FOR HILLARY CLINTON, the presidency is not in the bag. Even winning the Democratic presidential nomination is considerably less than a sure thing. But of the 18 Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, Clinton is the most likely to be the next president. And she did nothing last night in the bizarre presidential debate in Charleston, South Carolina, to alter that.

Clinton managed to maintain at least the outward appearance of seriousness in a debate that included a taped question from someone dressed as a snowman, another from a sanctimonious Planned Parenthood official who asked if the candidates had talked to their kids about sex, and an especially silly one about whether the candidates would be willing to be paid the minimum wage as president. Most of them lied and said yes.

This was the first of six debates sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. Based on this one, there's a long and tedious season of yakking ahead in the presidential race. With You Tube providing the questions and the candidates offering special one-minute commercials, the idea was to make last night's debate livelier and more fun. Often, though, it was merely unserious, excessively cute, and frivolous.

There was a key moment, however, and once again it pitted Clinton, the New York senator, against Barack Obama, her counterpart from Illinois. The question was whether they'd promise to meet in the first year of their presidency with the leaders of such enemy nations as Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, and Syria.

"I would," Obama said, foolishly showing his inexperience, and perhaps his naivete as well, in foreign affairs. After all, he said, President Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and still talked to Soviet leaders. "I think it's a disgrace we haven't talked" to leaders of the five anti-American countries, Obama said.

Clinton benefited from getting to answer after Obama, and she made the most of it. She said, firmly and coolly, that she wouldn't promise to meet with them. Clinton said the new president had to be careful not to be exploited by hostile leaders for propaganda purposes and not to do anything "that would make the situation worse." Before any meeting, she'd have to know "what the way forward would be."

The verdict on whose answer was better, Obama's or Clinton's, came from John Edwards, the next candidate to speak. He echoed Clinton.

As anti-Iraq war as Clinton has become, she also refused to be drawn into competition with the other candidates over who favored the earliest and most complete withdrawal of American troops. She said it must be done "safely and orderly and carefully," and not merely as quickly as possible.

Clinton said she was "agnostic" on expanding the use of nuclear power and didn't get a chance to spell out her plans on health care. Bill Richardson, eager to out-pander his foes, said "every American deserves the right to the best quality health care." He didn't say how this would be achieved.

The other candidates? Obama, exciting on the stump, was dull in the debate. Mike Gravel seemed quite taken with himself, for no good reason. Dennis Kucinich also exuded enormous self-regard. Edwards oozed insincerity, especially when he said anyone who voted against Clinton because she's a woman or Obama because he's African-American shouldn't vote for him. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd gave reasonable answers, the kind you'd expect from liberal Democratic senators.

For Clinton, the important thing in debates is that she doesn't say anything that gets her in trouble or seriously jeopardizes her chances against the Republican nominee. And she succeeded. She may actually have helped her campaign a bit.

Still, there's nothing inevitable about Clinton's winning the Democratic nomination. She's just closer to gaining the presidential nomination than any candidate in either party. In other words, she's got a better shot at being the Democratic nominee than Rudy Giuliani or Fred Thompson have of becoming the Republican presidential choice.

And then there's the general election race, which favors the Democrat candidate, assuming it's either Clinton or Obama. Yes, Clinton has incredibly high negatives. One national poll found recently that 52 percent of Americans said they'd never vote for her for president. But don't be fooled. The political environment is likely to trump that sentiment.

Unless the national mood changes by November 2008, Democrats will have a large advantage in attracting independent voters. They will have a more excited and involved base. They will have more money. And after the immigration fiasco, they will have the support of a larger chunk of the Hispanic vote than in 2004.

Again, all this doesn't mean Clinton is odds-on to succeed George W. Bush in the White House. It does mean, though, that she has a better chance than anyone else.

Fred Barnes is executive editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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