MANCHESTER, N.H. --Ten presidential candidates (six Republicans, four Democrats) will pull up swiveling chairs and take to the very same debate stage Saturday night in Manchester for two of those encounters on the presidential calendar that merit circling in bright red (and blue) magic marker.
ABC's Charles Gibson has a bit of a different format in mind for the evening than we've seen in previous encounters -- more genial than gotcha, like a very chatty (and very well-lit) kitchen table. But the candidates will surely provide the fireworks: In this excruciatingly brief window between Iowa and New Hampshire, subtly just doesn't work.
The dynamics would be different even if the format was the same: We have the time crunch, of course, but we also have new frontrunners: "Barack Obama enters Saturday's Democratic debate as the undisputed front-runner with a bull's-eye on his back -- and a humbled and hobbled Hillary Clinton itching to open fire," writes the New York Daily News troika of Michael McAuliff, Ken Bazinet, and Michael Saul.
The Republicans get their 90 minutes first, starting at 7 pm ET from Saint Anselm College and broadcast live on ABC nation-wide -- good entertainment while you're staying up late waiting for returns from the Wyoming caucuses (and you know who you are).
The Democrats kick off shortly after that -- following the photo-op of all photo-ops: All 10 on stage at once, sharing handshakes and awkward conversation.
The aftermath of the Iowa earthquake wasn't pretty for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. The takeaway from the "100 Club" dinner Friday night in Milford, N.H., is simple enough to give Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., another round in the scorecard: Clinton was booed, while Obama's supporters were so energetic that organizers were worried about the security situation.
"Three thousand people packed the auditorium and it seems like there are many more Obama supporters than Clinton supporters," ABC's Eloise Harper and Sunlen Miller report.
"It was not Clinton's best performance."
And this was not the headline she wanted out of her first post-Iowa day: "Hillary Booed at NH Democratic Party Dinner." "When Obama, the dinner's last speaker, took the stage the crowd surged forward chanting 'O-bam-a' and 'Fired Up, Ready to Go!' " Time's Jay Newton-Small reports.
"So many people pressed toward the stage that an announcer asked people to 'please take their seats for safety concerns.' By comparison Hillary was twice booed."
Clinton didn't even wait for her flight to land in New Hampshire to start changing her campaign's message. "I think everybody needs to be vetted and tested," she told reporters upon landing. And this, which Sen. Barack Obama's campaign should read as a warning: "I'm not doing this as an exercise."
Yet one Democrat with close ties to the Clinton campaign tells The Note that Clinton won't run any negative ads against Obama, out of a fear of a backlash in this hyper-politicized crunch between Iowa and New Hampshire.
So the dirty work falls to surrogates and oppo-researchers, who got off to a rollicking start, per ABC's Kate Snow. "While the senator was vague, her campaign pointed out to ABC News examples of Obama's liberal positions, including his 2004 statement to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for federal crimes," Snow writes.
"They also pointed out a statement Obama made in 2003 that he was 'a proponent of a single payer health care program,' which he no longer seems to support today."
Former President Bill Clinton tells Snow that his wife can turn things around, but adds: "I just wish we had 10 days instead of five."
He's right: Redefining a campaign inside of five days is never easy. Redefining a campaign that's the product of years of meticulous planning -- and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of (sometimes) smart strategic advice -- is a monumental task. And it's one that was not completed inside of the first 24 hours after Iowa.
"Mrs. Clinton is recalibrating her message in hopes of producing Comeback Kid: The Sequel," Patrick Healy and John M. Broder write in The New York Times. "She said she wanted to appeal to young people, and surrounded herself with them at the rally [in Nashua], in contrast to her caucus night party where older, familiar faces from the Clinton administration and her political team stood out." (You mean Madeleine Albright isn't the face of change?)
"Yet many of the challenges and questions she faced in Iowa -- like Clinton fatigue and the generational showdown with Mr. Obama -- remained part of her baggage as she flew east," write Healy and Broder. (They even work in a Monica quote from a voter).
