THE SUNDAY RASMUSSEN tracking poll showed some interesting results. John McCain was in the lead with 17 percent of the vote. It was the first time all year that McCain led the poll. Careful observers will note that on Sunday, the year 2007 was 364 days old. Years don't get much older than that. Romney and Huckabee trailed McCain by a single point at 16 percent, and some guy named Giuliani stood at 15 percent. Fred checked in with 12 percent.

My apologies. That crack about Rudy wasn't fair. But his plan to win the nomination--get beat like a rented mule for the first month and then win Florida--was so half-baked and poorly conceived, the people who came up with it should have their licenses to politically consult suspended through the 2012 election. At least. Make a list of those consultants' names. They are the Ed Rollinses of tomorrow.

So what do the numbers mean? First, an easy conclusion--the spotlight has not been Mike Huckabee's friend. He has come across like an aging starlet--attractive at a distance, but up close in front of the klieg lights... I still think he's losing a point or so a day in Iowa, and the scant data we have doesn't disagree. Huckabee will have a very tough time holding on in Iowa. He actually seemed a little testy yesterday on Meet the Press when discussing Mitt Romney. It's the first time we've seen Huckabee do anything other than affability.

Then again, Romney seems to have that effect on his competitors. Appearing on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, John McCain also visibly tensed up when asked about Romney. Stephanopoulos mentioned McCain's latest ad which makes great sport of citing the Concord Monitor's proclamation that Mitt Romney is a phony. Stephanopoulos played some footage of Romney waxing indignant over the ad, and then asked McCain for his response.

"Welcome to the arena," McCain snickered. "I didn't say those words. Those were the Concord Monitor's words."

"Well wait a second," Stephanopoulos interrupted. "You paid for people to see those words calling him a phony. Do you think he's a phony?"

McCain: "I paid for the ad to put up the words of the respected newspapers here in the state of New Hampshire and I think that's perfectly appropriate. Look, we're not going to get in a back and forth with Mitt Romney. We're going on with our campaign. I'm talking about the future ... We're moving on ... Frankly the voters of New Hampshire don't like this kind of negative campaigning, and they reject his negative ads."

Stephanopoulos: "So you think he's a phony or you don't?"

McCain: "No, I think he's a person who's changed his positions on many issues and the voters know that and they'll decide that, and I'll continue to quote from respected newspapers if necessary."

McCain's decision to launch an attack on Romney that was purely ad hominem was a curious one. If he wanted to substantively attack Romney, there are scores of YouTubes lying around that are ideal for such a purpose. It's almost as if McCain's personal animus for Romney overwhelmed his judgment. He just couldn't resist calling Romney a name. Additionally, McCain's usage of a liberal newspaper as a surrogate will reinforce his longtime doubters' impression that the senator is a little cozier with the media than a Republican ought to be.

It really wasn't McCain's best morning on This Week. His snickering over the "phony" charge was reminiscent of Bob Dole at his worst. And his refusal to either stand by the charge or disavow it belied his numerous claims to having invented Straight Talk. John McCain is not always his own best ally.

THERE WAS ALSO a weird display of clumsy Machiavellianism Sunday morning. On ABC, McCain claimed to be profoundly disturbed by Romney's attacks on Huckabee, who he called "a good man." At the same time on Fox, Huckabee was claiming to be profoundly disturbed by Romney's attacks on McCain, who Huckabee likewise described as "a good man."

Regardless of the apparent mutual affection between Huckabee and McCain, it's appearing increasingly unlikely that Huckabee will be able to do McCain a kindness and wound Romney in Iowa. If Romney were to fall in Iowa, McCain's job in New Hampshire would become a lot easier. But again, that's probably not going to happen.

Nevertheless, the other big conclusion suggested by the Rasmussen numbers is that McCain has dramatically surged the last few weeks. The question is whether or not he can keep surging with Republicans focusing on him for the first time since his salad days of McCain/Kennedy. For a variety of reasons, the spotlight may be no kinder to John McCain than it's been to Mike Huckabee.

McCain will have yet another hurdle to get over if Romney comes out of Iowa with a victory. If McCain follows up a Romney victory in Iowa with a win of his own in New Hampshire, it will become a very interesting (and very unpleasant) two man race. But McCain will have his work cut out for him in the Granite State.

One wrinkle to bear in mind--CNN and Fox have both scheduled debates in the four days between Iowa and New Hampshire. The networks have planned exclusive affairs, inviting only the five serious contenders. So the would be POTUSes on stage will number five at most, if you catch my drift.

What happens in those debates will drown out everything else in the days before New Hampshire. Assuming a Romney victory in Iowa, all of the other candidates will target him. But Romney's smooth, impressive, and usually unflappable at these shindigs. Then again, we've never seen such a small gathering of Republican contenders get it on. In all likelihood, those debates will be the shrinking field's last opportunity to derail Romney. They will also be Romney's chance to secure victory.

One last note--the most impressive candidate on the Sunday talk shows yesterday was Fred Thompson on Fox News Sunday. For the FredHeads, his performance had to be a dispiriting reminder of what could have been if he and they hadn't together drunk the Kool-Aid about the magic of the internet. Hopefully the political consultants and their future clients were making a mental note of that.

Dean Barnett is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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