At last we can identify the players without a scorecard, and after tonight there will be even fewer of them to clutter the field.
The candidates turned up the fire yesterday under the cliches, bromides, platitudes and other stale rhetoric that has served them so badly since this exercise began in earnest after Thanksgiving Day, when not every turkey died.
Hillary Clinton, once "the inevitable president," was reduced to sending the Clinton daughter out to offer glowing tribute to Mom's applesauce and bedtime stories. Barack Obama, who has made dreams and delusions the substance of his campaign, talked only about his early vote against the war in Iraq. If someone asks about the weather, his reply is likely to be that it was "on just such a mild, sunny day years ago that I first voted against the war."
John McCain was in Nashville, polishing his acceptance speech for delivery a full six months hence. "I assume that I will get the nomination of the party," he said. Possible, maybe probable, but an odd outburst from a candidate running behind Mitt Romney in a couple of very important states, California first among them.
Mike Huckabee, who delivered an evangelistic sermon Sunday morning in Memphis from one of the largest of the Southern Baptist pulpits, complained that he's the only candidate who has to answer "God questions." Huck insists he had rather talk about education, defense, budgets and other stuff that won't make the front pages or the nightly news. (But his picture might.) Mitt Romney told him to "quit whining." Ron Paul, fresh from a respectable third-place showing in the Maine primary, reprised his message that the United States should stay out of undeclared wars. He would fight Islamist terrorists "the way the West used to fight pirates," marking them indelibly for reprisal anywhere they're found.
There's enough in the late polls to frighten everyone. Hillary, feeling Barack Obama's hot breath at her back, continued to talk up her "35 years of public service," without descending into embarrassing detail of what she thinks constitutes "public service." She primed the waterworks again, stopping just short of a full blubber, at a session in New Haven on what the government ought to do for children. "I've spent so much of my life in public service," she said.
No one had an opportunity to ask about her "public service" during her 15 years at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, pulling down a quarter of a million dollars a year in a place where the average income was a tenth of that. She was a director of Wal-Mart and TCBY and still had time to make a spectacular killing, under peculiar circumstances still unexplained, in the cattle futures market. She put it down at the time to careful reading of the Wall Street Journal. Her spokesman, responding to inquiries by the McClatchy newspapers, scoffs that nobody's interested in "hearing about some accounting case she worked on." Who says women don't have a head for figures?
Hillary's fascinating past in Little Rock, like Barack Obama's cozy relations with a shady businessman in Chicago, hasn't aroused outrage or even polite interest because the early presidential campaign is covered mostly by political correspondents who yearn to be sportswriters eager to cover the horses, handicapping the geldings, the studs, even the occasional mare.
The advantage after today's voting should begin to favor Republicans. John McCain can wrap it up tonight, but not Hillary or Mr. Obama. The Democratic formula of allocating delegates by proportions of the vote in pursuit of a placid, ideal world where no child ever cries, no dog ever barks, no cat ever scratches, no Volvo ever runs out of gas and where no candidate can win twice until everybody else has won once means that the Democrats will continue to bludgeon each other through the spring into early summer. This will give John McCain ample time to apply butter and cream to a lot of hurt feelings.