THE NOTE: Can Clinton Be Stopped?

The world according to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton: It's over -- game, set, match. That fund-raising edge you thought you had, Barack? We floss our teeth with it ("through the roof"). Experience counts, and we were aiming for the White House back when you were editing the law review. Look at the scoreboard (particularly today's numbers). (And by the way, we have Matt Drudge's direct dial.)

The world according to Sen. Barack Obama: The game has changed -- and nobody else gets that yet. The front-runner remains a fundamentally flawed candidate (who voted for the war -- and did we mention she voted for the war?). We've still raised more money than the establishment candidate. The fight has not yet begun. We'll take our smile over your laugh. (And by the way, the country is almost as sick of Clintons as it is of Bushes.)

The real world: Neither Clinton nor Obama (nor a publicly funded former senator John Edwards) will win (or lose) because of money. Clinton's not as perfect a candidate as she wants us to think (don't forget the post-debate mop-up duty on torture and Iran), and Obama's not as pure a candidate as he wants us to believe (don't forget those equivocal quotes on the war).

Clinton stands stronger at this moment than at any other time in the Democratic race. But three months can be a long time in politics -- and too many people want there to be a race for there not to be (Mr. Drudge being among those with a rooting interest).

So the battle is joined -- and a new poll drops this morning to underscore the trends. This is a very big deal: Clinton, D-N.Y., enjoys her biggest lead of the year in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll. She's leading 53-20 over Obama, D-Ill., with Edwards, D-N.C. registering at 13 percent.

Let the numbers sink in, though this should not be surprising: Clinton is up 13 points since last month (and surpasses the 50-percent threshold for the first time), with Obama down 7 points, to his lowest level of the year.

Perhaps most worrisome for Obama, Clinton appears to be answering voters' concerns. "Building on her dual image of leadership and electability, Hillary Clinton has advanced to her most powerful advantage of the Democratic nomination campaign, with resounding leads on key issues and personal attributes alike," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes.

The poll shows across-the-board strength for Clinton. "Despite rivals' efforts to portray her as too polarizing to win the general election, a clear majority of those surveyed, 57 percent, said Clinton is the Democratic candidate with the best chance on Nov. 4, 2008," the Post's Jon Cohen and Anne Kornblut write. "One of the central claims of Obama's campaign is that he is best suited to lower partisan tensions in Washington. But, in this poll, more see Clinton as best able to reduce partisanship. On major issues, Democrats are far more likely to trust her than her main competitors."

The release of Clinton's fund-raising numbers yesterday was a masterstroke of political timing. The Drudge Report fired up its siren just hours before Obama was set to deliver a well-hyped speech commemorating his opposition to (and her initial support for) the Iraq war. There weren't many questions left surrounding Clinton, and this haul -- and the fact that she beat Obama for the quarter, even after a fund-raising scandal -- answered some of the biggies.

Clinton "cemented herself as a formidable Democratic front-runner for the 2008 nomination," ABC's Kate Snow reports. "In the past, when Obama has out-raised Clinton, Clinton campaign officials had argued that fundraising wasn't everything. But today, Clinton insiders say they are very pleased."

Clinton succeeded in "stripping [Obama] at least temporarily of a crucial political advantage," The New York Times' Patrick Healy reports. It wasn't just the $3 million primary-cash edge for the quarter -- Clinton also brought in 7,000 more new donors than Obama. In case she needed any new ways to be considered the frontrunner, the report "suggests that the fund-raising terrain was moving in Mrs. Clinton's favor," Healy writes.

"Impressive -- not the money, so much as the ability to convince Matt Drudge to spin it," writes The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder. "Institutional donors are starting to fall in with the herd, and the herd is running towards Clinton at this point."

Obama still has a slight edge in money raised for the primary -- and a wider fund-raising advantage if you subtract the $10 million Clinton had leftover in her Senate account. "However, Mr. Obama hasn't been able to turn his cash advantage, fresh face and charisma into a lead in polls," writes The Wall Street Journal's Mary Jacoby. "This continued lead, together with her robust fund-raising numbers, is sowing doubt about Mr. Obama's ability to prevail, while fueling her own campaign's momentum."

