THE NOTE: Mitten for Mitt?

Michigan voters on Tuesday take their turn sorting through the Republican presidential field, with a battered state economy providing the backdrop for a primary that could thin the ranks of the GOP contenders.

With the first three contests of the Republican race having produced three different winners, Michigan is almost certain to hand a second victory to one of them. Either a native son -- Mitt Romney -- or a defending champion -- John McCain -- will sputter into South Carolina's Saturday primary in a jalopy of disappointment.

On this snowy primary day, polls close at 9 pm ET -- just as the Democratic candidates debate in Las Vegas, testing a tenuous truce. (The split-screen moment for political junkies will quite possibly star Dennis Kucinich as the little candidate who couldn't be kept away.)

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Fred Thompson may already be the Packard of the race -- grandpa's favorite, but not much to brag about under the hood. Rudy Giuliani could very well be the Hummer -- looking tough and guzzling cash, but not getting great mileage.

But with inspiration from the campaign event formerly known as the Detroit Auto Show -- it's like the Iowa State Fair, only shinier and better for you -- Michigan will answer:

Will Mitt Romney be more Oldsmobile or Mustang? (He's got a great name, sure, but he could just as easily be discontinued as he could come in for a redesign.)

Will John McCain be more Buick or Corvette? (He's an oldie but a goodie, though he'd rather have some pick-up in the engine.)

Will Mike Huckabee be more Taurus or F-150? (Not as pressing a question, since we trust he'll still have a Jesus fish on the bumper and Chuck Norris in the passenger seat when he cruises into South Carolina.)

(And the question that could subsume the previous three: Will Michigan Democrats and independents ram a Mac truck into the Republican race?)

Polls indicate that the race is between Romney, R-Mass., and McCain, R-Ariz., with Huckabee, R-Ark., perhaps also in the mix (at least for second place), owing to a sizeable evangelical base in the state. It's a battle between "a native son, a returning champion and a Southern wild card," David Jackson writes in USA Today.

Their paths crossed at the Detroit Auto Show on the final full day of campaigning in Michigan, with each offering his own brand of fixes. It was Mitt Romney -- Washington Outsider, Turnaround Artist, and Michigan Native -- delivering a jab or two at McCain in a speech Monday at the Detroit Economic Club.

"A lot of Washington politicians are aware of the pain in Michigan, but they haven't done anything about it," Romney said. Per the Detroit Free Press' Todd Spangler:

"When he stood in front of Michigan crowds, he spoke as if he had known them all his life."

For McCain, it was about Straight Talk to the end: "Anybody who says those old jobs are coming back is either naive or not being straight with the people of Michigan and America," McCain said, the Detroit News' Gordon Trowbridge reports.

"The candidates' divergent approaches highlight the degree to which Romney and McCain are counting on different segments of an undecided electorate to deliver them a win," write Juliet Eilperin and Michael Shear of The Washington Post.

Your wild card: "Most Democratic candidates are skipping their party's primary because no delegates are at stake, leaving Democrats and independents free to vote in the GOP contest."

(So it is that the DailyKos-backed call for "America's mitten to take off the gloves" -- and for liberal Democrats to support Mitt -- is only half a joke.)

Romney -- who is resuming his South Carolina advertising -- "has the most riding on Tuesday's result after successive setbacks in Iowa and New Hampshire," Michael Luo writes in The New York Times.

"Though he left the state decades ago, in the last week Mr. Romney has repeatedly played up his personal ties to it, often sounding more like a candidate for statewide office. His father, George W. Romney, was chairman of American Motors before becoming a three-term governor of Michigan, and the candidate has pledged to make the state a special focus if elected."

If Romney pulls it out in Michigan, he's back in the hunt -- and running like he once suggested he would, Jonathan Cohn writes for The New Republic. "In Michigan, at least, Romney has mostly campaigned like the candidate he promised to be," Cohn writes. "He does at least offer the Bain Capital/Winter Olympics/passing-health-care-in-Massachusetts resume that's relevant to the discussion. The contrast with the image McCain has promoted lately couldn't be more striking."

But the primary is so unpredictable that the secretary of state won't even release a turnout estimate. "With this Democratic thing, we don't have the vaguest idea," Chuck Yob, McCain's Michigan campaign cochairman, tells The Boston Globe's Sasha Issenberg. http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2008/01/15/in_michigan_primary_anything_can_happen/

This much is clear: Michigan has been heard. The state's primary "is this election year's first clear referendum on who voters think can best manage -- and revive -- the slumping economy, which has hit this state harder than most," McClatchy's David Lightman writes.

