The Note: Meet The New John Edwards

Remember the sunny, positive John Edwards who smiled his way through the 2004 campaign? Neither do we. The former senator, D-N.C., came to last night's Democratic debate in New Hampshire with a new playbook that underscores his campaign's urgency: He needs to tangle with the top two candidates or risks fading into the semi-irrelevancy of the second tier.

And so Edwards unfurled a zinger that navigated around the fact that senators Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., shared his position by both voting against Iraq war funding 10 days ago: "There is a difference between leadership and legislating."

You've got to love his willingness to go on offense: The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut and Dan Balz write that Edwards for the first time "played the role of aggressor" in the faces of his opponents. "He has been doing so from a distance throughout the campaign, but on Sunday night he did not shy from calling out his rivals directly."

But where does Edwards go with this campaign message? On his left stands Obama, who shut down Edwards' attack with an icy response that reminded viewers that both Edwards and Clinton voted for the Iraq war: "You're about 4 1/2 years late on leadership on this issue."

On his right stands Clinton, who played front-runner by refusing to engage the other candidates -- except where, in declaring that Edwards is wrong to reject the term "war on terror," the contrast made her look stronger. "Often, she seemed to be looking beyond the Democratic primary and toward the general election," write Robin Toner and Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times.

Other highlights that occupied the hacks and flacks who shut down the bar of the Manchester Radisson in the wee hours:

The consensus opinion: It was Clinton's night. No candidate looked more presidential -- despite (or because of) Edwards' attacks -- and the stage seemed to tip in her direction when she defended the field against Wolf Blitzer's (enemy of enemies!) toughest queries. But Clinton seemed a tad glib in dismissing the importance of a pre-war intelligence report that she never read. And did she open herself up to a new line of attack by saying "we are safer than we were" under President Bush's leadership?

Peter Canellos of The Boston Globe writes that Bill Clinton's "favorite tactic" -- glossing over Democrats' differences to unite against common enemies -- "didn't work for Hillary. The Iraq war is simply too pressing a concern for most Democrats."

Obama was much improved from his first debate performance -- and won the battle for the most airtime -- but such formats may never play to his rhetorical strengths. "For a candidate who has made a name for himself as a stirring orator, Mr. Obama is coming up flat when forced to engage his electoral opponents," writes Seth Gitell of the New York Sun.

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., did the most to distinguish himself among the rest of the field, and he's calculating that he'll get credit for intellectual consistency by supporting funding for the troops. But the second tier mostly spent last night clamoring for more chances to be heard -- and none of them rocked the stage enough to shake up the race.

Meanwhile, with the Republicans set to shuffle into the same hockey rink on the outskirts of Manchester tomorrow night, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is getting a jump on the field with an immigration speech in Coral Gables, Fla., at 10 am ET today.

Per excerpts released by his campaign, McCain will challenge the other Republicans (attention, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson) to offer more than slogans as the immigration debate resumes in the Senate this week. "To want the office so badly that you would intentionally make our country's problems worse might prove you can read a poll or take a cheap shot, but it hardly demonstrates presidential leadership," McCain plans to say. Pushing back, one rival campaign points out that McCain explicitly endorsed "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants as recently as 2003 -- conservative heresy that's sure to be hurled back at him soon.

The new ABC News/Washington Post poll out this morning points to the political risks for the Arizona senator. Only 45 percent of Republicans approve of how Bush is handling immigration, down from 61 percent six weeks ago -- a 16-point drop among the president's core supporters since he began touting the Senate immigration bill.

Indeed, the conservative immigration backlash is in full swing even before McCain utters a word. The president's efforts to marginalize opponents of the immigration bill has incited "a vitriol that has at times exceeded anything seen yet between Mr. Bush and his supporters," The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg and Carl Hulse reported yesterday. White House loyalist Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, had this to say about Bush's suggestion that opponents of the plan don't have the nation's best interests in mind: "I think it was uncalled for."

The president is off to Europe for the G8 summit, so he won't have to experience any backlash firsthand -- at least not now.

Also from the weekend:

The ABC News/Washington Post poll confirms the basic dynamics of the campaign: It's a four-man race on the GOP side (with Thompson running third, ahead of Romney), and a three-person field for the Democrats (at least until/unless Al Gore jumps in). Clinton and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., are solid front-runners in the national horse race, but the poll reveals "a softening of underlying confidence" in Giuliani, particularly over his stance on abortion, ABC polling director Gary Langer writes.

The immigration bill was Fred Thompson's target Saturday night in Richmond, as he continued his slow walk toward a campaign announcement. "This is our home and we get to decide who comes into our home," Thompson, R-Tenn., said to his biggest applause of the night, ABC's Liz Marlantes and Tom Giusto report.

Romney, R-Mass., is offering free bus rides to any Iowan who wants to show up for him at the August GOP straw poll in Ames. But the Los Angeles Times' Michael Finnegan sees troubles ahead for Romney -- including "the difficulty he has responding to questions that require unscripted answers," troubles that are leaving a trail of "disappointed Iowans."

Two fired McCain aides are sounding off about the senator's outreach to faith communities, saying they were pressured to collect church directories and couldn't get their phone calls returned by key campaign staffers. "In the end, you came away with the strong sense that they had contempt for the faith-based community," one of the fired aides, Marlene Elwell, told Dan Gilgoff of US News & World Report.

Clinton is distancing herself from the Defense of Marriage Act signed by her husband, saying that she wants the federal government to provide benefits to same-sex couples in states that choose to recognize gay marriage, Politico's Ben Smith reports.

For those who are reading tea leaves from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, R-N.Y., witness the sniping between Giuliani and his successor, after Bloomberg suggested that he won't leave the same "enormous deficits" that Giuliani bequeathed to him. "The gloves appear to be coming off between former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Mayor Bloomberg," writes Michael Saul of the New York Daily News.

The funding fight behind them, congressional Democrats are planning "a summer of repeated Iraq-related votes designed to force Republican lawmakers to abandon the White House before the fall," Noam Levey writes in the Los Angeles Times.

Hustler's Larry Flynt is willing to pay for another DC sex scandal: He's offering up to $1 million for a "verified story" of a sexual relationship with a "prominent officeholder."

The kicker:

"I haven't heard my name associated with it or anything of that nature," Romney, referring to a "disputed prophecy" that a Mormon in the White House will save the Constitution.

"Most of them are, well, you know, they just don't look very American to me," Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, referring to federal airport baggage screeners, and continuing to make things interesting in the GOP presidential race.