How do you like your American presidents?
It's not an idle question, particularly for Democratic voters in this election cycle.
Because their choice is becoming ever clearer with every debate and every week of campaign appearances. It's competence against inspiration, experience against emotion, a comprehensive catalog of policies against a call for revolution.CommentaryOpinion: Bernie Sanders' run is no fairy taleMore coverageOpinion and analysis about the 2016 presidential campaign
It's Hillary against Bernie.
And lately, it's been going well for Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
I'm certainly not the first to observe that 2016 is beginning to look a little like 2008 for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Only now, it's not Barack Obama's deft footsteps she's hearing but noisy gallumping of Sanders.
The differences between the two leading contenders for the Democratic nomination were drawn sharply right from the opening statements during Sunday night's debate in the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina.
Clinton said the country needs a president who "can do all aspects of the job."
Sanders said we not only have to elect a president, we have to transform the country.
What's your flavor?
For young people, it's Sanders, who they prefer by a 2-1 margin in polling. When asked last night how she would better engage the young, Clinton essentially recited a list of proposals they would like. And when asked why she still was trailing by that margin, she said she'd continue to work hard to reach all people and "show my experience."
I'm sure that went over well with those young folks.
This is a fraught moment for Clinton. The aura of inevitably she has worn like armor is cracked and dented. Sanders is virtually even with her in Iowa polling and he's ahead in New Hampshire. He cited that narrowing gap Sunday night, as well as their respective strength in a general election against Donald Trump (yes, he polls better). But he still trails in the mostly Southern primaries that follow, and Clinton's national lead is strong and growing, according to an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday.
She's hoping competence and experience prevail, even as anxious voters look for someone to shake things up, and even as the trustworthiness issue has affixed itself to her like a grape juice stain. Regrets, she has a few, for sure -- such as not going after Sanders harder and earlier and, perhaps, not having had more televised debates in more times of higher viewership. Because she's pretty good at them, as she reminds us most times she's in one.
She won on gun control Sunday night, and showed herself again to have more mastery on foreign affairs. Sanders won on the subject of Wall Street, though, banging away on her speaking fees from Goldman Sachs and campaign contributions from big banks in general in making the argument that it's difficult to expect her to really go after them.
But their most telling exchange, perhaps, was on health care. Sanders the dreamer wants health care for everyone, and even released details -- finally, two hours before the debate -- about how to pay for it that did not sound crazy. Clinton the pragmatist said simply that there is no possibility that his plan can move forward (even though she disingenuously referred to it in comparison to Obamacare as "starting over"). She's right. Sanders' plan would be dead on arrival. Which doesn't make it a bad idea, just one that has no chance of becoming reality anytime soon.
So who won?
The answer probably depends on whom you favored going in. Clinton certainly was helped by a very friendly audience that seemed eager to applaud for her whenever it got a chance. Sanders stoked his own fans' fire, with his hands carving wide swaths in the air as he bellowed, "Here's the point!"
And former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley continued to provide no rationale for why he's still in the race.
Perhaps Clinton and Sanders each managed to keep their own needle moving -- Sanders in the first two states, Clinton in the South and across the nation. Most campaigns swing between highs and lows, every bit of data becomes a Rosetta Stone, and you just want to keep the momentum going. But at this point, as with the Republicans, we need the voting to begin. Iowa's caucuses are barely two weeks away. New Hampshire follows quickly.
Then we’ll start finding out how Americans like their presidents ... in those first two votes, anyway.
Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.