THE NOTE: Dirty Dance:

Sen. Barack Obama was only facing one Clinton on stage Monday night in Myrtle Beach. But by the time the first exchange of the evening was over, Obama realized he was confronting the accumulated firepower of the most formidable Democratic political machine assembled in modern history -- and there's no more pretending that the Democratic primary is a friendly little exchange of ideas and ideals.

Now that it's all in the open -- now that South Carolina brought out vitriol that Vegas (!) didn't, and now that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has an ally, not an enemy, in former senator John Edwards -- who's happy with the turn to the personal?


The candidate who's mastered old-style, rough-and tumble politics (and who had that "slum landlord" Tony Rezko ready to go to meet a remark about Wal-Mart)? Or the candidate whose broad appeal is based on remaking the nation's politics (and who's being outmaneuvered on tactical grounds just about every day)?

(And the daily wild card: If the stock market plummets on Tuesday, whose political capital rises?)

Obama pushed back at both Clintons -- something he wanted and needed to do, and something that appears likely to help him in critical South Carolina. (As we wait for Bill Clinton's dance audition, the fact that Obama could ask "whether in fact he was a brother" may have represented the most memorable remark of the night in a state where more than half of Democratic primary voters are expected to be African-American.)

Perhaps Obama fought with just as much skill as Clinton Monday evening; there's no more questioning whether he can get tough on stage. Yet the Clinton campaign has (finally) succeeded in taking Obama to a playing field that the Clintons are more than comfortable with.

"If the debate was full of memorable moments -- Mrs. Clinton accusing Mr. Obama of associating with a 'slum landlord,' Mr. Obama saying he felt as if he were running against both Hillary and Bill Clinton, the two candidates talking over each other -- the totality of the attacks also laid bare the ill will and competitive ferocity that has been simmering between them for weeks," Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times.

Obama was ready to confront Clinton, but his is a "campaign now on the defensive," Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post. "Obama has learned how formidable the Clintons' political machine can be, particularly when its future is on the line. . . . This is a fight the Clinton campaign welcomes. But it is one that threatens to have long-term consequences if both sides cannot find a way to pull back."

It's a good thing there's only one debate left before Feb. 5, since the candidates left precisely nothing out. "The smoldering acrimony between the Democratic presidential front-runners flared openly as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama traded charges in a debate Monday about who is dishonest, who is cowardly and who is doing the bidding of reviled special interests," Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons write in the Chicago Tribune.

History will record that Obama, D-Ill., went on the attack first on Monday, accusing former President Bill Clinton of depicting his comments on Ronald Reagan in a way that "is simply not true." Clinton, D-N.Y., responded with a line her campaign wants to make it into a major theme over the next 14 days. "It is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you, because you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern."

Clinton already seemed to have her mind on Feb. 5 -- and not just because she showed up late to an MLK Day celebration in Columbia, or because she's scheduled to spend more time outside of South Carolina than inside the state limits between now and Saturday's primary.

Fittingly, Bill Clinton will be here in her place; Obama won't forget which Clinton he's facing this week.

"Perhaps it was inevitable that any serious challenger to the former first lady would have to take on the whole Clinton machine," Salon's Walter Shapiro writes in wrapping the debate.

The debate "was, in truth, about as ugly as you could get, given that the three candidates on the stage agreed with each other on 95 percent of the issues and have no long histories of personal animosity. The winner -- partly by default -- was John Edwards, who managed to stay above the fray except when he would suddenly swoop down to score a debating point against a surprised rival."

Edwards gets to laugh about it all on Letterman on Tuesday night.

When judging winners and losers, consider that the former first lady has managed to transform herself from "inevitable" to "underdog" -- complete with Clinton campaign claims (led by Bill) of media bias that favors Obama.

Losing in Iowa "allowed her to effectively turn her image around and use the defeat to present herself as a softer, more personable candidate," Amy Chozick writes in The Wall Street Journal. "At the same time, rival Barack Obama, the freshman senator from Illinois, has emerged as a tougher, well-funded politician and less of a Washington outsider."

Obama is trying to set himself right in a new TV ad, hearkening back to his Democratic National Convention speech in 2004.

