THE NOTE: 'Say Anything'

We are pleased to deliver a few pieces of good news to the Republican presidential candidates, as they get ready to debate Thursday night in Boca Raton, Fla.:

1. The debate is free. (Florida loves a good bargain -- your grandparents would be proud --- and who couldn't use some help these days?)

2. Only one of you has to be really close to Mitt Romney. (That would be John McCain -- and don't worry, Mitt's wallet looks less scary up close.)

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3. Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee -- your aides may very well be able to draw paychecks again soon (*though not, in all likelihood, from the campaign). McCain aides may also get paid full salaries again in the near future -- but for different reasons (and yes, he's embracing Democrats' worst nightmare label).

4. There will be exactly zero Clintons on stage, though they will be as available as ever as verbal targets. (But former President Bill Clinton's new favorite target -- the news media -- will be out in full force.)

What exactly is it that has Bill Clinton so upset?

Is he angry that his strategy -- directing scrutiny at Sen. Barack Obama's record -- is working?

Perturbed that his wife's campaign can't be the underdog Feb. 5, having too systematically kept Obama on the defensive?

Just slightly worried that national polls show Obama closing the gap?

Of the various presidential purple episodes that have marked this campaign, surely this is the strangest: President Clinton sharply reprimanded CNN's Jessica Yellin (just asking for a response to an allegation): "You wanna make this about words and name calling. I hate it," he said, per ABC's Sarah Amos. "They're feeding you this because they know this is what you want. This is what you live for. . . . One more story. Shame on you. Shame on you!" ("They" are having a rough day.)

First the facts: The president said: "Not one single solitary citizen asked about any of this, and they never do." Actually -- that depends on the meaning of "not one single solitary." ABC's Kate Snow, Sunlen Miller, and Sarah Amos report: "Clinton was asked late today in rural Kingstree, S.C., about Sen. Barack Obama and how race is factoring into this campaign."

Remind us of why it is part of the discussion? Why Ted Kennedy/Rahm Emanuel/Jim Clyburn/Tom Daschle/Patrick Leahy are worried about the campaign's turn to the gutter?

"Bill Clinton says race shouldn't be an issue in the Democratic presidential campaign. Well, then perhaps he should stop talking about it," AP's Ron Fournier writes. "It would likely work to Hillary Clinton's advantage to have the electorate polarized by race, given that most Feb. 5 voters will be white and Hispanic; she won the Hispanic vote overwhelmingly in last week's Nevada caucus. . . . 'Shame on you!' he told a reporter. Shame on anybody who plays the race card."

Maybe these outbursts are coincidences (though three feels like a pattern). Maybe (OK, probably) the media is making too much of all of this (though Bill Clinton of all people should know that conflict = story).

Whatever the motivations, Bill Clinton is ensuring that the Obama campaign has its hands full this week, even as Obama, D-Ill., heads toward a likely victory in South Carolina. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., doesn't even have to be in the state (and she isn't though she returns -- briefly -- on Thursday, for a speech on the economy) to stay in the conversation, as she builds toward Feb. 5.

Maybe what has the former president concerned is that Kennedy/Emanuel/Clyburn/Daschle/Leahy have seen enough (remember that the first three of those five elder statesman -- sorry, Rahm, but you're old for your age) are still officially neutral in the race, though they don't have to be.

"There is some fear within the party that if Obama becomes the nominee, he could emerge personally battered and politically compromised," Alec MacGillis and Anne Kornblut write in The Washington Post.

"And there is concern that a Clinton victory could come at a cost -- particularly a loss of black voters, who could blame her for Obama's defeat and stay home in November."

"Should a former president be acting this way?" Marcella Bombardieri writes in The Boston Globe.

"Several prominent Democrats say no. In recent days, they have publicly warned that he is hurting his party and his own status as elder statesman by taking on the highly charged role of critic-in-chief of Hillary Clinton's main Democratic rival, Barack Obama."

