How long oh lord, how long? As the man said. With yet another Democrat debate scheduled for tonight, in Ohio, the New York Times said it best – what are they going to talk about?

If the thing weren’t being broadcast, the answer would be obvious – Ohio stuff, the minutiae of industrial recovery, reconstruction, the subprime crisis which has hit the state worse than just about anywhere. Because it is going national, it will go meta almost immediately – a debate not about free trade, for example, but about who said what about NAFTA when, who wore what colourful ethnic garb where and who cut and pasted which part of what speech.

Like the dying days of a relationship, both participants turn up ostensibly eager to draw a line, make a fresh start, get to the heart of the matter et cetera, only to get drawn down into the old favourites: the great car re-insurance failure of ’97, what the choice of gift for Aunt Maude says about you, why you thinking that is significant is significant, to the general bewilderment of the other patrons in the restaurant, craning their necks, and wishing for more expository, backstorying accusations.

Stuck somewhere betweek Beckettland and greater Pinteria, the two participants wade through the remnants of their energy trying to remember why they ever wanted whatever the hell this process is leading to, drumming in their head one overwhelming thought – “I wish one of us would die and I am less concerned about who than that it happen soon.”

Hillary is getting a lot of criticism for the increasingly negative campaign, but in sheer realpolitik terms, if she’s going to stay in it, she doesn’t have much choice. Both she and Obama hit the running with such similar programs that there isn’t a chance of differentiating herself on those grounds, and her claim – accurate in my view – that she is the better candidate to take the fight to the Right when the nomination is settled, is simply not convincing anyone who wasn’t already persuaded of it. She has to keep on shanking her opponent in the hope of eventually hitting the carotid.

The most recent initiative – her team releasing a photo of Obama dressed like a porter at the Dubai Four Seasons, sorry in traditional Kenyan garb — was beyond desperate, especially for a former first lady who has had to don more than the occasional ethnic tea-cosy in the execution of her duties, sundry snaps of which hit the intertubes soon after. It’s easy to dismiss this from the empyrean heights, but in a culture turned unprecedentedly over to the image, starved of information save for what can be gleaned from Fox and USA Today, and incessantly belted with nineteen different fears from dirty bombs to “restless leg syndrome” (“Peluria can help! Ask your doctor today! Side-effects include sneezing your brain out your nose! Peluria!”) who’s to say? For the past few days, the numbers have been holding, which is a good result for Hillary these days – at this stage in the super-Tuesday lead up the Obamaslide was well underway.

Whether it will survive tonight’s debate remains to be seen. Ohio has been hit harder by NAFTA than just about anywhere – or so it believes – which adds to the growing problem Hillary has with her “voice of experience” line. If the sum total of her wisdom has been to ship your job overseas, and send the kid down the end of the street to die in a dumb war, what price experience? It also makes it difficult to assert the “I’m not Bill” argument, since much of her experience argument leans on the idea that she was involved in his administration. Without that she’s spent less time in office than Obama, who was elected to the Illinois state senate four years before she assumed her first public office.

Bitter, bitter fruit. There is no real doubt that her White House years should count as experience – but the only way she can salvage them and hit NAFTA is to say that (as seems to be the case) she was very much against it, but lost the fight. Trot that one out, and Bill would do openly what he is really doing anyway – campaign for his legacy, up to and including joining StopHerNow, the obsessive conservative ginger group who aimed their guns magnificently in the wrong direction.

No candidate can afford to tell Ohians the truth about the global economy and their role in it, which is pretty much similar to the role the pig from Babe would play in a ham sandwich. Whatever processes NAFTA has accelerated, their jobs are going a lot further than Mexico – to India and China. A measure of protectionism on key industries would help as a stop-gap but only if it were accompanied by a massive investment in a huge social retooling of production, education, training, etc. And no candidate can really tell the American public what her or his main duties will be – managing the remorseless global equalisation of the economy, which sure as hell has no place for a $60,000 pa worker in low value manufacturing.

So, in this final stoush, Hillary is up against it. But if anyone can give her an in at the moment, it’s Obama. Either the guy is some sort of political judo genius, or he’s the worst, most diffident political streetfighter since, oh god, John Kerry. No doubt it makes sense to play lofty, take the high ground, fail to dignify Hillary as even a player, turn the guns towards McCain while keeping the powder dry, throw the lanyards over the taff rail and other naval metaphors, but unless the “just woken from a nap” thing is an act, Obama has to be suffering from sort of mineral deficiency or something.

Team Obama has so substantially outperformed Hillary’s campaign that they would have reason to feel quietly confident. The problem for Clinton was not only that her budgeting had been predicated on a super-Tuesday knock-out, but that there seemed to be no Plan B. As Frank Rich noted, once the “firewall” primaries got under way, she was without a single campaign office in Vermont, while Barack had four, and her managers seemed not to understand the complex, two-vote, Texas primary-caucus-convention system (you vote in the primary, you then go to an evening caucus to vote for a second tranche of delegates, and the whole thing then goes to a convention where yet more delegates are awarded. Delegates from each district are weighted according to their Democratic vote in the last election, and on it goes. You can spend a life running elections in four counties in East Texas.)

They can also luxuriate in the knowledge that once they’ve dispatched Clinton they have McCain in a terribler financial jam. The latter having agreed to take matching public funds for his campaign, he’s been bound up by a series of rules about when he can spend his money – basically once he amasses sufficient delegates to be nominee, he can only spend up to the ceiling of his matching funds – basically about $5 million remaining of a total $54 million – before the convention in August. McCain is now frantically trying to extract himself from that agreement, but the relevant congressional subcommittee is inquorate, with four out of six vacancies.

Obama meanwhile never applied for these funds, and is drowning in a tide of money. If McCain has to go from March to September with virtually no media presence, he is, quite possibly, toast. In that context, review once again the essay question “why is Mike Huckabee still running for the nomination?”

Indeed, though many people are getting a sick feeling in their stomach when they see McCain’s energy and command, his sheer appetite for fight, against Obama’s fey, student-prince demeanour, they may be worrying overmuch. As McCain himself said today, he stands or falls on support for his Iraq policy. With the suicide bombings recommencing as the “surge” becomes the “pause” (of troop drawdown) – as in “the car’s wheels paused in the thick mud” – McCain may get the electoral equivalent of an IED sooner rather than later.

Nevertheless, if anyone can stuff this up, it’s Barack Nanki-Poo Obama.