Debates about debates are common in campaigns, but that is no ordinary invitation Hillary Clinton is extending to Barack Obama. It's a gang-girl taunt when she tells a big rally she will go anywhere, anytime for a throwdown.
She offers to do it without a moderator, just the two of them asking and answering questions. Stripped of her gauzy spin that it could be like Lincoln-Douglas, she's really challenging him to a bareknuckle punchout. On TV.
It's what a schoolyard tough would do: Knock on a rival's door and dare him to come out and fight on the street. Right here, right now. No rules, just a slugfest, you and me.
She does it because she needs to bloody Obama to win. And because she knows she can kick his butt in a debate.
Obama says no to her because he thinks he can win the nomination without facing her. He also knows she can kick his butt one on one.
This much they agree on: She's tougher than he is. So she wins the debate on debates by demanding one that he ducks.
Welcome to yet another defining moment in the Long March toward the Democratic nomination. He's soft and wounded and she's nasty and desperate.
Sixteen months after it started in glory, the Dem fight has fallen to Snob-ama vs. the Obliterator, the Unelectable vs. the Unlikable. Yuck.
The last debate was a disaster for Obama, his unpersuasive answers on key questions contributing to her big Pennsylvania win. The results, the first since the inflammatory comments of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright surfaced and Obama made his sneering reference to small-town American values, fueled big doubts about whether he can beat John McCain in November.
Clinton smells blood and wants to get on the same stage with him again. If she can attract the huge TV audience of the last debate - more than 10 million people watched - she'll reach all the uncommitted superdelegates as well as voters in the May 6 primary states of Indiana and North Carolina and beyond.
Although her fierce attacks on Obama are pushing her negative ratings into the danger zone even among Democrats, she has little choice. The delegate math is against her and time is running out. A loss in Indiana, where she should win, could finish her next week. A blowout by him in North Carolina, where he is favored, could also end it.
In fact, she could lose the nomination even if she keeps winning primaries and pulls out a narrow win in the total popular vote. That's because Obama is quietly closing in on a majority of delegates.
According to Real Clear Politics, Obama now has 1,727 total delegates to Clinton's 1,592. There are about 400 pledged delegates available in the remaining contests, with 187 up for grabs May 6.
Assume Clinton and Obama split the 400, adding 200 each to their totals. He would then have 1,927 - just 98 short of the 2,025 needed for the nomination. She would have 1,792, or 233 from a majority.
With about 300 uncommitted superdelegates left to pick the winner, Clinton would need almost 80% of them to get a majority, while Obama would need only 33%.
All of which means that if Obama does get pushed into a debate, he better make her walk through a metal detector. The lady might be wearing brass knuckles.