The Clinton campaign took one of Bill Clinton's main lines of attack to the airwaves, playing Obama's praise of Republicans as "the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time" and then twisting all context out of them. Says the ad: "Aren't those the ideas that got us into the economic mess we're in today? Ideas like special tax breaks for Wall Street. Running up a $9 trillion debt. Refusing to raise the minimum wage or deal with the housing crisis. Are those the ideas Barack Obama's talking about?"

Writes ABC's Jake Tapper, "At this point, the Clintons obviously know and don't care that this is a blatantly false representation of what Obama said, which doesn't square with the video or transcript of what Obama said. . . . With unanimity, the charge has been established as false. And yet the Clintons continue to make it."

The State's first-day coverage of the ad takes full account of the reverberations. "It's attack and apologize later," state Rep. Todd Rutherford tells The State's John O'Connor, "and all it's going to do is divide black leadership as soon as they leave here."

It's prompted a harsh counterattack from the Obama campaign, ABC's Sunlen Miller reports. In "a feisty radio ad" airing in South Carolina, the announcer addresses the Ronald Reagan comments, the minimum wage, tax cuts, corporate tax loopholes, NAFTA stance, and reminds people that Clinton voted for "George Bush's war in Iraq."

The announcer concludes, "Hillary Clinton. She'll say anything and change nothing."

But Politico's Jim VandeHei and John F. Harris think it's not enough of a response: "He has wandered into a tactical battle -- over who is behind what radio ads or robocalls, or over the correct interpretation of stray quotes -- with the best tactical politicians in the business," they writes.

"They turned the practice of fast and forceful response into an art form. . . . His vague, spacious rhetoric hardly indicates he has a coherent critique of the Clinton administration or clear ideas about his own alternative."

The Washington Post editorial board wants a cease-fire: "For imagined slights by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and her allies to the achievements of King, substitute imagined praise by Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) for the policies of Mr. Reagan and the Republican Party. Ms. Clinton and company, most notably former president Bill Clinton, have wrenched Mr. Obama's remarks out of context as least as much as the Obama campaign did her statements about King."

Michelle Obama takes a (half) swing back: "The one thing that is clear is that when power is confronted with real change, they will say anything," she said, Ben Szobody reports in the Greenville News. ("They" are at it again!)

Mrs. Obama "seemed genuinely surprised to be the subject of so much attention," on the trail Wednesday, ABC's Kate Snow reports.

"Michelle Obama spoke to the 150 or so women at the Lazy Goat restaurant, shook some hands and posed for photos. She declined to take any questions from reporters and said nothing directly about Hillary Clinton -- or her famous spouse. But she did speak passionately about her life as a working mom and the reasons she thinks she deserves to be first lady."

Remember back when it was the Republicans hurling mud? We can resume that portion of the campaign this evening for 90 minutes, starting at 9 pm ET, when the remaining GOP contenders (a stalwart five, perhaps set to grow cozier still) gather in Boca.

We know we've come full circle in this campaign when former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., is once again the focus. At early debates, that was because he was the frontrunner. Now it's because he's got the most on the line in Florida -- and this is a terrible, horrible storyline to enter an election with.

Rudy wakes up to this headline in the Miami Herald: "Poll: McCain Rising, Giuliani Fading." "John McCain and Mitt Romney are jockeying for first place in the Republican presidential race in Florida, eclipsing a fading Rudy Giuliani in his must-win state," Beth Reinhard and Breanne Gilpatrick report.

It's McCain 25, Romney 23, with Giuliani and Mike Huckabee tied at 15 in the poll Pollster Rob Schroth: "Giuliani for all intents and purposes has virtually no chance to win in Florida."

Things look no better up in St. Pete: "Even with 27 percent of Florida Republicans saying they might change their minds, the bold strategy is looking like a bad gamble," Adam C. Smith writes for the St. Petersburg Times.

Pollster Kellyanne Conway: "If he can't make it there in Florida, he can't make it anywhere."

It means there's only one Giuliani storyline coming into the debate, and it has nothing to do with catastrophic insurance funds or 9/11 or even the largest tax cut in the history of human existence.

"Rudy Giuliani's make-or-break state appears to be breaking him," Newsday's Mark Harrington writes.

