THE NOTE: Clinton Plays Gender Card

A moment of silence, please, for Invincible Hillary. She left us at 11 am ET yesterday, in Wellesley, Mass., a victim of her own hand. She was 10 months old. She is survived by Victim Hillary.

"In so many ways this all women's college prepared me to compete in the all-boys club of presidential politics," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said yesterday at her alma mater, Wellesley College.

This from the frontrunner, the wire-to-wire leader, the choice of the Democratic establishment, the candidate of strength, determination, experience. In the context of her poor debate performance, with all her (male) rivals sensing an opportunity to chip away at her 30-point lead, this is called playing the gender card.

The campaign is raising money on the six-on-one from Tuesday's Democratic debate. But Clinton is also seeking to raise sympathies from (particularly female) voters based on the increasingly aggressive tack taken by her rivals.

"Clinton essentially hid behind her pantsuit in response to a public shellacking," AP's Ron Fournier writes in his "On Deadline" column, noting that Clinton "is no stranger to 'piling on' " herself in playing the aggressor in political combat.

Fournier: "Clinton's advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss internal matters, said there is a clear and long-planned strategy to fend off attacks by accusing her male rivals of gathering against her. The idea is to change the subject while making Clinton a sympathetic figure, especially among female voters who often feel outnumbered and bullied on the job."

Maybe the strategy works (roll out the Rick Lazio footage -- and at least she's not talking about campaign equivocations now). Yesterday marked an "emotional return" by Clinton, and she used her first full day on the trail after Tuesday's debate "to set out on an ambitious drive to attract more women to what she is underscoring as her historic candidacy," Elisabeth Bumiller writes in The New York Times. Said Clinton: "We're ready to shatter that highest glass ceiling."

"The largely dormant issue of Senator Clinton's gender is moving to the fore in the presidential contest," Josh Gerstein writes for the New York Sun. EMILY's List is set to jump into the race on Clinton's behalf, and her latest fundraising appeal is soaked in gender politics. Writes campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, in a fundraising e-mail: "She is one strong woman. She came through it well. But Hillary's going to need your help."

But Clinton's candidacy has always been about far more than being the first woman to launch a viable presidential candidacy. She's wanted us to view her as tougher than the other candidates in the race, the candidate equipped to handle the challenges of the job on Day One. She's been the candidate who's ready to "deck" her critics (and remember who dealt the first blow after Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said he'd meet with leaders of rogue nations?).

Said Obama yesterday, referring to his disagreements with Clinton on Iran: "I fear no man" -- pause -- "or woman." "She authorized war and then recently starting voting on this Iran resolution. The drums of war are beating again. You can't be fooled twice," Obama said, ABC's Sunlen Miller reports.

Obama this morning, on the "Today" show: "I am assuming and I hope that Sen. Clinton wants to be treated like everybody else. And I think that that's why she is running for president. You know, when we had a debate in Iowa a while back, we spent the first 15 minutes of the debate hitting me on various foreign policy issues. And I didn't come out and say 'look, I'm being hit on because I look different from the rest of the folks on the stage.' . . . We're not running for the president of the city council. We're running for the president of the United States of America."

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus isn't buying it. "Those other guys were beating up on Clinton, if you can call that beating up, because she is the strong front-runner, not because she is a weak woman. And a candidate as strong as Clinton doesn't need to play the woman-as-victim card," Marcus writes. "Using gender this way is a setback. Hillary Clinton is woman enough to take these attacks like a man."

There is such a thing as protesting too much. Lashing out at her critics "contradicts a central part of Clinton's own message: The notion that she is a battle-tested veteran ready for anything the Republicans can throw at her," Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh writes. "If so, she should prove it by engaging with her rivals and defending her positions -- not by having her campaign protest each and every time another Democrat says something critical about her."

In the short-term rush of post-debate spin, does Clinton sacrifice that which makes her most formidable? Maybe Fred Thompson could play a political analyst on TV: "The Clinton campaign goes so far in relying upon her being a strong, strong woman . . . and then on a dime, they can switch to say, 'Oh my goodness, the men are ganging up on her,' " Thompson, R-Tenn., said, per ABC's Christine Byun. "You can't have that both ways in American politics, and they're just beginning to find that out."

