America - Andrew Stephen checks out the Democrat hopefuls

To the alarm of Clintonistas, Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt are fighting an old-style battle for the

It's creeping up on us. Will it be Howard Dean - the preppy, short-tempered, 55-year-old doctor - taking on Boy George for the US presidency next year? Or John Kerry, the Vietnam war hero who became one of the nation's fiercest anti-Vietnam protesters before being elected to the Senate - and who is already talking of his bout with prostate cancer in schmaltzy election ads? Or Dick Gephardt, the 62-year-old safe pair of hands who has been in the House of Representatives since 1977 - and who is prattling on about his son's successful fight against cancer 31 years ago? Or will it be any of six others, three of whom also have a fighting chance?

Suddenly looming large are the Iowa caucuses on 19 January, when Democrats will emerge from what used to be called smoke-filled rooms to announce their choice. Eight days later, New Hampshire's 1.2 million voters (95 per cent of them white) will have a ludicrously influential effect on which candidate is chosen. By the end of February, 23 states (plus DC) will have held caucuses or primaries and - if we have not guessed already - we should know for sure who Boy George's foe will be.

It is all complicated by the way the six candidates with a chance are tactically fighting for different states. Senator Joe Lieberman, for example, has announced that he is saving his ammunition for after New Hampshire, much to the fury of New Hampshire. General Wesley Clark and Senator John Edwards - at 50, the youngest of the pack - are looking forward to 3 February, when they hope, as southerners, that South Carolina will launch them as glamour-boy presidential candidates. It used to be that any candidate who lost both Iowa and New Hampshire stood no chance - although both Reagan and Clinton lost there initially - but the stakes are higher this time around.

In Iowa, it has already settled into a straight fight between Dean and Gephardt; if Dean beats Gephardt in Iowa and then Kerry in New Hampshire, the candidature will almost certainly be his. He and Gephardt, to the alarm of Clintonistas and middle-of-the-road Democrats, are fighting an old-fashioned battle for the left of the party - no Third Way for them. Both have courted the trade union vote. Polls show Gephardt is appealing to the working class and the elderly, while better-off Democrats are going for Dean - who is leading.

Dean has raced ahead from the back of the field by relentlessly attacking Boy George; he has the great advantage of having been against the Iraq war from the beginning, while Kerry, Gephardt, Lieberman and Edwards all voted for it. Dean is an unusual candidate in that he is not presenting himself as a warm, fuzzy family man, but is keeping his private life to himself - and his wife, Judith Steinberg, has quietly pursued her own medical career rather than appearing on stages with her husband. Staunch Democrats love the way Dean is going for George Bush's jugular; last month, he lambasted Bush for having "no understanding of defence", conducting diplomacy by "petulance" and lacking "the backbone to stand up to the Saudis".

I am not sure, though, that I would choose Dean as the doctor to tell me I have a serious disease. He is abrupt to the point of rudeness and finds it difficult to apologise for the mistakes any candidate on the road inevitably makes. He is the scion of Wall Street bankers - a surprising figure to pop up on the left. The great danger for Democrats, though, is that his left-wing aggression could turn off the mass of middle-core voters.

Meanwhile, Kerry has already sacked one campaign manager and Lieberman has failed to raise sufficient funds. Edwards is looking too gauche for a post-11 September election. Although Clark squandered early momentum by contradicting himself over support for the war, a Dean-Clark ticket is a distinct prospect. However, both men lack the immediate likeability that, say, Clinton had on the campaign trail.

And Bush is already on a ruthless warpath. Much is made of Dean's internet and e-mail support, but Dubbya already has six million registered e-mail supporters (ten times those of Dean), along with almost bottomless coffers. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Bush has shown what sort of presidential campaign his will be by launching a series of television ads. Over funereal music, a solemn voice intones: "Some are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists. Some call us to retreat, putting our national security in the hands of others." The lettering on screen turns to red when "terrorists" flashes up.

So if Dean secures the Democratic Party's nomination, the presidential election will become a referendum on the war in Iraq. If Bush's frantic plans for Iraqification work and America's presence in Iraq is seen to recede, Dean will lose. But if Americans are still being killed at the current rate, we can expect to see President-elect Dean this time next year. It's not as far off, or as impossible, as it might now seem.