THE NOTE: Obama Pulls Punches in Feisty Debate

Some lessons from last night's Democratic debate in New Hampshire (keeping in mind that "childrens do learn":

- John Edwards is taller than Dennis Kucinich (and better than most at finding his debate moments).

- Cold or no cold, the new, more aggressive Barack Obama is still on the shelf (and could stay there a while).

- Bill Richardson must hate Tim Russert (but Dartmouth undergrads probably love him).

- Chris Dodd is too . . . senatorial to say out loud the words he's put to paper (and Hillary Clinton says thanks).

- The "old stuff" Joe Biden referenced from the Clinton years was about more than "policy -- policy!" (or should have been).

- Mike Gravel officially resides in Fantasy Land (when he's not tilting at windmills).

- Clinton doesn't even have to answer questions at debates anymore to "win" (but she gave her rivals a choice sound bite when she said she's "probably have to alternate sides" between supporting the Yankees and the Cubs).

It was another solid night for the Democratic frontrunner, who came to Dartmouth College with a target on her back but left with at least shared custody of another trophy. She ducked, dodged, charmed, and -- yes -- laughed her way through the verbal darts. Then she capped her performance with one of those lines that's likely to survive for a while, laying out a disagreement with her husband about whether there's ever room for torture.

"He's not standing here right now," she said to applause. Pressed about whether this signals a disagreement between husband and wife, she broke a tense moment: "Well, I'll talk to him later." In 12 words, she took the best Bill has to offer yet affirmed that she's in charge.

All of the Big Three left room for the possibility that they'd keep troops in Iraq into 2013 -- a startling admission that gives Clinton protection on her left flank. But it was a rougher night than Clinton, D-N.Y., is used to, and it suggests that more direct engagement is coming. The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Anne Kornblut judge her to have been "less dominant" than in previous debates, "her potential liabilities . . . highlighted."

This from Edwards, D-N.C., who may have gained himself the most ground last night (though another Fortress story today detracts from his performance): "Senator Clinton also voted for this war. We learned a very different lesson from that. I have no intention of giving George Bush the authority to take the first step on a road to war with Iran."

This from Obama, D-Ill., who clearly came with this zinger (and this one alone) ready for delivery with regard to Clinton's failed healthcare effort: "Part of the reason it was lonely, Hillary, was because you closed the door to a lot of potential allies in that process."

"Perhaps the fireworks were not quite as bright as the pundits had predicted, but there was no doubt that Sen. Hillary Clinton was taking some heat from her opponents for the Democratic presidential nomination," ABC's David Chalian writes. "The rest of the field (and the moderator) kept Clinton on defense for most of the evening, though nobody seemed to be able to land a clean punch that posed any serious harm to Clinton."

The debate was clearly more aggressive than previous exchanges, but large chunks were mundane, if not downright boring -- and that's only a good thing for the woman with a 20-point lead, even if she looked at times to be running out the clock. "Clinton, appearing at ease amid the assaults on her policies, was cautious in her responses, refusing to commit to pulling all US troops out of Iraq by 2013, and hedging her responses on whether to raise Social Security taxes or support Israel in a hypothetical military attack on Iran," per The Boston Globe's Susan Milligan.

Where was Obama (when he wasn't reminding us that he opposed the war since before it started, of course)? Sure, he had a head cold, but his approach was more strategy not sickness. "There was almost an element of defiance in his low-key performance, as though he were saying: 'This is the strategy I'm going with, so lay off,' " writes The New Republic's Noam Scheiber. Said Obama adviser David Axelrod: "In this business, you play with injuries."

"Perhaps the expectations were too high," writes The New York Times' Katharine Q. Seelye. "But with the clock ticking, he is losing precious time to make a stronger impression."

Obama "seemed less assertive than usual," writes Reid Wilson of Real Clear Politics. "Clinton's performance, while not exceptional, stood out by virtue of other campaigns' lack of ability to make her stumble. If that is to change, Edwards, Obama and other candidates will need to find a new line of attack that can actually bring her down."

Another element that may live on: On that memorable line where Clinton distanced herself from her husband, the New York Daily News reports that "what observers didn't know is she was contradicting herself, too," Ian Bishop and Michael McAuliff report.

The Clinton quote, to the Daily News in October: "Those are very rare [situations], but if they occur, there has to be some lawful authority for pursuing it," she said. "In the event we were ever confronted with having to interrogate a detainee with knowledge of an imminent threat to millions of Americans, then the decision to depart from standard international practices must be made by the President."

And a dissenting opinion from Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen, who sees trouble ahead in the growing Clinton swipes -- and wanted her to engage by offering more specifics. "Her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination finally started to scuff up the frontrunner," Yepsen writes on his blog. "It wasn't a good night for Clinton."

