The Note: Midway Mayhem:

Anyone feeling anxious? It wasn't trepidation about Hank Aaron's record falling (or the sweltering outdoor venue) that was behind the smackdown at Soldier Field last night. From the first round -- when Sen. Barack Obama and former senator John Edwards took questions about a bridge collapse and turned them into answers about Iraq and lobbyists -- the Democrats who aren't named Hillary sought to shake up this static race. It was an old-fashioned trench battle -- Obama/Edwards/Richardson vs. Clinton, Biden vs. Edwards, Dodd/Clinton/Biden vs. Obama, Kucinich vs. Everybody -- opening a new, more combative phase in a campaign that's been going on since approximately 2003.

But if this was the night where Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was a marked woman )and this was definitely the right audience for her to draw some heat) the packed stage and raucous crowd were her best friends. Clinton, D-N.Y., wasn't the only veteran casting Obama, D-Ill., as a foreign-policy rookie. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., had solid moments of their own touting their labor credentials. And nobody -- not even Edwards, D-N.C. -- could get to the left of Rep. Dennis "Seabiscuit" (?) Kucinich, D-Ohio.

To choose but one football metaphor, Clinton evaded tacklers and did a little end-zone dance. The scattershot attacks allowed Clinton to again rise above the scrum -- as she's done in just about every one of the campaign's previous encounters -- befitting a candidate whose lead stands north of 20 points. "I'm just taking it all in," Clinton said, flashing a smile that glossed over her manifold differences with big labor and the multiple barbs she was fending off. "For 15 years, I have stood up against the right-wing machine and I've come out stronger, so if you want a winner who knows how to take them on, I'm your girl."

"The night's exchanges demonstrated that she hopes to stay above the fray as long as she can by talking about beating the Republicans," writes Dan Balz of The Washington Post. "Her concluding comment, 'I'm your girl,' drew applause, and a grin from the candidate."

It was a home game for Obama, but he wound up facing nearly as many attacks as Clinton. Obama's recent comments on foreign policy "prompted attacks from his rivals who have used his statements to try to paint the first-term senator as a naive newcomer," write John McCormick and Stephen Franklin of the Chicago Tribune. Both Clinton and Obama "repeatedly found themselves back on their heels facing oncoming tackles from competitors on a stage near one end zone."

At the nexus of Obama's freshness and Edwards' populism lies a shared rhetorical loathing of lobbyists. It makes for easy lines -- they found multiple occasions to repeat them last night -- and that's inconvenient news for Clinton (who made the cover of Fortune long before she shared $1,000-per-person desserts at a lobbyist's home last night).

Obama and Edwards "referred derisively to her willingness to take campaign cash from Washington lobbyists," Susan Milligan of The Boston Globe writes. Edwards guaranteed voters that he won't make Fortune's cover, and added, "My belief is we don't want to replace one group of insiders with another group of insiders."

Obama did unfurl probably his best line yet on the war, with what Politico's Ben Smith calls his "trump card": "I find it amusing that those who helped to authorize and engineer the biggest foreign policy disaster in our generation are now criticizing me for making sure that we are on the right battlefield and not the wrong battlefield in the war against terrorism," he said. Clinton's response drew boos, but she sounded like she was delivering a lesson on the presidency: "You can think big, but remember, you shouldn't always say everything you think if you're running for president, because it has consequences across the world," Clinton said.

But while Obama looks for the president of Canada (and decides whether to congratulate Barry Bonds), and Edwards takes Biden's advice and finds a few more picket lines, a debate that could have been a game-changer shook up few fundamentals about the race. Clinton "matched her rivals' attacks with wit and forcefulness," per ABC's Tahman Bradley. It wasn't her best performance (blame an unfriendly crowd and an unfortunate need to raise her voice over it), yet that very fact demonstrates why she's leading this race.

Over on the Republican side, the march to Ames is on. (And it won't matter there that former mayor Rudolph Giuliani's, R-N.Y., second choice would be Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., since neither of them is making the trip.)

It's a make-or-break moment for perhaps half the GOP field, including former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., who hopes his strong debate performances will allow him to catch on as the choice of social conservatives (and of the yogurt and diet soda set). "Christian conservatives are the group Huckabee thinks will like his stance against abortion and gay marriage, his plan for a national sales tax, and the simple fact that he is a Baptist pastor and doesn't mind sounding like one," writes USA Today's Martha T. Moore. Setting his expectations a smidge low, "Huckabee says he must place among the top four candidates or it will be difficult to raise enough money to continue his White House campaign."

Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., is a lock to win the straw poll, and he's busily controlling expectations. The only problem is, if reporters notice you doing it, it doesn't work as well. "But Romney's bar-lowering is complicated by his decision to run a very traditional campaign in Iowa -- a strategy that, by definition, puts huge importance on demonstrable success at the straw poll," Politico's Jonathan Martin writes.

