Has Hillary the Frontrunner Stumbled? Will Fred Survive His Scandal?

This week in presidential politics, the Democratic race is at last engaged, while on the Republican side Rudy Giuliani takes another stab at New Hampshire, and Fred Thompson has to deal with the revelation that his old friend and national co-chairman is a convicted drug dealer and bookie.

But all this is overshadowed by what may be the country's biggest geopolitical headache, the deepening crisis in Pakistan.

At the end of the week, the Democrats all gather in Des Moines, Iowa for a key event in what was already a tight three-way race there between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards, the state party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner. Many state parties around the country have 'J-J dinners' as they're called, to raise funds and enthusiasm for the parties and celebrate the founders of the Democratic Party, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. (But not in all states. In California,f or example, the P.C. crowd has never cottoned to the name, due to Jackson's heritage as slave owner and Indian fighter. Not that Jefferson didn't own slaves, too.)

In any event, the Iowa J-J dinner comes with the frontrunning Clinton in some trouble after last week's debate in Philadelphia. In the aftermath of last Tuesday night's debate, Hillary Clinton's campaign didn't issue the usual assured claims of victory. Even as the New York senator received a huge endorsement - AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees - her campaign put out the video you see above, which "light-heartedly" says that her opponents "piled on" her in the debate. And in a conference call, which the Capitol insider newspaper The Hill somehow was allowed to listen to and write about, top Clinton strategists and supporters discussed their concern about her debate performance and anger with moderators Tim Russert and Brian Williams.

How bad is the trouble she's in?

I've been saying for months that her coronation is by no means assured. And that candidates, even seemingly downtrodden ones, can rapidly emerge in early primaries and caucuses. Presidential primary politics is like nothing that most people in politics experience. It can be a mercurial, rapid-fire experience in which fortune turns on a dime.

That said, I thought Clinton, despite the fire she was taking throughout the debate, was in command up until the final two minutes. NBC newsman Russert, a former aide to Mario Cuomo, was definitely going at her. But were I in his position, I'd do much the same. Not necessarily to "get" her, but to inject some life into the debate and get some answers.

Of course, Russert may have been peeved by something Clinton tried on him in the previous debate, in which she pooh-poohed his questions about her views on Social Security, implying that the issue is some sort of obsession of his.

Be that as it may, Clinton was merely dinged a bit by the moderators. And her actual opponents - even John Edwards, who performed well - didn't score many points against her. Until the end, when she stumbled on the drivers licenses for illegal immigrants issue, giving what sounded like two different answers in the same exchange.

And it wasn't Edwards, or the sub-par performing Barack Obama, who highlighted the issue, it was Chris Dodd. Although Edwards skillfully waited for Dodd to express his disdain for Clinton's posturing before deftly jumping in to make the point that she'd expressed two different positions in two minutes.

A fatal mistake for Clinton? Hardly. She can always back the lesser license option, in the manner of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Illegal immigrants are obviously driving, since they play a huge role in the US economy. Best to make sure they're properly trained and insured, without granting further rights of citizenship. (This is not my personal opinion, by the way, it's my political assessment of the issue.)

Is it a turning point? Only if her opponents can ramp up their game. Remember, nothing that Obama or Edwards did in that debate caused her much trouble. Of course, Edwards and, by the weekend, Obama, were in full stride to capitalize on the chink in Clinton's armor.

John Edwards promptly launched his first TV ad in Iowa. His campaign says he will be on the air there from now through the contest on the ongodly ungodly date of January 3rd.

Iowa is a must-win state for Edwards, running third around the country and trailing badly in fundraising. His campaign got a boost this week from his turning in the strongest performance in Tuesday night's debate in Philadelphia.

Then, Obama introduced a Senate resolution to clarify that Congress has granted Bush no authority to launch a military strike on Iran.

He and John Edwards are making the case that Clinton's vote for a Joe Lieberman resolution calling the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization is an enabling step on the path to a coming war with Iran. Actually, US military options with regard to Iran are far more limited than either hawks or doves make them out to be. But the idea of war serves their respective purposes.

Clinton tried to respond to the setback by saying that the guys are "piling on" her. John Edwards then put out this very clever video response to Hillary Clinton, believing that what he calls her "double talk" will trump her complaints that the men are piling on her. It's called "The Politics of Parsing." I've heard they're going to air it, but at its present 1:23 it's too long for standard 30 or 60-second broadcast mode.

This week the top three Democrats will continue the maneuvering in the run-up to their joint appearance in Iowa. Clinton is hardly in extremis as a result, and national polls show no damage so far, but the coverage is far more focused and intense in the early states where the race will actually be shaped.

But there is a cultural shift that may be underway, with Saturday Night Live just over the weekend opening its show with a scathingly funny "Hillary's Halloween Party." Hostess Hillary comes as a bride, though most everyone thinks she's wearing a witch costume, husband Bill is a player from "The Pick-Up Artist," Bill Richardson -- who came to Hillary's rescue a few times in last week's debate -- comes as former veep Al Gore, and someone very intriguing comes as Barack Obama.

The Republican race continues to be fairly unformed, with the top four of Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and John McCain continuing their drive to establish or re-establish their conservative bona fides. Dark horse Mike Huckabee is catching on in Iowa, but still has very little money.

Giuliani is going to make a push this week to close the gap again with Romney in New Hampshire. But the only drama on tap so far is Fred Thompson coping with the revelation that one of his four national campaign co-chairmen is a convicted drug dealer. The fellow, an old friend of Thompson's, has convictions for selling marijuana and cocaine, as well as bookmaking. He apparently met Thompson after his colorful past, befriended him, and has frequently flown the candidate in his plane during this campaign.

Meanwhile, the underlying dynamics of the race were being reshaped elsewhere -- in conferences in Istanbul and London dealing with the Iraq security situation and Iran's nuclear program, as well as Russia's price for helping with both -- until the even more tectonic events in Pakistan.

Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, threw US geostrategy into further disarray over the weekend by essentially declaring martial law in America's most essential ally in the Terror War, the only Islamic nation with nuclear weapons, shutting down the judiciary, rounding up the mostly secular political opposition, and pulling the plug on independent TV, including cutting the signal of Sky News, CNN, and the BBC.

"Extremists are roaming freely in the country," said Musharraf, addressing the nation, "and are not afraid of the law-enforcing agencies. They are very confident."

I have a feeling that this week the candidates are going to have to be equally confident - and start addressing this troubling reality.