THE NOTE: Huckabee Misfires, Leaving GOP Scrambled

Seven days before Iowa -- and mindful of the perils of prognostication in a race where major candidates are now carrying shotguns -- here's as close to conclusive as we can be about the state of the presidential race:

For the Democrats, the Jan. 3 caucuses are likely to mark the beginning of the end of the race (and that means everyone's got a target on his or her back).

For the Republicans, that same date is looking like it will mark only the end of the beginning (yet, as both Mike Huckabee and those pheasants he introduced himself to on Wednesday know by now, this is no time for target practice).

(And then there's the always-present power of external events: How will the tragic news out of Pakistan impact the race? Watch for foreign policy to scramble the best-laid plans -- and who will be the first to shape Benazir Bhutto's assassination into a campaign message?)


It is the realization that there could be only two Democratic tickets (or maybe just one) out of Iowa that has sparked the post-Christmas sense of urgency. And the focal point of the action -- the newly dominant figure in the sense of being in the middle of all the big fights right now -- isn't Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton; it's Sen. Barack Obama.

Obama, D-Ill., is simultaneously comparing list sizes with Clinton, D-N.Y., and crowd sizes with former senator John Edwards, D-N.C. He's tussling with Edwards over 527 groups and with both Clintons over experience questions. And when he delivers his "closing argument" of a speech Thursday at 11:15 am ET in Des Moines, he's calling on his supporters (and those on the fence) to believe in him.

"My bet was that if we presented a campaign of change, then the American people would respond," Obama said Wednesday in northern Iowa, the Chicago Tribune's James Oliphant and John McCormick report. "Vote your hopes. . . . Don't vote your fears."

Obama never had a monopoly on the "change" theme, but it's been closer to his core than to his main rivals'. That's why Obama should feel pretty good about where he stands -- and how he's trending -- in this final days before Iowa. One key point from Thursday's speech, per an Obama aide: His core message has never really moved.

Per ABC's Sunlen Miller, Obama's freshly tweaked stump speech hits "the umbrella message that has defined his campaign: change. The slightly different rhetoric will likely make up his final argument trying to woo Iowa voters over one last time."

Clinton isn't very far from the line of fire. With her movie-trailer of a closing argument ad -- no words, just dramatic music photos that portray Clinton as tested and ready -- she's back where she started, too. Clinton on Thursday "injected a note of menace into her case, arguing that 'the job itself is unpredictable' and that only she among the candidates is qualified to do it,'" Anne Kornblut and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post.

"Clinton has shifted from theme to theme in the final weeks of a race that has remained consistently up for grabs, but she seemed to settle back on her original experience argument after two months of attempting to show voters a softer side," Kornblut and Balz write. "Yesterday she criticized Obama's character and questioned whether other Democratic contenders are equipped to beat the eventual Republican nominee."

There's no bigger gun than Bill Clinton in helping make his wife's case. "The subtext was clear as she presented herself as 'ready to be president on Day 1.' That suggested a return to what has been her dominant message in the race: that she has more experience than Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times. Sen. Clinton: "It's not going to be easy, this job never is; it's the hardest job in the world."

But if you're looking for signs of swagger, check this out from Joan Vennochi's Boston Globe column: "The candidate who last month told Katie Couric that the Democratic nominee 'will be me' now says: 'You have to make your best case . . . but if you can't seal the deal with the voters that you would be the best president and they can trust you, your experience, your understanding of the world to do what they believe should be done in the country, you can run a great campaign but you can't overcome that.' "

Compare that with Obama (setting expectations, are we?): "We are on the verge of winning Iowa," Obama said, per Jason Clayworth of the Des Moines Register.

After spending one last pre-caucus day in New Hampshire, Edwards hits Iowa for good starting Thursday. He left the Granite State with a closing-argument of an ad, titled "Power." "I will restore America's moral authority in the world, confront people who exploit their power for personal advantage, stand up for people whose voices are ignored -- just like I've done all my life," the ad says, per ABC's Raelyn Johnson.

