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.

Clinton did her part on the Hill Wednesday: "I am 100 percent committed to doing everything I possibly can to make sure that Sen. Obama is sworn in as the next president of the United States next January here in this Capitol," she said, per ABC's Dean Norland and Jennifer Parker.

New York Times columnist Gail Collins: "Hillary has been saying that her supporters are moving through the five stages of grief. But she herself seems to have invented some brand-new sixth stage of chipper serenity."

All (mostly) niceties from Obama, too, on Wednesday: "We don't have some ten-point strategy to [retire Clinton's debt]. What I said was to my large donors, who are in a position to write large checks, to help Senator Clinton retire her debt, or at least a portion of it," he said, per ABC's Jennifer Duck.

On the big dog: "I want him involved," Obama said. "He is a brilliant politician. He was a outstanding president. And so I want his help not only in campaigning but also in governing."

The love has limits: Obama "won't be emailing his list for help retiring Clinton's debt -- a move that might not have been welcomed by many of his grassroots supporters, but would have been symbolically important to some of Clinton's backers," per Politico's Ben Smith.

But first -- perhaps less-welcome returns abound. The Rev. Michael Pfleger is back with his first interview since his mocking of Clinton's tears became a YouTube sensation, telling ABC's Robin Roberts that he does not "apologize for being passionate, I don't apologize for being free."

"I apologize when my passion or my freeness and my flawedness of character get in the way of the content, which is much more important to me," Pfleger said in an interview broadcast on "Good Morning America" Thursday. "I apologize for my mannerism of what I said. I don't apologize for speaking about [it]. I think entitlement is a reality in this society."

His message remains: "It's the reality of the sensitivity of this country, the name-calling, the number of e-mails and letters using the N word, calling me a wigger and telling me to leave the country, why don't I go to Africa?"

An intriguing float from Robert Novak: "Looming on the horizon are two big potential Obamacons: Colin Powell and Chuck Hagel," Novak writes in his column. "Neither Powell, first-term secretary of state for George W. Bush, nor Hagel, retiring after two terms as a U.S. senator from Nebraska, has endorsed Obama. Hagel probably never will. Powell probably will enter Obama's camp at a time of his own choosing."

Not to be lost in the Clinton/Supreme Court hubbub: A potentially big choice looms for Obama. Will he show up for the vote on the FISA bill (whenever that may be)? He's already enraged liberal activists by saying he supports the measure after previously vowing a filibuster -- but will he cast the fateful vote? (Which is better -- further angering the Netroots, or letting Republicans portray you as indecisive -- shirking a difficult vote?)

"At question is Sen. Barack Obama's relationship with the progressive netroots, the online community that helped aid the Senator's rise to the presidential nomination, but has since seemingly played second fiddle in terms of courted constituencies," Huffington Post's Sam Stein writes.

Stein: "Obama's decision to embrace a compromise on FISA legislation -- a virtual slap in the face to some progressive bloggers demanding no legal immunity for telecommunications companies -- was the catalyst of the recent chatter. Other concerns arose days prior when Obama cut an advertisement on behalf of a conservative southern Democrat whose primary challenger was favored by the liberal blogosphere."

"The honeymoon has ended," Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown writes. "Disappointed over his position on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the online activists feel jilted and betrayed and have taken to questioning his progressive credentials. One prominent blogger, Atrios, has even given him the moniker 'Wanker of the Day.' "

(Quick thought -- this will not end or even seriously harm the liberal blogosphere's support for Obama; consider their alternative. And even if it did -- does he need this particular batch of old friends anymore?)

The RNC keys it up Thursday morning: "Why did he oppose immunity for telephone companies before he supported [it]?"

McCain senior adviser Steve Schmidt takes the argument to an "interested parties" memo that has our interest: "There has never been a time when Barack Obama has bucked the party line to lead on an issue of national importance. He has never been a part of a bipartisan group that came together to solve a controversial issue. He has never put his career on the line for a cause greater than himself.  Even as a state Senator, Obama voted 'present' on controversial bills."

And Thursday is one of those days that could be shaped by the judicial branch, with the Supreme Court's decision on the D.C. gun ban expected.

Obama sidestepped questions on his position Wednesday: "What I'd like to do," the former constitutional law instructor said, "is wait and see how the Supreme Court comes down and evaluate the actual reasoning in the case to see how broad or narrow the decision's going to be."

The quote that will be most widely circulated by GOP operatives Thursday: "Obama believes the D.C. handgun law is constitutional," James Oliphant and Michael J. Higgins wrote in the Chicago Tribune in November.

