America - Andrew Stephen hears of Cheney standing down

Democrats despair of John Kerry's wooden performances, while Washington is rife with rumours that Di

Here is the news. Rummy is soon going to resign, pushed over the side by a Bush administration that desperately wants to remodel its image before election day on 2 November. A second resignation, on spurious health grounds, will be of our Dick as vice-president: he will be replaced by Tom Ridge, currently head of the Department of Homeland Security. One of the three Purple Hearts awarded to John Kerry for being wounded three times in Vietnam will become controversial. And Osama Bin Laden will be captured before 2 November.

Probably none of these things will happen, but they were predicted to me in all seriousness by a powerful Republican here. I also had a visit from a very upset Bush-Cheney volunteer worker, who said that morale at HQ was plunging by the day - that chaos reigned and that he believed George W Bush would lose in November.

The Republicans are running scared - but then so are the Democrats. The outcome of the election will almost certainly depend on events (in the US itself or Iraq or Afghanistan, say) that have not yet happened, and which cannot be foreseen with any certainty. In the meantime, panic reigns on both sides.

It all depends, for both parties, on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. A poll out last Tuesday, when the Democratic convention in Boston was in its second day, showed that Kerry had lost ground significantly to Bush in the month before the convention; the poll had Bush at 48, Kerry at 46, and Ralph Nader on 3 per cent. More worryingly for the Democrats, a clear majority of voters now say they share Bush's "values", and four out of ten thought that Kerry was "too liberal" (using a word that in America is a term of abuse). The Bush-Cheney team has been blanketing the country with negative ads against Kerry since March, and the signs are that this is paying off: Kerry is increasingly perceived as a liberal flip-flopper.

Even the television ratings have been disappointing for Kerry. The networks have drastically cut their live coverage of the conventions this year. In 1976, Americans watched 11 hours of the jamborees; four years ago, they watched five; in 2004, they are seeing only three. Early audience ratings, too, showed that on the first night - when Al Gore, Jimmy Carter and both Clintons spoke - significantly fewer watched than in 2000. This is bad news for Kerry: polls are showing that a significant proportion of Americans still know little or nothing about him, and he needs all the favourable publicity he can get.

By this time in 1992, Bill Clinton had a clearly defined message for voters: "It's the economy, stupid" was literally pinned up on his campaign walls. In contrast, Kerry is wordy and has no distinct message; his artificially gleaming white teeth look out of place in his melancholy, weather-beaten face. If the popular vote this year was to be exactly the same as in 2000, Kerry would lose the electoral college vote by a much wider margin than Gore did; population shifts favour Bush, who would comfortably win by 278 votes against 260 for Kerry. And Nader, without whom Al Gore would be president today, seems poised to play the same spoiler role for the Democrats as he did in 2000.

Yet Bush's prospects are equally uncertain. Washington is rife with gossip about the administration, and it has not been possible to go anywhere in the capital in the past month without hearing from people who know that Cheney will be replaced.

We have to wait more than another month for the Republican convention in New York in September - a place and date both cynically chosen so that Bush, as he launches the final stage of his campaign, can bask in the reflected glory of the 11 September ceremonies. But events - the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, reports from the Senate intelligence committee and the 9/11 commission - have not been working in his favour. In the past half-century, only three sitting presidents at the same stage in the electoral year scored ratings as low as the ones Bush is pulling: they were Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and George H W Bush. All three lost power.

There is a more obscure finding of the polls, meanwhile, which shows how dangerous it is for either side to assume that victory is theirs. Polling shows that 71 per cent of Americans have not yet made up their minds which way to vote. I know of one staunch Republican who says she cannot bring herself to vote for Bush this time - but she'd never vote for Kerry, either.

Kerry is seen as ponderous, but perhaps that will finally prove to be what Americans want. Or perhaps the trappings of incumbency - the White House, Air Force One, 9/11 ceremonies and so on - will swing things Bush's way. I now put Kerry's chances at 51 per cent and Bush's at 49, but I won't be putting any money on it.

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