THE NOTE: Weary Close to Long Iowa Run


Since all the expectations and prognostications will become moot soon enough, here's a few reminders of the current state of play:

1. The top three Democrats all want to be the frontrunner going into Thursday's caucuses (and the fact that they all are getting their wish -- sort of -- means they all need to finish first to avoid disappointment).

2. Two Republicans don't want to be the frontrunner (but they both are -- which means one of them will inevitability limp out of Iowa -- and a third-place finisher could overshadow them both).


3. There's always room for a last-minute game-changer (and former governor Mike Huckabee's bizarre press conference may or may not have been one -- though who's going to argue with Chuck Norris if he says it wasn't, even if Huckabee is leaving Iowa to do Leno Wednesday night?).

4. The forecast for Thursday is "dry and seasonable" (and the campaigns and pundits now have 24 hours to figure out who that's good for and who's praying for a white-out blizzard to shock the weathermen).

5. The real battle for second place has barely begun -- and won't really begin until the caucuses themselves begin Thursday evening, neighbor-to-neighbor (though Sen. Barack Obama got as big a pre-caucus boost on that front as anyone's going to get).

This is closing time, the last, weary dash, and it looks like it. Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., is midway through a 36-hour bus tour that has drained at least the laptops on reporters' batteries and prompted Joe Trippi to start rapping. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is forgetting what city he's in.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is labeling herself a "diva."

All three Democratic frontrunners have blocked out TV time during Wednesday evening's news broadcasts. Clinton uses her two minutes to face the camera and appear presidential -- a calm end to a wild ride.

"After all the town meetings, the pie and coffee, it comes down to this: Who is ready to be president and ready to start solving the big challenges we face on day one?" Clinton says in her closing ad, per ABC's Kate Snow. "I know you have waited a long time for a president who could hear you and see you. I would like to be that president."

The ad backs up the seven-word closing argument: "She's ready to lead on day one," Clinton Iowa director Teresa Vilmain tells The Boston Globe's Marcella Bombardieri. Said Clinton, in Ames: "I'm not asking that you take me on a leap of faith, I'm asking you to look at the evidence and the record, because we don't have any margin for error or any time to waste."

Edwards is sharpening his Iraq position in the closing hours, saying that he would "withdraw the American troops who are training the Iraqi army and police as part of a broader plan to remove virtually all American forces within 10 months," per The New York Times' Michael R. Gordon.

"Mr. Edwards staked out a position that would lead to a more rapid and complete troop withdrawal than his principal rivals, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, who have indicated they are open to keeping American trainers and counterterrorism units in Iraq."

Edwards' closing ad features a laid-off worker, and he's got an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday taking on corporate abuses. "The basic bargain of America -- that everyone should have a chance to work hard and build a better future -- is falling apart," Edwards writes.

And he likes the attention from his rivals: "They can see this movement and explosion that's happening in my campaign right now, and I think they're trying to blunt it," Edwards said Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America."

If you measure such things by who wins the day, Obama had the sweetest New Year's. The polls as a whole show the same three-way race we've always known we had in Iowa, but there's only one Des Moines Register poll, and Obama was out on top. And his pseudo-endorsement by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, may not mean as much as Kucinich's deal with Edwards in 2004.

But it's at the very least a psychological boost, and another reason for liberals to caucus for Obama. "In addition to being ideologically aligned with Obama on the dominant Iraq war issue," write ABC's David Chalian and Teddy Davis, "back in July, Rep. Kucinich accused Sen. Edwards and Sen. Clinton of acting like 'imperial' candidates and said he felt 'betrayed' by Edwards when his two opponents were caught on tape discussing how to limit televised debates to what Edwards described as a 'more serious and a smaller group.' "

The sharpest attacks of the day Tuesday were leveled not at a candidate or President Bush: It was pile-on time on the Des Moines Register poll.

"As candidates worked New Year's Day crowds around Iowa, pollsters with Democratic campaigns -- other than that of the poll's leader, Barack Obama -- doubted the finding that 40 percent of those planning to attend the Democratic caucuses say they are independents," Tom Beaumont writes in the Register.

Said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster: "That would be a revolution."

