THE NOTE: How the Huck's Stealing Iowa

If we knew the answers to these 10 questions, we'd feel comfortable making bold predictions about the most wide-open nominating contests any of us are likely to ever witness:

1. Has Mike Huckabee peaked? (And does Mitt Romney have the Christmas spirit to take him down a few more pegs?)

2. Does Barack Obama have any tricks left to ensure that he hasn't peaked yet? (And will Bill Clinton help him or hurt him?)


3. Will the three biggest Democratic endorsements still out there -- Al Gore, Sen. John Kerry, and Sen. Ted Kennedy -- choose sides before Iowa? (Or will certain members of that Big Three wait for the field to thin out a bit first?)

4. Will more than three Democratic candidates emerge intact out of Iowa? (Will more than two? Or one?)

5 .Who's more likely to survive into the second weekend in January -- Fred Thompson or John McCain?

6. Whose Christmas ad will come across as least annoying? (And will any voter take away anything meaningful from any ad after Friday?)

7. Will Tom Tancredo be the last candidate to drop out before Iowa? (And who's going to blow things up on television now?)

8. Will Rudolph Giuliani quickly recover from his "flu-like symptoms"? (And is that the biggest ailment facing his campaign?)

9. Will conservative powers-that-be rally to make Mike Huckabee into the next Howard Dean? (And who will they coalesce around if that happens?)

10. Who will have more 11th-hour oppo-research dumped on them -- Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama? (And when does/should the moratorium on hit-jobs kick in?)

You know we're getting close with both top Democratic contenders have potentially damaging New York Times stories to contend with, as they do on Thursday.

Finally, The List (and Camp Clinton is perhaps most relieved to see this story finally hit): The New York Times compiles the most comprehensive account to date of the donors to the Clinton Library.

The big picture: "An examination of the foundation demonstrates how its fund-raising has at times fostered the potential for conflict," Don Van Natta Jr., Jo Becker, and Mike McIntire write.

"The examination found that while some $1 million contributors were longtime Clinton friends, others were seeking policy changes from the administration. Two pledged $1 million each while they or their companies were under investigation by the Justice Department," they continue.

And the big fish: "The $31.3 million donation, which was previously undisclosed, came from the Radcliffe Foundation run by Frank Giustra, a Canadian who has made millions financing mining deals around the world. Mr. Giustra has become a member of Mr. Clinton's inner circle, joining him on global trips and lending him the use of his private MD-87 jet."

Obama, D-Ill., is also playing some defense, with The New York Times' Raymond Hernandez and Christopher Drew accusing him of being, well -- cautious.

"An examination of Illinois records shows at least 36 times when Mr. Obama was either the only state senator to vote present or was part of a group of six or fewer to vote that way," they write.

Their tally includes a bill that would have had more juveniles be tried as adults, where both a "yes" and a "no" carried political consequences.

Obama told ABC's Chris Cuomo on "Good Morning America" Thursday that this was "standard practice in Illinois" to try to improve bills lawmakers didn't agree with. (But that doesn't explain why it appeared to be more standard for him than some of his colleagues.)

"I worked on tons of tough bills. I was a leader on very controversial stuff," Obama said.

And he said he's glad to take the incoming fire, since it means he's a factor in the race.

"It actually beats the alternative," Obama said. "We wouldn't be doing well if people weren't confident that I could lead this country. . . . This election could be a defining moment for our politics."

Clinton, D-N.Y., would probably agree with that assessment. And she looks like she's going into the final pre-Christmas campaign days with some of her old swagger back.

"It's really picking up steam, and that's what I feel," she tells ABC's Cynthia McFadden in a "Nightline" piece that aired Wednesday night.

Clinton believes voters will ultimately look at her record: "We've gone through trying to decide, who would you rather have a beer with, and look at the results. I think we want to say, well, who would be the best president?"

And Clinton concedes that the troop surge in Iraq is having military benefits, but says it's irrelevant because Iraqi leaders aren't making political progress.

"So I don't think it matters at all. I think we need to begin to bring our troops home. In fact, I would argue that we not only need to bring them home because they should come home, but we need to bring them home because it's the only way to get the Iraqi government to focus on what it must do."

Among the Republicans, as we bid adieu to Tancredo, R-Colo., fresh evidence emerges of just how crazily tight the contest is. Romney's attacks notwithstanding, Huckabee, R-Ark., is the clear Iowa leader in the new ABC News/Washington Post poll: It's 35-27, and none of the other candidates are looking like they'll be factors on Jan. 3.

"Religion is driving the Republican presidential race in Iowa, with Mike Huckabee taking the lead on the strength of overwhelming support from evangelical voters -- and Mitt Romney falling behind over concerns about his Mormon faith," ABC Polling Director Gary Langer writes.

"Romney, for his part, holds a slight lead among the nearly eight in 10 Iowa Republicans who say his religion doesn't matter in their vote. But the remaining two in 10 say his Mormon religion makes them less likely to support him, and they overwhelmingly favor Huckabee by a large enough margin to put him in front overall."