And Romney's got a new, Ames-specific ad up in Iowa starting today. "Washington politicians in both parties have proven they can't control spending -- and they won't control our borders," Romney says in the TV spot, per his campaign. "I will . . . but I need your help to do it. So come on to Ames. After all, changing America always starts in Iowa."

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is up with his first TV ad of the cycle, and the message won't surprise anyone who's been paying attention to his campaign (or the online message boards that his supporters seem to own). "He's running for president to secure our borders, to stop runaway spending, to protect our liberties and to save our Constitution," the ad says, per the AP's write-up. Statements flash across the screen, including "Stop the national I.D. Card."

Also in the news:

Elizabeth Edwards again causes a stir with her made-for-Drudge blunt talk: "We can't make John black, we can't make him a woman," she told Edward Cone of CIO Insight, an online business journal. "Those things get you a lot of press, worth a certain amount of fundraising dollars. Now it's nice to get on the news, but not the be all and end all."

"Re-rereading Edwards, it seems that she's making a less incendiary (still debatable) point: that Obama (and Clinton) get too much press (unearned media) only because of their race and gender," The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder writes. "The press (in Elizabeth Edwards's view) has apparently decided that it's a two person race, and that if someone else drives a storyline, it's irrelevant to the story. Hence, the campaign has turned to less traditional outlets."

The Edwards campaign today will announce a big Iowa "get": veteran strategist Jeff Link, a former top aide to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and former governor Tom Vilsack, D-Iowa. Remember: It's Iowa or bust for Edwards.

But it's Obama who is showering lawmakers in key early states with money from his leadership PAC, The Hill's Alexander Bolton reports. "In June, Obama gave $5,000 contributions from his PAC, Hopefund, to every Democratic member of Congress from Iowa and New Hampshire," Bolton writes. That helped Obama secure the endorsement of Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., but the biggest fish in either state -- Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa -- tells Bolton that he's unlikely to make an endorsement before the caucuses. (Can't imagine why -- that Howard Dean thing worked out so well. . . .)

HuffingtonPost's Thomas Edsall looks behind the Obama/Edwards rhetoric on lobbyists' money and finds "few candidates with clean hands." Edsall finds former lobbyists littered throughout their inner circles, and sees them raising millions from those closely aligned with special interests such as trial lawyers, hedge-fund managers, and real-estate executives. "Edwards and Obama may not be taking contributions from federally registered lobbyists, but that does not mean that their money is as pure as they'd like us to believe," he writes.

The Wall Street Journal's Miriam Jordan looks at Obama's efforts to reach out to Hispanic voters -- and sees it as easier said than done. "Despite becoming this presidential race's phenomenon, with the power to draw huge crowds and raise millions of dollars, Mr. Obama remains relatively unknown among the country's fastest-growing electorate," Jordan writes. "Across the U.S., tensions simmer between Hispanics and blacks who regard each other as rivals for jobs, educational resources, housing and political power."

Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., speaks to an actual real-life journalist to defend his wife. "She has taken a lot of comments that should have been directed toward me," Thompson tells Byron York of National Review Online, apparently not referencing comments on Jeri Thompson's neckline. "I think the problem is that Jeri refuses to go out in public and behave like a candidate's wife before I'm a candidate."

Giuliani, R-N.Y., was pressed on his religion at a campaign stop in Iowa yesterday, when he was asked at a forum whether he is a "traditional practicing Catholic." "My religious affiliation, my religious practices and the degree to which I am a good or not-so-good Catholic, I prefer to leave to the priests," Giuliani responded in a controlled low voice, per Newsday's Tom Brune writes. Brune adds, "That question, and Giuliani's answer, illustrate the fine line he walks as he tries to sell himself in conservative Iowa in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination."

Tomorrow will bring a modicum of clarity to the primary calendar. Befitting the mass confusion, the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party will announce the date of his state's GOP primary at -- the New Hampshire State House? (Why can't all states get along this well?) No official word yet, but the Union Leader's John DiStaso reports on speculation that South Carolina will jump forward a week from the current Jan. 29 date (though it could be even earlier than Jan. 22). "That would presumably force New Hampshire's primary to be held no later than Jan. 15 under a state law requiring the primary to be held at least a week before any 'similar election,' " DiStaso writes.

ABC's Charlie Gibson assembled an impressive political lineup for a special "20/20" this week on the Rev. Billy Graham. All four living presidents and four first ladies sit down with Gibson to discuss the life and legacy of a man who's been a White House guest of every president since Harry Truman. "Each one I've known long before they ever became president, been in their homes many times; always called them by their first names, until they became president," Graham tells Gibson in the program, which airs at 10 pm ET Friday.

The kicker:

"We need enormous challenges to face. It's got to be done in a bipartisan way." -- Richardson, at the AFL-CIO forum, getting his own wires crossed. "While we all worshipped her, she actually felt like a dork." -- Ominous voice-over in (mock) attack ad from the "Romney Girls." The ad accuses "Obama Girl" of multiple flip-flops, as well as supporting a "disastrous" fiscal policy (something to do with cab fares).


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