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Starting Gate: Frozen In Place

Negotiating icy roads isn't the biggest challenge Mitt Romney has before him today. In the final debate before the January 3rd Iowa caucuses, he'll have one last chance to stand out in the crowd and draw the distinction between himself and sudden front-runner Mike Huckabee.

The Arkansas governor saw his poll numbers begin to sharply spike not long after the last Republican debate, for which he drew rave reviews. But Huckabee has turned in great debate performances throughout this campaign, even when he was mired in single digits or not even showing up on the radar screen. Romney's current woes may have more to do with his own performance than Huckabee's.

Throughout the first eleven months of the campaign, Romney has strived hard to be the optimist in the GOP field. He's a candidate who announced his candidacy in a Michigan automotive museum, a nod toward American ingenuity and know-how. His is the campaign which routinely surrounds the candidate with a large family right out of a storybook, whose energetic and hard-working campaign makes the direct connection to an idealized vision of happier times.

But we have seen a different side of the candidate lately. The last time these Republican candidates shared a stage, Romney found himself in open combat with both Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani within the first minutes of the debate. Both exchanges were over the issue of illegal immigration, the issue which seems to be driving the race in Iowa. But Romney played the part of the aggressor in both instances, a somewhat new position for him.

Romney had good reason to engage. Even then Huckabee was moving up in Iowa and Giuliani had begun chopping at him in New Hampshire. Then ahead in both states, Romney was fighting a two-front battle – and still is, although the terrain has shifted considerably.

The campaign in recent days opted to do two things to turn things around. First, Romney delivered his mostly well-received speech on religion. Then, they released the first "attack" ad of the campaign, a relatively tame attempt to draw attention to Huckabee's support for in-state tuition and scholarship eligibility as governor of Arkansas. Coming on the heels of his relatively recent change of position on abortion, both may have reinforced the image of Romney as a reactive politician -- not the optimistic, visionary leader his camp has worked so hard to present.

Huckabee's rise may provide Romney a chance, however. Aside from the former Arkansas governor, the one candidate who may benefit most from his Iowa surge is Giuliani, giving him every reason to stand back somewhat and let the other two go at it. Without two-sided pressure, Romney may feel more comfortable, depending on which candidate shows up.

Too Liberal? Hillary Clinton's campaign seized on a report in the Politico, detailing answers Barack provided on an election questionnaire a dozen years ago, to raise the issue of electability. In the questionnaire, filled out while Obama sought a state Senate seat in Illinois in 1996, Obama indicated he was against any form of capital punishment, against any restrictions on abortion and supported an effort to ban the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns in the state.

Fertile ground for a campaign which has stressed its candidate's chances in a general election. The Clinton campaign gathered several Clinton supporters, conveniently from red or reddish swing states, to talk about her chances in the general election. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, from Texas was on the conference call, joined by Ohio Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh and Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.

Words like "family values," "the Fifth Amendment," "pro-military" and "rural America" were thrown around in an attempt to relate the message that while Clinton was strong in these areas, Obama (and presumably Edwards) apparently are not. Bayh noted that his state has voted for Republicans in 16 out of the past 17 presidential elections. "I come from a place where a keen understanding of how independents and moderate Republicans vote is important and based upon my experience and that understanding, I think Hillary Clinton has the best chance to be electable in swing parts of the country," he said.

McDaniel claimed Clinton had more Arkansas support than even Huckabee and said she would win the state in November. "When you ask me about electability in Arkansas," he said, "what I talk about is the number of pickup trucks that I've seen taking the little 'w' stickers off the back glass and covering them up with 'Hillary' stickers." And Jackson-Lee made direct reference to the Obama story as it relates to guns. "I don't frankly understand a candidate that seems to think that he can offer once position in the early stages of his career, and then as he begins to reach a level of national election, that he can change from one position to the next," she said.

The inference of the call seemed to be that the other Democratic candidates are too liberal to appeal to voters in crucial states like Iowa and Florida. It's a argument we could have predicted being made two years ago, but not the candidate we would have thought would be making it.

Spending Big For Those Who Can't: The bipartisan group ONE will air $1.8 million in television ads in Iowa and New Hampshire over the next several weeks in a bid to insert the issue of global poverty onto the campaign agenda. The group, co-chaired by former Senate Minority Leaders Tom Daschle (D) and Bill Frist (R), is dedicated to combating hunger and poverty around the world and says that at least 10 of the presidential candidates have pledged their support to those goals in some way. "Whether or not we can turn these hopeful indications into real, solid accomplishment depends in large measure on the degree of bipartisanship and the degree of oneness that we can create over the course of the next 12 months," said Daschle.

Around The Track

  • Mike Huckabee talks baseball with CBS News' Nancy Cordes after nabbing the endorsement of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller. Check it out on From The Road.
  • "I thought it would be wrong for me to rob her of the chance to be what I thought she should be. She laughed and said, 'First I love you and, second, I'm not going to run for anything, I'm too hardheaded.'" – Bill Clinton, telling an Iowa audience what his wife once said when he suggested she run for political office instead of him.
  • Amid fears that out-of-state voters may muck up Iowa's caucuses, Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen warns, "The bottom line here is that on caucus night, Iowans in both parties should work hard to conduct caucuses that are above reproach. If Iowa can't get this right, then Iowa shouldn't get this sort of influence."
  • The GOP held on to two open House seats in special elections yesterday in the critical states of Ohio and Virginia. Analyst Stuart Rothenberg explains why this is good news for Republicans.
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