THE NOTE: Minding Carolina

There's something in the chilly air that speaks well for underdogs (and no, we're not talking only about the "Eli for President" chants that are set to echo around the Meadowlands).

For the fourth straight Monday, we feel safe calling this the biggest week in Sen. Barack Obama's political existence. It's a measure of the man and the race that we don't know which Barack Obama we'll see (but we'll see him in earnest Monday night in Myrtle Beach -- it must be Monday if it's time for another debate).

Now that South Carolina's on his mind, will we see Boston Barack -- the soaring orator he's capable of being, or Boring Barack -- the flat speechifier who falls too quickly into lofty slogans and meandering Senate-ese? Will he be a comfortable, accessible, smooth presence, or will he stop taking questions in an over-abundance of caution?

In short -- will he be on offense or defense? We'll know part of the answer on Monday, and the early indication is . . . a little of both. This is defense as offense, going straight at a Democratic icon, in an interview with ABC's Robin Roberts on "Good Morning America":

"The former president, who I think all of us have a lot of regard for, has taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling," said Obama, D-Ill. "He continues to make statements that are not supported by the facts. . . . This has become a habit, and one of the things that we're gonna have to do is to directly confront Bill Clinton when he's making statements that are not factually accurate."

Specifically referring to the way Clinton characterized his comments on Ronald Reagan -- the former president paraphrased Obama as saying "Republicans have had all the good ideas" -- Obama responded: "He was making it up and completely mischaracterizing my statement." And (wasn't John Edwards crushed by the end of this sentence?): "We've got a formidable opponent -- actually, two formidable opponents at this point, between Senator Clinton and, and President Clinton."

In calling for "honesty and candor" in the race, does Obama revive maybe a memory or two of a scandal that broke 10 years ago Monday, where President Clinton and honesty seemed to part ways?

Obama's playbook from the last round didn't work; after Iowa, even while he picked up traditional, tactical victories -- endorsements by unions and senators and governors -- he was losing the message game. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and her skilled team of surrogates kept him off-balance, and he arrives in South Carolina riding a losing streak.

Camp Clinton says that the former president is a "huge asset," and they plan to continue to -- accurately -- speak about Obama's record. Says spokesman Howard Wolfson (and notice the reappearance of the W word): "We understand Senator Obama is frustrated by his loss in Nevada, but facts are facts. . . . Of course Senator Clinton and Senator Obama are the candidates on the ballot, and she is winning because she is giving voice to the Americans who will provide real solutions to the challenges they face in the daily lives."

But there's a new backdrop for these next six days: race. Nothing that happens in the Democratic race in South Carolina will stray far from that issue and its many themes in a state where half or more Democratic primary voters are expected to be black.

"Mr. Obama has strived to run a race-neutral campaign," Jeff Zeleny writes in The New York Times. "Yet this week, as the campaign converges on South Carolina, a new test is at hand for Mr. Obama: Can he draw significant support from African-Americans while maintaining the appeal of a candidate who seeks to transcend race?"

Obama seemed in his element on Sunday, Nevada's disappointment a distant memory as he spoke at Martin Luther King Jr.'s former church in Atlanta (one day before MLK Day).

He called for a new brand of politics: "It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late," Obama said, per ABC's Sunlen Miller.

"Emphasizing hope over fear and unity over division, Obama's 45-minute message echoed the remarks he made before the Democratic National Convention in 2004, his political star turn, which combined a message of personal responsibility and calls for creating 'one America' out of bitterly divided red and blue states," Joseph Williams writes in The Boston Globe. "Yet the speech also seemed designed to bridge any lingering doubts about him among African-Americans."

This is the first real look we're getting at Barack Obama, black candidate. "Too young to have participated in the civil rights movement King led, Obama has delicately balanced race throughout his campaign, not wanting to be labeled as just a black candidate," John McCormick writes in the Chicago Tribune. "But with blacks representing about half of those expected to participate in Saturday's Democratic primary in South Carolina, Obama will aggressively court the group this week."

It's silly to label anything as a "must-win," since clearly Clinton and Obama both have the resources to continue through Feb. 5 no matter what.

But South Carolina is the closest thing Obama's going to get to a home game before Super Tuesday, the result of "a shift in support that started with his victory in Iowa on Jan. 3," Krissah Williams writes in The Washington Post. "Obama is now winning 60 percent of the black vote, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll."

Taking on President Clinton may be a well-timed message -- not just for Obama boosters, not just in South Carolina, and not just on the anniversary of Monica Madness.

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter reports on big-name Democrats urging the former president to butt out: "In recent weeks, Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, both currently neutral in the Democratic contest, have told their old friend heatedly on the phone that he needs to change his tone and stop attacking Sen. Barack Obama, according to two sources familiar with the conversations who asked for anonymity because of their sensitive nature," Alter reports.

