THE NOTE: Ad Wars

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."

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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.

"The shift in emphasis from head to heart is the latest stage in a running argument inside Clinton's camp that stretches back to her 2000 campaign, one that pits the voters' need to know their politicians against the comfort zone of a very private woman and the theories of her data-driven pollster," Smith writes.

The Clinton campaign now is soaring, optimistic, energetic, positive. Her new ad doesn't mention Obama or any of her other opponents, and her friends and relatives are fanning out over Iowa's 99 counties. But again there's a surrogate taking (just maybe) a different path.

A day after endorsing Clinton, D-N.Y., former senator Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., expanded on his views that Obama's middle name and Muslim roots are a good thing for a potential president (again ensuring that a national television audience knows that Barack Hussein Obama had a father and a grandfather who were Muslim.) "I've watched the blogs, try to say that you can't trust him because he spent a little bit of time in a secular madrassa," Kerrey said on CNN yesterday. "I feel quite opposite."

This comes hard on the (snowy) heels of Billy Shaheen's casual reference to Obama's past drug use. "Thematic? Who knows. Code? Orchestrated? Anyone's guess. But let's think about the cumulative effect. That is what matters. Only words are heard, seen, read . . . over and over," Kate Phillips writes for The New York Times. "Meanwhile, we'll wait and listen and watch. Whisper campaigns reverberate off the buzz words."

Clinton weighs in herself: "I think Sen. Kerrey was being, you know, very generous in what he said," she tells the Quad-City Times' Ed Tibbetts.

Yes, Kerrey was offering biographical details in the context of praising Obama, D-Ill. Yes, Kerrey has always spoken his own mind. Yes, Obama is proud of his diverse heritage.

But don't forget that Bob Kerrey is backing Clinton. In the realm of praise, shouldn't it be up to Obama and his backers what they want to emphasize and how? Malicious or not, how many times can Kerrey work "Barack Hussein Obama" into a sentence without looking like he's playing in Ann Coulter's sandbox?

Bill Clinton is inhabiting some of that same alternate-messaging space, most prominently with the Charlie Rose interview where he warned of the risk of elected someone with as little experience as Obama. "The fact that the former president is stealing a page from the same Republican playbook used against him 15 years ago underscores the threat Obama poses to the candidacy of Clinton's wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York," AP's Ron Fournier writes. "It also illustrates Clinton's penchant for rewriting history."

And this is hardly the Drudge-bait coverage the Clinton campaign wants when they put the former president out on the road. President Clinton said Monday night in South Carolina: "The first thing she intends to do is to send me and former President Bush and a number of other people around the world to tell them that America is open for business and cooperation again."

We're sure 41 can't wait for the assignment. "Bill is saying that George H. W. Bush would agree to participate in an assignment predicated on his son being publicly acknowledged as a failure -- and all Bush 41 has to do now is say that he wouldn't," Talking Point Memo's Eric Kleefeld writes. "And beyond that, do Democratic activists really want to hear that someone named George Bush will be recruited to assist in Hillary's foreign policy?"

Clinton may have her groove back on the trail, but it is perhaps a measure of her declining status in the campaign that she's no longer the central figure of every clash among Democrats. It's Obama and former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., tangling -- and Clinton's not invited to this fight.

"Their dispute over health care policy details and curbing the influence of moneyed interests is far from the sharp and sustained criticisms the two have leveled at Hillary Clinton," Thomas Beaumont writes in the Des Moines Register. "But the two candidates have begun drawing lines between them, a sign of what is at stake for them in the Jan. 3 caucuses."

The wider dispute in Iowa is no longer about policy proposals or even candidates' records, but about attitude and tone, Salon.com's Walter Shapiro writes. "Three leading candidates, three stump speeches and three divergent approaches to wielding power -- that is the choice facing Iowa Democrats. Edwards and Clinton are both playing traditional roles in the never-ending political drama of the outsider versus the insider. Obama is the wild card, as the 21st-century candidate trying to rewrite the equations that govern political math."