Obama tries to get out from under that in advance of the court decision: "That statement was obviously an inartful attempt to explain the Senator's consistent position," campaign spokesman Bill Burton tells ABC's Teddy Davis Thursday morning.

"The gun rights issue is one area where we have an extensive Obama record to examine," Jim Geraghty writes for National Review. "He lived in a city that effectively banned handguns, and in his entire career there as a community organizer, a state legislator, and a U.S. senator, there is no record of Obama ever suggesting he had a problem with that policy. Though inaction, he made clear he saw nothing unconstitutional about a de facto ban on handguns."

The anti-gun lobby is poised for defeat: "We've lost the battle on what the Second Amendment means," Brady Campaign president Paul Helmke told ABC News' Teddy Davis. "Seventy-five percent of the public thinks it's an individual right. Why are we arguing a theory anymore? We are concerned about what we can do practically."

As long as you're charting moves to the center . . . notice that Obama and McCain joined together in denouncing the high court's ruling banning the death penalty for child rape. "I have said repeatedly I think the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances, for the most egregious of crimes," Obama said, per The Washington Post's Shailagh Murray. "I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime."

Karl Rove (again) sets down the GOP markers on Obama, this time on the "arrogance" charge, keying off the most misguided seal this side of Antarctica: "This was an attempt by Sen. Obama to make himself appear more presidential," Rove writes in his Wall Street Journal column. "But most people saw in the seal something else -- chutzpah -- and he's stopped using it. Such arrogance -- even self-centeredness -- have featured often in the Obama campaign."

And Obama doesn't need the seal to look presidential: "Formal podium (minus the faux-presidential seal he test drove last week), gleaming American flags, reporters seated in tidy rows marked off by velvet ropes," Time's David Von Drehle writes from Obama's Chicago press conference. "The only thing missing was Helen Thomas ending things with the ritual 'Thank you, Mr. President.' "

Big White House news Thursday morning: "President Bush said Thursday he will lift key trade sanctions against North Korea and remove it from the U.S. terrorism blacklist, a remarkable turnaround in policy toward the communist regime that Bush once branded as part of an 'axis of evil,' " AP's Deb Riechmann reports.

Obama's Map:

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe's warning to Team McCain: Nothing is safe.

"Putting his best spin on the electoral map, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said Tuesday that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of places where the presumptive Democratic nominee is prepared to compete," ABC's John Berman and James Gerber report.

Said Plouffe: "We have a lot of different combinations to get to 270. And our strategic imperative is, as deep into October as possible, to keep those scenarios alive." The New York Daily News' Michael McAuliff and Ken Bazinet: "Barack Obama's campaign chief said Wednesday the campaign isn't putting its chips on a handful of battleground states this fall, and will press its offensive wherever there is an opportunity to turn a red state blue."

New term alert: "Persuasion army."

"[Plouffe] said the campaign will spend the next four months attempting to register historic levels of new voters, boosting turnout and translating Obama enthusiasm into a Democratic 'persuasion army' to convince swing-state voters in their neighborhoods not to vote for Mr. McCain," Christina Bellantoni writes in the Washington Times.

McCain's Mark-Up:

The single biggest threat to McCain's candidacy to emerge this week? A poll.

Not just any poll -- a Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times survey that was the second inside a week to give Obama a lead in the neighborhood of 15 points.

Flawed outlier, said Team McCain, pointing out that other recent polls peg the lead rather consistently in the range of six. "The memo is about much more than just one outlier (or, if you include Newsweek last weekend, two)," Politico's Jonathan Martin writes. "The McCain camp, putting on their psychology hat, is trying to ease [anxieties] and calm fears among party elites and activists that Obama is developing a lead so significant that it can't be overcome."

Right on cue -- it's 45-45 in the Gallup daily tracking poll.

McCain is still talking energy policy -- and still choosing odd venues for it. "After fending off ocean drilling critics in California, Republican John McCain on Wednesday bucked opponents of a Nevada nuclear waste repository as he outlined ways to resolve the nation's energy crisis while seeking votes in another swing state," per the AP's Glen Johnson.

Team McCain has found a consistent message on energy: It's Obama as "Dr. No."

But citing a Bond villain from a film that hit theaters back when Obama was in diapers may not be the best way to relate to the younger set.

"A late comeback, and one that tens of millions of Americans who have no memory of the Carter presidency might find as evocative as a Grover Cleveland joke," ABC's Jake Tapper writes.

And give the bad doctor his due: "In his own way, Dr. No was something of a pioneer in nuclear energy," Noam Levey writes in the Los Angeles Times. "Before Bond disrupted his plans, Dr. No was building a reactor on an isolated island off Jamaica as part of his scheme to redirect U.S. rocket launches from nearby Cape Canaveral, Fla."