That's sort of the point. For Obama, it's more clear than ever that the only way for him to pull it off -- and the Register poll bears this out -- is to break the caucus mold. "From the outset of this campaign, Obama's campaign has targeted independents as intensively as it has registered Democrats, bombarding them with phone calls, direct-mail pieces and personal visits," Shailagh Murray and Anne Kornblut write in The Washington Post. Said Obama: "It just might work." Indeed.

Clinton strategist Mark Penn was quick to rebut the poll -- but that doesn't make it go down any easier. "Some Clinton donors in New York said Tuesday morning that they were unnerved by the poll," Michael Luo and Patrick Healy write in The New York Times.

"They said that they had always been told by the Clinton high command that Iowa would be a challenge, but that they had been led to assume that Mr. Edwards, who was third in the survey, would most likely come in first. They said they had never expected an Obama blowout."

Neither did we -- or do we. And leave it to former President Bill Clinton to raise the stakes in Iowa. Per Ed Tibbetts of the Quad-City Times, "Acknowledging his wife Hillary Clinton's precinct captains at Ashford University here, the ex-president deadpanned: 'You realize, of course, the future of the free world is riding on your performance.' " (OK team -- now, pizza for everyone!)

Politico's Roger Simon asks the provocative question that it's too late for Clinton to answer a different way: "Should Hillary Clinton have skipped Iowa? If she loses the caucus here Thursday, will her campaign wish it had listened to the advice it got last May to take a hike on the Hawkeye state?" (Yes.)

On the Republican side, the fallout from Huckabee's thoroughly odd news conference hasn't been devastating -- at least not judging from the enthusiastic crowd (campaign's estimate: 3,000 frozen souls) that greeted him in West Des Moines Tuesday night.

(Sure, Chuck Norris was there, but he's Chuck Norris -- don't let Iowa wind chills whip your celebrity-calibration tools. And, yes, if you're looking for metaphors, the Val Air Ballroom WAS the site of the Howard Dean "scream," though we tried and failed to find the plaque marking the historical moment.)

Huckabee now says he regrets showing the ad -- but is still glad he pulled it. "Ya know, at the time, I thought it was an important way to prove we actually had it," Huckabee said, per ABC's Kevin Chupka. "Probably if I had it to do over again, I would not have shown it, and you would have said, 'show it, show it, you don't really have one!' and then you would have beat me up for not showing it 'cause I didn't have one."

But the strategic call -- and the inherent weirdness of the press conference where it was announced -- could dog Huckabee's campaign. "Mr. Huckabee's reliance on -- and then rejection of -- [Ed] Rollins's advice to go after his opponent has threatened to throw his campaign into a tailspin, potentially jeopardizing the image of unvarnished 'authenticity' that Mr. Huckabee is now making the centerpiece of his closing appeal to Iowa voters," David Kirkpatrick writes in The New York Times.

"Mr. Huckabee's strategic switchback underscores the extraordinary seat-of-the-pants nature of his campaign, visibly still struggling to adjust to its sudden jump in the last month from dark horse to front-runner status," Kirkpatrick continues.

The question for Huckabee is whether this storyline stays in New York and Washington, notwithstanding the 2,500 national reporters crowding Des Moines' hotels.

He'll avoid them all by flying to Burbank, Calif., Wednesday night, to be Jay Leno's guest on his first post-strike show. "It's an unconventional last day in an unconventional campaign," writes National Review's Byron York, adding that it will help him "change the subject a bit."

"Team Huckabee is trying hard not to appear defensive about the governor's somewhat odd performance in the last couple of days, a period dominated by his I'm-not-going-to-air-this-negative-ad-but-I-am-going-to-show-it-to-the-press news conference and, later, by a full day of complaining about Romney's attacks," York writes.

"By the end of those 48 hours, Huckabee seemed in danger of channeling Bob Dole's famous -- and disastrous -- 'stop lying about my record' moment from 1988."

And the decision carried a price tag: "His campaign burned about $150,000 in scarce campaign cash on TV footage, radio spots, and mail pieces that his strategists wanted to use—before the candidate decided he didn't," Politico's Jonathan Marin writes.

