THE NOTE: A Clintonian Opening for Edwards, Obama

Everybody got that? Nearly 24 hours after the yes-no-maybe-so Sen. Hillary Clinton gave on a plan to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, she released a statement (parse away!) saying she "supports governors like Governor Spitzer who believe they need such a measure."

Here's guessing that a (sort-of) position isn't going to keep this issue from resonating on the trail. This was never really about the policy anyway -- she would have been attacked on the substance no matter what she said at Tuesday night's debate. And with two months before Iowa (and just three weeks before Thanksgiving), everything's magnified anyway.

What made the debate exchange Clinton's biggest setback since Sen. Barack Obama's fund-raising explosion was that it fit so neatly into the construct her rivals are trying to impose on the race: That Clinton's caution -- and comfy lead -- has her obfuscating her views, being (to revive a term) Clintonian.

Choose your metaphor -- "blood in the water," "crack in the armor," "fault lines" -- this fight is already beyond even the vaunted Clinton spin machine's ability to contain it.

Per The New York Times' Adam Nagourney, Clinton, D-N.Y., has to contend with a "damaging line of criticism: That she, taking advantage of her dominant position in some polls, is not being candid about her views and about would she would do as president."

It's not just the wonky stuff of immigration, Social Security, and Iran: Rival campaigns and Republican researchers are homing in on the issue of the Clinton library papers that remain sealed from public view. "Those are the years and times that candidate Clinton now constantly cites as proof that she has the experience necessary to become president," Andrew Malcolm blogs for the Los Angeles Times. "So, trust her, she says, it's all there. You just can't see it."

"How can people fully judge that record if the documents from those years remain locked away?" Obama, D-Ill., tells the AP's Amy Lorentzen. "I think last night's debate really exposed this fault line. . . . Senator Clinton left us wondering where she stood on every single hard question."

The document question was among the subjects discussed on a conference call for Clinton supporters yesterday. One participant said that debate moderator Tim Russert "should be shot," before adding that she shouldn't say that on a conference call, per the scoop from The Hill's Sam Youngman. On the call, which Youngman managed to listen in on, strategist Mark Penn still maintained that Clinton won the debate, and used the attacks as a plea for cash. "Sen. Clinton needs our support now more than ever if we're going to see this six-on-one to try to bring her down," Penn said, per Youngman.

That brings us to the other play from the Clinton campaign yesterday: the sympathy card. (Hey, it worked against Rick Lazio, right?) "Ultimately, it was six guys against her, and she came off as one strong woman," a Clinton adviser tells The Washington Post's Anne Kornbult and Dan Balz."

It helps when you have AFSCME's Gerald McEntee fighting for you (and thanks for the visual -- lace 'em up, senator). But it's hard to feel sorry for a campaign juggernaut. The Clinton campaign set the attacks from the debate to music in a Web video -- but good luck singing a song that will make this go away.

There's no shortage of political opportunity to go around, but former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., seems most primed to pounce. He's launching a new 60-second TV ad in Iowa today, and already has a new biographical mailing in circulation (while his campaign sent around a memo implying that Obama is the "featherweight" in the fight). Edwards, in the new TV ad: "It is time for our party, the Democratic Party, to show a little backbone, to have a little guts."

"Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) has actually begun hitting Clinton," per the Evans-Novak Political Report. "From his staked-out position as a left-wing populist, he's attacked her for questionable meetings with defense industry lobbyists and her support for Iraq, asserting a Clinton presidency would be trading 'their cronies for our cronies.' . . . If he survives Iowa and enters a two-way race, his class-warfare rhetoric could catch on with liberal voters wary of Hillary."

Edwards on the trail yesterday, per ABC's Raelyn Johnson: "One of the things unfortunately that we saw last night was a lot of bobbing, weaving, triangulating -- everything but being direct and open and straight." Next up: "Heroes Week," where Edwards will highlight "his commitment to fight for the real heroes of America," per his campaign.

"Aides to Edwards, who caught his first break in months, were trumpeting what they view as his 'Perry Mason moment' toward the end of Tuesday night's debate in Philadelphia," Politico's Mike Allen and Jonathan Martin write. "All of Clinton's rivals -- in both parties -- "plan to label Clinton as deceptive and intentionally vague, with 'evasion' and 'obfuscation' as their new watchwords."

More Hillary fallout. The Wall Street Journal headlines its editorial, "Hilliam Clinton." "With another Clinton running as if she's all but a sure thing for the White House, Clintonesque is once again becoming a politically relevant adjective," the editorial reads. "Aside from lacking her husband's political gifts, Hillary's challenge is that we've all seen this movie before."

There just may be a method to her meandering. "A closer look reveals one thing Clinton has been quite explicit about -- that as she campaigns, she is being careful to preserve her options as president if she goes on to win," The Boston Globe's Marcella Bombardieri writes. "While her speeches, debate performances, and policy prescriptions often feature hedging, Clinton has been startlingly straightforward about her refusal to be pinned down."

And the Republicans are no less eager to join in the pile-on. "For now, Clinton is the undisputed punching bag in chief," the New York Daily News' Michael Saul, Richard Sisk, and David Saltonstall write. Said former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y.: "This is the worst of the Clinton years coming back." Don't miss The Washington Post fact-check of the Clinton library documents issue. "Nobody comes off very well on this one. Republicans lack credibility when they criticize the Clintons for dragging their feet on the release of presidential records. . . . On the other hand, Hillary Clinton should not pretend she is just an innocent bystander."

