Now Bush goes back to compassion

So, exactly as predicted here last January, we are now left with Gore v Bush for the United States' 43rd presidential contest this November. Bill Bradley came and went, briefly touching the imagination of Democrat activists, but ending up with all the charisma of Sir Geoffrey Howe (as he once was) on a particularly dreary day. And Senator John McCain played precisely the role outlined here more than a year ago: to the surprise of everybody except NS readers, he created enormous waves for the Republicans. His insurgency may well affect the outcome of what now happens.

To which we will come later. What counted in the end - the end in this case being last Tuesday's 16 crucial primary elections - was a curious coalescing of old-fashioned politics and those brand-new electoral techniques that I discussed last month: Gore and Bush will be confirmed as Democrat and Republican party candidates because they sewed up their parties' infrastructures months, even years ago.

Gore got the unions and the grassroots Democratic machine behind him, while Boy George lined up the fat cats of the Republicans - the so-called "Bush Pioneers".

Thus that extraordinary popular momentum drummed up by McCain - who would still win any election based on personality - was not enough to upset what his party had already pre-ordained.

So now we are left with two questions. First, McCain set out to be Mr Clean in the dirty slush of US politics, but does his fate mean that it is now simply impossible to be Mr Clean and win the US presidency? Second, has McCain nonetheless inflicted sufficient damage on Boy George to damage his chances against Gore in November?

I have already outlined some of the dirty tricks used by BG against McCain. Since then, the Bush campaign (anxious to woo women voters, whom focus groups showed were not enamoured of their Boy) has bombarded radio and TV viewers with ads saying that McCain did not support research into breast cancer: something that made McCain apoplectic, given that his sister is now suffering from breast cancer.

Leaflets were also put out by the Bush campaign drawing attention to McCain's wife's (fully admitted) former addiction to painkillers.

What we will never know for certain is whether, had McCain handled this onslaught differently, he would have lived to fight another day: facing such relentless attacks, he himself turned dirty and visibly riled, using less-skilled scattershot than the ruthlessly planned laser fire of Boy George's campaign.

My own suspicion is that, rather as Bradley faded away once Gore had sharpened his bare-knuckled debating skills, McCain's insurgency would have fizzled out even earlier had he maintained a supine, morally superior posture.

The sad conclusion: you have to fight dirty, executing away and exploiting issues like breast cancer, in order to win high office here nowadays (my blood ran cold when Bush was asked a few days ago about how a state-appointed lawyer in Texas slept his way through a court case in which his client was sentenced to death: he actually laughed, clearly seeing it all a bit of a lark).

This is not to say McCain ever was the healing moderate he himself claimed to be: he's right in there with the executioners and gun-slingin' wing of the Republicans, although he has always shown a refreshing willingness to buck the party line (over tobacco, for example).

More importantly, did McCain force Boy George to abandon his supposed "compassionate" heart - so much that it will all come back to haunt him? McCain so badly upset the applecart in New Hampshire that the Bushies went much more right and ruthless than they ever intended in South Carolina, upsetting (for example) the core Catholic vote. Gore's team will eagerly expose the journey back to moderation, compassion and decency on which Boy George has already, predictably, embarked.

But then, Gore has his fair share of baggage, too. Though the unexpected challenge of Bradley transformed his toughness as candidate, we can be sure that the Republicans will make sure he acquires a new first name in the coming months, ie, "Clinton" - as in "Do we really want eight more years of Clinton-Gore?"

Even if he can shake off any handicaps that the Clinton association brings him - and we must not forget that it has never done much harm to Clinton himself in the polls - Gore will have to negotiate his way through a lot of dirty laundry over illegal fundraising. Brace yourself for a lot of subtly racist stuff about Buddhist temples in the next seven months, given that Gore illegally raised funds at one.

The final result? I was put on the spot on The Jimmy Young Show the other day - not by the great man himself, but by a stand-in - on who will be the 43rd president. If I had to put my money on it now, I replied, it would be on Gore - a better debater than Bush, a safer pair of hands, and a much more experienced politician. In truth - and despite evidence to the contrary, your correspondent cannot literally see into the future - it is all too crazily unpredictable.

Should the US maintain its unprecedented economic boom, prospects look good for Gore: if not (and the Dow fell by 375 points last Tuesday), Boy George's prospects will brighten. The Exocets are now unleashed for a vicious war between the two parties, rather than the nasty internecine battles we have seen so far.

But - as Clinton showed when he beat Dad George in 1992 - it's still the economy that counts most of all, stupid.

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 13 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Ken, the great conductor