Starting Gate: Second Verse, Same As The First?

If today's Democratic debate follows the template set down in yesterday's Republican gathering, the results aren't likely to be any different. Organized and moderated by the same players who brought us yesterday's yawn-fest, nobody should be expecting sparks to fly today.

Not to pick on the organizers, but the approach being taken here seems more fit for a debate held in the early stages of the campaign, not in the closing days of a competitive and hard-fought battle. The idea, voiced by moderator Carolyn Washburn of the Des Moines Register, is to get the candidates to address some of the issues which haven't driven the agenda thus far in the race. But there's a reason those issues haven't risen to the top – the candidates mostly agree on them.

What drives campaigns are those topics voters are passionate about and those on which the players disagree (or have disagreed in the past) – and there aren't all that many of those. It's immigration for Republicans, it's been Iraq, Iran and, on the margins, health care among the Democrats.

The format unveiled yesterday also provided little chance for candidates to engage in much back-and-forth. The questions were specific and addressed to individual candidates for the most part and (with the exception of Alan Keyes), the participants stuck to broad themes.

Today's debate might provide more for undecided or wavering Democrats to chew over. There are some real disagreements between these candidates on issues like trade and Social Security as well as foreign policy. Some are nuanced and some are more central to the root of the topic but all stem from the way these candidates have positioned themselves in the race. Barack Obama's willingness to meet directly with hostile foreign leaders speaks to his theme of providing different leadership. Hillary Clinton's unwillingness to apologize for her vote authorizing the Iraq war fits her theme of a steady, experienced hand. And John Edwards emphasis on poverty issues spotlights his populist push.

So there may be slightly more moments of disagreement today but probably not a breakthrough moment. The dynamics for Democrats in Iowa are much different than it is for the GOP field. Where Republicans are watching a mostly two-man race in the state, Clinton, Obama and Edwards are tightly bundled together at the top. The key will be organization and turnout for January 3rd and that's where these campaigns will be focusing their energies for the next three weeks.

Dancing With The Star: Did Mike Huckabee just pull off a neat little trick right under our noses? What started out looking like a real stumble – wondering aloud in an upcoming New York Times Magazine article whether Mormons believe Jesus and the Devil are brothers – could end up helping his campaign, especially in Iowa.

After Mitt Romney very publicly rebuked Huckabee for his comment, the former Arkansas governor personally apologized to him after yesterday's Republican debate. He also used the debate to say that he has learned his lesson about casual chit-chat with reporters and resolved to be more careful with his words in the future. That diffused the issue for the moment, sort of a no-harm, no-foul type of moment.

But is Huckabee getting the best of both? He was able to distance himself somewhat from looking like he was attacking Romney's religious beliefs but you can be certain that plenty of Republican primary voters heard the original comments – something that might stick in the minds of evangelicals cautious of a religion they mostly know little about. It also has raised some questions about how an ordained Baptist minister who has been very active in the leadership of his church could profess to know so little about the basic beliefs of another faith. But that fine point is likely to be lost on those evangelical voters who are fueling Huckabee's surge.

What Did He Use And When Did He Use It? Clinton's New Hampshire co-chair Bill Shaheen – a Democratic power player in the Granite State and husband to former Governor and current Senate candidate Jeanne Shaheen – caused a lot of turmoil yesterday by not-so-subtly bringing up the topic of Obama's past drug use to the Washington Post. Obama has been open about dabbling with cocaine in his youth but says he began to grow up once in college and charted a different path for his life.

Shaheen raised the issue in the context of what he said Republicans might do with it in the context of a general election. "It'll be, 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?' … There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It's hard to overcome." Obama's campaign accused the Clinton camp of desperation and Shaheen's comments come at a time when Clinton's once-large lead in the state has dwindled and Obama has gained momentum in all the early states.

Around The Track

  • The Des Moines Register explains why Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel were not invited to participate in today's debate.
  • Clinton tells California donors the race will be all over on February 5th.
  • John McCain is releasing a new ad in New Hampshire touting his endorsement by the Manchester Union-Leader.
  • CBS News' Jeff Greenfield gives his thoughts on yesterday's GOP debate in an "only on the Web" chat.
  • Forget Oprah, Clinton's secret weapon in South Carolina might be "Young and the Restless" star Victoria Rowell, who's stumping in the state for the New York senator today.