THE NOTE: Trading Places

Clinton becomes Obama, and Obama becomes Clinton

Dec. 4, 2007 -- Just in the short window since the Democratic candidates last met on a debate stage, Hillary Clinton became Barack Obama, and Barack Obama became Hillary Clinton.

It's Obama, D-Ill., playing frontrunner -- talking policy, chiding the No. 2 for slinging mud, and having a hearty laugh over "silly season."

And it's Clinton, D-N.Y., launching scattershot attacks (a new one or two or three every day) -- while looking up at Obama in the Iowa polls.

(If you're into omens -- and this one works on several levels -- consider the smoking, sputtering Clinton press plane that arrived for the candidate's speech at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa -- where Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens played their last gig on "the day the music died.")

A new national poll reinforces the perceptions out of Iowa: Clinton and her fellow national poll leader, former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., are slipping mightily in the USA Today/Gallup Poll.

"Clinton's standing among Democrats dropped by 11 percentage points from early November, and Giuliani's standing among Republicans fell by 9 points, though both continue to lead their fields," Susan Page writes in USA Today. "Clinton and Giuliani, who have topped each of 21 USA Today Polls taken this year, had never suffered such steep month-to-month drops before."

Clinton's latest critique(s): that Obama's all hope and no action, that he "started running for president as soon as he arrived in the United States Senate," and that he's taken a pass on tough votes in the Illinois state Senate and the Congress. "Without mentioning Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., by name, she all but accused him of weakness and laziness as a legislator and suggested his ambition exceeds his effectiveness," ABC's David Wright and Eloise Harper report.

This is not where Mark Penn thought Clinton would be back when he was bragging about how Republican women were coming on board.

This is not what Terry McAuliffe thought she'd have to be saying when he confidently declared that of course Clinton could win, since she was already winning.

And this is not where Clinton herself though she'd be back in the days when she could afford to brush off her rivals' attacks. "As the race here enters its final month, she is once again fighting to fend off concerns that have dogged her from the start of her campaign in the state," The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Anne Kornblut write. "Penn said the goal is to prevent the caucuses from becoming a referendum on Clinton and forcing voters to make a choice among candidates whose weaknesses and strengths have been put on public display."

This rocks the dynamics of the race.

It roughs up Obama, who has really not been aggressively challenged in this race, but it could also hand him (and the other Democrats) a critical advantage: Hillary Clinton can no longer make the inevitability argument.

This is not what shoo-in candidates do.

And so we have a Democratic race on our hands.

"At a time when two new Iowa polls show Obama actually pulling into the lead and Clinton losing support among women, some political observers are wondering if Clinton will come to regret her newly assertive strategy," Time's Jay Newton-Small writes. "She already has the highest negative ratings in the race, and the shift in tactics comes only a month before the Iowa caucus -- where voters are famous for their distaste of negative campaigning. Launching the attacks herself, rather than with via surrogates, only makes the move even riskier."

"Old friend" Robert Reich doesn't like what he sees. "I just don't get it. If there's anyone in the race whose history shows unique courage and character, it's Barack Obama. HRC's campaign, by contrast, is singularly lacking in conviction about anything," Reich blogs. "All is fair in love, war, and politics. But this series of slurs doesn't serve HRC well. It will turn off voters in Iowa, as in the rest of the country. If she's worried her polls are dropping, this is not the way to build them back up."

Her campaign surely didn't need to cite essays Obama wrote in Kindergarten and third grade to make its point that Obama has wanted to be president for a while. (Joke or no joke, that's when good oppo goes bad.)

And Clinton herself surely didn't need to reference the "fun part" of the campaign -- whatever her true meaning was -- in talking about her decision to get more aggressive on the trail.

With that line, "Hillary Clinton made what could be the biggest mistake of her campaign to date," Andrew Romano blogs for Newsweek. "Politicos recognize that 'attacking' opponents is a necessary part of the nomination process (even if voters, who typically inveigh against negativity while allowing it to color their perceptions of the candidates, don't always agree). But 'fun'? Not so much."

But Clinton is apparently very good at attacking without sounding like she's doing it.

"Notably, Mrs. Clinton's tone has not changed: The political hits were delivered Monday in a mellifluous voice and a steady smile," Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times -- picking up on her efforts to become the second choice of those who favor the second tier. "Such performance skill can soften the attacks; the problem for [Howard] Dean and [Richard] Gephardt, four years ago, was that they struck some people as hotheads."

