DES MOINES, Iowa --
You know you were at a terrifically fun yet terribly important New Year's party if, shortly after 10 pm ET (9 pm in wind-chill-whipped Iowa), everyone stopped looking at Dick Clark (or Howard Wolfson or David Axelrod or Gentry Collins or Ed Rollins) and started scrolling on BlackBerries.
The last pre-Iowa numbers that mean anything at all are certain to shape perceptions, expectations, and overall mood in the final sprint to Iowa. Yes, the same folks who are blasting the methodology would be trumpeting the victory if they were on top.
But before we let this mean too much, the more important question to ask: Is Sen. Barack Obama acting like he's confident that he's seven (!) points up on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton? (No.)
And does former governor Mike Huckabee look like a man who's secure in the knowledge that he's six points up on former governor Mitt Romney? (No, but with Huckabee, now the undisputed owner of the most bizarre, surreal, can't-make-this-stuff-up moment of the cycle, it's probably best to give up guessing what's going through his mind).
For the Democrats, it's Obama 32, Clinton 25, and former senator John Edwards on her heels at 24 (and single digits for the rest) in the Des Moines Register poll. But there are plenty of reasons to think this doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot:
"Roughly a third of likely caucusgoers say they could be persuaded to choose someone else before Thursday evening," Tom Beaumont writes in the Register.
"All of the three leaders in Iowa draw a majority of support from new caucusgoers, although Obama benefits the most with 72 percent of his support coming from first-timers compared to 58 percent of Clinton's and 55 percent of Edwards' supporters."
Among the GOP, it's Huckabee 32, Romney 26, and Sen. John McCain (in prime position to be the other Iowa "winner") at 13. Yet here comes the sprinkling of salt on icy Iowa:
"The poll shows there remains enough indecision among likely caucus participants to scramble both the race for first place between Huckabee and Romney, and the battle for third," Jonathan Roos writes. "Nearly one-half of caucusgoers say they could still be persuaded to support another candidate."
David Yepsen's take: "Huckabee appears to have fended off a last-minute surge from Mitt Romney. After a tight race for months, Obama seems to be opening up a last-minute lead over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards."
But then the caveats: "Undecideds exist." "Last-minute developments won't be reflected." "Some support is soft." "A lot of caucus-goers are first-timers."
More caveats (and the Clinton and Edwards campaigns of eager to point them out): "Obama supporters are very heavily independents, and the DMR predicts 40% independents and 5% Republicans will caucus -- a stunningly high share compared with past caucuses, and likely reflecting Obama's powerful appeal to the center," Politico's Jonathan Martin writes. "Clinton, meanwhile, leads among Democrats."
And a bigger caveat comes in the form of the CNN/Opinion Research poll: Clinton 33, Obama 31, Edwards 22. GOP side has it at Romney 31, Huckabee 28.
There's a very real chance that Thursday night will not bring clarity, despite those fancy high-def monitors that will display caucus results inside the Polk County Convention Complex.
"Aides are beginning to grapple with the frustrating possibility that all the time, money and political skill invested here might prove to be for naught when it comes to identifying the candidate to beat in the primaries and winnowing the top tier,"
Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times. "If Iowans end up being equally divided among what many party leaders view as an unusually strong cast of candidates, who is to say that voters in the Feb. 5 states won't be as well?"
More important than any numbers, the sense of urgency/uncertainty coursing through the chilly Iowa air is infecting the putative front-runners in these first hours of 2008.
And leave it to the candidate no one saw coming to cram something new into a political year that had already seen everything. Huckabee, R-Ark., faced down what had to be the largest collection of media folk he'd ever seen on Monday and promptly did one of the oddest things in caucus history.
ABC's Jake Tapper has the just plain weird sequence of events: "The stage was set for Huckabee to show his new anti-Romney TV ad. The backdrop read 'Enough is Enough!' Nine times. Charts detailed contradicting Romney quotes on abortion, taxes, immigration, guns, and judicial nominations. And, of course, a big screen was present to unveil the new Huck-a-spot. The Baptist minister did not look to be planning to turn the other cheek. But then, he announced he was not going to run the ad."
"Quite a convenient epiphany," AP's Ron Fournier writes. "If he loses Iowa's caucuses, New Year's Eve will forever mark the day Huckabee blew it -- the day a crowd stopped laughing with the witty Republican and laughed at him. If he wins -- a possibility that even Huckabee now thinks he put at risk -- he sealed victory in a weird way Monday."