The sympathy Obama is getting is important -- who ever could Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin been referring to here? "Yes, this is reality, not fantasy or fairy tales," Franklin said, per Aaron Gould Sheinin of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

But Obama is back where he started post-Iowa -- fighting two Clintons (and facing down the more dangerous one in the most important primary on his horizon). He's scrambling for a storyline that will take him beyond South Carolina, and hoping to bring back his magic in a dangerous political climate. "He will do whatever is necessary to win," Peter Canellos writes in The Boston Globe (and let the ramifications of that sentence sink in). "Bill Clinton needs Hillary Clinton to validate his own presidential record."

Obama's candidacy is a direct challenge not only to Sen. Clinton, but to President Clinton's legacy. "Obama has set his sights higher, and implicit in his campaign is a promise, or a threat, to eclipse Clinton's accomplishments," writes Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson.

"You can call that overly ambitious or even naive, but you can't call it timid. Or deferential. . . . Whatever the net impact, there appears to be no plan for Bill Clinton to tone it down -- not with the nomination still in doubt. The Clintons don't much like losing."

Why hold Bill back? "These days the former president's 'outbursts' serve a dual purpose: they lend the impression that Senator Clinton is the insurgent running against the media-supported Obama, while also creating the illusion that it is the former president, not his wife, who is actually the candidate for the Democratic nomination," Matthew Continetti writes in his New York Times blog.

"Far from hurting Senator Clinton -- who also understands how to deploy strategic emotion, as we saw before the New Hampshire Democratic primary -- former President Clinton effectively has rallied a coalition of Democrats to her cause."

The Rev. Al Sharpton chides both sides (and surely gets himself some TV bookings, post-debate): "The losers are those in our community that have so much riding on this election. The runaway winner last night was the Republican Party."

And the RNC can only smile: "For once, I found myself agreeing with Senators Clinton and Obama: Senator Clinton is right that Obama doesn't have enough experience to lead, and Senator Obama is correct that Clinton cannot be trusted," said Chairman Mike Duncan said.

So Bill Clinton's set to dance -- no more naps -- but former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., is set to sing. Why's he letting the dogs out? (How old-school is he? Baha Men old school -- even John McCain's not that old.)

Maybe Romney just likes what he's sensing in Florida. "Romney holds an edge in a state of 18 million people spread across more than 65,000 square miles of swamps and flatlands: His personal fortune enables him to outspend opponents on ads in Florida's costly and far-flung media markets," Michael Finnegan and Maeve Reston write in the Los Angeles Times.

Says Romney: "I'm talking about lowering taxes. . . . Sen. McCain finds that to be the wrong course."

Maybe Romney likes that it's McCain -- not himself -- who's being asked if he's a real Republican, in the first state where only Republicans can vote in the primary. "Conservative talk radio pundits roar at him. Party insiders quietly grind their teeth. Columnist George Will calls him a closet Democrat," Jennifer Liberto writes in the St. Petersburg Times. "A central question undergirds the drama of who might win [Florida]. The question is this: Why don't Republicans like Sen. John McCain very much?"

Maybe Romney knows that former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., can't afford to keep the press in. The e-mail from the Huckabee press office Monday night: "Transportation for the traveling press pool, provided by the Huckabee presidential campaign for the early caucus/primary states, will be halted, beginning Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2008." Writes ABC's Kevin Chupka, "once a state-hopping Feb. 5 strategy takes better form, it will prove nearly impossible for the now traveling press corps to cover every event."

Anyone hear the air leaking out of the tires? "No television commercials. A small and hastily arranged Florida rally. No clear travel schedule," Marc Caputo writes in the Miami Herald.

"Political observers and Huckabee's political opponents say it's all proof that he's writing off Florida, where he's not scheduled to campaign Tuesday and where his opponents appear to be out-fighting and out-spending him. Some even speculate that he's now running for a vice-presidency slot."

(Bonus points for the Disney reference: "We plan no Mickey Mouse operation in Florida," Huckabee said.)

Maybe Romney knows that former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., doesn't want to leave his mother's side, back in Tennessee. (And how fitting is it that he can't even get OUT of the race on time? Tuesday could be the day, but what's the rush?)

"After Thompson's South Carolina loss, advisers privately suggested that their candidate could throw his support to McCain, boosting McCain's hopes of defeating Huckabee, Romney and Rudolph W. Giuliani in the fractured GOP field," Michael Shear writes in The Washington Post.

"But one senior Thompson aide said he did not expect an endorsement of McCain anytime soon -- even if Thompson were to drop out of the race this week."

Or maybe Romney knows that poor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., can't even set the pace in a pace car.

