Finally, what the media have been panting after, lusting after and devoutly wishing for: a crack in Hillary's armor!

A couple of stumbles in the Dems' seventh debate, and the journalistic sharks are circling. If not for that, all we'd have to work with is Dennis Kucinich's UFO sighting. Roughing up a presidential front-runner is so much more down to earth.

Hillary Clinton actually had a pretty smooth night, but her botching of the Spitzer question was a clear mistake. The substance--whether she backs the New York governor's plan to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants--is not insignificant. But it was her utter inability to take a position that will launch a thousand stories on the media's most negative rap against HRC:

She's a triangulator. A trimmer. A carefully calculating pol who says what people want to hear. A canny candidate who is allergic to specifics.

That image could damage Clinton long after everyone has forgotten about her specific answer on MSNBC. Remember the Bush ad that showed John Kerry windsurfing left and right in a flip-flopping metaphor?

The media are piling on, in part because journalists believe White House aspirants should be seriously scrutinized, and in part because they are desperate to turn this into a horse race.

I was more troubled by Hillary's response on Social Security, when she rejected Barack Obama's proposal to lift the tax cap on income over $97,500 but had little to offer beyond "fiscal responsibility," saying: 'I think for us to act like Social Security is in crisis is a Republican trap. We're playing on the Republican field, and I don't intend to do that.'

Well, it may not be in crisis, but everyone knows the system needs shoring up before the boomers bust the bank, and Hillary apparently wants to avoid any unpopular proposals.

But that's substance, and the chatter is all about style.

"A day after she appeared to struggle to give her views on the subject," the New York Times{vbar} says, "Hillary Rodham Clinton offered support today for Gov. Eliot Spitzer's effort to award New York driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, as her campaign sought to contain potentially damaging fallout from a what her own supporters saw as a tense and listless debate performance.

"Mrs. Clinton's statement affirming her support of Mr. Spitzer in his office came less than a day after she offered a muddled and hesitant position on the bill, prompting a round of denunciations by her opponents. It signaled the extent to which her advisers viewed that moment as the biggest misstep she made in the debate, and one with long-term potential to undermine her candidacy. 'Senator Clinton supports governors like Governor Spitzer who believe they need such a measure to deal with the crisis caused by this administration's failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform,' her campaign said."

Crystal clear, right? Hmmm.

"The release of the statement suggested her advisers believed it was politically wiser to embrace a position that could clearly hurt her in a general election rather than risk providing more fuel to what has emerged as a damaging line of criticism: That she, taking advantage of her dominant position in some polls, is not being candid about her views and about would she would do as president."

The Boston Globe{vbar} makes a discovery:

"Hillary Clinton won't say how she will fix Social Security. She spurns a deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq. She's for free trade, except when it doesn't work. She defends her home state's issuing of driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, but doesn't really like the idea.

"Yet a closer look reveals one thing Clinton has been quite explicit about - that as she campaigns, she is being careful to preserve her options as president if she goes on to win. While her speeches, debate performances, and policy prescriptions often feature hedging, Clinton has been startlingly straightforward about her refusal to be pinned down."

Andrew Sullivan{vbar} keeps up his anti-Hillary barrage:

"The obvious loser was Senator Clinton. Her constant calculation, careful parsing, avoidance of direct answers to direct questions: all these were reminders of a pure politician. She's obviously capable, extremely intelligent, and so hollow you could almost hear the focus-grouped platitudes echo within her. She also lost that new-Clinton benign smile, that newly poll-tested glow. Instead we got an occasionally droning, lecturing, and unrelenting stream of tight-faced opportunism.

"As someone who thinks Obama is still the best bet for real change in this election, I kept feeling underwhelmed by his performance. You wait for him to go in for the kill . . . and . . . he . . . never . . . quite gets there. He seems to be possessed of an almost pathological high-mindedness, and an inability to encapsulate his arguments in ways that get traction against his opponents. There were times when his oratorical high-point was the word 'actuarial.' If this is how he performs after we're told he's taking the gloves off, Rudy Giuliani must be licking his chops . . .

"Stop being so fricking reasonable and above it all. His response to the Romney Osama-Obama smear was - sorry to say - pathetic. He can't get mad at these racist attacks?"