Obama is making his play to the Democratic base on the Iran issue. He turns to The New York Times again for the broad strokes, promising to "engage in aggressive personal diplomacy" with Iran as president: "There are both carrots and there are sticks available to them for those changes in behavior," he tells the Times' Michael R. Gordon and Jeff Zeleny.

Don't miss this detail: "Through most of the interview, Mr. Obama spoke without referring to notes. At one point near the end of the session, he leaned forward in his chair and looked at a yellow legal pad on the table in front of him, which listed points where he believed he and Mrs. Clinton differ on how to go forward in Iraq." Said Obama: "You don't want to look backwards, but obviously our general view about this mission as a whole has been very different. . . . She missed the strategic interests that should have dictated whether we went to Iraq in the first place or not."

Oddly, though, Obama's signature is missing from a letter signed by 30 senators that seeks "to emphasize that no congressional authority exists for unilateral military action against Iran." Clinton did sign the letter (as did Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., though not Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del.). "The missed opportunity is not the first time Obama's Senate record has been put seemingly at odds with his campaign rhetoric on the issue," Reid Wilson writes for Real Clear Politics.

But last night, Obama filed a bill "to put the Senate on record that the president does not have authority to make a military strike against Iran," per the Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet. "The stand-alone measure has no co-sponsors."

Obama has a new ad up in New Hampshire, focusing on the middle class. "This administration has further divided Wall Street from Main Street," he says in the ad.

Meanwhile, it's Doritos dust for the short, strange candidacy of Stephen Colbert. Per ABC's Jake Tapper, his candidacy "seemed to come to a screeching halt" when South Carolina Democrats rejected his application to appear on the primary ballot, and when the deadline passed for him to apply to run as a Republican. Joe Werner, executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party, told Tapper that "the council members had some concerns about his viability as a candidate" since he was only planning to run in South Carolina.

His candidacy is "officially a bust," Roddie Burris and Neil White write for The State. "Voters won't be able to choose Colbert in January. Colbert won't be on the ballot, and primary voters will not have a write-in option."

Colbert, on his program last night, choking back (mock) tears: "Fine, it's your loss, Democrats. I had a lot of great ideas. You see this? You see this?" he said, holding up a folder marked "IRAQ." "It's my exit strategy for Iraq? Foolproof. You know what? Burn it."

Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., is up with a new 60-second ad in Iowa -- with a direct, personal reference to his wife's breast cancer recurrence. "Elizabeth and I decided in the quiet of a hospital room -- after 12 hours of tests and getting very bad news - what we were going to spend our lives doing, for all those that have no voice," he says in the ad.

"Edwards is trying to build on his strong debate performance by shoving aside Barack Obama as the Democrats' top alternative to Hillary Clinton," Michael Saul writes for the New York Daily News. Says Joe Trippi: "The clear choice really is Clinton and Edwards." And this (sarcastic) response, when asked about Obama's debate performance: "I thought he whaled on her, didn't he?"

George Stephanopoulos interviews Edwards on the trail for Sunday's "This Week."

And find out why Edwards is ABC's "Buzz Maker of the Week."

Clinton's reminiscences of her college years could provoke a backlash: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pounced on her reference to her activism on behalf of Eugene McCarthy's candidacy. "When Senator Clinton and other candidates make a campaign promise of conceding defeat in Iraq, when we are at last making progress there, and ignore all the terrible consequences defeat would entail, they are making America's security subordinate to their ambitions," McCain said, per the Arizona Republican's Dan Nowicki.

Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., is up with a new TV ad in New Hampshire, taking his "internship" line to a wider audience. "Hillary Clinton wants to run the largest enterprise in the world. She hasn't run a corner store. She hasn't run a state. She hasn't run a city," Romney says in the ad. "She has never run anything. And the idea that she could learn to be president as an internship just doesn't make any sense."

Clinton may have another distraction to cope with, too. The AP's Adam Goldman and Jim Kuhnhenn find a Clinton donor who says she was contacted by a Justice Department investigator about possible fundraising improprieties in New York's Chinatown neighborhood.

(And the New York Post confirms the reporting.)