Giuliani "is struggling to salvage his candidacy with a hard new tax-cutting message," Mark Silva reports in the Chicago Tribune. "But so far, some Republicans remain skeptical of Giuliani's widely televised promise of a historic tax cut and 'jump-start' for the American economy."

Rudy doesn't buy it: "I think the reality is that we are gaining support," he said when asked by a voter why he's losing support the longer he campaigns in Florida. Writes The New York Times' Michael Powell, getting a jump on the campaign obit: "Oh to be Hizzoner, the Republican candidate for president, in the sweaty adrenal days before the Florida primary that could decide his fate. Just last fall, Mr. Giuliani ruled the Republican field, guffawing with Brit Hume and Katie Couric, resting on his self-portrayal as Mr. 9/11 and the man who brought New York to heel."

Question for Thursday night: Does he have any fight left in him? Will he take on McCain on judges, catastrophic insurance, taxes?

The real reality is that Giuliani is one of three GOP candidates who are facing a severe cash crunch, making for the other storyline coming into the debate. "Both Rudy Giuliani and John McCain left [Florida] to shake the New York money tree. They're so low on funds that senior staffers on their campaigns are forgoing salaries," ABC's Jake Tapper writes.

"Mike Huckabee's so hard up this week that he grounded his press plane -- a big hit for a candidate who relies so much on media coverage."

Tapper: "This is all good news for Mitt Romney, who is reportedly worth as much as $250 million. He's on track to spend more of his personal fortune on his campaign than multi-millionaires Ross Perot or Steve Forbes spent on previous campaigns."

"He is still widely seen as a credible contender for the nomination thanks mainly to one trait: his wallet," Elizabeth Holmes writes in The Wall Street Journal.

"A senior aide to Mr. Romney says the millionaire investor plans to spend as much as $40 million in the campaign. . . . At a time when some campaigns are running dangerously low on funds, Mr. Romney's ability to self-finance will make it difficult to count him out of the race until the very end."

It's just one of the reasons why Romney's the most hated guy on the debate stage. The New York Times' Michael Luo finds two other reasons: "attacks on opponents in television commercials," and "the perception of him as an ideological panderer." Said McCain: "Never get into a wrestling match with a pig. . . . You both get dirty, and the pig likes it." Said Huckabee adviser Ed Rollins: "What I have to do is make sure that my anger with a guy like Romney, whose teeth I want to knock out, doesn't get in the way of my thought process."

Before we get to Florida, though, the Democrats have South Carolina -- and the clock could be set at 48 hours on former senator John Edwards' campaign. "A clearly frustrated Edwards, the Seneca native who is running third in his native state, said his message has been lost in the media glare given two 'celebrity candidates,' " Roddie A. Burris writes in The State.

"More attention is focused on whether he'll quit after Saturday's Democratic primary than on what he's saying."

Edwards, D-N.C., is rapping Clinton for leaving South Carolina for most of the week leading up to the primary. "She flew out and she's been gone and she won't be back until I don't know later in the week or until primary day," he said, per the AP's Susanne M. Schafer.

"What are the chances she's coming back when she's president of the United States?" (When?)

The Edwards camp is touting the possibility of a second-place finish in South Carolina -- enough to keep him in the game for a while.

A new national poll is out Thursday: It's Clinton 42, Obama 33, Edwards 11 in the new Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times survey. Among the Republicans, it's tighter: McCain 22, Huckabee 18, Romney 17 -- and Giuliani off the medal stand, at 12.

What it means depends on how you approach it: "The race for the Democratic presidential nomination is tightening as voters say they want both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on a national ticket," Bloomberg's Kristin Jensen writes. (Don't count on it.)

"Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton maintains a solid lead in her party's presidential race among Democratic voters nationwide, despite a surge in support since late last year for Sen. Barack Obama," Doyle McManus writes in the Los Angeles Times.

The GOP debate is Thursday's big event, and I'll be live blogging at ABC's "Political Radar" blog.