"Romney, whose dad ran American Motors before becoming governor of Michigan, has been the most passionate about rescuing the industry and bringing manufacturing back to prominence," Detroit Free Press columnist Stephen Henderson writes.

"McCain has taken a near-opposite approach, emphasizing a sharp turn away from reliance on manufacturing jobs that he says won't come back. . . . The truth is that Michigan probably needs a little of what all of them propose, and maybe even a lot."

The Democratic race in Michigan sets up an odd contest: It's Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., vs. "uncommitted," since Clinton is the only first-tier candidate not to have had herself removed from the ballot.

The contest is meaningless -- per the DNC's rules, no convention delegates are stake -- except to those who would impart some meaning on it. Clinton will win, "but that has not stopped her opponents from trying to cut into Clinton's vote total by mounting a last-ditch push for Democrats to vote 'uncommitted,' " Francis X. Donnelly writes in the Detroit News.

Democrats get their own two-hour clash Tuesday night in Las Vegas, in a last round before Saturday's Nevada caucuses. It will be the first chance for Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., to have a nice little chat about all of those racially tinged comments that have been lobbed back and forth in the week (has it really only been seven days?) since New Hampshire.

Realizing that they were perhaps on that side of inflicting lasting damage on party unity, both Clinton and Obama called for truces on Monday.

Clinton, at an early Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration (where she got a few more boos than she would have liked) in New York: "Both Senator Obama and I know that we are where we are today because of leaders like Dr. King and generations of men and women like all of you."

Obama, on the trail in Nevada: "I don't want the campaign at this stage to degenerate into so much tit for tat, back and forth, that we lose sight of why all of us are doing this."

Referring specifically to the much-analyzed MLK remark, Obama told ABC's David Wright, "I don't think it was in any way a racial comment." (He wasn't offended by the "fairy tale" line, either, but does think she's got too much of a Washington mindset.)

But (and isn't there always a but) . . . a prominent Clinton supporter, House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., didn't read the latest campaign memo in time for his interview with NY1 -- and may have made things worse by mangling both facts and spin.

"How race got into this thing is because Obama said 'race,' " Rangel told Dominic Carter, in a misattribution. "For him to suggest that Dr. King could have signed that act is absolutely stupid. It's absolutely dumb to infer that Dr. King, alone, passed the legislation and signed it into law."

Per ABC's David Chalian: "The only problem -- Obama neither said nor suggested any such thing. Senator Clinton first invoked Dr. King's work on civil rights legislation and the role of President Lyndon Johnson in a recent interview with Fox News a week ago in New Hampshire."

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson has an interesting take: "Race is just one of the fights that the Clinton campaign is pressing with Obama; the other is an attempt to discredit Obama's opposition to the war. It could be that the idea is to engage Obama in so much tit-for-tat combat that his image as a new, post-partisan kind of politician is tarnished," he writes.

"Or the strategy could be more subtle. . . . The Clintons are reading the polls, too; they might well be resigned to the possibility that most black Democrats will vote for Obama."

The Atlantic Marc Ambinder secures the Clinton campaign's "daily talking points," which includes this choice paragraph: "There are media reports that the Obama campaign is distributing a memo in an effort to sensationalize and drive this story. This is unfortunate, especially coming from a campaign that says it is about bringing people together."

Rangel's command of the facts aside, race is staying in "this thing" through Nevada, California, and well beyond. Adam Nagourney and Jennifer Steinhauer look at Clinton and Obama's attempts to reach out to Latinos.

"Although the two candidates aggressively court those voters, who could be vital for Democrats this year and for years to come, the challenge is especially complex for Mr. Obama," they write. "Mr. Obama confronts a history of often uneasy and competitive relations between blacks and Hispanics, particularly as they have jockeyed for influence in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York."

Obama is doing Nevada interviews -- and here's an opening sentence he probably would have rather avoided. "Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama freely admits he doesn't have the experience to run a bureaucracy," writes Anjeanette Damon of the Reno Gazette-Journal.

"But he's banking on the fact voters aren't looking for a 'chief operating officer' in this election."

