After so many years of fear and loathing, we had almost forgotten what it's like to feel good about our country. On Thursday night, that long-dormant emotion came rushing back, like an old dream that pops out of the deepest recesses of memory, suddenly as clear as light. "They said this day would never come," said Barack Obama, and yet here, right before us, was indisputable evidence that it had.
What felt good was not merely the improbable and historic political triumph of an African-American candidate carrying a state with a black population of under 3 percent. It was the palpable sense that our history was turning a page whether or not Mr. Obama or his doppelgÃƒÂ¤nger in improbability, Mike Huckabee, end up in the White House. We could allow ourselves a big what-if: What if we could have an election that was not a referendum on either the Clinton or Bush presidencies? For the first time, we found ourselves on that long-awaited bridge to the 21st century, the one that was blown up in the ninth month of the new millennium's maiden year.
The former community organizer from Chicago and the former Baptist preacher from Arkansas have little in common in terms of political views. But as I wrote here a month ago, the author of "The Audacity of Hope" and the new man from Hope, Ark., are flip sides of the same coin. The slogan "change" - a brand now so broad and debased that both Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney appropriated it for their own campaigns - does not do justice to the fresh starts that Mr. Obama and Mr. Huckabee represent.
The two men are the youngest candidates in the entire field, the least angry and the least inclined to seek votes by saturation-bombing us with the post-9/11 arsenal of fear. They both radiate the kind of wit and joy (and, yes, hope) that can come only with self-confidence and a comfort in their own skins. They don't run from Americans who are not in their club. Mr. Obama had no problem winning over a conclave of white Christian conservatives at Rick Warren's megachurch in Orange County, Calif., even though he insisted on the necessity of condoms in fighting AIDS. Unlike the top-tier candidates in the G.O.P. presidential race, or the "compassionate conservative" president who refused for years to meet with the N.A.A.C.P., Mr. Huckabee showed up last fall for the PBS debate at the historically black Morgan State University and aced it.
The "they" who did not see the cultural power of these men, of course, includes not just the insular establishments of both their parties but the equally cloistered echo chamber of our political journalism's status quo. It would take a whole column to list all the much-repeated Beltway story lines that collapsed on Thursday night.
But some are worth recounting because they prove nearly as instructive as they are laughable. The Benazir Bhutto assassination was judged as a boon for Mrs. Clinton because it would knock the silly voters to their senses by reminding them it was no time to roll the dice with foreign-policy novices. Oprah Winfrey's Obama rallies were largely viewed as a routine celebrity endorsement, while Mr. Romney's address on "Faith in America" was judged as momentous as "Mission Accomplished." Only a week ago, Mr. Huckabee was literally laughed at by reporters for his "Howard Dean meltdown" at a press conference where he contradictorily exhibited and then disowned an attack ad on Mr. Romney.
The final Des Moines Register poll - Mr. Huckabee up by six points and Mr. Obama by seven - was greeted with near-universal skepticism. John Edwards and John McCain, we were reliably informed by those "on the ground," were surging in Iowa. Mr. Huckabee might have fatally insulted voters by ditching Iowa on the eve of the caucus to appear with Jay Leno. All those collegiate Obama enthusiasts, like the Dean brigades of the last Iowa political insurgency, were just too flighty to actually bother to caucus.
What was mostly forgotten in these errant narratives were the two largest elephants in the room: Iraq and George W. Bush. The conventional wisdom had it that both a tamped-down war and a lame-duck president were exiting so quickly from center stage that they were receding from the minds of voters. In truth, they were only receding from the minds of those covering those voters.
The continued political import of Iraq could be found in three different polls in the past six weeks - Pew, ABC News-Washington Post and Wall Street Journal-NBC News. They all showed the same phenomenon: the percentage of Americans who believe that the war is going well has risen strikingly in tandem with the diminution of violence - from 30 percent in February to 48 percent in November, for instance, in the Pew survey. Even so, these same polls show no change at all in the public's verdict on this misadventure or in President Bush's dismal overall approval rating. By the same margins as before (sometimes even slightly larger), a majority of Americans favor withdrawal no matter what happened during the "surge." In another poll (Gallup), a majority still call the war a mistake, a finding that has varied little since February 2006.
It's safe to assume that these same voters did not forget that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards enabled the Iraq fiasco. Or that Mr. Obama publicly opposed it. When Mrs. Clinton attacked Mr. Obama for his supposedly "irresponsible and frankly naíve" foreign policy ideas - seeking talks with enemies like Iran - she didn't diminish him so much as remind voters of her own irresponsibility and naívetÃƒ© about Mr. Bush's Iraq scam in 2002.
In the Republican field, no candidate has less association with Iraq than Mr. Huckabee, a politically lucky and unintended consequence of his spectacular ignorance about foreign policy in general. When he finally did speak up in a newly published essay in Foreign Affairs, he condemned the Bush administration for its "arrogant bunker mentality" in its execution of the war. Mr. Romney, sensing an opening among the party faithful, loudly demanded that Mr. Huckabee "apologize to the president" for this insult. But Mr. Huckabee had the political savvy not to retreat, and in Iowa's final hours even Mr. Romney desperately reversed himself to slam Mr. Bush's mismanagement of Iraq.
Among the Republican candidates, Mr. Huckabee is also as culturally un-Bush as you can get. He constantly reminds voters that he did not go to an Ivy League school and that his plain values derived from a bona fide blue-collar upbringing, as opposed to, say, clearing brush on a vacation "ranch" bought with oil money attained with family connections. "People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off," he told Mr. Leno, in a nifty reminder of Mr. Romney's corporate history as a Bush-style, Harvard-minted M.B.A.
It's such populist Huckabee sentiments that are already driving the Republican empire to strike back. The party that has milked religious conservatives for votes for two decades is traumatized by the prospect that one of that ilk might actually become its standard-bearer. Especially if the candidate in question is a preacher who bashes Wall Street and hedge-fund managers and threatens to take a Christian attitude toward those too poor to benefit from the Bush tax cuts.
No wonder the long list of party mandarins eager to take down Mr. Huckabee includes Rush Limbaugh, Robert Novak, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and National Review. Dan Bartlett, the former close Bush adviser, has snickered at Mr. Huckabee's presumably low-rent last name. Fred Barnes was reduced to incoherent babbling when a noticeably gloomy Fox News announced Mr. Huckabee's victory Thursday night.
But if, as the new narrative has it, Mr. McCain will ride to the party's rescue, the Republicans' relief may be short-lived. He is their most experienced and principled horse, but he's also the oldest and the most encumbered by Bush and Iraq baggage. The NBC News analyst Chuck Todd may be on to something when he half-jokingly suggested last week that there was a 5 percent chance that the G.O.P. may have to find a nominee not yet in the race.
Mr. Obama is in a far better position in his more-or-less ideologically united party than Mr. Huckabee is among Republicans, but, of course, he could lose for a myriad of reasons. Mr. Obama could make some world-class mistakes; the Clinton machine could land some attacks more devastating than its withering critique of his kindergarten paper.
But if Clinton operatives know how to go negative, they don't have the positive balance of a 21st-century message. Iowa confirmed that the message the campaign has used to date - experience - is D.O.A. in post-Bush America. It was fascinating to watch that realization sink in on Thursday night. In her concession speech, Mrs. Clinton had her husband, the most tangible totem of her experience, standing right beside her, yet she didn't mention him or so much as acknowledge him.
Even before that tableau was swept away by the sight of the Obama family all but dancing across the stage in celebration, it looked like the passing of an era.
Frank Rich is a regular columnist for The New York Times.
© 2007 The New York Times