WASHINGTON --- It's here, at last. The showdown we've all been waiting for: Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump.
For what seems like years now, we've been building up to this moment -- the ultimate battle of the sexes. The first woman vs. the last man.
For days, talking heads and pundits have been telling us what to look for. (Ink on Clinton's palm? Small receivers planted in Trump's hair?) Moderator Lester Holt has released his topics for Monday night - "America's Direction," "Achieving Prosperity" and "Securing America" - throwing Twitter into a tizzy of tart translations.
Commentators and consultants have discussed ad nauseam what each candidate must do. They've offered the questions they think Holt should ask. Is there anyone left in America who doesn't know what each candidate thinks and what they're going to say?
The only surprise would be if Trump were suddenly fluent in policy particulars and Clinton started making faces and giving the thumbs up every time she thought she was winning.
Is anyone really going to change his or her mind based on what the candidates say on Sept. 26 as opposed to what they said last week? Trump lovers are set in stone, as are Hillary haters. That's one voting bloc. Clinton supporters (I don't think there are many lovers around) are solid and entrenched, as are those who find Trump utterly unfit to be president.
It's all over but for showing up at the polls.
Thus, the debate won't really be about substance. It will be a popcorn-and-brew event -- entertainment pure and simple. To the extent there's a contest, it will be one of senior superlatives. Who's smartest? Funniest? Quickest? Deepest? Most important, whose voice do you want to listen to for the next four years?
Questions of substance - who is going to keep us safe, build our economy, stanch the flow of immigrants, rally the troops, protect the innocent and elderly - have been asked hundreds of times in a variety of forums.
What will make this or any other debate any different? What would sway the swayable, whoever those poor people are?
Everything you need to know for Monday's debate, you learned in high school -- how to size up a person, get their gist, seek their weak spot and watch closely how they handle themselves in the tightest sort of squeeze - exposed as 200 million eyeballs (that's assuming two per person) are watching.
Yes, of course, the answers matter, but at this point in our 24/7/365 election cycle, the last laps are about persistence, strength, self-control and one's own humanity. Out here in the bleachers, human nature rules the ward. An angry country fed up with pretty much everything can't be seduced or persuaded by a fraud or a fake. There just isn't any patience left for that sort of thing. The courtship is long over.
Showing viewers who they really are is all that's left. This, I think, is where people are today. The moderator who can get to the core of the individual rather than simply elicit yet another rote recitation of either facts or nonsense, as the case may be, will have provided a public service indeed.
So who are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?
We know their resumes. We know their histories. We know their foibles and weaknesses. But do we know their characters? Clinton has asked who the American people want to answer that 3 a.m. call. In past campaigns, other questions have arisen. With whom would you leave your children? With whom would you like to grab a beer?
Hands down, Clinton gets the kids and Trump gets the tab.
These are somewhat silly questions, obviously, but human beings aren't so terribly complex after all. Most people think they're pretty good judges of character. Most times, they can't put a finger on what precisely tips the scale or sends the signal that this or that person is a mover or a maker.
It may be a simple gesture, a slight movement at a specific time, a tightening of the jaw, a sag of the shoulder, eyes that can't stay with you. Or it can be something more discreet -- an absence of presence, a missing something you sense rather than see.
This is why polls aren't the final word - or debates, so full of words, the endgame. Whatever Clinton and Trump do say, Monday night will likely be more about watching than listening - and who these two are seen to be.