And they document just enough infighting to keep things really interesting over at Camp Clinton: "One longtime adviser complained that the campaign's senior strategist, Mark Penn, realized too late that 'change' was a much more powerful message than 'experience.' Another adviser said Mr. Penn and Mr. Clinton were consumed with polling data for so long, they did not fully grasp the personality deficit that Mrs. Clinton had with voters."
The bruised-but-not-beaten narrative would seem to be the favorite storyline -- but Sen. Clinton isn't leading with humility. Rather than acknowledge defeat and say she's learning from the licks she's taken, she's . . . slamming Iowa?
Imagine how badly Clinton would have lost the caucuses if these sentences were uttered 24 hours earlier: "You're not disenfranchised if you work at night," she said of the New Hampshire primary. "You're not disenfranchised if you're not in the state."
Clinton also declared herself "the most innocent" of all the Democrats, a reference to the fact that Obama is untested and less vetted (and that is a fact). But the problem is that the jury hasn't come back yet.
While voters deliberate, this has got to change, and fast: "Her speech, delivered less than 13 hours after the caucus, was remarkable for the number of new elements introduced in it -- including an explicit reference to the possibility of another terrorist attack," The Boston Globe's Michael Kranish reports.
"The 40-minute speech touched on so many themes that it seemed as if Clinton had not yet settled on her fundamental argument on why New Hampshire voters should disregard her resounding Iowa defeat."
"For those who counseled that she could not campaign both as an agent of change and the most experienced candidate in the race, Clinton had a clear answer: Her two-sided message would not be altered much," report The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut, Jonathan Weisman, and Paul Kane. "Clinton did not appear ready to embrace her defeat, instead trying aggressively to move past it."
It's far easier to embrace victory, and the candidate and crowds carried no shortage of enthusiasm in Obamaland: "There's no destiny we cannot fulfill," the Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman writes. "That's been the premise of this campaign."
Momentum is a powerful force in politics, and Obama carried it through day one of this five-day spring; whether he does so in day two depends almost entirely on the debate. "The winnowing of the field opens the way for Illinois Sen. Obama . . . to build on his momentum," Jackie Calmes and Amy Chozick report in The Wall Street Journal. "New Hampshire could shape up as friendly turf for Mr. Obama. Independent voters, who have responded to his campaign message of changing Washington, outnumber both Democrats and Republicans in the Granite State."
On the Republican side, former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., won Iowa, but the momentum -- quite predictably -- belongs to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "Mr. McCain is the latest beneficiary of the continuing upheaval in the Republican field that has seen nearly all of the candidates rising at various points," Adam Nagourney and Carl Hulse report in The New York Times.
And here's why it matters that Romney would be the last kid chosen if the Republican field was one (exceedingly dorky) gym class: "Complicating Mr. Romney's life even more, Mr. Huckabee's campaign manager, Ed Rollins, suggested he was entering something of a temporary alliance of interest with Mr. McCain against Mr. Romney," Nagourney and Hulse reports. Said Rollins: "We're going to see if we can't take Romney out. . . . We like John. Nobody likes Romney."
Good luck on stage, governor. And good luck defeating not only McCain but New Hampshire's most influential newspaper among Republicans.
"Sen. John McCain wore the look of a confident man yesterday as his campaign bus rolled through the Merrimack Valley," the New Hampshire Union Leader's Scott Brooks writes.
"The landscape seemed different yesterday for Republicans in New Hampshire, a state that just a month ago was considered a stronghold for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney took a distant second in Iowa Thursday, a disappointing finish that could only heighten the pressure on him to win the nation's first primary."
Romney supporters Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., told ABC News on Friday that the Union Leader's backing makes McCain even more formidable than he otherwise would have been. "The Union Leader gives McCain a very serious base, like the Christian right base for Huckabee in Iowa," Gregg said.
His spin: Second place is OK for Romney. The reality: It's not.
