Back when Bill Clinton was running for president, there was a riveting seven-game playoff between the Chicago Bulls, led by the lavishly gifted Michael Jordan, and the New York Knicks, whose superstar, Patrick Ewing, was never quite as super as people thought he’d be. The Bulls, clearly the better team, thrived on playing a sleek game. The Knicks’ only hope was to win ugly. They turned the series into a wrestling match, a down-and-dirty war of attrition.

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Yes, of course, this is really about Barack and Hillary.

At the moment, the Chicagoan leads the nominating process 3 games to 2 — he’s won more states, more votes, more delegates — and he can finish her off if he wins the big primary on her court in Pennsylvania. But like any hard-fought basketball series, a tight election campaign is all about working the media refs — both Obama and Clinton, as good Democrats, just love playing the victim — and constantly readjusting strategy. Hillary’s “kitchen sink” onslaught of negativity didn’t merely win her Ohio and Texas. It exposed a vulnerability that clearly left Obama worried. You suddenly saw his lanky frame in the back of the press plane as he talked to reporters he normally ignored on his way to the front. Spinning his losses, he droned on about delegate counts — the audacity of math. The real question, of course, is whether he’s already peaked.

Although the whole election cycle has been genuinely surprising — who knew Team Obama would out-organize the doughnut-eating Clintonistas, or that our first black president would cost his wife the black vote? — it was predictable that their contest would eventually turn personal. After all, what actually differentiates Clinton and Obama is style and character, not ideology. Both are center-left Democrats who tweak NAFTA and assail the Bush tax cuts, but wouldn’t dare propose universal government-backed health care or a return to even Reagan-era tax rates — Wall Street isn’t exactly trembling.

To be sure, the two aren’t quite dead ringers. Hillary sounds more progressive on domestic issues, although one should never forget how quickly the Clintons scuttled their liberal principles once Bill hit the White House. Barack sounds more enlightened on foreign policy — imagine a president actually talking to someone named Castro! — although I’d trust him a lot more if he’d made even a single brave vote on Iraq since entering the Senate. He could’ve asked his pal Russell Feingold which button to push.

John Kennedy once ruefully joked that although he wrote a book called Profiles in Courage, he didn’t have a chapter in it about himself. A comparable air of cautious ambition surrounds Obama. Like JFK, Obama’s an eloquent, confident, not-unarrogant man with a terrific back story, a thin résumé and a thick wall of money behind him. And as with JFK, his election could well transform the culture, unleashing forces more progressive than he is. He’s far more inspiring on the stump than Clinton, and an incomparably better orator than John McCain, whose speech after wrapping up the Republican nomination had all the verve of a POW reading a message written by his captors.

Then again, the burn rate for charisma can be dangerously fast in a campaign that slows to a long grind. If the presidency had been decided last month, Obama would’ve cruised to victory. But pundits no longer sigh like schoolgirls after each of his speeches. Indeed, I’ve recently heard them dredge up the lamest putdown in electoral history: “Where’s the beef?”

This delights Hillary, who, after months of attacking Obama for offering no more than “words,” finally sees this charge gaining purchase. It is, of course, unfair for Hillary to scoff that Obama’s only claim to experience is a speech he gave in 2002, especially when that Iraq speech was right. But her so-called red-phone commercial worked. It tapped into genuine fear, not so much of terrorism but of overhastily nominating a relative newcomer who might not be substantial enough for the job. One empty flight suit like George W. Bush is enough for any century. And the chuckleheaded worship of too many Obama admirers — “There is a sense of dignity, even majesty about him,” fawned Jann Wenner in Rolling Stone — actually makes his candidacy feel faddish, unserious, a media-created product.

It’s long been the rap on Obama that he isn’t enough of a “fighter.” Maybe not, but he does know how to slip a punch. When BillandHillary tried to outflank him by suggesting she’d make him her veep — dangling a dream ticket before the public and superdelegates — he scotched the idea. If she thought he wasn’t ready to be president, he noted, it was odd for her to offer him such a job.

So far, anyway, he’s been too shrewd to let Hillary draw him into a brawl, which would only sully his claim of embodying a new politics of hope. Obama never looks worse than when he’s putting people down — think of the churlish way he told Hillary, “You’re likable enough,” at that debate in New Hampshire. The same holds true of his supporters, like defrocked diplomatic adviser Samantha Power, whose remark that Hillary is a “monster” was hyperbole all the more maladroit coming from one who made her reputation as an expert on genocide.

Besides, Hillary isn’t a monster. She’s a Clinton, which isn’t quite the same thing. Being a Clinton means, of course, winning at all costs. Execute the retarded guy? Sure. Sign off on welfare reform you don’t believe in? Hand me the pen. Suggest that McCain’s more qualified to be president than your Democratic opponent who you cannot quite swear isn’t a Muslim? I’m Hillary Clinton and I approve this message.

If Barack is the latest avatar of JFK, history has cast Hillary as his Nixon. Although she is smart as heck and knows her stuff — only fools and bigots think her unqualified to be president — she’s an uninspired campaigner who engenders more irrational loathing in her detractors than heartfelt love in her supporters. Stunned to be losing to a lightweight who hasn’t paid his dues, she believes the media have been out to get her. And she’s not wrong. She’s routinely sneered at by everyone from columnist Maureen Dowd, the queen of catty nihilism, to all those TV news guys who’ve had a man-crush on cool kid Barack. (I keep wishing Obama would just bang Chris Matthews so the poor, love-struck sap could get back to his wife and kids.)

My kid sister calls the coverage of Hillary “Katrina for women” — meaning it’s exposed the shocking level of sexism still at work in our culture. Indeed, whole dissertations on misogyny could be written about the naked glee with which MSNBC’s liberal newsmen (even Keith Olbermann, for crying out loud) sat eagerly waiting for the New Hampshire results to bury her. But pop culture giveth and taketh away. The whole election may have been transformed by the return of Saturday Night Live, which launched the current cycle of sympathetic Hillary news stories.

Not that Hillary makes it easy to like her. Perpetually believing herself the aggrieved party, she has no qualms about being intellectually dishonest (grumbling about “undemocratic” caucuses only after you start losing them), acting graceless in defeat (pointedly failing to mention Obama’s primary victories, let alone congratulate him, in election-night speeches), or playing fast and loose with the rules. It’s no accident that she was the only Democrat not to take her name off the Michigan ballot, and no surprise that she now insists she should receive the delegates she “won.” But playing dirty doesn’t hurt a Clinton the way it would Obama, whose people have to worry about seeming to cry race over Geraldine Ferraro’s remarks. After all, people expect, and some secretly respect, the Clinton ruthlessness. They live in the real world. They play for keeps.

In any case, Hillary has no choice. It’s the sad irony of this gifted woman’s career that, because of her history with Bill, addiction to big money and self-serving vote on the Iraq war, the first female candidate with a real shot at the White House can’t make the idea of her presidency seem groundbreaking and new. (If she gets elected, though, it’ll suddenly feel epochal.) When she tried to run a positive campaign, she kept losing. What restored her fortunes in Ohio and Texas was her appeal to our cynicism, her suggestion that deep down, Obama is as dirty, dishonest and unreliable as every other politician. Cue the Eliot Spitzer tape.

“We’re all hustling scum,” her campaign now tacitly says, “so, why not vote for the one who has the best health plan and has already survived the Republican attack machine?”

Not a message to inspire the young, I grant you, but it may prove the right one — for winning game six, anyway.

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