Can it be? After weeks of mad scrambling, are there finally two real frontrunners in the 2008 presidential races?
It looks that way as John McCain capped an extraordinary comeback by sneaking by Mike Huckabee in South Carolina, a state that has played kingmaker by going for the eventual Republican nominee in every primary since 1980, while Hillary Rodham Clinton scored a victory in Nevada as glittering as the Las Vegas strip.
Although Baptist preacher Huckabee is a Southerner in a Southern state where 60 percent of GOP voters identify themselves as evangelicals, South Carolinians opted for experience over religious preference in handing McCain a three-percentage point win. That was only half of Clinton's six-point margin over Barack Obama, but McCain's win is the more impressive because the field was deeper and he was able to cast aside another round of attacks in a primary that had derailed his 2000 bid.
Neither win represented a knockout punch. But with John Edwards again playing third fiddle and getting a mere 4 percent of the Nevada vote, his presidential bid is over if he cannot do well in the Democratic primary in South Carolina next Saturday.
Meanwhile, Fred Thompson sleepwalked to a distant third in South Carolina and talk of his campaign being revitalized now seems hollow. If he has any sense, he'll follow Edwards out the door.
South Carolina went for Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H. W. Bush in 1988 and 1992 and George W. Bush in 2000, but McCain received only 135,000 votes yesterday compared to 240,000 in 2000, yet another indication of the overall lack of enthusiasm for the Republican field.
The Democrats are as fired up as the Republicans aren't, and the turnout in Nevada, the first Western contest of the year, was 10 times that of the 2004 caucuses.
Clinton did especially well among women and Hispanics. A majority of the latter -- many of whom are casino and hotel workers whose powerful union had endorsed Obama -- had been expected to go for the Illinois senator, but once again the polls were wrong as Clinton won six of the nine so-called casino precincts.
Older voters also went for Clinton, while Obama got nearly 80 percent of the black vote.
Mitt Romney, who turned tail in South Carolina and headed out to Nevada after polls showed that he was trailing badly, swept the field in the Nevada Republican caucuses on the strength of the state's substantial Mormon population. MSNBC had called the race for him with zero percent of the vote reported. Ballsy, eh?
By the way, Romney and Clinton lead in national convention delegate counts, Clinton by a substantial margin.
So do we really have two genuine frontrunners with McCain and Clinton notching two consecutive wins each? Or are they merely the flavors of the week?
McCain has to be considered the Republican frontrunner, especially since Huckabee did not have a big breakthrough in his first Southern contest, but McCain still is reviled by the establishment of a party that is deeply divided and actually got fewer Republican votes than the Huckster in the open primary. You can be sure that the big guns will be aimed at him as the 21-state Super Tuesday primaries (most of which are closed) on February 5 approach.
After McCain's win, the most satisfying result was yet another humiliating finish well down the pack by Rudy Giuliani, whose stake-it-all-on-Florida strategy looks increasingly lame.
Obama is the favorite in the forthcoming Democratic primary in South Carolina, so the luster of Clinton's win in Nevada may not last long. Like McCain, Clinton also has high negatives and will be seen as dividing a party with the inside track on capturing the White House with every subsequent win.
At least we can be thankful for one thing: No one has taken the lead at this point because of their religion, and experience seems to be trumping all.