The Note: Then There Were Four:

News flash (like a lightning bolt?): There are now four viable Republican candidates for president. Start with the three men who walked onto the middle of the stage last night in New Hampshire as front-runners and left the same way. And throw in the actor-senator-actor who is delaying his formal announcement for dramatic effect -- and media bounce.

The other seven candidates needed something game-changing last night, with one short month before the end of second-quarter fund-raising and two long months before the next GOP debate. They didn't get it. The third Republican debate of the 2008 cycle was a mostly cautious affair that cemented the field's dynamics, as the top tier gets better with every debate.

Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., highlighted his 9/11 experience by attacking Democrats. (Was that electrical storm a message to Rudy, or was the Almighty sending Hizzoner a lifeline by turning a tough question about abortion into the funniest episode of the night?) Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., spoke eloquently about everything from his Mormon faith to energy security, and pitched himself as successor to Ronald Reagan. (But seriously, governor, is the nation ready for a president who uses the term "null set?") Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was virtually alone on the issue of immigration -- as expected -- but he spoke bluntly and personally about the war's toll. (Shades of the old McCain?)

All three front-runners "had moments in which they shined, providing voters in New Hampshire and nationwide glimpses of their potential strengths," Dan Balz and Michael Shear write in The Washington Post. They saw the immigration skirmishing as the debate's highlight, with McCain "isolated" -- but both McCain and his many critics left happy with what was said.

The Big Three weathered more than a few barbs, and former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., soared when talking about his faith. But that was eclipsed by the serial attacks on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and the efforts by all the men on stage to distance themselves from President Bush, per ABC's post-debate analysis.

The debate "highlighted the essence of the top three candidates," columnist Scot Lehigh writes in The Boston Globe. "Bottom line: Romney was most polished -- but McCain seemed most principled."

Then there's Fred Thompson, whose entry into the race will shrink -- not grow -- the field, since he's stealing the campaign rationale of perhaps five other candidates. The former senator, R-Tenn., upstaged all of his soon-to-be rivals on Fox News immediately after the debate. Say this about his nascent campaign: When it comes to managing media, they get it. Thompson used the appearance to launch his skeletal Website, www.ImWithFred.com, and to respond to his critics on the left and the right: "It's a badge of honor to get attacked by some of these bozos," he said.

Also today:

It's 2 1/2 years in prison for "Scooter" Libby. With the sentence likely to begin within two months, now commences the pardon drumbeat -- led by conservative commentators and helped along by the GOP candidates -- plopping a very big question squarely in the president's lap. "The issue could confront Bush in a matter of weeks when, barring a judicial change of heart, [Vice President Dick] Cheney's former chief of staff will have to trade his business suit for prison garb," Peter Baker reports in The Washington Post.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush "felt terrible for the family, especially his wife and his kids" -- but the president won't yet say if he feels terrible enough to issue a pardon. Cheney issued a statement labeling it a "tragedy," praising Libby's "personal integrity," and adding: "Speaking as friends, we hope that our system will return a final result consistent with what we know of this fine man."

Let's get this straight: It is not appropriate for the president to say whether he'll consider a pardon, but it is acceptable for the vice president to urge a federal appeals court to overturn a criminal conviction?

Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., has resigned his last remaining committee assignment in the wake of Monday's indictment, though he stated that doing so expresses "no admission of guilt or culpability," The New York Times' Carl Hulse reports. The House ethics process is churning into action, but Jefferson's mere presence in the House will be a daily distraction for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. -- a very visible way for Republicans to mock Pelosi's commitment to ethics in Congress.

Sen. Barack Obama's "faith week" took an interesting turn yesterday with his speech to a ministers' conference that the nation has failed to address the "quiet riot" of hopelessness among urban blacks. "Those 'quiet riots' that take place every day are born from the same place as the fires and the destruction," Obama, D-Ill., said. It was "a rare focus on race and poverty by a candidate who so far has limited himself to only a few speeches on racial issues," the Chicago Tribune's Mike Dorning writes.

Like Clinton, Obama has switched his position on the federal Defense of Marriage Act: He now wants it repealed, though he came out in support of it in 2003, Lynn Sweet reports in the Chicago Sun-Times. The Obama camp notes, however, that he changed his position in early 2004 -- well before he was elected to the Senate, and more than two years before he began contemplating a presidential run.

Michael Cooper and Patrick Healy of The New York Times look at the fallout from Clinton's debate comment that the nation is safer since 9/11. "Rival Democratic campaigns, arguing that the war in Iraq has harmed security in America by breeding terrorists, are using the remark to highlight differences with her on the issue of the ability to be commander in chief, which political analysts view as a threshold issue for any woman running for president," they write. It's hard to see this storyline as more than a blip, though Obama and Edwards camps would like to see it live on -- notwithstanding their own previous comments on the subject.

A new Pew Research Center poll has good news for Fred Thompson: 37 percent of those who have heard of him say there's a good chance they will support him, the same level of support enjoyed by front-runner Giuliani, though Giuliani remains much better known at this point. The poll also has Bush reaching a new nadir in his job-approval rating: 29 percent, with his support among Republicans dropping 12 points since April.

Thompson is seeking "seed money" of some $4.6 million from his group of 100 "First-Day Founders," according to the math performed by The Hill's Sam Youngman. That's a lot of seeds.

Fresh of announcing his new campaign to oust Republicans who support the immigration bill, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., is ready to make a lot more noise -- and not in the typical campaign places. Tancredo said he plans to redirect his schedule away from Iowa and New Hampshire so he can travel to Republican-held congressional districts nation-wide, where he "hopes to pressure GOP incumbents in their own back yards," the Rocky Mountain News' M.E. Sprengelmeyer reports. "This is the whole ballgame here to a large extent," Tancredo said.

The kicker:

"Scooter must be Jailed!" letter from a certain Tripp Badger to the judge in the Libby trial, one of nearly 200 sent by folks including Henry Kissinger, James Carville, Donald Rumsfeld, and Gen. Peter Pace.

"Look, for someone who went to parochial schools all his life, this is a very frightening thing," Giuliani, responding to the message from above during last night's debate.