Edwards is earning Obama's ire by getting a boost from a labor-backed 527 group -- yes, one of those moneyed special interests he loves to hate, and this one advised by Nick Baldick, who managed Edwards' 2004 campaign. The Alliance for a New America's new Iowa ad doesn't stray far from Edwards' campaign message: "The price of dependence on foreign oil; Health care in crisis; Government run by corporate lobbyists; Isn't it time someone had a plan to take them on?"

This may be quite separate from the campaign's operations -- but it looks like the Edwards campaign got at least a head's up. Per The New York Times' David Kirkpatrick, "An Oct. 8 e-mail message circulated among the union leaders who created the group suggests that they were talking with Edwards campaign officials about 'what specific kinds of support they would like to see from us' just as they were planning to create an outside group to advertise in early primary states with "a serious 527 legal structure." ("Coordination," anyone?)

Among the Republicans, Huckabee, R-Ark., went from hunted to hunter on Wednesday -- and all it took was some fluorescent orange gear to make the metaphor work. ABC's Jake Tapper: "It's an annual tradition and a conscious contrast with his chief rival here, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who earlier this year said he was a lifelong hunter, then took it back, acknowledging he'd only hunted a few times."

Huckabee is getting blasted by Romney over his record on crime, and the Club for Growth is hammering him over his fiscal record. Now comes an anti-immigration conservative group with automated anti-Huckabee phone calls -- and anti-illegal immigration forces could make another move with potentially larger implications.

William Gheen, the president of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, tells ABC's Teddy Davis that if the GOP nominees Huckabee, McCain, or Giuliani, his group will push Lou Dobbs to mount an independent campaign for president. "We still hope that we can get a comprehensive enforcement candidate out of the Republican field," Gheen tells Davis. "But if we can't, we're going to grab Lou Dobbs by the ear and drag him into the race."

Romney can no longer afford to concentrate his fire on Huckabee alone. "While most of Mitt Romney's competitors zigged across Iowa, the former Massachusetts governor zagged across New Hampshire, trying to fend off a surging John McCain and shore up what was once an impregnable firewall in the Granite State," Michael Kranish and Michael Levenson write in The Boston Globe.

"The climate here seems to be changing, prompting Romney to go on the offense against McCain in New Hampshire just as he is being forced to take on former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in Iowa," Jill Zuckman writes in the Chicago Tribune.

Romney's attacks on McCain focus on immigration and tax cuts -- and McCain, R-Ariz., must have loved to be able to issue a response with words like "desperate" and "flailing." "I know something about tailspins, and it's pretty clear Mitt Romney is in one," McCain said. (Ever been in that kind of dogfight, governor?)

McCain is getting a boost from New Hampshire newspaper editors (as Romney folks know, those who know him best . . . ) and is now confident enough to swing into Iowa, a state he's barely been playing in. "McCain had been left for dead politically this summer, and now his decision to return to a state he skipped altogether in his 2000 bid for the White House is one of the many signs that the GOP contest for president is still in search of a front-runner," Michael Shear writes in The Washington Post.

Columnist Robert Novak makes the McCain argument. McCain "today is viewed by canny Republican professionals as the best bet to win the party's presidential nomination. What's more, they consider him their most realistic prospect to buck the overall Democratic tide and win the general election," Novak writes in the Chicago Sun-Times. (Don't miss this last sentence: "The Republican Party's internal competition has become as peculiar as the Democrats' used to be.")

Why not Huckabee? Bloomberg's Matthew Benjamin takes a stab (or a shot?) at that question. Huckabee "threatens the uneasy if effective coalition Republicans have counted on for three decades: abortion opponents and other social-issue activists supplying foot soldiers, proponents of tax cuts and business-friendly regulatory policies putting up the money and getting the biggest economic benefits." Says David Hedley, a retired managing director at Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette and a former Bush fund-raiser: "He's sort of a populist, and that doesn't sell too well on Wall Street."

And Huck shoots himself in the foot (figuratively) by not stopping this storyline from emerging. "Breaking with tradition for presidential candidates, Mike Huckabee is continuing to accept paid speaking engagements in the thick of his insurgent presidential campaign," Politico's Mike Allen reports. "Giuliani and other major candidates have put their paid speaking careers completely on hold to focus on the flurry of early nominating contests. . . . Huckabee, though, is still accepting gigs -- often on his signature topic of health and fitness."

(Is this the right crowd for the aw-shucks act, governor? "I'd like some more, if you wanna give me some publicity -- tell 'em to call the [speakers'] bureau," Huckabee joshed.)

Don't worry about former mayor Rudolph Giuliani -- he's fine, at least health-wise. "It is my medical opinion that Rudy Giuliani is in very good health," Dr. Valentin Fuster said in a (quite belated) statement following up on last week's flu-like-symptoms-turned-monster-headache that forced the former mayor's plane to turn around.

Campaign-wise -- that could be another story. He once said Fred Thompson does a good job playing him on TV -- now, he's playing the Thompson role as the candidate who seems to be operating in a different electoral universe. Three days are on tap for Rudy in Florida, and he says don't worry, he doesn't have to win in the Sunshine State. "There is no one win that is absolutely essential," he said, per Newsday's Letta Taylor. (But at what point will having no wins be sort of a bad thing?)

It's back to 9/11 for Rudy in his latest ad, set to launch Friday. "I said these are the children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the greatest generation. They have the same resolve. The same understanding," Giuliani says in the ad. The AP's Liz Sidoti: "Giuliani is trying to put his strongest issue back in the mix and remind voters why they have held him in such high regard as he seeks to regain momentum."

"Giuliani wants to change the subject to an issue that Republican voters care quite a bit about: terrorism," ABC's Jake Tapper said Thursday on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Except for Giuliani (in Florida) and Romney (in New Hampshire), the top contenders are in Iowa on Thursday. Wear your gloves -- sees temperatures in Des Moines breaking the freezing mark maybe once between now and caucus night.

Also in the news:

What does Iowa mean? Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen's take: "Third-place showings are likely to hold exactly opposite meanings in the two parties this cycle. On the Democratic side, a third-place finish will severely wound a leading candidate, perhaps mortally. On the Republican side, it just might provide a shot of political steroid for a lagging candidate as the race heads to New Hampshire."

Clinton's is longer. In the dispute that surely will determine the presidency, her campaign on Wednesday released an updated list of 160 ex-Clinton administration advisers plus 72 former high-ranking military officers and other experts who support the Clinton campaign. (Obama's list has 45 names). "The who-has-more former Clinton advisers attached to their campaign  spat erupted last Friday when Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. said he had more ex-Clinton aides supporting him," ABC's Eloise Harper reports.

Michael Dobbs of The Washington Post fact-checks the claim and calls it for Clinton, but just barely. "Neither side comes out particularly well in this somewhat mean-spirited debate. Hillary Clinton probably has a slight advantage in the number of foreign policy experts from the Clinton administration who now support her. On the other hand, Obama's showing is quite respectable."

Another big foreign-policy voice joins the Obama campaign. The Boston Globe's Susan Milligan reports that Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., is endorsing Obama. Delahunt: "Please do not equate experience with judgment. That's what this is about." (The countdown is on to the first rival campaign to raise Delahunt's relationship with Hugo Chavez . . . )

The latest AFSCME anti-Obama mailer is just a tad disingenuous. "The Obama campaign has taken issue with the claim that as many as 15 million Americans would go without health insurance under Obama's plan, an estimate from some non-partisan experts who say the number is largely due to the plan's lack of individual mandates," ABC's Jake Tapper writes. "But here's the rub -- AFSCME has long opposed individual mandates as well. So, the mailing has nothing to do with the substance of the charge -- it has to do with defeating Obama and, one can only assume, making Edwards look bad in the process as well."

In the annals of lessons from Howard Dean: Don't expect out-of-state volunteers to swarm Iowa in the coming week -- and definitely don't expect to see any bright-orange hats. "As the caucus season enters its final week, campaign strategists -- typically more astute in their analysis of success than of failure -- are reexamining Dean's 2004 collapse and taking away lessons, about everything from media strategy to door-knocking etiquette to staff dress codes, shaping the way they approach the closing days of the race," Sasha Issenberg writes in The Boston Globe.

