Entering Super Tuesday, both political parties seem to be having an identity crisis.
Going into this election, Democrats thought they knew what their party stood for: getting rid of George W. Bush and any vestige of the you-know-what.
According to the Democratic narrative, Bush stole the 2000 election. He then proceeded to lie to get the country into war, torture foreigners and illegally spy on American citizens. He gave away the treasury to the rich and protected polluters and corporate malefactors.
And that was on Bush's good days.
The Democratic presidential primary was shaping up to be a contest over who loathed Bush and his legacy the most.
John Edwards would be a challenge, but Hillary Clinton had reason to believe she could win that race.
Her early campaign rhetoric was filled with venom toward Bush. She presented herself as the best prepared to take on the supposed right-wing hate machine. She had taken it on before.
If it was a knock-down, eye-clawing, knee-to-the-groin fight Democrats wanted with the dirty-dog Republicans, she was the candidate to lead it. She had a proven ability to take a punch but, more importantly, to deliver one, as well.
And change was a simple matter: George W. out; Hillary in.
Then along came Barack Obama.
Obama said changing personnel and even policy wasn't enough. If the country was to make progress, the way the business of politics and governance were conducted had to change, too. And in that endeavor, Clinton was part of the problem, not part of the solution.
It was an appealing message. Americans of all political stripes are tired of petty partisan bickering and gridlock.
And it had a very appealing messenger. Obama has the most commanding presence of anyone on the political stage today. No one is even a close second.
And an intriguing messenger. Race remains a more indelible divide than gender. Obama was a Black candidate not running on victimization politics. What did that mean? Could he be successful?
The Clintons, candidate and hubby, were slow to understand that the issue of change had itself changed. Obama was a political opponent. What you do to political opponents is attack them.
So the Clintons mischaracterized what Obama said about Ronald Reagan and Republican ideas and misrepresented his position on Iraq. They exaggerated Obama's legal representation of a shady developer who was also a major Obama donor.
All this, however, just served to reinforce Obama's point. The Clintons are old-school kick-and-gouge politicians. If change means conducting politics in a new way, they aren't credible agents of it.
The differences in policy positions between the two are minuscule. So, there are only two main differences for Democratic voters to consider.
The first is experience. Obama doesn't have much that's relevant to being head of government and commander in chief. Clinton knows better than anyone running what it's like to be president. By every account, her role in her husband's administration was substantive and extensive.
The second is political style. Do Democrats want a candidate who will try to kick Republican butt and take names? Or do they want to give Obama's new politics a chance, to see if a different approach will achieve better results?
On the Republican side, conservatives thought they owned the party. Moderates could play but only with their permission and only in the limited areas conservatives allowed.
Then, a funny thing happened. No true conservative ran for the Republican nomination.
Fred Thompson was arguably a true conservative. But then again, arguably, he didn't really run.
Now, conservatives are flummoxed, angry, dispirited and worried.
For reasons not altogether logical, John McCain is the candidate who most sets the teeth of many conservatives on edge. Yet he has the inside track to the nomination.
When McCain won New Hampshire, it was no cause for panic. McCain had lived there for the better part of a year, conservatives told themselves. New Hampshire voters are famously idiosyncratic, and independents, of all people, can vote in the Republican primary.
Then, McCain won South Carolina. Still, no reason to panic, conservatives reassured themselves. All those veterans and those pesky independents still got to play, as well. Things will right themselves once the primaries that are limited to real Republicans roll around.
McCain won Florida, a closed primary, and panic set in.
Now, some conservative pundits are trying to rally around Mitt Romney to stop McCain. Romney is the guy who, in 1994, expressly disavowed Ronald Reagan and said he wasn't even willing to be in the same political party as the Gipper.
And that's the last best hope for conservatives this election?
Populist conservatives went from feeling on top of the world after routing, through an extraordinary grass-roots mobilization, immigration reform that included a pathway to citizenship, to facing the prospect of Mr. Amnesty as their presidential candidate.
Is this just a temporary phenomenon, a product of who decided to run and the political calendar? Or does it represent a fundamental changing of Republican politics?
I haven't a clue. And I suspect voters are just feeling their way through the choices as they present themselves, as well.
At the end of the day, candidates define parties and elections resolve identity crises.
But probably not on Super Tuesday. In both races, there are still enough fractionalization and proportionate delegate allocations that a result that settles the nomination is unlikely.
And perhaps not even with this election season.
I suspect Obama's challenge for a new politics will reverberate in both parties, irrespective of his fate as a candidate. The trouble in the relationship between conservatives and the Republican Party is probably just beginning.