Notice that Obama didn't respond to the latest round of attacks -- where's the upside in that for him at this stage of the campaign? The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny: "Instead of responding to a suggestion Mrs. Clinton made earlier in the day that he was a 'doer, not a talker' and that his candidacy offered 'false hopes,' Mr. Obama sought to change the subject. He renewed his call for a 'Credit Card Bill of Rights,' and vowed to crack down on predatory credit card companies."

He left the response to the always-quippy Bill Burton: "Barack Obama doesn't need lectures in political courage from someone who followed George Bush to war in Iraq, gave him the benefit of the doubt on Iran . . . and opposed ethanol until she decided to run for president."

As Bill Clinton hits the trail again Tuesday in New Hampshire, we'll see (or hear) the new dynamics in place at 2 pm ET Tuesday in Iowa, during the National Public Radio debate in Des Moines.

"There is no studio audience nor video cameras," NPR's Scott Horsley writes in previewing the forum. "Candidates will be able to engage one another in three areas of discussion, and field questions sent in by NPR listeners."

And pulling down the shroud of inevitability opens Clinton up to other arguments against her candidacy.

The New York Times' Carl Hulse travels to another Manhattan (in Kansas) to tell the red-state-fear-of-Clinton story through the eyes of freshman Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan. "Mrs. Clinton is a long way from winning the Democratic presidential nomination, and over the last few weeks has struggled to hang on to the air of inevitability that she has been cultivating all year," Hulse writes. "But the possibility that she will be the nominee is already generating concern among some Democrats in Republican-leaning states and Congressional districts, who fear that sharing the ticket with her could subject them to attack as too liberal and out of step with the values of their constituents."

This is the argument that Clinton's rivals have been making -- sometimes subtly, sometimes less so -- since those heady days when she led the national polls by 30 points.

Obama hit that theme yesterday in a Boston Globe editorial board meeting, suggesting that Clinton "would be too polarizing to capture more than a slim victory," per the Globe's Scott Helman. "Even if we win, we will have just eked out a victory, and we can't govern," Obama said. "I mean, if we have a 50-plus-one election, we cannot get a serious healthcare bill done. We can't have a serious agenda on climate change. And that is what I'm trying to break through, and I think I have an opportunity to break through."

Clinton's main problem may be that the 1990s are coming back in full force -- and not on the terms the candidate wants them to.

"Those [Clinton-era] battles are at the heart of today's political dialogue, as Obama and former North Carolina senator John Edwards argue that electing Hillary Clinton as president would revive the resentments of the '90s," The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos writes. "But it's far from clear what people think of those battles in hindsight."

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder finds the roots of Clinton's annoyance with Obama's decision to brush aside her advice to him: to keep his head down and serve out his Senate term.

"Some of her top advisers exuded a sense of entitlement: Clinton deserved to be president; it was her turn," Ambinder writes. And this key insight: "They did not perceive any threat until it was almost too late."

"Obama's starkly different choice had several immediate effects. It forced Democrats to think anew about Clintonism, not in comparison to a Republican alternative, as would have been the case, but to a Democratic one whose chief attributes -- freshness, vigor, reform -- put Clintonism in a harsh light," Ambinder continues. "More broadly, it threatened to upend the way politicians have traditionally pursued the presidency: through years of careful preparation and positioning. But first he would have to get past the woman whose advice he solicited, then spurned."

And notice how former senator John Edwards, D-N.C. -- very much still a factor in Iowa -- isn't part of this grudge match at all.

We know Joe Trippi loves a good fight -- but could he have devised of a better scenario than a Clinton-Obama rumble in the last four weeks before Iowa?

Among the Republicans, with the week (if not the rest of the race) set to be shaped by former governor Mitt Romney's Thursday speech on religion, he's busily downplaying expectations. He's saying that his address will be less about his Mormon faith and more about how "faith has disappeared in many respects from the public square," ABC's Matt Stuart reports. Romney: "I want to make sure we maintain our religious heritage in this country."

This highlights how difficult this speech will be to nail.

Do the evangelicals who are skeptical about his Mormon faith really need to be told that there's not enough religion in public life?

To the extent that Romney talks about his own religion, will Protestants and Catholics accept him as a fellow Christians?

And will Mormons accuse him of glossing over the details of his faith?

"In a press conference outlining his speech, Romney quoted the New Testament, and spoke about the founding fathers, but never used the words Mormon or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," The Boston Globe's Michael Levenson reports. "He said if people want to learn more about his religion, they can look on the Internet."

It's "a gamble that may not be a win with either supporters or opponents," Lisa Riley Roche writes in the Deseret Morning News. It's late, it's dangerous, it's provocative. "It's probably the epitome of a high-stakes moment in a campaign," says Romney supporter Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

The only reason this is happening now is because of a certain former governor of Arkansas, who now has national poll numbers to back up his Iowa rise.

Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., has slipped into second place in the USA Today/Gallup Poll: It's Giuliani 25, Huckabee 16, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., at 15.

"He's the best politician in the land," Dean Barnett writes in The Weekly Standard. "Right now, the Huckabee campaign is in the best shape. All of the other campaigns would gladly trade places with Huckabee." (Point taken, but we're not so sure of that . . .)

Huckabee -- finally back in Iowa after an inexplicable spell away from the action -- was profiled Monday night on ABC's "Nightline."

"Something seemed to click here for Huckabee, even in the past few days," John Donvan writes. "The ultimate compliment might be the 'welcome-to-the-big-league' attacks Huckabee's ideas are now drawing -- finally -- from the other candidates in the race who had previously mostly ignored him."

But polls (and even attacks) don't buy a ground game. "Huckabee is employing an unprecedented and risky strategy to win the caucuses here: a campaign with almost no on-the-ground operation," Perry Bacon Jr. writes in The Washington Post. "Without the money to hire field organizers around the state to ensure that voters will turn out, the campaign is instead relying on a network of pastors, parents who home-school their children, and other Christian conservatives."

And Huckabee is just starting to come in for his close-up.

Last week, he said that God is helping him in the polls, according to the Rev. Jonathan Falwell, who paraphrased him as saying "that Divine providence was responsible for his recent surge." (Who knew He had a land line? Isn't He busy helping wide receivers score touchdowns this time of year? And who's the one who has to explain his religion to voters again?)

Asks ABC's Jake Tapper: "I wonder if God will in fact smite his opponents . . . ?"

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen still thinks it's Huckabee who needs to talk more openly about faith -- including why he punted on Sunday when asked by ABC's George Stephanopoulos whether Mormons are Christians.

"It is absurd that Romney feels compelled to deliver a speech defending his beliefs and that Huckabee does not have to explain how, in this day and age, he does not believe in evolution," Cohen writes. "The Republican presidential field has some feeble minds and some dangerous ones as well, but none has done as much damage as Huckabee has."

The New York Daily News' Helen Kennedy sees good news for Giuliani in a Huckabee-Romney duel. "Rudy Giuliani could use some good news, and Mike Huckabee's amazing surge in Iowa from long shot to first place this week could be an early Christmas gift," Kennedy writes. "Strategically, Giuliani's camp noted that Huckabee's rise means Romney will have to spend more time in Iowa and less time in New Hampshire, where Giuliani is making a late push for votes."

The confusion in the field is enough to convince RNC Chairman Mike Duncan that the race will continue beyond Feb. 5 -- if not quite until the convention he hosted a walk-through for in Minneapolis on Monday. "I don't think it will be as early as some people think," said Duncan, per ABC's David Chalian. (Here's hoping we'll have something to keep us occupied.)

Also in the news:

A pro-Huckabee group (though not with Huckabee's blessing) is making sure that "Giuliani's dirty laundry is being aired all over Iowa in a slew of phone calls and e-mails to potential voters," Carl Campanile writes in the New York Post. "The messages mention the indictment of Giuliani's ex-business pal and police chief Bernie Kerik and accusations that childhood friend Msgr. Alan Placa covered up for pedophile priests."

Giuliani's business interests are getting renewed scrutiny (shouldn't he have put these questions behind him by now?). "His law office has lobbied Congress on behalf of legislation that the Bush administration calls a threat to antiterrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa," Eric Lipton and Ross Buettner write in The New York Times. "The firm, Bracewell & Giuliani, used Mr. Giuliani's name in its pitch to win the assignment, and his clout was a reason it landed the job, said Seyoum Solomon, an Ethiopian-American from Maryland who helped negotiate the deal."

Newsweek's Michael Isikoff looks at Giuliani's work on behalf of the governor of Qatar. "He was acting as an international businessman -- a role drawing increased scrutiny as he runs for president," he writes. "The contract between Giuliani Security, a division of Giuliani Partners, and Qatar 'is a huge conflict of interest,' says Bob Baer, a former CIA officer who tracked [Khalid Shaikh Mohammed]." Baer: "He is metaphorically taking money from the same accounts that paid KSM." (Does metaphorical money count against campaign-finance limits?)

Somebody explain why the Giuliani campaign didn't want this out there many, many months ago: "Rudy Giuliani is no longer chairman and chief executive of Giuliani Partners LLC, the consulting firm he founded five years ago after leaving the New York mayor's office," Mary Jacoby writes in The Wall Street Journal. "The firm's new chairman, Peter J. Powers, said in an interview yesterday that the Republican presidential candidate stepped down from his management roles in the spring, shortly after launching his campaign. But there was never any formal announcement of the change."

