Consider these five facts as you delight in these final 15 days before actual real people cast actual real votes that will determine the course of the future of this nation:
2. Iowa is a full-on, absolute, no-doubt-about-it three-way Democratic dogfight (and the three keys to victory are turnout, turnout, and turnout).
3. Both of the national frontrunners now trail in the lead-off state -- and both are on about their fourth new strategy of just the past six weeks (and that's not even counting Rudy Giuliani's donning of a red Christmas sweater).
4. The same candidate who's most likely to drop a Jesus reference is also most likely to reference Paul (as in McCartney).
But first, fresh numbers: The ABC News Washington Post poll out Wednesday morning pegs it at Obama 33, Clinton 29, Edwards 20 in Iowa, with none of the other Democrats cracking double digits.
That's the same four-point margin that separated Obama and Clinton a month ago, though they seem to be pulling away (if only slightly) from Edwards in his must-win state.
It's -- surprise -- Sen. Barack Obama's fresh direction vs. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's change and experience.
"Likely caucus-goers are increasingly polarized between these two themes," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes.
"Obama's enlarged his already sizable lead among those looking mainly for new ideas and a new direction. But Clinton's gained among those focused on strength and experience, and has eased some of her recent negatives on forthrightness and empathy."
It will all depend -- surprise -- on who shows up Jan. 3. "In a race that could hinge on a campaign's ability to motivate voters to brave wintry conditions and spend hours attending caucuses, each of the leading contenders appears to enjoy distinct advantages," Dan Balz and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post.
"More of Obama's backers said they are certain to participate than did those who have gotten behind Clinton. But Clinton's supporters are the most committed and enthusiastic, and Edwards counts among his supporters experienced caucus attendees who are more likely to turn out again."
This is what happens when support of the single-digit candidates is spread among the second choices: Obama 37, Clinton 31, Edwards 26.
And the latest out of New Hampshire: Clinton's back on top, 38-26-14 over Obama and Edwards, in the CNN/WMUR New Hampshire Primary Poll. (Camp Clinton can exhale now, briefly.)
On the GOP side, it's Romney 34, McCain 22, Giuliani 16, Huckabee 10, Paul 5, and Fred Thompson inhabiting Tancredo-Hunter land with 1 (!!!) percent of the vote.
In the fast-shifting message wars inside and outside Camp Clinton, now she just wants people to like her -- and here comes Hillary the human being.
"Mrs. Clinton has embarked this week on a warm-and-fuzzy tour, blitzing full throttle by helicopter across Iowa to present herself as likable and heartwarming, a complement to her 'strength and experience' message that the campaign felt a female candidate needed first," Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times.
"Now another major question faces the Clinton team in Iowa: Did it wait too long to try to humanize Hillary?" Healy writes.
"Since November, Iowans have been whipsawed with messages from Mrs. Clinton: She and her allies have attacked Mr. Obama to try to increase his negative ratings, argued in favor of her strength, portrayed her as a force for change and, now, highlighted her persona."
The Washington Post's Dana Milbank hits the trail to write up the "last-minute fix for a potentially fatal flaw: Voters like her brains and her experience, but they don't necessarily like, well, her."
Milbank identifies the "snag" as Hillary herself, who just may be a policy wonk at heart: "It's a little hard for me. It's not easy for me to talk about myself," she said Tuesday in Iowa.
When in doubt, why not some Magic -- Johnson, that is.
"Who else would you call upon to guard Oprah?" Sridhar Pappu writes in the Post. Says Magic himself (whatever this means): "Remember something about the Clintons: They're winners and Hillary Clinton wants to win. She wants to win because she has the best experience, the best vision. Bill Clinton wants her to win, and he's supporting her."
Yes, of course, there is her husband, "Bill in a china shop," as the New York Daily News' Michael McAuliff and Tom DeFrank call him.