"Stung by Huckabee, Romney now faces the real possibility of a defeat here at McCain's hands that would severely damage his candidacy," Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post. Romney had three fresh words for McCain that do a fairly good job of summing up his new message: "He is Washington," Romney said.
"Washington is Broken," reads the sparkling new sign at Romney's Saturday morning event in Derry, N.H., ABC's John Berman reports.
"Mitt Romney is hopping on Barack Obama's bandwagon . . . sort of," write ABC's Berman, Ursula Fahy, and Matt Stuart. The blatant, repeated emphasis on 'change' represents a change for Romney, who while always touting himself as an outsider and a 'turnaround' master, has focused on his social, economic, and security credentials in recent days.
Romney: "People want change. . . . Everywhere I have been, I have brought change."
Romney's got new negative ads hitting McCain, but roughing up McCain in New Hampshire is far different than defining Huckabee in Iowa should have been -- and we saw how well that worked out.
McCain's feeling buoyant: "How about 'The Mac is back?' " he said. "How about that?" The Los Angeles Times' James Rainey and Maeve Reston: "McCain's new effervescence stemmed not only from the strong crowds of voters and reporters who followed him here but from the knowledge that his chief New Hampshire rival -- former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- had been deflated by his disappointing second-place finish in Thursday's Iowa caucuses."
Despite his win, Huckabee benefits from low expectations, since everyone knows going in that evangelicals are harder to find in New Hampshire than Iowa. "That will not be the pool of voters in far more secular and libertarian New Hampshire, where many take the state motto 'Live Free or Die' literally," ABC's Jake Tapper reports.
Said Huckabee: "A big tent revival out on the grounds of the Concord state capitol? We'll get 'em all converted to the evangelical faith and then we'll win." (Offer them some Red Sox tickets -- Monstuh seats -- and some Dunkin' Donuts and maybe you've got a chance, governor.)
Short of that, Matthew Dowd has some advice for the candidates on his ABC blog (and the debate is important): "Huckabee is going to need to prove fairly quickly that he can win votes outside of evangelical voters and that is going to be tough in New Hampshire. He needs to prove his support isn't limited to one group. He needs to convey a sense of seriousness that is beyond the jovial attitude.
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner's prediction: record turnout, topping 500,000. "Gardner is predicting 260,000 residents will vote in the Democratic primary and 240,000 will vote in the Republican primary," per the Concord Monitor's blog. "He predicts that 150,000 undeclared voters -- who can choose which primary to vote in -- will cast votes. Of those, he thinks 90,000 will choose to vote in the Democratic primary and 60,000 in the Republican."
Get all of the candidates' schedules, and more on Saturday's debates, in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also in the news:
There's an actual real contest on tap on Saturday: Wyoming Republicans are caucusing to choose 12 Republican National Convention delegates, with results expected about 5 pm ET. "Don't forget Wyoming," AP's Mead Gruver writes. (But most of the candidates have.) "Whether anyone has an advantage is unknown," Gruver continues. "There has been no public polling, and those familiar with the results of the Republican precinct caucuses held last month said no clear candidate emerged when delegates to the county conventions were selected."
The Weekly Standard's John McCormack handicaps Wyoming as a Romney-Ron Paul duel. "Romney has had the most active campaign in the state -- his sons have personally contacted a number of people across Wyoming," he writes -- and two of the five brothers will be there Saturday evening. "But it's hard to say how the election will turn out. With so few people voting tomorrow, it's conceivable that Ron Paul's zealous supporters could persuade enough people to poach a few national delegates."
Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., is casting the race as between himself and Obama -- and good luck with that. He "juggled the roles of underdog and victor" on the trail on Friday, Chelsea Conaboy reports in the Concord Monitor. He knows he is in Red Sox Nation: "New Hampshire knows what it's like to be the underdog and to run against a team from New York with all the money in the world," he said. "I embrace it."
