THE NOTE: Countdown to Iowa

DES MOINES, Iowa --

Here's a New Year's countdown to cut through the Iowa fog:

Three . . . different Democrats could win the caucuses.

Two . . . Republicans could win, and two (or more) could drop out (though only one seems to want to already).

One . . . very wealthy mayor who hasn't been trudging through Iowa could hollow out all the primary victories by early spring.

But first -- we're going to miss 2007.

We're going to miss Rudy Giuliani giving himself a well-earned two days off for New Year's. (At least he'll be warm on caucus night.)

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We're going to miss watching Mitt Romney have to reap what he sowed. (Whether you find him ironic or Seinfeldian depends on whether you live in New Hampshire or Iowa.)

We're going to miss Joe Biden comments that come thisclose to stepping over the line of propriety.

We're going to miss billionaires dropping big hints about whether they're getting into a big race. (Actually, take that back -- we think we're going to have Mayor Michael Bloomberg to contend with for a while.)

We're going to miss high-profile surrogates dissing Iowa.

(And we'll even miss the ways that Chelsea Clinton disses the press -- even 9-year-old members of the fourth estate.)

We're going to miss waiting for the Des Moines Register's poll numbers to provide the last meaningful figures before the caucus. (And we hope and expect to see those numbers drop a few hours before the ball.)

And we're just plain going to miss Fred Thompson. (Though he's not, apparently, going to miss us -- has a candidate ever so jubilantly set himself up for a way out of the race?)

As we prepare to flip the calendar, the chaotic Democratic field isn't showing any signs of sorting out. If there's anything new left to say, the Democrats aren't yet saying it as they close (generally) how they started: talking change in all its various slices.

"With three Democrats scrambling for the lead in Iowa heading into the voting on Thursday, the candidates tried to paint their opponents as inadequate for the challenges facing the nation," Patrick Healy and Julie Bosman write in The New York Times.

Former Senator John Edwards, in particular, continued that line of attack against Senator Barack Obama, suggesting that he was too 'nice' to fight and win against special interests and big corporations."

And Healy and Bosman refer to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., as the "third leading Democrat here," as Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was out "knocking her husband by name for suggesting that an Obama presidency would be a gamble for the nation."

As for that husband, he tells ABC's Kate Snow that polls don't really matter anymore, and he sounds ready for the caucusing to begin even before his New Year's Eve rally with his wife at the state capitol in Des Moines.

"The crowds are large. The people are listening. All you can ask for is a fair hearing. And I think the people of Iowa have given it to Hillary, and I'm very grateful," former President Bill Clinton said.

USA Today's Susan Page gets the closing arguments direct from the candidates' mouths. "Clinton said she was 'not asking voters to take me on a leap of faith,' an implicit jab at Obama.

And without naming names, Obama said some 'in other quarters' were pushing the argument that the United States wasn't ready to elect a black president." And this from Edwards: "The glitz associated with a couple of the Democratic candidates . . . has waned considerably as we get to a serious judgment about who should be president."

It's not clear who's getting through with what, with bowl games to watch and champagne bottles to pop and snow to shovel.

"The rhetoric fueling the unsettled Republican and Democratic campaigns intensified as candidates spread out across Iowa to close the final weekend before Thursday night's caucuses, bolstered by an unrelenting stream of TV ads from campaigns and independent groups," Rick Pearson and John Chase write in the Chicago Tribune.

"The candidates vowed no holiday letup as they scheduled special events to mark the ringing in of the 2008 presidential election year."

Your bottom line three days out: Anyone who says they know what's going to happen in Iowa is lying.

The Republican race in Iowa is a two-way fight -- and we do mean fight. "On Sunday talk shows and in new TV ads, the White House hopefuls escalated their rhetoric in the wide-open contest for the GOP nomination," David Jackson writes in USA Today.

The three-sentence roundup: "Mike Huckabee accused Mitt Romney of running a 'dishonest' campaign, while Romney's campaign responded that it was only pointing out the 'wrong policies' of the former Arkansas governor.

In New Hampshire, where people vote five days after Iowans, John McCain unleashed a new TV ad hitting Romney on immigration. Fred Thompson, meanwhile, criticized Huckabee and McCain during his turn on national television."

Yet this is where the fight may really matter: "Republican rivals Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney took their battle over Christian voters to the pews as both attended services while their campaigns spanned Iowa in a final Sunday pitch to evangelicals," Perry Bacon Jr. and Michael Shear write in The Washington Post.

With some evidence that Romney attack ads are working, Huckabee is set to push back on the airwaves: "Adviser Ed Rollins said Huckabee would spend part of the day taping a television ad, to run Monday, aimed at making sure that 'the voters know the facts about the governor's record and Governor Romney's record,' " Shear and Bacon write.

