THE 20th Democratic debate played this week to big audiences, serving mainly to highlight the huge change in fortunes between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama since they first crossed swords last April.
Back then it was Mrs Clinton who made the running, as the Democrats lined up in South Carolina. With ratings of 41 per cent, double those of Mr Obama, she seemed near-certain to win both candidacy and presidency.
The picture told the story: Mrs Clinton, the only woman, stood with the seven male challengers surrounding her like courtiers.
Her answers were assured, the only hiccup coming when fellow candidate John Edwards asked her to apologise for having voted in favour of the Iraq invasion.
"It was a sincere vote based on the information available to me," she said.
Mr Obama, by contrast, seemed then like a rabbit in the headlights, struggling to get his "change" message off the ground.
"He was so bad back in South Carolina in the summer, we sat there and half the people fell asleep," said Joe Scarborough, an NBC newscaster.
As the debates marched on through the summer Mr Obama rose in the ratings, only to fall back again with the autumn rains as Mrs Clinton hammered home her message of "experience".
On 20 December, after a dozen debates, Mrs Clinton stood at 49 per cent, Mr Obama at just 20 per cent, his critics portraying him as a dreamer.
His unexpected victory in Iowa on 3 January turned things around, and not just with the opinion polls.
In the debates that followed, eight in just two months, he began to grow in confidence. He would arrive, fresh from the latest football stadium rally, full of poise and with an encyclopedic grasp of the issues that matched the formidable Mrs Clinton.
There were bloopers, as when Mr Obama described Ronald Reagan, arch-nemesis of the Democrats, as having "changed the trajectory" of American politics.
But despite losses in New Hampshire and Nevada, Mr Obama began a slow and inexorable rise up the charts. By 1 February he was only ten points behind Mrs Clinton. Polls out now show him between six and nine points in front.
Aware that this week's debate might be the last between the two, the hosts scrapped soft questions in favour of hard- hitting punches. Each was reminded of how they had changed their minds on key issues.
For Mrs Clinton it was familiar territory; as she was jabbed on changing stances on Iraq and the North American Free Trade Agreement, and why she won't release her tax returns.
But Mr Obama also got rough treatment. Why, he was asked, did he attend a church of a pastor who was good friends with Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam founder, who is infamous for antisemitic statements? Mr Obama diverted the issue, announcing he would "reject" the endorsement of Mr Farrakhan.
On Iraq, asked why he now supported funding the war, he turned the question back to Mrs Clinton's vote for the invasion, which he had opposed: "Once we had driven the bus into the ditch there were only so many ways we could get it out," he said.
The only stumble in a performance as polished as Mrs Clinton's was last April when he was asked why, having promised to take public funding for the presidential campaign itself, he was now backtracking.
If the voters noticed, they didn't object: Fully two-thirds of an NBC poll following the contest gave victory to Mr Obama.
Mrs Clinton, by contrast, was accused of whining. At one point she made a joke about at TV comedy show poking fun at her rival's media popularity. The joke fell flat and, for the third debate in a row, Mrs Clinton earned boos from the audience.
Those jeers tell their own story. In the history of these presidential debates, viewers have almost always preferred the sunshine candidate.
But this is harsh on Mrs Clinton, because of the two, she had the tougher task. With a big lead in voters, delegates and states, Mr Obama came into this debate happy to coast along. Mrs Clinton, by contrast, needed to land a knock-out punch.
The Washington Post's Chris Cilliza said: "Obama has got better as a debater."
The irony is that while Mr Obama's skills have risen, Mrs Clinton's have not fallen. She does not "lose" these debates any more than Mr Obama "wins" them, with opinion polls changing little in the days that follow. Rather, the voters themselves seem to have swung, deciding, in the space of a few short weeks, that they prefer "change" to "experience" after all.
McCAIN SWIPE OVER IRAQ
JOHN McCain, the Republican presidential hopeful, mocked Barack Obama yesterday for saying he would take action as president "if al-Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq".
He told a crowd in Tyler, Texas: "I have some news. Al-Qaeda is in Iraq. It's called 'al-Qaeda in Iraq'," drawing laughter at Mr Obama's expense.
Mr Obama responded at a rally at Ohio State University in Columbus. "I do know that al-Qaeda is in Iraq. So I have some news for John McCain," he said, adding there had been no al-Qaeda presence in Iraq until President George Bush invaded the country.
Noting that Mr McCain liked to tell audiences he would follow Osama bin Laden to the "gates of hell" to catch him, Mr Obama taunted: "All he (McCain] has done is to follow George Bush into a misguided war in Iraq."
During the Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday night, Mr Obama was asked if he would reserve the right to send US troops back into Iraq to quell an insurrection or civil war. He replied: "If al-Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad."