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Such well-timed happenstance along the Clinton trail

An amazing coincidence the other day on the campaign trail in Iowa with Hillary Clinton.

The New York senator was in Donnellson as part of a broad statewide tour in which she, her husband, relatives, friends and Magic Johnson spread out to all 99 crucial counties to tell stories meant to soften her image in what’s become a very tight Democratic caucus race.

At a campaign forum in the fire station, a caucus site come Jan. 3, Clinton happened to be asked about her religious faith. Practicing Methodist, she responded, adding, “I’m often asked if I’m a praying person, and I am a praying person. My father prayed at his bedside every night and we prayed at the table over dinner.”

Then, someone pointed out that Clinton’s childhood Sunday-school teacher, Rosalie Bentzinger, from her Park Ridge, Ill., days, happened to be right there in the very same Iowa fire station at that same moment. Can you believe it? The Sunday-school teacher stood up. Clinton rushed over. They hugged.

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The 84-year-old Bentzinger gave Clinton a photograph she happened to have with her. And Clinton announced, “She has a picture of my confirmation class -- March 27, 1959.”

Clinton aides said they were unaware the Sunday-school teacher was in the crowd.

Tancredo’s termination

The other day in Des Moines, a Tom Tancredo news conference drew probably the biggest turnout of his entire campaign. The diminutive representative confirmed the end of his GOP presidential candidacy, narrowing the Republican field to . . . seven.

Although Tancredo’s bid barely registered in the polls, he said it was worth it because, in all modesty, he’d changed the contest itself. He’d forced the issue of illegal immigration to the campaign’s front.

What Tancredo did not mention, of course, was that being seen on national TV debates didn’t hurt his exposure and statewide name recognition back home in Colorado, where he’s fully expected to run for the vacant Senate seat next year. See how everything is connected?

Thompson’s winning line

As an actor, Fred Thompson knows the value of repeats (nothing like residual checks to keep the bank account healthy).

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As a presidential contender, he’s hoping that repeated references to what’s become known as his “hands down” moment will boost his political stock.

Amid continuing negative critiques of his campaign style, he’s reveling in his one widely acclaimed star turn: his refusal, during the last Republican debate in Des Moines, to accede to the moderator’s demand for a raised-hand answer to a global warming question.

In Iowa, his campaign bus now includes this slogan: “The Clear Conservative Choice. Hands Down.” He’s also been telling voter after voter that he won the debate -- you guessed it -- “hands down.”

The other night on Fox News’ “Hannity & Colmes” show, Thompson expanded his repertoire. Said he: “I’m not raising my hand until Chief Justice John Roberts swears me in” as president.

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A good line. But chances are he’s going to need several more -- quickly -- to win a show of hands among political pros on his chances of emerging as his party’s nominee.

Late-night leniency?

What factor is most likely to shake up the presidential race? How about the expected return on Jan. 2 of several late-night talk-show hosts, including Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and David Letterman?

Fresh versions of their shows have been victims of the Writers Guild of America strike.

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For several weeks, presidential candidates who say something silly or are the subject of embarrassing revelations may have been hurt -- but they haven’t become a national punch line.

With the various talk-show hosts pursuing ways to return to the air even as the strike continues, that should change.

Who has lucked out the most from the work stoppage?

Almost certainly Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which had some of its toughest moments recently. It’s safe to bet that Leno, Letterman, et al would have reveled in her difficulties, as well as the aside from her husband, former President Clinton, that he opposed the Iraq war “from the beginning.”

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Rudy Giuliani no doubt was thanking his lucky stars for the picket line when a new light was cast upon his tumultuous personal life as mayor of New York.

Mike Huckabee has probably also benefited. Both comments from the former Arkansas governor -- “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?” and “A wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband,” a statement he supported in an old ad -- would seem tailor-made for late-night cracks.

Iowa Mormon country?

The possible downside of Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith to his presidential hopes has been analyzed for months, and ultimately spurred his high-profile speech on the topic. However, a recent Wall Street Journal story explored its upside -- the core of Mormons in Iowa who, it is expected, will be there for him on caucus night.

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The story reports that although Romney “isn’t actively courting members of his faith” in Iowa (an effort that might focus more attention on his religion than the campaign would want), he “doesn’t seem to have to. Although he had very little national name recognition when he announced his candidacy, Mr. Romney was already well-known within the [Mormon] community, particularly after he ran the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.”

One Mormon leader in Iowa said he expects about 7,000 Mormons to attend caucuses on Jan. 3, with about three-quarters backing Romney. That’s a nice bloc to have, given caucus participation.

In a recent Iowa State University poll, turnout for the Republican gatherings was projected at 74,000 to 103,000. For Democrats, the prediction was 130,000 to 175,000.

Times staff writer Joe Mathews contributed to this report.

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Excerpted from The Times’ political blog, Top of the Ticket, at www.latimes.com/ topoftheticket.


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