The Note: Summer Slam

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."

Obama may well regret that his response wasn't more precise, but is Clinton ending the week second-guessing her decision to enter the fray? "The eagerness with which Obama's camp kept the battle going reflected a cardinal rule in politics: Front-runners should be wary of picking fights with challengers," writes Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. "In this case, Clinton allowed Obama to make one of her prime vulnerabilities, the Iraq vote, a central part of the campaign dialogue. She also let Obama place himself to her dovish side."

As for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, it wouldn't be a day at the office without someone in the Bush administration contradicting you, and members of Congress calling you a liar. "Politicians usually shun using words like 'lying' -- they prefer to use tamer diction such as 'misleading,' " report ABC's Jake Tapper, Z. Byron Wolf, Jason Ryan, and Theresa Cook. "Not so at a Thursday press conference held by four Senate Democrats, who called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Gonzales for perjury after mounting challenges to his sworn testimony before Congress."

The latest blow to Gonzales came via FBI director Robert Mueller, who "sharply conflicted" with Gonzales' account of a key 2004 meeting that Democrats say Gonzales has been lying about, per The New York Times' David Johnston and Scott Shane. Now comes a subpoena with Rove's name on it -- meaning this will all get more political before it's resolved. Anyone willing to trade places with Tony Snow today?

The president, meanwhile, stepped up his criticism of Congress, demanding that they finish a defense bill before they flee town for much of August. "I'll hang around if they want me to get the bill passed," Bush said. (No Crawford? Guess he's serious.) Writes Michael Fletcher of The Washington Post, "With his once-ambitious domestic agenda in tatters, his administration facing multiple congressional investigations and his approval ratings at near-historic lows, the president has targeted the one institution that polls show is less popular with the public than he is: Congress."

Also in the news:

The Defense Department closed the loop on its letter-writing spat with Clinton yesterday -- and it's Clinton 1, Pentagon 0. "I emphatically assure you that we do not claim, suggest or otherwise believe that Congressional oversight emboldens our enemies, nor do we question anyone's motives in this regard," Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote to Clinton yesterday. Where would she have gotten that idea? That's right, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman, who wrote last week, "Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda."

Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., only appears to have lost one more staff member yesterday, but with the still-unannounced candidate not getting into the race until at least September, that's a whole extra month for more pre-campaign chaos. August is "kind of a down month -- not much going on," Thompson told Fox News' Sean Hannity. He wasn't asked about the staff defections, but he did say that the attention to his wife and his relationship with trial lawyers are only surfacing because he is "not playing by their rules" by going at his "own pace" in announcing his candidacy, per ABC's Christine Byun.

Outside the combat ring, former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., unveiled his tax plan yesterday -- higher taxes on capital gains, hedge funds, and corporations, to pay for new tax cuts for middle- and lower-income families. "Edwards' proposal may be a crowd-pleaser for Democratic primary voters who object to Bush's big tax cuts," writes Janet Hook of the Los Angeles Times. "But it may be a politically risky position for anyone heading into a general election contest against Republicans, who portray Democrats as incorrigible tax raisers."

The Clinton-Obama duel was a big enough story to get other candidates involved in the action. Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., joined McCain, R-Ariz., on Clinton's side (here's guessing Obama's OK with thta): "It's absolutely extraordinary that someone could be so out of touch with the nature of our world. It's a bit like Chamberlain. It's more Chamberlain than it is Churchill," Romney said of Obama's position, per Dan Gearino of the Quad City Times (big week in that newsroom).

Meanwhile, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., joined Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., in advising their junior colleagues to sit down and shut up. "There is nothing new about this kind of politics, and it certainly doesn't demonstrate a readiness to lead the nation when our reputation around the world is in tatters," Dodd said in a statement. (The fight overshadowed Dodd's plan for universal healthcare -- and as the Dodd campaign pointed out yesterday, we're all still waiting for that Clinton plan.)

The kicker:

"I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman." -- Romney, saying he may not be part of the CNN/YouTube debate scheduled for Sept. 17 in Florida. Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., has also discovered a "scheduling conflict" (he has to raise money) after the Democrats endured the unconventional format, and only McCain and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, are confirmed for the forum.

"I'm sorry, who's this?" -- Obama, on a conference call with reporters held to tout his endorsement by Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H. The voice Obama didn't recognize belonged to Hodes.

Next up: The Republican presidential debate August 5 in Des Moines, to be broadcast as a special edition of ABC's "This Week." Submit your questions for the candidates here.