The Note: Return of the Empire

With the third branch set to assert itself anew (a gunshot sounding Sen. Barack Obama's move to the political center?) -- quick -- who's the most important Democrat in the country at this precise moment?

That's a trick question -- since there's a two-way tie for first. One more hint: Obama is in third place.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton gets two days back in the center of the action Thursday and Friday -- and former President Bill Clinton gets his own measure of chatter despite not being on the continent this week.

Amid all the talk of hurt feelings and unpaid bills, it's worth considering the favors the Clintons have done for Obama: a gracious exit, opened doors with donors, and mostly (do not undervalue this) just disappearing in the critical period when Obama needed the stage to himself to frame the race against Sen. John McCain.

That period ends Thursday, with two speeches by Sen. Clinton (to a nurses' association and a Latino group -- neither a venue chosen by accident) in advance of the evening event for big money folks at the Mayflower Hotel.

It's been a while since the Clintons campaigned for anyone else -- and if they're rusty, the smart folks with the tape recorders and laptops will notice.

Know that we are permanently in a zone where a few snarky comments from a few disgruntled denizens of Camp Clinton are all it will take to restart the old fires -- to say nothing of potential for lukewarm comments from the Clintons' themselves (how many reporters do you think will be counting Obama references in Sen. Clinton's speeches Thursday?).

Pity Bob Barnett: The Washington super-lawyer is helping Obama and Sen. Clinton negotiate "a thicket of complicated issues, like how to repay Mrs. Clinton's campaign debt and her role at the Democratic convention," Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times.

Among the perceived slights: Obama hasn't written a $2,300 check himself, and won't use his e-mail list to help retire Clinton's debt. The big issue that's been compartmentalized (and punted): the vice presidency.

"Beyond that, the two sides are negotiating precisely what kind of role she will have at the convention, including what night she will make a prime-time speech and whether her name will be placed symbolically into nomination," Nagourney and Zeleny write. "They are discussing whether Mr. Obama's campaign will provide a plane and staff for Mrs. Clinton as she travels on his behalf. The talks were described by aides on both sides as complicated, but not hostile."

Might she be left to freelance? (No.) "Clinton aides say the New York senator hasn't received detailed marching orders from the Obama campaign," Amy Chozick writes in The Wall Street Journal. "They expect Sen. Clinton to concentrate her efforts among the women and white, working-class voters who made up her strongest supporters but whom Sen. Obama has struggled with in the past. . . . Some Clinton aides predict several more joint appearances similar to Friday's New Hampshire rally in the coming weeks."

It might be tense at the Mayflower: "Obama, who will join his former rival for a $1 million fundraiser at the Mayflower Hotel, has been less than enthusiastic in courting Clinton's money team, according to several major donors and supporters of the former first lady," per Newsday's Glenn Thrush.

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