DES MOINES, Iowa --
A lucky seven vital, hugely important questions to mull on a brilliant Sunday in Iowa, as you mourn for the 1972 Dolphins:
2. Does Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton feel left out with all these guys fighting each other now? (Not likely -- but Bill Clinton might.)
3. Does a man who has made as much money as Mayor Michael Bloomberg understand timing? (Most certainly yes.)
4. Who is less a part of the GOP conversation five days before Iowa -- former mayor Rudolph Giuliani or the man Rudy thinks did a good job playing him on TV? (The tie goes to the former front-runner -- even Fred Thompson doesn't feel the need to declare himself relevant.)
6. Does the New England Patriots' perfection carry metaphorical political meaning? (No, but here's a stab: Their squeaker over Eli's feisty Giants means no one is immune from a scare, and even a flawless regular season means zilch when the playoffs start.)
7. Will third place matter for the Republicans? (Perhaps.) For the Democrats? (Not so much, but -- oddly -- fourth place could matter more.)
Clinton has something to say on that matter, and here's her humble assessment/political handicapping/outrageous spin: Asked whether her campaign can survive a third-place Iowa finish, she told ABC's George Stephanopoulos yes: "I think, because it's so close -- you know, when I started here, I was in single digits. I mean, nobody expected me to be doing as well as I'm doing in Iowa," said Clinton, D-N.Y., in an interview airing Sunday morning on "This Week." (Really -- nobody?)
"I was running against one opponent who has been campaigning here for four years, another opponent from a neighboring state. So, I believe that this campaign will be bunched up," she continued. "I think that the history out of Iowa is that a lot of people live to fight another day."
Stephanopoulos: "So, you may not win."
Clinton: "I'm not expecting anything."
That's well and good, but we are. And while she also says in the interview that her husband won't be invited to National Security Council meetings, President Clinton was expecting the unexpected on her behalf Saturday in New Hampshire.
If this is a closing argument, it's appropriately frosty for Iowa and New Hampshire. "You have to have a leader who is strong and commanding and convincing enough . . . to deal with the unexpected," he said, in what The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut and Alec MacGillis see as a "stark" delivery of his wife's "central campaign message." "There is a better than 50 percent chance that sometime in the first year or 18 months of the next presidency, something will happen that is not being discussed in this campaign. President Bush never talked about Osama bin Laden and didn't foresee Hurricane Katrina."
The big picture for the Democrats: "In a time of discontent -- amid war, high gas prices and a miserable housing market -- the buzzword of the political season has been change. But what that amounts to, and who can best deliver it, is the subject of fierce dispute, particularly on the Democratic side," Mark Z. Barabak and Michael Finnegan write in the Los Angeles Times.
But how about this change: Four days before Iowa, the Democrats' pitched battle features Clinton as an observer (mostly). It's Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., battling for the same voters -- each others' for sure, but also the soft Clinton supporters who can still be convinced to start dreaming or start steaming.
Edwards -- readying a caucus-eve 36-hour (!) exercise in sleep-deprivation -- stepped up the rhetorical fight on Saturday: No lobbyists in his White House, period. "This is a continuation of my belief that we need to reduce the influence of these special interests and lobbyists, which I've believed my entire time in public life," Edwards said, per the Des Moines Register's Tony Leys.
That's a tweak at Obama, who doesn't quite make the same commitment -- though he once did. ABC's Jake Tapper writes of Obama's new ad: "The campaign notably excised from the excerpt one mid-sentence clause in which Obama promised to ban lobbyists from working in his White House -- a pledge the Illinois Democrat seemed to have backed off from earlier this month. . . . Sensing an opportunity to differentiate himself from Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and in particular from Obama, with whom he is competing for Iowa caucus-goers, Edwards called a press conference in which he made the pledge Obama seemed to have backed away from."
Obama is engaging Edwards, blasting him over spending by outside groups, and the big kahuna of electability: "Part of the problem John would have in the general election is that you know, the issues that he's taking out now are not the issues or the things that he said four years ago. Which always causes us problems in general elections," Obama said, per ABC's Sunlen Miller.
He's not leaving Clinton out of this, either: "We are less likely to win an election that starts off with half the country not wanting to vote for that candidate," Obama said, per the New York Daily News' Michael McAuliff and Michael Saul. "Clinton shot back that Obama would be easy pickings for the GOP, mocking his message of hope and change as 'just hold hands and feel so happy.' "
And Clinton doesn't want to be left out: "For the past three days Clinton has focused on the change that she has brought in her 35 years [in public life], but today Clinton delivered the message that she can win," ABC's Kate Snow and Eloise Harper report. "I have people across this country who have been elected in tough states for the Democrats, and they know how to win and they believe that I am the best person to win for the Democrats."
