From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Julia Steers
PHILADELPHIA, PA -- *** The Debate At Drexel: Tonight at 9:00 pm ET, the Democratic presidential candidates -- minus Gravel -- will gather here at Drexel University in the City of Brotherly Love for their seventh debate of this campaign season (or eighth, if you count the boisterous AFL-CIO forum at Chicago's Soldier Field). Moderated by NBC's Brian Williams, with additional questions from NBC's Tim Russert, the debate airs on MSNBC and will be livestreamed on MSNBC.com. To see where the Dem race now stands, it's worth recalling the first debate of the cycle, which was held almost exactly six months ago in Orangeburg, SC. Before that debate, Clinton held a narrow five-point lead over Obama (36%-31%) in the NBC/WSJ poll. Since then, however, she has expanded it. The latest NBC/WSJ poll has her leading Obama by 21 points (44%-23%), and Edwards by 28 points (44%-16%). Other surveys have her with even wider leads over her rivals. There is no doubt about it: These debates have had an impact on the race.
*** Channeling John Elway? With this kind of lead, tonight's debate is as much about Clinton's challengers as it is about her. Like a football team down by two touchdowns heading into the fourth quarter, it's mostly up to that team to erase the deficit (although miscues by the team that's ahead certainly can help the comeback). As we noted yesterday, Obama's interview with the New York Times -- in which he promised to step up his criticism of Clinton -- has raised expectations for the Illinois senator. In fact, the pressure on Obama has never been greater than it is tonight. This might sound far-fetched, but there is a real chance that this race begins or ends tonight. Many in the Beltway chattering class will issue a verdict of "game on" or "game over" after tonight. It's probably premature -- and not fair -- but it's something Obama's folks probably are now realizing. And it may be why just in the last 12 hours, we've sensed a downshifting a tad of just how aggressive Obama's going to be. See Axlerod in Howard Fineman's piece.
*** If You're Name Isn't Clinton Or Obama: It's also worth keeping an eye on Edwards, who yesterday delivered a tough speech aimed directly Clinton, charging her for taking more money from Washington lobbyists than any other presidential candidate. Ironically, perhaps the most lethal attack Edwards has leveled to date on Clinton is getting overshadowed by the MSM's obsession of Obama versus Clinton. The good news for Edwards is he may actually have the chance of standing back and watching Obama swing at Clinton. And if Obama misses, he can pounce and try to fill the void. With everyone expecting Obama to be the aggressor, does Edwards -- or Biden, Dodd, or someone else -- steal the spotlight?
*** Iran And Social Security: The issue that will likely produce much of tonight's back-and-forth is Clinton's vote last month on the measure designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, which pits her versus all of her Dem rivals. Social Security might also provide some sparks: In recent days, Obama has given speeches, and even released a TV ad, jabbing at Clinton's refusal in the past debate to propose specific solutions to fix Social Security. In response, the Clinton camp went up with its own TV ad in New Hampshire that changes the subject to -- whom else? -- George Bush. "When George Bush threatened to privatize Social Security," the announcer says in the ad, "Hillary was there fighting every step of the way to stop him."
*** Rudy's Foils: Giuliani is proving to be very adept at using his tenuous front-runner status -- most recently by taking shots at the Democratic front-runners. Per NBC/NJ's Matthew Berger, Rudy yesterday went after Clinton, Edwards, and Obama on Iraq and Iran. "Suppose Hillary Clinton and John Edwards' new position were there positions back then, that it was a mistake to take him out," Giuliani said. "Would we be dealing with Saddam Hussein becoming nuclear right now? If Iran was becoming nuclear, what would he be doing?" While Hillary Clinton uses George Bush as her foil, Giuliani uses Clinton and the other Dems.
*** Is Huckabee For Real? It depends who you ask. The media love him, and more Republicans are warming to him. But that's not true for fiscal conservatives like the Club for the Growth, which yesterday released yet another negative press release on the ex-governor. This a classic good news/bad news issue for Huckabee. The good news: He's making enough progress to get attacked. The bad news: He doesn't have the resources to fight these charges, making it possible that his surge ends before it begins.
*** On The Trail: Elsewhere today, Edwards holds a town hall in New Hampshire before traveling to Philly; Giuliani raises money in New York; McCain also fundraises in New York and meets with leaders of Jewish-American organizations; Paul appears on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; Richardson files to be on the New Hampshire ballot; Romney raises money in New York City, Chicago, and Boston; and Thompson holds a rally in Newport Beach, CA.
Countdown to Election Day 2007: 7 days
Countdown to Iowa: 65 days
Countdown to New Hampshire: 70 days
Countdown to Michigan: 77 days
Countdown to SC GOP primary: 81 days
Countdown to Florida: 91 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 98 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 371days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 448 days
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