Frontrunner? What Frontrunner?

The week ahead in presidential politics sees the longtime frontrunners in both parties, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, in deep trouble, with most of the candidates converging on Iowa for the rest of the month.

Along with Bill Clinton, now trying to boost his wife back into the lead there, the strain showing in his late Friday night appearance on Charlie Rose where he spent much of his time criticizing Barack Obama, his face flushed and his advisors in the control room reportedly trying to get the producers to end the interview.

The irony, of course, is that, were he not married to Hillary Clinton, the ex-president would probably be advising Obama, whom he clearly admires even as he insists he's not qualified.

The presidential races have taken quite the turn. On the Democratic side, in a direction that should be no surprise for New West Notes readers. On the Republican side, into more chaos. None of which is to say that presidential nomination contests in either party are anywhere near over.

Either the Republicans have no frontrunner, or that frontrunner is Mike Huckabee. Ostensible Republican presidential frontrunner Rudy Giuliani, recently matched in national polls by Huckabee and trailing in the early states, is now behind in Florida, the late January contest always seen by his campaign as the beginning of his big state surge toward the nomination.

Giuliani is, according to sources, scaling back his TV advertising in the New Hampshire primary. He isn't joining the rush to Iowa. Poised to take advantage of these developments is John McCain, who this morning is endorsed by independent Democrat Joe Lieberman, the Democrats' 2000 vice presidential nominee.

McCain and Lieberman are friends, and together co-authored a major bill to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But Lieberman's move is also about the problems of the two most hawkish candidates, Giuliani and Fred Thompson. The former Law & Order star has melted to nothing in New Hampshire and is sagging in the South. Thompson is trying to get back in the race with a big push in Iowa between now and January 3rd; back in the race meaning a third place finish there behind Huckabee and Mitt Romney.

Giuliani has been bleeding support for the past month over his close association with his driver-turned-New York police chief-turned-Giuliani business partner Bernie Kerik -- indicted on federal corruption charges -- along with a raft of stories about the New York police ferrying his then girlfriend Judy Nathan about.

Over the weekend, and tellingly in Florida rather than New Hampshire, Giuliani attempted to turn the tide with a major address laying out his governing vision for America. Much of his emphasis was on his longstanding hole card of the terrorism/national security/Iranian threat . But the US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear weapons program has neutralized a lot of that message. The speech was familiar material and didn't seem to make much of an impression in the media. Giuliani is in big trouble in the early contests and Florida isn't till the end of January. And now he's in trouble there, too.

Which may leave for national security hawks, as Lieberman is pointing out, John McCain. The former frontrunner was right for years about how badly the war in Iraq was going. His solution was not pull out, it was to change course. Now, since the US armed forces are very capable and most guerillas are smart enough to get out of the way of large forces in their midst, the time-limited military surge in Iraq is having an effect. A space has been created for a political settlement in the country. McCain is a famous Vietnam War hero who runs well in general election match-ups and looks prescient among Republicans. And he might win in New Hampshire if Giuliani falters further there and not all the independents go for the action in the Democratic primary around Obama and Clinton.

After some turbulence last week, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has seemingly stabilized his lead in the next door New Hampshire Republican presidential primary in a new poll. He is, however, threatened everywhere else by Mike Huckabee. John McCain's running well back in second, with Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee bunched right behind. Fred Thompson has melted away to 2%. Romney's whole campaign has been predicated on winning Iowa and New Hampshire.

Now Iowa looks unlikely for Romney, making New Hampshire even more crucial for him. The good thing for Romney is that there aren't many evangelicals in New Hampshire, so Huckabee's surge in Iowa and the South isn't cresting in the Granite State. The bad thing for Romney is that McCain won New Hampshire in 2000 and knows how to win it again. And he doesn't have to waste his time between now and January 3rd in Iowa.

Romney's big speech on religion didn't help him much. Partly because he didn't address concerns about his Mormon faith. Actually, he refuses to talk about it with any specificity. He could explain how he disagrees, if he does, with certain of its tenets that many Americans find to be weird. But his biggest problem as a candidate is that he's a bit too perfect. Too smooth, too well-coifed and well-dressed. And that's before voters get concerned about his recent changes of position on major valence issues like abortion, guns, and gays. He needs to be mussed up, develop a bit of a stammer. Too late for that sort of stage craft.

In contrast to Romney, Huckabee is greatly advantaged. He's not, let's say, overly glamorous. Which actually helps him fend off attacks and move beyond mistakes, of which he's made quite a few.

