The Note: Still Standing

Maybe it was the early hour, or the Iowa setting, or maybe all the practice has paid off. Whatever it was, Sen. Barack Obama may want to reconsider his decision to avoid as many presidential forums as he can (though it will give him more time for bumper cars).

Finally, after four months, a Democratic debate took place that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton didn't "win."

She didn't "lose" either, and that's a not-insignificant achievement given the political target that's grown on her back.

The other candidates mostly took passes when asked to strike directly on the electability question -- too potent still, apparently, for broadcast television. But yesterday's forum on ABC's "This Week" was the debate that three candidates not named Clinton -- Obama, Gov. Bill Richardson, and former senator John Edwards -- can credibly call their strongest.

Plenty of material to mull over while we finish digesting state fair fare (and lots of time to chat about it if you joined much of the political world stranded at O'Hare International Airport last night).

Why did Edwards, D-N.C., (and most of the rest of the field) pull punches (and is the candidate of "hope of optimism" back now)?

Will Richardson's, D-N.M., strong performance matter (and will anyone notice that Sen. Joe Biden's, D-Del., Iraq plan is now the consensus choice as a basis for discussion)?

Will Obama, D-Ill., find a second act on Iraq (not that his first act -- as the only major candidate against the war since before it started -- has grown tired -- yet)?

Is Clinton, D-N.Y., just not a morning person?

Obama largely avoided the blow-up fight he was preparing for when he readied his "bumper cars" line -- and emerged as the debate's "biggest winner," per Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen.

"He was in the cross hairs for much of the early part of the session and he stood up well to the scrutiny over his foreign policy positions and questions of whether he's qualified to be president," writes Yepsen, who questioned the candidates on stage alongside ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "He looked presidential and unlike some of his earlier, halting debate performances, was much more polished and laid back in this one."

"Obama was clearly prepared for the onslaught," ABC's David Wright reports. "Obama deftly turned the experience question against Clinton as he argued for change from what he calls the 'failed politics of Washington.'"

Mark Halperin of Time and ABC News gave Obama an A: "His best debate performance so far." On Clinton (A-): "Polished, if not perfect." And Edwards (also A-): "Tried repeatedly to place himself between and above Clinton and Obama."

The Democratic campaign has centered on questions about Clinton's divisiveness and Obama's experience, and both candidates "held their own" when directly confronted with the questions, The Wall Street Journal's Jackie Calmes writes.

Clinton parried Karl Rove's recent description of her as "fatally flawed" as a candidate: "I find it interesting he's so obsessed with me. And I think the reason is because we know how to win."

Obama wedged in some indirect hits -- "I'm your guy," the Rumsfeld-Cheney line, and "we're going to need somebody who can break out of the political patterns that we've been in over the last 20 years."

But Clinton turned such arguments on their head, per the Los Angeles Times' Mark Barabak and Peter Nicholas: "Clinton said the negative assessments were to be expected after being roughed up for years, starting as first lady and, more recently, as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination."

See more debate analysis in a special edition of the "This Week" Green Room, featuring actor Ron Livingston and a panel of distinguished journalists from the debate "spin room" in Des Moines.

You can also watch videos, vote on who you thought won the debate, find the full transcript, or listen to the debate podcast by going to www.abcnews.com/politics or by checking out ABC's "one stop shop" debate page by clicking here.

In case you missed it while Edwards was grinning, Rep. Dennis Kucinich was praying, and former senator Mike Gravel was loving (and embodying the argument for a winnowed field), an actual real debate on the war happened.

It pitted Richardson and Biden most directly -- but also much of the rest of the field against each other.

Biden's new ad on Iraq -- good timing, senator -- "triggered a spirited back-and-forth over how best to bring U.S. troops home," The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut writes.

"It was perhaps the most in-depth discussion the candidates have had over their exit plans, and it revealed a field sharply divided, some advocating a quick withdrawal and others favoring one that takes longer and is more cautious."

"The debate underscored a political challenge for the Democrats: how to appeal to primary voters who want desperately to get out of Iraq while not promising a faster or more complete withdrawal than they think wise," writes McClatchy's Steven Thomma.

Said Clinton: "It is so important that we not oversell this."

So Clinton won't play to the cheap seats, and probably never deep-down wants to talk about Iraq at all. But as the debate shifts beyond what happened in the past -- despite Obama's best efforts -- and focuses on what happens next, who benefits?

Certainly the candidates with clear, distinct plans like any such change in focus. And Clinton, too, has to be happy if attention turns away from the vote for the war and toward who can get the country out.

This is Edwards reading from Clinton's script: "Any Democratic president would end this war. The differences between all of us are very small compared to the differences with the Republicans."

And don't forget Richardson -- where's this guy (not the stumbling, mumbling presence we've seen before) been?

"Richardson not only avoided any serious gaffes and non sequiturs but also jumped in and engaged the other candidates over the war in Iraq," writes the Santa Fe New Mexican's Steve Terrell. "He interjected himself without being called upon by the moderator, and along the way he landed a couple of applause lines."

If Clinton doesn't mind being slapped around by Rove, anyone think Rove minds being insulted by Clinton?

Rove continued his farewell tour on the Sunday circuit, defending his style of politics with a blizzard of numbers (Bush in 2004 won "48 percent of women, 44 percent of Latinos, 29 percent of Jews") and blasting away at Democrats. And he repeated his prediction that Clinton would most likely secure the nomination but would not win the presidency.

