THE NOTE: Meek and Weary

A day before campaign strategies collide in high-stakes South Carolina, an uneasy cease-fire appeared to descend on the Democratic race: The attack ads are down, the rhetoric is suddenly restrained, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday made a plea for party unity.

"I think all of us need to just take a deep breath here, because obviously we know we'll have a united Democratic Party once this nomination is determined," Clinton, D-N.Y., told Robin Roberts on ABC's "Good Morning America.

As for whether her campaign is "two for the price of one," as her husband famously described his 1992 bid, she said: "I'm running. I'm running to be the president. I will have responsibility for the decisions."

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Credit fatigue or (quite frayed) nerves -- but it almost looks like a truce is in place in the Democratic race, as Saturday's South Carolina primary approaches. The vicious radio ads are down, replaced by a new Clinton spot where Bill Clinton touts his wife's credentials to lead a "comeback."

And yet . . . that's not quite the whole story, not with the spouses still feuding, the hourly conference calls arranged to slam rival campaigns, and -- of course -- Bill Clinton still very present on the trail. The Clinton campaign's election-eve event will be a joint appearance at a rally in Charleston Friday at 9:30 pm ET.

"This is classic, classic good-cop, bad-cop," ABC's George Stephanopoulos said after Sen. Clinton's appearance on "GMA."

If you think this battle is over . . . you don't know Bill Clinton. "Advisers to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton say they have concluded that Bill Clinton's aggressive politicking against Senator Barack Obama is resonating with voters, and they intend to keep him on the campaign trail in a major role after the South Carolina primary," Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times.

"The benefits of having Mr. Clinton challenge Mr. Obama so forcefully, over Iraq and Mr. Obama's record and statements, they say, are worth the trade-offs of potentially overshadowing Mrs. Clinton at times, undermining his reputation as a statesman and raising the question among voters about whether they are putting him in the White House as much as her."

In other words, Bill is inside Barack's head. "Mr. Clinton is deliberately trying to play bad cop against Mr. Obama, campaign officials say, and is keenly aware that a flash of anger or annoyance will draw even more media and public attention to his arguments," Healy continues. James Carville (kind of maybe more than just a fan of this strategy): "Does the president risk going overboard? Sure. But Obama runs a risk of being wussified."

Here's another reason to keep Bill on the trail: "It was impossible not to notice that in her two appearances today, [Hillary] Clinton drew almost entirely white audiences, in a state where half of Democratic voters are African-American," Marcella Bomardieri reports in The Boston Globe. "Her husband, long popular with black voters, has drawn much more mixed crowds."

Can anyone recall a single thing that Hillary Clinton -- you know, the one who's running -- has said in the last 48 hours? And where has Bill Clinton gone that he HASN'T made news? That's one reason that Bill Clinton is ABC's Buzz Maker of the Week.

"It's become an emerging theme in his campaign events: Bill Clinton starts out talking about Hillary Clinton, and what she can do in the White House, then slowly slips in a 'we,' and then an 'I,' talking about his accomplishments as both president and foundation leader," ABC's Julia Hoppock writes.

On the trail Thursday, Clinton defended his wife's service on Wal-Mart's board of directors, suggesting that she prodded the company toward a friendlier environmental stance, and to develop its "Buy America" program, ABC's Kate Snow, Sarah Amos, and Jennifer Parker report. Wal-Mart Watch's David Nassar disagrees: "While we don't have any insight into what Sen. Clinton advocated for while on the board of Wal-Mart, we do know that Wal-Mart has made no meaningful progress regarding the company's poor business practices, including gender discrimination, low wages, inadequate health care, overseas sourcing or environmental degradation."

Obama is starting to enlist his spouse in pushing back. She signed a fundraising appeal Thursday decrying "the win-at-all-costs tactics" of the Clinton machine.

And she's popping up more on the trail. "Obama needs Michelle more than ever," Time's Jay Newton-Small reports. "As she tours South Carolina, speaking on behalf of her husband, she has become the real-life example of Obama's soaring rhetoric. . . . From her shy, awkward first months in a role that she talks frankly about not wanting, Michelle Obama is finding her voice. And her husband will need it."

If there's a touch of fatigue on the Democratic side, maybe it's infectious.

Maybe it just took a while for that Southern air to work its way through everyone's system. Maybe Fred Thompson was the secret source of energy. Maybe John McCain got everyone turned around on the bridge to nowhere, or Mike Huckabee sent the field off on his Easter egg hunt for WMD, or perhaps they were all supremely confident now that Dennis Kucinich has cleared himself out of the field.