Clinton could point to a glimmer of good news yesterday, with her AFSCME endorsement. "On the heels of a rough debate, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., showed off the institutional strength of her candidacy when she picked up the endorsement of the nation's public employees union," ABC's Teddy Davis and Eloise Harper report. Said McEntee: "Six guys against Hillary and I'd call that a fair fight." (Who's writing these lines?)

"It's a good thing Hillary Clinton got the big AFSCME endorsement Wednesday," Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen writes. "Not that the union can deliver Iowa -- just ask President Howard Dean -- but the nod does help Clinton shift the focus away from her sub-par debate performance Tuesday night."

Edwards had his own endorsement to celebrate yesterday in New Hampshire -- but it wasn't a clean victory. "A celebratory press conference degenerated into an intra-union feud over whether the former North Carolina senator was the board's first choice," the Concord Monitor's Lauren R. Dorgan reports. It seems the first board vote for the endorsement by the SEIU affiliate went for Obama, but State Employees Association president Gary Smith "called for another one, which Edwards won 9-8 Tuesday night."

Also in the news:

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is out with a new campaign ad, "portraying him as a corruption-busting, responsible fiscal steward," The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg reports. "But it also contains perhaps one of the closest brushes with commercial confrontation," since the ad flashes pictures of Giuliani and former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., alongside Clinton and Edwards. An announcer says, "All of the candidates say they'll stop wasteful spending -- one man has actually done it."

Fueling a feud with McCain, Giuliani yesterday "maintained his position that waterboarding may not be torture," ABC's Jan Simmonds reports. "You can't keep this country safe if you don't allow for that flexibility," Giuliani said, adding that Congress has chosen not to make waterboarding specifically illegal.

Former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., is claiming to have raised more money last month than he did in the entire third quarter, ABC's Kevin Chupka reports. "It should allow Huckabee to cast a wider campaigning net in the key early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina," Chupka writes. "The campaign's first commercials, produced over the past few weeks, should begin airing in those states in the near future."

Romney talks trade today in Iowa, including his proposal for a creatively named "Reagan Zone of Economic Freedom" within the World Trade Organization, per the Des Moines Register's Grant Schulte. Said Romney: "If we sit back and don't enter into agreements with other nations, we'll be the nation left out."

Obama is Charlie Gibson's next subject in the "World News" "Who Is?" series, with his profile to air tonight. Obama, on the absence of his father from his life: "Some of my drive comes from wanting to prove that he should have stuck around, that I was worthy of his attentions."

On his mixed-race heritage: "I feel very much like I'm one of those threads that belong in this quilt -- that I'm a product of all of these different forces -- black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Native American. That, somehow, all this amalgam is part of who I am, and that's part of the reason I love this country so much." And this on his difficult teenage years: "I don't want to romanticize it. I mean, it was a 15- or 16-year-old kid getting high."

Sen. Joe Biden's sparring match with Giuliani continued off-stage yesterday, The New York Times' Michael Cooper reports. Giuliani spokeswoman Katie Levinson (this is worth quoting at length): "Rudy rarely reads prepared speeches, and when he does, he isn't prone to ripping off the text from others. And Senator Biden certainly falls into the bucket of those on the stage tonight who have never had executive experience and have never run anything. Wait, I take that back; Senator Biden has never run anything but his mouth. . . . Such a desperate attack from Senator Biden is to be expected considering I, Katie Levinson, have a better chance of becoming president than he does." Anyone think Biden's hurt by this? l

Donald Rumsfeld's long gone from the political scene, but his "snowflakes" may yet fall on the race for 2008 (and look for Obama and Edwards to catch them). The Washington Post's Robin Wright obtains Rumsfeld's "internal musings and memos to his staff," and there are plenty of gems: He "argued that Muslims avoid 'physical labor' and wrote of the need to 'keep elevating the threat,' 'link Iraq to Iran' and develop 'bumper sticker statements' to rally public support for an increasingly unpopular war."

What do Ron Paul and Stephen Colbert have in common? It could be a moment for political outsiders, Steven Stark writes in the Boston Phoenix. "The nation's political mood is shifting dramatically, and the campaign press has yet to notice the change," he writes. "Simply put, mass alienation with politics as usual -- a morphed incarnation of Perotism -- is returning in force. This has the potential to reshape significantly the contours of Campaign 2008, and is the reason that John McCain and the relatively unknown Mike Huckabee are being pushed into major contention."

The only thing holding back Bill Gardner from setting a New Hampshire primary date? Michigan, according to the Union Leader's John DiStaso.

The GOP's California electoral college initiative may have the backer it needs. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., "is stepping in to revive an effort that could deliver more than a third of the state's electoral votes to the Republican presidential candidate in 2008," per the AP's Laura Kurtzman. "Issa, a Republican who made millions in the car alarm business, said Wednesday that he would contribute less than the $1.7 million he gave to qualify the measure that led to the recall of Gov. Gray Davis. But he also said he was urging his own donor network to give to the Electoral College campaign."

Ron Brownstein's new book goes on sale today. "The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America." More than a century's worth of political history, in 484 pages.

Sorry, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio. "One might think that the Ohioan's candidness earned him the endorsement of the community of extraterrestrial believers. But not so fast," Sam Stein writes for HuffingtonPost. "Kucinich isn't even the preferred Democratic vice presidential candidate. That honor goes to Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico." The chief lobbyist for the Extraterrestrial Phenomena Political Action Committee reads the polls. He's backing Clinton for president.

The kicker:

"Your irony might be different than somebody else's." -- Gov. Eliot Spitzer, D-N.Y., asked about the embrace his driver's license plan got from Obama instead of his favored candidate, Clinton.

"McCain Defeats Clinton." -- Mock newspaper front page worked up by the McCain campaign, featuring hopeful election results -- and a magically younger candidate.

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