NASHUA, N.H. — Let's deal with the certainties first: Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton can expect an affectionate and enthusiastic outpouring of support from the massive crowd at next summer's Democratic National Convention in Denver.
The only questions are: Who'll receive the winner's hurrah from the optimistic hopeful, and who'll be getting the last hurrah? With the results from last week's first-in-the-nation caucuses from Iowa in, and with the votes from New Hampshire's historically make-or-break primary ready to be counted on Tuesday, it seemed increasingly apparent that Clinton and Obama had switched positions in the 2008 Democratic galaxy, with the new star from Illinois outshining the suddenly dimming one from the party's first family of the last decade and a half.
But excuse me: The questions in the preceding paragraph aren't the only ones, after all. Others will come quickly after New Hampshire, in the wake of those stunning Iowa results which had Obama first and the once heavily favored Hillary third (a tired chug or two behind the dogged little-train-that-still-can from North Carolina, former senator John Edwards).
Edwards, who with his gallant wife Elizabeth campaigned around the clock in both the early bellwether states, answered one question early on: Yes, he'll keep on trying, all the way to the convention. Ironically enough, he needs Hillary Clinton to stay in with him and Obama, as someone who might be able to split off enough of the mainstream Democratic vote to give Edwards' animated but relatively under-funded populist candidacy a chance to succeed.
There's no doubting that Hillary Clinton, who is a distinguished senator in her own right and is married to the man who, until the past week or two, has been considered the Democratic Party's most luminous figure, has the resources, financial and organizational, to soldier on.
But even former president Bill Clinton's presence on the stage beside her is no longer enough to take the spotlight away from Obama, who begins to seem not just an inevitable nominee but one of those epochal figures who come upon the scene to bring about — or at least symbolize — a profound historical shift.
The first-term Illinois senator, son of a white Kansas mother and a black Kenyan father (who left the family when Barack was 2 years old), symbolizes the attainment of an ultimate civil rights goal to many people, even some on the political right — like GOP curmudgeon Bill Bennett and New York Times pundit David Brooks, the latter of whom, dealing with the sudden rise of Obama, noted editorially this week: "You'd have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this. ... This is a huge moment."
Brooks went on to note that both Obama and the other likely miracle man of 2008, Republican John McCain, were crossover types, able and willing to attract independents and voters from the other party while staying true to some version of their own party's central message.
One last look at Hillary's dilemma before we turn to McCain and the Republicans: How long can she afford to use those prodigious resources of hers, that vast data-bank of contacts and political I.O.U.'s, that multi-layered network? At some point, she runs the risk of generating a serious party rift that could alienate one of the Democrats' major constituencies, an African-American base that now sees one of its own on the threshold of a major and long-hoped-for success.
Just ask Republicans with long memories of the extended 1976 primary fight between then president Gerald Ford and his party rival, Ronald Reagan. Ford was not alone in attributing his defeat that year by Democrat Jimmy Carter at least partly to the strain of division thereby created in Republican ranks.
And that was a less cosmic situation than the current one. Ironically, one of the likely elements of Obama's across-the-board appeal is the absence of hard-edged racial tension in his makeup. Though he has come increasingly to invoke the name of Martin Luther King in his speeches and he owns a long track record as a community organizer in Illinois, Obama is no single-issue firebrand like Al Sharpton, and he is more dimensional even than Jesse Jackson, who owns other concerns than those of racial justice.
What few have bothered to note is that Obama is the only black American politician in our political history who was not descended from African slaves. Indeed, there is something of the international cosmopolite in his make-up. And that which is distinctively American is strongly tempered by his upbringing within a Caucasian extended family in white-bread Kansas.
Even so, Obama would be the first real black president (Bill Clinton has been considered an honorary version of that). Can Hillary Clinton — or Edwards, for that matter — afford to be seen as standing in the way of that?
Now to McCain: "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is." Right. There is a Zen inevitability to his revival as a likely Republican nominee. His own stubborn character, honed both of hardship and high good humor, is one major cause of the Arizona senator/war hero's durability through the months when, out of money and unattended by pundits, he kept doing his thing.
But he had some help from his rivals: It wasn't so much that handsome, glib Mitt Romney did a complete turnover on virtually all the major issues (his trading the moderate for the conservative positions on abortion, immigration, and health care being only three such instances). A more real problem was that, for all Romney's Arrow-collar-ad smoothness, he came off as a Stepford man. "By-the-numbers" doesn't begin to describe it, either in policy terms or matters of personal deportment.
