America - Andrew Stephen sees Boy George acting spoiled

The television debate was live, and for the first time Bush faced criticism in a forum that he could

I must thank readers who have written to me to express indignation about the treatment of 55-year-old Sue Niederer, the mother of a US soldier killed in Iraq. After trying to heckle Laura Bush about the war at a campaign rally, she was immediately surrounded by chanting Bush supporters, frogmarched out of the hall, and later handcuffed and arrested. Niederer has a unique distinction in this year's election campaign: she is the only person opposed to George W Bush, as far as I can discover, who has managed to penetrate a Bush-Cheney campaign meeting of any kind.

Indeed, if you merely wear a T-shirt bearing the word "Kerry" and happen to be in the area outside any meeting that is to be addressed by Bush you, too, will be handcuffed and arrested if you do not obey police orders to leave. Kerry supporters have been consistently vetted at Bush-Cheney events in recent weeks: the result is that anybody attending the rallies is able to stay unaware that there is even the slightest hint of dissidence over the policies of the Bush administration.

I point this out because I suspect that nobody is more deceived by the resulting atmosphere than Bush himself - and that his self-delusion and distancing from reality were the main reasons why he performed so badly in the first of the presidential debates with John Kerry. These days, the US president simply never hears of any disagreement with his policies. He does not read newspapers. He watches television only if football is on (I know this from a friend who has spent weekends with him at Camp David). He goes only to all-ticket Republican events. The courtiers who surround him are increasingly obsequious, unable and unwilling to tell him bad news that he does not want to hear.

This is why he has come to believe his own propaganda, and assumes that everybody else demonises Kerry in the way he does. It explains why, when Kerry started attacking him publicly and from only ten feet away, the US president's facial muscles began to twitch. He pouted, his lips tightly pursed in an expression that is unique to him, showing a barely suppressed rage that he could be questioned in such a way; that anybody would have the gall to criticise him. Twelve years ago his father, another incumbent president seeking re-election, was incredulous that anybody could take Bill Clinton seriously. Now his son feels exactly the same about John Kerry.

I wrote some time ago that only a Bush implosion could turn the election and save Kerry, and that may - possibly - have begun to happen in that first debate. Kerry avoided the dreadfully long-winded contortions into which he twists himself at his campaign rallies, and was disciplined and dull instead. In short, he was widely deemed to have won the debate not so much because he was especially good, but because Bush was downright bad. Faced with personal criticism in a forum he could not control, Bush showed the overbearingly spoilt, petulant side of his personality.

I used to describe Bush as "Boy George", and I think the sobriquet still sums up his personality as well as any other. It is certainly clear that he is a son of privilege who would never have come close to becoming US president without the family name, but he is now showing the crippling personal immaturity that is overshadowing his whole presidency. Richard Nixon had similar demons, and he also increasingly cloistered himself from reality. I hesitate to analyse Bush's inner psychology too much - but I am sure that his emotional development was stunted in childhood, when he had a father consumed by ambition and younger siblings always jostling for attention. Was the alcoholism that beset him, I wonder, an attempt to fill the emotional void?

Whatever the causes, the shortcomings of his personality are beginning to emerge in a way that is commensurate with the hastening collapse of his presidency. Like Nixon, he is beleaguered in an increasingly isolated White House. He is unable to accept criticism, and so no criticism ever comes his way. Increasingly, he resembles a strutting boy prince who has an overriding sense of entitlement to the presidency, even though he has never fully earned it: more than half a million more Americans voted for Al Gore four years ago.

In this febrile world that Bush engenders, anybody wanting to usurp him is by definition wicked. Bush supporters were thus busily disseminating accusations after the debate that Kerry had carried a secret crib sheet into the forum, that he had been given the questions beforehand, and so on; only by using such tactics, went the logic, could Kerry possibly triumph over the anointed one. The Republican National Committee confirms that it launched an advertising campaign in the Southern Bible belt, in which it asserted that Kerry would ban the Bible from the White House and simultaneously legalise gay marriage; a picture of the Bible has "BANNED" across it, while another featuring a man kneeling and putting a ring on the finger of a second man is stamped "ALLOWED".

This sort of campaigning, damning Kerry's character because he is outrageous and impudent enough to seek to replace Bush, has already worked wonders for the Republicans. The implosion of Bush, in which reality slowly demolishes the house of cards that is keeping him propped up, could easily continue - Bush showed in the first debate just how personally weak and vulnerable he is - but I suspect that the warning signs came early enough for his handlers to launch a major resuscitation.

I recently saw an advert on television for a new documentary called Stolen Honour, in which Kerry is maligned for his criticism of the Vietnam war after he returned to the US as a war hero. Kerry should "ask forgiveness from those he dishonoured", says the ad. It is all becoming positively surreal.

The hard numbers remain sobering for the Democrats, too. The polls still tend to favour Bush, especially when the likely composition of the electoral college is considered: one out last Monday had Bush with 290 electoral college votes, comfortably

more than the 270 a candidate needs to be sure of victory. Another,

published last Tuesday, put Bush on 217 electoral college seats and Kerry on 200 - with the remaining 121 still up for grabs.

Last Tuesday night's vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards did little to help decide the outcome of the fight. Cheney was as smug as ever, but was also vastly more articulate than Bush when defending the administration's policies and attacking Kerry-Edwards. That is not saying much, though, and Edwards still managed to hold his own and land some telling blows on Bush and Cheney.

We have, as I write, two more debates between Kerry and Bush to come - on 8 October and 13 October. The outcome of the election will hinge on whether Bush manages to shed that spoilt-boy-prince persona for the rest of the campaign. There are barely three weeks to go before voters take part in the real polls, and the outcome - as the commentariat here likes to say - remains too close to call. I can predict one thing: if Bush wins, he will morph into an even more strutting and preening scion of the House of Bush. Not, I fear, a comforting thought.