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Starting Gate: The Fog Of Primaries

(CBS/AP)
Unsettled is a generous word to describe the still-fluid Republican primary race these days. With just 23 days until the Iowa caucuses, the race is no more clear than it was six months ago.

The CBS News/New York Times poll released yesterday provides a picture of an uncertain GOP electorate that is still up for grabs for one of the top four or five candidates. Mike Huckabee's meteoric rise has been stunning. Fueled by coalescing support among conservatives, especially self-described evangelicals, he's now statistically tied with Rudy Giuliani nationally and well ahead of Mitt Romney in Iowa, according to recent polls in the state.

But over three-quarters of GOP primary voters who are currently supporting a candidate indicate they could change their minds. While Huckabee may have captured the hearts of conservatives at the moment, Republicans still see Giuliani as the most electable candidate in the field. And, in the most telling indication for the final weeks of this year, a majority of Republicans say they don't know enough about Huckabee to have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of him.

That means there is room for the former Arkansas governor to grow in the eyes of his party's regulars but it also means an opportunity for his primary opponents to try and define him on their own terms, and those efforts are well underway.

Romney, who is most directly threatened by Huckabee's rise in Iowa and nationally, has begun toughening the rhetoric. In an interview on the CBS Evening News, the former governor of Massachusetts predicted: "I'm convinced as people take a good hard look at Mike Huckabee's record, they'll see this is a guy who is soft on criminals, soft on illegal aliens, but hard on taxpayers. And that's not what's going to lead the Republican Party to take the White House."

And today, the Romney campaign begins running the first attack ad of the GOP campaign in Iowa, accusing Huckabee of being soft on illegal immigration because of his support for in-state tuition and scholarship opportunities for the children of those in the country illegally. It could be a real problem for Huckabee – 96 percent of GOP primary voters in the CBS poll say illegal immigration is a "very serious or somewhat serious" problem and the issue tops the list of concerns for activists in Iowa in most surveys.

While Huckabee has blown up in the polls, he faces money and organizational problems. In other words, can he capitalize on his newfound stardom and fend of such attacks at the same time? Complicating matters still for the GOP is the second, third and fourth acts of the primary campaign. Iowa may be turning into a two-man race in Iowa but it's a three-to-four man contest in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, all in different combinations. Giuliani and John McCain are showing signs of life in New Hampshire, where Romney leads. Huckabee has surged in South Carolina but Romney, Giuliani and Fred Thompson remain in the picture as well. Giuliani has pegged Florida for his big breakthrough but Romney, Thompson and now Huckabee are making noise there as well.

What does it all mean? Nobody knows, but one thing is certain – Romney's attempt to make this a two-man race with Giuliani has been unsuccessful to this point, a carefully designed strategy blown up not by one-time media darling Fred Thompson, but a Baptist minister from a town called Hope. And the forecast is for fog with a chance of severe surprises.

Sticking To The Script: The Clinton camp continues to ride the twin horses of experience and health care. Stumping for his wife in Iowa yesterday, Bill Clinton was the latest campaign voice to tie the two together. "She's always been a change agent," Clinton told about 400 people at Iowa State University. "It's one thing to have good intentions, another thing altogether to change the reality of people's lives."

Noting the failed health care reform push the former First Lady led in the 1990s, Clinton insisted, "when she got beat she did what she's always done when we got beat, she didn't fold her tent. She started working for the Children's Health Insurance program, which today insures 6 million kids in America, the biggest expansion since Medicare. We got better health care for cervical cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer and diabetes. We immunized 90 percent of our kids against serious illness for the first time in the history of the country and guess what? For the first time in a dozen years, the number of people with health insurance went down, not up like it is today."

It's certainly a safer tactic than discussing his position on the Iraq war – or is it? According to the Des Moines Register, some are questioning one of Bill Clinton's claims on the problems of health care costs. Clinton claimed yesterday that "over half of all the bankruptcies in this decade can be tied to personal health emergencies." At least one scholar, Northwestern University's Michael Millenson, says the study that statement is based on in flawed. "It's not that Bill Clinton is wrong, it's that he's quoting a piece of research which is wrong," says Millenson, who conveniently is also a supporter of Barack Obama.

Don't Miss A Moment Of The Action: In case you've missed it, CBSNews.com has launched a new blog, From The Road, where you can follow the daily action and interaction from the campaign trail. Written by CBS News off-air reporters, producers and correspondents, From The Road provides a first-person look at the candidates and voters as the primary frenzy enters its final phase. Check in early and often for breaking news, video and inside information on campaign 2008.

Around The Track

  • Fred Thompson's campaign says he won't return to New Hampshire this year.
  • A day after Oprah-palooza, Obama goes Hollywood.
  • Renowned poet Maya Angelou voices a new radio ad for Clinton in South Carolina in which she refers to the candidate as, "my girl."
  • Another debate bites the dust.
  • In yet another sign that the nation's media is desperate for a Bloomberg independent candidacy, the AP reports that the New York City Mayor is – a bachelor.