George W. Bush isn't the only one who thinks Hillary is going to win the nomination.

Ninety-nine percent of the press thinks that as well.

And they're not happy about it. Not because they're anti-Hillary, but because they want a race.

What's the point of being a horse expert if one horse is so many lengths ahead that there's no competition?

That's why we're now seeing a spate of "Can Hillary Be Stopped?" pieces. And some pundits are indulging their ever-present desire to play campaign strategist by serving up advice for Obama and Edwards.

If there's one thing that political journalists hate, it's inevitability.

Beyond the question of whether HRC has turned this into a coronation, a new Hillary debate is emerging, one that turns on what she would do with Bush's war. You might think this is not much of a mystery, given the senator's strong antiwar stance. But would a sense of realpolitik take over once a new President Clinton was confronted with all those American troops in a volatile region?

In short, would Hillary really represent a clean break from George?

This was sparked in part by a David Brooks{vbar} column in the NYT: "On 'This Week With George Stephanopoulos,' Clinton could have vowed to vacate Iraq. Instead, she delivered hawkish mini-speeches that few Republicans would object to. She listed a series of threats and interests in the region and made it clear that she'd be willing to keep U.S. troops there to handle them."

Andrew Sullivan{vbar} is not thrilled about the prospect:

"The conservative Washington Establishment is swooning for Hillary for a reason. The reason is an accommodation with what they see as the next source of power (surprise!); and the desire to see George W. Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq legitimated and extended by a Democratic president (genuine surprise). Hillary is Bush's ticket to posterity. On Iraq, she will be his legacy. They are not that dissimilar after all: both come from royal families, who have divvied up the White House for the past couple of decades. They may oppose one another; but they respect each other as equals in the neo-monarchy that is the current presidency.

"And so elite conservatives are falling over themselves to embrace a new Queen Hillary, with an empire reaching across Mesopotamia, a recently deposed court just waiting to return to the salons of DC, a consort happy to be co-president for another four years, and a back-channel to the other royal family. She'll even have more powers than Clinton I, because Cheney has given her back various royal prerogatives: arrests without charges, torture, wire-tapping, and spy-ware on your Expedia account. Only the coronation awaits."

Former RNC guy Patrick Ruffini{vbar} manages to slam Hillary, even as he paints her as Bush Lite, saying he "watched the Sunday shows in astonishment. It was not what Hillary was saying, but when she was saying it. By telling us in the most explicit terms yet that she will not withdraw from Iraq in 2009, she must believe she has the nomination wrapped up. And she is beginning to protect her flank from what I have long believed to be our most lethal argument against her.

"The Clintons have promised Democrat primary voters that they will 'end the war' once Camelot is restored. Which begs the question that our nominee should begin asking on February 6th, 'Okay. When?'

"Withdrawal from Iraq seems impossible today, and would be the kind of abrupt foreign policy change you would only expect from a transformational President (e.g. not Hillary). It is an open question whether a cautious trimmer like Hillary would have the guts to actually go through with it.

"Our best argument against Hillary is not that she will end the war. It's that she won't.

"And that she's being dishonest when she says she will. And that she's just another spineless Democrat like John Kerry who can't stand up to any criticism, and won't tell the country what she really thinks about the war . . . Hillary is morphing into a George W. Bush Democrat."

So how did she do in last night's MSNBC debate, where the Iraq issue was front and center?

"Faced with Clinton's wide lead in national and New Hampshire polls," says USA Today{vbar}, "the former first lady's rivals tried to portray her as weak on ending the war in Iraq, too cautious on overhauling Social Security, and unable to achieve reform on her signature issue, health care."

"Putting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton under heavy fire," says the L.A. Times{vbar},1,315158.story?ctrack=2&cset=true, "seven Democratic presidential hopefuls sought Wednesday night to separate themselves from the front-runner on such contentious issues as the war in Iraq, healthcare and Social Security. "Although there were some sharp moments on the stage at New Hampshire's Dartmouth College -- particularly over the war in Iraq -- the debate illustrated yet again how closely the candidates are aligned on policy issues, suggesting that the nomination fight will probably come down to who Democratic voters believe is the most electable."

