THE NOTE: Leaving Las Vegas

At Thursday's Las Vegas debate, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., regained her footing as Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., stumbled.

The specific issues were health care, Social Security, and driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.

But the clarity of the contrasts is what mattered most:

1. Cover Everyone

2. Spare The "Middle Class"

3. Don't Reward Law-Breaking

Obama has offered a health-care plan to make health insurance more affordable.

But the free-rider problem, which Clinton's individual mandate addresses, is a real one.

"Many experts in health care agree that without a mandate, some people would not get coverage," writes the New York Times' Michael Cooper.

Obama has been more explicit than Clinton in proposing a plan to shore up Social Security.

But his call for imposing up to a 12.4 percent tax on all income above $97,500 constitutes a tax increase lower down the income ladder than has been contemplated by either Clinton (in private) or John Edwards (in public).

"I don't believe Mr. Obama is a closet privatizer," Paul Krugman columnizes in the New York Times. "He is, however, someone who keeps insisting that he can transcend the partisanship of our times -- and in this case, that turned him into a sucker."

And even though the Clinton camp recently backtracked on the license issue, it is now Obama who finds himself on the unpopular side of a passionate "eighty-twenty" issue.

Clinton was clearly helped Thursday by the decision of Wolf Blitzer, the debate's moderator, to focus on the candidates' operative positions on driver's licenses rather than on the circuitous route which Clinton had taken in developing her stance.

But Obama compounded the problem posed by his unpopular position by appearing to wiggle away from it for just a moment.

Asked if he supports giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, Obama seemed to hedge, saying, "I am not proposing that that's what we do."

After Blitzer said, "This is the kind of question that is sort of available for a 'yes' or 'no' answer," Obama firmed up his answer and explained that he does favor licenses as a public safety measure.

But the damage had been done.

"The unfolding of the question and answer did not play well for the Illinois Senator," wrote the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza.

The dean of the Iowa political press corps was even less forgiving.

Obama's answer was "as nuanced and fuzzy as Clinton's was a couple of weeks ago," wrote the Des Moines Register's David Yepsen.

On Nightline following the debate, ABC's Jake Tapper set up the Obama bite by saying that Clinton's opponents "seemed to have brought with them bags of nuance and explication."

Politico's Roger Simon accused Obama of trying "the same duck-and-cover tactic that Clinton failed at in the last debate." Simon also noted that Obama's answer led to "laughter in the debate hall" . . . "and not the good kind of laughter."

On, David Chalian wrote that Obama may now find himself having to explain why he supports a "broadly unpopular position among Democrats and Republicans."

The clean-up effort begins:

One day after a debate which was widely given to Clinton, the Obama campaign is pushing back on Social Security.

It is releasing a letter to Clinton from Iowan Tod Bowman in which he asks the former first lady whether she is still considering raising the Social Security tax cap.

Last month, Bowman was overhead by the Associated Press having a private exchange with Clinton in which she said she would consider raising Social Security taxes for those who make more than $200,000 per year.

While Clinton has not been pinned down on the specifics of what she told Bowman, she can still distinguish her position from Obama's. By Bowman's own account, Clinton refused to consider raising taxes on income between $97,500 and $200,000.

(Hence, the Clinton claim that Obama supports a "trillion dollar tax increase on the middle class").

Obama is quick to note that those making more than $97,500 per year are the top six percent -- but even Edwards, who is running the most populist campaign of the top three Democrats, has worked to focus the new tax burden on those who make more than $200,000 per year.

Anti-Romney, Anti-Mormon calls:

The big news in the Republican race is that anti-Romney and anti-Mormon calls are being made in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Politico's Jonathan Martin was the first to report on the calls in Iowa and the AP's Phil Elliott reported that the anti-Romney calls are also being made in New Hampshire.

"Among the questions," according to the AP, "was whether a resident knew that Romney was a Mormon, that he received military deferments when he served as a Mormon missionary in France, that his five sons did not serve in the military, that Romney's faith did not accept blacks as bishops into the 1970s and that Mormons believe the Book of Mormon is superior to the Bible."

"Repulsive . . . and un-American," is how Romney communications director Matt Rhoades responded to the calls.

In other news:

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani does the "strict constructionist" thing when he speaks to the Federalist Society in Washington, D.C., at 2:30 pm ET. (How long will it be until former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney go after Giuliani's record appointing judges in New York?)

Down in Florida, Fred Thompson sits down with ABC's George Stephanopoulos for an interview which will air Sunday on "This Week."

On the "This Week All Week" webcast, Stephanopoulos and ABC's Political Unit look at the problems that former Ark. Gov. Mike Huckabee's surge could pose for Thompson's presidential bid.

Speaking of Law & Order, Karl Rove said Thursday that Thompson may have gotten into the race too late to maximize his opportunity. Watch the C-SPAN video here.

Rove made his comments as word spread that he has been hired as a Newsweek commentator. Newsweek is also planning to grant regular space to blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga.

On the indie front, the Wall Street Journal's John Fund stirred the pot Thursday by reporting that friends of Lou Dobbs say that he is "seriously contemplating a (presidential) race for the first time, although it's still unlikely."

Sen. John McCain's, R-Ariz., audiences are captivated by his discussion of torture, "in some cases even moved to tears," according to the New York Times' Marc Santora.

Out in Los Angeles, the L.A.P.D. is scrapping its plan to create a map detailing the area's Muslim communities.

Mark your calendar:

Former Vice President Al Gore and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are planning a bipartisan presidential forum on energy and climate change in New Hampshire in December.

An Iowa-Fox News debate, which had been tentatively planned for Dec. 4, has been scrapped because only Huckabee agreed to participate.

The 19-member board of Iowa Right to Life plans to meet next week to decide if it will endorse Thompson, and follow the lead of its parent organization (National Right to Life Committee), or whether it will stay neutral in the presidential race.

Obama may have turned in a subpar debate performance. But as the candidate who dominated this week's discussion, he picked up "buzzmaker of the week" honors from ABC's Rick Klein.

Obama picked up an important Iowa endorsement on Thursday from United Auto Workers Region 4. The union includes 30,000 members and retirees in the Hawkeye State.

The kicker:

"Who would have guessed that Clinton would be crystal clear in her stance on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants ("No") and Obama would engage in almost -- dare I say it -- Clintonian rhetorical peregrinations on the issue?" --Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston