton's does."

Yet as firewalls go . . . it's best to avoid terms like "statistical tie." "According to the latest WMUR/CNN poll [in New Hampshire], Hillary Clinton's 20-point lead has vanished. She now has 31 percent support, with Barack Obama in a statistical tie at 30 percent. John Edwards is third with 16 percent, and Bill Richardson has slipped slightly to 7 percent."

ABC's Diane Sawyer scores the first post-rally interview with Oprah, who says she may hit the trail again for Obama, but isn't going to appear in campaign ads. "That's not the best use of my time and my service," Oprah said on "Good Morning America" on Wednesday. "This past weekend was a really good use of my service."

On why she endorsed Obama: "It's not because of the color of his skin, it's because of what he represents. And I do think that he represents a sense of hope. He is a black man, and I'm very happy about that, but that is not the reason that I would be supporting him."

And Denzel Washington signs up: "I like Barack Obama."

Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh rounds up the endorsements (including Joe Biden's strong showing among Iowa lawmakers) and pronounces Oprah a winner for Obama: "Having walked the long line waiting to enter the Verizon Wireless Arena on that snowy evening, and having witnessed the tremendous excitement Winfrey and Obama created inside the hall, I think this is an endorsement we'll remember. With it, Obama has staked a powerful claim to final-month momentum."

And Clinton was the latest to enjoy in Warren Buffett's affections (and fundraising capabilities), but the battle is one for the Oracle of Omaha. "Democratic presidential rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are vying for the affections of legendary investor Warren Buffett, as the economy eclipses Iraq as a key election issue," Amy Chozick and Monica Langley write in The Wall Street Journal.

Also in the news:

Giuliani rewrites some of his mayoral history. Rudy Giuliani says he wanted to deport all 400,000 illegal immigrants from New York City when he was mayor, but ended up welcoming most of those who were 'causing me no trouble,' " the Washington Examiner's Bill Sammon writes in an excerpt from his new book. Rudy: "If they could, I would have turned all the people over. It would have helped me. I would have had a smaller population. I would have had fewer problems."

Flashback to 1994, courtesy of "If you come here and you work hard and you happen to be in an undocumented status, you're one of the people who we want in this city."

Did Giuliani lose one of his high-profile endorsements? Maybe for a split second. This is Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas: "The issue becomes very, very clear to me from the standpoint of who I want to support. And it is Mike Huckabee. And then it goes to the next level, which is who do we have who is the most electable of our candidates, and I think without a doubt it's Rudy Giuliani."

In the same vein as the ABC/Washington Post poll, the Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman sees Iraq fading as an issue in New Hampshire, with candidates seldom getting questions on the subject anymore. "Not long ago it was the issue that dominated every campaign event and speech," Zuckman writes. "Now the war in Iraq has dramatically receded as a campaign topic, giving way to preoccupations closer to home -- the price of heating oil, the collapse of the real estate market and the high cost of health care."

President Bush sat down for a revealing interview with ABC's Martha Raddatz. "I doubt I'd be standing here if I hadn't quit drinking whiskey, and beer and wine and all that," Bush said. "I had too much to drink one night, and the next day I didn't have any. . . . I wasn't a knee-walking drunk. . . . It's a difficult thing to do, which is to kick an addiction."

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is missing his campaign's "tea party" in Boston, but his supporters are still out to shatter fundraising records this weekend, ABC's Z. Byron Wolf reports.

Moveon.Org is back with a new ad for The New York Times, set to run in the next week. It's a comic strip that has Bush and Karl Rove plotting an attack on Iran to help GOP prospects in 2008. The ad reads: "The Bush legacy: Waging war for political gain."

And the ONE campaign is "encouraging people to ask the presidential candidates what they would do about the world's poorest people in $1.8 million worth of television ads to be shown in the weeks before the nation's first presidential contests," per the AP's Ann Sanner.

Republicans held onto both House seats filled by special elections on Tuesday. The Hill's Aaron Blake: "State Rep. Bob Latta (R) held off a challenge in Ohio's 5th district, defeating Democrat Robin Weirauch 57-43 with 100 percent of precincts reporting. State Del. Rob Wittman (R) won a less contentious race in Virginia's 1st district, 61-37 according to full results posted by the state board of elections."

And a new site that every candidate aspires to be part of: Learn all about the White House Correspondents' Association.

The kicker:

"I know that folks were rifling though my kindergarten papers. I'm going to be disclosing them tomorrow. It will show that I experimented with coloring outside the lines. I was pulling on pigtails. I liked it." -- Obama, getting a lot of mileage out of one Clinton campaign misstep.

"I was the Barack Obama!" -- Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., reminiscing about his 1988 run for president.

I'll be live-blogging during Wednesday afternoon's Republican debate, starting at 2 pm ET. Be part of the conversation here.

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