THE NOTE: Clinton Stumble Provides Dems an Opening


Now we've got it straight. Sen. Hillary Clinton is a flip-flopping, record-sealing, war-in-Iran-voting, Social-Security-ducking, politically calculating, lobbyist-loving, polarizing and unelectable Democrat who acts like a Republican -- and a Clinton.

It's all very spooky. At least she doesn't see UFOs (but given another half hour of debating time, who knows).

Yet Clinton might have glided past it all last night in Philadelphia had she not handed her Democratic rivals a fresh issue that hammers home their contention that she's taking the easy route to the nomination.

"I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Gov. Spitzer is trying to do it," Clinton, D-N.Y., said of Eliot Spitzer's plan to give undocumented immigrants driver's licenses in their home state. "It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do? . . . Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No."

It was an opening big enough to drive four senators through (and just wait until the Republicans get started on this one). Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C.: "Sen. Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes." Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.: "I can't tell whether she was for it or against it."

"Bizarre," Obama strategist David Axelrod said in the post-debate spin room. "She seems to be calculating, on every question, how to take the least risk. People want a president they can trust."

The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut and Dan Balz labeled it the evening's "most telling exchange," since Clinton just about made her rivals' case for them. "After months of civility, the contenders raised their voices more frequently and addressed one another by first name. With a few exceptions, the six other candidates heaped criticism only on Clinton," they write.

"The debate appeared to mark a turning point in the Democratic contest, as Mrs. Clinton's rivals feel increasing pressure to begin trying to weaken her as the first voting approaches," Adam Nagourney and Elisabeth Bumiller write in The New York Times.

Edwards generally outshone Obama, with his broad argument that Clinton represents the status quo. "Will she be the person who brings about the change in this country?" Edwards said. "You know, I believe in Santa Claus. I believe in the tooth fairy. But I don't think that's going to happen."

Write Nagourney and Bumiller: "For all the attention Mr. Obama drew to himself coming into the debate, he was frequently overshadowed by former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who -- speaking more intensely -- repeatedly challenged Mrs. Clinton's credentials and credibility, and frequently seemed to make the case against Mrs. Clinton that Mr. Obama had promised to make."

Obama appears to have cleared the bar he set for himself -- if only barely. If, as he said, the fight was "overhyped," he has only himself to blame for setting the expectations. (And props for the Philly reference -- but Rocky lost to Apollo Creed in the first movie.)

"Obama challenged Hillary Rodham Clinton's electability and candor," Mark Z. Barabak and Peter Nicholas write in the Los Angeles Times. "But he failed to rattle the front-runner or do much, it seemed, to shake up the Democratic race. . . . [Obama] delivered his charges in subdued fashion, as though he were back in the classroom teaching one of his courses on constitutional law."

If the attacks had a tendency to blur together -- Obama alone sought to label her a flip-flopping straddler who and also lines up with the Republican point of view too often -- there are larger stakes laid bare by last night's debate.

It was almost certainly Clinton's weakest performance of the cycle, feeding the media appetite for a race. And the attacks were effective in the sense that her rivals articulated the major arguments against her, in ways that will reverberate in the two months that precede Iowa. What should be scary for Clinton that the subtle, under-the-radar attacks on her candidacy -- up to and including her electability and the baggage of the 1990s -- will be hidden no longer.

"Clinton found herself under attack on her credibility -- much as her husband, Bill Clinton, was in 1992 when his opponents dubbed him 'Slick Willy' for what they called his shifting stands on issues," writes The Boston Globe's Susan Milligan. Said Obama: "Part of the reason the Republicans are obsessed with you is that is a fight they are willing to be having."

"Good luck trying to pin her down," ABC's David Wright reported on "Good Morning America." "She seems to have set her sites on the general election. Last night she mentioned Republicans 19 times. She mentioned George W. Bush 25 times. But clearly her primary rivals are not going down without a fight."

"We now know something that we did not know before: When Hillary Clinton has a bad night, she really has a bad night," Politico's Roger Simon writes. "And when it was over, both the Barack Obama and John Edwards campaigns signaled that in the weeks ahead they intend to hammer home a simple message: Hillary Clinton does not say what she means or mean what she says."

"Clinton's performance will do little to excite her supporters and nothing to quiet the reservations many Democrats have about the senator from New York," David Yepsen writes in the Des Moines Register.

Yepsen's headline: "Johnny Be Good." "Edwards came ready for the scrap and did his candidacy some good," Yepsen writes. "By contrast, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama seemed disjointed, unable to give good sound bites, and did himself no good. . . . While Clinton's performance was uneven, it wasn't fatally flawed."

