THE NOTE: Brand Hillary

In the blur of race and gender politics that dominated the past week in the Democratic race -- and amid some presidential top-blowing and that pesky challenge from Uncommitted -- it's easy to miss the subtle efforts at political definition that Camp Clinton is seeking to pull off in these uncertain days between contests.

Slowly but surely, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is putting together a precise critique of Sen. Barack Obama's political brand. In drawing contrasts in her post-New Hampshire "voice," she's trying to own some of the best he has to offer -- his personality, his message of change, and (most broadly) the sense that he's in tune with the mood and needs of the country -- while raising repeated questions about Obama's ability to lead.


It's this Hillary Clinton who is taking a recent Obama quote -- "I'm not an operating officer" -- and trying to make it famous. "A president can't just talk about the problems we face -- a president has to deliver solutions," she said Wednesday in Nevada, per ABC's Kate Snow.

"So I will be a hands-on manager holding every part of our government fully accountable to the taxpaying citizens."

The message gains resonance as the economy loses steam. Dialing it up a bit, Clinton said, "George Bush assured us he could run the government by surrounding himself with the best people. And look what has happened."

The New York Daily News' Michael Saul and Michael McAuliff: "Camp Clinton believes the argument plays into its key critique of Obama: He is a 'talker' and not a 'doer.' "

It's this Hillary Clinton who played flight attendant about "Hill-Force One" Wednesday night -- a candidate comfortable in her own skin. "FAA regulations prohibit the use of any cell phones, blackberries and/or wireless devices that may be used to transmit a negative story about me," Clinton told traveling reporters over the intercom, per ABC's Eloise Harper. "We know you have choices when you fly, and so we are grateful that you chose the plane with the most experienced candidate."

And it's this Hillary Clinton who is playing the role of insurgent -- at least, in her husband's telling of the campaign's tales. "In this case, the establishment organization is with him and the insurgents are with her," former President Bill Clinton said about the landscape in Nevada, per ABC's Jake Tapper. He's standing up for the little guy in weighing in in favor of the union lawsuit that seeks a last-minute change to the Nevada caucus system -- a change that would keep thousands of potential caucus-goers from participating: "This is a one-man, one-vote country," President Clinton told a San Francisco TV reporter. "You should be offended by this."

It's Clinton's search for the "right personality to help her connect emotionally with voters -- an intuitive talent of her chief competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Barack Obama -- while also emphasizing her competence and experience," Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times.

This is far more delicate than trotting out surrogates -- or the candidate herself -- to say (or even strongly suggest) that Obama is unelectable, too green to be president.

But there's a growing realization in both the Obama and Clinton campaigns that this contest is very possibly going beyond Feb. 5. In that context, Clinton has little chance of blowing Obama out of the water -- but in a campaign that could turn on delegate counts, the margins matter.

Obama, D-Ill., is pushing back: "an Obama spokesman was saying that Mrs. Clinton was running to be White House chief of staff, while she and her team were saying that Mr. Obama would be so hands-off that he could not demand Truman-like accountability," Healy continues

His new ads combat "Clinton's criticism that there is little behind his soaring rhetoric," writes The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz. "By flatly declaring again that he opposed the invasion in 2002, as a state legislator, when 'the others would not,' Obama is -- without naming Clinton -- reminding viewers that the New York senator voted to authorize the war."

The Obama campaign is careful to cultivate his image as underdog. Campaign Manager David Plouffe engages in some expectations setting for Nevada, labeling Clinton as the "prohibitive favorite": "The fact that it is a close and competitive contest is encouraging for us," Plouffe tells's Chris Cillizza.

And Clinton's entire strategy is risky in the sense that it invites more scrutiny of her own record -- particularly on the Iraq war, where she has tried to portray Obama as inconsistent. "As she returns the spotlight to the Iraq war, Clinton has glossed over aspects of her own Iraq record, in which she voted to authorize the war and did not support alternative legislation that put more emphasis on international diplomacy," Marcella Bombardieri writes in The Boston Globe. "Clinton has put considerable spin on her own 2002 vote in favor of the resolution, which authorized the president to use force against Iraq."

Clinton is in a groove -- stabilizing in the national polls, and in control of her image and her message like she's been at few other points in the campaign. But the warning signs are well-known to her advisers, and she didn't need Karl Rove to bring his stand-up act to Washington to make them better-known to the RNC (and the press). Referencing her 55-40 victory over "Uncommitted" in Michigan, Rove said: "That's a pretty remarkable testament to the deep concerns the Democrats have about Senator Clinton when she can't barely beat nobody else." The response: "Anytime you win a race by a 15-point margin, it's a great victory," Clinton spokesman Phil Singer tells ABC's Teddy Davis and Talal Al-Khatib. The huge majority of black voters who chose "Uncommitted" in Michigan will have Obama's name to choose in South Carolina. "With South Carolina due to hold its Democratic primary Jan. 26 and blacks expected to account for 50 percent of party ballots, polls show Obama now leading Clinton," Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla writes. "South Carolina illustrates a broader shift in states with large concentrations of black Democrats. On Feb. 5, several states with big black populations, including Georgia and Alabama, where more than 40 percent of Democratic primary voters are black, hold nominating contests."