Then ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani began to spring leaks — ranging from revelations of private use of public agencies in New York to unsavory associations to the sheer redundancy of his invocations of his 9/11 public heroism. Nor did the serious heckling he started getting from anti-abortion activists help matters.
Though Fred Thompson, once heralded as a GOP savior, made a brief (if erratic) stand in Iowa and managed to finish third there, he passed up New Hampshire, appearing in only two nationally televised debates there — giving performances in both that were so feckless as to render possibly irrelevant his intended last stand in South Carolina later this month.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was the man of the hour in Iowa, of course. But, despite his geniality and steadiness and eloquence and populist appeal, Huckabee never became a threat in New Hampshire, and, though the former Baptist pastor is neither so regional nor so tied to religiosity as some people think he is, such perceptions seem irrevocably tied around his neck.
Libertarian/war critic Ron Paul continues to stir up excitement, but no one sees him as a possible nominee.
So that leaves — who besides McCain? But who knows? Maybe this political year is like the past season in NCAA football — one upset after another, resulting in a reshuffling of the rankings virtually week by week. Note for what it's worth, however: LSU started out as number one, kept losing that ranking to other upstarts, and wound up owning it anyhow.
"First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is." Hmmm, hypothetically that could still apply to Hillary, too. It ain't over until she says it is.
• I suppose we Memphians can take it as a compliment that on his last night of campaigning in Iowa, while frenetically unloading down-home rhetoric with both barrels, ex-frontrunner Romney used our fair city's name in an effort to play catch-up. Take this election-eve appeal, made to a sizable crowd at the Hy-Vee corporate conference center in West Des Moines: "The first time it mattered where I came from in this political season was in Memphis, Tennessee. And someone, thankfully, had made up T-shirts for me and for my supporters there. And they read: 'Yankee Governor' — that's not a good start in Memphis. And down below, they read 'Southern Values.'
"And as I asked people what they meant by Southern values. Again: Love of family, love of God and love of country, and love of hard work, love of opportunity. And so I said, yeah, I got Southern values. And then you come out here. Those are heartland values. That's what you call them here."
• One of the attendees at that same Romney event was longtime political consultant Mike Murphy, a former McCain aide who also worked in the unsuccessful 1996 presidential campaign of Tennessee's Lamar Alexander. "I'm just a tourist here this time," said Murphy, citing multiple allegiances to various candidates in the field. But he pointedly noted McCain's recent revival as a serious presidential prospect.
Murphy saw Thompson as holding on to a ghost of a chance but only if he and not McCain finished third behind Huckabee and Romney. "Or maybe if he finishes a strong fourth — only, say, 500 votes behind." But Murphy acknowledged, "Fred doesn't seem to have been that strong a candidate."
In the event, Thompson narrowly edged out McCain for third in Iowa but, as we have seen, has been unable to use that ledge-hold to pull himself up any further.
Musing on the tall Tennessean's fate, Murphy noted that the recent skein of Tennesseans with presidential hopes, "all potentially strong candidates," that included on the Republican side former senator Howard Baker, Alexander, and now Thompson seemed all to have misfired because of "bad timing."
• As indicated, anti-abortion activists have been targeting several of the major candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire for special treatment. A Giuliani event in Hudson, New Hampshire, had hardly gotten started on Monday this week when a heckler began to shout out questions regarding the New Yorker's purported tolerance of "baby-killing." The man was removed, but not without having made a commotion and thrown Giuliani off his stride.
At his climactic Monday night rally in the Opera House in Rochester, New Hampshire, Obama had barely started addressing his crowd of semi-delirious supporters when a chorus of intruders in the balcony began chanting: "Abortion is Obama-nation!"
The senator made several efforts to engage the demonstrators in dialogue, but they persisted and were finally carried out of the building by security. As they went, the former Illinois organizer paid them a tribute of sorts: "It took organizers to get that thing going."
There were no further incidents; Obama went on to have another in his recent series of barn-burning personal appearances.
That reality did not stop the "Christian Newswire," which circulates daily e-mail bromides, from claiming in a headline: "Life Activists Shut Down Senator Obama Rally — Group Chanted 'Abortion is an Obama-Nation.'"
Lest anyone out there in reader-land be unaware of the fact, exaggeration and spin are characteristics of political activity — and not just among candidates.
Of course, even spinners sometimes have to amend and correct. So the "Christian Newswire" folks had a changed story some hours later with this headline: "Pro-Life Activists Accept Senator Obama's Offer to Meet with Them to Discuss Abortion." And, uh oh, now Bill O'Reilly adds his invite.
Here we go, Obama: test number one.