There's something about being 16 days out before the Iowa caucuses that demands the sacrifice of subtlety. So with four new TV ads out from four top contenders -- two R's, two D's -- we offer this viewer's guide:

What Mike Huckabee's says: [To an easy-listening version of "Silent Night."] "At this time of year, sometimes it's nice to pull aside from all of that and just remember that what really matters is a celebration of the birth of Christ, and being with our family, and our friends. I hope that you and your family have a magnificent Christmas season."


What he wants you to hear: I love the baby Jesus, and the baby Jesus loves you. (And did you catch that cross looming over my shoulder?) But He's not an Iowa resident who will be at least 18 years old on Election Day 2008 and therefore cannot participate in the Iowa caucuses. You can. Bless you, Merry Christmas, and I'm curious, was the Devil born in late December, too? Just asking. . . .

What Mitt Romney's ad says: [Cue vaguely foreboding repeated sound sequence, like a tense moment on "24."] "Mike Huckabee? He granted 1,033 pardons and commutations, including 12 convicted murderers. Huckabee granted more clemencies than the previous three governors combined. Even reduced penalties for manufacturing methamphetamine. On crime, the difference is judgment."

What he wants you to hear: This ain't tiddlywinks, Mike. Willie Horton. I didn't drop an eight-digit sum on Iowa to be your friend -- or to come in second. Willie Horton. There's maybe half a dozen more where this came from. Willie Horton. Who's crying now? Oh, Merry Christmas. Willie. Horton.

What Hillary Clinton's ad says: [To quick-moving, patriotically upbeat music, kind of like the theme song from "The West Wing."] "The Des Moines Register just endorsed Hillary Clinton. Her readiness to lead sets her apart. From working for children's rights as a young lawyer, to meeting with leaders around the world as first lady, to emerging as an effective legislator, every stage of her life has prepared her for the presidency."

What she wants you to hear: Perhaps you've heard of the Des Moines Register. It's a newspaper -- written, edited, and published by real Iowans, who also happen to live in Iowa. They like me. And I was giving nationally prominent speeches when that Barack Obama guy was in Kindergarten. Speaking of Kindergarten . . .

What Barack Obama's ad says: [To music much like Hillary Clinton's, only more hopeful.] "His candor is refreshing. His scrupulous honesty is far more presidential than the dodging of other candidates. . . . Because for Barack Obama it's not politics as usual -- it's change we can believe in."

What he wants you to hear: I have friends who work for Iowa newspapers, too. And I just noticed something: You can't spell Hillary without L-I-A-R.

All campaigns work on multiple tracks -- generating positive messages and negative ones, via direct campaigning, mailings, advertisements, surrogates, and whispers. On the public side, the forces for a positive vision have won out (for now) inside Camp Clinton, "with the brainy, policy-oriented focus of most of the past 11 months giving way abruptly to an attempt to focus on Clinton's human side," Politico's Ben Smith writes.

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