"Republican women, particularly those who describe themselves as evangelicals and those who attend church regularly, are the primary force behind Huckabee's recent increases," Jon Cohen and Chris Cillizza write in The Washington Post.

"Women now support him over Romney by an 18-point margin; men divide their votes about evenly between the two."

And in a new national poll, "Rudy Giuliani has lost his national lead in the Republican field after a flurry of negative publicity about his personal and business activities, setting the stage for what could be the party's most competitive nomination fight in decades," John Harwood reports in writing up the new Wall Street Journal/NBC numbers.

"The results signal a dramatic shift in the nature of the Republican race: In a party with a history of rewarding established front-runners, there's no longer a front-runner of any kind."

Romney, R-Mass., and Giuliani, R-N.Y., are knotted at 20, with Huckabee at 17 and John McCain at 14. Among the Democrats, it's 45-23-13 in that familiar Clinton-Obama-Edwards order, with Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, tied for fourth at 4 (if you don't count "note sure" as a candidate).

(And Obama's got to love the head-to-heads. Harwood writes: "The poll shows Mr. Obama leading Mr. Giuliani by a larger margin than Mrs. Clinton does -- a change from early November, when the data suggested they would both fare about the same against him. Against Mr. Huckabee, Mr. Obama leads by 48% to 36%, while Mrs. Clinton has a narrow 46% to 44% edge.")

Romney -- out with a holiday ad that makes no reference to the holidays -- is opening a new front in his battle with Huckabee.

Keying off of Huckabee's Foreign Affairs essay, Romney is embracing President Bush. "I think that Governor Huckabee made a significant error in insulting the president as being subject to an arrogant bunker mentality," he said Wednesday, per ABC's John Berman.

Berman reports: "Romney seems to be playing the expectations game, trying to cushion the blow if he loses here [in Iowa]. This, even though he has spent more time and MUCH more money in Iowa than Huckabee."

And when he's not blasting Huckabee, Romney's more likely to talk about his business record than core conservative issues, "a subtle but significant shift from the far more ideological frame that has often been at the forefront of the campaign," Michael Luo writes in The New York Times.

"The change speaks to the campaign's broader strategy in its final push to slice away supporters from Mike Huckabee in Iowa and bolster Mr. Romney's lead in New Hampshire."

Huckabee tells ABC's Jake Tapper that he doesn't plan to respond in-kind (or not-so-kind) to Romney. "I don't plan to fight with him. He's throwing punches and I'm saying, 'Merry Christmas,' " Huckabee said.

"Because most people go to the mailbox and they want some nice comfortable Christmas cards that say, 'Peace on Earth, Goodwill towards Man,' not 'Here's a hammer, let's crack this fellow's kneecaps.' I mean, it's unbecoming."

But in not attacking, Huckabee is sort of going on the attack. Tapper notices "some of the strongest language he's ever used -- words such as 'ruthless,' 'dishonest,' 'desperate' " -- as Huckabee discusses Romney on the trail.

Says Huckabee: "You need to look at this with some sense of sympathy. . . . Here's a guy who has outspent me 20-to-1 here, and he's behind."

His defense on clemencies has grown aggressive as well, as he repeats the tale of the veteran who wanted a BB-gun conviction from when he was 13 expunged so he could become a police officer. (Romney twice turned down the requests.)

"When I'm president, just like when I'm governor, I'm going to act in the best interest like that's your kid out there. I'd rather think of the future of your kid than the next race I'm fighting," Huckabee said, per the Des Moines Register's Lisa Rossi.

The Weekly Standard's Dean Barnett takes apart Huckabee's Foreign Affairs treatise. "In one part of the essay, Huckabee somberly intoned that 'Sun-tzu's ancient wisdom is relevant today: "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer."

The only problem with citing this ancient piece of wisdom is that it comes not from Sun Tzu, but Michael Corleone.

Unfortunately, the rest of Huckabee's essay was silent as to what America should do about Hyman Roth and his Sicilian message boy, Johnny Ola."

McClatchy's David Lightman writes up Romney's problems with religion in South Carolina. "An estimated 63 percent of Republican S.C. primary voters in are "born again" or evangelical Christians, so a Romney win would be hailed as dramatic proof that his Mormon faith wasn't a big factor in voter judgments," Lightman writes. "Except that evidence from polls and visits throughout the state shows that it is."

Rounding up the latest holiday ads:

Hillary Clinton gets serious -- in a cheesy way. LINK

John Edwards gets serious -- in a preachy way. LINK

Joe Biden gets serious -- in an artsy way. LINK

Rudy Giuliani gets light-hearted -- but in a serious way. LINK

John McCain just gets serious. LINK

Mitt Romney plays superhero -- in Gotham, no less. LINK

With Congress' business wrapped up, President Bush grabs some pre-Christmas limelight with a 10 am ET White House press conference on Thursday.

Romney, Huckabee, and Fred Thompson all campaign in Iowa on Thursday, while Tancredo's "major announcement" comes at 3 pm ET in Des Moines. Clinton and Edwards are in Iowa as well, while Obama spends some time with independent voters in New Hampshire (they're called "undeclared" in the Granite State).

