Democrats are so sure Americans want a change from the eight years they have endured under President Bush that the party thinks winning back the White House from the Republicans is virtually guaranteed.

But only if the right nominee is chosen for the office.

Barely a month into the calendar of caucuses and primaries, the field has been winnowed. Gone are Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich. Quixotic is the only way to describe Mike Gravel's campaign heading to Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, when more than 20 states, including New Jersey and Delaware, will hold their caucuses and primaries.

John Edwards' hopes had hinged on the outcome of yesterday's primary in his home state of South Carolina. On the party's ticket for vice president in 2004, Edwards' populist style might have made him a formidable candidate in any other presidential election.

But not this one.

This year it's been hard for anyone to get traction against two candidates who would make history no matter which one is nominated - Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In them, Democrats could choose as their nominee either the first woman or the first African American to become president.

But the choice is hard.

In some respects, Clinton is much better prepared than was her husband, Bill, when he, as Arkansas governor, was elected president in 1992. The senator from New York could be a strong leader, comparable to Britain's Margaret Thatcher, but with a compassion for children's issues that could glue the nation's focus on its most precious asset.

But in an election where change is the operative word, would the former first lady represent that? After two Bush presidencies, many Americans don't see change in a Clinton dynasty. Hillary's high negatives in polls may have more to do with her husband's behavior as president than anything she has done since. But those negatives suggest she could be a catalyst for division when the nation longs for unity.

Given that, BARACK OBAMA is the best Democrat to lead this nation past the nasty, partisan, Washington-as-usual politics that have blocked consensus on Iraq; politics that never blinked at the greedy, subprime mortgage schemes that could spawn a recession; politics that have greatly diminished our country's stature in the world.

Obama inspires people to action. And while inspiration alone isn't enough to get a job done, it's a necessary ingredient to begin the hard work.

Obama's appeal to Americans to have the audacity to hope, even in the face of tragedies such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, has fallen on fertile ground. Americans want desperately to believe they can overcome any difficulty - given the right leadership.

But the Illinois senator has shown on the campaign trail that he offers more than pretty words. In debates and speeches, he has provided details of a White House program that, with adjustments, could produce the outcomes this nation needs.

On the war, Obama wants to have all combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months, while maintaining a force in the region for targeted strikes on al-Qaeda. On the economy, he proposes tax credits for working families and a mortgage credit to help lower-income homeowners. He proposes a national health insurance exchange to help individuals purchase coverage. He wants to do better than No Child Left Behind to improve education.

The question is whether a first-term U.S. senator with no major record as an Illinois legislator is ready to be president. His life story says yes. This former community organizer knows how to bring people together to beat the odds. Others who seemed an unlikely fit rose to the occasion once in the Oval Office. Obama could do that, too.