Expect Gore to surge this summer

My flaking skin is evidence that, yes, summer and temperatures soaring into the nineties have finally arrived here: we are already nearly in those dog days of summer, with kids out of school, summer camps thriving and swimming pools alive with splashes and shrieks. That curious phrase, "the dog days of summer", had always mystified me - is there some mysterious canine influence on American summers? - until I discovered last weekend that it refers to the period between mid-July and September when Sirius, aka Canis Major or the "dog star", rises and sets with the sun. So there.

History shows, however, that this sense of summer ennui is deceptive. The period between the start of summer and its official end on Labor Day (the first Monday in September) during a presidential election year is, in fact, when the US electorate decides who their next president will be. In every single election but one over the past half-century, the man ahead in the polls on Labor Day has gone on to win the White House the following November. (The exception was Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980.) The Gore and Bush teams know full well, therefore, that the coming weeks will be critical in determining who will move into the White House next January.

The comfortable consensus here (invariably wrong, as New Statesman readers know by now) is that the momentum is with Dubbya and that he is cruising to victory. Gore "does seem to have lost his footing", the Washington Post lectured us last Monday - a sure and certain sign that the Gore campaign is in fine fettle. Before the end of this month, it will launch a $25m campaign of attack ads and, mark my words, Gore will begin, to the media's great astonishment, to ascend in the polls.

In the past couple of weeks, the final votes have been cast to confirm Gore and Dubbya as their parties' candidates - the concluding primaries were held last Tuesday - even though the outcome was decided back in March. (In Kentucky, only 14 per cent of registered Democrats and 11 per cent of Republicans bothered to turn up to vote.)

The latest Reuters/Zogby poll actually shows the two candidates in a statistical dead heat: Dubbya at 42.4 per cent, Gore at 41.1 per cent, with a margin of error of 3.2 per cent. Following the end of the primaries, we now move into the next phase of party convention season: the Republican jamboree in Philadelphia from 31 July to 3 August, the Democrats' in Los Angeles from 14 to 17 August.

Boy George is swotting hard on the heavy subjects Gore knows all too much about - healthcare, social security, the nuclear balance - while Gore has been desperately trying to rebalance his new alpha-male image with that of a kinder, gentler, more caring Gore. If he manages to leave Los Angeles ahead in the polls, Gore stands an excellent chance of trouncing Dubbya on 7 November.

He will nevertheless be watching more anxiously than anybody the portents of the economy: a crashing end to the ten-year boom, and Gore will be in trouble. Last month, 116,000 jobs in the private sector were lost, causing unemployment to rise from 3.9 to 4.1 per cent - an increase that has given Gore the jitters.

But the breed of people who called themselves "political scientists" in my Essex University days say that Gore is likely to win in any case: Michael Lewis-Beck of the University of Iowa predicts that the election is "not even going to be close".

Gore is also banking on Clinton weighing in with heavy attack artillery in the autumn - something at which Clinton is brilliant and which (let us not forget) destroyed the presidency of Bush Sr nearly eight years ago. And could there be a brilliant Clintonian Middle East settlement in the works to be unleashed just before the election, too? The force, generally, is much more with Gore and the Democrats than the media would have you think.

For Boy George, the choice of vice-presidential running mate is now even more important than usual: his father, after all, never recovered from the disastrous choice of Dan Quayle as his vice-president. Although the pro-abortion governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge, is the media's current favourite for Dubbya, a much wiser choice would be the former Missouri senator John Danforth, 63 (Missouri is one of only two states in 40 years always to have voted for the winning candidate).

Danforth is an ordained Anglican minister and much-respected older head. He has everything, in fact, that Boy George lacks: gravitas, a heavyweight approach and a manner that brings instant personal respect. Bush Sr, I'm told, considered him as his running mate: history might have turned out differently without the constant presence of the inept, grinning Quayle at Bush Sr's side.

The ideal running mate for Gore, similarly, would be all that he isn't: likeable and sexy, perhaps. But even loyal Democrats, in their brief flirtation with the even more boring former senator Bill Bradley, underestimated Gore: he not only knows his stuff to a stupefying degree, but also can be a vicious and ruthless brawler who will not hesitate to play every bit as dirty as Dubbya. He made a tactical error in playing to the Cuban-Americans over Elian; voters saw it as the politically cynical move that it was. Boy George, likewise, blotted his copybook last week by granting his first (temporary) reprieve to a prisoner on death row, when every voter knows he's the country's keenest executioner.

Yes, those dog days are all but upon us: but we will look back on them as days that shaped America's political future for decades to come.

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.