How long will this last? "Since effectively capturing the Republican nomination when Mitt Romney dropped out of the race on February 7, John McCain has held just one public campaign event on a weekend," Politico's Jonathan Martin reports. "Instead, after workweeks full of fundraisers, town hall meetings and interviews, McCain has been, in campaign parlance, 'down' on nearly every Saturday or Sunday for 20 weeks, largely sequestered away from the news media."

The Sked:

Before he hits the Mayflower, Obama wraps up his economic tour in Pittsburgh Thursday morning. At the event, retired general Jim Jones jumps off the Straight Talk Express long enough to join some big names (including Eli Broad, Steve Case, Federico Pena, Andy Stern, and Rick Wagoner) to talk economic competitiveness at Carnegie Mellon University.

Michelle Obama campaigns in Manchester, N.H., on Thursday, in advance of the unity event in Unity on Friday.

The AFL-CIO will make its endorsement on Thursday (and if McCain is chosen over Obama, we'll eat this Website).

From the Obama campaign: "Also today, the campaign will announce that more than 3,000 Unite for Change events have been organized for [Friday]. Unite for Change house meetings will bring together voters who supported Democratic candidates in the primary -- as well as independents and Republicans who are ready to turn the page on the failed policies of the past and commit to taking action this year."

McCain is in Cincinnati, for a noon ET town-hall meeting and an evening fundraiser; at both events, he's scheduled to be alongside (veepstakes alert!) former congressman Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Sen. Clinton warms up for the big evening with a 9:30 am ET speech to the American Nurses Association House of Delegates Convention, and a 1:30 pm ET speech to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials Conference; both events are in Washington.

President Bush heads to Camp David early this afternoon, to greet the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi

Get the full political schedule in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Et Cetera:

Fair to say Ralph Nader got what he wanted? Obama responded to him on Wednesday, after Nader said Obama is trying to "talk white": "First of all, what's clear is that Ralph Nader hasn't been paying attention to my speeches," he said, per ABC's Jake Tapper. "Ralph Nader's trying to get attention. He's become a perennial political candidate. I think it's a shame."

Who's going to be next, now that Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., broke the seal on Republicans using ties with Obama in a positive light? (Maybe no one, but still.)

"The outbreak of enthusiasm is a striking shift from the spring, when Republican advertisements from North Carolina to Mississippi to Illinois ominously painted Obama as an out-of-touch liberal bringing his brand of politics to regions of the country that should shun it," Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post.

Feel like the campaign is missing something? Dan Balz does: "Gone in the early stages of this campaign is any sense of the uniqueness of the two nominees," Balz writes for The Washington Post. "McCain is certainly no garden-variety Republican and the historic possibilities of Obama's candidacy cannot be overstated. But those realities have been submerged beneath a tactical shouting match that feeds the cable culture of contemporary politics."

  "Disappointed? Get used to it," Kirsten Powers writes in a New York Post column. "Obama didn't come out of nowhere to defeat the Clintons because he's goody-goody. . . . More important, this move will tarnish his image a lot less than the bruising he'd take if he let himself be out-funded by Republican independent groups -- remember what the Swift Boat Veterans did to John Kerry in 2004?"

Veepstakes morsels: "The answer to that is 'Yes,' " said Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., asked on MSNBC whether he'd accept an offer to join Obama's ticket.

Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., knows how to drive a message. On CNN Thursday morning, Romney said: he'd "like to see a time when Barack Obama said, 'I disagree with my party,' " per ABC's Matt Stuart. "I don't think at any time" that Obama was "able to reach across the aisle," said Romney.

And how's this for an audition? "Echoing comments by Barack Obama, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius predicted that Republicans would undertake 'a major effort to try and frighten people about him' because of his race," per David Goldstein of the Kansas City Star. Said Sebelius: "That has been the Republican playbook for the last eight years. . . . 'He's not qualified, he's somebody who should scare you. He's too liberal.' "

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., is holding a spot on his schedule for the Republican National Convention: "I believe in John McCain," Lieberman tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "If he asks me, sure, I'd consider it."

Politifact's Truth-O-Meter turns its 500th fact-check, and offers a few observations you can share with your forwarding-obsessed aunt: Chain e-mails are usually wrong, and McCain and Obama are equal-opportunity fibbers. "Obama has 34 percent True, compared with 29 percent for McCain," Bill Adair writes.

The Kicker:

"Listen, I've been helping the Clintons with debt for a long time." -- Terry McAuliffe, sunny as always.

"It is important for satirists to help define their history rather than letting them define their own history." -- San Francisco resident Brian McConnell, organizing a ballot initiative to name a sewage plant after President Bush.

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