Let's hear it for the party of Tomorrow Land

The things people will do in politics. You would think that after eight years as Bill Clinton's attorney- general - during which she weathered such personal horrors as the 1993 Waco assault (in which 74 men, women and children died in the operation personally ordered by her against the Branch Davidian cult), plus impossible Clintonian judicial landmines such as the Monica sagas - Janet Reno would be glad to retire back home to the Florida sunshine. Visibly ailing from Parkinson's disease, she will be 65 next year; for a decade, she has been a national figure seized upon by cartoonists who dwell on her height (6ft 2ins), apparent burly manliness, and rumoured lesbianism (totally untrue, I am told).

But no. Last month, Janet Reno got in a red truck and for 15 days drove 2,700 miles around Florida, at the end of which she promptly fainted. She appeared on Tonight with Jay Leno, the nation's most watched late-night talk show. And following last month's Oscar ceremonies, she even went to a Hollywood party given by Elton John.

In recent months, she has spoken at 19 local Democratic Party events, to 18 women's groups, 19 black groups, and to three gay and lesbian organisations. In the first quarter of this year, she raised $359,000 to bring her total of political funds up to $1.01m, all to fulfil what has become virtually a personal obsession: to defeat Jeb Bush, governor of Florida and younger brother of Boy George, who is up for re-election this November (along with a third of senators, all representatives, and a dozen or so governors).

Last weekend (12-14 April), 2,500 delegates attended the Democratic Party convention for Florida - ground zero for this year's mid-term elections, as it was last year and will be again in the presidential elections in 2004. Hopefuls for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2004 such as Al Gore (yes, Al's back!), and senators Joe Lieberman, John Kerry and John Edwards (the bright young man I have previously tipped for stardom) were there, sniffing the political winds. But more of Gore et al later.

In order to become the Democratic nominee who will take on Jeb Bush in November, Reno will have to defeat three other possible Democratic candidates in a primary on 10 September - a date in 2002, we can be sure, when minds in America will mostly be elsewhere. But her only opponent with a chance is a lawyer from Tampa named Bill McBride; he has raised more than Reno (his campaign coffers currently hold $1.15m), but has so little charisma that he is already known to many in Florida as Bill McBoring. Importantly, though, he has the backing of the Florida branch of the AFL-CIO union federation. But if her health stands up - an open question, given her illness, age and recent bouts of fainting - the nomination should be Reno's when she officially declares that she is a candidate.

The stakes are high. Florida has enormous symbolic value because Jeb Bush presided over the 36-day electoral fiasco that handed the presidency to his brother; moreover, Florida now has two more seats in the House, creating a record total for the state of 25. So who will win?

Bush has raised considerably more money than either Democrat hopeful ($2.37m in the first quarter of 2002, bringing his total to $4.38m - half a million of which was raised at a DC dinner featuring Boy George). And money always speaks loudly in US politics. But in 1998, Bush gained only 120,000 more votes than the Republicans garnered in the previous gubernatorial election in 1994; the Democrats got 361,800 fewer votes. In the 2000 elections, black turnout rose by 50 per cent compared with 1996; and blacks vote Democrat in overwhelming numbers. If Reno, with her national fame - facing a not universally popular Kid Jeb - can narrow that gap, her trips in the red truck may yet pay off.

The signs are that Boy George does not carry what American politicos call political "coat-tails" - a personal following that carries over to candidates of the same party - and his post-11 September approval rates, while still sky-high, are beginning to drop.

Boy George himself made his 16th political fundraising trip to Iowa last Monday ("My most important job is to make sure people don't hit America, to make sure we're secure" - we can see what his campaigning line will be this year), with the specific aim of the Republicans unseating the old Democratic warhorse Senator Tom Harkin; Republicans have only to make one such net gain to regain control of the Senate. Dick Cheney, meanwhile, was fundraising in the electoral heartland of Illinois.

And Al Gore? I was speaking to a senior ambassador here last week - don't worry, I don't mean you, Sir Christopher Meyer - and he is confident that the Democratic nomination will go to Gore's previous running mate, Senator Joe Lieberman. But Lieberman has said unequivocally that he will not run if Gore does. And, as I have predicted here, there is every possibility that Gore will attempt a comeback.

The trouble with Gore is that he can be the most lacklustre speaker on earth, or a positively dazzling, charismatic figure; and you are never sure which Al you're going to get.

The Floridians found Gore in sparkling form at the state convention: "They're the party of Fantasy Land, we're the party of Tomorrow Land," Gore roared. "We're the party of Main Street, USA, they're the party of the Pirates of Enron." Now clean-shaven after several months with a beard, Smug Al was back on the national scene. And we can start looking forward to what seemed impossible in the months after 11 September: a good, old-fashioned, mud-slinging election in 2002, with Florida as ground zero.

12 issues for £12