(That's the big news Huckabee is unveiling at a noon CT press conference at the downtown Marriott in Des Moines -- a location that's guaranteed to draw maybe a few members of the national press corps.)

Huck hits the "Tonight Show" Wednesday night -- caucus eve, and on Leno's first show back since the writers' strike.

In this Festivus season, Huckabee staffers have as sharp a sense of humor as their candidate. Per ABC's Jake Tapper, "Huckabee's campaign said that the Romney standard for truth-telling is comparable to [George] Costanza's memorable advice that closes this scene, from the February 9, 1995 episode: "Jerry, just remember. It's not a lie . . . if you believe it."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is getting more aggressive with Romney in New Hampshire. He responds to Romney's ads in devastating style: Speaking directly to camera, per ABC's Bret Hovell. "You know I find it ironic Mitt Romney would attack me on the issue of immigration," McCain says in his new ad, which debuted on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

Romney may have the top-notch organization, and he's certainly spent the most getting his message out.

But at the time where he should be closing the deal, he's being forced to reopen cans of rotten worms. Romney is "being dogged by questions about his shifts on issues, questions his aides had confidently predicted would have vanished by now," Michael Levenson writes in The Boston Globe.

"Rather than being put to rest, the queries have mushroomed into new attacks on Romney's character."

Romney's response? "I think its entirely appropriate in the political process to point out differences on important issues, but I don't think you have to make it a personal attack," he said, per ABC's Matt Stuart. (Remind us again, who started this thing?)

Who starts fights doesn't matter as much as who ends them, and it's former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who seemed eager to end his campaign on Sunday: "I need to come in second," he said. ABC's Christine Byun: "Under his own rules, Thompson could beat Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the caucuses and still be setting himself up to drop out of the race."

The campaign isn't clarifying his remarks -- anyone else feel like he's perhaps a little eager to end the short, strange trip of Fred '08?

Speaking of hard workers, Giuliani, R-N.Y., is down for TWO DAYS IN A ROW; we suppose he has to rest up since all those delegates are at stake in February. And he's chosen a prime caucus-night speaking spot -- in South Florida, James Pindell reports for The Boston Globe.

For the record, Clinton does plan on staying in Iowa long enough to thank her supporters, whispers to the contrary notwithstanding. "Well, my plan is to be here on caucus night. It's certainly what I'm planning to do," Clinton tells WHO-TV's Dave Price.

But one of Clinton's highest-profile surrogates found a different way to insult caucus-goers. Starting the nomination process in Iowa "makes no sense," said Gov. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, per the Columbus Dispatch's Joe Hallett, Jack Torry and Darrel Rowland. (This is the kind of quote you're supposed to save for the off-year DNC meeting, governor.)

For all of the Iowa madness, a New York billionaire is grabbing more than his share of the limelight. Those bipartisan meetings in Oklahoma -- the one with all the "fed-up bipartisan bigwigs" -- could be Bloomberg's "launching pad" to a presidential bid, Adam Lisberg writes in the New York Daily News.

"Experts said the meeting could help Bloomberg, a political upstart, wrap himself in the mantle of respected elders from both parties while he considers whether to spend $1 billion or more on a campaign," Lisberg writes.

The New York Times' Sam Roberts inches a little closer: "Buoyed by the still unsettled field, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is growing increasingly enchanted with the idea of an independent presidential bid, and his aides are aggressively laying the groundwork for him to run."

The short answer on where things stand in Iowa, from ABC Polling Director Gary Langer: It's close. "This is where fascination with the horse race, particularly in a low-turnout caucus, will get you: tied up in knots," Langer writes.

"We want a single number and simple characterization. It doesn't exist. What we have are different polls done different ways, many of them overanalyzed to make something out of very little, in fluid and close races."

So since we don't know anything about anything, really -- enjoy New Year's Eve. ABC's Jennifer Parker finds out who among the national press corps will be at Lucca, 801 Grand, Centro, and Dos Rios. Des Moines is "the place to be and to be seen on New Year's Eve, for an estimated 2,000 journalists, including 100 foreign journalists from over 25 different countries," Parker writes.

Time's Jay Newton-Small has more scoop on New Year's in Iowa: Huckabee, Bill Richardson, and the Clintons have big bashes, but the rest of the candidates are spending quieter nights after full days of campaigning. "But the real party will be downtown, where hundreds of national media have snapped up reservations at Des Moines' best restaurants," she writes.

"For the hundreds of less moneyed reporters in town for the holiday, Carrie Giddins, the spokeswoman for the Iowa Democratic Party, and Mary Tiffany, her GOP counterpart, have joined forces to throw 'Raucous Before the Caucus,' a big bash with a jazz band at the Temple for the Performing Arts downtown -- the $25 entrance fee gets journos a taste of Iowa, including State Fair favorites like fried Twinkies and corn dogs."