"This figure is considerably larger than the $30,000 cost of the single ad Huckabee cited at the news conference, where he drew mocking laughter from reporters by righteously announcing that he had decided to "do the right thing" by staying positive – even while playing the negative spot for the assembled group."

Huckabee said Wednesday on "Good Morning America" that more Iowans will see him on Leno than would on the stump -- and said the fact that he pulled the ad means he can still roam the high ground.

"The issue is we pulled ours, we didn't run a negative campaign," he told ABC's Chris Cuomo. "If we had stayed with it, we would have exposed some things about [Mitt Romney's] record that I think, frankly, would have made a difference."

Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., is closing with a smile -- and downplaying expectations even as he dumps more money into his campaign. "There's no 'have to win,' " Romney told ABC's Jake Tapper on Tuesday. The former CEO of the 2002 Winter Olympics predicted he'd win "either the gold or the silver and then go on from there."

"To now be one of the top two contenders, with Mayor Giuliani and John McCain and Fred Thompson all the way behind me -- people who are household names -- that's really quite an accomplishment," Romney said.

(There's not enough precious metal to go around. Per the New York Daily News' Celeste Katz, Huckabee said: "I'm expecting to get the gold or the silver -- and I'm hoping to get the gold," Huckabee said.)

Dumping $17 million into his campaign may had something to do with Romney's success -- and he's put more in, but isn't sure how much more. (Really, his campaign said the CEO candidate is not sure how much he's pumped into his own campaign, per ABC's John Berman.)

As for that other guy who's got to come in second -- former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., showed how serious he is about winning by spending an entire 34 minutes campaigning on Tuesday. He even left his campaign bus parked in the snowy parking lot of a West Des Moines hotel. "We decided that we would give the people a break," Thompson said, per ABC News.

The New York Times' Mark Leibovich writes up the much different GOP styles -- from Romney's corporate demeanor to Huckabee's "pulpit" cadences to Thompson's small-town charm.

"Their appearances also represent dueling slices of anthropology within an evolving party. In a sense, Iowa is serving as a laboratory of competing Republican identities for the post-Bush years."

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is beginning to second-guess his prediction of a Romney victory. It's "a little bit in question," he said, owing to Huckabee's rise. He also calls Giuliani's decision to essentially write off Iowa a "big mistake," and said Sen. John McCain -- who could finish third here -- is "very viable" as a candidate.

Could third place in Iowa be a momentum-booster for McCain? Yes, ABC's Ron Claiborne writes.

"He has barely campaigned there over the past two months, and would probably be ecstatic to wind up third," he writes. "Given McCain's previously dismal numbers, third place would likely attract more media attention, with the interpretation by many political analysts that he had done 'surprisingly well,' and would generate momentum going into New Hampshire. Even better for McCain would be if Huckabee beats Romney."

When they get to New Hampshire -- new poll there has it tied between McCain and Romney -- what will it mean that the Union Leader appears single-mindedly attempt on destroying Romney?

"One of the reasons this newspaper has endorsed U.S. Sen. John McCain over former Gov. Mitt Romney has become clearer in recent days: When the campaigning gets serious and the gloves come off, McCain sticks to the facts; Romney plays loose with them," Publisher Joseph W. McQuaid writes in ANOTHER front-page take-down. "Romney is apparently so desperate that he has chosen distortion over facts."

ABC's Jennifer Parker has your caucus primer, and this factoid that's worth remembering: "In the history of the Iowa caucuses, no candidate who has finished worse than third among the candidates, has ever gone on to win the nomination."

AP's Ron Fournier goes by the numbers: "41: Percentage of Democrats who waited until the final three days of the 2004 campaign to choose their candidate."

"17: Number of times Clinton said 'change' in a recent stump speech, hoping to convince voters in a throw-the-bums-out mood that she can reform Washington from the inside. 'Everybody in this campaign is talking about change,' she said. 23: Number of times Obama said 'change,' hoping his passion overcomes his lack of experience. 'Everyone is talking about change,' he said. Get the point?"

ABC polling director Gary Langer looks at the track record in Iowa and New Hampshire, and opens mixed bag.

