What's next — crop circles?

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Maybe it's the rush of pre-Christmas preparations. Or maybe it's the effects of too many holiday parties. But life has suddenly become very confusing on the way to the 2008 presidential election.

A bit over a week ago, almost everything seemed normal. True, Mike Huckabee had come out of nowhere, trailing clouds of piety and home-schooled wisdom, to seize the lead among Republicans contending in Iowa. And thousands of Oprah-crazed Barack Obama fans were threatening to dethrone Mrs. Hillary before Loyal Spouse Bill could ride to the rescue. But upsets are par for the course out in the cornfields.

Then on a Wednesday afternoon, it turned very weird. The Republican candidates trooped into the studios of Iowa Public Television and there among them, beaming contentedly, was Alan Keyes. His path to the White House had hit a bit of a bump back in 2004, when he lost decisively to Obama for the Senate in Illinois. And he had not been heard from since. But The Des Moines Register, the debate sponsor, discovered unsuspected potential in the firebrand screecher, and installed him in the lineup of nine contenders.

As if that were not enough to sabotage the real candidates, the Register's editor and debate moderator, whose stern visage brooked no disagreement, declared in her introduction that Iraq and immigration were off the agenda — ostensibly because they had already been discussed enough. The thought that those were the topics that people most cared to hear aired at the final debate before the Jan. 3 caucuses apparently had not occurred to her.

As a result, the only highlight of the next 90 minutes was Fred Thompson's bravely refusing her order to all the candidates to raise their hands to demonstrate that they believed in global warming. Thompson's show of courage was widely viewed as jump-starting his campaign — or at least hopping it a bit.

He needed help because Huckabee was endorsed about that time by the head of the Minutemen, the folks who prowl the border looking for illegal immigrants. Huckabee had earlier questioned their motives, but that was before the Minutemen found their way into his camp. Now, he could see they were swell fellas.

The next day, the same editor who had managed the Republican debate put six Democrats through their paces, with equally undramatic results. But for inexplicable reasons, Dennis Kucinich was excluded. His followers protested, apparently unwilling to accept that Keyes was an adequate alternative in the category of implausible eccentrics.

No one won the Democratic debate either, so some newspapers then began an intensive drive to instruct the voters on how to cast their ballots. That is when it got really confusing.

The Des Moines Register endorsed Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Sen. McCain has campaigned everywhere promising victory in Iraq, no matter how long it takes; Clinton has campaigned everywhere promising that "If President Bush doesn't end this war, when I'm president, I will."

Only a newspaper that could find Alan Keyes a credible candidate but bar Kucinich at the door could endorse both McCain and Clinton.

But that was just the beginning of the fun. The Boston Globe endorsed McCain and Obama — Obama being one of the few Democrats even less sympathetic to McCain's Iraq views than Clinton. Obama's claim to fame is that he was against the Iraq War almost before McCain decided that toppling Hussein was a nifty idea.

Now, the Globe, which is loved by the liberals in southern New Hampshire, finds itself supporting the same Republican as the Union Leader in Manchester, the longtime voice of Granite State conservatives. Let's hope the two sets of editors never meet.

And then to top it off came Sen. Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's Democratic running mate for vice president in 2000, now newly minted as McCain's endorser. And Al From, the head of the Democratic Leadership Council and longtime defender of all things Lieberman, said he was "very saddened" that his man would endorse a — gulp — Republican. That's like Roy Rogers saying he was "saddened" to discover that Trigger was a mule.

It's going to be a crazy Christmas.

David Broder is a reporter and columnist for The Washington Post. E-mail him at davidbroder@washpost.com.

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