Two candidates came to the debate with a slightly different playbook. Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., "protested 'this holier-than-thou attitude' toward Clinton. He said it verged on 'a personal attack,'" Kathy Kiely writes in USA Today. (But really, governor, do you disagree with Clinton on a "majority" of issues?)

And what about Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del.? His attack on former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., almost came from a different time and a different place -- but could he be heralding a new Democratic message, starring Rudy Giuliani as George W. Bush? "There's only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun and a verb and 9/11," Biden said, per Mark Silva of the Chicago Tribune.

"The sharp exchanges mark a more intense phase of the battle for the Democratic nomination, with barely two months left before Iowans cast the first votes for president," per ABC's post-debate write-up.

Read my live-blogging transcript here.

Drudge has Clinton advisers blaming the moderators for an "unfair" debate -- but calling out the referees doesn't win many games.

On the trail today, Clinton may try to "turn the page" with a big endorsement, as AFSCME's executive board meets to decide on an endorsement in Washington. "All signs point to Hillary Clinton who seems to have deftly arranged her schedule to be in the nation's capital for a possible surprise announcement," ABC's Teddy Davis and Nancy Flores report.

Edwards has his own union endorsement to tout. As he makes up for the fact that the national SEIU is taking a pass, the union's New Hampshire chapter is lining up behind the former senator, who already had Iowa in the bag, ABC's Raelyn Johnson reports.

Meanwhile, off-stage, Democrats are bolting on President Bush's nominee for attorney general, Michael Mukasey, primarily over his position (or lack thereof) on waterboarding.

"Mukasey's uncertainty about the method's legality has raised new questions about the success of his nomination," Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post. "By seizing on the waterboarding issue, Democrats hope to force Mukasey to disavow a controversial technique that top Bush administration officials have deemed legal."

It was -- in order -- Obama, Edwards, Clinton, and Biden stating their opposition to Mukasey yesterday (and all were two days behind Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.) Falling into line within a few hours of each other -- think everyone's on guard for the next Kyl-Lieberman-style vote?

"This is not the first time that Clinton and Obama have announced their opinions on a controversial issue nearly within moments," ABC's Z. Byron Wolf reports. "In May, Clinton and Obama held out to the end before voting, nearly in tandem, against a supplemental appropriations bill that funded the Iraq war without a Democratic plan for phased redeployment. Then, too, Dodd was in front. He had announced days before the vote that he would oppose that bill."

Elsewhere on the congressional front: "President Bush told Republican lawmakers on Tuesday he will not agree to legislation expanding children's health insurance if it includes a tobacco tax increase, a decision that virtually ensures a renewed veto struggle with the Democratic-controlled Congress," the AP's David Espo and Charles Babington report. "Bush's remarks represented a hardening of the administration's public position in a running veto showdown over Democratic-led attempts to enact legislation that provides coverage for 6 million children who now lack it." (Somewhere, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., is smiling.)

Also in the news:

The Wall Street Journal compiles the numbers on campaign spending to show how "candidates are challenging some traditional notions about the best path to the White House," Mary Jacoby and T.W. Farnam write. "For Democrats, the growing dominance of Hillary Rodham Clinton, challenged by a struggling but well-financed Barack Obama, has led unprecedented millions to be poured into Iowa -- twice as much as into New Hampshire."

"Two major [Republican] candidates -- Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson -- are spending their budgets most heavily on Florida," Jacoby and Farnam report. Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., "has spent the most of any Republican in Florida -- more than $2 million. But that is only about half of what he has spent in Iowa and New Hampshire each, reflecting the divergent strategies of the candidates."

Before yesterday's debate, the Clinton campaign took spin to a new level of audacity, with a memo claiming the "politics of hope" for Clinton. "Does the 'politics of hope' mean launching attacks on one candidate?" Clinton strategist Mark Penn writes. "Or does it mean laying out a vision for the American people? Does it mean questioning a rival's integrity? Or does it mean talking about the change we need?"

James Traub has a deep and interesting look at Obama's brand of foreign policy in the forthcoming New York Times Magazine. Traub sees Obama as the choice of members of the Democratic foreign-policy establishment who share a vision of a forward-looking foreign policy to replace the Bush administration's. "Obama offers himself as the representative of a new generation, free of the dogmas that still burden the Democratic Party," Traub writes.

