I spent the day after the Republican convention deep in thought, mulling over the question that Democrats are feverishly asking in private: can anything save John Kerry now? At first I could not come up with an answer, but then inspiration came to me. John Kerry, I thought, should do what Al Gore stubbornly refused to do four years ago: he should plead with the Old Slugger himself, Bill Clinton, to intervene actively on his behalf. Clinton, I reasoned, has unique powers of persuasion over the American people. If anybody could convince voters that they should not vote for George W Bush but go for Kerry instead, surely he was the man.
I later discovered that people in the Kerry-Edwards team were beginning to think exactly the same way. But by this time, Clinton was already making his way to the local hospital in Westchester, New York.
Twenty-four hours later, he checked in for heart surgery at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan and last Monday he underwent a quadruple-bypass operation. He should be up and about, his doctors said cheerily after the surgery, in six to eight weeks - just long enough to stop him playing any significant role in this year's election campaign. End of desperate idea.
For the past five weeks, nothing has been going right for Kerry. Even Clinton's arteries wouldn't co-operate, and roping him in was just the latest bright idea to end up in the sand. I doubt whether Clinton would actually have agreed to play a major role in this year's election, in any case: he has 2008 and Hillary's bid for the presidency to consider. His life would not be worth living if he helped put Kerry in the White House and thus rendered the 2008 election out of bounds for other Democrats. But gloom is enveloping Kerry supporters, who were gung-ho at the beginning of the summer, and my personal poll puts Bush ahead for the first time, by 52 points to 48.
It is certainly not too late for Kerry to make a comeback. But if he continues to conduct himself as he has done in the first weeks of the campaign, his prospects will look increasingly poor. His weaknesses have become alarmingly obvious in the past month. He has always lacked the populist touch, of which Clinton had oodles and which even Bush has. But he also made naive strategy decisions, believing that the Republicans would not dare exploit his campaign based on a one-dimensional image of himself as a Vietnam war hero - the image offered to the Democratic convention in July. His limited electioneering experience, confined to the relaxed campaigns of the north-east, did not prepare him for how the Republican juggernaut would respond.
As I have written here before, it is a canard that negative campaigning does not work. The history of American politics shows that it does, and the summer of 2004 has provided a textbook example. The Bush family has a markedly vicious streak that comes to the fore in election campaigns. In 1988, Michael Dukakis was destroyed during the race against the elder Bush with the use of the notorious Willie Horton ads, which portrayed the Democratic candidate as a liberal governor of Massachusetts who allowed black murderers out on parole so that they could murder again. In the 2000 primaries, when it seemed as though George W Bush might be displaced as Republican presidential candidate by John McCain, the Bushies moved into overdrive. McCain, who spent more than five years as a POW in Hanoi after being shot down in flames in his US navy jet, was openly derided as a politician who did not adequately support the armed forces. There was also a more sinister campaign that started rumours by phone. Suppose that McCain had fathered a black child, voters were asked, would you vote for him? The rumours spread, as they were designed to do.
Now it is Kerry's turn. Astonishingly, the book Unfit for Command - written by (surprise, surprise) a Texas Republican supporter named John O'Neill, who presents "evidence" that Kerry did not deserve any of his medals for bravery in Vietnam - is top of the New York Times bestseller list. The book has thus worked its poison into the American political bloodstream, even though nearly all its claims have been shown to be false. The most obscene sight at the Republican convention in Madison Square Garden, New York, was that of middle-aged men and women wearing Band-Aids with purple hearts printed on them; they were handed out as delegates streamed into the hall, and were meant to suggest that Kerry did not deserve any of the three Purple Hearts he received for his war wounds in Vietnam.
Indeed, I thought there was more than a whiff of fascism in the air in New York: Senator Zell Miller, the old, racist Southern Democrat who has long since defected to the Republicans (though not technically), delivered his anti-Kerry diatribe, his face contorted with hatred, amid a sea of patriotic Stars and Stripes images. Periodically, too, the primal hooting of "Yoo! Yoo! Yoo! YOO ESS AY!" erupted across the auditorium.
Kerry could reasonably have foreseen all this, given the Bush family's record and their belief that they are free to distort the facts and lie about their opponents. He could have expected the Republicans to dismiss any misgivings about such tactics, convincing themselves that it is all for the greater good. Had he concentrated on proposals for his first term in office - particularly how he would lower healthcare costs and create new jobs - Kerry might have avoided his character becoming an issue. But once he had made his past achievements the centre of his campaign, Kerry provided an opening for Bush.
So the tortuous dismemberment of Kerry's candidature continued over and past the Labour Day holiday last Monday. You always know a politician is in trouble when there is news of his campaign's "reorganisation", as there was from Kerry's DC headquarters. It should have helped when 13 US servicemen were killed in Iraq on the first two days of the week, bringing the number of American servicemen and servicewomen killed to 1,000 - attacks on the US military having tripled in a month.
But even on what should have been fertile territory, Kerry has been his own worst enemy. No fewer than seven speakers at the Republican convention gleefully repeated his fateful words about Iraq: "I actually did vote for the $87bn [to fund the invasion] before I voted against it." Kerry may call the Iraq war "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time", as he did on Monday, but he has tangled himself in so many contradictions that the rejoinder of a Republican spokesman - that Kerry has "demonstrated nothing but indecision and vacillation" over Iraq - is actually deserved.
I suspect, none the less, that the big boost in the polls that Bush
got in the first few days of September will not last. The race will tighten, giving the Democrats hope, but the general trend will still keep Bush ahead. If that is reversed, it will not be the result of anything Kerry does; it will be because Bush, with Dick Cheney's help, implodes. Kerry began the campaign believing he could make it a referendum on Bush's personality. It has morphed into the opposite, turning on his own personality and record instead. He can blame Republican ruthlessness; the truth is that he fell into a trap of his own making.