Also in the news:

The New York Times' Mark Leibovich looks at the competing styles of the Democrats: "There are similarities: they travel with big-deal entourages, vow to 'stand up for you' in Washington (while urging voters to 'stand for me' on Thursday night), and look very much in need of a good night's sleep, or 10," he writes.

"But their distinctions are more revealing, and ultimately reflect the competing notions of change the candidates are seeking to embody." (Somebody ask Leibovich what it reveals about him that he jogs at night through downtown Des Moines in late December -- in shorts.)

Sticking to his own keen observations: "Mrs. Clinton's events are meticulously planned and orderly, and even seem regal at times. She stands with her hands folded at her waist while waiting to speak; she typically stands next to her daughter, Chelsea, who in recent weeks been silently accompanying her, hands folded in perfect symmetry with her mother's. While being introduced by a supporter in Guthrie Center on Thursday night, Mrs. Clinton and Chelsea were slumped shoulder-to-shoulder, holding each other up."

The Boston Globe's Sasha Issenberg sees the rhetorical differences stemming from their legal careers: "John Edwards, a career trial attorney before running for the Senate, practices a courtroom-style summation that rouses listeners to use their vote to deliver justice.

Hillary Clinton, who practiced mostly corporate law at a Little Rock firm, approaches her speeches as a dealmaker: itemizing a list of goals and demands and then explaining what it will take to realize them. Barack Obama, a constitutional scholar, reiterates his rivals' arguments and tries to expose them as logically unsound."

Edwards, hitting a big round of TV interviews Monday morning, is very much in the Iowa mix. "Edwards is more at the center of attention than he has been since his wife fell ill with cancer this spring," Politico's Ben Smith writes. "Of course, it's Sunday, and the caucus is Thursday, 1,000 news cycles away, and perhaps -- dare I say it, four days out? -- he's peaking too early."

The former trial lawyer is firing up his crowds with his closing argument, Tony Leys writes in the Des Moines Register.

"Edwards has been drawing increasingly large and energetic crowds in recent weeks as he presses his case that America needs a fighter in the White House. His audiences are filled mainly with people who are middle age or older, and he's banking that such Iowans have been most likely to show up in caucuses."

Biden, D-Del., likes Obama -- he really does. And yet -- he comes close to big trouble again. On Sunday, he called Obama "a real superstar. A person who makes me realize why I got involved in politics in the first place," ABC's Brian Wheeler reports. "I've spent probably as much time in the African-American community as Barack has." (Well, he DOES have two decades on the man . . . )

ABC's Teddy Davis notices Romney "chiding G.O.P. rivals Mike Huckabee and John McCain for their deviations from President Bush on security and tax policy." Davis writes, "Romney is focused on getting through the next two weeks when voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will render their verdict on his bid to be the conservative establishment's choice for president."

From the department of last-minute profiles:

Bloomberg's Kim Chipman and Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, on Obama's years in Indonesia: "Obama had the same penchant for calling out bad behavior when he was with his friends. 'We played marbles out on a dirt field. We could never cheat him. We did try but he always found out,' says Zulfan Adi, 47, a freelance tourist guide who still lives down the street from Obama's old house in a lower-middle class neighborhood in South Jakarta. 'He used to say, "Kamu curang, kamu curang!" ("You cheat, you cheat!")"

(Isn't that what Obama campaign manager David Plouffe is saying about Clinton, Edwards, and their outside groups these days?)

Kate Zernike in The New York Times, on Elizabeth Edwards: "The campaign is a shared mission. Elizabeth Edwards is her husband's most trusted adviser, his chief provocateur and his most popular surrogate, mobbed at campaign stops by people who admire her struggle against breast cancer and share stories of children lost. She describes the presidency as not just his quest, but hers, too."

Elizabeth Kolbert on Giuliani, in The New Yorker: "Once again, Giuliani is in the awkward situation of wanting to represent a group of people whose views he does not actually represent. Once again, appeals based on "values" or personal history are closed to him. (Fourteen years ago -- before he had appeared in drag, or ditched his second wife on TV, or met his third wife at a cigar bar -- a "vulnerability study" commissioned by his staff noted that Giuliani's "personal life raises questions about a 'weirdness factor.' ") And so, once again, Giuliani is left to campaign on the basis of a single, strongly held idea: a great-leader theory of history, in which the great leader happens to be himself."

The Los Angeles Times' Joe Mathews, on Huckabee: "Huckabee's tenure as governor, 1996 to 2007, shows that his faith sometimes created political burdens for him, turning minor issues into public controversies and exacerbating tensions with other state leaders. Huckabee at times seemed too biblical even for fellow believer-politicians in the Bible Belt. In the "acts of God" dispute, there is no indication that anyone was harmed by the delay, but some felt that the governor's religiosity, as politically expressed, came close to pettiness."

