The Note: Clash of Titans

So Sen. Barack Obama now knows what it's like to be decked by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Tell us, does it sting a little more than you thought it would when you decided to use Monday night's debate to mix it up a bit? Or is it sweet just to know that you have the inevitable candidate worried -- that even Hillary Clinton has the capacity to break a sweat in this race?

We offer one observation for each of the fingers Clinton curled into a fist yesterday. . . . First, the Clinton folks -- the candidate on down -- are one brutally efficient bunch. Second, Obama has now officially gotten under Clinton's skin. (This story was chugging along quite nicely as a battle of memos and surrogates before Clinton herself took it nuclear.) Third, there's little real difference in their actual positions on whether and when the president should meet with leaders of rogue nations (though Obama did flub his answer Monday night).

Fourth, both Clinton, D-N.Y., and Obama, D-Ill., are playing this fight in ways that benefit their candidacy: Clinton as the deeply experienced, tough-on-your-enemies hawk, and Obama with the fresh approach and open mind of an agent of change. And finally, say what you will about Obama's comments (and here's guessing Clinton is right in saying he would take them back if he could), but they place him as the candidate with the most daylight between himself and President Bush -- not a terrible piece of real estate for a Democratic presidential candidate to occupy.

To recap (and keep score): It was Clinton who escalated this fight beyond the gentle jabs of Monday's debate. She offered her view to the Quad City (Iowa) Times that Obama's willingness to meet with the likes of Castro and Kim Jong Il was "irresponsible and frankly naive." Obama was on the phone with the same reporter, Ed Tibbetts, within a few hours: "If you want to talk about irresponsibility and naivety, look at her vote to authorize George Bush to send our troops into Iraq without an exit plan."

The Obama camp is making much of the fact that Clinton picked this fight, and it seems likely to mark a turning point in the early stages of the 2008 campaign. It was "the sharpest exchange to date between the top two Democratic candidates for president -- and the first time Clinton has explicitly attacked another Democratic candidate," per ABC News.

This doesn't happen if a candidate isn't at least a little bit worried -- and Obama's donor list, not to mention his message, are enough to give any front-runner pause. Writes The New York Times' Patrick Healy: "Mrs. Clinton's remark was a rare instance of her personally intensifying the months-old effort by her campaign to portray her, a two-term senator and former first lady, as the most prepared Democrat to become commander in chief in 2009, and Mr. Obama, a senator since 2005, as not ready for the job." We haven't heard the last of this battle.

As the Democrats fight each other, each Republican seems to be fighting himself -- not to mention a national landscape that should have all of them worried. That's one takeaway message of the new ABC News/Washington Post poll, which finds soft support for all the GOP candidates. "From ideology to religion to simple unfamiliarity, the leading Republican candidates for president all face significant challenges, which add up to a lineup that's viewed a good deal less satisfactorily than their Democratic counterparts," ABC's Peyton Craighill and Gary Langer write.

Over at the horse race, Giuliani leads at 37 (down significantly from his high point of 53 in February), followed by Sen. John McCain (16, and no doubt loving every precious percentage point), former senator Fred Thompson (15), and former governor Mitt Romney (8). If Giuliani does win the nomination -- and having only a third of his supporters solidly locked down will make that harder than it looks -- it will be because he's seen as the man with the best chance: "Giuliani's front-runner status is fueled by a broad-based perception that he is the most electable GOP candidate," write The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Jon Cohen.

In the other big storyline of the day, a bunch of senators flatly accused somebody of lying to them yesterday, and that somebody is the attorney general of the United States. (I know, you forgot we had one anymore.) Said Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.: "I just don't trust you."

Added ranking Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.: "I do not find your testimony credible, candidly." And Senate Intelligence Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. (hardly a bomb-thrower): "He once again is making something up to protect himself."

Gonzales dug himself a deeper hole on Capitol Hill, one that now could get add legal trouble to his political woes, per Time's Jay Newton-Small. "As with so many of his recent appearances before Congress, his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee raised a lot more troubling questions than it answered," Newton-Small writes. "Much of Gonzales' time was spent telling the committee he couldn't remember, wasn't up to date or wasn't at liberty to discuss the details."

And others in the Bush administration may beat Gonzales to the honor of having Congress initiate legal action against them. The House Judiciary Committee today will vote on whether to hold White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers in contempt of Congress, after they refused to comply with subpoenas regarding the US attorneys mess.

Also in the news:

You know you've waited too long to declare your presidential candidacy when your first campaign shake-up comes before your campaign announcement. Tom Collamore is out as (non-)campaign manager for Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., while Randy Enright is in as campaign manager and Spencer Abraham in as campaign chairman. "The shake-up comes amid consternation inside the campaign about the active role played by Thompson's wife, Jeri, a lawyer, media consultant and former Republican National Committee official," AP's Libby Quaid reports.

In the meantime, prominent conservatives are coming to something of a consensus that Thompson is their guy, reports Scott Helman of The Boston Globe. "Some of the nation's most influential social conservatives say their movement is quickly coalescing around Fred Thompson . . . a decision that would bolster his expected campaign with money and grass-roots support," Helman writes. He points out that Gary Bauer and Tony Perkins have been noticeably forgiving about reports that Thompson may have lobbied for an abortion-rights group. And this from Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention: "It's almost as if the man and the moment met."

McCain also got into the Obama-bashing act, calling face-to-face meetings "some of the most overrated aspects of diplomacy" in the BlackBerry age. "If we sit down and have face-to-face meetings with Iran, what's the first topic? Their dedication to the extinction of Israel? Their continued effort to build nuclear weapons? Their continued export of IEDs to Iraq?" McCain said in a conference call with bloggers, per National Review's Jim Geraghty.

Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen sees next month's Iowa Straw Poll as a chance to thin the ranks of the GOP's second tier -- and a chance for candidates to distance themselves from the president. "If GOP candidates don't chart a new course for the country, these elections could wind up a Democratic landslide," Yepsen writes.

Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., had the YouTube video that generated the most buzz Monday night -- 128,000 hits and counting.

Edwards also delivered the line that kept a different sort of buzz going into the next news cycle. Julie Hinds of the Detroit Free Press took note of the fact that right after Edwards (jokingly) questioned Clinton's choice of jackets, Obama came to her defense. "Score one for Obama's tact," Hinds writes. "It's another fashion distraction for Clinton, who, like other female politicians, gets more sartorial scrutiny than her male counterparts."

Obama is making his first advertising push in South Carolina -- and his first to emphasize the fact that he is black. "I know what you know," Obama says in a new radio ad, with soft jazz playing in the background. "Despite all the progress that's been made we have more work to do."

The Los Angeles Times jointly profiles Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and former senator Mike Gravel, R-Alaska -- the two oldest candidates, "the campaign's upstarts" -- and a pair with some other unlikely similarities. "Both wear dark suits and sneakers, for one. Neither has a lot of money. Both are running for president," Tomas Alex Tizon writes.

The kicker:

"He has a right to emphasize the things he wants to emphasize. . . . I never emphasize those things." -- Giuliani, R-N.Y., in a Washington Post interview, responding to ads where Romney features his wife, children, and grandchildren.

"I'm not the one on stage trying to get the presidency, making myself look like an idiot." -- gun enthusiast Jered Townsend, responding to Sen. Joseph Biden's debate contention that he "needs help" if he calls his semiautomatic rifle his "baby." Townsend also told reporters that he has contacted Biden's office and may explore suing him for slander.

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.