THE NOTE: Hillary vs. Hillary

At least she wasn't mentioned in the Mitchell Report.

Even before a top adviser to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign resigned on Thursday -- and before Sen. Barack Obama stopped her laughter cold with a supremely confident 11-word sentence at the final Democratic debate -- this was the roughest stretch of Clinton's campaign. By far.

These past six weeks have brought us driver's licenses (or not) for illegal immigrants; a (possibly) untipped waitress; planted questions; collapsing flags; a transcendent Obama speech at the J-J dinner; a consistently off-message spouse; oppo-research gone bad (all the way to Kindergarten); campaign aides e-mailing garbage about Obama; and Billy Shaheen talking garbage about Obama.


The corker is the departure of Shaheen, one of Clinton's state and national campaign co-chairs, and a man the Union Leader calls "one of New Hampshire's most powerful Democrats."

And a new poll in New Hampshire that has Obama ticking ahead in the Granite State.

This is supposed to be the "fun part"? Keeping in mind that a humbling makes for a heck of a storyline -- and that any campaign would be absolutely insane to project an image of chaos by shaking up its structure less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses -- that depends on what happens next (and a rare press availability Friday morning could give us some sense).

There are now two very different Clinton campaigns being run. One is pushing a quite possibly very effective message, depicting her as loveable (thanks, mom), experienced (thanks, Bill), and effective agent of change. (New line: "Yes, it takes some perspiration.")

The parallel campaign is trafficking in political nonsense, stirring up non-stories about one opponent in particular who is Clinton's biggest threat.

So far, that's the half that's winning. Even after Clinton's apology to Obama on the tarmac of Reagan National Airport, strategist Mark Penn let the word "cocaine" escape his lips in a televised interview, as in, "The issue related to cocaine use is not something the campaign is in any way raising." (Imagine the uproar if David Axelrod went on television and said, "The issue related to Bill Clinton's extramarital affairs is not something the campaign is in any way raising.")

Not that anyone's staying away from politics here. "Obama officials seized on it as evidence that the Clinton team was intentionally trying to associate Obama with drug use," Anne Kornblut and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post.

"Still, even as Obama's operatives objected to the remarks, his campaign manager sent out a fundraising appeal urging supporters to show their outrage by contributing to the campaign."

If any portion of Camp Clinton wanted Obama's drug use in the mix of the campaign, they got their wish.

"A senior adviser to the Obama campaign, David Axelrod, had to answer precisely those queries [raised by Billy Shaheen] from reporters in a scrum after the debate. He said emphatically that Mr. Obama had not sold or given out drugs," Russell Berman writes in the New York Sun.

For a second consecutive day, an apology overshadowed a debate. The very-sorry candidates: Clinton and former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark. The campaigns? Maybe not so much.

"In the aftermath of the apologies, both the Clinton and Huckabee campaigns kept the original slurs alive through a series of interviews, raising questions about the sincerity of their apologies, especially in the heat of a wide-open campaign with the first voting less than three weeks away," Katharine Q. Seelye writes in The New York Times.

"At the same time, as the news media report on the apologies, they, too, become complicit in regurgitating the original comments. Reporters have the choice of either helping keep the accusations in circulation or keeping readers or viewers in the dark."

As for the debate and beyond, Clinton's line about not being able to get change by "demanding it" or "hoping for it" (wonder who she's talking about) will be "a recurring theme in the final days of the campaign," Kathy Kiely reports in USA Today.

But Obama had the line of the day. Clinton was laughing (one of her big ones) when debate moderator Carolyn Washburn, asked Obama how a campaign team loaded with Clinton administration foreign policy advisers represented a break with a past. Clinton: "I'm looking forward to hearing that." She won't forget his response: "Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me, as well."

"Mrs. Clinton, confronted at the debate in Johnston, Iowa, specifically about her closed-door health care task force in 1993-94, said she had 'learned a lot from that experience,' but did not blame herself for being secretive," Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times. Clinton: "Clearly one of the principal lessons is that you have to have a very strong communication strategy, and we didn't do that."

Mostly, though, the string of debates petered out.

"A debate that limited interaction between the candidates and skimmed over big issues such as the Iraq war brought to a close what has been a long parade of political forums that have run the gamut from fiery to dull," writes The Wall Street Journal's Christopher Cooper. The debate "focused on local issues and economic policy, and did little to stretch the candidates or push them beyond campaign rhetoric."

"The candidates seemed worse for wear," Joe Mathews and Janet Hook write in the Los Angeles Times. "Obama, showing muted energy, talked wistfully of having less than two hours to buy a Christmas tree and trim it with his two young daughters. He raised the question of whether the personal sacrifice of campaigning was worth it --without answering his own query."