Hillary was "facing frequent jabs from rivals who suggested she was enabling a potential conflict with Iran and would be too divisive a figure to forge agreements with a closely divided Congress," says the Boston Globe{vbar}

"Clinton, appearing at ease amid the assaults on her policies, was cautious in her responses, refusing to commit to pulling all US troops out of Iraq by 2013, and hedging her responses on whether to raise Social Security taxes or support Israel in a hypothetical military attack on Iran."

Oh, and this just in: Rob Reiner{vbar} endorses Hillary.

Now for the horse-race stuff, and the yearning for another Dem to at least slow her down. Newsweek's Howard Fineman{vbar} from New Hampshire:

"We're waiting for an Obama moment -- if he's got another one in him. If he does, he has a chance to pull what would be a sensational upset by attracting the swarm of independent voters here who make this state's primary unique.

"In this most political of primary states, the urgent question in the Democratic presidential race on the eve of an MSNBC debate is: when will Sen. Barack Obama go after -- really go after -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton? For if he doesn't do it soon, and effectively, the contest for the 2008 nomination may well be over before it officially starts.

"Does Obama think that Hillary is dangerously 'more of the same' in international affairs -- a Bush in Democratic clothing? Does he think she is the blind and corrupted product of a hopelessly tarnished system of money and access in the nation's capital? Does he think that it's time for the upper, 'Howdy Doody' end of the Baby Boom, now approaching retirement age in the Peanut Gallery, to stand aside for Gen X and even Gen Y leadership? These are the subtext -- the rationale -- of his campaign. But if he believes it, and I think he does, the text had better go from sub to surface, fast."

Hillary as the Howdy Doody candidate?

Slate's John Dickerson{vbar} does the Xs and Os, scribbling some possible attack lines for Hillary's rivals:

"Attack Clinton as a captive of lobbyists: Her rivals can move from being passive-aggressive to being actually aggressive. John Edwards has criticized Clinton for taking money from lobbyists, but his own senior adviser Joe Trippi made a far harsher attack recently, calling a Clinton fund-raiser a 'poster child for what is wrong with Washington.' Edwards could make this argument loudly on Wednesday night rather than merely making general comments about replacing 'a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats.'

"Sharpen the complaint that Clinton is too divisive: When Barack Obama says 'there was divisive, special-interest politics,' in Washington before Bush and Cheney, we know whom he's talking about. When he pledges to 'stop the bickering' in Washington and mentions the 'decades of division and deadlock, we also know whom he is talking about. But these oblique attacks haven't produced results. Recent polls show that voters don't think Clinton is too divisive to get elected. Obama needs to say what he means . . .

"There is a related line of attack: going after Bill Clinton's personal life. No challenger is going to bring up Monica Lewinsky by name (though this is what their supporters talk about at fund-raisers). But a candidate might make a veiled reference to the past drama and hope voters get the hint that it's a time-bomb issue Republicans will certainly exploit in a general election. But this is very risky . . .

"Attack her honesty: Aides to rival campaigns say that in focus groups, voters who enter the room predisposed to Clinton can be convinced to turn against her when questions are raised about her honesty and trustworthiness."

One other alternative, says Dickerson: "Start sucking up: Oh, just give in. Start angling for a Cabinet post now."

A Hillary win is so assured that Roger Simon{vbar} is deep into running-mate speculation, saying "there will be enormous pressure on her within the Democratic Party to choose Barack Obama . . .

"There are two unbreakable rules for picking a running mate: Never pick anybody who might overshadow the top of the ticket, and never pick anybody you cannot completely control. So Obama might be eliminated on both counts. Then there is the Rule of Firsts. The Clinton campaign does not want to force too many 'firsts' on the American electorate. Electing the first woman president will be challenge enough. Electing the first woman president and first African-American vice president at the same time? Forget it; they don't need that kind of problem . . .