"The Clinton camp now fears that Kennedy is leaning toward Obama." Says Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna: "History will judge the impact on the Clinton legacy, not daily or weekly political reporters." True enough, but is this a chapter Bill Clinton needs -- or wants -- added to his already thick biography? (Only if she wins the presidency, we suppose.)

The Clintons retain their own deep, affectionate ties in the African-American community; Sen. Clinton spoke at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem on Sunday, picking up the endorsement of the Rev. Calvin Butts.

There's not enough churches go around for all these Clintons and Obamas. Chelsea Clinton and Michelle Obama chose the same church in Columbia to attend services in on Sunday. The former president will himself be on Monday where Obama was Sunday, at the Ebenezer Baptist Church pulpit in Atlanta, to commemorate MLK Day.

Obama "has the backing of most of the civil rights activists who worked with King. They view him as the embodiment of King's vision of a society in which race counts less than character," Bloomberg's Julianna Goldman reports.

"At the same time, though, the Illinois senator's candidacy has exposed rifts in the civil-rights establishment. While veterans of the SCLC such as such as C.T. Vivian, Wyatt Tee Walker, Dorothy Cotton and Jesse Jackson are backing Obama, others, including Georgia Representative John Lewis and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, continue to support his rival for the Democratic nomination."

And this intriguing nugget: King's old allies "haven't been recruited by the campaign. Wyatt Tee Walker, 80, who was the SCLC executive director from 1960-1964, said he is ready to call his list of clergy across the country and encourage them to support Obama. He is just waiting to get the go-ahead from Obama's organization," Goldman writes.

Obama on Sunday told his supporters to denounce e-mails that claim he's a Muslim, and his supporters are distributing literature that refers to him as a "COMMITTED CHRISTIAN."

Per ABC's Sunlen Miller: "The Obama campaign is pushing back hard, as the repercussions in of en email chain that plagued Obama multiple months ago is still being felt in the religious state. The email chain references Obama's middle name, Hussein, and attempted to link him to the Muslim faith."

Toss in an increasingly marginalized native son, John Edwards, and it makes us anticipate an interesting debate in Myrtle Beach, from 8 pm to 10 pm ET, to be televised on CNN.

"Clinton will be addressing perhaps the largest crowd of black South Carolinians since she angered many with comments they believe minimized King's contribution to the passage of civil rights legislation," Wayne Washington writes in The State.

"Obama will be looking to demonstrate southern strength. And Edwards, who was born in South Carolina, will be looking for a breakthrough victory in a part of the country where he has always thought he could succeed."

Race, of course, has long been part of the Democratic race -- and last week's "truce" hasn't made it go away. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., tells ABC's Jake Tapper that he was "bothered" by Sen. Clinton's MLK-LBJ remark, and said he gave the Clintons a bit of a history lesson: "You work hard, you try to create a climate within which young African-Americans would not have to go through the same difficulties you went through," Clyburn, still neutral in the race, tells Tapper for a "Nightline" piece set to air Monday evening.

Clyburn says Obama should be glad for the scrutiny, since it's important to be "toughened up." "It seems to me that if we know this kind of thing's out there, you would do well to experience this during the preliminaries so that you will know how to adjust to it or react to it when you get into the finals," he said.

"Whoever's doing this could very well be doing this guy a great favor."

Before they get to the debate site, the Democrats will converge at the state capitol in Columbia, "taking a brief intermission from their sparring . . . to join thousands of others here Monday morning for a symbolically charged commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.," USA Today's Kathy Kiely reports.

The Republican field has decamped to Florida for the winter -- or, at least, for the next eight days. Finally -- novel concept -- a race where all four major candidates are actually competing. It's winner-take-all -- this is going to get good.

(Fred Thompson's still off stage -- headed to visit his mother in Tennessee, just like any good candidate would. The jury isn't expected to deliberate very long, and the verdict could deliver him back to "Law & Order" by nightfall.)

The Miami Herald's Marc Caputo gives the lay of the land in the realm of sunshine, oranges, and early-bird specials. "Florida's Republican vote is like the nation's: split," Caputo writes.

"And with so many divided loyalties and frontrunners, this is a race for less than 40 percent of the vote. All the candidates must now chase Florida's key demographic: voters older than 55, who account for about three-quarters of the Republican primary vote. They'll have to hold their own in the crucial Tampa-Orlando I-4 corridor (home to about half the votes). All of them -- especially Rudy Giuliani ---- will have to keep a foot in South Florida (about 25 percent of the vote)."

Sen. John McCain and former governors Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee need different things from Florida for their very different candidacies.