Get Thursday's full schedule in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Also in the news:

Rudy's rough ride continues, not even including the fact that his plane had to turn around on Thursday, and he checked himself into a hospital Wednesday night with flu-like symptoms. "After precautionary tests the doctors found nothing of concern at this time and Rudy will be going back to New York later today," Giuliani spokeswoman Katie Levinson tells ABC's Jan Simmonds.

Much can (and will) be made of the fact that Giuliani spent the day Wednesday in Missouri, sandwiched by two days without public events.

The Boston Globe's Brian Mooney reports that Rudy will spend three days next week in Florida and may not be in Iowa at all in the final six days before the caucuses. "He continues to set aside more time than the rest of the Republican field for fund-raising," Mooney writes.

We get the Feb. 5 strategy -- but can anyone discern a distinct Rudy message these days? (One that doesn't involve fruitcake, that is.)

Could there still be room for Fred? "Thompson has far more upside potential than any other Republican, and he is spending the entire final stretch in the Hawkeye State," Robert Novak and Timothy P. Carney write in the Evans-Novak Political Report. "If he defies his reputation as a lazy worker, he could make a spectacular surge here."

Maybe Thompson, R-Tenn., isn't lazy anymore (or maybe it's late and he's a night owl). "Languishing near the bottom of many polls in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Mr. Thompson is making a last-ditch effort to finish third in Iowa, behind Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, even as he tries to dispel talk that he lacks energy on the trail," The New York Times' Cate Doty writes. "He has a rigorous schedule planned until the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, not counting a few days off for Christmas."

Remember when Romney said in his big religion speech that he "saw my father march with Martin Luther King"? Well -- maybe not exactly. "He was speaking figuratively, not literally," Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney spokesman, told the Detroit Free Press' Todd Spangler.

The campaign cites books and other accounts to demonstrate that George Romney did march with King, but "Free Press archives . . . showed no record of King marching in Grosse Pointe in 1963 or of then-Gov. Romney taking part in King's historic march down Woodward Avenue in June of that year."

This comes after the Boston Phoenix's David Bernstein cast doubt on whether they ever marched together: "A spokesperson for Mitt Romney now tells the Boston Phoenix that George W. Romney and Martin Luther King Jr. marched together in June, 1963 -- although possibly not on the same day or in the same city."

Romney is Charlie Gibson's subject Thursday in the "Who Is?" series, featured on the "World News" broadcast and Webcast. Romney on his time as a missionary in France: "We lived at a hundred dollars a month, and that included housing and transportation and everything we did, food, clothing. And I learned for instance, that not everybody has a, toilet in their bathroom."

And on meeting his wife, Ann, for the first time: "I was intoxicated when I saw her, if you will. We don't drink but just looking at her was enough to knock me on my heels. But that had happened before.

There were a lot of beautiful young women in her class at high school that I was just, bowled over when I saw them. And, and yet with Ann it went on, it didn't stop. And I'm intoxicated with her to this day."

The Los Angeles Times' Peter Nicholas ties together recent remarks by Billy Shaheen, Bob Kerrey, and Bill Clinton to get at something that Hillary Clinton just may want you to know about Obama.

"Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton doesn't tell Iowa voters that in his younger days, her chief rival for the Democratic nomination behaved badly. She never lays out incidents from Sen. Barack Obama's past that could be exploited in a general election contest; doing so might be considered an unseemly personal attack," Nicholas writes.

"But with the Iowa caucuses just two weeks away, she is sidling up to that fine line -- and, in some cases, her campaign surrogates are fleshing out what the candidate leaves unsaid."

Kerrey has apologized to Obama for bringing up his Muslim heritage -- even though he meant it in a positive way. "It was my own fault it was the wrong moment to do it and it was insulting," Kerrey tells the AP's Nedra Pickler.

Republican strategist Todd Domke sees Iowa thinning out both fields: "Only four of eight Republican candidates and three of seven Democrats will likely emerge with the credibility and capital to wage a strong campaign in New Hampshire and beyond," Domke writes in his Boston Globe column. His call for mostly likely to drop? Chris Dodd and Duncan Hunter.

The latest from everybody's favorite libertarian: $40 a day for Iowa college students who stick around over break so they can caucus. "Because the students are all volunteers and pay for their own travel, it is relatively cheep. About $70,000," campaign spokesman Jesse Benton tells ABC's Z. Byron Wolf.

Tragedy strikes Rep. Dennis Kucinich's family: His youngest brother, Perry, was found dead at his Cleveland home Wednesday morning.

Karl Rove wants a new nominating system -- and don't we all.

The kicker:

"That's $500 less that this guy has to do whatever it is that he does." -- Ron Paul spokesman Jesse Benton, on Paul's decision to keep a donation from prominent white supremacist Don Black.

"The Democrats are no different than their Republican counterparts." -- Ex-rep. Cynthia McKinney, who lost her Georgia congressional seat last year, announcing her Green Party candidacy for president.

A Note break: The Note and all Note products will not publish Dec. 21-26, but check out for all the latest news from the trail. We'll be back with the "Must-Reads," "The Note," and "The Sneak Peek" on Dec. 27, in time for the final days before Iowa.

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