"Cynical laughter coursed through the room," the Chicago Tribune's Mike Tackett writes.
"Everyone was trying to get this straight. He had the negative ad. He wanted everyone to see the negative ad. Then he wanted everyone to know that he had personally ordered that the negative ad be withdrawn, hopefully before it was ever aired."
Here's why it matters: "Instead of becoming more disciplined in the face of battle, Huckabee and his campaign have veered off in directions that have not helped his message," Michael Shear and Perry Bacon Jr. write in The Washington Post.
Says GOP strategist Scott Reed: "Poor Huckabee has gone from being a principled conservative candidate to a political analyst who can't make a decision on strategy."
(And/but . . . as Jennifer Rubin notes in her American Spectator blog, this is getting far more derisive play nationally than it is locally.)
To attack ads and non-attack attack ads, we add the attack non-ad. (Got that?) Yes, Huckabee gets everyone to talk about his attacks without having to fully own them (or spend a precious dime on getting them in the mix).
But Huckabee may have gotten more than he bargained for by trying to play Mr. Nice Guy but adding a Huck of a caveat.
By pseudo-attacking -- and the bootlegged ad that will never be will surely live forever on YouTube and cable networks -- he's allowing Romney, R-Mass., to reclaim the high road he abandoned weeks ago.
"I'm running a positive campaign," Romney declared Monday, as he unveiled a closing ad that's all smiles from Mitt, ABC's Matt Stuart reports. A bit of confidence (though this was before the Register poll results were released): "I think I'm going to win."
Nagourney and Michael Luo go deep inside the Romney campaign in The New York Times: "The past two months, described in a series of interviews with Mr. Romney's advisers, amounted to a test of Mr. Romney's ability to adapt to a rapidly changing political situation and harness the corporate culture he prides himself on to keep his candidacy from being damaged or even derailed."
If Huck's dream does end in Iowa, here's a photo that could run with the campaign obit -- and the straight razor isn't even pictured.
Back among the Democrats -- now Obama likes polls. "It's beyond the margin of error so we just might pull this thing off, Iowa. Who would have thunk it?" Obama said Monday night in Ames, per the Des Moines Register's Jason Clayworth.
Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray of The Washington Post call the poll a "surprising jolt."
"The new poll gave Obama a critical psychological boost at a time when the focus in Iowa had shifted to Edwards, whose fiery anti-corporate rhetoric appeared to be gaining converts. Clinton, too, had appeared to have steadied herself after a series of stumbles in November and early December."
This is the campaign that earlier in the day held an unusual conference call with reporters so campaign manager David Plouffe could talk about how strong Obama is in Feb. 5 states -- practically setting the press corps up for the possibility of a third-place finish.
And Obama is the first Democrat to take on his rivals by name in an advertisement, in a radio spot that equates the Clinton and Edwards healthcare plans with "punishing those who don't fall in line," per ABC News.
Actually, the ad's been running for 10 days, but an Obama aide told ABC's Sunlen Miller that "there typically is not much media interest in radio advertising -- and kept a straight face. The campaign did put out a press release for a radio ad in October, to announce Obama's endorsement by Duffy Lyon, the sculptor of the famed 'butter cow' at the Iowa State Fair."
He's not naming names here -- but who ever could he have in mind with this line: "That's why I didn't become a trial lawyer." ABC's Jake Tapper writes up the blogospheric anger: Said Kos: "I am really starting to see Obama as someone who will rush to embrace every right-wing talking point against every Democratic constituencies." Added Atrios: "Is there a right wing talking point Obama hasn't rushed to embrace? Going after trial lawyers? Jeebus."
As for Clinton -- she's not naming names either, but who ever could she have in mind with this, spoken softly for full, calm, presidential effect: "Instead of, like, generating a lot of heat and rolling your hands and jumping up and down, lets just sit down and figure out how we are going to beat them," Clinton said, ABC's Eloise Harper reports.
"It's something you don't have to do by yelling and screaming. Save your energy, get the job done. Figure out how you are going to make it happen."
Edwards isn't yelling and screaming as much as he's writing (or, at least, having his stump speech transcribed in all its wordy glory). He takes out a full-page ad in Tuesday's Des Moines Register.