Rich Lowry{vbar} gives HRC her due but says she needs charm lessons:

"Hillary won. She was authoritative, as usual, and fended off all the attacks from Edwards, Obama, and Williams/Russert. This was a full-on assault from all quarters and she handled herself ably. On Iran, she was persuasive, emphasizing the need for sanctions as part of the diplomacy. In general, she's far and away the most serious Democrat on national security. But she attacks Bush and Cheney just as harshly as any of the other Democrats, which makes it difficult for anyone to make the 'not liberal enough' or 'trying to act Republican' charge to stick.

"Obama was tentative and long-winded; he's not comfortable with landing punches. Edwards was crisper and more effective, but doesn't have a lot of credibility. And to the extent he gains, it hurts Obama and helps Hillary who benefits from a divided opposition. Hillary's weaknesses were on two fronts. One is likeability. She didn't bring any of her practiced charm tonight. But that needn't matter as long as she's confidence-inspiring, as she is--unflappable and well-informed.

"The other is flip-flopping/dodginess. She never really answered this charge even though it came up repeatedly, and in fact she fueled it. She had to come back a couple of times and say, 'No, that's not what I meant' because she was delivering answers so finely crafted to avoid committing herself to anything controversial. Of course, with her driver's license answer, she ended on an extremely dodgy note."

Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum{vbar} says the former first lady blew it--but it may not matter:

"There's no question that Hillary's answer was unusually spineless, especially since she had had plenty of time to think about this. Maybe two solid hours of being a punching bag had gotten to her by that point.

"Still, is this really a killer moment? If it is, the bar has really gotten pretty low. I doubt very much that Hillary is going to win or lose the election based on straddling the issue of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. In a Republican primary maybe, but not a Democratic one."

The media, as I say, were waiting to pounce. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder{vbar} agrees:

"From a policy standpoint, her arguments about foreign policy were generally credible and substantive, but her strategic ambiguity on Social Security still sounds puzzling and her defense of Eliot Spitzer's proposal to provide illegal immigrants with driver's licenses -- oh wait, was she defending the approach or the idea of dealing with the issue? The debate was not supposed to end this way!

"Strategic ambiguity in this case may have provided the media with the anti-Clinton sound-bite it has long been craving. In real time, the way Clinton answered this question provided her opponents with a point of evidence to attack her credibility and character.

"In the long run -- or in aggregate -- is this enough? As in -- enough to generate an anti-Clinton movement among Democrats? Probably not."

Roger Simon{vbar}, whose slam I quoted yesterday, depicts Hillary as robotic:

"Perhaps just as bad was her general tone and demeanor. All of her opponents seemed passionate about one issue or another. But Clinton seemed largely emotionless and detached, often just mouthing rehearsed answers from her briefing book. True, she was relentlessly attacked all night. But she can't claim that she was stabbed in the back. She was stabbed in the front. 'Who is honest? Who is sincere? Who has integrity?' Edwards asked and then provided the answer: Not Hillary. 'She has not been truthful and clear,' Obama said at one point."

Did Obama fizzle after promising (to the NYT) to get tough? The Nation's John Nichols{vbar} thinks so:

"It was supposed to be the night Barack Obama took Hillary Clinton down. But, when all was said and done, Obama was a bystander . . .

"Were it left to Obama, Clinton would not only have escaped the night unscathed, she might actually have come out ahead.

"But this is a multi-candidate race. Where Obama was unfocused and ineffectual, John Edwards landed plenty of blows."

But how did the ganging up look to the television audience? Not great, as American Prospect's Garance Franke-Ruta{vbar} sees it:

"It makes her look brave for just standing there, this small determined woman being attacked by three men on either side of her, two male moderators, and the entire male Republican field. Each of the critics on his own would be more effective, but taken as whole, the optics of this are uncomfortable."

Shades of Rick Lazio.

Some conservatives are savoring the moment. Captain Ed{vbar}

"The result left her looking shifty, pandering, and unsure of herself. It also brought out her public personality problems -- showing her to be cranky and rather unlikable when on stage. Worse yet, it made her look indecisive, a quality no voter wants in a President, and the same quality that made Kerry such a lousy candidate . . .

"The immigration answer will serve as the centerpiece for the Republican campaign against Hillary, assuming she wins the nomination. It will get as much play as the $87 billion mistake Kerry made, and not just for the flip-flop record Hillary set. Spitzer has over two-thirds of New York angry over the drivers-license policy. How does Hillary think that will play throughout the rest of the nation?"

Michelle Malkin{vbar} "Ooh boy, I bet she was cursing Spitzer to high heaven. If not for that dunder-headed, back-firing New York state pander to the open-borders lobby, she would not likely have been pressed on this issue. She would have never stumbled. The cool-as-a-cucumber mask would have never slipped off. Watch it. It's gold.

