The Note: Playing Hardball

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"?

Even as staunch a loyalist as Giuliani, R-N.Y., is putting some daylight between himself and the president. In interviews with The New York Times and USA Today, the former mayor criticized the Bush administration for not putting enough pressure on Pakistan to pursue suspected terrorists, and hinted strongly that the administration has allowed the war in Iraq to detract from efforts to pursue al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "Neither one of these two wars -- the one in Afghanistan/Pakistan or the one in Iraq -- was nearly at the level of the planning we had done for the two wars we would have to fight at once," Giuliani told the Times' Marc Santora.

This is why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Democratic leaders don't feel pressure to compromise with Republicans in crafting a bill that would change course in Iraq. "Reid's leadership team has placed a bet that -- after a month-long recess at home with voters in August, followed by a Sept. 15 assessment of the war's progress from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq -- Senate Republicans will feel the pressure to give up and endorse stringent Democratic withdrawal timelines," Paul Kane and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post.

As for the political fallout of Edelman's letter, it's a "gift" for Clinton, the New York Daily News' Richard Sisk and Ken Bazinet report. It "could reassure some anti-war Democrats still irked by Clinton's early support for the Iraq War," they write.

Also making news:

How to bring a campaign back from the dead in three easy steps: Spend less, raise more, then win New Hampshire and South Carolina. That's the concise argument for the road to recovery for McCain, R-Ariz., as outlined in a memo that found its way into the inbox of Politico's Jonathan Martin. (If those first two steps were so easy, what took so long to make them happen?) The formula: "over-perform in Iowa" (whatever that means), win in New Hampshire ("John McCain country"), then marvel at the consequences, with the "momentum of a New Hampshire win sweeping us to a victory in South Carolina." Great, so we can tune out for the next seven months.

The disclosure of lobbying and legal work Thompson performed on behalf of an abortion-rights group in the early 1990s has prompted a behind-the-scenes clash with former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., whose campaign has been eager to spread the word that another candidate has a checkered record on abortion, per Michael Finnegan of the Los Angeles Times. "Disclosure of his lobbying to ease a rule that barred abortion counseling at federally funded clinics gave Romney an opening to try to block Thompson's momentum," Finnegan writes.

Romney is also picking a fight with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., blasting him for suggesting that "age-appropriate" sex education should begin as early as Kindergarten. "In my view, zero is the right amount," Romney said Wednesday night, per ABC's Teddy Davis and Lindsey Ellerson. They report that, while Romney was governor, the state education department called for sex education to begin in elementary schools -- and for Massachusetts students to know, by the end of the fifth grade, a fair amount about sex and sexual orientation.

Remember Jay Garrity, the former Romney aide accused of impersonating a state trooper and pulling over reporters under false pretenses? The Boston Herald's Casey Ross does, and reports that Garrity "created phony law enforcement badges that he and other staffers used on the campaign trail to strong-arm reporters, avoid paying tolls and trick security guards into giving them immediate access to campaign venues." This carefully worded statement from the Romney campaign: "No one on the Mitt Romney for President campaign is authorized to use a badge, nor has the campaign provided anyone with a badge."

With a New York Times/CBS poll showing Clinton facing skepticism among female voters -- not just Elizabeth Edwards -- the Times' Patrick Healy looks at the "delicate balance" Clinton faces when discussing the historic nature of her candidacy: "appealing to women's pride, while at the same time extending her candidacy beyond sex." He points out that whenever Clinton mentions that she'd be the nation's first female president, she quickly adds, "But I'm not running because I'm a woman; I'm running because I think I'm the best qualified person."

Giuliani stands beside some friendly firefighters today in South Carolina, notwithstanding the critical video released last week by the International Association of Fire Fighters. "Sentiment about Giuliani ran quite warm among the paid and volunteer firefighters circulating through an exhibition hall," Celeste Katz reports in the New York Daily News. "Most of those interviewed thought Giuliani did an admirable job on 9/11, and only a few had seen or heard of the video." Still, a small group of firefighter protesters will greet Giuliani at the door, Katz reports.

Also from Clinton's interview with ABC's Tapper, the senator concedes that a troop withdrawal could cause more violence and death in Iraq. "I regret deeply that there well may be continuing and perhaps even accelerating loss of life among Iraqis. But I see no alternative. And I don't believe it's right for us to put our troops into this sectarian civil war, put them at risk -- they're losing their lives, they're being injured -- when the Iraqis seem incapable of making the kind of hard decisions that only they can make." Asked about the impact on broader US interests in the Middle East, Clinton said, "I don't answer hypotheticals like that."

Time's Eric Pooley made the trip on former senator John Edwards', D-N.C., poverty tour and comes away impressed enough to not mention haircuts, hedge funds, or houses in the 1,300 words he filed -- no small achievement for the Edwards campaign. "Maybe Edwards succeeds in linking those problems to the concerns of the middle class and ignites his candidacy. And maybe he doesn't. Either way, he did some good this week," Pooley writes.

The Wall Street Journal's Christopher Cooper sees former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., "playing an outsized role in driving the terms of the party's debate -- generally to the left -- on everything from Iraq to health care." "On issue after issue, Mr. Edwards has been the first to stake out where the party's consensus message seems to end up," Cooper writes.

Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., got really rich, really fast since his service in the Clinton administration ended in January 2001, the AP's Barry Massey reports. "Richardson has enjoyed as much as a 10-fold increase in assets after working in the private sector for two years as a consultant, lecturer and corporate board member -- including for energy industry companies -- and then as governor of New Mexico since 2003," Massey writes.

While Thompson gives his presidential run more thought, the Iowa Republican Party is making up his mind for him, at least as it relates to the Ames Straw Poll. "The ballots had to be sent to the printer, and we asked Fred Thompson last week if he had any last words for us before we hit the send button, but he didn't," the Iowa GOP's executive director, Chuck Laudner, tells Radio Iowa. Giuliani and McCain will also have their names on the ballots, even though they've said they aren't competing in the straw poll. So when Romney wins this going away, how much will we have to weight it downward to get anything close to a true sense of sentiments?

The kicker:

"I think 'none of the above' currently would beat them." -- Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., commenting to the New York Post on the current crop of GOP front-runners. Gingrich has said he'll make a decision about running himself this fall.

"Pretty good. . . . But if you're in a room any higher than the eighth floor, the flushing can be a problem." -- Todd Taylor, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, testing the plumbing at one of the hotels his state's delegation may stay in for the Democratic National Convention -- to be held in Denver in August 2008.