The major Republican candidates won't be on a stage tonight -- sorry, Tavis Smiley -- but they're set to dominate the day. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is trying to make his move, capitalizing on a boom in publicity (and a boomlet in the polls). He's preparing to run his first TV ads of the campaign, in New Hampshire, with archival footage of him as a POW -- and from his 2000 campaign. "The courage to change Washington," the ad says. "New Hampshire, you know who he is."

And McCain is set to deliver this line in a speech today in New York (he can no longer afford subtlety): "Tough talk or managerial successes in the private sector aren't adequate assurance that their authors have the experience or qualities necessary for such a singular responsibility."

McCain's push comes as a new poll in New Hampshire (by far McCain's most important early state) shows McCain's support rising five points, at 17 percent, placing him a close third behind former governor Mitt Romney's 23 percent and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani's 22. The most startling data point: Romney, R-Mass., has dropped 10 points in the WMUR/CNN poll. "Mitt Romney's lead in New Hampshire has evaporated," writes The Boston Globe's Lisa Wangsness, and no there's no clear front-runner in the Granite State.

Romney is set to write more checks to his own campaign (on top of the $9 million he's already chipped in) -- and he wants you to know he's OK with that, really he is. He once said that self-funding his campaign would be a "nightmare," but now it's a dream. "I'm not beholden to any particular group for getting me into this race or for getting me elected," Romney said yesterday, per the AP's Glen Johnson. "My family, that's the only one I'm really beholden to, they're the ones who let their inheritance slip away, dollar by dollar."

This can't be a good sign for Giuliani, R-N.Y.: Just days before the end of the third-quarter fund-raising period, deputy finance director Anne Dunsmore has been dismissed. Aides say she departed "amicably," but the biggest clue to how the numbers stand came from Rudy himself. When asked about how his fund-raising quarter will wind up looking, he said, "Probably one of the best of the Republicans," Giuliani said, per ABC's Jan Simmonds. (Three hedges in eight words -- that's nice, since he's probably one of the leading Republican candidates and everything. . . . )

But the biggest GOP headline of the day is likely to come from an event that the major candidates aren't at. "Viewers will see four empty lecterns on the stage as Tavis Smiley, an African-American talk show host, poses questions to five lesser-known candidates," writes Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times. "Coming days after the Spanish-language network Univision was forced to postpone its Republican forum because it was rejected by all but one candidate . . . the PBS forum has touched off a debate within the GOP over whether its 2008 candidates are trampling on past efforts to draw more minority voters."

Also in the news:

Another Fortress headline (in yet another state) for Edwards to explain away. The Des Moines Register's Thomas Beaumont: "A total of 107 Iowa homeowners were foreclosed upon by subprime mortgage companies owned by Fortress Investment Group while Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards was associated with the equity company." Edwards' response: "If you look at the context of everything I've done since the last election, it's absolutely clear where my heart is and what I care about."

Amid the rush of last-minute fund-raising appeals, don't miss this one from Elizabeth Edwards. "Sometimes we put things off, don't we?" she says in an 80-second Web video e-mailed to supporters yesterday. "We think we have all the time in the world. Well, we don't." The appeal evokes "powerful echoes of her own battle with incurable cancer," per the Daily News' Thomas DeFrank.

Edwards gets first crack at an MTV/MySpace forum today.

Clinton and her husband may not always agree, but the former president's new global initiative is drawing some reflected glory to her candidacy. The former president told ABC's Charlie Gibson on "World News" last night that he's "amazed" by how well his wife has done in the campaign, and said he'd like to take the "implementation" skills he's learning through his charitable work back to the White House. "She has to make the policy calls. But I also would like to take what I've learned running this foundation and help to make sure we implement well," he said.

Clinton conceded that the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton succession isn't necessarily good for the country. But he apparently sees something different about the candidacy of the spouse of a former president, as opposed to a son. "In our case, I don't think dynasty's right, because Hillary will have to win on her own merits," he said (and what's he saying here about George W. Bush?). "The fact that we happen to have been married I don't think should disqualify her. If you go out and you fight fair and you win it on your own, then it's not a dynasty."

Biden and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., finally got a vote on their plan for an Iraq partition -- and even they had to be surprised by the margin. It's a non-binding measure, but 26 Republicans powered the call for a decentralized Iraqi government to a 75-23 victory. Per The Hill's Elana Schor, "The Senate found its first bipartisan consensus on the Iraq war Wednesday, dealing a minor rebuke to the Bush administration and a major boost to the long-shot White House run of Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.)."

The "surprisingly overwhelming bipartisan support [seemed] to signify deep bipartisan concerns about the administration's direction in Iraq," ABC's Jake Tapper and Z. Byron Wolf report. "The White House, however, belittled the move as essentially comporting with its own view, a response Republicans on Capitol Hill greeted with derision."

Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., may be hearing from lots of folks that he should run for president, but the editors of National Review are not eager for a resumption of the Gingrich-Clinton battles. "The late entry of such a controversial conservative candidate to the presidential field wouldn't benefit the Republican party, or the Republic," the National Review editorial reads. "The hard truth is that, in a general election, Gingrich would go toe to toe with Hillary Clinton -- in unpopularity."

Evangelical leaders are still in the market for their savior, Politico's Jonathan Martin reports. "Fred Thompson is failing to meet expectations that he would rally widespread support from Christian conservatives, and he almost certainly will not receive a joint endorsement from the loose coalition of 'pro-family' organizations," Martin writes.

Martin piles on the quotes. Paul Weyrich: "A lot of people who had intended to support him pulled back." Tony Perkins: "His position on the marriage amendment has given some pause." Gary Bauer (saying he's speaking for many of his comrades): "Let the marketplace choose which one ends up being the best candidate."

Robert Novak appears ready to give up on Thompson, R-Tenn., as well. "A Giuliani-Romney battle could be ahead," Novak and Timothy P. Carney write in the Evans-Novak Political Report. "The quiet rumbles early in Thompson's unofficial campaign were that Thompson lacked the energy and the work ethic necessary to run a presidential campaign. Those whispers have now surfaced and become something of reputation."

Former Bush faith-based adviser David Kuo weighs in on the consequences of a dispirited base of religious voters. "The worst case scenario for Republicans isn't that Christian conservatives are defecting to Democrats en masse (not a very likely scenario) but that they have made a spiritual decision to stay home -- focusing on their families and churches and communities instead of on politics," Kuo writes in his column. "How ironic that the Republican nightmare scenario would be Christian conservatives acting more like Christians and less like conservatives."

The Boston Phoenix's Steven Stark sees reason for Giuliani and Obama to be hopeful in New Hampshire, where independent voters could determine the results. "Giuliani and Barack Obama may have as-yet-unrecognized potential to pull off surprise wins in New Hampshire, where both currently trail," Stark writes. "They've determined New Hampshire primaries in the past, and could certainly do it again."

Giuliani's flirtation with a Social Security tax increase has won him a warning kick from the Club for Growth (taking a break from its regularly scheduled Mike Huckabee-bashing). "Such an allegation, if true, together with your refusal to sign Americans for Tax Reform's anti-tax pledge, casts doubt on your commitment to opposing all tax increases," club president Pat Toomey writes in an open letter to Giuliani. (Even Clinton knew better than to go there last night.)

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, is sticking around for at least a few more days (and almost certainly beyond his previously scheduled resignation date of Sept. 30), after a judge in Minneapolis declined to immediately rule on his motion to have his guilty plea tossed out. Craig hailed it as a "major step" in efforts to clear his name, but the Idaho Statesman noticed that his Republican colleagues didn't quite see it the same way. "Senate Republican leaders greeted the news with silence," write the Stateman's Deborah Caulfield Rybak, Heath Druzin, and Erika Bolstad.

Judge Charles Porter "reacted skeptically" to Craig's request, Paul Kane reports in The Washington Post. "Porter noted that Craig admitted in August that his behavior in the restroom stall constituted a crime that 'would arouse alarm or resentment of others,' " Kane writes. Said the judge: "That's what he did in his petition -- admit what he did." (Isn't he familiar with the "wide stance" defense?)

The showdown over children's health insurance is moving toward its conclusion, with a Senate vote today -- and somebody please tell us how this is good politics for the president. "If suddenly Bush wants to be a cost-cutter, why draw the line at the pediatrician's door?" Bloomberg's Margaret Carlson writes. "He could get at some of the pork in the massive energy and highway bills. And how about the farm bill on the Hill now, with its massive subsidies for agribusiness?"

The president's dispute with Congress is over $30 billion, spread over five years. Meanwhile (and we aren't the first or last to make this connection), "the Bush Administration plans to ask Congress for another $42.3 billion to fund the global war on terror," ABC's Jonathan Karl and Tom Shine report. "That brings the total request for 2008 war funding to nearly $190 billion, making 2008 the costliest year, by far, for war funding."

The kicker: Crazy kids edition

"They have children of their own, and they're putting those things aside to come work in my campaign." -- Romney, in a clip used in Slate's entry into his campaign's make-your-own-ad contest. (Tagline: "Sacrifice. . . . Honor. . . . Courage. . . . Fore!"

"You're with Oprah. You're in Glamour, you're in Essence. And then you're holding the bucket. Bottom line is I hold the bucket." -- Michelle Obama, explaining how she spent the night while her youngest daughter was ill.

"Childrens do learn." -- President Bush, keeping the "Bushisms" industry in business.

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