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.

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