On the Republican side, the slushy portion of the campaign was supposed to be over, but a big chill is hitting South Carolina just fast enough to make the mud particularly messy. It's shaping up as a dirty race in South Carolina, with Fred Thompson battling Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney dueling with John McCain, and McCain continuing to fight (and rally against) the all-but-forgotten past.

This isn't easy stuff to sort out. "Faced with a broad array of Republican suitors, some more ardent than others, South Carolinians remain in a deep dither over whom to favor with their votes as the nation's first-in-the-South presidential primary approaches on Saturday," Lisa Anderson reports in the Chicago Tribune. "It's an unsettling situation for a state more accustomed to having a favorite this close to voting, but one clearly reflecting the relentlessly muddled state of a GOP race that has produced three different winners in the first three major contests."

"Broadway Mac" brushed off his nine-point loss to Romney in Michigan -- realizing that he needs to win in the state that effectively ended his bid in 2000. "I'll win. I'll win here in South Carolina. And that's all there is to it," McCain, R-Ariz., said Wednesday, ABC's Bret Hovell reports.

After independents and Democrats didn't quite show like he need them to in Michigan, check out this emphasis: "You can count on me to continue my advocacy for the rights of the unborn."

McCain, leading narrowly in the South Carolina polls, is facing attacks from all sides -- in many cases, without even being sure who the attackers are.

"He confronted crudely produced fliers attacking his war record and a blitz of robotic phone calls twisting his position on abortion, attacks he said were reminiscent of the political kneecapping he endured in the state eight years ago," Matthew Mosk writes in The Washington Post. "As the fresh attacks began to land this week in advance of Saturday's GOP primary, McCain's campaign aides and allies said they are far better prepared this time. The campaign deployed a 'truth squad' of high-profile supporters to try to bat down the attacks."

McCain gets the endorsement of the Charleston Post and Courier: "On Saturday, South Carolina voters will once more have the chance to give him the boost he needs to be the Republican nominee in November. Of all the contenders in that primary, he has the best chance of forming bipartisan coalitions to solve this nation's domestic problems and the most credibility and experience in international affairs."

Romney, R-Mass., can't call South Carolina home -- which is one of the reasons he's set to spend a few days in Nevada. And he's making jobs and the economy -- far more than abortion and gay marriage -- the centerpiece of his retooled campaign.

"As a leveraged buyout specialist and management consultant, Mitt Romney sometimes recommended that companies slash jobs, calling it a bitter medicine that would eventually help the firms grow," Michael Levenson writes in The Boston Globe. "Now, as a presidential candidate, he has a very different message. Fresh off his win in Michigan, he is vowing to 'fight for every job' in some of America's oldest and most-battered industries -- autos, textiles, furniture-making."

Michigan is well beyond him now. ABC's John Berman reports that Monday's rhetoric -- "I've got Michigan in my DNA" -- was thoroughly gone by Wednesday: "I hadn't lived in Michigan since 1965," Romney said.

But Romney hasn't heard the last of those promises he made in Michigan. "He basically promised the federal government would come in and bail out Michigan when he got elected President -- very conservative notion, don't you think?" former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., said on the trail Wednesday, ABC's Christine Byun reports.

Thompson didn't stop there: "Fred Thompson accused Mitt Romney of pandering. He called Mike Huckabee a flip-flopper. And just for good measure, he called his friend John McCain soft on immigration," Gannett's Bill Theobold reports in the Greenville News.

If there were any doubts that South Carolina is his last stand, Thompson is dumping much of his campaign cash into a 60-second ad that will air on most of the state's TV stations Thursday evening.

More fireworks ahead, from the friendliest of candidates? "The free pass for McCain is over," a Huckabee adviser tells the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody.

South Carolina remains Huckabee's biggest opportunity to prove Iowa wasn't a fluke -- but he's got to overcome growing pains, and fast. "Like the dog that finally caught the car, the Huckabee campaign is having to figure out how to deal with challenges it never prepared for," Laura Meckler writes in The Wall Street Journal. "The demands of logistics, policy, press and fund raising are swamping a campaign powered by an inner circle with little experience. Thin policy positions, an unorganized press operation and a lack of long-term planning have all posed problems."

And don't miss this post-debate pep talk from campaign manager Chip Saltsman: "You did not suck." (Hard to imagine Beth Myers giving Romney the same kind of pick-me-up.)

The scattershot nature of the race -- and the tight campaign window -- makes it "likely South Carolina will lose its historical role as GOP kingmaker," John O'Connor writes in The State. The GOPers "spread out across the state Wednesday, shoring up supporters, honing their messages, and talking up their differences. The campaign trail also was awash in reports of pro-Mike Huckabee push polls and third-party groups trying to sway voters."

As former mayor Rudolph Giuliani waits things out in Florida, his New York friends are getting nervous. "If Mr. Giuliani loses in the Florida primary on Jan. 29, they say, he may even have trouble defeating the rivals who are encroaching on his own backyard," Sam Roberts reports in The New York Times. Said Guy Molinari, a New York campaign cochairman: "It's pretty certain that he has to win Florida." But, Roberts writes: "Mr. Giuliani's poll numbers have declined in Florida even though he has invested heavily there."

