The Note: Playing Hardball

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Herewith six foolproof assertions to take us into the weekend: Elizabeth Edwards is her husband's most effective spokeswoman, until she suddenly won't be (and the same might be said about Bill Clinton). Sen. John McCain's real plan to get back on track takes up more space than seven neatly margined pages (and if it doesn't, it should).

Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani will need more than one speech in more than one state to more than one firefighters' gathering to neutralize attacks from the national union. Every extra day former senator Fred Thompson spends "testing the waters" turns another batch of potential supporters into prunes.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are straying a little too close to the delicate truth to argue effectively for the president's Iraq strategy. And other than the Pentagon press office, the only folks more pleased with the Defense Department's attack on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton work for Senator Clinton.

The blistering letter sent by the Pentagon to Clinton yesterday is an interesting window into how Bush administration officials plan to fight what's left of the political battle over Iraq. It's no longer enough to make the case for staying to the public, or to make it directly to lawmakers in meetings and briefings. Instead, they respond to a two-month-old letter to make familiar, hollow arguments that makes the battle personal between Bush and the Democratic presidential front-runner. With that, they've abandoned hope of recapturing the middle, and instead are making their push to stay in Iraq a call-to-arms for a weary base.

The letter from Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman flatly suggests that Clinton, D-N.Y., is encouraging "enemy propaganda" by having the temerity to suggest that the administration start planning to withdraw troops. Senator Clinton told ABC's Jake Tapper that the letter was "outrageous and offensive," calling it an attempt to "impugn the patriotism of those of us who are asking hard questions." "I've been hearing that there was intense pressure from the vice president's office and other places that the kind of detailed planning that's necessary to take our troops out safely was just not a priority," she said.

Will the administration's tactic hold back wavering Republicans? Yesterday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing would suggest not: "senators from both parties are beginning to openly question whether the Pentagon has undertaken sufficiently serious planning for a US withdrawal of troops, whenever that is to happen," Tapper reports.

And with Secretary Gates in tears talking about the human toll of the war, Ambassador Crocker won't be rewarded for honesty when he delivers lines like this, particularly as US generals plead for additional months to see if the "surge" is working: "We are buying time at a cost of the lives of our soldiers," Crocker told lawmakers, per ABC's Z. Byron Wolf. His one word to describe the atmosphere in Iraq? "Fear," Crocker said. Wait, did somebody say, "enemy propaganda"?

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