... Then there's the Ron Paul factor. The libertarian anti-imperialist Republican congressman from Texas -- whose views make those of Huckabee, now being denounced by much of the conventional right for his apostasies, look downright conventional -- is still in single digits in every poll. But he is raising money hand over fist.

In fact, he's reportedly raised an astounding $17.5 million in this quarter. Which puts him up in the Obama and Clinton class financially, far ahead of Giuliani, Thompson, and the rest of the Republicans who don't have Mitt Romney's very big checkbook.

You may be noticing a raft of articles now about the problems with Hillary Clinton's "inevitable" candidacy and the rise of Barack Obama. In fact, well, I did tell you so. Which does not make Obama inevitable. Ideally, you want to ambush the "inevitable" frontrunner a bit later than this.

Wild card element: The Christmas and New Year's season. Who really wants to hear a negative campaign counterattack over Christmastime? I'm referring to normal people, of course.

Which brings us to the sad case of Hillary's now former national co-chairman, Billy Shaheen, husband of former New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen, who attacked Obama for his teenage drug use, which Obama already chronicled in his autobiography. Shaheen resigned the next day, and Hillary apologized to Obama for the incident as they were about to board a plane taking them to the Des Moines debate. But the Clinton campaign keeps mentioning the word "cocaine." Which is perhaps not the best strategy for the campaign of the wife of America's famous playboy president.

Speaking of last week's Iowa debates, they did nothing to hurt either Huckabee or Obama. The editor of the Des Moines Register, always a fairly dull newspaper, did her level best to make these debates -- which should have been barn burners -- absolutely soporific. Very bad for those of us watching in the middle of the day. The Register, incidentally, endorsed Hillary Clinton. The last time the paper backed the Democratic winner in Iowa was Walter Mondale, back in 1984. Probably not an association the Clintons are anxious to have out there. The Register also endorsed John McCain, but he's not playing in Iowa and I doubt most Republicans care.

Obama, who leads in most of the recent Iowa polls, turned in an assured, polished debate performance. He also had the line of the debate. Asked by editor Carolyn Washburn how he can bring change in foreign policy when some of his top advisors in the field are former Clinton Administration officials - which prompted a loud and sustained laugh from Hillary Clinton, who said: "I want to hear the answer to that!" - Obama allowed as how he has advisors with a number of backgrounds. And then the zinger: "I'll be happy to have you advising me, too, Hillary." Which got the big laugh from the audience.

Hillary's campaign is in trouble. Her subtext of inevitability, never real, is belatedly being jettisoned by even the most credulous reporters. Her theme of having the experience to make change work is under serious question. Her attacks on rival Obama aren't very effective.

She tried for a long time to discredit Obama as a naif for wanting to talk with Iran. But the US National Intelligence Estimate, discounting years of saber rattling rhetoric in its assessment of Iran's nuclear weapons program, makes Obama look prescient to Democrats and Hillary behind the curve. A series of scatter shot attacks on other fronts haven't worked.

Then she decided to roll out a new advertising theme. Chart a new beginning with a theme of "New Beginnings." In this ad, full of sunny vistas filled with appropriate Americans, all of it scored with cinematically uplifting music, Clinton calls for new beginnings on health care, education, and Iraq, running past themes and slogans through a media blender. It's hard to see this doing much for her, although it may make her supporters feel better about the campaign.

Bill Clinton, according to several sources upset and frustrated about the situation - since he can't step on stage and right it by himself, being term limited - went to Iowa last week to campaign but was sidelined by the ice storm. Making him even more frustrated. The former president is back there again this week.

John Edwards is still a big factor in Iowa, though not so much anywhere else. Hillary's hope is that he can either find a way to win Iowa, or at least split the anti-Hillary Democratic vote to enable her to squeak through. Her fear has to be that Obama and Edwards knock her into third place. Which might just destroy her candidacy then and there.

As for the Republican presidential debate in Iowa, to be blunt about it, even less happened. The moderator, who is the editor of the Des Moines Register, effectively took the hot button illegal immigration issue off the table. Iran, once a big issue for the Republican candidates, barely came up in the wake of last week's US National Intelligence Estimate downplaying a nuclear weapons program.

I thought Mitt Romney was the best performer on the stage. Mike Huckabee seemed sincere. Fred Thompson was livelier than usual. Rudy Giuliani was competent. John McCain, who is playing for New Hampshire, took a few shots at ethanol subsidies, an Iowa shibboleth that plays badly with New Englanders, thus making it a good bank shot for his New Hampshire hopes. Alan Keyes, who is not a serious candidate, was inexplicably on the stage wasting valuable time.

The upshot is that no one laid a glove on Mike Huckabee, who has the clear lead in Iowa, he was effective and likable, so he won.