Glimpse of a meltdown

It came off as whining, peevish and altogether odd and unsettling. The audience reaction seemed understandably uncomfortable.

Hillary Clinton griped not unlike a petulant child that the first two questions of the debate Tuesday night were directed to her. She invoked a "Saturday Night Live" skit about how the press adored Barack Obama and spared him tough treatment.

It was not quite a meltdown, but a glimpse thereof.

What bothered her most, I suspect, was that she'd just spent 16 minutes debating Obama on her strongest issue, health care, and yet couldn't land a blow. She jabbed and jabbed. He parried and parried.

She came with her big punch, saying Obama's optional universal health care was like optional Social Security, meaning none at all. He deflected that, as he did everything else. He said Medicare Part B was optional, too, but has been successful in helping a lot of people.

She kept trying to get the last word, but couldn't. Since the questioning had started with her, courtesy meant that he always had another turn coming after hers. She'd interrupt to fortify her case, then he'd get to talk again with something effectively obfuscating.

Clinton is more thorough and knowledgeable on health care. She's more thorough and knowledgeable on practically everything. Yet she can't make that evident, or matter.

So then came the second question, about NAFTA. Darned if Brian Williams didn't come to her first again. She could foresee another futile exercise, her jabbing, Obama's parrying, and his always getting to come back after her.

She kind of lost it. It's called frustration. It had been building since Super Tuesday, maybe Iowa.

Perhaps realizing she'd had a near-disastrous moment, Clinton tried to calm herself down for the duration of the debate. That didn't work, either.

If she'd stayed combative and agitated, she might not have jumped in toward the end to answer Tim Russert's odd and open-ended question for either of them: "What can you tell us" about the next Russian president? She might have said, "Senator Obama, why don't you take that one, since you keep telling us you have the experience on foreign policy to be right on Day One?"

We'll never know if Obama could have retrieved the name, Dmitri Medvedev, to which Hillary came acceptably close when Russert asked directly, and in altogether tacky manner, "Do you know his name?"

What if Obama had stammered on the Russia question generally, then been unable to retrieve the name? Might the dynamic of the race have been changed? Might Hillary's message of experience have suddenly acquired new currency?

Alas, it's moot.

Hillary seems to vary between dismissing and resenting Obama's uncommon political talents. It's understandable. She thought she had this thing won. She was hardly alone. I and countless others thought the same thing. Now, as if in a bad dream, she finds herself needing a 15th-round knockout against a guy who floats like a butterfly.

Now the following scenario appears likely for Tuesday and beyond: Obama will beat Clinton in Texas or fashion essentially a split. She'll win Ohio, but narrowly. The candidates will divide Rhode Island and Vermont.

There will be no significant shift in delegate strength, with Obama remaining ahead by about 150 in "earned delegates," meaning those pro-rated by the various state primaries and caucuses.

We'll be reminded that Bill Clinton said in Texas that his wife was finished if she failed to win there. Superdelegates will begin lining up with Obama.

In days or a couple of weeks, Hillary will bury her frustrations long enough to step aside graciously. Vice president would be beneath her, but she might make a good Senate majority leader.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@