Here's a few of his 2,200 (!) words: "Compromising your principles and conciliation is the academic theory of change. It just doesn't work in the real world. Fighting for conviction is the historic reality of change."
The Boston Globe's Sasha Issenberg sees Edwards readying for a fight: "In the stemwinder of a speech he began delivering last week, Edwards uses a version of the word fight dozens of times - along with a few struggles and a battle or two - in a depiction of America filled with violent imagery," he writes.
Edwards: "This corporate greed is killing the middle class, killing American jobs, and it is stealing your children's future."
Ralph Nader is convinced. He tells Politico's David Paul Kuhn that Edwards a "glimmer of hope" with his anti-corporate crusade.
And Nader unloads on Clinton: "She has experience in the Senate, and what that experience has meant is going soft on cracking down on corporate crime, fraud, and abuse, soft on cutting tens of millions in corporate subsidies."
In case you missed it, a fundraising quarter ended on Monday without a crazy discussion of what the numbers all mean -- mostly because there weren't many numbers to dissect. Camp Clinton is claiming to be north of $100 million for 2007, per ABC's Eloise Harper and Jake Tapper.
But she's going to have to share the honors she hoped to keep for herself: "Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton each surpassed the $100 million fundraising mark for their presidential campaigns in 2007, according to people directly familiar with their finance operations, the first time two candidates have eclipsed that milestone before a single primary vote was cast," Matthew Mosk and John Solomon write in The Washington Post.
And if you were too busy on the Berry to watch ABC's "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve," you missed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., drop all the hedged language and tell that notoriously combative interviewer Ryan Seacrest: "No, I will not run for president. But I will speak out to try to get people to really focus on the issues and to get rid of partisanship and special interests." (Surely he knows that his ability to do the latter is tightly connected to the possibility that he'll do the former?)
"He's not running," spokesman Stu Loeser tells the New York Daily News' Adam Lisberg. "He hasn't changed his mind."
"Mr. Bloomberg, while publicly denying any interest in running for president, has privately suggested that if the candidates from the two major parties are very far apart, he might consider throwing his hat in the ring, according to people close to him."
Check out all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also in the news:
Think the Register poll has Camp Clinton spooked? Strategist/pollster Mark Penn didn't wait for 2008 to push out his take: "The Des Moines Register poll adopts an unprecedented new turnout model for the caucuses, and its new poll is out of sync with the other polling done in the race."
And the Clinton campaign spun out its internal polling numbers for the occasion (funny how they're so ready to share sometimes).
Campaign Manager Patti Solis Doyle says their numbers have them up 33-27-25 over Obama and Edwards, ABC's Jake Tapper reports. It's not the Register, but they can point to this to back their numbers up.
The Edwards campaign gets pollster Harrison Hickman to push back, just as promptly as Penn, and with ALL-CAPS emphasis: "Is the poll accurate? There are good reasons to think it is NOT. The poll was conducted during the holiday AND over the weekend. There is plenty of evidence that either of these would make it more difficult to obtain a representative sample. The combination makes the problem of obtaining a valid sample GEOMETICALLY worse."
If Romney wants to restart his attacks, Huckabee is giving him another chance with that pesky National Intelligence Estimate. Again confusing the timeline (the NIE was out for a full day and a half before he was asked about it), he told the Quad-City Times' Dan Gearino: "Maybe I should've said, 'Have you read the report?' President Bush didn't read it for four years; I don't know why I should read it in four hours."
Then he digs himself just a little bit deeper: "The point I'm trying to make is that, on the campaign trail, nobody's going to be able, if they've been campaigning as hard as we have been, to keep up with every single thing, from what happened to Britney last night to who won 'Dancing with the Stars.' " (Note to Huck: If the choice is between reading an NIE summary and "US Weekly," choose the NIE, at least so long as you're running for president.)
More from foreign policy in Huckworld: "Shortly before Mike Huckabee emerged as a leading presidential contender, he delivered a littlenoticed foreign policy speech in which he urged consideration of restoring diplomatic relations with Iran," Michael Kranish reports in The Boston Globe.
"It is a view that now stands as a significant difference from some of his GOP opponents at a time when Huckabee's foreign policy credentials have become a central issue in the campaign."
