Boy George: almost out for the count

Poor Boy George. Sometimes things are just not fair. You're born to rule, you graciously assent to be elected to the presidency in November, you are ready for your coronation in January - and then some ******* (as most of the US media demurely reported Dubbya's unscripted outburst about a New York Times reporter) like Al Gore comes along and spoils it all. You trail leisurely all around the country with your treasured feather pillow, stretching out your smooth hand to greet the smelly masses, and then - well, each time you try to take a further step in what is supposed to be your predestined, regal progression into the White House, it's as though Mike Tyson is rushing at you before you've got off your stool.

The full extent of the disarray of the Republicans came home to me in the midst of the Labor Day holiday period, when you expect all politicians standing for re-election in November to be campaigning furiously. I was crossing the road in Rehoboth Beach, 120 miles east of Washington, when a car driver loudly honked at me. Fully ready to remonstrate with some yob at the wheel, I saw instead the grinning face of a Democratic Congressman friend. "Long way from Georgetown," he greeted me, in fully relaxed holiday mode. Although (by US psephological standards) his is a marginal seat, he was newly serene about his chances in November, revitalised by the collapse of Dubbya's campaign and the ascent of amazin' Al.

In fact, there is already the smell of blood in the air that you read about here first. I spent the 1992 election constantly at the side of either Bill Clinton or George Bush Sr, and coined the term "fairground slugger" for Clinton. Bush Sr never saw the punches coming, and was on the canvas bleeding copiously before he realised what was happening. Clinton and his team would aim a flurry of blows at him before he had even got up for breakfast. And now poor Boy George is beginning to bleed - like father, like son; so far this month, he is losing heavily on points to Slugger Al.

Boy George, for example, was planning to spend Labor Day doing hardly any campaigning: Gore scheduled a 27-hour, five-state blitz that entailed four changes of shirt and five meals. Dubbya, thus always reacting and never initiating, was panicked into two crucially ill-conceived moves. First, he issued an opaquely spurious "challenge" to Gore about the forthcoming presidential debates, the prospect of which even the thickest voter now realises is as terrifying to Dubbya as if he were really facing Tyson in the ring. Then, forced to campaign heavily on Labor Day, he unwittingly paraded his resentment and inexperience by unleashing the ******* remark ("an obscenity", if you read the New York Times, or "asshole" to Times readers) in front of an open microphone. There are many Middle America voters out there who don't like the thought of their future president calling someone an ******* one little bit.

The following day, Dubbya hit back (as they say), unveiling his proposed $158bn (or $200bn - nobody seemed quite sure) healthcare plans. But then the Democrats, having almost wept with pleasure when the Republicans began the first personalised attack ads of the campaign, felt justified in a $5.4m bombardment of important electoral cities with an anti-Dubbya ad. "Bush's record: it's becoming an issue," a voice solemnly intoned. "George Bush says he has a plan to improve children's healthcare. But why hasn't he done it in Texas?" With such ceaseless slugging, Boy George is now always on the defensive - a posture that does not come naturally to Bushes and only increases the chances of provoking more gaffes and miscalculations.

Gore's machine, meanwhile, is as honed as Clinton's was - always ready with that right upper-cut that wins extra points. For example: Dick Cheney, the experienced surrogate dad meant to lend weight to Boy George's ticket, ran into a spot of trouble over his $21m severance package deal from Halliburton, the oil services company, and was forced to say he would be willing to forgo stock options. That was bad enough, but then a Gore spokesman sniped: "Dick Cheney got his hand caught in the cookie jar. Now, far too late, he is trying to put the cookie back." That quote alone put Cheney back even further on the defensive: instead of being the respected elder statesman the Bushies wanted, he found himself being depicted as a blushing, grasping, grubby little boy.

The debates are now looming like the epic fights of Mohammed Ali or Mike Tyson: 97 million watched one of the Clinton v Bush Sr debates in 1992, and the Boy George v Slugger Al bouts will land even bigger audiences. That is why Dubbya is desperately backtracking and is now trying to restrict the debates to much smaller audiences (proposing, for example, that one of them goes out on CNN - which gets barely 250,000 viewers these days). A spy in Dubbya's camp frankly admits that it is "concerned about filling the two-minute answers". Geddit? Suddenly, the vacuousness of Boy George is giving Republicans the heebie-jeebies: they know that Gore will have to be restrained from giving two-hour answers, while their own man - well, he simply doesn't know that much.

So spare a thought for poor Boy George. He's had a rotten month so far, but things can only get better.

I leave you with one stray thought, however: in US history, only once has the shorter of the two candidates (James Madison in 1809, for pedants) won. So roll up, roll up, for those heavyweight championship fights - and the preceding handshakes between 6ft 2ins Al and 5ft 9ins Boy George. Life just isn't fair, is it?

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.