None of the Republican candidates have found a broad, national voice -- yet. "The three Republicans who have won early-state contests have succeeded in an atmosphere of hyperlocal politics, using personal charisma and energetic retail campaigning to appeal to narrow constituencies," Michael Shear and Juliet Eilperin write in The Washington Post. "But the race turns national after Saturday's primary here, and none of the GOP candidates is showing signs of success in finding broader themes to unite the party ahead of the fall campaign against Democrats."

And this important detail, as the GOP race begins to scatter: "Romney all but conceded South Carolina to his rivals Wednesday, saying he will campaign for the next two days in Nevada, which has a caucus Saturday," Shear and Eilperin write. Said Romney: "I'm not looking for gold stars on my forehead like I'm in first grade. . . . I'm looking to rack up the delegates I need to win the nomination."

Romney on Thursday picks up the endorsement of the Las Vegas Review-Journal: "Each GOP candidate can make -- and has made -- a reasonable case that he's best suited to ensure the party again embraces the ideas and concepts that made this nation a beacon of freedom and economic opportunity. But in our opinion, the viable candidate most likely to lead Republicans in such a direction is Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts."

He's picking up his efforts in Florida as well, John Frank reports in the St. Petersburg Times.

Bill Clinton campaigns with Magic Johnson on Thursday in Nevada -- maybe they can challenge reporters to two-on-two. Check out all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Also in the news:

A US district judge could rule Thursday on the lawsuit that seeks a change in Nevada's caucus system, with the DNC lining up with the culinary workers (and against Bill Clinton and the plaintiffs). And it's campaign fodder, J. Patrick Coolican and Michael Mishak report in the Las Vegas Sun. "The Culinary sent out another tough flier [accusing] Clinton of taking money from union bete noire Station Casinos and of double talk on immigration, and notes her vote for the Iraq war authorization. The flier also accuses the Clinton campaign of attempting to block union members from voting."

Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., is trying to stay part of the Nevada mix. Reports Henry Brean of the Las Vegas Review-Journal: "Nevada's largest labor organization might have endorsed the other guy, but John Edwards is the real union candidate. That was the message Wednesday, as Edwards used a three-stop campaign swing through the Las Vegas Valley to tout his labor credentials in the final days before Nevada's presidential caucuses."

Obama faced a question on the trail Wednesday about his youthful drug experimentation, Lynn Sweet reports in the Chicago Sun-Times. "Obama did not acknowledge the personal reference," Sweet writes. Said Obama: "I am not interested in legalizing drugs. . . . What I am interested in is putting more of an emphasis on the public health approach to drugs and less on . . . incarceration."

The Los Angeles Times' Mark Z. Barabak and Robin Abcarian write up Democrats' efforts to reach Hispanics -- part of Karl Rove's advice, incidentally, for Republicans. "Democrats are reaching out to Latino voters as never before -- and not just through strained similes, or rallies set to mariachi music," they write. "In California, Nevada, Arizona and elsewhere across the country, the candidates are advertising extensively in Spanish, running bilingual phone banks and dispatching door-knockers fluent in English and Spanish."

Tales of caucus-goer intimidation are bubbling up in Las Vegas, Michael Mishak reports in the Las Vegas Sun. "What exactly happened this afternoon at Paris Las Vegas depends on whom you talk to," Mishak writes. "To hear Clinton's campaign and her supporters tell it, the union intimidated a member into caucusing for Obama, demanding that she sign a pledge card -- or face exile from the caucus. To hear the alleged victim tell it, it was much more of a misunderstanding."

Obama is trying to combat Clinton backers' claims about his healthcare and Social Security plans, ABC's Sunlen Miller reports. "Now maybe she thinks that the top 3 percent of the population is the average, middle class America. It is not. Just so you're clear," Obama said.

Politico's Ben Smith picks up on an odd Obama line that's getting some Drudge buzz: "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and a way that Bill Clinton did not," Obama said in a recent newspaper editorial board meeting.

Brokered convention watch: Republican strategist Todd Domke plays out one scenario in his Boston Globe column: "If Huckabee or McCain win South Carolina, and Rudy Giuliani wins Florida, and five candidates continue to split the vote through the "Super Tuesday" primaries on Feb. 5, GOP delegates might be heading for a wide-open convention," he writes. "A brokered convention is plausible because candidates refuse to quit. Indeed, Romney refuses to quit reinventing himself. . . . He is the Sybil of politics - in every primary, a new personality rears its handsome head."

Circle the date: Jenna Bush is set to get married May 10, at the Bush family ranch in Crawford, Texas, is reporting (and the White House isn't denying).

The kicker:

"Don't be accusatory with me. I had nothing to do with this lawsuit. Some people in Nevada are old fashioned -- they think the rules should be the same for everybody." -- Former President Bill Clinton, in a tense exchange with a San Francisco TV reporter.

"How many of y'all have heard of Tom Coburn?" -- Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introducing his constituents to John McCain's newest supporter, to the sound of silence.

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