The Rocky Mountain News' M. E. Sprengelmeyer tracks Huckabee's rise -- starting with an April conversation in Des Moines when he complained that evangelicals weren't lining up behind his candidacy. "I'm not going to them. I'm coming from them," Huckabee said. And he voices some frustration that religious leaders seemed to be overlooking marital issues of GOP candidates, despite what they were saying during the Clinton administration. "I'm just saying, there was this overwhelming chorus of voices during this time that said morality matters," Huckabee said. (For a plainspoken guy, he sure seems to get in trouble when he's "just saying.")

But what matters now for Huckabee is authenticity, per the Los Angeles Times' Peter Wallsten and Seema Mehta. "The contest for the world's most powerful job centered not on policy and substance in the run-up to next week's Iowa caucuses, but on the question of authenticity," they write. "In recent days, Romney's rivals for the nomination have decided that is the best point of attack against the former Massachusetts governor, who has lost his lead in Iowa to Huckabee and is trying to hold on in New Hampshire against a resurgent Sen. John McCain of Arizona."

Giuliani met with some Florida editorial boards on Wednesday, and had this interesting response to the Tampa Tribune about why he isn't asked more about healthcare. "Maybe more Democrats are concerned about their health care than Republicans, maybe because Republicans have health care or maybe Republicans generally like the idea of private solutions."

The New York Times' Jennifer Steinhauer writes up the yours-mine-and-ours McCain family. McCain, on why his seven children don't have a higher profile on the trail: "It's intentional. . . . I just feel it's inappropriate for us to mention our children. I don't want people to feel that, it's just, I'd like them to have their own lives. I wouldn't want to seem like I'm trying to gain some kind of advantage. I just feel that it's a private thing."

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., is Charlie Gibson's subject in the final installment of the "Who Is?" series, on the World News broadcast and Webcast on Thursday. Dodd sees his campaign as something of an obligation for his father -- and for his young daughters. "Even in those very early years, I think it had some effect in terms of how I saw my father's role, and I wanted to follow what he did in life," Dodd says of his dad.

On his daughters: "It's not insignificant in terms of why you and I are talking today and why I'm a candidate for making that decision. . . . I don't want it to sound trite, or that that's the only reason I'm doing this, but it is a factor -- a serious factor -- in why I made this decision to get involved in the presidential race."

Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., is making Iraq the focus of his latest ad. "The ad, which will run statewide [in Iowa] starting today, gets right to the point, outlining Richardson plan for Iraq, including a full troop withdrawal and a diplomatic surge," ABC's Sarah Amos reports.

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., has a new ad that makes the Oval Office the star. "For 35 years, Joe Biden has been tested and made the tough decisions that have protected our nation and saved lives," the voice-over says. "Isn't that what we need in this office?"

Biden is abandoning his top-three-or-bust stance toward Iowa. "Let's say I end up with 15 percent, Barack is at 20 percent, Edwards is at 22 percent, and Hillary is at 26 percent," Biden tells Politico's Roger Simon. "That would be a big victory for me."

Giuliani and Romney are on board for ABC's Jan. 5 GOP debate in New Hampshire -- that's that Saturday between Iowa and New Hampshire, in prime time. "The two join fellow Republicans John McCain and Mike Huckabee in officially agreeing to the debates scheduled for Jan. 5 at St. Anselm College," Garry Rayno writes in the New Hampshire Union Leader.

Reminder: ABC News, Facebook and WMUR-TV are hosting back-to-back presidential debates in Manchester on Jan. 5, 2008. Republicans will debate from 7-8:30 pm ET and Democrats will follow from approximately 8:45-10:15 pm ET. The two 90-minute debates, moderated by ABC's Charlie Gibson with questions from WMUR anchor and political director Scott Spradling, will air in primetime on the ABC Television Network.

The deadline for submitting a request for press credentials is Wednesday, January 2. If you would like to apply, email for details.

The kicker:

"See, that's what happens if you get in my way." -- Huckabee, displaying the three dead pheasants who had not committed to caucusing for him Jan. 3.

"Don't break his nose, give him a black eye or knock his teeth out. Or I'll have to come find you." -- Michelle Obama, to Sports Illustrated writer S.L. Price, before Price played pickup basketball against her husband. (Beware the outside jumper.)

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