Meet Mama Bear Clinton -- and we are not making this up. "How can Clinton recover?" Newsday's Glenn Thrush asks. "Shorn of her air of inevitability, she has spent weeks groping for a coherent message, and only recently hit on a hybrid theme her campaign believes is a winner. Some backers jokingly call it the 'Mama Bear' approach, emphasizing Clinton's toughness and experience, while using friends and family to melt her Ice Queen image and demonstrate her commitment to change."
Wondering how Edwards is able to keep his message on TV in Iowa? There's the 527s, of course, and Joe Trippi is fitting more than $2.7 million in ad spending under that $1.5 million Iowa spending cap he agreed to in exchange for federal matching funds. "You really have to be an expert at the arcane sort of formulas," Trippi, a senior Edwards adviser, tells ABC News.
Bonus points for a helping of Hawkeye honesty: "How can we go forward if we don't win or place a close second?" Trippi says. "If we take third, it's problematic for anybody, and it's very problematic for us."
Unless you're Romney or Huckabee, third place is all you can hope for over on the Republican side. That means Romney, R-Mass., and Huckabee, R-Ark., are in a pitched battle -- anyone else get the feeling that these guys just plain don't like each other? (And if all the presidential candidates gathered for a party at 801 Grand, anyone else feel like Romney would dine alone?)
Huck dropped this bomb on the Mittster Saturday in Iowa: "If a person will become president by being dishonest, just remember, if he becomes president, he likely will not be honest on the job," Huckabee said, per The Boston Globe's Susan Milligan.
Milligan: "Huckabee refused even to commit to voting for Romney for president if the former Massachusetts governor wins the Republican nomination. 'I would never vote for a Democrat in the presidential election next year,' Huckabee said. But asked if he would prefer an honest Democrat to a 'dishonest' Republican, Huckabee refused to answer."
Huckabee is unloading on Romney on the stump -- it won't have the oomph of a big ad buy, but don't forget how those birds fared last time Huck went hunting. "You're not gonna find moments on YouTube of me saying something different about the sanctity of human life today than I said 10 years ago, 10 minutes ago, or 50 years ago," Huckabee said Saturday, per ABC's Kevin Chupka. "You're not gonna hear me making up stuff about my biography."
Is this an early indicator of some Huckabee slippage? He's dropped eight percentage points in Iowa in three weeks, per the new McClatchy/MSNBC poll. It's Romney 27 percent, Huckabee 23 percent, Fred Thompson 14 percent, and John McCain 13 percent.
Among the Democrats: Edwards 24, Clinton 23, Obama 22, and Bill Richardson and Joe Biden showing signs of stirring, at 12 and 8 in the poll.
Amid all those ads and rallies and mailings and scheming and weather forecasting, these could be the two most important sentences you'll read on Sunday about the Iowa caucuses: "Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are trying to expand the tiny universe of caucusgoers, a fundamental shift in the way candidates have approached the Iowa caucuses. Mr. Edwards is focusing mainly on voters who have reliably voted in the past," Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny write in their New York Times write-up of GOTV efforts.
Orange hats, of course, are so 2004, but green snow shovels are ever so much more practical, if not any more aesthetically pleasing. And the Clinton campaign "has printed doorknob hangers with caucus locations printed in extra-large type, also to accommodate these older first-time caucusers."
Tom Beaumont boils it all down to two questions in the Des Moines Register: "For Democrats: Which campaign will attract the most first-time caucusgoers? For Republicans: Does Mike Huckabee have the organization to support his lead in the polls?"
The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos: "The Republican race has come down to a competition among various voting blocs -- from evangelical Christians to economic conservatives to the many working-class voters attracted by the party's stance on the war on terrorism, but who are now demanding tougher action against illegal immigrants."
Mayor Bloomberg, I-N.Y., may really want to keep his job. But here comes the latest big hint that he'd be willing to trade up: Bloomberg "scheduled a meeting next week with a dozen leading Democrats and Republicans, who will join him in challenging the major-party contenders to spell out their plans for forming a 'government of national unity' to end the gridlock in Washington," scoops David Broder in The Washington Post.
"Those who will be at the Jan. 7 session at the University of Oklahoma say that if the likely nominees of the two parties do not pledge to 'go beyond tokenism' in building an administration that seeks national consensus, they will be prepared to back Bloomberg or someone else in a third-party campaign for president."
Broder has the (hefty) names: "Conveners of the meeting include such prominent Democrats as former senators Sam Nunn (Ga.), Charles S. Robb (Va.) and David L. Boren (Okla.), and former presidential candidate Gary Hart. Republican organizers include Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), former party chairman Bill Brock, former senator John Danforth (Mo.) and former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman."
As for Bloomberg's predecessor -- don't forget about Rudy Giuliani, and he's asking you nicely this time. He wants Iowans to remember that he's working plenty hard, even if they haven't seen him all that often. "I think I've probably campaigned as much or more than anyone but I've done it proportionately throughout the country. I probably have the most appearances in California and the most appearances in Florida," he tells ABC's Jake Tapper. "My feeling is that I'm the best qualified."
