End New Hampshire, Start New Ballgame

Mark Twain would say reports of Hillary's political death were greatly exaggerated." Today, Mark Penn can say "I told you so."

The Clinton campaign's chief strategist has been getting pummeled as we piled on his candidate. "We" includes "me" here. Our judgment has been clouded by bloodthirsty lust for a story about "How the Mighty Have Fallen."

The real story contains the kind of nuance we are incapable of understanding. It really turns out to be "How the Mighty Have Stumbled," and in the the case of Hillary Clinton, we have clearly witnessed a candidate who seems to have recovered her balance.

It's a similar saga for John McCain. Just a short time ago, his campaign was stuck, spinning its wheels. Of all things, it was in the snows of New Hampshire that he regained traction.

You will find this hard to believe, but up close and personal, Hillary Clinton and John McCain both have the same sociable personalities. Both are confident, engaging, smart as hell, dare I say it, sparkly. The difference is that McCain is that way with everyone, even reporters. Clinton in public, for whatever reason, is usually guarded, seeming to measure her every step, instead of just putting one foot in front of the other. In New Hampshire, she finally seemed to say, "The hell with it" — let people see the real her. Apparently, they liked what they saw.

For those of us whose most positive emotions come from being negative, there are still plenty of places to spot our dark lights.

Mitt Romney's well-oiled machine is sputtering. No matter how much money is spent on it, when it moves at all, it's in reverse. The question is how long he and his supporters will be willing to pay the big bucks to see if it can be turned around.

John Edwards insists it isn't so, but he is also in a "do or die" situation. If he doesn't have a spectacular showing in South Carolina, it could well be time for him to consider packing it all in and returning to North Carolina.

Mike Huckabee also needs to come roaring back, as he is reborn on familiar turf. If he can't recover the magic with his fellow God-fearing Southerners, he will have to worry about being dismissed as a quirky Iowa novelty.

All of this is fascinating, but Barack Obama is still the main attraction. This is a guy who has glided through his brief political career, without a mark. Now he has to show that he can take a punch, that he has the strength and endurance to duke it out and win a split decision. He needs to prove he's really more than a pretty face.

Here's the hardest part of all: We can't really predict anything. We don't know when Rudy Giuliani becomes a factor, or whether by the time he finally plays, the game has passed him by. We don't know whether Fred Thompson's plans to return to show business will be delayed by the writers' strike.

We do know that the campaign script is a work in progress. We've only seen the first act, played for the white people in Iowa and New Hampshire. Now the plot takes on a lot more color. It's a helluva show.