Yesterday was supposed to belong to Obama, as he seeks to rebuild his momentum. Five years to the day after declaring that he was against "dumb wars" (particularly the one President Bush wanted to pursue in Iraq), "Obama attacked Clinton's evolving position on the war without mentioning her by name," ABC's David Wright reports. Said Obama: "We need to ask those who voted for the war: How can you give the President a blank check and then act surprised when he cashes it?"

As the Obama campaign helpfully points out, the speech did succeed in getting on the front page of the Des Moines Register today (next to a picture of a giant squash, and a story about corn dogs).

The Chicago Tribune's John McCormick reports on how the campaign is centering itself on "14 seconds of video" from Obama's 2002 speech. To David Axelrod's chagrin, it's low-quality stuff (and Obama didn't even get mentioned in the Tribune's coverage of the anti-war rally five years ago). Axelrod wishes there was a Zapruder in the crowd: "I would kill for that," he said.

So is this gloves-off time, or isn't it? "The attack on Clinton, a senator from New York, came less than a week after Obama passed up opportunities to confront or criticize her in a New Hampshire debate," Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla reports. "Trailing her in support and, as of this week, fundraising, he is alternating between the roles of new-style, above-the-partisan-fray politician and challenger on the attack." Says Axelrod: "The fact that Senator Clinton is a polarizing figure in American politics is not even a point of debate. . . . It's an empirical fact." (So when does his candidate come out and say it?)

Obama yesterday also explained why he allowed room for doubt back in 2004, when he said shortly before the Democratic National Convention that he wasn't sure how he would have voted had he been in the Senate: "We had two nominees that obviously I did not want to be criticizing right before they got up and received the nomination," Obama told CNN. You didn't mean what you said? "So -- well, no."

Obama is traveling through Iowa this week, and he's distributing a DVD in New Hampshire showing "several clips of Obama opposing the war," the Concord Monitor's Shira Schoenberg reports. The DVD includes a portion "of a November 2002 talk show appearance in which Obama called rushing into war a mistake, saying there needed to be a debate over the cost of the war, a plan for rebuilding the country, and a way to ensure Iraq does not split into factions."

Don't leave out Edwards, D-N.C. (and he doesn't want to be forgotten in this discussion). The response from the Edwards camp: "Sen. Obama likes to talk about his speech on Iraq years ago, but the truth is he did support past funding requests that only helped prolong this war." Per The Hill's Sam Youngman, "The criticisms represent an apparent change in strategy for the Edwards campaign. Thus far this year it has directed most of its fire at Clinton's campaign."

Today, Edwards jumps on the widening scandal involving Blackwater USA, with a speech today where he will vow to "transfer most security missions currently performed by contractors back to military command," per his campaign. And there's this line from his speech, aimed (of course) at Clinton: "Come on -- if you're not ending combat operations, you're not ending the war."

Clinton hasn't rid herself of Obama (or Edwards), the Republican front-runner, and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., truly hasn't pulled away from the pack. It's tighter, in fact, on the GOP side: The ABC/Post poll has it at Giuliani 34, Fred Thompson 17, John McCain 12, Mitt Romney 11, and Mike Huckabee 8. "But Giuliani's biggest threat is his shakiness in the Republican base," ABC's Langer writes. "Just 23 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say he best represents their party's core values -- no more than say so about either John McCain or Fred Thompson."

Giuliani "has double the support of his nearest rival, but a majority of those who support him do so only 'somewhat,' " write the Post's Dan Balz and Jennifer Agiesta. "At the same time, his advantages on key attributes are smaller today than they were earlier in the campaign, reflecting continued uncertainty among Republicans about their choices in the presidential race." And Thompson, R-Tenn., "nearly doubled his support from April to early September as he prepared to enter the race, but he has not picked up additional backing since."

With no fund-raising numbers yet from Rudy's camp (curious, no?), Giuliani strategy director Brent Seaborn put out a memo yesterday that looks past the GOP field. "Mayor Giuliani is clearly the strongest candidate to run against Senator Clinton in the general election and is likely the only Republican candidate that can beat her in 2008," Seaborn writes. Politico's Jonathan Martin has the maps that make (and spin) the case: Giuliani is ready to cede only 18 electoral votes to Clinton, and claims to be sure of 210 (!?) votes of his own -- including those of Florida and Virginia -- while promising close contests in states including Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland, and California.

This, of course, assumes that social conservatives don't bolt on Rudy. The Hill's Alexander Bolton gets at one reason why they're upset with him: He "has avoided meeting with the nation's most powerful socially conservative leaders, and instead is taking his appeal directly to conservative activists at the local level." Bolton adds, "Giuliani is also the only major Republican candidate who has not responded to an invitation to attend a briefing later this month sponsored by the Family Research Council."

Also in the news:

Muslim and Jewish groups aren't happy with McCain, R-Ariz., these days, but he gets a big positive push today from the publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader, Joseph W. McQuaid. "Sen. McCain said this nation was founded on Christian principles. This alone caused millions of liberals and squishy teachers of 'multi-culturalism' to faint dead away," McQuaid writes (leaving little doubt as to the politics of his newspaper). "Next thing you know, McCain will be muttering about 'godless communism' and opposing Islamic law that requires infidels to convert or die. We can only hope so."

McCain was mutter-free on the trail yesterday, but he did try to explain (again) what he meant in the Beliefnet interview. "I would hope that we could convince the world that we elect leaders who are motivated by Judeo-Christian principles and values. And one of those is 'love thine enemy,' " he said in South Carolina, per Jason Spencer of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.

And don't miss what McCain had to say when asked whether he considers Mormons to be Christians: "I don't know. I respect their faith. I've never frankly looked at the Mormon religion. I've known a lot of Mormons who are wonderful people. More importantly, I don't think it should be held against Gov. Romney. The fact that he's a Mormon should not be a factor in people's judgment." What say you, governor?

McCain was to take his argument directly to Clinton, but he has pulled those lines from his speech, per ABC's Bret Hovell. "Senator Clinton, this is not the '90s," McCain was to say in South Carolina, per the AP's Jim Davenport. "This is the post-September 11 world. The commander in chief does not enjoy the luxury to conduct our national security by means of triangulation."

Fred Thompson wants a new tax system, and he told a Des Moines Register editorial board that he would consider replacing the income tax with a "consumption tax." "But he stopped short of recommending it or siding with those who favor overhauling the existing code," the Register's Thomas Beaumont reports. Thompson: "Some days I think almost anything would be better than what we've got."

Politico's Roger Simon collects some truly outrageous and absolutely inexcusable things Thompson has said on the trail of late: "Every few years we are presented with new issues on the table." "Let's keep doing what works and quit doing what doesn't work." "We must keep the faith and stick to the principles we believe in." "You wonder what the unborn would say when they get to a point where they want to get married and have that first car." "This is the most blessed country in the history of the world." "Democracy is good."

The next round in the political fight over the war is playing out with the Bush administration's latest funding request. House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., said he will not move out of his committee "any such request that simply serves to continue the status quo," The Wall Street Journal's David Rogers reports. Rogers writes, "The chairman's stand, blessed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), represents a significant escalation of the conflict with the administration."

But the "war tax" isn't going very far (it's safe to assume Republicans want to see it more than Democrats). Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said he wants to "call the president's bluff on fiscal responsibility," but Pelosi doesn't play this type of poker. Per The New York Times' David M. Herszenhorn, the speaker said: "Just as I have opposed the war from the outset, I am opposed to a draft and I am opposed to a war surtax."

Congressional Democrats can't do much about influencing war policy, but they are trying mightily to keep the world safe from Rush Limbaugh. An anti-Limbaugh resolution in Congress is part of "the latest war of words over the war," Carl Hulse writes in The New York Times. "The back and forth on the Petraeus advertisement and, now, over Mr. Limbaugh's remarks, illustrates how both parties are turning miscues into fodder in the run up to the 2008 elections, particularly in the absence of serious legislative accomplishment when it comes to the war," Hulse writes.

The kicker:

"Who screwed us? The Clintons screwed us. . . . Anybody that says different is delusional." -- David "Mudcat" Saunders, an Edwards campaign consultant, to Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh. Mudcat also said he wanted to rename the "economic fairness for the North Country" tour in New Hampshire the "Let's help John Edwards screw those who screwed us tour."

"I will look at them very carefully." -- McCain, after saying he had not yet seen the remarks he is prepared to deliver today on foreign policy. The Associated Press already had its copy of the speech.

"I said, 'The hell with you.' . . . I don't need any lectures from an Irishman to tell me what the hell our obligation is." -- Obey, on telling off Bono when the rock star came to lobby him on AIDS funding, in an interview with Bloomberg News.

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