Potomac High

You knew Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in high school. At least I did. They were candidates in the student senate election. She was the worthy but puffed-up Miss Perfect, all poodle skirts and multicolored binders clutched to her chest. He was the lanky, mysterious transfer student—from Hawaii by way of Indonesia no less—who Knew Things and was way too cool to carry more than one book at a time. Who would be leader of the pack?

Presidential elections are high school writ large, of course, and that is especially true when, as now, much of the early nomination race is based in the U.S. Capitol. It is even more the case when the party in question, and here we are talking about the Democrats, is not sharply divided ideologically.They have a good chance in '08 to oust the fading prep/jock/ROTC/Up With People alliance.

The Capitol's tile-floored, chandeliered corridors are clammy with adolescent posturing and intrigue.

Hillary thought she had the thing wired through sheer hard work and a certain earnest charm. She had filled out 3x5 cards about each student, mimeographed position papers on the graffiti problem, traded in her thick glasses for those new-fangled contacts and, of course, pulled down straight A's in all the AP classes.

As she saw it, she had outmaneuvered all of those big-talking boys who loved to hear the sound of their own voices (think Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and John Kerry). There was that handsome John Edwards to contend with, and he was as industrious as she was, but he was too handsome, and she assumed that she was tougher than he was. Besides, she had convinced that cute Evan Bayh to be her junior-prom date and escort her to the assembly in the auditorium.

Then Obama showed up. He was new, he was smooth, he was skinny, he was smart, but not in-your-face about it. The girls flocked to him, of course—that grin!—but so did the guys, because he had Game. His promised to Change Everything, and yet there was something calming about him—but also something that told you he might fade away as quickly as he materialized.

At least he was not like that crazy Al Gore, who had been the ultimate goody-goody but who had grown a beard, made a film and dropped out to attend the School Without Walls.

The high-school musical played out in real life this week—and over the most serious of issues, the war in Iraq.

Edwards, in what amounted to the start of the '08 Democratic race, took a shot at Senate-based candidates (though he himself is a former senator). "Silence is betrayal," he said. "Speak out and stop the escalation now. You have the power, members of Congress, to prohibit this president from spending money to escalate this war."

Senator Clinton chose to take it personally, sending her master spinner, Howard Wolfson, out to denounce Edwards for cheap-shot rhetoric and pie-in-the-sky thinking.

The next day Obama filed papers to join the race, promising to change The System (with the attendant implication that no one embodies The System more than a Clinton). Obama added that we are "mired in a tragic and costly war that should never have been waged"—one that Clinton voted to authorize in 2002.

Responding to the Edwards and Obama moves, Clinton came armed to a press conference in the Capitol with insights gleaned from a quick trip to Iraq and with a new plan of her own: a cap on troop strength, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2007—and a new mechanism to pressure the Iraqi government to crack down.

Candidates such as Edwards and Obama, she implied, were mouthing irresponsible rhetoric about cutting spending for the war while she (and only she) had the safety of the troops in mind. "I am cursed with the responsibility gene," she said archly. "I am. I admit to that. You've got to be very careful in how you proceed with any combat situation in which American lives are at stake."

She was impressively presidential in her studious, almost censorious, way—carefully attired in deep red, her tone competent, severe and ready to take on all comers.

Yet she also was the kid we know from high school: the one who claims to be the only "adult" in the 11th grade. Sometimes they are cheered. Sometimes they are booed. Sometimes—and this is the worst fate—they get laughed at silently.