Edwards is also answering questions about his wife's health: "Elizabeth's great I have to tell you -- and that's the truth," Edwards said Friday in New Hampshire, after being asked by a voter about rumors that she's not well, ABC's Raelyn Johnson writes. "You tell anybody that you're on the phone with and whoever is circulating those rumors they're false, and Elizabeth is doing great, feels great and she's healthy."
The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos writes up the different economic face of the Republican Party. "For decades, Republicans sought to reach beyond their traditional base of business-oriented, upper-income voters by wooing blue-collar voters through social issues and appeals to patriotism," Canellos writes. "But Thursday in Iowa, working-class Republicans flexed their muscles, sending former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas to a clear victory over businessman Mitt Romney - and leaving some upper-income conservatives to wonder whether they are in control of their party anymore."
The blogosphere is a-buzz with an entry from the department of "RATS" -- brought to you by Romney media guru Alex Castellanos, who brought us the infamous 2000 Bush-Cheney ad. Actually, this one flashes the less sexy word "rati" for a millisecond or so -- a piece of the anti-McCain word "immigration," HuffingtonPost's Sam Stein writes in rounding up the blogs. "Over-imaginative scrutiny of a screenshot," said Romney spokesperson Kevin Madden. "It's the same sort of reasoning that would argue that the 'gal' in the word 'illegal' is a subliminal appeal to female voters."
As Clinton seeks to attract young voters, why can't that young person who's at her side utter actual meaningful words in public? The Washington Post's Lois Romano tries to answer the question of the silent 27-year-old former first daughter: "At this point it's not clear whether it is the parents or the child who is resisting," she writes. Said a longtime aide: "Believe me, we'd love to have her out there. . . . It's Chelsea -- she won't do it and her parents respect that."
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is spending at least a small chunk of his giant bankroll on New Hampshire and South Carolina television, ABC's Z. Byron Wolf reports. "Paul will air a new ad in New Hampshire to cast his opposition to the war in Iraq as support for the troops," Wolf writes. "Based on similar ads he ran in Iowa, the New Hampshire ad points to a study earlier in the campaign cycle that found members of the military gave more campaign contributions to Paul than any other Republican candidate."
Think former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., is excited to be in New Hampshire? "It's about South Carolina and getting to South Carolina, and the South Carolina campaign really starts today," Thompson said Friday, per ABC's Christine Byun. He's here for the debates, Saturday night on ABC and Sunday night on Fox News Channel -- and that's it. "Thompson does not have public events scheduled for this weekend leading to the primary," Byun reports.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, didn't make the cut for ABC's Saturday night debate under the network's standards, and he's filed an FCC complaint against the network. "Kucinich argued that ABC is violating equal-time provisions by keeping him out of the debate, per the AP's write-up.
The networks rules predated Iowa. Candidates had to meet at least one of three criteria: place first through fourth in Iowa, poll 5 percent or higher in one of the last four major New Hampshire surveys, or poll 5 percent or higher in one of the last four major national surveys. Those rules are also keeping former senator Mike Gravel, D-Alaska, and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., off the stage.
"Here you will have more time to go in depth on the issues," says ABC political director David Chalian.
"What we learned last night is that the status quo is yesterday, and change is tomorrow and tomorrow begins today." -- Former senator John Edwards. (But what if tomorrow is Sunday, and two more tomorrows after that is primary day?)
"What we're going to do to change Washington is to bring someone in -- I'm talking about me." -- Mitt Romney, tossing subtlety aside.
I'll be live-blogging both debates from inside the debate hall at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. Watch them on ABC and be part of the conversation online here.
A reminder: Saturday's debates -- sponsored by ABC News, Facebook and WMUR-TV -- will be held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. Republicans will debate from 7-8:30 pm ET and Democrats will follow from approximately 8:45-10:15 pm ET. The two 90-minute debates, moderated by ABC's Charlie Gibson with questions from WMUR anchor and political director Scott Spradling, will air in primetime on the ABC Television Network.
As noted above, the Democratic debates will air immediately after the Republican one.