An odd admission from a candidate whose experience is being questioned: "I'm not an operating officer. Some in this debate around experience seem to think the job of the president is to go in and run some bureaucracy. Well, that's not my job. My job is to set a vision of 'here's where the bureaucracy needs to go.'"

The third person on stage Tuesday is going up with his first ads to take direct aim at rival candidates. Per ABC's Raelyn Johnson, former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., is set to air a series of unusual 10-second ads in his native state of South Carolina.

"The ads will feature images of Edwards' top rivals, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama and ask, which candidate has never taken a dollar from a Washington lobbyists? And which candidate has vowed to ban lobbyists from working in their White House?" Johnson reports. "The answer to both questions of course is Edwards, who's trying to draw distinctions in a state he won in 2004, but is currently polling third behind Clinton and Obama."

Tuesday night's debate could well include Kucinich, D-Ohio, despite the fact that his invitation was rescinded by the debate sponsors. "A District Court judge Monday ordered NBC to include Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich in tonight's debate in Las Vegas after the candidate complained that the network had breached its contract and undermined the public interest by barring him from the stage," Marshall Allen reports in the Las Vegas Sun.

"NBC said it will appeal today, setting the stage for more last-minute legal maneuvering before the debate, which is scheduled to air on the local NBC affiliate and on MSNBC, an NBC cable network."

Michigan results will come in live to the secretary of state's Website.

Get all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

I'll be blogging during this crucial evening in politics, as Michigan returns roll in and the Democrats square off in Las Vegas.

Also in the news:

A new ABC News/Washington Post poll tells the story President Bush and his remaining supporters don't want to hear: "Beset by growing economic concerns on top of the long unpopular war in Iraq, President Bush starts the last year of his presidency with the worst approval rating of his career," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes.

"Just 32 percent of Americans now approve of the way Bush is handling his job, while 66 percent disapprove. Bush's work on the economy has likewise reached a new low. And he shows no gain on Iraq; despite reduced violence there, 64 percent say the war was not worth fighting, 2 points from its high."

Cue the historical comparisons: "Three post-World War II presidents have gone lower than Bush in overall approval -- Jimmy Carter (28 percent), Richard Nixon (24 percent) and Harry Truman (22 percent). But after three straight years in the doghouse, Bush is just two months away from Truman's record of 38 months without majority approval -- far beyond any other."

This shouldn't hurt: "Among the points President Bush ticked down in his talks with Saudi Arabian officials was a polite plea for cheaper oil," ABC's John Hendren reports. "Bush told entrepreneurs at a business round table that he would talk to  Saudi King Abdullah tonight about oil prices."

ABC's Terry Moran interviews the president in Saudi Arabia, with portions to air on "World News" and "Nightline" on Tuesday.

Just in from the RNC: Karl Rove speaks Wednesday afternoon at the "executive directors' meeting" -- the only portion of the meeting that will be open to the press.

The Washington Post's Dan Balz looks ahead to Feb. 5, when Democrats vote in 22 states, while Republicans have contests in 21. "By one estimate, the cost of a standard run of television advertising in each of the states for a week would be about $35 million," Balz writes. Key detail (suggesting Feb. 5 won't end much of anything): "If Edwards remains a force through Feb. 5 and wins 15 percent of the vote in most contests, Clinton and Obama will need enormous margins to rack up a significant advantage in delegates."

More tidbits: "Clinton's campaign is behind in setting up state organizations but is moving quickly to catch up," Balz writes.

"Clinton's aides said four states will be critical in their planning: New Jersey and neighboring New York, where the candidate has a home-court advantage; California, where the Clinton name has been popular and where Latino voters may give her a boost; and Arkansas, where she was first lady in the 1980s. Those states account for 44 percent of delegates awarded on Super Tuesday. Obama's Feb. 5 base begins with his home state of Illinois, but his campaign hopes to demonstrate broad national appeal by winning states in areas where Democrats normally struggle."

Speaking of Feb. 5, a new poll in California has Clinton up 47-31 Obama in the biggest delegate prize of the contest. For the Republicans, it's McCain 20, Romney 16, Giuliani 14.

The House of Labor looks divided in Nevada, with a lawsuit pending that could determine the outcome of Saturday's caucuses, Tony Cook and Michael Mishak write in the Las Vegas Sun.

