From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Julia Steers
*** Let's get ready to YouTube: It was ridiculed -- Romney said "the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman" -- and later postponed, which sparked plenty of discussion that the Republicans treat the Internet as if it's a tax increase or a liberal judge. But tonight, the GOP CNN/YouTube presidential debate finally takes place. It comes more than a month since the last Republican debate, and at the very time the GOP race is truly heating up. Romney and Rudy are grappling over immigration, crime statistics, and which of them more resembles Hillary Clinton. Thompson is piling on Giuliani for his position on guns. McCain has just come back from Iraq, while Paul -- whose supporters were inspired by 17th-century revolutionary Guy Fawkes -- has raked in millions of dollars in the last few weeks. And Huckabee, despite a lack of money and organization, now looks to be a serious player in Iowa.
*** The skinny: Eight Republicans -- Giuliani, Huckabee, Hunter, McCain, Paul, Romney, Tancredo, and Thompson -- will receive plenty of questions on these issues and others, with help from various questioners (including that snowman?) via YouTube videos. The debate airs from St. Petersburg, FL beginning at 8:00 pm ET, and it's moderated by CNN's Anderson Cooper. Just in time for tonight's showdown, a CNN/Opinion Research poll has Giuliani leading Florida at 38% -- followed by Romney at 17%, McCain and Thompson at 11%, Huckabee at 9%, and Paul at 5%. A new Insider Advantage/Majority Opinion poll also has Rudy in the lead in Florida at 26%. But the rest is different: Huckabee is in second at 17%, McCain is third at 13%, Romney is fourth at 12%, and Thompson is fifth at 9%.
*** Huck's rise and challenge: That last poll shows that Huckabee is even gaining momentum outside of Iowa. Indeed, besides Hillary Clinton going on the offensive against Obama, Huckabee's rise in the polls could very well be the biggest political story in the last couple of weeks. But starting at tonight's debate, Huckabee will receive more scrutiny about his record in Arkansas (especially when it comes to taxes and immigration). Oppo from various rival campaigns is now circulating, and needless to say, folks, these stories are coming. Can Huckabee deflect them? Also, perhaps the most fascinating piece of the day comes courtesy of a longtime Arkansas political columnist, John Brummett, who seems to credit Huckabee's media skills to his VERY early days as a radio DJ. Brummett contends that Huckabee's true genius is his use of the media and notes he's been media savvy in every position he's held, from his Baptist preacher days to governor to presidential candidate.
*** More Clinton vs. Obama: A day isn't going to go by between now and January 3 (or perhaps January 26) when there isn't a significant back-and-forth between the two Dem front-runners. Today, the issue is health care -- again. The Clinton campaign is driving this and driving it in Iowa. Perhaps they see this as an opportunity to play up what has been a strength in polling that she's more credible talking about health care than on any other issue. More importantly, even though talking about health care brings up 1993, that seems to be OK with Camp Clinton because in '93, Obama was just a few years out of law school, so it also provides subtle experience contrast. But the Obama camp is now getting just as aggressive on this issue, trying to push back on this mandate issue, claiming that in 1994, Clinton wasn't always pro-mandate. Clinton folks vehemently deny that this hit has any merit. Bottom line: another day, another back-and-forth on health care with Clinton doing the attacking. Interestingly, Obama's attempting to do on health care what Clinton successfully did on Iraq -- blur the distinctions between the two.
*** Bill vs. Ron Fournier: Meanwhile, another day of Bill Clinton on the campaign trail results in another apparent misstep by Bill. Yesterday, the former president declared that he had been opposed to the Iraq from the beginning, although the record seems to suggest otherwise. The reporter who caught the misstep was none other than the scribe who might know Bill the best: the AP's Ron Fournier. What's more interesting about Bill's claim? He was very careful not to repeat it at other stops -- subtlely changing his speech text from "opposed" to "opposes." The double-edged sword of Bill on the trail: Everyone wants to listen to what he has to say, and every reporter tries to find some contradiction. And so far, he has delivered something to help his wife and to help reporters tracking him.
*** On the trail: Elsewhere today, Biden, in Des Moines, addresses the Iowa Association of Counties; Clinton also is in city, where she discusses health care; Kucinich remains in New Hampshire; and McCain, in South Carolina, holds a town hall at Clemson University before tonight's debate. Also, Brownback stumps for McCain in Iowa, and Michelle Obama also is in the Hawkeye State.
Countdown to Iowa: 36 days
Countdown to New Hampshire: 41 days
Countdown to Michigan: 48 days
Countdown to Nevada and SC GOP primary: 52 days
Countdown to SC Dem primary: 59 days
Countdown to Florida: 62 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 69 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 342 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 419 days