THE NOTE: Clinton Stumble Provides Dems an Opening

PHILADELPHIA --

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."

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