"Tuesday, he went on a minirampage, grabbing unflattering headlines and hogging the spotlight at an event with Magic Johnson while stumping for his wife in Des Moines," they write. "Campaigning at a Hy-Vee supermarket, he broke past a rope line at the carefully scripted stop to greet star-struck Iowans, creating near-chaos."
Maybe this is why Al Gore and John Kerry didn't deploy the B-bomb quite like Hillary has. Former President George H.W. Bush says thanks but no thanks to Bill's offer to join him on a joint tour of the world "to tell them that America is open for business and cooperation again."
Per ABC's Kate Snow, this from H.W. land: "He has never discussed an 'around-the-world mission' with either former President Bill Clinton or Senator Clinton, nor does he think such a mission is warranted since he is proud of the role America continues to play around the world as the beacon of hope for freedom and democracy."
And asked on Tuesday to back up his assertion on Charlie Rose that going with Obama would be risky, Clinton walked it back (remember, at heart, Bill is the one who wants people -- needs people -- to like him): "I've bragged on all of 'em -- Senator Obama, Senator Edwards, all of 'em. I like 'em. I think she has the best record of making change in other people's lives in the most different circumstances and I think that's important for the next president," Clinton said, per Radio Iowa's O. Kay Henderson.
Obama, D-Ill., should be looking for some mo' of his own just about now. A mini-boost comes from filmmaker (and New Hampshire resident) Ken Burns.
The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos sees Obama and Clinton swapping roles in this play -- again. "Clinton, who spent most of the campaign communicating her confidence and readiness to lead, is now emphasizing her life story and her sensitivity to voters' concerns," Canellos writes.
"Obama, who spent most of the campaign communicating his life story and sensitivity to voters' concerns, is now emphasizing his confidence and readiness to lead."
Then there's former senator John Edwards, D-N.C. The New York Times' Adam Nagourney sees a new closing argument: "There is, in this final appeal to Iowa Democrats, no more talk about 'two Americas,' and barely a whisper of the optimism that distinguished him from the field in 2004 and which he exhibited as recently as a few weeks ago," Nagourney writes.
"Instead, he is issuing a defiant pledge to fight big business, to voters in a state that has been buffeted by national and global economic forces and is still reeling from the closing of Maytag plant in Newton in October."
In the Obama-Edwards sparring, the Chicago Tribune's Rick Pearson and John McCormick monitor a battle for second place in the caucus rooms.
"In early polling in Iowa, Edwards scored well as a second-choice candidate, but more recent private polling suggests Obama has cut into that edge," they write.
"The former North Carolina senator, who spent a significant amount of time building his campaign in Iowa, still maintains a reservoir of goodwill in a state where he finished second to John Kerry four years ago, after the late collapse of early front-runners Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt."
On the Republican side -- where's Rudy? He was down on Tuesday (rather inexplicably), and on Wednesday he hits the frenzied and crucial political state of . . . Missouri?
Rudy is just about giving up on the first round of states -- placing his bets on Florida (Jan. 29) and the big Feb. 5 states.
"As Giuliani pursued this strategy he has dropped to third or fourth place in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Perhaps of greater concern for Giuliani is his steady drop in the national polls, from 53 percent in February to 26 percent today," ABC's Jake Tapper reports.
"A danger for the former mayor -- his absence from a continued presence in these early states means that the media and his opponents are the ones deciding what voters are hearing about him."
Wait -- we found Rudy! He's wearing a red sweater and sitting next to Santa in front of a Christmas tree. "I'll be working to get everyone the same gift," Giuliani says in a new Web ad, which will be similar to a TV ad he'll start running New Hampshire on Thursday "A safe America. Lower taxes. Secure borders. Job growth. Fiscal discipline. Strict constructionist judges. And probably a fruitcake or something." (OK, he can't act, but this is a fun attempt at breaking through in the holiday season.)
And Giuliani still cannot control stories like this one: The Washington Post's John Solomon and Matthew Mosk write up the tale of Lawrence Ray, a convicted felon who has turned on Bernie Kerik to provide reams of incriminating information.