"She enters the primary season with the highest negatives of any front-runner since the history of polling began," Rove said on NBC, adding that there "might be a desire by the Republican Party for her to be the nominee."

Maybe, just maybe.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post offers another chapter in the Rove legacy with a can't-miss piece Sunday documenting the politics he brought to governance.

"Political briefings" are nothing compared to "asset deployment" -- the Rove-run operation dictating high-profile trips, official announcements, and grant declarations based on political needs.

Rove was responsible for "enlisting political appointees at every level of government in a permanent campaign that was an integral part of his strategy to establish Republican electoral dominance," write the Post's John Solomon, Alec MacGillis, and Sarah Cohen.

Here's betting New England's last House Republican -- Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn. -- would rather not read about how Rove helped him win another term. And how about those on-the-record quotes that sound like they came from people who thought they were participating in a glowing profile?

"He helped coordinate all of the accoutrements of the executive branch to help with the campaign, within the legal limits," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., bailing himself out with those last four words.

Said Mark Corallo, a veteran GOP operative who's now aligned with Fred Thompson: "Karl's ability to see the chessboard and deploy all of the various pieces to the maximum effect is flat-out unrivaled."

In case you missed it from Friday, Thompson, R-Tenn., made his (very brief) debut in Iowa. He didn't leave Des Moines' city limits, but he did hit the Iowa State Fair and told supporters to "keep their powder dry." (He also told a TV interviewer that "proof's in the pudding," and told a radio interviewer that Congress "tried to sell the same horse twice" on immigration. Anyone care to translate?)

He ate nothing on a stick, but he did sample meat on a toothpick, and his Gucci loafers ascended the candidates' soapbox to declare, "I am unabashedly pro-life," ABC's Christine Byun reports.

It's not just Thompson who's out to remake the political lexicon: Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., is the gee-whiz-gosh-golly-holy-cow kid, The Boston Globe's Lisa Wangsness writes.

She collects some gems: "Whoop-de-doo"; "pleased as punch"; "Gosh, I love America"; "I do love chocolate malts!"

"That, unfortunately, is the way he talks on a regular basis," Tagg Romney, his eldest son, tells Wangsness.

Much of the presidential field -- including non-candidate Thompson -- cycles through Kansas City today and tomorrow to speak to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.

One candidate who will be there today, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., struck an introspective (and retrospective) tone yesterday on CBS.

McCain acknowledged that his positions on immigration and Iraq have harmed his campaign, but (almost) sounded like a candidate who's ready to call it quits.

"I made mistakes in the past, but on Iraq, immigration, other issues, I really -- I have to do what I think is best for this nation, and I'm proud to do so," he said, per ABC's Bret Hovell. "And I have had a wonderful, wonderful life and career."

The New York Times' Adam Nagourney writes up former mayor Rudolph Giuliani's recent trip to Iowa, and found Hizzoner explaining that Iowa is just like, well, Staten Island.

"You get the same feeling you get in smaller-town America," Giuliani said of one of his top-five favorite boroughs. "It was, as he traveled through heavily Republican country in the most rural part of Iowa, a complicated process of cultural negotiation. At moments, he was the candidate from Mars who seemed as if he was campaigning on Venus (and no disrespect intended toward either planet)."

Also in the news from the weekend:

Obama's campaign announced on the eve of Sunday's debate that he's only (!) committing to eight more Democratic presidential forums.

"We simply cannot run the kind of campaign we want and need to, engaging with voters in the early states and February 5 states, if our schedule is dictated by dozens of forums and debates," Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, said in a message posted to the campaign Website Saturday.

He's probably right, what does it say that the first candidate to make non-participation in debates a policy is also the one whose debate performances have been shakiest?

"Critics and opponents can be expected to charge that Obama is dodging debates, because he has made several statements that Clinton and others have painted as reflecting ill-preparedness," Politico's Mike Allen writes.

The Boston Globe's Scott Helman spent some time at Camp Obama (anyone remember Camp Dean, not to mention Camp Bayh?). The 20-hour training session "offers a window into how Obama is drawing on his community-organizing background to harness the grass-roots energy his candidacy has generated," Helman writes. "The intensive, two-day workshop was more boot camp than summer camp: The hours were long, the expectations were high, and participants received little more than Einstein's coffee, caramel cream can dies, and a hearty thank you."

The Minneapolis bridge collapse has altered the politics of transportation funding, Bloomberg News' John Hughes and Angela Greiling Keane report.

"Even as Bush aides warn of a possible veto, the odds are growing for the first gasoline-tax increase since 1993," they write.

It's getting close to legacy time for President Bush, and The Washington Post's Peter Baker weighs in on Bush's goal of "ending tyranny in this world" (remember the good old days, when he was going after the bold stuff?).

"The grand project has bogged down in a bureaucratic and geopolitical morass," Baker writes. "Many in his administration never bought into the idea, and some undermined it, including his own vice president... And while he focuses his ire on bureaucracy, Bush at times has compromised the idealism of that speech in the muddy reality of guarding other U.S. interests."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., told Dan Rather in an HDNet interview that the answer is no (and no, and -- essentially -- no). When Rather pressed him on running for president -- "Any circumstances in which you would?" -- Bloomberg responded: "Oh, I don't know. Any -- the answer -- if I don't say 'no' categorically you'll then read something into it. The answer is no."

The kicker:

"I don't wear tights." -- Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., divulging a morsel of a detail about his cameo in the new Batman film.

"Let's do this again, but let's do it a little later in the day." Obama, to David Yepsen, after the debate.