"But what makes Florida most different from the contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina is the presence of Giuliani as a full-fledged participant," The Washington Post's Dan Balz writes.

"Romney has ordered up about $1 million in TV commercials, and an adviser said more might be bought depending on the state of the race," Balz continues. "McCain's campaign has promised to counter with a seven-figure buy of its own. The Giuliani team expects to be competitive with McCain on television but not with Romney. Huckabee's hand-to-mouth campaign will struggle to stay abreast of the others."

The biggest difference in Florida: "The voting booths aren't open to just anyone," Wes Allison writes in the St. Petersburg Times. So watch for McCain's Republican credentials to come under scrutiny: "Independents can't save McCain in Florida," says Romney spokesman Kevin Madden.

Said Romney, on Fox News Sunday (generously ceding the Beltway vote): "I think if people want somebody who has been in Washington all their life and understands Washington's ways and has been part of the Washington scene for a quarter of a century, then John McCain will be their person."

It's not just Romney: "John voted against the Bush tax cuts, I think on both occasions, and sided with the Democrats," Giuliani, R-N.Y., said Sunday on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." "In the area of fiscal conservatism, I think I'm the strongest fiscal conservative in the race, and I have had experience in foreign policy."

The stakes for Giuliani? "If he doesn't win there, he's going to be out of the race," Stephanopoulos said Monday on "Good Morning America."

As we wait for Gov. Charlie Crist and Sen. Mel Martinez to make up their minds (or not), Huckabee's best chance may be if Thompson, R-Tenn., drops out of the race. It didn't work in South Carolina, but "Mr. Huckabee's advisers said they thought evangelical support could be enough to carry him to victory in such a crowded field," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times.

Columnist Robert Novak labels McCain the frontrunner -- and tells the Republican establishment to get over itself. The win in South Carolina "means that McCain by any measurement is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. He clearly leads in Florida's Jan. 29 primary, and a victory there will send him into the virtual national primary Feb. 5 threatening to wipe out his opposition."

And yet . . . "I asked him Saturday whether he knew of any instance of an economic stimulus such as President Bush's proposed $800-per-taxpayer handout actually averting a recession. He said he did not, and the proposal bothered him," Novak writes.

At least one of Huckabee's prominent supporters is suggesting that McCain should consider moving to Florida permanently. This is math, Chuck Norris style, where the numbers stretch and crumble when he narrows those tough-man eyes.

Said Norris, at a press conference with Huckabee, R-Ark., at Norris' Texas ranch: "Now, I'm thinking if John takes over the presidency at 72, and if he ages three to one, how old will he be in four years? He'll be 84 years old. Can he handle that kind of pressure in that job? And so, that's why I didn't pick John to support, because I was just afraid that the vice president would wind up taking over his job within that four-year presidency."

Per ABC's Kevin Chupka, "Huckabee wouldn't comment on whether or not he thought McCain was, indeed, too old." (Surely you wouldn't disagree with Chuck, would you, governor?)

Debate at 8 pm ET is the day's big event. We've got all the candidates' schedules at the bottom of today's Note.

Also in the news:

Edwards knows what happened in Nevada: "I got my butt kicked is what happened in Nevada," he said Sunday on CNN. Now, he's tailoring his message to one designed at taking on McCain, per the AP's Jim Davenport: "This is a guy who has made central to his political life campaign finance reform. It seems to me we ought to be putting up somebody up against him who's never taken money from special interest packs or Washington lobbyists."

But what keeps him in this game? He's still committing to staying in the race through the convention, but even his supporters don't seem to know to what end. "One thing was obvious from Mr. Edwards's performance in Nevada: the already-murky rationale for continuing his campaign had suddenly become much less clear," Julie Bosman writes in The New York Times.

Let this sentence sink in: "His aides have said privately that they do not expect Mr. Edwards to win a single primary state. And the results of the Nevada caucuses threw the campaign's top advisers into hours of strategy meetings Saturday night, debating how the shellshocked campaign could feasibly continue. In the end, the campaign held onto its longstanding position of simply hanging on."

OK -- we can't resist -- what happened in Vegas . . . continues on conference calls. The Obama and Clinton campaigns spent Sunday sparring over reports of voter intimidation and caucus irregularities. Not that it matters in the slightest, since nobody is contesting the results (and both Clinton and Obama are declaring victory, anyway), Jon Ralston writes in his Las Vegas Sun blog.

