The Note: Clash of Titans

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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.

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