So finally we will have Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, just the two of them, all to ourselves. Tonight they debate in Los Angeles, carried live on CNN to our homes.
The media story which follows from this debate will likely change the results on Super Tuesday. This is a big deal.
My wife and I will be busy putting the kids down to sleep, but we'll record it (and then try and fail to resist the temptation to peek at the post-debate commentary before we finally watch it).
Here's what you should look for in the debate tonight:
When it comes down to it, the difference between Obama and Hillary is one of technique. Their policy positions are very close. But these two candidates propose for the occupant of the White House -- and use in their respective campaigns -- two entirely different techniques for achieving their goals.
The question for the night will be which technique is controlling the debate: clarity or drama.
Obama's efforts are directed towards achieving clarity. He is the great explainer. This does not mean that he speaks in sound-bites. On the contrary, sometimes to get clear you must get complicated. In his efforts to describe and respond to the slew of issues facing all of us, Obama sometimes even delves into nuances. Which frustrates Hillary.
An example from the last debate in South Carolina is illustrative of this. Midway through the debate, Senator Clinton complained that Obama "never take[s] responsibility for any vote." When the audience booed this, she defended herself: "Now, wait a minute... anytime anyone raises [an issue], there's always some kind of explanation... It's just very difficult to get a straight answer, and that's what we are probing for."
I believe that Hillary is genuinely baffled by Obama's refusal to give what she considers "straight answers," which in the language of contemporary politics are answers which either take the form of flat-out denials, or which alternatively throw the question back at the one asking them. She's used to political sparring that resembles a tennis match: Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thupp. (Cheers from the crowd.)
Instead, Obama actually gives, as she says -- gasp -- "some kind of explanation." Often his explanations are detailed, and they may require an appreciation of cost/benefit analysis, trade-offs, process, timing, and other factors that go into actual votes. But these are not straight answers in Hillary's playbook. Seeking clarity is not the goal for her; winning is.
Which brings us to Senator Clinton's technique: drama.
The Clintons, as everyone knows, seem to attract drama wherever they go, and they are doing it again in this campaign. All that is missing is the dancing bear. Dramatic episodes -- a stand-off over gays-in-the-military, Robert Reich's refusal to go along with welfare reform, the shutting-down-the-government game of chicken with Newt Gingrich, the Monica Lewinsky affair, the whole hyperbolic and sanctimonious presentation of the (entirely reasonable) Kosovo campaign -- marked Bill Clinton's years in office. And Hillary Clinton's campaign has started to proliferate with mini-controversies involving misstatements and smokescreens.
The advantage that Hillary Clinton takes from this drama is that it requires a champion to set things right again. Emotions get riled up, and we need a leader to tell us where to go from here.
Whoever sets the tone tonight -- clarity or drama -- establishes their imprint on voters' ideas of leadership. Whichever technique prevails -- clarity or drama -- may well signal that this technique will become a familiar mode in the next five years in the life of the American Republic.