Perhaps it is only scarecrows who tend to be so skeptical about humans that we discount much of what we see and hear and grow particularly wary of claims by self-described champions of "change" and new "vision." But we’re also suckers for hope, not because we believe it will be fully vindicated but because we know deep down in our straws that it’s important for a nation to have hope to have any chance of making progress.

I’ve tried to remain deliberately restrained about any of the Democratic candidates, not because they’re not good people but because I see each of them as possessing only a piece of what we need in the next President. It’s like pretending there could be a person with Obama’s charisma, plus Edward’s empathy and passion, plus Clinton’s wariness and experienced pragmatism, plus Dodd’s courage and constitutional commitment, plus Biden’s knowledge and insights, plus Kucinich’ moral clarity, plus . . . well you get the idea. But there is no such person; there never is.

We have to choose which qualities to emphasize and then hope the person we choose will have the wisdom, maturity and self confidence to reach out to those who can make the Administration whole and successful.

And so there comes a time in every one of these campaigns where I have to decide, to close my eyes, hold my breath, make up a little pagan prayer, gulp and say — "okay, I’m there; I’m ready for that leap of faith. Just close the deal." Tonight’s debate may provide that moment.

The New York Times today is full of stories — news, analysis, opinion — mostly gushing about Obama and explaining the hurdles Clinton and Edwards face. I don’t see how either can escape the corners into which they’ve painted themselves, though there are still lots of primaries and anything is possible. But the main theme of the Obama articles is not just hope, it’s also pride. Many Americans are proud of what happened in Iowa, no matter what happens next.

Whether by luck, logic or innate wisdom, Obama has tapped into the country’s longing for hope. Every bit of anger, every frustration we have with the current malignant regime, with the direction of the country, with the plight of working people, the health care crisis or the economic insecurities of the middle class can be channeled through the message of hope. It may not be rationale; it may turn out to be more image and fluff than reality, and we will almost certainly be at least somewhat disappointed in the end. But the country needs to believe in itself again, and that’s what Obama is selling. No one else is selling that so well, even if they understand and believe it.

I’ll be watching the debates tonight looking for that sense of hope from these candidates. I have no illusions about Barack Obama. I honestly don’t know whether he feels inside but has chosen not to repeat what Edwards is saying, how much he cares about what Dodd has been warning us about, and so on. I don’t know if he’s just rallying the troops with his rhetoric or really is as naive as Clinton would have us believe. But it’s clear he represents the hopes of millions who desperately want to believe in their country again, to believe he can pull this off.

The reporters/pundits tell us Clinton is "retooling" her campaign, planning to draw sharper contrasts with Obama. But if his message is hope, what would a contrasting message look like and still have appeal? What can Clinton say tonight to overcome an apparent Obama surge like this?