This killer quote, from Rudy's own mouth, in an interview with the AP's Ron Fournier: "I think we are very relevant."
Fournier's close: "Trailing badly in polls here, Giuliani seemed to be going through the paces Saturday. His first two events were held in small rooms to accent the small crowds. At a bakery in Indianola, Iowa, one voter asked Giuliani why he rarely visited Iowa."
The priceless headline, from The Hawk Eye: "Giuliani makes first, only visit."
Before you leave your hotel in Des Moines or Davenport or Dubuque or Derry, or Manchester or Mason City or Muscatine or Maquoketa -- or even if you're fortunate enough to be at home this Sunday -- it's a full slate of '08ers on the Sunday shows: Clinton and Sen. John McCain on "This Week"; Obama and Huckabee are live from Iowa on "Meet the Press"; Edwards is on "Face the Nation"; Fred Thompson hits "Fox News Sunday"; and Sen. Chris Dodd and Sen. Joe Biden spend time on "Late Edition."
Also in the news:
Meanwhile, in New Hampshire . . . it's Clinton and McCain (of course) for the Concord Monitor. "Many White House administrations start off slowly, as green presidents fumble through their early months, unsure how to bend Washington to their will. Come 2009, America will be unable to afford such squandered time," the Clinton endorsement reads. "Clinton's ambitious to-do list for her first few weeks in office gives us confidence that her priorities are right and that she would act swiftly to make a positive difference."
And a new metaphor for McCain, R-Ariz.: "Like the gyroscopes that keep ships and planes on course, firm principles and a profound sense of honor guide Sen. John McCain."
The Los Angeles Times' Maeve Reston and Doyle McManus see McCain's most important opponent in New Hampshire as . . . Obama. "In a sense, a win for Obama would be a mirror image of McCain's primary victory in 2000, when he derailed GOP front- runner George W. Bush, largely because New Hampshire independents flocked to his side," they write. "And Obama's strength among independents now looms as a problem for McCain."
Romney picked up an Iowa endorsement he may not have been expecting. Morris Hurd, chairman of the Iowa Christian Alliance, told the crowd of his "little secret" in introducing Romney on the stump on Saturday. Afterward, he told The New York Times' Michael Luo: "I don't think I'm supposed to endorse a candidate. . . . I hope I don't get in trouble."
Dirty trick alert in South Carolina: Voters are receiving a "holiday greeting card purporting to be from Mitt Romney this week that cites some controversial passages from the Book of Mormon," per the AP's write-up. "The card 'from the Romney family' shows a photograph of a temple with the caption 'Paid for by the Boston Massachusetts Temple.' Romney's campaign and the temple said they had nothing to do with the cards.
The Washington Post front-pages Michael Dobbs' collection of fibs, lies, and other assorted falsehoods. Among the whoppers: "Mitt Romney says he 'saw' his father 'march' with Martin Luther King Jr. Rudolph W. Giuliani claims that he is one of the 'five best-known Americans in the world.' According to John McCain, the Constitution established the United States as a 'Christian nation.' Ron Paul believes that a 'NAFTA superhighway' is being planned to link Mexico with Canada and undermine U.S. sovereignty."
"On the other side of the political divide, Sen. Barack Obama says there are more young black males in prison than in college. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton claims she has a 'definitive timetable' for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. John Edwards insists that NAFTA -- the North American Free Trade Agreement -- has cost Americans 'millions of jobs.' Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. boasts about his experience negotiating an arms-control treaty with Leonid Brezhnev."
How's this for a silent six? The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza and Shalaigh Murray point out that there have been no endorsements from the five senators who could make the biggest difference in Iowa -- John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, Tom Harkin, Chuck Grassley, Russ Feingold. And the biggest get has not been gotten: Al Gore.
Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., will have to wait on his "West Wing" moment. Former president Jeb Bartlet "came down with a severe and contagious cold," ABC's Sarah Amos reports. (Did the campaign have to tell us it was contagious?)
"I don't go around saying I'm a lifetime golfer because I once rode in a golf cart when I was eight years old." -- Mike Huckabee, getting personal in his battle with Mitt Romney.
"We're going to have to censor this." -- Barack Obama, caught off-guard by an off-color bib (yes, they make off-color bibs) on an Iowa toddler.
"I don't remember anybody offering me tea on the tarmac when that was happening." -- Hillary Clinton, recalling a 1996 trip to Bosnia that featured a "corkscrew landing" -- on a trip where she was joined by Sinbad, Sheryl Crow, and Chelsea.
Reminder: Right after Iowa, it's on to New Hampshire. ABC News, Facebook and WMUR-TV are hosting back-to-back presidential debates at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., next Saturday, 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 NH.Debates@abctv.com for details.
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