The new USA Today/Gallup Poll has Democrats looking for the most electable candidate -- and this poll offers good news for Obama. He trails Clinton by 18 points in the national horserace, but Obama is stronger in the head-to-head matchups, "besting Giuliani by 6 points, Huckabee by 11 and Romney by 18," USA Today's Susan Page writes. Clinton strategist Mark Penn says such comparisons are "not realistic … because people don't have much information about [Obama]." (Hmmm . . . what were we saying about subtlety?)

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. sees Clinton's difficulties driven by "deeper flaws in her strategy." "If Obama, with his soaring and idealistic rhetoric, has been more theme than pudding, Clinton's campaign has been more pudding than theme," he writes.

And Camp Clinton says they're getting attacked by Obama -- though this is pretty tame stuff. "It's quite a stretch to say the Obama mailer attacks anyone. It does not," ABC's Jake Tapper writes. "It decries 'misleading attacks (that) may be textbook Washington, but they're exactly what stops us from ever solving the problem.' And that's a veiled reference to Clinton. But that's about it."

Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen (profiled in Tuesday's Washington Post) sees the battles among the frontrunners obscuring two candidates who could surge late: Edwards and former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. "Both Edwards and Thompson are pouring time and resources into Iowa these days," Yepsen writes. "Edwards and his people never quit, no matter how bleak things got in recent months. . . . After a sluggish start, Thompson has sensed an opening in Iowa, and he's moving decisively to exploit it."

"Voters may peel off of Hillary Clinton and then decide, maybe Barack's not ready for the presidency," former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd said on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Tuesday. "[Edwards] could benefit from that, but keep in mind, other people like Bill Richardson or Joe Biden, could benefit if people decide Barack isn't up to it."

On the Republican side, if this is Thompson's moment in Iowa, this is looking like Sen. John McCain's moment in New Hampshire (take eight). "With his efforts heavily concentrated on New Hampshire, where ballots will be cast five days [after Iowa], McCain has managed to rebuild some support after hitting a low this summer when his once-dominant campaign sank to fourth place in the state," the Los Angeles Times' Maeve Reston and Robin Abcarian report. "Though McCain is jockeying with Giuliani for second place here, some 10 points behind Romney, few political analysts are discounting the possibility of a McCain resurgence."

With Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., now on board, McCain, R-Ariz., could be positioned to "recapture some of that magic" among New Hampshire independents, Sasha Issenberg and Lisa Wangsness write in The Boston Globe. They see similarities to 2000, when many independents flirted with Bill Bradley but wound up abandoning him for McCain on Primary Day.

"McCain's pitch to those in the middle of the road is something of a reversal for a candidate who spent much of the last year trying to prove his conservative credentials to the party's skeptical base, which has sometimes bristled at his more moderate positions on campaign finance reform, illegal immigration, and taxes," they write.

McCain spent the day with ABC's Terry Moran for Monday night's "Nightline."

McCain has already essentially driven former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., to warmer climes. "The shifting landscape has prompted Mr. Giuliani to fall back on his original strategy: Try to survive the first slate of caucuses and primaries and stay alive long enough to fight on Feb. 5, when more than 20 states and nearly half the Republican delegates are up for grabs," Joseph Curl writes in the Washington Times. "The shift in New Hampshire has been prompted by a newly surging Mr. McCain."

"Like a boxer in the late rounds of a match, Mr. Giuliani's team appeared to be slowed from a series of blows in recent weeks," Seth Gitell writes in the New York Sun. "His demeanor seemed sober and somewhat subdued. Gone was the swagger he demonstrated at a series of weekend events in New Hampshire just after Thanksgiving."