"That evidence, reviewed by The Washington Post, shows that Kerik brought Ray into contact with Giuliani on a handful of occasions documented in photos and that he invoked Giuliani's name in connection with a New Jersey construction company with alleged mob ties that is now at the heart of the criminal cases," they write.
We haven't heard the last from the firefighters and 9/11 victims' families, either. Jim Riches, a leader in those particular anti-Rudy efforts, tells ABC News that the big splash -- the 527 group that will go up on television -- will come shortly after Jan. 1. "If we have to follow him around all 2008 we'll do it," he tells the Los Angeles Times' Stephen Braun.
And former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., hasn't heard the last of his previous support for abortion rights.
ABC News obtained a photo of Romney and his wife, Ann, attending a fund-raising reception for Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts in 1994 -- in conjunction with the $150 check Ann wrote to the group. Romney still says he doesn't remember: "I attend a lot of events when I run for office. I don't recall the specific event -- not a terribly surprising feature."
This is a turn that both Giuliani and Romney may welcome: Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., is saying that one of his rivals isn't a conservative -- and he's talking about Mike Huckabee.
"It concerns the thought that we would nominate someone who's not a conservative," Thompson tells the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody. "I think in order to win in November we're going to have to have a conservative who can get independent votes, but someone who can unite the party."
As for Huckabee, R-Ark., The New York Times' Mark Leibovich finds him running in place -- quite literally. "In an exclusive treadmill interview in New Hampshire, the front-runner was drenched in sweat, breathing hard and spewing forth with homespun one-liners that have become a trademark," Leibovich writes.
"To watch the former Arkansas governor on the stump in recent days is to witness the awkward shifting of a candidate with nothing to lose to one with something to lose. His understaffed campaign seems overwhelmed by the aggressive operation of his opponents."
ABC's Cynthia McFadden spends the day with Sen. Clinton in Iowa for a "Nightline" piece set to air Wednesday night, complete with behind-the-scenes access.
Obama, Edwards, and Richardson all hit New Hampshire on Wednesday. Among the Republicans, Giuliani's in Missouri, McCain spins through Boston and New Hampshire (with Henry Kissinger), while Romney, Huckabee, and Thompson are all in Iowa.
Get Wednesday's full schedule in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also in the news:
Crazy coincidences and wacky surprises do happen on the campaign trail. In Iowa on Tuesday night, Clinton was asked whether she is a Christian. (She is.) "After that there was some commotion in the audience," ABC's Eloise Harper reports.
"A woman said 'your Sunday school teacher,' and at first Clinton did not seem to follow what she was saying. When Clinton looked over she saw Rosalie Bentzinger, who was the Director of Religious Education First Methodist Church in Park Ridge, Illinois. She evidently instructed Clinton when she was a girl.
. . . or do they? "What are the odds?" asks the Los Angeles Times' Andrew Malcolm. "Last month, some folks may recall, Clinton was forced to admit planting questions in a similar forum. . . . Today, Clinton aides said they were unaware the Sunday school teacher was in the crowd. Still, the incident happened to make a warm story to help personalize the candidate."
Could Clinton's problems be with her press coverage? (Really, after all she's done to court the press corps?) "Clinton's senior advisers have grown convinced that the media deck is stacked against them, that their candidate is drawing far harsher scrutiny than Barack Obama," The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz reports. Mark Halperin of Time and ABC News agrees: "She's just held to a different standard in every respect."
At least Foster's Daily Democrat likes her: "After weeks of interviewing candidates of similar, varied and divergent views, we have concluded Hillary Clinton, among Democrats, is the best qualified to lead the United States as its next president," the editors write, handing her a New Hampshire endorsement.
Matt Bai takes on the complicated Clinton legacy in the forthcoming New York Times Magazine. "Even without the allusions to the old days, [Bill Clinton's] speech seemed strangely reminiscent of that first campaign, and not necessarily in a good way," Bai writes.