The Concord Monitor's Margot Sanger-Katz, on McCain: "McCain could have made a different choice - he could have dined out on his war stories and dwelled on his mistreatment for years. But instead he was determined to find a kind of success divorced from his celebrity and free from the bitterness that afflicted many of his fellow veterans."

This timeout from McCain's media love affair. Jeffrey Birnbaum and John Solomon write up McCain's "private schmooze sessions" with moneyed interests. "As a presidential candidate this year, McCain has found himself assiduously courting both lobbyists and their wealthy clients, offering them private audiences as part of his fundraising. He also counts more than 30 lobbyists among his chief fundraisers, more than any other presidential contender."

Giuliani tells Mark Halperin of Time and ABC News that his strategy could still pay off. "It's just the first and second and the third inning and I'm not even sure if January 29 and February 5 even gets you to the fifth or sixth inning but it gets you around there," he says. And on campaign messaging, just a touch (maybe) of resignation: "I think that doing it any differently wouldn't have helped."

In a conversation with Time's Michael Scherer, Huckabee doesn't quite have the timeline straight on that National Intelligence Estimate he didn't read in time to answer questions about. "That particular day [when the NIE came out], which I thought it was a little bit ridiculous to talk about, the report came out at 10 in the morning and it was like five in afternoon. [Editor's note: The National Intelligence Estimate report stating that Iran was not pursuing nuclear weapons came out Monday Dec. 3. Huckabee was first asked about it in the evening of Dec. 4]."

Another anti-Romney dirty trick of a mailer, this one in Florida. "Help me sound the alarm that one day the Mormon Church plans to replace the Constitution with a Mormon theocracy. Mitt Romney's political success indicates this may be sooner than most have thought," reads part of the 11-page letter that reached a Florida Romney supporter over the weekend, Adam Smith reports in the St. Petersburg Times.

Clinton's GOTV operation: "Google, goodies, and 'angels,' " per the write-up by the Des Moines Register's Jennifer Jacobs. "The campaign is expecting women to dominate the caucus by as much as 60 percent. To recruit more into their sisterhood of politics and to bump up the urgency for backbone supporters, an army of Clinton volunteers logged more than 10,000 house calls and 4,000 phone conversations on Saturday alone," Jacobs writes. "But some female Democrats are rejecting the message they're hearing about Clinton, long a controversial political figure. And some men are turned off by what they see as an estrogen-soaked campaign."

The Obama operation: Forget MySpace and Facebook -- there's BlackPlanet.com, MiGente.com, AsianAve.com and GLEE.com. Peter Slevin and Jose Antonio Vargas of The Washington Post: "With turnout likely to be decisive in a Democratic race that pollsters call a three-way tie, Obama (Ill.) has built an Election Day operation that combines an apparent edge in technology with the tried-and-true grunt work of a traditional Iowa campaign."

Need any more proof that Iowans get special treatment? ABC's Jake Tapper and Elizabeth Stuart write up the "campus kingmakers," including the 20-year-old University of Iowa junior who "has framed pictures of himself with Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Bill Richardson. On his desk, there are piles of business cards from campaign directors and members of local and national media."

The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz previews ABC's Saturday debates in Iowa. "I'm going to put a question on the table, and to the extent that I can, I'm going to disappear," Charlie Gibson tells Kurtz.

"Among other things, Gibson plans to have the candidates seated in a semicircle, the better to foster what he likens to a dinner table discussion," Kurtz writes. "There will be no blinking lights or artificial time limits, with Gibson meting out what he calls 'fair time' based on clocks tracking the candidates' performance. And ABC's strict criteria for participation could mean as few as four contenders of either party onstage -- a crucial winnowing for the first prime-time debate to be carried by a broadcast network this season."

The criteria: "They must finish no lower than fourth in Iowa, or poll at least 5 percent -- either nationally or in New Hampshire -- in one of four most recent surveys."

Those back-to-back presidential debates -- sponsored by ABC News, Facebook and WMUR-TV -- will be held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., on 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.

The kicker:

"I think it would be highly unlikely that he wouldn't run. . . . Unless something extraordinary happens, I expect him in the race." -- Steve Forbes on Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., one rich-guy-former-presidential-candidate to a (possible) future one, on CNN.

"She's hot, too." -- Mitt Romney, licking his finger making a "tsss" sound to connote some sizzle, referring to his wife, Ann.

"I have to tell you. I've used some really harsh curse words -- the juicy ones." -- Barack Obama, asked to enumerate the differences between himself and Mitt Romney.

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