Former President Bill Clinton is defending Gov. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, after his dis of the Iowa caucuses -- but only to a point. "Look, every other state would like to be first -- he was just being a good governor for Ohio," Clinton told Newsday's Glenn Thrush.
"It didn't have anything to do with the campaign and obviously we don't feel that way about it."
McClatchy's David Lightman writes up an issue that isn't in Iowa: "National security was widely expected to be the defining issue of the 2008 Iowa caucuses -- yet major candidates don't talk much about it, voters rarely ask about it and the hopefuls with the fattest foreign-policy résumés are far behind in the polls."
"The top three Democratic presidential candidates have begun focusing intensely on becoming the second choice among supporters of less-popular candidates such as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, in a behind-the-scenes battle that could decide the outcome of Thursday's Iowa caucuses," they write.
Romney may yet be able to take down Huckabee -- but can he beat the McCain-Huckabee double team?
"The Republican presidential race may look like a cluttered and chaotic mess, but it's actually become fairly simple: Mitt Romney will win the nomination unless Mike Huckabee and John McCain can stop him," Steve Kornacki writes in the New York Observer. "Their strategy: Team up to make Mr. Romney himself an issue in the closing days of the campaign."
And McCain can roam New Hampshire at will at the moment (remember that Rudy Giuliani is spending his second day of rest on Tuesday): "As his rivals spend the week in Iowa, McCain has had New Hampshire largely to himself," Margot Sanger-Katz writes in the Concord Monitor.
"He will leave the state tomorrow afternoon, just in time for the Iowa Caucus, then return to New Hampshire for the duration. McCain said he hopes for a showing in Iowa that exceeds expectations, but believes a strong finish in New Hampshire will be the key to his success nationally."
New York Times columnist David Brooks takes on Romney (surely leading the league in anti-endorsements by now, no?): "In turning himself into an old-fashioned, orthodox Republican, he has made himself unelectable in the fall," Brooks writes.
"His biggest problem is a failure of imagination. Market research is a snapshot of the past. With his data-set mentality, Romney has chosen to model himself on a version of Republicanism that is receding into memory."
Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., maybe just a little hard up for cash, is making his closing argument in a 17-minute Web video that includes such memorable lines as: "The fact of the matter is that the Republican Party is a conservative party. That's the philosophy that's shaped us." ABC's Christine Byun: "Thompson's campaign -- whose ads have been scarce on local airwaves -- is hoping it will go viral to compete with his GOP rivals."
ABC's Z. Byron Wolf sees Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, starting to look like a Republican (heaven forbid) in some of his closing ads.
"Proof positive that anti-war, uncompromising libertarian Republicanism doesn't necessarily sell where the first votes are cast is the glossy and highly produced new television ad Paul has bought time for in the waning days of campaigning in the early primary states," Wolf writes.
"The subject: immigration. The message: no amnesty. The ad takes a hard right turn from the libertarian ant-war and anti-big government views that have gained Paul's loyal Internet following."
Comedian Mo Rocca whips up a New Year's cake for Bloomberg, with a dash from the cookbooks of independent candidates of the past. "FROSTING: You can make your own but avoid the following Independent ingredients: Ralph Nader cream (spoils easily); William Jennings Bryan brimstone (too spicy); George Wallace nutmeg (too racist)."
Think about this: A week from now, voting will have started in New Hampshire. The Washington Post's Joel Achenbach profiles the two states that have so much to say about who the next president will be.
Next weekend's New Hampshire debates (both Democrats and Republicans on ABC on Saturday, and another GOP forum Sunday on Fox News Channel) "will not include some nationally known candidates, and the chairmen of the state Republican and Democratic parties are not happy," per the New Hampshire Union Leader's John DiStaso.
A reminder: On Saturday, Jan. 5, back-to-back presidential debates -- sponsored by ABC News, Facebook and WMUR-TV -- will be held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. 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, Jan uary 2. If you would like to apply, email NH.Debates@abctv.com for details.
"Are you with the FBI? Am I going to be waterboarded or just get a haircut?" -- Mike Huckabee, strapping himself in for a shave and a haircut.
"Uh, just a haircut." -- Barber Scott Sales, in reply.
"I know the pundits, they get big bucks for . . . pundating." -- Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.
"I like him because he's not that ambitious." -- Prospective voter, as overheard by the Houston Chronicle's Julie Mason.
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