The Rudy folks are calling it retrenchment, not retreat, and he popped into New Hampshire Monday to tell voters there how important they still are. "The GOP field is more fractured than ever, so Romney will be denied the string of early victories that could have made him unstoppable, they say," David Saltonstall writes in the New York Daily News. Says Giuliani: "We do see it as a nine-inning game, so you're going to see money moving around."

Who can we blame for this chaos? Start with Huckabee, R-Ark., without whom we might now be talking about the inevitable Romney vs. Rudy clash. Huck's remarkable new ad -- it's one thing to tag yourself as a "Christian leader," but anyone remember a previous direct mention of "Christ" in a political TV ad? -- seems designed to break through in a crowded media landscape that's being interrupted by the holidays.

ABC's Jake Tapper: "I suspect discussng the true meaning of Christmas will be very popular among certain members of the Republican electorate -- it's really no more revolutionary than what Linus says in 'Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.' But religion and politics can be dicey."

Romney's new ad attacking Huckabee on crime is, shall we say, less Christian (and no, that is not a statement on Mormonism). "With Mr. Romney regularly attacking Mr. Huckabee on the campaign trail, singling him out in mailings and using recorded phone calls to challenge him, it is unclear at what point, especially with Christmas week fast approaching, he will have crossed the unspoken line and face a backlash from his efforts," Michael Luo writes in The New York Times.

Huck's high-road response: "I think at this time, despicable tactics are the only thing they have left in their arsenal," he said, per the Los Angeles Times' Phil Willon.

And Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, goes with Mitt Romn . . . wait, sorry -- it's Fred Thompson! Notwithstanding all those Romney staffers gathered in the back of the room, apparently expecting good news for their boss, King -- a self-styled kingmaker who sees immigration as the top issue -- crowned Thompson on Monday. "I won't rub it in -- I will just say this: This ain't the last surprise you're gonna get, folks," Thompson said, per ABC's Christine Byun.

Thompson is still eyeing a top-three finish in Iowa, Time's Jay Newton-Small writes. "Thompson firmly believes he can play well with Evangelicals, sapping votes from their current favorite, Huckabee. He has been on the attack -- trying to show holes in Huckabee's record both in press interviews and in a mailing that went out last week that accuses Huckabee of being weak on immigration."

If the Clintons are looking for some Magic -- as in Johnson -- she finds it on Tuesday, with the basketball great campaigning with both Bill and Hillary in Waterloo, Iowa.

On Tuesday, Obama is also in Iowa, while Edwards is in New Hampshire. Romney hits Georgia and the Carolinas, Huckabee's in Texas, Giuliani is down, and -- of course -- Thompson is in Iowa while McCain is in New Hampshire. Get the full schedule for the candidates and the spouses from The Note's Sneak Peek here.

Also in the news:

Jason Horowitz profiles the "Hillary haters" in the January issue of GQ (and Bill won't be on the cover of this one). Anti-Hillary forces "don't appear savvy or particularly well organized. And a movement based around cartoons that trot out stale liberal stereotypes hardly seems like the kind of grassroots juggernaut that could upend a front-running presidential candidate," he writes. "Then again, few people would have guessed in January 2004 that a group of deeply partisan veterans telling a dubious tale about John Kerry's military service would ultimately shape that year's election and enter the American political lexicon."

"Already there are dozens of Web sites -- Stop Hillary PAC, Gotta Stop Hillary, and The Hillary Project to name just a few -- devoted to Hillary's demise. No other candidate in history has ever inspired a similar cottage industry of anger -- Web sites, books, and movies, not to mention the Hillary Clinton Voodoo Kit ('Stick It to Her, Before She Sticks It to You!') or the articles explaining her occult connection ('Proof Positive That Hillary Clinton is an Illuminist Witch: Exposé of Hillary's Christmas Tree')."

Clinton faced none of those questions on the trail Monday, but she did get a direct query about all those people who just don't like her, ABC's Eloise Harper and Kate Snow report. Clinton's response: "Some of the folks the talking heads on radio and TV, you know the ratings dip a little bit, well you know they've got a hard core that always responds to going after me, they can make a little money off me. . . . I have created so many jobs and wealth."

