Papa's very own Boy George

Poor Boy George. That's the latest in-name for George "Dubbya" Bush Jr after Dubbya's dad - 75-year-old former President Bush - came up to New Hampshire and in a toe-curling performance told voters what a fine "boy" 53-year-old Dubbya is. Boy George is still licking his wounds from the drubbings he's since received, but - I'm told - remains confident he will be the next occupant of the White House (just as his father was until about 48 hours before his trouncing by Clinton in the '92 election). Mom, meanwhile, said all you need to know about what drives the Dubbya campaign when she spoke of Hillary's now-official campaign for the Senate: "Let her do what she wants. And when she loses, I think she'll feel very badly."

It's impossible to underestimate the venom that the Bushes still harbour for the Clintons: a positively visceral hatred resulting in a determination to destroy anything Clintonistic.

They've never forgiven Clinton for beating Bush in '92; Bushies see it as a coup, with the rightful King dethroned by a Pretender. George Sr affects a preppie disdain for showing any such emotion in public, but he was so crushed by his defeat to Clinton that he still leaves it to his wife to talk publicly about it. And notwithstanding her grandmotherly image, Barbara Bush is actually the most ruthless of the lot; she described Ann Richards, her son's Democratic predecessor as Texas Governor whom he beat in 1994, as "something that begins with a b and rhymes with rich".

Hence the lining up of all Bushies, far too early in the presidential race, to come out to support Boy George. That hatred for the Clintons, borne out of the '92 defeat, is what is driving the Dubbya campaign. In the way that Bush Sr lined up one country after another to oppose Saddam Hussein and make the Gulf War a UN rather than a US war, so supporters and donors were nobbled early on: Boy George was anointed successor on the grounds that the son of the man who was beaten by Clinton and who is Governor of Texas (and currently breaking records in executions there), can't be all that bad.

Dollars rolled in as a result - Boy George still has more than four times the money that John McCain has - and so did the early pledges of support from Republican senators and governors.

But it is only now that Republicans are beginning to ask themselves the question they should have asked more than a year ago: is Boy George simply too green and inexperienced? Were George Sr and Barbara Bush right when they confided to friends that they thought their younger son Jeb (currently Governor of Florida and another keen executioner) was the one who would make it to the White House?

This week Boy George asked his kid brother to take his place for a major speech while mom was called in to South Carolina (the big battleground now, with voting on 19 February).

"I learned a lesson in New Hampshire. I got defined," said Boy George this week, after some aide had drilled that notion into his head (which reminded me of the time in '92 when Bush Sr was given a card by a minder saying "Message: I Care" - which led Bush Sr to plunge into crowds repeating over and over again "Message: I Care").

You have to go back as far as Jimmy Carter to think of a Presidential candidate with as weak a political track record as Boy George, and even Carter (as Governor of Georgia) was a more experienced politician. The Governorship of Texas - huge and important a state though it is - actually has one of the country's constitutionally most weak governorships; in one study, the office was placed 49th out of 50 in terms of gubernatorial power.

Thus Boy George has had considerably less political experience than even Carter had almost a generation ago, and we all recall what happened to Carter's presidency.

This is what is now giving the Republicans the heeby-jeebies: the realisation that they prematurely anointed a man so panicky and green that he is already willing to say publicly that he must now be "redefined" because of an electoral setback.

Americans, too, instinctively hate the sense of generational privilege and have woken up to the truth that Boy George is only in this position because he is the, er, boy of George Bush Sr. And Boy George only makes things worse for himself by imparting the sense that he fully believes in this divine succession.

So far, he has been such a terrible campaigner - his treasured feather pillow never far from him - that Dubbya is now really going to have to roll up his sleeves to halt the McCain bandwagon.

"The days of smiling and letting John McCain define me are over," Bush said this week, in line with his team's new theme. By going on the offensive, he let McCain jump in to portray Boy George as a dishonest politician who cannot keep promises (like the one they made together last month not to go negative): "Do we really want another politician in the White House America can't trust?" McCain's latest ad asks.

McCain says: "We' re going to respond harder than we're hit, and that's an old tactic in warfare," managing both to fling the dung I wrote about last week, and to get in the obligatory reference to his war heroism. McCain says it's necessary to "fumigate" the White House, then compares Boy George to Clinton.

Dirty stuff indeed, with nine months to go before polling day. And so far we're seeing one of the oldest adages of American politics unfolding before our eyes: that when the Republicans form a firing squad, they do so in a circle. Dirty - and fun, too.

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.