Or maybe everyone's as nervous as they are tired.

How else to explain the non-event that was Thursday night's Republican debate in Boca Raton, Fla., where the only energy was in the oppo research shuttling into reporters' inboxes (and the sharpest words came courtesy of McCain's 95-year-old mother)?

It was only good cops on stage in Boca on Thursday. The candidates were subdued, respectful, and downright polite -- doing nothing to shake up the uncertain dynamics going into the last burst before the Florida primary.

It means we're left where we started: A Florida battle between John McCain and Mitt Romney, with Rudolph Giuliani struggling to hang on and Mike Huckabee struggling to be heard.

The long road has had no shortage of detours -- Fred Thompson's comic short, "The Amble for a Red November"; a Huckaboom, Chuck Norris, and a Huckabust; the Ron Paul money machine; a spectacular (and ongoing) public implosion by America's mayor.

But the GOP race looks like the two-way race the smart guys and gals thought it would be a year ago: McCain vs. Romney.

"It was less a Republican debate than it was a Rotary Club discussion -- and a soporific one at that," ABC's Jake Tapper writes. "There were no attacks made, few contrasts drawn, little indication that the candidates are just five days away from a crucial primary contest. In fact, the candidate who has the most to lose here -- former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has staked his campaign on success in the Sunshine State -- even said 'these are terrific candidates . . . running very, very good races."

"The various campaigns' press secretaries were busy writing nasty emails and press releases about their boss' opponents, but on stage it was the Hippocratic debate -- first do no harm," Tapper continues. "And no one did any harm to themselves, or to each other."

"Familiarity is breeding contempt -- not among the combatants, but perhaps among members of the viewing audience," Newsweek's Holly Bailey writes. "Did anyone try to stand out? Not really."

The most fun we can have is in one-upping how gentle they all were. The Miami Herald: "They tossed Nerf balls." The St. Petersburg Times: "gentlemen's supper meeting."

(Is Rudy a nerf guy? Is he a supper meeting guy?)

"The result of the non-debate is likely an affirmation of the status quo," Washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza writes. "That Giuliani was unwilling to take any direct shots at his opponents seems to signal that either his campaign knows something the pollsters don't or that he is content to make his policy points and let the chips fall where they may -- even if that means a third-place finish, which would badly hamstring his chances at the nomination."

Perhaps the only new ground on a subject that could actually impact the race came when Romney, R-Mass., refused to say how much of his own money he's pumped into his campaign, other than to say he's not at the Corzine-Forbes level (but remember: It's only January). "I'm not concerned about the voters," Romney said, not quite meaning it that way.

Romney is still the most hated man on stage, but it didn't really matter Thursday night. "Romney and McCain were winners. As for Huckabee, somewhere between the inheritance joke and the highway project I was reassured that he won't be president," Jennifer Rubin writes in her Commentary blog. (But No. 2 is always an option.)

So prepare for the showdown: "Florida's Republican primary on Tuesday is looming as a showdown between John McCain and Mitt Romney -- with the winner in a strong position heading into the 21-state national primary on Feb. 5," Michael Levenson writes in The Boston Globe. "The state's size and geographic, ethnic, and ideological diversity also make it the first good test of a candidate's national appeal."

And if this will be McCain vs. Romney, this won't be the last time Mitt Romney is cast as John Kerry. (There's nothing like a good windsurfing ad to warm our hearts.)

About the most fun part of the debate was tallying the campaigns who wanted reporters to know that The New York Times had endorsed McCain, R-Ariz. (Rewarded -- we suppose -- for meeting with the editorial board, but we're still waiting for our alert from the McCain campaign.)

Among the Democrats, The New York Times endorsement is something to brag about, and it went to Clinton, though with profuse apologies to Obama.

"Voters have to judge candidates not just on the promise they hold, but also on the here and now," the Grey Lady's ed board intones. "The potential upside of a great Obama presidency is enticing, but this country faces huge problems, and will no doubt be facing more that we can't foresee. The next president needs to start immediately on challenges that will require concrete solutions, resolve, and the ability to make government work. Mrs. Clinton is more qualified, right now, to be president."

Matthew Dowd sees problems ahead for Obama -- and not just because the Clintons have managed expectations so well that a win in South Carolina may not give him a big bump. "He is engaging the Clintons straight up on their battle formations," Down writes on his ABC blog. "He is trying to send his own version of British soldiers against them, and as we all know, a more experienced British Army will beat a less experienced British Army every time."