Bad news on the former mayor's home front: Two new polls in New York have him down -- big -- in his home state. The Siena College poll has McCain 36, Giuliani 24, while Marist has McCain up 34-23 among all registered Republicans; among likely voters, it's 34-19, with Romney also at 19 and Huckabee at 15.

It all means it's time for Giuliani to run for statewide office in Florida. "Rudy Giuliani, who rode his tough stance against Islamic terrorism to become the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, is now focusing more on Paula Goodrich's property-tax worries," Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla writes.

"He is stressing economic policy and tax cuts to voters like Goodrich, a 56-year-old dishwasher from Dundee who lost her home after struggling to pay her property taxes, instead of his leadership after the Sept. 11 attacks."

McCain may have given Rudy a boost by coming out against a national catastrophe fund (how does Gov. Charlie Crist, R-Fla., endorse him now?).

"Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has staked his campaign on a strong showing in Florida and led in most public polls in the state until recently, reaffirmed his support for such a backstop," Michael C. Bender and Dara Kam write in the Palm Beach Post.

"Former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas said the idea made sense, although Romney was unwilling to endorse the bill that two Palm Beach County Democrats are pushing through Congress."

And there's a new front in the Giuliani-McCain war: judges. Per the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody, Giuliani is set to hit McCain over the "Gang of 14" compromise that kept alive the possibility of filibustering judicial nominations.

Says campaign manager Mike Duhaime: "John McCain repeatedly sided with Democrats in the US Senate." McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker responds: "Rudy Giuliani's judicial appointments during his eight years as mayor of New York won praise from the likes of pro-choice groups like NARAL."

But firefighters are trying to set Rudy's firewall on fire. The International Association of Fire Fighters, "with more than $1.2 million in cash on hand -- now is aiming to derail Mr. Giuliani's presidential aspirations," Jim McElhatton reports in the Washington Times. "Union President Harold Schaitberger says the group also plans to send 'several hundred thousand' pieces of mail to voters in Florida outlining the group's opposition to Mr. Giuliani."

The contenders get to stay warm, mostly, in South Carolina and Florida. Check out all of the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Among the candidates' stops: Obama visits Greenwood, S.C., where he'll pay homage to one Edith Childs. Her claim to fame: She caught Obama's ear with an exclamation at a campaign event last June, per ABC's Lindsey Ellerson.

"Obama was casually greeting supporters when Childs interrupted with a shout, 'Fired up, ready to go!' " Ellerson writes. "Within moments, the confusion gave way to conviction and Obama was warmed by the expression. So warmed in fact that since the interaction, he often recounts the story on the campaign trail as a way to express how one voice can make a difference."

Also in the news:

Is it possible that Clinton can't lose in South Carolina? She can (and probably will) lose the actual primary -- and then, the spin will be that she effectively conceded the state to Obama. She's spending the next few days working the Feb. 5 states -- and reloading her coffers for the coming crush, with a series of fundraisers far from the Palmetto State, Lynn Sweet reports in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Sen. Clinton will be back in South Carolina by Thursday, "yet she will spend the next two days campaigning in Arizona, California, New Jersey and New Mexico, which vote on Feb. 5," Patrick Healy reports in The New York Times.

"She will begin a television advertising blitz this week in 10 states with contests on that day. She is also returning Thursday night to New York, another state with a Feb. 5 contest, for two fund-raisers, part of an effort to raise more than $15 million before the coming primaries."

"There will be a Clinton in South Carolina every day," Clinton spokesman Phil Singer tells the New York Daily News' Ken Bazinet. "We have a multipronged strategy."

Why compete with Eli vs. Tom when you can join them for the fun? The Washington Post's Matthew Mosk has this intriguing tidbit (without naming the campaigns): "At least two of the 2008 presidential contenders, seeking bang for their buck, have privately discussed bypassing a barrage of targeted local ads in favor of buying a spot with potentially more impact to run during the Feb. 3 Super Bowl broadcast, at a cost of about $2.7 million."

Remember how Bill Clinton was NOT severing his ties with Ron Burkle? We'll gladly not disengage for this sum: "Former President Clinton stands to reap around $20 million -- and will sever a politically sensitive partnership tie to Dubai -- by ending his high-profile business relationship with the investment firm of billionaire friend Ron Burkle," John R. Emshwiller reports in The Wall Street Journal.

"Mr. Clinton is negotiating to end his relationship with Mr. Burkle's Yucaipa Cos. as part of a broader effort to protect the presidential campaign of his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, from potential conflicts of interest," he writes.