The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz writes up McCain's accessibility: "McCain's ability to charm the press wasn't responsible for his big win in Saturday's South Carolina primary, but it didn't hurt." And he extracts a promise from McCain to be just as chatty with reporters even if he wins the nomination: "McCain said he couldn't stop, because 'that destroys credibility.' And besides, he said, 'I enjoy it a lot. It keeps me intellectually stimulated, it keeps me thinking about issues, and it keeps me associated with a lower level of human being than I otherwise would be.' "

Time's Michael Duffy and Rani Molla are the latest to raise the prospect of a brokered GOP convention. "A four man field, in which each candidate has roughly the same momentum and factional strength (if not the same war chest), raises the distinct possibility that several candidates will split those delegates, postponing further the emergence of a frontrunner," they write. "And that means the GOP race could go on much longer than anyone imagined. It might even result in no candidate getting a majority of delegates when the primaries are over, a prospect that Republicans are starting to take very seriously."

How to explain the inexplicable -- namely, South Carolina seeming to have no connection to Michigan, which wasn't impacted by New Hampshire, which ignored Iowa?

John Harwood gives it a crack in The New York Times: "Overlapping historical currents may be responsible. The first election in a half-century with no incumbent president or vice president running features the first serious female and African-American contenders, the oldest-ever New Hampshire winner and a primary schedule accelerated like never before," Harwood writes.

Who just might have called it? "A little over a week before the Florida Republican primary on Jan. 29, this chaos is a gift for Mike DuHaime, the campaign manager for Rudolph W. Giuliani," Harwood writes.

Campaign 2012 watch: "The Pentagon is considering Gen. David H. Petraeus for the top NATO command later this year, a move that would give the general, the top American commander in Iraq, a high-level post during the next administration but that has raised concerns about the practice of rotating war commanders," scoop The New York Times' Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt.

What is it about Ashleys and their handy placement in political narratives? From Obama's speech in Atlanta on Sunday: "Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he's there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, 'I am here because of Ashley.' "

Flashback -- Ashley's story, circa 2004.

The kicker:

"For the first time now we've got a choice between good and good. . . Take care of your man." -- Vernon Jordan (Clinton friend) to Joe Trippi (Edwards adviser), running into each other in the lobby of the Hilton in Columbia, S.C.

"I want some Obama Republicans! 'Obamacans!' " -- Barack Obama, at his first campaign event in South Carolina Sunday night.

"I'm not a sticker kind of guy." -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., rejecting an Obama sticker as he caucused for "uncommitted." (Clinton won his home precinct in Searchlight, where close to all of the town's Democrats -- 69 entire people -- showed up.)

I'll be live-blogging during Monday's Democratic debate from Myrtle Beach, S.C. Be part of the conversation here.

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-- 10:00 am ET: Attends event with voters, Miami, FL

-- 10:45 am ET: Holds media availability, Miami, FL

-- 2:45 pm ET: Attends event with voters, Jacksonville, FL

-- 5:00 pm ET: Attends fundraising event with supporters, Jacksonville, FL


-- 9:45 am ET: Attends MLK parade, Jacksonville, FL

-- Attends event with voters, Daytona Beach, FL

-- Attends event with voters, Orlando, FL

-- Attends event with voters, Titusville, FL

-- Attends event with voters, Cape Canaveral, FL


-- 10:00 am ET: Attends MLK service, Atlanta, GA

-- 1:00 pm ET: Holds event with voters to announce key African American endorsements, Atlanta, GA

-- 4:00 pm ET: Holds media availability, Orlando, FL

-- 5:00 pm ET: Attends private fundraising reception, Orlando, FL


-- 10:15 am ET: Attends rally with voters, Orlando, FL

-- 12:30 pm ET: Attends rally with voters, Daytona Beach, FL

-- 3:15 pm ET: Attends rally with Ponte Venda, FL


-- No public events scheduled


-- 11:30 am ET: Attends event with voters, Shreveport, LA

-- 2:00 pm ET: Attends event with voters, Baton Rouge, LA

-- 4:30 pm ET: Attends event with voters, Kenner, LA

As for the Democrats…


-- 8:00 pm ET: Attends CNN/Congressional Black Caucus Institute Democratic Presidential Primary Debate, Myrtle Beach, SC


-- 8:30 am ET: Attends MLK prayer service, Columbia, SC

-- 9:45 am ET: Participates in MLK march, Columbia, SC

-- 10:30 am ET: Attends event with voters, Columbia, SC

-- 8:00 pm ET: Attends CNN/Congressional Black Caucus Institute Democratic Presidential Primary Debate, Myrtle Beach, SC


-- 2:30 pm ET: Attends event with voters, Macon, GA

-- 7:30 pm ET: Attends event with voters, Nashville, TN


-- 10:30 am ET: Addresses the NAACP's King Day at the Dome Rally, Columbia, SC

-- 8:00 pm ET: Attends CNN/Congressional Black Caucus Institute Democratic Presidential Primary Debate, Myrtle Beach, SC