The Note: Summer Slam

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Maybe it was the July heat, or the stock market nosedive, or maybe everyone was irritable because of those Harry Potter spoilsports. This was just one of those weeks where no one could get along. Not the Democrats and the attorney general they want prosecuted for perjury (next up: Karl Rove). Not the president and the Congress he's threatening to yank summer vacation from (and them's fighting words from President Bush). Not the fresh batch of aides to Sen. John McCain and former senator Fred Thompson who chose this week to tender their resignations.

And then there's the Democratic front-runners in the match-up we've been waiting months for -- and that lasted all week. It was the rare heavyweight bout that lived up to its billing, and yesterday (what took so long?) brought the precision blow we'd expect from a Clinton: "We have to ask, what's ever happened to the politics of hope?" said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

The answer to Clinton's rhetorical query, as Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., knows, is that the politics of hope got angry, fed up with the fact that Clinton has essentially been handed a pass as she's evolved into an anti-war candidate. Obama's line about not wanting to a foreign policy of "Bush-Cheney lite" was more huffy than hopeful, more Howard Dean than, well, Barack Obama. "Their raised voices [were] a measure of how competitive the 2008 presidential campaign has become," write Anne Kornblut and Dan Balz of The Washington Post. "For Obama, it also marked a plunge into charge-countercharge politics after a promise to run 'a different kind of campaign.' "

We can get caught up in endless debates over who won, who started it with the shot heard 'round the political world, or whether this is good/bad/indifferent for democracy. (And Howard Wolfson and David Axelrod may yet engage in those endless debates on cable TV.) But at least this was more than the usual political name-calling: It actually highlights a substantive point of distinction between the candidates -- Obama's fresh approach versus the Clinton experience and toughness.

We may go months before we see a political brawl this juicy, with testy words to match sharp distinctions that define the two people who at this moment stand the best chance of becoming the next president. "Clinton saw a chance to feed doubts about her main challenger's readiness to stand on the world stage," Politico's Ben Smith writes. "Obama, after a moment of doubt, took the offensive to paint himself as the true apostle of the kind of dramatic change that Americans -- and particularly Democrats -- say they want."

Don't think it's over, not with both sides generally pleased with the confrontation. "She is getting a look at what kind of punch Obama can throw when the lights are actually on in the arena," writes Chisti Parsons of the Chicago Tribune. "And he can demonstrate to the party's talent scouts that he is capable of getting into the ring with her."

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