"Details of Mr. Clinton's involvement in Yucaipa and his efforts to unwind it come from documents and interviews with people familiar with the matter."

The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Kaufman finds something new to say on race, in a fascinating look at the divide among African-Americans over Obama. "Even as Mr. Obama is promising to bring America together, his candidacy is casting new light on the mounting class divide in the black community -- and the debate among blacks about how to get ahead," he writes.

"The expanding black middle class -- accounting for about 40% of the black population -- see in Mr. Obama a validation of the choices they have made: attending largely white colleges, working in predominantly white companies and government offices, climbing up the ladder of American success."

"For African-Americans living in the inner city -- where most children are being raised by single mothers, male unemployment in some cities tops 50% and 40% of young black men are either in jail, awaiting trial or on probation -- the view of Mr. Obama is much more skeptical," Kaufman continues. "Black teenagers mock Mr. Obama as a 'Halfrican' and a '50-percenter' for his biracial background; his mother is white, his Kenyan-born father was black."

And we wonder about Bob Johnson's role: "A recent special on Mr. Obama on Black Entertainment Television, the most popular station among inner-city blacks, was titled, 'Obama: What's in It for Us?' "

With Sen. Clinton regularly citing her work for the Children's Defense Fund, The Boston Globe's Marcella Bombardieri knocks on some of the same doors she did 35 years ago.

"In 1973 Clinton had a hand in some of the most cutting-edge legal advocacy of the time, being done from the fund's stately Victorian headquarters on Cambridge Street in Harvard Square," she writes.

"Yet she did the work for less than nine months before taking a job in Washington, as aide to the congressional committee examining Richard Nixon's impeachment. From there she moved to Arkansas, where she joined a private law firm."

With Obama recalling his time as a community organizer, the Globe's Michael Kranish treads his old stomping grounds, in Chicago. "a visit to Altgeld Gardens, and interviews with some of those who worked with Obama, present a complex picture of how Obama was shaped by his effort to help improve one of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods against difficult odds. Parts of his legacy can be hard to distinguish from his legend," Kranish writes.

"Still, key players who worked with Obama at Altgeld Gardens said he deserves credit for pulling together a team of hundreds of residents who rallied for improvements at their housing projects. . . . His biggest accomplishment may have been to leave in place a group of activist mothers, some of whom continue to work or live at Altgeld Gardens."

The Clinton campaign lobbed another one of those 4 pm hand grenades under the Obama tent on Monday, accusing Obama of violating the early-state "pledge" to avoid campaign activities in Florida. The culprit? A national cable ad campaign that will be seen by eyeballs that belong to . . . Floridians.

Former governor Tom Vilsack, D-Iowa, dialed it up for reporters: "It calls into question the promises and pledges he's made on the campaign trail." But this may have been what was behind it: "Saying all bets are off with the new nationwide spot, the Clinton campaign left open the possibility of starting a traditional campaign in Florida where polls show her leading Obama," Adam Smith writes in the St. Petersburg Times.

Said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe: "If the Clinton campaign wants to campaign in Florida and ignore the pledge they signed, they'll be running the wrong way around the track because there are no delegates at stake."

Who's afraid of the abortion issue? This is one way to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade: "For the first time, abortion-rights advocate Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc. is launching a major effort to elect pro-abortion-rights candidates to Congress and the White House in November," Brody Mullins writes in The Wall Street Journal.

"The nation's largest reproductive-health-care provider plans to spend $10 million in hopes of persuading one million people to vote for abortion-rights candidates in the 2008 election."

Don't miss the Nader noise: "I'll decide in about a month," Nader told CBC Radio's "DayBreak" in Montreal. "What I'm deciding on right now is whether we can get enough volunteers, enough financial resources, to overcome the huge ballot-access obstacles, which you don't experience here in Canada, but which are the worst in the Western world in the United States."

The kicker:

"I'd be like the Abominable Snowman. . . . I'd be bigfooting everybody even if I tried not to. There's almost no way you can avoid that." -- Bill Clinton, on how he sees his role in his wife's potential White House -- if not in her campaign.

"I'm afraid that I may have to send my 95-year-old mother over, and wash Chuck's mouth out with soap." -- John McCain, after Huckabee supporter Chuck Norris suggested that he's too old to be president.

"I wanna ride the pace car!" -- Rudy Giuliani, sort of not joking at all.

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