It was former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., who may probably turned in the best performance, returning repeatedly to the I'll-fight-for-you mantra he's taking to caucus-goers. Edwards "was relentlessly on message, sounding strong, and making a very good case to keep this a three-person race."

Mark Halperin of Time and ABC News saw Edwards displaying the "confidence and warm populism that he has nearly perfected on the campaign trail. . . . If enough Iowa Democrats watched the debate, Vegas harpies would be dumb as an ear of corn to bet too much against this guy in the caucuses."

Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen sees the debate leaving Obama out in front, since "nothing happened to knock [him] off his stride."

But he sees the winner as Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del.: "As for Biden, how can you lose when everybody else on the stage is praising your record on civil rights, literally applauds you, and the front-runner offers testimony on your behalf?"

A healthy reminder: It's dangerous to get caught up in the storyline of two-way fights. Sometimes it's better to be just outside the action while Iowans are making their final decisions.

Yet this remains Obama's moment. "Just three years removed from the Illinois Senate, Obama threatens to upend Hillary Clinton in Iowa -- and if he does, he will pose a serious challenge in the Democratic nominating contest," The Washington Post's Dan Balz writes in his snapshot of the campaign.

"Obama is a singular candidate, cerebral in a profession in which instinct is often prized over intellect. He can be cool when circumstances call for hot, and at times he has left audiences more underwhelmed than satisfied. Yet the crowds keep coming."

Dana Milbank's take on his stump speech: "The 46-year-old freshman senator from Illinois, trying to topple the 60-year-old front-runner, never once utters the words 'Hillary' or 'Clinton.' But the target of his stump speech is unmistakable -- and his derision is brutal."

And in New Hampshire, "Barack Obama has come from behind to turn the Democratic presidential race in New Hampshire into a toss-up, according to a new Monitor opinion poll," Sarah Liebowitz writes in the Concord Monitor.

"The results -- which show Obama with a one-point edge over Hillary Clinton -- mirror other polls released this week, indicating that Clinton's once-imposing lead has evaporated in the run-up to New Hampshire's Jan. 8 primary."

In a week sandwiched by Oprah and a solid debate, Barack Obama is ABC's Buzz Maker of the Week.

Hillary's next move -- apart from the supposed "major endorsement" she's rolling out Friday in Iowa -- amounts to: she's a real person, too. Her new Iowa ad is a testimonial from her 88-year-old mother, and marks Chelsea Clinton's debut in a campaign ad. And across the screen flashes this subliminal message, surely the product of endless hours of focus-group testing: "Hillary mom lives with her."

"The Clinton campaign is convinced that Iowa voters haven't seen this side of her," ABC's George Stephanopoulos reported on "Good Morning America" on Friday.

The same warnings about campaigns being more than two-way fights apply on the other side of the race, where the Iowa battle between Huckabee and former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., rages. Neither of them, of course, is the national frontrunner -- but former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., can't ignore the early-voting states, either.

"Republican Rudy Giuliani's plan to absorb punishment in the party's early primaries and then strike back in primaries in delegate-rich states on Jan. 29 and Feb. 5 has hit a wall," David Jackson writes in USA Today.

Rudy's "closing argument" gets its first airing Saturday in Florida. New campaign theme: "Tested. Ready. Now."

"This will be a closing statement of why he wants to be president," said "a senior Giuliani adviser familiar with the speech" tells's Chris Cillizza. Cillizza writes: "For much of the campaign to date, Giuliani has talked almost exclusively about his record as mayor of New York as opposed to what he would do as president. Saturday's speech will change that."

Before he gets to Tampa, this time it's Rudy's ties to a Sunshine State business that drip-drips into the public realm.

"Rudolph W. Giuliani's consulting firm was hired in 2002 to help a Florida company build its business under a contract that called for Mr. Giuliani's firm to be paid in part for lining up work with the federal government and other clients, company records show," Eric Lipton writes in The New York Times. "Federal law prohibits payment of a commission in return for a federal contract, a standard that the firm, Giuliani Partners, said it did not violate."

Giuliani's got a new ad running in New Hampshire, focusing on immigration -- and, perhaps, saying that illegal immigrants don't have to leave the country to get on a path to citizenship. "And then if you become a citizen, you have to be able to read English, write English, speak English and understand American civics," Giuliani says in the ad. (Dare we say he's looking almost moderate on the subject?)

Check out the candidates' schedules in The Note's Sneak Peek.

Also in the news:

National Review's Rich Lowry rips Huckabee apart in his latest column. "After many false prophecies, Dean circa 2008 has finally arrived. He is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Not because he will inevitably blow himself up in Iowa. But because, like Dean, his nomination would represent an act of suicide by his party."

