Paul Greenberg

We the Punditry have had this presidential campaign figured out for some time:

Only last summer, John McCain, that stalwart defender of the war in Iraq and on terror in general, was finished. Down and out. Kaput. Another victim of the Bush malaise. His presidential campaign had been sunk by the country's frustrations with an unwinnable war. He was out of money, his chief honchos had quit, and the only question remaining was why he didn't seem to realize it.

But some guys just never get the word. The war is turning around, thanks in large part to the Surge that John McCain had been arguing for long before it had a name. He's staged one of the most remarkable comebacks in American political history mainly on the strength of his own dogged determination to stick by his guns, literally.

Sen. McCain's comeback owes less to any political savvy on his part than to the valor of the men and women of the armed forces of the United States - and the imagination and flexibility of a new commander in the field named David Petraeus. Not to mention a president and commander-in-chief who refused to give up, and may have finally found his Grant.

Soon after Super Tuesday, which prompted Mitt Romney to throw in the towel, Sen. McCain became the Republicans' presumptive nominee. And presumption it was, since Mike Huckabee has refused to give up and keeps rolling up impressive vote totals - not just in the South, border states, and among evangelicals everywhere, but in places like Kansas and Washington state. Like John McCain, he doesn't seem to know when he's beat, either.

Here's the big reason for the Huck's staying power: Now that Mitt Romney has "suspended" his presidential campaign, Arkansas' native son has become the default candidate of the kind of Republican voters who can be counted on to resist supporting a winner. They'd rather lose this year's presidential election than win it with a candidate who's got a mind, and will, of his own. But that's no problem for John McCain, the opinion-makers concluded. If he can't unite the country behind him, then, once Hillary Clinton cinched the Democratic nomination, she'd unite the GOP quickly enough - against her.

Oops again. Senator Clinton now has been forced into a long, exhausting fight with an attractive young comer who has the power to inspire in a way Clinton femmenever could. At this point the Clinton camp seems to be drifting, bereft of any real ideas about how to stem this political tide.

This weekend the suddenly former frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination was shifting some of the chairs on the foundering ship S.S. Clinton. She fired her campaign manager after Barack Obama swept a round of primaries and caucuses - Nebraska, Louisiana, Washington state, Maine, the Virgin Islands.

Hillary! may yet pull this thing out of the fire, but it won't be easy. For one thing, there's her Bill problem. William Jefferson Clinton used to have the surest of political instincts. Now every time he speaks up for the Mrs., he alienates more voters. He seems to have lost his touch. All those post-presidential years hobnobbing with the power elite from Davos to Kazakhstan may have taken their toll. It's as if he'd turned into one of those corporate fat cats he used to inveigh against.

Obamamania mounts across the country, and the Clintonistas still struggle to counter it. Catch phrases (Experience! Ready to do the job from Day One!) may not work against a self-possessed candidate the likes of which Democrats haven't seen since Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy back in 1968. Barack Obama seems to combine the appeal of both, not to mention the grace of JFK in 1960.

Once again a new generation is insisting on being heard, and it's being joined this election year by the generation still suffering from Clinton Fatigue and eager to, yes, move on.

The real drama this year has not been the fall of Hillary Clinton but the rise of Barack Obama. He's got the touch of the great politician, which isn't easy to define but is immediately evident on the campaign trail. Call it charisma, magnetism, charm.

Camus once defined charm as "a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear questions." Any slight policy differences that Barack Obama may have with Hillary Clinton may be unclear, but the two couldn't be more different. She seems charmless, he irresistible. The personal, as it turns out, really is the political.

Who would have thought it? Eloquence still seems to matter in American politics. So does a dogged insistence on victory, however improbable it may seem at times. See the surprising strength of both Barack Obama and John McCain.

One of the surest signs of a free country is that it'll surprise you. A lot. By that standard, there's no doubt that this is still the land of the free. More surprises doubtless await in what already has been a most surprising year.


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.