Danger! Dan Quayle is in control

So the Republicans have spent this week furiously boxing themselves ever deeper into their own quagmire, as outlined here last week. The very day that Congressman Bill McCollum (a middle-aged white man and former small-town lawyer, like all the other dozen " prosecutors" of Bill Clinton) was going on and on about " body parts" (ie, who touched whom where and when), and as the Pope was simultaneously flying in to bestow his blessings on St Bill, Washington political talk turned, naturally, to the latest poll.

It revealed that 43 per cent of Republican voters now think the impeachment circus is harmful: with a plus or minus error margin of 10 per cent, that could mean that more than half of Republican voters are opposed to what their leaders are doing. With their solid grass-roots bases eroding fast, how long will it be, I wonder, before Republican senators are clinging to helicopters evacuating them from the Capitol?

But they can relax. Help is at hand. Charging triumphantly to the rescue is none other than J Danforth Quayle, 44th US vice-president, and now presidential hopeful.

"It's going to be different . . . this time around, running for president," he says. "I will be in control." Phew! Republican strategists can now mop their brows with relief at the prospect of the steady hand of Quayle at the tiller, guiding their party and the nation. I jest: they are, of course, wringing their hands with despair over the internecine warfare in Republican ranks, the full extent of which is not yet publicly understood. Poor Quayle, though, could hardly do a worse job than the party's congressional leaders and has even let them know that. Indeed, other Republican presidential aspirants for next year have also been looking with dismay at what is happening in the Capitol.

I've never ruled out that Monicagate could yet blow up fatally in Clinton's face (or should it be the other way round? - sorry, either way, that's an unfortunate analogy). Increasingly, though, the battleground is moving towards next year's elections. They are fast becoming Clinton's obsession, in fact. He does not want to go down in history merely as the only elected US president to be impeached. I'm told he now firmly believes that the solid achievement for which he will - and would like to - be remembered is that, next year, he will deliver not just the White House, but also Congress, to the Democrats. And that was shown by his State of the Union address, when he pledged populist policies which he knows the Republicans will never come close to letting through.

In not much more than a year, we will probably know who the two main presidential candidates to lead America into the next millennium will be; until now, it has often been well into the spring before two clear leaders emerged. Elections traditionally begin in January in the icy towns and streets of Iowa and New Hampshire, with candidates actually meeting the people, shaking hands and standing on soapboxes as snowflakes fall around them. But now the crucial states - California, New York, Florida and Texas - have decided they will not let these hokey backwaters steal their thunder, and so have moved their primaries forward to 7 March (New York and California) and 14 March (Florida and Texas).

This means that any candidate must already have at least $20 million in the bag to prepare for the hugely expensive and necessary television blitzes in the big states - this time, before Iowa and New Hampshire have pinpointed the likely winners and eliminated other hitherto anointed front-runners. For the Democrats, Al Gore can be confident of his party's nomination. His only opponent of any stature so far, a 55-year-old former senator called Bill Bradley (whose main claim to fame is that he was once a professional basketball star), is unlikely to be able to raise that kind of money. Bradley is decent but boring. Gore is not only boring, but smug with it; he's also vulnerable in the current snooping over campaign financing.

The battle on the Republican side is much more interesting. Conventional wisdom has it that George Bush Jr (currently governor of Texas) is the leading candidate, though I am not so sure. He is not a born pleaser like his father and younger brother Jeb (governor of Florida, younger, more ambitious and brighter) and he has a complex past in the tricky areas of women, drugs and alcohol. Candidate number two is Liddy Dole, wife of Bob (now publicly championing Viagra, by the way). She is clever - more so than her husband - but has no heavyweight political track record and no known political convictions (not a barrier these days).

The candidate who could really give the Republican Party the shake-up it desperately needs - and who I think may be the political wild card here in the next 15 months - is Senator John McCain, 62. His age is against him and he has not led a pristine private life. But he does have genuine principles, going against the Republican grain (for example) to become a major foe of the tobacco giants. He also endured six years' torture and imprisonment in Hanoi as a prisoner of war at the hands of the Vietcong and - now that we are moving into the prime era of draft-dodging baby-boomers on both sides, politically - being a genuine war hero is hardly a disadvantage.

So watch this space. The return of Dan Quayle, sundry Bushes and Doles making comebacks, Republicans everywhere self-destructing, a fiery former PoW finally let loose, Exocets whizzing around Bill Clinton's head for the foreseeable future (Juanitagate, to which I briefly alluded a few weeks ago, may hit the newsstands soon): it's all on the menu for 1999, and the year's hardly begun.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.