Bush goes on display, like a dead panda

This is the time in American history when names such as Bush, McCain and Bradley should be on everybody's lips. Election fever should be running rife. Gossip in barber shops, hair salons, bars and shopping malls across the country should centre furiously on which new president will lead America into the new millennium. It's creeping up on us faster than people realise, after all: in just six weeks' time, the first votes will be cast in next year's presidential elections at the Iowa caucuses. And just two months after that - probably well before - the world will know which two men US voters will have to choose between when they go to the polls on 7 November.

But you'd hardly know that from the atmosphere in Washington. People are far more interested in the fate of Hsing-Hsing, the local zoo's panda who has just died (or, more accurately, was "euthanised"). Hsing-Hsing, 28, was a gift from Mao Zedong to Richard Nixon in 1972 and is now to be preserved in perpetuity in the Smithsonian. (What is truly interesting, actually, is the stubborn little trade war between China and the US over a replacement: the zoo here has offered China $2.8 million, but the Chinese are holding out for $8 million.)

The election, however, has failed to catch fire. The culprit is clear: television. Doubtless the next British general election will soon be like this, given new Labour's craven fondness for all things American. Here, the dictates of television and its power have homogenised the election so much that the candidates have all the life and verve (but none of the cuddly appeal) that poor Hsing-Hsing will doubtless have when he goes on permanent exhibition in 2003. There are no Jeremy Paxmans to cross-examine any of the candidates; they are all kept in hermetically sealed bubbles, with every public appearance bargained and haggled over. Woe betide a candidate should any member of the public see him as he actually is.

In the series of televised "debates" between Republican candidates, for example, aides of Gary Bauer - a no-hoper standing on a family values, anti-abortion platform - insisted that Bauer be allowed to stand on a six-inch platform behind his dais; he is barely 5ft 6ins, while George "Dubbya" Bush is 6ft 2ins. No sooner had that issue been raised than the McCain camp demanded a five-inch platform: he is 5ft 7ins. (Interestingly, the taller of the two candidates has won in all but two presidential elections in US history.) Then the Bushies started fretting about whether Dubbya should wear a watch; his dad wore one in his 1992 debates with Clinton, but kept looking at it and gave viewers the impression that he wished it was all over.

The result is that, with absurdly complicated rules worked out in advance with each candidate's team, the chances of anything spontaneous happening are virtually nil. No Paxman will ever be able to ask the same question 17 times (as Paxman once memorably did with Michael Howard), simply because the rules don't allow normal cut-and-thrust debate. The views of two men (Dubbya and McCain) are the only ones that matter, but the rules insist on giving equal time to four other candidates including Alan Keyes. Never heard of him? Neither, I'd wager, had 95 per cent of the US population.

Dubbya is not as good on television as the journalistic consensus is currently claiming, though: he comes over as wooden and tends to end each pronouncement with what looks like a self-satisfied smirk. Astonishingly, the televised debate on Monday 6 December, was only the fourth one Dubbya has ever participated in during his entire political career (he is now in his fifth year as governor of Texas) - but there was no chance to test what political acumen he may or may not have. All he had to do was stand up there like Hsing-Hsing on display, remember the lines drilled into him by his aides - and not commit a gaffe.

So far, Dubbya has just about managed. His campaign coffers are still overwhelming; he has the support of the Republican Party infrastructure, with most of the country's 31 Republican governors backing him. Momentum for McCain is growing, though, and he could well beat Dubbya in New Hampshire; but after that he has a series of much harder electoral tests - his home state of Arizona on 22 February, then California, and 15 more on 7 March.

And yet . . . Even these brief glimpses of Dubbya have given Republicans cause for concern; despite the lack of electoral fever these few weeks are turning into a pivotal period for him.

The Dubbya apologists explain that, like Ronald Reagan in 1988, he is a basically decent chap who means well and whose aides will keep him in check in the White House. Yet Reagan faced the electorate with two clear messages - getting big government off the backs of the people and making the US strong again in the face of the evil empire. It was a seductive concoction brewed by the Reaganites - but Dubbya doesn't have any policies, except to say that, yes, he does read books and yes, he does know about foreign policy because Texas shares a border with Mexico.

The best line last Monday came, ironically, from one of the no-hopers - Senator Orrin Hatch. "You've been a great governor, but you're only in your fifth year," Hatch lectured Bush. "And, frankly, I really believe you need more experience before you become president of the United States . . . I should be president, and you should have eight years with me and boy, you'll make a heck of a president after eight years."

Bush smiled wanly, as expressionless as Hsing-Hsing. And the nation switched off its televisions and went to bed.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.