"Listening to him talk, I found it hard not to wonder why so many of the challenges facing the next president were almost identical to those he vowed to address in 1992. Why, after Clinton's two terms in office, were we still thinking about tomorrow? In some areas, most notably health care, Clinton tried gamely to leave behind lasting change, and he failed."
Delicious detail: "When I asked Bill Clinton about this issue, during an informal meeting in South Carolina, he readily agreed to sit down for a longer interview on his legacy's role in the campaign.
A few weeks later, however, and at the last minute, Hillary's aides canceled the interview. Famously controlling, they would not even allow the former president to talk about his record."
The Wall Street Journal's Jackie Calmes profiles Teresa Vilmain -- just maybe the most valuable player on Hillary's team (with apologies to Bill and Magic both). "No one is quite like the 49-year-old Ms. Vilmain.
Her energy in driving young staffers and candidates alike through months of 18-hour days, all the while flipping her three feet of hair, has spawned nicknames including 'hummingbird on acid' and 'Vil-maniac,' " Calmes writes. "Even the candidate's spouse, an ex-president, gets put in his place, if gently."
It's been a while since we had a good documents story. "The National Archives is withholding from the public about 2,600 pages of records at President Clinton's direction, despite a public assurance by one of his top aides last month that Mr. Clinton "has not blocked the release of a single document," Josh Gerstein writes in the New York Sun.
"The 2,600 pages, stored at Mr. Clinton's library in Arkansas, were deemed to contain 'confidential advice' and, therefore, 'closed' under the Presidential Records Act, an Archives spokeswoman, Susan Cooper, told The New York Sun yesterday."
Obama is up with a new holiday-themed ad in Iowa, featuring his family. "In this holiday season we are reminded that the things that unite us as a people are more powerful and enduring than anything that sets us apart. And we all have a stake in each other, in something larger than ourselves," Obama says.
Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., is anxious to inject Iraq back into the Democratic race. On Wednesday he unveils "a sharply drawn television ad in Iowa and New Hampshire seeking to steer the campaign debate back to the war in Iraq," Scott Martelle and Maria L. La Ganga write in the Los Angeles Times. Says Richardson: "Is there a difference between the Democrats in Iraq? There's a big difference."
Adam Smith of the St. Petersburg Times look at Florida's early voters (it is the state, after all, of the early-bird specials).
"It's a little-noticed wrinkle in this topsy-turvey election: Floridians already are voting, earlier than anyone else in America, which creates a complication, and opportunity, for the presidential contenders," Smith writes.
"Some voters casting ballots now could end up voting for candidates who drop out before Jan. 29. And campaigns that play it right can head into primary day with a significant lead."
ABC's Jennifer Parker and Lindsey Ellerson wrap up the year in Washington. "The year 2007 may be best remembered as one of political firsts," they write. "But for all the firsts, scandals and candidates, Washington, or at least Congress, was known more for what it didn't do than for what it accomplished."
Finally a prize that doesn't go to Al Gore -- he comes in second place, behind Vladimir Putin, for the nod as Time's Person of the Year.
"I will confess this: If you play the spot backwards it says 'Paul is dead, Paul is dead, Paul is dead.' " -- Huckabee, on the ad where a bookshelf that looks suspiciously like a cross looms over his shoulder.
"I haven't thought about it completely but, you know, it reminds me of what Sinclair Lewis once said. He said, 'When fascism comes to this country, it will be wrapped in the flag carrying a cross.'" -- Ron Paul, on Huckabee's new ad.
"I'm a normal person. I have emotions." -- Romney, on his rash of misty-eyed moments.
"We got to call up Ted Kennedy and say, Ted, you're getting a little old now, and you've been a fighter for us before I don't know what's happening now, Ted get some spine and stand up to the Republicans." -- Obama, in 2003, in a video obtained by Huffington Post. Sen. Kennedy, D-Mass., has not endorsed anyone in the Democratic primary.
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