A country for old men

When George W Bush gives his last State of the Union address, a milestone will be passed. But don't

On Monday 28 January, the increasingly pathetic figure of George W Bush will make his way slowly down the centre aisle of the House of Representatives for what, to the relief of most of the rest of the world, will be his last State of the Union address. This is one of those egregiously unreal American rituals where reality is turned on its head: America's 43rd president may have made America more hated than it has ever been before, caused mass slaughter in Iraq, and brought economic recession into millions of American homes, but he will be greeted with wild enthusiasm by backslapping Democrats and Republicans alike, as though he really is the cleverest fellow in the world.

Detachment from reality, though, is an innate American characteristic. It enables a country of 300 million people to convince itself it really is the progenitor of democracy and fine values across the globe, evidence notwithstanding. For exactly this reason, I must issue a government health warning: do not assume the Democrats will win this year's presidential election. The Republicans are not only better and more ruthless campaigners, but a new wind of hope is imperceptibly starting to sweep through their ranks.

In the past week, in fact, seismic but virtually unnoticed shifts have been happening in the polls. I will explain the fickleness and unpredictable chaos of the 2008 presidential campaign in a moment, but all of a sudden 71-year-old Senator John McCain is the Republican front-runner in all nine of the leading American polls I track - no fewer than 15 points ahead in the CBS News/ New York Times one, and by 14 in that of USA Today/Gallup. Hillary Clinton remains the Democratic front-runner in all nine polls, too.

But here's the real shocker: if you amalgamate the results of the four polling organisations that routinely pose the question, McCain would beat Clinton by four points in the 4 November election. Should Barack Obama be his opponent, McCain would still win by 1.3 points (don't ask me to explain the logic of this). The Republicans, meanwhile, still have three candidates - McCain, the former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, the former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, and the former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee. Fred Thompson, former senator, withdrew after a disappointing result in South Carolina and is expected to urge his (by no means negligible) supporters to switch to McCain, a close personal friend.

Few in the world hate Bush more viscerally than McCain, whose political insurgency among the Republicans in 2000 was destroyed when vicious rumours about him - for example, that his five and a half years as a prisoner of the Vietcong had left him mentally unstable, or that he had fathered a black child (actually a little girl from Bangladesh whom he and his wife had adopted) - were spread throughout South Carolina. Bush duly won the Republican primary in that vital first southern state, and from that moment his progression to the White House was assured.

McCain had the satisfaction of winning South Carolina eight years later on 19 January, leaving the Reverend Huckabee (he is also an ordained Baptist minister) trailing second in the Bible Belt state many expected him to take after his Iowa victory, and winning more than twice as many votes as either Romney or Giuliani. Exit polls also showed, crucially, that McCain cornered the moderate vote in his first primary victory in New Hampshire on 8 January, and those of the evangelicals in South Carolina - a potent combination.

Reality check

So, perhaps it's poetic justice that McCain has Bush to thank as much as anybody for this success. His support for the Iraq War seemed to have doomed him as recently as just before Christmas, but the American people really are increasingly convinced that the ludicrously meaningless "surge" in Iraq (an adroit PR trick dreamt up by Karl Rove, I'm told) is actually working - another example of America's ability to suspend its disbelief, and a notion we will doubtless hear echoed several times over by Bush in his State of the Union address. See, we knew it would all come out right in the end, didn't we?

But before we get carried away, let's have a reality check. The polls unanimously predicted that Obama would trounce Clinton in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire - which she, in fact, won by a clear margin. And in 2008, most conspicuously of all, the illogical system of caucuses and primaries is finally beginning to fall apart (just as I hear voices from across the Atlantic urging Britain to adopt the system). The caucuses and primaries that began this month will reach a crescendo on "Super Tuesday", 5 Feb ruary, when - by the latest count - voters in as many as 23 states will go to the polls, far more than ever before on a single day.

Democrats will probably hold contests in 22 states and one US territory on that crucial Tuesday, picking 52 per cent of their delegates who will go to the Democratic party convention at the Pepsi Centre in Denver on 25 to 28 August - pledged, in accordance with the electoral outcomes, to support one of the candidates and then enthrone him or her as the official Democratic presidential candidate. Republicans will probably vote in 21 states, choosing 41 per cent of their delegates pledged to do the same with their candidate at the Republican convention at the Xcel Energy Centre in St Paul, Minnesota, at the start of September. If you consider that only roughly 4 per cent of delegates have been chosen so far, two clear winners should have emerged by 6 February - long before the final primaries in South Dakota, New Mexico and Montana on 3 June. Dead easy. Good old American democracy will have triumphed again. But this is the presidential election where anything can happen: it's not inconceivable that one or both candidates will end up being selected in brokered conventions in what used to be called smoke-filled rooms.

I say "probably" about the voting on 5 February, because the chaos is such that states and parties are still squabbling over exactly who will vote and when. Rules and regulations differ in each party and state. The confusion is worse with the Democrats: Obama may have comfortably won the first Democratic caucus in Iowa on 3 January but, the next day, because of the Democrats' arcane procedures, Clinton had 215 delegates in the bag compared with his 126. Clinton then beat Obama in both New Hampshire and Nevada, but they won the same number of delegates in New Hampshire and Obama even came out one delegate ahead of Clinton in Nevada.

Or let's take another absurdity. The polls have Obama easily beating Clinton in South Carolina on 26 January and thus taking its 45 Democratic delegates. But then Clinton is streaking miles ahead of Obama in Florida for its 29 January primary, just as she was for Michigan's on 15 January. But Clinton will take none of Michigan's 174 or Florida's 210 delegates because each state jumped the gun in the race to hold the early primary elections, and Democratic Party rules mean that voting in both states must be ignored. Democrats in the hugely important states of Michigan and Florida have therefore, in effect, been disenfranchised in this year's crucial presidential primaries.

Roller coaster

Phew. These are just two of many possible examples that illustrate just how confusing and wild a roller coaster the 2008 presidential campaign is turning out to be. Less than a month ago, lest we forget, it was Giuliani who was soaring in all the Republican polls, only to sink without trace.

Yet it's too soon to write off even his chances: he took the strategic decision to concentrate most of his campaign funds and efforts on Florida rather than the other early states, and should he even scrape through there on 29 January he will win all 57 of Florida's Republican delegates. In one blow, that would hurtle him to the front of the Republican pack; with the same illogic as the Democrats, Romney has the most Republican delegates with 59, compared to Huckabee's 40 and McCain's 36.

The firmest prediction I have allowed myself is that the election in November will end up being between Clinton and Romney, and I see no reason to change, though the unpredictability of Campaign 2008 is such that I could easily be wrong on both counts. Following their increasingly rancorous exchanges, for example, Clinton and Obama could mutually self-destruct and let the former senator John Edwards in to take the Democratic nomination.

And the Republicans? McCain has that enviable ability to make you think you are a lifelong friend after only a few seconds' conversation, but has age against him, has battled with serious cancer and is ultimately a maverick and born insurgent; Romney is a less personally likeable company man, literally and figuratively, but has the backing of the Republican Establishment.

The Democrats must now unexpectedly face the fact that either would be difficult to beat in November, which is why Republicans are just beginning to stir and scent Democratic blood. Suddenly, the days of the man whose back they will slap with such fake enthusiasm on Monday night seem to be numbered; a milestone has quietly passed and, in less than a year, the nightmare of George W Bush will have receded and a new president will be in the White House.

If the current polls have caught the mood of the nation, it could just be a Republican one yet again.