ABC's Jake Tapper has the latest instance of Mormon-bashing, just off the campaign trail. "Mormonism is a cult," declares Marion, Iowa, City Councilman Craig Adamson -- a registered Republicans who considers himself a supporter of Mike Huckabee. In an interview, Adamson "confesses to bad e-mail etiquette and suggests his objections to Romney are not just faith-based." But he's not apologizing: "Mormonism is a cult," he says again. "I'm not going to back down on this."

Bloomberg's Jonathan Salant takes a different cut at the Mormon issue. "There is one area, however, where the former Massachusetts governor's religious affiliation gives him an important advantage: money. Fellow Mormons are pouring millions into his candidacy and promoting his campaign," Salant writes.

"Residents of Utah, where members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are a majority of the population, donated $4.5 million to Romney's campaign in the first nine months of the year. That's almost as much as the $5.4 million that Utahans gave to all federal candidates and the political parties during the 2004 presidential campaign."

Obama is profiled by The Washington Post's Kevin Merida on Friday, with an unpacking of Obama's complex relationship with the father he hasn't seen since he was 10.

"Obama hasn't found a way to reconcile his desire to be the father he never had with the long absences required of a presidential candidate," Merida writes. "He attends parent-teacher conferences and dance recitals, and he structures his campaign day to always include a call to his daughters. But as his wife notes, 'they are sometimes not ready to receive you when you call, and he has to suck that up.' "

If Obama does pull it off, it will probably be women voters who make it happen, Reid Wilson writes for Real Clear Politics.

"As polls show her once-strong lead in Iowa slipping, the once-inevitable Democratic nominee looks human again, vulnerable to defeat from Illinois Senator Barack Obama. If Obama pulls off the once unthinkable scenario of beating Clinton, a post-mortem analysis will show it is women, once seen as Clinton's key to a guaranteed victory, who caused her defeat."

Or maybe it will be black voters that put him over the top. "Barack Obama's rising poll numbers among white voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are having an unexpected ripple effect: Some black voters are switching their allegiance from Hillary Clinton and lining up behind him too," Jonathan Kaufman and Valerie Bauerlein write in The Wall Street Journal. "That could mean a further tightening of the Democratic presidential race, especially in southern states where blacks make up as many as half of Democratic primary voters."

ABC's Sunlen Miller has details of a tough question Obama got on the trail Thursday night from a fifth-grader -- one who, apparently, is watching Tom Tancredo's ads.

Obama wins the support of Markos Moulitsas (Daily Kos himself) -- but only half-heartedly. He writes that he'd go with Edwards except that his decision to accept public financing could leave him financially hamstrung in the general election.

His support for Obama "doesn't mean I think Obama walks on water. Far from it. The guy is going around idiotically attacking Paul Krugman, dancing with homophobic preachers, and while his rhetoric is beautiful upon first listening, an hour later you're left wondering if he said anything of substance at all (and the answer is usually 'no')," Moulitsas writes. "But this became 'process of elimination' for me. I don't 'support' Obama, I just plan on voting for him."

And Clinton has riled up some liberal bloggers in New Hampshire, with the disclosure that several campaign staffers were making recommendations on the Blue Hampshire blog without exposing their loyalties. "I'm still amazed that anyone with a basic knowledge of computers would think that they operate anonymously from a campaign office," Joshua Levy writes at "Haven't we learned anything from Wikipedia?"

Biden is profiled in The New York Times on Friday, with Elisabeth Bumiller focusing on his personal tragedies. "Mr. Biden has rebuilt his life, but the long-ago accident has become part of the narrative of his campaign and the most horrific of three major crises -- including life-threatening cranial aneurysms in 1988 and the blowup in 1987 of his first presidential race over accusations of plagiarism -- that have created the liberated 65-year-old candidate of today," she writes.

"Mr. Biden has survived so much personal and political catastrophe that not much about this race -- not his distant standing in the polls nor his own missteps -- seems to get him down," Bumiller continues. "It is the last, great ride of his White House ambitions, and this time, unlike 20 years ago, he seems determined to make it right."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., utters a phrase that took approximately two seconds to get her in trouble: "They like this war.  They want this war to continue," she said, referring to Republicans.

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The kicker:

"The decision by the Des Moines Register was that they needed to have an office, not in someone's home." -- Register Vice President of Marketing Susan Patterson Plank, explaining why Dennis Kucinich was not invited to Thursday's debate.

"No phone number could be found for the office in Lohrville, Iowa, that Mr. Keyes listed in his application to The Register." -- New York Times' Sarah Wheaton, in the story that will devastate and humiliate Alan Keyes' campaign for president.

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