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

Also in the news:

Protestations from the trail notwithstanding . . . get ready for those rebate checks. "Congressional leaders and the Bush administration were close to reaching a deal on a $145 billion economic stimulus package on Wednesday night as the Treasury Department crunched the numbers on components of the plan," David M. Herszenhorn writes in The New York Times.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., isn't a fan: "What good is a rebate going to do for a family about to lose their home?" Bloomberg said, per the New York Post's David Seifman.

The Los Angeles Times' Peter Wallsten has the write-up that's being most eagerly spread by campaigns on Thursday. "During his eight years in state office, Obama cast more than 4,000 votes. Of those, according to transcripts of the proceedings in Springfield, he hit the wrong button at least six times," Wallsten writes -- and two of the votes were on hotly contested issues.

Says one former colleague (who's supporting Obama, and whose bill was the victim of one of the missteps): "It happens. . . . . I've never done it."

And all it took was Sen. Clinton to drop a subtle mention of Obama's "slum landlord" political backer for Tony Rezko to escape Jay Leno's lips. The Chicago Sun-Times has a clip-and-save "8 things you need to know about Obama and Rezko."

So how does Obama feel about 527 spending now? "PowerPac, the independent, California-based group acting on Obama's behalf has started spending in earnest, reporting spending more than $245,000 on 'radio ads in various states,' " Politico's Ben Smith reports.

The RNC has its playbooks ready regardless of who prevails on the Democratic side. "With Sen. Clinton, it comes down to trust," RNC Chairman Mike Duncan said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, per The Hill's Sam Youngman. "She's a lifelong liberal politician with some political baggage."

On Obama: "His rhetoric is very good. He's a great speaker. But at the end of the speech, people go, 'Where's the beef?' "

Romney's healthcare plan is getting expensive. "Spending on the state's landmark health insurance initiative would rise by more than $400 million next year, representing one of the largest increases in the $28.2 billion state budget the governor proposed yesterday," Alice Dembner writes in The Boston Globe.

"The biggest driver of the cost increase is projected growth in the number of people signing up for state-subsidized insurance, which now far exceeds earlier estimates."

McCain's challenge in Florida: show that he's a real Republican. "Drawn by the Arizona senator's war-hero history and maverick persona, [some Republicans] are willing to overlook the disputes McCain has so often had with other GOP leaders on immigration, global warming, campaign finance, taxes and other issues," Jason Garcia writes in the Orlando Sentinel.

"That support will be tested in Florida. Unlike earlier contests, Florida's primary is open only to registered Republicans."

The Note has a beat on McCain's new Web ad -- running on the sites of Florida newspapers. "Democrat Senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards said John McCain's name 15 times during the course of their hour and a half-long debate this week," the ad states. "Why? They fear John McCain most because he's the one candidate who can rally the conservative Reagan Coalition while appealing to independent voters to win in November."

Romney has the cash to go up with his ads on television, playing up the economy. "The economy is emerging as the overriding issue in the 2008 presidential race and Mitt Romney's message is stronger," the voice-over says.

Want to find out where a Democratic candidate stands? Find a seat in a South Carolina pew. Churches -- particularly in the African-American community -- have become "hubs of political organizing activity" in South Carolina, per ABC News.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., has endorsed Huckabee. (He does actually have a committed delegate to his name, in Wyoming.)

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, got 40 percent of a recount in New Hampshire for his $27,000 -- and all of 32 changed votes, with Obama drawing 18 votes closer to Clinton, for the record.

Congress is back in session, and so are a fresh batch of failed presidential candidates, ABC's Z. Byron Wolf reports.

"It's true one can hardly turn around in the halls of Congress without running into someone who has campaigned for the job down the street at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave," Wolf writes.

The kicker:

"There is a lot of entertainment value on the Democratic side at the moment. And it's entertainment. It's even painted as entertainment even in the debates." -- Jon Voight, professional entertainer (and Giuliani supporter).

"Shame on you. You just want one more story. Print the facts. Nobody ever prints any facts." -- Former President Bill Clinton, in another rhetorical flourish.

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