The Note: Quacking to the Finish: Immigration Devastates Bush

Immigration reform is dead (again), this time for good (we think), and President Bush almost looked like he was ready to pack it in for the rest of his presidency in the wake of that Senate vote. But he actually had a pretty good day yesterday.

Consider the other big headline out of Washington -- the Supreme Court ruling sharply limiting school districts' use of race in school assignments. Say what you will about the opinion (and the Democratic candidates had plenty to say about it last night), but it's now clear that the president has gotten exactly what he wanted out of his two picks for the high court. Conservatives now have a working (though sometimes tenuous) 5-4 majority on the court, and their four most reliable votes include the court's three youngest members. If Bush was looking for a domestic legacy, he has found it.

But does the right want to win all of these battles? As they well know, the makeup of the Supreme Court is a great political issue -- but victories for conservatives could fire up liberals, making a toxic environment for Republicans even worse next year. The Democratic presidential candidates never looked as united as they did last night at Howard University, when the court ruling -- coupled with Hurricane Katrina, healthcare, and tax cuts for the rich -- allowed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., to summarize: "It is hard to disagree with anything that has been said."

The PBS debate provided few meaningful distinctions between the eight candidates, notwithstanding the occasional bombs lobbed by former Alaska senator Mike Gravel. "The foreign policy flash points that had produced conflict between the Democrats at their earlier debates -- in particular, the war in Iraq -- were largely absent as the candidates spoke easily, finishing one another's sentences and offering jokes and compliments," The New York Times' Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny write.

ABC's Teddy Davis and Tahman Bradley highlight the broad agreement on the stage, particularly over the court ruling, but also point out that Clinton came pretty close to endorsing a tax increase when she cited Warren Buffet's criticism of the cap on Social Security taxes. "That's a lot of money between $95,000 and the $46 million that Warren Buffet made last year," she said. "So yes, we have to change the tax system." (Responded Clinton strategist Mark Penn after the debate, "It's not ruled in or out.")

Takeaways from the debate? The crowd loved Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and he got better as the night went on, though he still hasn't quite got the debate thing down. (He connected with the largely black crowd, but when he received delayed applause on one line, it was almost as if the audience heard so few specifics that they didn't realize he was done with his answer.) Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., made the most of his chances to talk poverty, and all the candidates squeezed in 60-second versions of their stump speeches.

But Clinton was crisp, concise, and in control yet again -- while scoring the only standing ovation of the evening. "Her performance Thursday night was so good it should help her cement her lead in polls of the race nationally," writes Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen. "In Iowa, where she's not been doing as well as she is across the country, it should help her break away from Barack Obama and try to overtake John Edwards." ABC's Kate Snow takes an interesting look at "Hillaryland" -- the women behind the Clinton campaign.

On immigration, the only surprise yesterday was that the bill didn't even come close. Blame whoever you want -- talk radio, Senate leadership, Ted Kennedy, Paris Hilton, or the nativist sentiments that have made the debate unseemly at times -- but the fact is the president had virtually no impact on the final tally. The measure fell 14 votes short of the margin needed to advance, "a feeble showing for a bill that had supposedly been revived," ABC's Jake Tapper reports.

Bush appeared "uncharacteristically dejected" after the vote, and then "did something he almost never does: He admitted defeat," Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post. Immigration earns a place in Bush's dead proposal Hall of Fame, alongside Social Security private accounts, a tax-code overhaul, and a remaking of the judicial system to cut down on excessive litigation. "Now he has surrendered in what was probably his last chance of securing a legacy-making second-term domestic victory," Baker writes.

Politics, of course, goes on, and there's now a new fact to work into the 2008 calculus: a very different Supreme Court. "If another conservative replaces a member of the court's moderate-to-liberal bloc, the country will be set on a conservative course for the next decade or more, locking in today's politics at the very moment when the electorate is running out of patience with the right," Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. writes.

At the debate, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., was the first and most aggressive to bite on the Supreme Court issue, though he was hardly alone in his sentiments. "They have turned the court upside down, and the next president of the United States will be able to determine whether or not we go forward or continue this slide," Biden said.

While Biden was ordering up HIV tests for his fellow candidates (is this what they talk about in the Senate cloakroom?), the candidates were wrapping up their final hours of second-quarter fund-raising -- and making last-ditch attempts to shape expectations. Clinton campaign aides said yesterday that they expect her to raise "in the range of $27 million" this quarter -- slightly more than the campaign did in the first quarter. But they want everyone to know that they're bracing for Obama to raise more. "While that figure is record setting, we do expect Senator Obama to significantly outraise us this quarter," communications chief Howard Wolfson wrote in a memo distributed to journalists and supporters.

Obama, meanwhile, announced yesterday that he's rocketed past 250,000 donors in the first half of the year. Some perspective, per ABC's Jonathan Greenberger: Obama now has as many donors in six months as Howard Dean captured in a year, and if the average donation matches the $248 average in the first quarter, Obama will wind up north of $35 million. That will be a hard figure for the Clinton camp to spin away.

Also today:

The next-to-last installment of The Boston Globe's series on former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., examines his tenure as governor -- after he decided to make his political future in Massachusetts instead of Utah. The Globe's Brian Mooney finds Romney exaggerating his claims to have remade state government. "Romney's success in steering the state through the fiscal maelstrom was one of his key achievements, but in the retelling he and his aides often overstate the accomplishment and understate the side-effects: big fee increases and pressure on local property taxes," Mooney writes. And the grand total of his reduction of the state payroll? 603 jobs, out of more than 44,500.

If there were any questions about the state of the personal relationship between Bush and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., McCain's wife, Cindy, answers that by relating a story about their 15-year-old Bangladeshi-born daughter reading about the smears of the 2000 campaign on the Internet. "She wanted to know why President Bush hated her," McCain told The New York Times' Jennifer Steinhauer.

This is the kind of story McCain would really like to bury (and $15 million or so should do the trick): He told reporters yesterday that he will not consider dropping out if his fund-raising disappoints for a second consecutive quarter. "It would be nuts," he said, per the AP's Liz Sidoti.

With former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., celebrating the demise of the immigration bill and looking entirely like a candidate in New Hampshire yesterday, he "may be violating Federal Election Commission laws by failing to report funds raised in the second quarter," The Hill's Sam Youngman reports. The law is vague, but another candidate could file a complaint to force more disclosure, Youngman writes.

Somebody's polling on whether a presidential run by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., is a good idea, and the polling company had the bad luck of dialing a New York Daily News editor for his thoughts on spending $1 billion to capture the presidency. The Bloomberg camp won't say if it was them, the Daily News' Michael Saul reports.

The state of the military will be the topic today when ABC's Martha Raddatz moderates the next installment in Opportunity 08, ABC's joint project with the Brookings Institution, at 10 am ET in Washington. Panelists include defense experts Michael O'Hanlon and Peter Singer, former assistant defense secretary Peter Rodman, and retired Lt. Gen. Dan Christman.

The kicker:

"I just got to make clear -- I got tested with Michelle," Obama, caught off-guard by Biden's statement that he knew Obama "got tested" for HIV. Michelle is his wife, and they got tested together at a public event in Kenya.

"One day, the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away," President Bush, speaking at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and possibly outlining a new Bush doctrine.