From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** The Durham Bulls: After being mostly overshadowed by their Democratic counterparts so far this campaign season, the Republican presidential candidates step into the political spotlight today -- on two different coasts. The already announced candidates (Brownback, Giuliani, Huckabee, Hunter, McCain, Paul, Romney, and Tancredo) participate in their fifth debate from Durham, NH. It airs on FOX beginning at 9:00 pm ET, and it's moderated by Brit Hume, with Chris Wallace and Wendell Goler also asking questions. The last time these guys debated, right before the Ames straw poll, Brownback engaged Romney on abortion. Where will the fireworks come from this time? Will Romney hit Giuliani on immigration? Will Brownback, after his disappointing finish in Ames, once again go after Romney? And will they all gang up on Fred Thompson, who isn't on the stage but officially gets into the race tomorrow?
*** "Experience" Is No Longer An Issue In Just The Dem Race: Here's something else to watch for at the debate: It looks like McCain has his sights set on front-runners Giuliani and Romney. Yesterday, in addition to taking some questions from high schoolers in New Hampshire ("Thanks for the question, you little jerk," he joked to one yesterday), McCain said 1) that he was the sole major GOP candidate to criticize Donald Rumsfeld's strategy for the war and 2) that his national security credentials are better than Giuliani's and Romney's. "I think the nation respects the mayor's leadership after 9/11, and I do, too, and I think he displayed leadership at a time that Americans needed some steady hand," McCain said, per the New York Times. "[But] I don't think it translates, necessarily, into foreign policy or national security expertise. I know of nothing in his background that indicates that he has any experience in it, with him or Romney."
*** Putting The Toothpaste Back Into The Tube: And here's another topic we will probably see the GOP candidates respond to tonight… As Arlen Specter hinted at on Sunday, Larry Craig is indeed reconsidering his decision to resign. Mitch McConnell's worst nightmare may now be realized: There's nothing the Senate GOP wants less than to see Craig drag this out. That said, Craig's clearly looking for a fight, and since he feels as if everyone in the Senate abandoned him (sans Specter), he probably isn't willing to listen to any reason from his GOP colleagues. Perhaps the compromise the party could hope for at this point is for Craig to stay in office but not run for re-election. The REAL nightmare for McConnell and Co. would be for Craig to be on the '08 ballot. What's not clear in all this is what Craig wants to get out of this. Will fighting really rehabilitate his image or only begin encouraging more rumor-mongering and stalling any hope he has of actually doing what he's setting out to do: proving his innocence? Should be interesting tonight to watch the GOP presidential candidates on stage tonight having to react to this latest Craig news.
*** "Heeeeere's Fred…": While his soon-to-be rivals debate in New Hampshire, Fred Thompson appears on The Tonight Show in Los Angeles, as well as in a TV commercial that will run on FOX during the debate. The last time an actor went on Leno to announce his bid for higher office (officially or unofficially) was when Arnold Schwarzenegger visited the Burbank studio in 2003. But there won't be nearly the surprise there was four years ago: We already know he's in. On Thursday, Thompson begins a five-day announcement tour that takes him to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. In addition to the ad that will air during tonight's debate, NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that a similar TV ad will air on FOX on Thursday (the difference between the spots boils down to a time reference noting before and after Thompson actually declares).
*** Goin' South: The most under-reported story of the presidential race today is Mitt Romney's decision to finally go up with broadcast TV ads in South Carolina. The sustained broadcast ad campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire helped propel Romney to the top of the polls in both of those early states. But South Carolina has been a different story. Will Romney show real progress after a few weeks of being on the air there? If he does, then he can be the nominee. If he doesn't, then he could be in big trouble. More importantly, will the rest of the front-runners (read: Giuliani and Thompson in particular) allow Romney to be on the air alone in perhaps the single most important state on the GOP side?
*** On The Trail: Elsewhere today, Clinton, in Philadelphia, participates in a Club 44 "Women Win With Hillary" panel and event; Obama campaigns in Iowa before heading to Chicago; and Richardson stumps in South Carolina.
*** Bill Clinton and Experience: On TODAY, in his most extensive discussion on the politics of the 2008 election, Bill Clinton beat back Matt Lauer's question of whether experience really matters. Lauer tried to remind the "Comeback Kid" that he wasn't exactly the most experienced candidate in '92. Clinton replied that he was the most experienced governor in the country and had the right experience for the time. Clinton also deflected Obama's talking point that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had plenty of experience, saying -- though somewhat botched -- that if a couple of doctors committed malpractice, that wouldn't mean you'd stop going to doctors. By the way, how come Bill Richardson hasn't complained that Hillary stole his change-and-experience line?
Countdown to LA GOV election: 45 days
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Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 503 days