Romney's relationship with his father, George, is the subject in The New York Times' David Kirkpatrick's take in "The Long Run" series. "On the trail, his father's ghost hovers constantly over the Romney campaign," Kirkpatrick writes. Says Romney: "Like a baton has passed, like a relay team where the baton passed from generation to generation. . . . I am a shadow of the real deal."

Says former governor Bill Weld, R-Mass., of the father-son relationship: "It was undiluted hero worship."

Why is Mitt Romney crying? Politico's Jonathan Martin counts three tear-dropping moments from the Mittster in recent weeks, the most recent time coming when he recalled meeting the casket of a dead soldier while he was governor. "Beyond not suppressing his emotions, Romney has also begun dressing differently," Martin writes, with sweaters-and-slacks replacing suits-and-ties.

Mike Huckabee is just killing Mitt Romney -- right? Maybe not, Real Clear Politics' John McIntyre writes. "While the focus has been on Romney's fading polls in Iowa, what is underappreciated is just how much the emergence of Huckabee as the 'religious' candidate has changed the dynamic of the GOP field, and changed it in a way that may be very helpful to Mitt Romney," he writes.

And his Mormon faith does cut both ways -- even in Iowa, where the Church is 22,500 strong (there are perhaps 25 times more evangelicals in the state, in case you're counting). "The spotlight in the Republican race for Iowa has been on the evangelical vote mobilizing behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister," Elizabeth Holmes writes in The Wall Street Journal. "But in his bid to hold on to the first caucus state, Mr. Romney can count on another strong, albeit silent, religious bloc: his fellow Mormons."

Mr. Dodd goes to Washington. That's right, Iowa resident Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., technically, engaged in a full-fledged (or as close to that as you get these days) filibuster over the FISA bill on Monday. "But Democratic leaders eventually pulled the bill, putting off consideration until next year," the AP's Andrew Miga reports, meaning Dodd can save his voice.

It earns Dodd raves (again) from the liberal blogosphere.

Who knows where Mayor Mike Bloomberg's head is on a presidential run, but somehow he's keeping his name in the mix even with those coy public statements about wanting to finish his term. "Bloomberg's aides have been reaching out to consultants from his past campaigns about whether they are free for a possible 2008 White House bid -- including one who helped make his slick mayoral TV spots," the New York Post's Maggie Haberman reports.

"The moves took place in the past few weeks, as the primaries for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees are about to begin -- and aides have suggested that he will wait and see who the nominees are before making a decision about an independent White House run."

Bloomberg's dream matchup? How does Huckabee-Obama sound to a billionaire businessman?

New look sites of the day, from the Republican National Committee . . .

. . . from the Edwards campaign in Iowa . . .

. . . and don't miss the Edwards for President trailer.

The kicker:

"Obviously, I am the 51st vote. . . . I think they are beginning to think of me as the eccentric uncle. You know, 'We like him, but every now and then he gets up and he says these very unusual things.' " -- Joe Lieberman, on how his Democratic colleagues may react to his decision to support a Republican for president.

"There's more to someone's honor and integrity, and to their public service. I think sometimes we confuse the private and the public in ways that are not necessarily useful." -- Hillary Clinton, on adultery, on Tuesday's CBS "Evening News."

"The most cohesive team that I can recall in Democratic politics." -- Mark Penn, describing the Clinton campaign team before news broke of a possible shake-up. "They had a lot of turmoil the last couple of campaigns, both [John] Kerry and [Al] Gore. Maybe we'll have a --" he said, cutting off the thought with a laugh. "You never know."

The Video Note is now available on iTunes. Subscribe to the free podcast in the ABC News section of the iTunes store. Fresh editions covering the highlights and lowlights from the trail are available every Tuesday and Friday.

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