As for why he appears not to be catching on more broadly among Democrats, Traub writes, "perhaps anger over Iraq is less salient politically than fear about terrorism. And if that's so, voters may be more inclined to take refuge in Clinton's tough-mindedness than in Obama's multipronged Swiss Army knife."

And the experience question clearly annoys Obama. ''Hillary gets a unique pass on this issue,'' Obama said, "not by virtue of her service in the Senate but by virtue of the idea that through osmosis she gets it from Bill. And they've been actively pushing that story. . . . Ask [Joseph] Nye why Hillary's paint-by-the-numbers foreign policy makes her more qualified to handle a crisis when for most of our history our crises have come from using force when we shouldn't, not by failing to use force."

Another tough choice for Clinton? Per Reuters' Doug Palmer, "Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has not decided whether to vote for a free trade agreement with Peru, a spokesman for the New York senator said on Tuesday."

Giuliani isn't fazed by the fact-checkers: He's continuing to repeat an erroneous statistic he's citing in a radio ad. The discrepancy, first reported Monday by ABC News, has Giuliani off by some 30 points on the prostate-cancer survival rate in England. Asked by The New York Times whether Giuliani would continue to use a lightly sourced number that's contradicted by official statistics, spokeswoman Maria Comella was terse: "Yes. We will."

Giuliani yesterday brought on board former Bush campaign manager Joe Allbaugh, "adding another Bush pal to a campaign that seems to have one foot in Texas and the other in New York," David Saltonstall writes in the New York Daily News.

The former mayor also unfurled some running-mate tea leaves when asked on Fox News whether he'd choose former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., as his veep. "I don't know about running mates, but I sure like having him at the debates, because he makes me laugh," he said. "He has got a happy approach and he has got an optimistic approach to life. And then I -- you know, I have great respect for him."

The Rep. Ron Paul phenomenon continued last night. Paul, R-Texas, was "sandwiched between megastar Tom Cruise and a reunion of The Sex Pistols, singing 'Anarchy in the UK' on the 'Tonight Show,' " ABC's Z. Byron Wolf reports. Jay Leno played it pretty much straight, giving the libertarian a chance to introduce himself. "There probably is a risk I could win," Paul said.

With Paul buying a few more minutes of fame on New Hampshire television, he is attracting an audience of disaffected Republicans, Bloomberg's Catherine Dodge reports. Paul "has proved popular with young voters as well as long-time Libertarians and disgruntled Republicans," Dodge writes. "More than 200 Students for Ron Paul chapters have sprung up at colleges."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., gets some rough treatment in today's Washington Times. "McCain has quietly been piling up flip-flops, including ditching his long-held support for the Law of the Sea convention and telling bloggers he now opposes the DREAM Act to legalize illegal alien students," Stephen Dinan writes. "Republican primary voters tilt to the right, and the sea treaty is another example of Mr. McCain veering to try to align himself with them, recanting positions along the way on immigration, tax cuts and campaign-finance reform."

Here's a scary tale: Chris Dodd wants children to dress like him for Halloween. We are not making this up.

Could the best thing to happen to former senator Mike Gravel, D-Alaska, be his exclusion from last night's debate? (Yes.)

Stephen Colbert is getting serious (for Colbert) about his campaign-finance situation. Last night, he brought on the Center for Response Politics' Massie Ritsch to explain what's legal and what's not in his Doritos-fueled pseudo-run for the White House.

Colbert sums up the American campaign-finance system in a few short minutes: "Could I form a society for the North American Crunchiness. Could I form the snack PAC? . . . It advances crunchiness. Doritos believes in my PAC. My PAC believes in me. Could we run the money through that?" Colbert: "What is the best way to get this money to me?" Ritsch: "Probably by breaking federal election law."

And a Halloween ghost story -- forget the shadow of Al Gore or any Reagan mantle. "From a congressional demon cat to the ghost of Abraham Lincoln living out his afterlife at the White House, the 2008 candidate who settles in at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. once the election cycle is over might have more than the unfinished business of the last Congress spooking him or her once after the move to Washington," ABC's Nitya Venkataraman writes.

The kicker:

"I made the decision to supersede the rules, and for that I apologize." -- Andrew "Don't Tase Me Bro" Meyer, avoiding criminal charges in the incident stemming from his actions at a John Kerry event in Florida last month.

"I seriously believe we have to start asking questions about his mental health." -- Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, on President Bush, in a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board meeting.

"It was an unidentified flying object, OK? It's, like, it's unidentified. I saw something." -- Kucinich, a few hours later, at last night's Democratic debate.

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