Also in the news:

A new South Carolina poll has the three leading Republicans in a "statistical dead heat": Thompson has a slight edge, at 17.9 percent, with Romney and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., both at 16.5 percent, in the Winthrop/ETV poll.

The Democratic side shows Clinton with a lead, 33-22.7 over Obama, making it "narrower than in most other early-voting states," per The State's Aaron Gould Sheinin. "Black South Carolinians favor Obama over her -- 37.3 percent to 23.6 percent -- the poll found," he writes. Bad news for Edwards: The winner of the state's 2004 primary has slipped into single digits, at 9.6 percent.

A pair of prominent columnists weigh in on the case of Giuliani's fuzzy healthcare math, first reported by ABC News on Monday.

"I see two possibilities," writes The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson. "One is that he believed what he wanted to believe -- that this huge supposed disparity in cancer outcomes fits so neatly into his worldview that it just had to be right. Hmmm, isn't cherry-picked data -- about weapons of mass destruction, not cancer survival rates -- the reason we have nearly 160,000 troops bogged down in Iraq? The other possibility is that Giuliani didn't really care whether the figures made any sense or not."

Writes Paul Krugman in The New York Times: "The fact is that the prostate affair is part of a pattern: Mr. Giuliani has a habit of saying things, on issues that range from health care to national security, that are demonstrably untrue. And the American people have a right to know that."

Giuliani is set to pick up the endorsement of Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., a day after being endorsed by Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn. "I represent the pragmatic wing of the Republican Party, getting things done," Coleman told the AP's Frederic J. Frommer.

The Boston Globe's Michael Levenson profiles Romney's chief adviser on national security and counterterrorism: J. Cofer Black, who is now a top executive at Blackwater. "Some observers say they see Black's influence in many of Romney's hard-line statements, including his surprising declaration that he wants to double the size of Guantanamo Bay, the prison in which suspects are held without full legal rights; his endorsement of tough interrogation techniques; his praise for the Patriot Act; and his support for some aggressive surveillance policies."

There was actual substance behind the immigration question that dominated Tuesday's debate, Perry Bacon Jr. and Anne Kornblut remind us in The Washington Post. "The topic burst into the forefront of the primary campaign and exposed a quandary for Democratic candidates, who broadly embrace immigrant-friendly policies," they write. "The moment was more than just a stumble for the Democratic front-runner. It also illustrated the fine line Democrats, who depend heavily on the Hispanic vote and soft-pedal the idea of harsh penalties for people who enter the country illegally, will have to walk on the issue."

The RNC is having fun with Clinton's debate performance.

President Bush is trying to "save the candidacy of Michael B. Mukasey for attorney general," Sheryl Gay Stolbert reports in The New York Times. The president, in an interview: "He's not been read into the program -- he has been asked to give opinions of a program or techniques of a program on which he's not been briefed. I will make the case -- and I strongly believe this is true -- that Judge Mukasey is not being treated fairly."

If you had money on Dodd to be the first Democrat to go negative in an ad, you win (almost). After one ad make a passing reference to the price of haircuts, his latest offering shows a quick flash of a Clinton healthcare ad and has a barber saying, "Is that a new plan?" Says his buddy: "The only way you're going to get healthcare passed is to bring Democrats and Republicans together."

The ads could usher in "a new phase of the campaign season in Iowa," Lisa Rossi reports in the Des Moines Register.'s Michael Sherer girds for the "Era of Hillary" (and we thought we already inhabited it). "For the next two months, in the clumsy holiday stumble toward the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, the specter of Clinton is destined to overwhelm the nation's news broadcasts, the pundit round tables and the cluttered debates," he writes. "For both Republicans and Democrats, she will lurk behind all discussions, testing the willpower and endurance of the American people. The hatred she can summon, the hope she can inspire, all of it, will be on display day after day."

And the "Draft Gore" folks don't take no for an answer. Now comes a TV ad that's running in New Hampshire and national cable. "Imagine what tomorrow can be," the ad says. "Call him. Write him. Seize the moment."

The kicker:

"And if you asked me in a phone call, as ardent a Democrat as I am, I would disapprove of Congress as well." -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

"Barack Obama, Abe Lincoln. There you go, enough said. . . . Now, I don't want the press to quote me as saying my husband is Abe Lincoln." -- Michelle Obama.

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