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'30 Days of Rough Sledding'

Is Obama running away with Iowa? (Reuters).

How was your weekend?

Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney would part company on the answer to that question. So would Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. John McCain would simply give you a big smile. Rudy Giuliani and John Edwards would like you to think theirs was good but they may be wrong.

The weekend brought an ice storm to Iowa and there was snow in New Hampshire Monday, but the weather did nothing to cool off two nomination battles that grow more intense by the day. The actions of the candidates tell you everything you need to know about how they're feeling.

Hillary Clinton has gone on the offensive against Barack Obama in a way she hasn't come close to up to now. Her attack Sunday on Obama's character was just an opening shot in what aides say will be an increasingly direct assault on the Illinois senator as someone whose record in office doesn't come close to matching his lofty and inspirational rhetoric as a presidential candidate.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has gone on the defensive, scheduling a speech Thursday at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas on the topic of religion and politics. The long-awaited address will attempt to deal directly with the question of whether Americans will elect a Mormon as president. Romney advisers see it as a critically important moment in which the former Massachusetts governor seeks to overcome whatever doubts Republicans may have about him becoming their nominee.

All of this comes in the context of a new Iowa Poll for the Des Moines Register that puts Obama ahead of Clinton in the Democratic race and Huckabee ahead of Romney in the Republican race. The Iowa poll historically is seen as the most reliable measure of attitudes among likely caucus participants, and as such carries significant weight in shaping perceptions.

On the Democratic side, Obama led Clinton by a statistically insignificant 28 percent to 25 percent, with Edwards close behind at 23 percent. In essence, the poll confirmed what has been said before, that Iowa is a three-way race among the Democrats.

What was notable, however, was the shift in support for both since the last Iowa poll in October. Clinton dropped from 29 percent to 25 percent, while Obama rose from 22 percent to 28 percent. Edwards, who led the Iowa poll in May, remained unchanged at 23 percent. At this point, Obama has momentum and Clinton is trying to reverse it.

Character issues appear to be Clinton's weakness in Iowa, which may explain why she has shifted her attacks on Obama to the subject of his character. She scored better than Obama or Edwards on measures of experience, strength, electability and knowledge of the world. But she was seen by Iowa Democrats as the most negative, the most ego-driven and ran behind Edwards and Obama on who was the most likable and who was the most principled.

The Clinton campaign may have had no choice but to step up the attacks on Obama, but she is gambling against a backlash among Iowa voters over her negativity. Given that they already see her as the most negative in the field, perhaps that is a small risk. But in a three-way contest, the candidate who is seen as turning the most negative often pays the highest price.

Edwards appears to believe that is the case. Once the most aggressive in his criticism of Clinton, he has throttled back in the past few weeks. His advisers are more than pleased to see Clinton and Obama tangling, hoping that in the end it will redound to the former North Carolina senator's benefit. In Saturday's debate in icy Des Moines, Edwards was positively nice toward Obama rather than harsh toward Clinton.

On the Republican side, Huckabee looks strong in the overall numbers, but not as strong when GOP voters were asked to rate the candidates on attributes. That is a similar pattern to the findings of a Post-ABC News poll of Iowa taken last month.

Huckabee was at just 4 percent in the Iowa poll conducted in May. By October he was at 12 percent and today he is at 29 percent. Romney was at 30 percent in May, 29 percent in October and is at 24 percent today. His remarkable rise has reshaped the battle for Iowa and, depending on the outcome here, could dramatically alter the overall race for the Republican nomination.

Though he is the hot candidate of the moment, Huckabee, like all the other Republican candidates, still has a series of questions to answer as he tries to capitalize on the attention he is getting.

In Iowa, Huckabee is viewed by Republicans as the most socially conservative, the most principled and, with Romney, the most civil in tone. And only 1 percent called him the most negative. But he runs behind Romney on who is most presidential., who knows most about the world and who is most electable (Giuliani still tops the list followed closely by Romney). On experience, Huckabee runs fourth, in single digits, behind McCain, Romney and Giuliani.

But Iowa is just one part of the Republican equation. Romney now faces two different battles in two different states. His problem in Iowa is clearly Huckabee. In New Hampshire, he has competition from both Giuliani and McCain. Given that his strategy is based entirely on winning early and gaining enough momentum to carry him through some treacherous battles later, he now can ill-afford any slippage in either place.

McCain got an unexpected boost Sunday when the Union Leader, the conservative newspaper in Manchester, endorsed him. McCain has never quite been the ideal conservative for the Union Leader's taste, but the newspaper leadership appears in a more pragmatic frame of mind in this campaign than in some recent ones. McCain's straight talk and foreign policy experience carried the day and the question now is what kind of clout the Union Leader still has.

Giuliani and his team see any rise by Huckabee in Iowa as good for the former mayor, since it causes problems for Romney. But he has had a difficult week ever since's Ben Smith reported on the questionable expensing for security details on trips to the Hamptons when he was mayor and beginning an affair with his now-wife Judith Nathan.

Giuliani's goal has been to spring a surprise on Romney in New Hampshire, but the combination of McCain's Union Leader endorsement and his own problems have put new obstacles in his path. As one GOP strategist put it Monday, 'Rudy's team did not handle last weeks discovery well. They are in for 30 days of rough sledding."

That leaves Romney to deal with the issue of religion. There has been a long debate inside the Romney campaign about whether and when to give such a speech, with those arguing against generally holding the day -- until now. Romney is said to be more comfortable with what he wants to say and the campaign team believes he has to do it now or wait until the nomination battle is decided.

"If he can address it [his religion] in a way that allays the concerns of a key constituency in the Republican Party he will have served his campaign well, said Terry Nelson, who was McCain's campaign manager until mid-summer. "I hoped he would address it sooner, and now it looks like it is in the context of him slipping behind Governor Huckabee. I guess only he and his campaign know why now, and not earlier."

After an eventful weekend, this week could prove to be defining moments for both Romney and Clinton.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  December 3, 2007; 2:17 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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