Paul Greenberg
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We're at that lull in the presidential primary season when pundits try to make the most of the least election returns. Iowa and New Hampshire are in, plus Barack Obama's landslide in South Carolina and now Florida's votes. Attempting to judge the mood of the electorate at this early stage of the primary season and ordeal is like trying to get salt out of a clogged shaker and then reading the candidates' fortunes from just the few grains that spill out.

But when the top comes off the shaker next week, and the results of Super-Duper Tuesday start pouring in, election returns will be everywhere. How like the Age of the Internet: Flooded by data, we'll lack only the judgment to know what it all means. Hey, what a country - the despair of pollsters and delight of those of us who love a surprise.

Joaquin Andujar may had had his erratic moments as both pitcher and outfielder for the St. Louis Cards, but what he once said about the once national pastime goes double for America itself: "You can sum up baseball in one word: You never know."

Sr. Andujar's word count may have been a little off, but his analysis was right on.

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Americans are in one of our uncharacteristic periods of drift - or what feels like it. The presidential race hasn't fully jelled, and every lover of suspense and newspaperman enamored of good copy can hope it won't for a while - not even after all those primaries on Mardi Gras, which this year is literally Fat Tuesday for the country's politicians. Twenty-two states - count 'em, 22 - will be holding presidential primaries that maybe fateful day.

And just maybe Hillary Clinton can hold on to her presumed lead long enough to cinch the nomination Tuesday. If hubby will just stay out of more trouble. In the meantime, the nation pauses and waits. The lull is almost palpable. The air is still - the way it is on the Gulf Coast while folks await a hurricane.

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Meanwhile, not that it matters much, an unpopular lame-duck president has given his State of the Union message to no great effect. One thinks of the last few months of the Eisenhower administration, when all eyes were on the next president, not the underestimated old man in the White House. Or, to cite a more exact parallel, the last year of the Truman administration, when a still feisty president with even less support in the polls than George W. Bush was hewing to his course. The country could hardly wait to be free of him and chart a new course, or at least welcome a new captain aboard the good ship America. It would be left to history to redeem his presidency, as he always knew it would.

For now the country seems to be in a state of suspended animation, or at least what passes for one in this always dynamic, not to say hyperactive, society. As all await Tuesday's results, speculation takes the place of any actual news. The State of he Union never seemed so purely ceremonial an address.

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But what appears drift may be only flux as Americans sort things out before moving ahead, as usual, in all directions - economically, socially, militarily, politically and of course technologically, this being the land of the free, home of the brave, and natural habitat of tinkerers. The only thing about the future one can be sure of is that it'll be interesting.

Who would have thought a year ago, or even six months ago, that Barack Obama would be coming on like this year's John F. Kennedy, complete with Caroline and Teddy's endorsement? Or that John McCain would start looking like a prophet instead of the last man standing in support of this war in Iraq. The candidate who was in favor of the Surge before it had a name now has made the war the centerpiece of his advancing campaign - instead of the issue no Republican once dared mention.

And who would have thought that Bill Clinton's unmatchable political instincts would have so deserted him in South Carolina? It was embarrassing. Here was Bill Clinton making precisely the wrong analogy when he tried to pigeonhole his spouse's opponent as another Jesse Jackson, meaning just another black candidate.

Anyone with the slightest political intuition would know that Barack Obama's campaign this year bears no real or even much of an imaginary resemblance to Jesse Jackson's in the 1980s. Senator Obama's whole appeal is different, just as his background, approach, and simple but eloquent style are different. A politician as astute as Bill Clinton must have known that, but what th' heck, he saw his opening, even if it was below the belt, and he took it.

Naturally the tactic blew up in his (and Miss Hillary's) face. If this doesn't teach William J. Clinton to stay out of politics this tricky year, nothing will. And of course nothing will. Unless he's talking politics (endlessly) the man would just dry up. Like a little puddle in a dry Arkansas August.

All of which brings to mind the saddest book title I've spotted all this still young year: "Life's a Campaign" by, of course, rootin' tootin' Chris Matthews, the very personification of the political shout shows. Speaking of life, political junkies ought to get one.

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How can you tell the difference between the usual empty assertions in a presidential campaign and those of any substance? Simple. Just imagine what the presidential candidate attacking some rival would have to say if said rival prevailed - and asked the candidate to run for vice president on the same ticket. Suppose, say, that Mitt Romney turns out to be John McCain's running mate in the end. What would happen to all of Mitt's attempts to paint his opponent as nothing but a Democrat in Republican clothing? He'd doubtless ask the rest of us to overlook his earlier, incautious statements as nothing but "campaign rhetoric." That's the term Wendell Willkie used when, after being defeated by FDR in 1940, he teamed up with FDR to prepare the country for war. Unity has a way of returning even after the most hard-fought campaigns.

If she wins the Democratic presidential nomination, of course Hillary Clinton will be able to unite the party - as no one else could. Naturally, I'm talking about the Republican Party.

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Every four years, the country throws a continental conniption fit before the gracious concession speeches are made and the next president is given a fresh start and maybe even a brief honeymoon with public opinion. The experience can prove therapeutic in the end, like making up after a lover's quarrel.

There are exceptions to this wholesome rule, when the whole future of the country does indeed turn out to be at stake, as in 1860, and disaster follows. But in general, partisan and even intraparty passions dissipate and the country moves on, does what it has to do, and, despite sporadic tragedies, defeats, betrayals and disappointments, continues its climb.

There are good reasons why sometimes it seems the whole world wants to move here, and among them are the remarkable continuity of our history and stability of our system, even if those blessings may be obscured for a season by all the rhetorical fireworks of a presidential campaign year.

So enjoy this brief lull while it lasts, which won't be long. As always, surprises await.

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Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.