WASHINGTON — Finally, we’ve got a real presidential campaign on our hands. Wake up, those of you in the back row, because it looks as if the long-running seminar is finally over.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are going at each other tooth and claw, with an occasional elbow thrown in for good measure; this weekend they clashed bitterly over purported mudslinging, even in the absence of any discernible mud. On Sunday, John Edwards said his mounting attacks on Clinton were “milquetoast compared to what we’re going to see next fall,” as if his repeated blows were just a little tough love. Oh, and he also accused her of wanting to perpetuate the occupation of Iraq.

Meanwhile, somebody has been calling voters in New Hampshire and Iowa, bad-mouthing Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith; the other Republican candidates are shocked that anyone would take such a cheap shot at the guy who happens to be leading in New Hampshire and Iowa. Fred Thompson had fighting words for Mike Huckabee, saying he was “pro-life but he’s liberal on everything else.” And John McCain accused Romney and Rudy Giuliani of being dependent on “briefing books and PowerPoints,” when the more important qualifications for the presidency are character and judgment.

Ain’t it grand?

We in the media are accused of preferring to focus on the horse race — who’s surging ahead, who’s falling behind — and the food fight — who threw what at whom — rather than what the public wants and needs us to focus on, namely The Issues. OK, guilty as charged. It would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that political reporters and commentators don’t look forward to coronations, which are boring. Would we rather see a good old-fashioned donnybrook? Sure, wouldn’t you?

But rough, tough, even “negative” campaigning isn’t a pox on the republic. For one thing, it’s traditional; the politics of today are positively genteel compared to, say, a century ago. For another, the swordplay of attack and counterattack has a way of getting candidates off their standard, focus group-tested campaign rhetoric and flushing out their unvarnished views — and also a way of letting us glimpse their character and judgment.

Clinton’s stumble a few weeks ago on the debate question about driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants showed a lack of preparation and a desire to have it both ways. Subsequently, she took every possible position on the issue before settling last week on her final answer: “No.” That showed resilience and an understanding — albeit belated — that sometimes you have to cut your losses.

Obama’s stumble last week on the same question showed, yes, a lack of preparation and a desire to have it both ways. Now we’ll see if he can refine and edit his position the way Clinton did. Despite that slip, though, Obama has recently shown the willingness to punch back that critics said he appeared to lack.

This weekend, he even punched first. Columnist Robert Novak wrote that Clinton operatives were whispering that they possessed “scandalous” information about Obama but had decided to take the high road and not use it against him. Obama immediately blasted the whole thing as “Swift-boat politics” and demanded that the Clinton campaign put up or shut up. Clinton spokesmen said they had no idea what Novak was talking about and accused Obama of naively falling for Republican tricks.

Reporters on the campaign trail have noticed that Obama has begun throwing a line into his speeches about how he isn’t running “to fulfill some long-held plan or because it was owed to me.” A reference, perhaps, to the claim in a recent Clinton biography that she and her husband Bill long ago mapped out a scenario in which he would take a turn as president and she would later follow?

You could say that all of the above is unseemly and irrelevant, but I disagree. About Clinton, we learned that she can have a bad outing and quickly return to form. About Obama, we learned that he can be less professorial and more pugilistic when the occasion demands. And both candidates learned that illegal immigration could become a genuine third-rail issue in the general election campaign. All that knowledge, it seems to me, is valuable to the process and ultimately valuable to the nation — and well worth a few bruised feelings.

Next, I’m waiting for somebody to truth-squad Giuliani’s sudden realization that he is an avid, dedicated NASCAR fan. On Sunday, the quintessential New Yorker attended his third NASCAR race this year and called auto racing “the quintessential American sport.” In the next Republican debate, somebody should ask him if he knows who Dale Earnhardt was.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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