"The rivalry among unions seeped into public view last week when the teachers union joined a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of nine at-large caucus sites on the Strip, which it says give Culinary members disproportionate sway," they write. "The lawsuit poked a figurative finger in the eye of the Culinary, which has 60,000 members."

How's this for Vegas imagery? "Up to a tenth of the statewide vote is expected to take place inside the sites on the city's fabled Strip, in some cases just down the hall from a craps table or a few blocks from a strip joint," John McCormick and Michael Martinez write in the Chicago Tribune.

Bloomberg's Hans Nichols takes us inside the strip joints, where -- predictably -- they're talking about Yucca Mountain: "Tori, a 37-year-old Las Vegas stripper, is an unlikely person to set national energy policy. As a voter in Nevada's Jan. 19 Democratic presidential caucuses, that's just what she'll help to do when she chooses which candidate to support. The most important issue for her is the U.S. Department of Energy's plan to store spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain." (We can only imagine the expense report for that reporting trip.)

A mini-flap over a flyer in Nevada: ABC's Jake Tapper has details of a one-pager urging Republicans and independents to swarm the caucuses if "you don't want Hillary," with reasons listed including, "because her nomination will continue to polarize the country." The fliers have already been changed, but the Clinton campaign organized a conference call late Monday to blast them.

ABC's Ron Claiborne sees the looming battle in South Carolina testing the McCain-Huckabee friendship. "The two men have stayed out of each other's way in Michigan where they and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are bunched together in the polls," Claiborne writes. "South Carolina is different. McCain needs to finish first there. It is even more critical if he loses in Michigan."

Politico's Jonathan Martin notices that nobody really likes to take on McCain (with the possible exception of Romney). "McCain is getting a free pass, and it's beginning to show," he writes. "In campaign events across western Michigan, voters are once again being reminded of the qualities of character that have made him an admired figure on the national political scene, without the distraction of ads designed to muddy that image."

Giuliani, R-N.Y., continues to wait out the field in sunny Florida. But his prospects -- maybe less than brilliant. "Political experts have questioned Giuliani's focus on Florida as his national poll numbers have been sliding," Louise Roug writes in the Los Angeles Times.

Chaos remains Rudy's friend, Washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza writes. "We can't help but think the way the GOP nomination fight has played out so far leaves open a scenario whereby Giuliani can still win the nomination. The Fix is not arguing that Giuliani WILL win the nomination; rather, for all of the ink spilled about the decline of Hizzoner's campaign, there still remains a reasonable path for Giuliani to wind up as the Republican standard-bearer."

Brutal honesty from Giuliani national campaign chairman Patrick Oxford: "If we win Florida, money will not be a problem. If we lose Florida, it will be a problem, sure," he tells Reuters' Jim Loney.

"We'll be the smartest guys in America or the dumbest guys in America."

Fred Thompson has a new ad up in South Carolina, ABC's Christine Byun reports. "Thompson appears in front of an American flag and asks South Carolinians for their vote," she writes. "He talks about his 'conservative values' and says he is '100 percent pro-life' while touting his endorsement from an anti-abortion group."

Politico's Kenneth P. Vogel has details of a staged event on the GOP side: "A well-publicized weekend photo-op for Mitt Romney turns out to have been missing a piece of information that might have undermined its credibility: the unemployed single mom at the center of the event was the mother of a Romney staffer."

Could that be Chelsea Clinton's mouth moving -- with actual words coming out? Yes, the woman who wouldn't answer a 9-year-old's questions (or even tell a reporter how her Christmas was) may be "slowly coming out of her shell," ABC's Kate Snow reports.

She actually answered questions at her alma mater, Stanford, on Sunday: "We are just trying to make my mom's campaign more accessible to people," she said, according to the Stanford Daily. "We want to make sure that young people feel like the campaign is talking about issues that you care about and is delivering its plans and ideas in a way that resonates with you."

The kicker:

"There is no greater voice against the Republican candidates than this Republican candidate." -- Voice-over in "Democrats for Romney" ad, which encourages Democrats to support the wealthiest (and most attack-ad-prone) Republican in Michigan.

"Do we know each other?" -- Rudy Giuliani, on the trail in Florida. "Yes, you married us," responded Mitch Samuels, a Brooklyn transplant.

"I think it would have to be 'Dancing With the Stars,' especially if I could have one of those really good partners." -- Hillary Clinton, to Tyra Banks.

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