ABC's Sam Donaldson writes that Obama aides picked the wrong fight if they thought they could rough up Clinton without blowback. "What did Sen. Obama and his associates think was going to happen when they seized on Sen. Clinton's remark that it took a president -- Lyndon Johnson -- to bring Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'dream' to fruition and let it be known they thought that was discrediting Dr. King?" Donaldson writes.

"But what Obama's camp should understand is that they are up against the most accomplished and potent political machine of the present election cycle: The Clintons have been doing this for a long, long time. They know what works," Donaldson contiues.

Robert Reich, however, is crying foul (and again showing how little love is lost between himself and the Clintons): "Bill Clinton's ill-tempered and ill-founded attacks on Barack Obama are doing no credit to the former President, his legacy, or his wife's campaign," Reich blogs. "Now, sadly, we're witnessing a smear campaign against Obama that employs some of the worst aspects of the old politics."

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. provides some Reagan-tinged historical perspective: "Clinton argued [in 1992] over and over that Democrats could not win without new ideas of their own. To reread Clinton's 'New Covenant' speeches from back then is to be reminded of how electrifying it was to hear a politician who was willing to break new ground," he writes. "That's why the Clintons' assault on Obama is so depressing. In many ways, Obama is running the 2008 version of the 1992 Clinton campaign. You have the feeling that if Bill Clinton did not have another candidate in this contest, he'd be advising Obama and cheering him on."

Obama will be George Stephanopoulos' guest on "This Week" Sunday morning, reacting to the South Carolina results and looking ahead to Super Tuesday.

If former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., is to play a role in South Carolina and beyond, he got exactly the headline he needed from The State: "Edwards rises in S.C. polls." Writes The State's Roddie A. Burris: "Watch John Edwards. With only a day left before Saturday's S.C. Democratic presidential primary, the former U.S. senator from North Carolina and S.C. native is making a move, tracking polls suggest."

Yet more likely than winning -- and assuming South Carolina isn't a repeat of Nevada's wipeout -- is that Edwards will collect enough delegates to help determine who gets the nomination. "If Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton continue running close and neither succeeds in capturing at least 50%, or 2,025, of the delegates, Mr. Edwards has a chance to play kingmaker at this summer's Democratic convention in Denver," Christopher Cooper writes in The Wall Street Journal.

Edwards adviser Joe Trippi tells Cooper: "I think 200 delegates on Feb. 6 is our over-under. . . . Worst case? We go to the convention as the peacemaker, kingmaker, whatever you want to call it."

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

Also in the news:

The new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll has Clinton up 47-32 over Obama (though repealing the 19th Amendment would leave the race tied). On the GOP side, it's McCain 29, Huckabee 23, with Romney at 20 and Giuliani at 15.

Vote Hope's PowerPAC is on the California airwaves for Obama -- so we wait for the strong denunciations to follow. Obama blasted Edwards for 527 spending taking place on his behalf in Iow,a and he "is taking heat because some of the same kind of organizations are now spending money, organizing and putting up TV ads on his behalf in the Bay Area," the San Francisco Chronicle's Carla Marinucci and Joe Garofoli report. "Critics say Obama is being hypocritical in denouncing Edwards' connection with '527' independent expenditure groups while not demanding that ones supporting him stop."

Don't ask Hillary Clinton about Tony Rezko: "I don't know the man. I wouldn't know him if he walked into the door," she told Matt Lauer on "Today" on Friday, when confronted with a picture of herself and her husband with Obama's very own "slum landlord." "I don't have a 17-year relationship with him," she said.

From the endorsement that nobody really wanted, in The New York Times: "Senator John McCain of Arizona is the only Republican who promises to end the George Bush style of governing from and on behalf of a small, angry fringe. With a record of working across the aisle to develop sound bipartisan legislation, he would offer a choice to a broader range of Americans than the rest of the Republican field."

But the juiciest part comes when the ed board turns to Rudy: "The real Mr. Giuliani, whom many New Yorkers came to know and mistrust, is a narrow, obsessively secretive, vindictive man who saw no need to limit police power. Racial polarization was as much a legacy of his tenure as the rebirth of Times Square. Mr. Giuliani's arrogance and bad judgment are breathtaking. . . . The Rudolph Giuliani of 2008 first shamelessly turned the horror of 9/11 into a lucrative business, with a secret client list, then exploited his city's and the country's nightmare to promote his presidential campaign."

