In his 12.2 op-ed piece called “Who’s Afraid of Barack Obama?,” N.Y. Times columnist Frank Rich suggests that “the standard narrative of Campaign 2008” is being turned “on its head” by Obama’s surge in recent weeks, and from that hypothesizes that if Obama “were to best [Hillary] Clinton for the Democratic nomination, he may prove harder for the Republicans to rally against and defeat than the all-powerful, battle-tested Clinton machine.

“The unspoken truth is that the Clinton machine is not being battle-tested at all by the Democratic primary process. When Mrs. Clinton accused John Edwards of ‘throwing mud’ and ‘personally’ attacking her in a sharp policy exchange in one debate, the press didn’t challenge the absurd hyperbole of her claim.

“In reality, neither Mr. Edwards nor any other Democratic competitor will ever hit her with the real, personal mud being stockpiled by the right. But if she’s getting a bye now, she will not from the Republican standard-bearer, whoever he may be. Clinton-bashing is the last shared article of faith (and last area of indisputable G.O.P. competence) that could yet unite the fractured and dispirited conservative electorate.

“The Republicans know this and are so psychologically invested in refighting the Clinton wars that they’re giddy. Karl Rove’s first column for Newsweek last week, ‘How to Beat Hillary (Next) November,’ proceeded from the premise that her nomination was a done deal. In the G.O.P. debates through last Thursday, the candidates mentioned the Clintons some 65 times. Barack Obama’s name has not been said once.

“But much like the Clinton campaign itself, the Republicans have fallen into a trap by continuing to cling to the Hillary-is-inevitable trope. They have not allowed themselves to think the unthinkable — that they might need a Plan B to go up against a candidate who is not she. It’s far from clear that they would remotely know how to construct a Plan B to counter Mr. Obama.”