ImageA small, not-very-representative slice of the American electorate has at last been officially sampled on its preferences for president, and the results are... (taran-tarah!) inconclusive, at best. The mostly white, fairly religious people of the landlocked, plains-state of Iowa gave Senator Barak Obama 38% of their Democratic votes, and they gave Baptist preacher and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee 34% of Republican votes. Soon afterward, New Hampshire voters showed their independence by giving Senator Hillary Clinton 39% of Democratic votes (to Mr. Obama's 36%), and Senator John Mc Cain 37% of GOP votes.

The national media - fixated, as always, on the "horserace" of presidential politics - is in a tizzy over Hillary Clinton's "comeback" victory in New Hampshire. She edged Barak Obama by 3 points - after she was initially up by 12, but then had slipped to being down by as much as 9. Polls had Mr. Obama solidly ahead and on his way to a second win, until the day before the voting. That was when Mrs. Clinton had her now-famous "tearful moment" with a questioner who asked how she could "keep going" under so much negative pressure. Mrs. Clinton seemed to have a catch in her voice when she said how much she cared about the country and how she wanted to keep us from sliding backwards. Her sensitive, womanly side supposedly stirred women to flock to her support and help her edge Mr. Obama.

Entire forests have been felled to supply the paper used up analyzing this incident's "resurrection" of Mrs. Clinton's campaign. I shall not add to this frenzy except to note that Mrs. Clinton has never been known to cry in public before, so it is, shall we say, remarkable that she should show her "womanly" side at the precise moment when her campaign looked precarious. Still, who can gauge the degree to which her defeat in Iowa and a looming New Hampshire defeat might have pushed the little lady over the emotional edge? This is unknowable. The main point seems to be that the moment "worked" - or appears to have worked.

"Worked for what?" is the question, however - or, at least, one of the questions. Does this really mean that a 60-year-old woman - whose year-long campaign has been predicated on the "inevitability" of her triumph - can now don the mantle of Comeback Kid, 2008? Is she really going to snatch the prize away from a fresh, articulate, young black man who wows audiences everywhere he goes? Is she on an unstoppable roll to the White House? What is really going on?

In previous articles I have suggested that the Clinton strategy is always to suck all the air out of the room - to be not just in the news, but to be the news (all of it). For a time, that strategy flagged, as Mr. Obama seemed to gain ascendancy. He looked like he was on his way, so the media flocked to him and ignored Mrs. Clinton. Thus, her "tearful moment" can be seen as a corrective action to get media attention back where it belonged - i.e., on her.

If that was so, the tactic can have only a temporary effect. The media are all about drama and conflict; they are notoriously fickle. Two weeks ago, reporters were near-orgasmic over Oprah Winfrey's endorsement of Mr. Obama and her appearances on his behalf. Last week it was Mrs. Clinton in tears (well, practically). What will it be next week? And how dramatic will it have to get? A collapse on stage? Bill Clinton kidnapped by Amazons? (We should be so lucky.)

Another facet of the media that must not be ignored is its known inclination to see a Democrat in the White House. Polls regularly make the media-scoring 9-1, Democrat. Some media denizens favor Mrs. Clinton, while others favor Mr. Obama. But overwhelmingly, what Rush Limbaugh calls the "drive-by media" are Democrats. Whether we have the first woman president or the first black president makes little difference, as long as the party label reads "Democrat".

Thus, the media viscerally cultivate a fixation on one Democratic candidate or another - with scant attention paid to GOP candidates. This is more than mere speculation. Recent analyses by media watchdogs revealed the disproportionately large amounts of time given to Democratic candidates by major networks in ordinary news coverage. ("In other news, several unnamed candidates are running for the GOP presidential nomination. Details at 11, or whenever...")

"So who cares?" asked my buddy Al at his coffee shop on a recent morning. "Let them report on the candidates' hair-styles, for all I care. What does it matter?" (Al and I agreed that John Edwards had the best hair and John McCain the poorest - the least, that is. Mrs. Clinton got Honorable Mention for demonstrating, once again, the Power of Peroxide.)

I explained to Al that media fixation on dramatic moments, on who "won" a debate on "style points", or on who seemed to "care" the most and was most "vulnerable", were all diversions from the serious business of choosing candidates who could actually govern the country and protect its people's lives and property. So long as the dramatic hype can be kept going, there will be no need to examine (or report on) the candidates proposed policies - or lack thereof.

In the 1940s and ‘50s, comedian Groucho Marx raised the quiz show genre to high comic art when he hosted "You Bet Your Life" - first on radio and later on television. The show was long on shtick and short on serious quizzing (e.g., "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?"). A favorite gimmick on the show was the Secret Word ("a common, ordinary word you use around the house"). If a contestant said the secret word at any time, a duck descended from the stage rigging, trumpets sounded, and he who said the word won $100 on the spot. Of course, you only won the $100 once. You couldn't keep saying the word and winning.

"Change" is the secret word in the presidential version of the shtick. All contestants already know the word, so they keep saying it and they (apparently) keep winning. Every time a candidate - especially a Democrat - says "change", fanfares sound and every reporter within earshot falls to his knees and worships. All seem so excited by the word alone that they cannot ask the obvious follow-up questions - "Change of what? Change to what?" This recalls nothing so much as reactions by kindergarten boys to the word "underwear". (Any mom will regale you with the inexhaustible comedy inherent in this single word. Boys fall over laughing when they hear it.)

So far, we know very little about intended policies of the two megastars vying for the Democratic nomination, but each claims to be an agent of "change". Both are sitting senators, and neither has held executive office of any kind. This means we have no data on how either might actually govern, given the chance. Mrs. Clinton touts her experience as putative "co-president" during her husband's two terms, but she refuses to release records that might reveal her exact role (if any) during those years. We do know that both senators received perfect liberal scores of 100 from Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) in 2007. In a previous article I argued that Mrs. Clinton basically wants to expand LBJ's Great Society, while Mr. Obama wants to take us back to FDR's New Deal, with its deep distrust of private enterprise and its reliance on government "solutions".

Otherwise, details of the "change" each candidate wants to bring are sketchy. In 2004 I wrote (only half-humorously) that John Kerry's handlers were keeping him out of sight because every time his public profile rose, his poll numbers sank. In 2008, Democratic strategy is reversed. So far, Democratic candidates are keeping a high stylistic profile, but furnishing as few policy details as possible. Any of them might ride the "change horse" right into the White House without telling voters diddly about what he (or she) plans to do as president. The morning after Election Day might bring a surprise, but the morning after Inauguration Day might bring an even bigger one, when voters finally see the true outlines of the "change" that awaits them.

Change is the dark horse in this race. Voters will be wise to ask for the lights to be turned on before the race is over.