Here's a clip the McCain campaign will want to circulate, widely: "In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 37% of respondents said Mr. McCain has the best chance to win in November against the Democrats," Alex Frangos and Elizabeth Holmes write in The Wall Street Journal. "The poll shows him beating New York Sen. Hillary Clinton by 46% to 44% and tying against Illinois Sen. Barack Obama with 42% support. Messrs. Romney, Giuliani and Huckabee all lose handily in polling matchups with Sens. Clinton and Obama."

Here's a clip the McCain campaign won't want to circulate: "A top political adviser in Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign helped arrange an introduction in 2006 between McCain and a Russian billionaire whose suspected links to anti-democratic and organized-crime figures are so controversial that the U.S. government revoked his visa," Jeffrey Birnbaum and John Solomon write in The Washington Post.

They continue: "Rick Davis, who is now McCain's campaign manager, helped set up the encounter between McCain and Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska in Switzerland during an international economic conference. At the time, Davis was working for a lobbying firm and seeking to do business with the billionaire."

While we train our attention on black voters -- who seem primed to back Obama overwhelmingly in South Carolina -- The State's Wayne Washington and Gina Smith see female voters as the biggest force in the race. "How S.C. women vote Saturday will be a key to who wins," they write. "While much has been made of the power of South Carolina's black vote -- expected to account for about half of the Democratic primary turnout -- women hold even more clout. They are expected to cast about 58 percent of Democratic primary votes. . . . With only a day to go before the primary, women seem to be leaning Obama's way — but not by much."

The Charleston Post-Courier's Robert Behre looks at the Obama ground organization in South Carolina -- with Obama gaining an apparent edge. "The campaign got a very long list of cell numbers of potential supporters, so it could text them back and make sure they get out to vote," Behre writes. "Political observers say that's just one of the innovative tactics the Illinois senator has used during the past year, tactics that have helped him catch and surpass Sen. Hillary Clinton in the polls here."

Some encouraging news for President Bush as he prepares for his final State of the Union address: bipartisanship is back (but how long to you keep YOUR New Year's resolutions?). "As they unveiled a $150 billion package of tax breaks for consumers and businesses yesterday, Republicans and Democrats hoped to rescue not only a troubled economy but also a government that increasingly has seemed as if it could not get anything done," Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post.

"The agreement on a stimulus package represented the first time since divided government returned to Washington a year ago that the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue sheathed their swords and came together on a major initiative without any bloodletting first," they write.

USA Today scores the first pre-SOTU interview, and he's looking to "sprint to the finish" with a doubling of the current $15 billion global anti-AIDS program. "Our compassion should be manifested in helping people who suffer from disease and hunger," Bush tells Richard Wolf and Susan Page.

Wolf and Page: "The speech will focus on domestic policy first. The theme: 'It's important for government to trust in our citizens' when making policy, he said. . . . Asked the odds that he'll succeed in making the 2001 tax cuts permanent -- a long-standing proposal with uncertain prospects -- he replied, 'The odds are 100% I'm going to call for it.' "

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, makes it official on Friday: He's getting out of the presidential race to concentrate on retaining his Cleveland-area congressional seat, ABC's Jennifer Duck reports. Kucinich leaves us with one very memorable UFO comment, one very memorable wife, and one very forgettable campaign that somehow didn't go as far as his 2004 bid.

It's a bow to political reality, and we're not talking delegate math: He's got a real reelection fight on his hands. "He faces four candidates in the Democratic primary, including Cleveland Councilman Joe Cimperman, who has become his chief rival by raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and winning media attention," Mark Naymik and Molly Kavanoaugh report in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Said Kucinich: "There is a point at which you just realize that you, look, you accept it, that it isn't going to happen and you move on."

Don't tell Florida Democrats their contest doesn't matter: Absentee and early votes have topped 295,000 for the Democratic primary -- already more votes than were cast for Democrats in New Hampshire, Iowa, or Nevada. "Nearly 7 percent of Florida's 10-million registered voters have already cast their ballots for Tuesday's election, suggesting the vote may buck the recent trend of lackluster turnout," Steve Bousquet writes in the St. Pete Times.

The kicker:

"I think holding their nose they're going to have to take him." -- Roberta McCain, explaining her son's secret strategy for capturing the GOP nomination.

"That was one of the kinder ones. I've got about 90 that are worse." --Rudy Giuliani on The New York Times editorial slamming his "arrogance and bad judgment," in a post-debate interview.

"I'll pronounce the word nuclear, nuclear." -- Barack Obama, doing Letterman's "Top Ten."

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