McCain let himself play the "what-if" game at Monday evening's forum.

"Were John McCain President over the last seven years, Donald Rumsfeld wouldn't have had the President's ear, federal spending wouldn't have mushroomed, and China would be shamed for not doing enough to stop genocide, the Arizona senator said last night," Mark Hayward writes in the Manchester Union Leader.

The Chicago Tribune's Jim Tankersley profiles Edwards. "The man America met as a Southerntwanged, hope-is-on-the-way, sunny son of a mill worker emerged in the Lower 9th Ward grimmer, better traveled and quicker to attack, his policies more ambitious, detailed and liberal," Tankersley writes. "The tone and manner were as if Edwards' persona had been transformed, or at least as if Edwards listened to different people now. Was that true? 'Yeah,' he says. 'I listen to me.' "

And on the question of authenticity: "If I were choosing a president and I wasn't running . . . I would be looking -- absolutely require -- that the person I vote for be honest and sincere," Edwards said. "I'm perfectly happy to answer that question in front of America and let them judge me. . . . Am I phony or not? I think they'll say that I'm not."

There would be at least one Republican in Edwards' hypothetical Cabinet -- just like there would be in Gov. Bill Richardon's, per the Des Moines Register's Tony Leys.

And forget the $400 haircut: Elizabeth Edwards spent $500 at a New Hampshire hair stylist -- as part of a fundraiser for autism research. (Everyone appreciates a sense of humor.)

Clinton is a liberal group's target in a new ad slated to run in Iowa (though we're not convinced that any actual caucus-goers will ever see it).

"The group, Democratic Courage, has accused Clinton of making policy decisions on the basis of polls, not convictions," per the AP's write-up. "Glenn Hurowitz, the group's president, described the spot as a modest buy that would run on cable only, meaning it won't be seen as much as ads by Clinton and rival Barack Obama, who are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads in the state."

The National Intelligence Estimate's findings on Iran became immediate campaign fodder. "The campaigns of the leading Democratic candidates seized Monday on an intelligence report showing that Iran halted its development of nuclear weapons, saying the findings justified their more cautious approach to Tehran," Marc Santora writes in The New York Times.

It was enough to get Rudy to stop rattling his saber, at least for a day: "Sanctions and other pressures must be continued and stepped up until Iran complies by halting enrichment activities in a verifiable way," Giuliani said.

Yes, Virginia, there is still a president -- and he's planning a news conference at 10 am Tuesday at the White House.

"President Bush plans to use the next two weeks to defuse fights with Congress over the economy, laying the groundwork for a 2008 strategy aimed at assisting GOP candidates early on and improving his image at home and overseas," Politico's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei write.

Karl Rove, prepping that book proposal like a pro, "predicts peril for Republicans and their presidential nominee if they shun the lame-duck president on the campaign trail," Joseph Curl writes in the Washington Times. Says Rove: "Nobody can risk looking disrespectful to the president without paying a price, and they need to understand that."

Bloomberg's Brian Faler finds one way Democrats are exerting their influence over the president (but beware those pesky signing statements).

"Democrats, writing the budget for the first time since Bush took office, are using their power over the purse to thwart Bush's campaign to loosen federal regulations," Faler writes.

"Lawmakers have added fine print to must-pass appropriations bills that sets new policy goals and increases funding for regulators such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission."

Rep. Ron Paul's wacky ride continues on Tuesday with the women of ABC's "The View." "It's unlikely that the Texas OB-Gyn has ever himself seen The View. He doesn't watch much TV and says he has never watched a reality TV show," ABC's Z. Byron Wolf writes. "Paul is more knowledgeable about the Austrian School of Economics and why the United Sates Treasury should not be printing money, odd topics about which to crow on 'The View.' "

Since we all forget occasionally that campaigns are about people (and in the spirit of tip-less waitresses), The Boston Globe has an interesting look at the ordinary voters who have seen their stories adopted by the candidates (and they don't always support the candidates who cite them).

The kicker:

"In third grade, I wanted to be two things: I wanted to be a cowboy, and I wanted to be Superman." -- Edwards, putting his own oppo research out there.

"I will eat Rudy Giuliani alive at a debate." -- Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., in a typically soft-spoken fundraising appeal.

"I want to mention again, Saddam Hussein is dead . . . Duh." -- McCain, after confusing Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden at the MTV-MySpace forum.

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