"Gotta give kudos to Tim Russert (and Brian Williams, for that matter). They made this debate worthwhile (and that includes the UFO question)."

To Dick Polman{vbar}, the senator remains largely unscathed:

"For two hours she stood there with a semi-civil smile nailed to her face, her shoulders squared, her head held high, swiveling left and right to look her accusers in the eye - taking it like a man, as it were - and listening to critiques of her character that essentially boiled down to this: Hillary Clinton is dishonest, reckless, polarizing, integrity-challenged, and unelectable . . .

"Will all this intramural Hillary-bashing slow her march in the end? Edwards has been hammering Hillary in this manner for many months, yet the strategy hasn't moved the needle on his candidacy. If anything, her lead in the Democratic polls has widened. She remains highly popular with the Democratic base, and it's quite likely that the base will not warm to any rivals who critique her character in ways that might benefit the message-crafters on the Republican side. Loyalty to Hillary may be her strongest trump card, even though she persists in giving evasive or multiple answers on a range of topics (for instance, on how she'd save Social Security), while stonewalling on others (would she favor opening up her First Lady papers to public scrutiny? 'That's not my decision to make,' she replied)."

What does the Hillary camp{vbar} say about all this?

"Sadly, Senator Obama caved to the pressure of the pundits and fundraisers who demanded that he go negative and abandoned the 'politics of hope' message that sparked so much interest in him early in the campaign. Meanwhile, Senator Edwards doubled down in his effort to become the guy best known for attacking other Democrats."

Was Russert the problem? HuffPoster Taylor Marsh{vbar} thinks so:

"Evidently Tim Russert felt that with Hillary Clinton the frontrunner it was his job to do what her opponents have been unable to do for months: attack her full out, no matter the subject or tactic . . .

"Tim Russert asked 26 questions; 14 were to Clinton, with five directly targeting her personally."

Is Team Hillary leaking to Drudge again? Real Clear Politics' Tom Bevan{vbar} jumps on that:

"Via Drudge, we see Hillary's camp is trying to pin the blame for Clinton's poor performance on Tim Russert:


"Please. Blaming Russert is not only ridiculous, it makes Hillary and her campaign look like a bunch of spoiled children. Why not say, 'so we had one bad night out of a hundred' and leave it at that? Better yet, why say anything at all?

"Up until now, the Clinton camp has been basking in near constant media praise for having run a 'flawless campaign.' But they hit one bit of turbulence and this is how they respond?"

NBC's First Read{vbar} tackles the outer space issue:

"Seriously, Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, called on the government to declassify all Roswell documents. He brought it up himself when Chris Matthews was joking about Kucinich's UFO answer. He said the government hasn't 'come clean' on the issue. His campaign will surely say he was joking, he has a sense of humor. But even though he was laughing in some parts of that answer, he wasn't joking about THAT."

Don't miss The Washington Post's newly uncovered cache of Rummy memos{vbar}, in which the former Pentagon chief spends much time complaining about the press:

" 'I think you ought to get a letter off about Ralph Peters' op-ed in the New York Post. It is terrible,' he writes on Feb. 6, 2006 . . .

"On March 10, he commanded J. Dorrance Smith, the assistant defense secretary for public affairs, to craft a 'better presentation to respond to this business that the Department of Defense has no plan. This is just utter nonsense. We need to knock it down hard.' A Washington Post-ABC News poll that month found that 65 percent of Americans thought that Bush had no plan for victory.

"On March 20, Rumsfeld ordered a point-by-point analysis of the seven 'mistakes' columnist Trudy Rubin wrote about in the Philadelphia Inquirer and a response to her essay -- which he wanted to see before it was sent out. Rubin wrote that the war had 'gone sour.' 'Please have someone find precisely when I said 'dead-enders' and what the context was,' he ordered Smith in September 2006.

"A November 2006 editorial in the New York Times that said the Army was ruined 'is disgraceful,' Rumsfeld wrote to Smith . . . Rumsfeld later reprimanded his staff, writing, 'I read the letter we sent in rebuttal. I thought it rather weak and not signed at the level it should have been.' "

Goodness gracious, those were the days.

On a personal note: For those in the D.C. area, I'll be signing copies of my book "Reality Show" tonight, from 5:30 to 8:30, at the National Press Club's Book Fair.