"The real fuss, it seems, derives simply from being first -- the first caucus, the first primary -- and not much else, kind of like the teen-ager who camps out for a week outside the Cajundome in Lafayette, La., to be first in line for Hannah Montana tickets," Langer writes. "There is a payoff: She gets a good seat; Iowa and New Hampshire get first crack at the winnowing process, not so much selecting the next president as culling untenables from the field. The compressed calendar, though, may now mitigate some of that effect."

See what all the candidates are up to Wednesday in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Also in the news:

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., took a mild swipe at Clinton on the stump Tuesday. "We have a number of candidates who are well-intentioned but don't understand Pakistan. One of the leading candidates -- God love her," Biden said, provoking laughter since he didn't intend to name names, per ABC's Brian Wheeler and Teddy Davis. "No," he added, there are "good people running. But to say Musharraf is up for election! Musharraf was elected -- fairly or unfairly -- president six months ago. It's about a parliamentary election."

Biden is right on the facts. Responds Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson: "Well, his party is on the ballot. . . . And I don't think anybody questions that Senator Clinton has a vast and deep knowledge about foreign policy."

And Biden is taking on the top tier more broadly: "John doesn't have a record in the Senate. John's only passed four bills. They're all about post offices. I mean, literally," Biden tells The Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman.

"Most freshmen senators don't get much done. Don't get much passed. Barack Obama hasn't passed any. There's not a major bill I know with Hillary's name on it."

Biden adviser Larry Rasky is out with another upbeat memo, touting crowd sizes -- and, spin aside, there is something real going on out there for Biden, though it could be too little, too late.

"These events also demonstrate the large pockets of support for Sen. Biden across Iowa," Rasky writes. "These immense swaths of enthusiastic Biden backers will make the Senator a viable candidate in many parts of the state."

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., still struggling for traction, says a sixth-place finish in Iowa would probably end his campaign. (You think?) "We're talking three or four slots. I think those are the tickets out of Iowa," Dodd said, per ABC's Donna Hunter. "There are a lot of other questions you would have to answer before giving a definitive one. To what number you're in -- what if the top three came in third, fourth or fifth?"

The New York Post's Charles Hurt writes up one of Clinton's "thorniest problems": Trying to make herself the second choice of those who support the second tier. "Although she has a considerable base of devoted fans in Iowa, she is not well liked by those Democrats supporting other candidates," Hurt writes.

The Clinton GOTV team has done more than swipe up much of the state's fleet of rental SUVs. "The Clinton campaign is opening day care centers across the state, including three in Des Moines, and has enlisted a legion of teenage girls to render their tyke-watching services," Michael Saul and Michael McAuliff write in the New York Daily News.

The Boston Globe's Charlie Savage writes up the case of the BB-gun offender in Massachusetts who's at the heart of the Romney-Huckabee dispute over pardons and commutations.

"Huckabee's point is clear: Romney is so hardhearted and politically calculating that he would deny a deserving veteran a chance to improve his life just because 'he wanted to brag that he never, ever gave out a pardon' when he ran for president," Savage writes.

The Chicago Tribune's John McCormick and John Chase found things very quiet on the campuses of Drake University and the University of Iowa. "Reminding students to attend the caucuses will be one of the many tasks facing presidential campaigns over the next two days as they exhaustively work to get out the vote," they write.

AP's David Espo reminds us of what we'll be talking about by Friday: "So long, ethanol. Hello, taxes," Espo writes in comparing and contrasting (mostly contrasting) Iowa and New Hampshire.

The Wall Street Journal front-pages a Kucinich story -- which means it has to be about the UFO. Per the Journal's Michael M. Phillips, Kucinich saw it first, through a telescope: "Guys, come on out here and look at this," he said.

It started as a hovering light, and it turned out to be three triangular aircraft. "The craft approached to within 200 yards, suspended over the field just beyond the swimming pool. Both witnesses say it emitted a quiet, throbbing sound -- nothing like an airplane engine."

The kicker:

"It was a close call, to go jogging in almost zero-degree weather, or stay in and take a nap. After considerable consideration, I decided to take a nap. . . . Just kidding, I didn't really take a nap." -- Fred Thompson, anxious not to seem lazy on a day that he spent 34 minutes campaigning.

"The pundits think I am crazy, and they may be right." -- Mike Huckabee.

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.

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