Watch out! The dung's gonna fly

So well done, then, John McCain. Many, many months ago, when pundits everywhere were dismissing you as a no-hoper, you told me that you would win the Republican New Hampshire primary - which you duly did on 1 February by a near landslide. You went on to tell me that from this victory you would build momentum so fast that in November 2000 you would be elected as 43rd president of the United States. Meanwhile, senior Republicans I knew personally - diehard Reaganites rather than Bushies - were telling me out of the sides of their mouths that they rather liked this guy McCain. And so New Statesman readers were the first - in Britain or the US - to learn that the hitherto obscure Senator John McCain was going to be a hot presidential candidate this year.

Poor old Dubbya - George Bush Jr - was thus denied the coronation he anticipated as his birthright in New Hampshire. By the time the extent of McCain's victory became clear you could see a new look of terror in Dubbya's eyes, like those of a rabbit trapped in the headlights: Maybe I' m not going to win like Dad, after all! His teenage twin daughters, though, gave the game away most of all: both were close to tears. So Dubbya's going to need the feather pillow with which he travels everywhere as if it were a cherished childhood teddy-bear ("Don't you too?" he asked hacks in genuine bafflement, when he discovered they didn't last weekend).

And well done, too, Bill Bradley. You didn't manage to beat Al Gore, but you are giving that other scion of personal and political privilege one helluva shock: you succeeded in bringing out the nasty side of Gore, and he's now going to have to spend at least the next few weeks shovelling himself in and out of the cattle dung he falsely claims to have spent his boyhood sweeping out in rural Tennessee. He actually lived in a luxury hotel in Washington, summoning room service before sauntering off to St Albans School - all because his father was a senator who happened to have a little $500,000-a-year allowance from Armand Hammer (as a consultant in the oil business, you understand).

Yes, that dung is really going to be flying in the next few weeks. What has happened in just the previous fortnight has been a fascinating knock-on sequence of cause-and-effect in American politics. First, on the Democratic side, Bradley turned on Gore and starting calling him a liar. Second, as a result, Gore turned nasty and showed he was ready and able to shovel the dung back at Bradley. That, in turn, showed voters that Gore the Bore could hand it out and was a political toughie: a seasoned politician able to go the full 15 rounds, winning not so much by knockouts but on points, with repeated jabs and pummelling to the ribs, some fast and fancy footwork here and there, and the occasional low punch not noticed by the ref.

Seeing this unfold before their eyes then forced Republicans to confront their real dilemma: is Dubbya up to facing Gore in the ring later this year?

A friend who knows George Bush Sr tells me that the elder Bush wistfully lamented to him last weekend: "The problem is that when you've been vice-president for eight years [as Bush Sr was, as understudy to Ronald Reagan], you really know your stuff." For all his smugness, Gore knows his stuff: Dubbya doesn't, at least yet, and that realisation has dawned only very recently. No Republican has ever made it to the White House without winning the New Hampshire primary first: and despite spending a total of 31 days campaigning there, Dubbya failed spectacularly.

But, before we go any further: a reality check. New Hampshire accounts only for less than 0.5 per cent of US voters. Dubbya's war chest now stands at $67.6 million, Gore's at $27.8 million, Bradley's at $27.4 million, and McCain's at $15.5 million. McCain's campaign was one of genuine proletarian insurgency, wearing out shoe leather and coach tyres, while Dubbya rested on his elegant feather pillow; and New Hampshire is the last place where contenders actually meet and debate with real people.

From now on, the contest moves to big-time media exposure and television spot ads - which, naturally, is where those war chests start becoming vital.

Bush Sr lost the 1992 election - having been the most popular president in US history less than a year before - because he underestimated Bill Clinton's ability to keep slugging away at him. Dubbya has always thought he can easily swat Gore the Bore out of the way with a swish of his feather pillow, but Bradley has now shown that it is easier said than done; McCain, patronisingly dismissed by the Bushies not so long ago, is an authentic US war hero standing on a seductive platform of cleaning out the Augean stables of US politics. But he is also a political toughie who can shovel and hurl dung with the best of them.

If it is not still to be Bush v Gore later this year, though, McCain is really going to have to pull off a historic political transformation. His grassroots insurgency needs to spread to places less likely to welcome him than bolshie little New Hampshire; he must win South Carolina on 19 February, then continue to build momentum and a much larger war chest to take California and at least half a dozen other states on 7 March.

That's a tall order, even for a man who survived torture by the Vietcong for five-and-a-half years. Bradley, too, is going to have his work cut out to come even close to toppling Gore now. But battle has now commenced, and what a battle: I predict we are going to witness the most vicious US presidential campaign in history. Don't forget: as usual, you read it here first.

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.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The Prime Minister loses control