A Tale of Two Presidential Debates

After nearly four straight hours of presidential debating, George Stephanopoulos pointed out -- complete with behind-the-scenes video -- just how tired the candidates looked.

The irony of course is, coming after the big events in Iowa and immediately before the big vote in New Hampshire, the general public might finally be getting excited about these debates.

But the candidates (not to mention the pundits) are just plain tired. Yet, after an impossibly long warm-up period, we're at long last getting into the most wide-open race since 1928. Fasten your seat belts, because we're finally due for some fun.

But before we get to the meaty horse race analysis, let's take a quick look at tonight's highs and lows.

Low: Four straight hours of debate. That's a lot to ask of any viewer, doubly so on a Saturday night. Weekend TV viewers are better programmed to deal with 30 minutes of The Golden Girls than 240 minutes of Charles Gibson.

High: Charles Gibson. He wasn't the perfect moderator, but he did act like a moderator. For the first time, the debate wasn't about the host, it was about the candidates, and their interactions with each other. Chris Matthews, Anderson Cooper and all the rest were not missed.

Low: The words "change" and "experience." The next candidate to use them both in the same sentence should be forced to chew through their own forehead in punishment. Worst offender? Hillary Clinton, who forced me to ask during my drunkblog:

Did you know that Hillary has experience? Experience with change? Change that only her experience, her experience with change, can bring about? And that she's a woman, a woman bringing change with her experience of womanness? Yeah, me neither.

High: Gibson asking tough questions about the viability of the surge - to the Democrats. Unexpected, but delightfully so.

Low: Frontrunners in general. Neither Clinton nor Mitt Romney nor Mike Huckabee exactly distinguished themselves tonight. Clinton needed to knock down Barack Obama and administer a killing blow to John Edwards. She accomplished neither. Romney needed to show that he deserved better than his second-place showing in Iowa, but didn't. Huckabee needed to show his Iowa win was no fluke, but he looked like an also-ran.

High: Obama, for looking and sounding presidential. He still hasn't said much, but more and more Obama knows how to make you feel comfortable with the idea of him as President. He's fully developed that something that we call "presidential." It's not much of a high, but it was all he needed to prove himself tonight's winner on the Democratic side.

Low: The Republican debate in almost its entirety. We've been through a dozens of these debates, it seems, and yet no one candidate has yet to emerge as a clear frontrunner. If you're reminded at all of the 1988 Democrat "seven dwarves" race, it's only because you've been paying attention.

High: I'm out of highs already. Other than Gibson and, to a lesser extent, Obama, there were no great performances tonight.

Now on to the meat -- how does it all play out?

We'll know more after New Hampshire voters have their say next week, but here's how I see it.

On the Democratic side, Barack Obama is looking more and more like the real inevitable candidate. Over the course of the last few weeks, Clinton cracked under the twin pressures of Iowa and an increasingly-hostile media. And despite all his money, John Edwards doesn't have much of a campaign outside of Iowa, where he's virtually lived the last four years, and North Carolina, where his servants keep the giant mansion warm in case he ever deigns to return there. And so Obama has quietly and steadfastly become the Democratic frontrunner.

It remains to be seen, however, if the press will turn on him the way it turned on Clinton. To some extent, fair or not, Obama's race will probably help shield him. But if Clinton can't get her act together -- and she's had a couple months of trying and failing to do just that -- and Edwards keep coming in second or third... then it won't really matter how the press treats Obama. As things stand right now, the nomination might just be his already. (If I haven't mentioned Bill Richardson, it's because, well, why bother?)

The Republican side looks messier than a ten-car pile-up in the parking lot of a health clinic for hemophiliacs. The Iowa winner, Huckabee, is probably a sure loser in New Hampshire. Fred Thompson desperately needs a win anywhere, but it's difficult to see where that win will come. I mean, would even a miracle second-place finish in NH boost him to first place in South Carolina, Nevada, or Michigan? Unlikely. John McCain seems poised to take New Hampshire, and big. But South Carolina was the end of him eight years ago, and doesn't seem ready to propel him to the nomination this time around, either. Rudy Giuliani is counting on Florida to give him the momentum to sweep the big states on Super Duper Tuesday, but the string of losses he's sure to suffer between now and then might just make him into yet another Forgotten Frontrunner. And Romney? As former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, NH voters should know Mitt well. And if they won't go for him, who will? And as Iowa proved, Romney can't buy his way to victory, not even with all his millions. Ron Paul, the guy who has the least chance of winning anywhere for anything, looks set to place a solid third in New Hampshire -- thus muddying the waters even more.

Obviously, somebody has to break loose on the Republican side -- but tonight's debate gave little indication of who that man might be. Or, will the Republicans give the nation something we haven't seen in decades -- a brokered convention?

Now that would be exciting.