"Does this mean that only white males need apply to become Hillary's running mate? Probably."

Aww--why take the fun out of it now?

In another Hillary-related posting (they're everywhere!), Kevin Drum{vbar} bounces off a Washington Post piece in asking whether push polling can make a valid point. His case study "comes from a much derided recent poll conducted by Celinda Lake for Joe Biden. The reason it was derided (aside from the fact that Chris Cillizza failed to inform his readers that Biden was behind the poll) was because of the wording of one of the questions: 'Some people say [your Democratic incumbent] is a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton and will support her liberal agenda of big government and higher taxes if she becomes president,' the poll stated, before asking respondents whether they would still vote for their incumbent or choose a Republican candidate.

"Outrageous! And it is. On the other hand, that's exactly what Republican House candidates are going to say, isn't it? Which means that this poll, showing a 6-point lead for Democratic incumbents, is probably more useful than generic polls showing a 10 or 15 point lead.

"Now, obviously this works in both direction: liberals get to make arguments during campaigns too. But conservative arguments appeal to fear pretty effectively, which means that on difficult, highly charged issues, like withdrawing from Iraq, a lot of people tend to be schizophrenic. One day they want to get out, but then they see a scary TV ad and the next day they don't."

A tight Republican race in New Hampshire, with a new poll{vbar} showing Romney, who governed in neighborhing Massachusetts, dropping 10 points. It's Romney 23 and Rudy 22, with McCain up to 17 and Thompson at 12.

The Wall Street Journal{vbar} is troubled by that incident when Rudy took a call from Judy during his NRA speech:

"Mr. Giuliani has run an impressive campaign so far, especially on the issues. He has a record of accomplishment in New York, and he projects the kind of executive competence that many Americans want in a President. The rap on his candidacy, however, is that his personal history and behavior are simply too strange for someone who wants to sit in the Oval Office. Voters will decide whether that's true, but if nothing else Mr. Giuliani ought to be aware of this vulnerability and do nothing to compound it.

" 'That was just weird,' one NRA audience member told the New York Post about the phone interruption. Mr. Giuliani doesn't need more weird."

The Republican front-runners are still getting heat for skipping a debate at a black college--and from their own side.

"We have scolded the African-American community for its lock-step support for Democrats," says Captain Ed{vbar} "However, as the avoidance of this debate demonstrates, Republicans haven't exactly beaten down doors in an attempt to engage these voters, either. Given that these invitations went out in March, the campaigns had plenty of time to schedule one debate to address one of the largest voting blocs in the country, and one whose loyalties could help the GOP turn national elections.

"Some will say that the African-American community doesn't turn out for Republican primaries, and that's mostly true. They focus on Democrats. However, the entire point of outreach is to change that voting behavior, and leading Republicans have to give them a reason to do so. Ignoring them in the primaries will not gain the Republican nominee any votes in the general election."

Did the Fourth Estate fall for Ahmadinejad's act? MarketWatch's Jon Friedman{vbar} thinks so:

"Politicians, pundits, journalists, diplomats, talk-show bookers, historians and social scientists all paid rapt attention to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to the U.S. this week. I suspect some shrewd crisis-management experts were watching the proceedings, too.

"The despot gave an enlightening lesson in how to manage the U.S. media: Be vague. Obfuscate. Smile mindlessly -- a lot. Be friendly. Nod wisely instead of speaking foolishly. Say absolutely nothing threatening or menacing. Turn their image of you on its head. And, for God's sake, man, say nothing of substance.

"Maybe, instead, the lesson was how to sucker the U.S. media. The man played us for suckers -- just like any PR-hungry celebrity who spins reporters and editors. The bottom line was that he knew more about how the American media works than they knew about him."

Time managing editor Rick Stengel describes his dinner with Ahmadinejad (and other journalists) here{vbar},8599,1665579,00.htm.

Dan Rather, choking back tears{vbar} right here in D.C.