"Is it the End?" the headline on the Drudge Report screams, above a picture of the sober Hillary?

"Is Huckabee the One?" it might also have asked, given the news just below that he is now leading in South Carolina and Florida, as well as Iowa, and that New Hampshire seems to be coming down to a two-man race between the former Arkansas governor who sermonizes against the tenets of Mormonism and the former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, who has been stuck defending his faith when it should be Huckabee defending his.

Has the world gone nuts?

Or rather, has the small universe of voters in early states, and political junkie reporters who cover them, smoked something the rest of us don't have access to?

It is the week before Christmas, with only days left for anyone to focus, even remotely, on politcs before the holidays hit, the games (I mean bowl games, not political ones) begin, and then this train is going to go careening out of the station whether it's on track or not.

Hold on.

For the last week, I've had the "luxury" (believe me, it's not) of following the political race the way most normal people do, which is as a sideline and not an obsession. I've been in the middle of being a lawyer in a federal criminal trial in Boston, in which life and liberty are on the line, and my client is totally dependent on me to protect his rights under the Constitution, so I haven't been making multiple phone calls every day to collect tidbits from Iowa and New Hampshire, or scouring every website and poll and paper for the latest crumbs. I've read the headlines, glanced at the news, satisfied myself with the summaries. I've been "normal" when it comes to politics, if there is such a thing.

And I've come to understand, with a clarity I haven't had in years, how ridiculous and absurd my usual vocation is. What have I learned this week, this critical week, when we are approaching the last days of the regular season?

The biggest news has been the blabber from a Hillary Clinton volunteer best known for being the husband of a former New Hampshire governor about what the Republicans could do in a general election to Obama based on his admissions that he used marijuana and cocaine as a young person. He said it, ignited a firestorm, then Hillary had to apologize, then he resigned from a position that was not a job to begin with, but just a title he shared with countless other people you've never heard of and won't unless they say something equally stupid.

Is this what's moving the numbers? Can you imagine anything more ridiculous?

Am I forgetting about any details of who drove Judith Nathan Giuliani where in the early days of her tryst with the former New York mayor, or what he did or didn't know about his police commissioner's illicit affair with his girlfriend and publisher Judith Regan? I have many issues with Rudy Giuliani, dating back from his days as a political U.S. Attorney who marched Wall Streeters off in handcuffs, destroying their reputations based on allegations that never even made it to trial, but if Bill Clinton's personal life is out of bounds, and I've always argued that it should be, then so should Rudy's.

If his then-wife and still-kids want to hold the sneaking around against him, which they have every right to, that's their business, but the rest of us should have no beef with the New York Police Department doing everything in its power to keep him safe regardless of where he was going or with whom. Can it really be that this, and not his failings as a prosecutor or a mayor, not the way victims were treated in the wake of 9/11 or the escalating racial tensions in the city during his tenure as mayor, is the reason he is fading as a presidential candidate?

Exactly what are we looking for here? Or, rather, what are the people in Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina looking for?

If you look at the national polls, you'll see that nothing has really changed. Hillary is still ahead, and so is Rudy, last time I checked. But national polls don't matter, the political pundits tell us, rightly and wrongly. It's not that they shouldn't matter -- what the country as a whole thinks should count, by any logic, in a contest that will ultimately be decided by the country as a whole. But that's not how the contenders are picked. It's as if the playoffs for the World Series were conducted in a different language, by a different set of rules, requiring totally different skills or strengths.

I'm not worried about Barack Obama's drug use as a kid. I'm worried about whether the country will ultimately be willing to elect as president a guy they'd never even heard of three years ago, when he was still a state senator in Illinois, a guy who decided after 104 weeks in the United States Senate that he was ready to be President. But I'm less worried about that than I would be were I a Republican facing a general election with a nominee who doesn't believe in Darwin, reads the Bible literally, has no foreign policy experience at all and doesn't think his past sermons should be made public. Oh yes, and did I mention the rapist he let out who then killed a woman?

I've always liked those stories, particularly when it turns out that his aides may have had political motivations, and conservative talk show hosts led the campaign for the guy. Willie Horton returns -- as a Republican. Imagine what an independent group could do with him! You won't need a swift boat to sink him, a slow one will do just fine. But his Republican opponents, in a process that is sufficiently insular that the religious right exercises the kind of power it never would in a general election, are wary of taking him on about such things, in the way he surely would be attacked in a general election, for fear of alienating the base.

What is wrong with this picture? Everything.

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

A woman of firsts, she was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign (Dukakis). Estrich is committed to paving the way for women to assume positions of leadership.

Books by Estrich include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders." Her book "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women," is a departure from her other works, encouraging women to take care of themselves by engaging the mind to fight for a healthy body. Her latest book, The Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Sex & Power," takes an impassioned look at the division of power between men and women in the American workforce, proving that the idea of gender equality is still just an idea.