Who will be the next US president? Huw Richards takes soundings from the academic experts
My name is Al Gore and I used to be the next president of the United States." As well as displaying a previously unsuspected sense of humour, Al Gore neatly summarised his position at the beginning of the 1990s.
A year from now, presidential candidates will be tramping through the snows of New Hampshire as the primary season begins. Guessing what is likely to happen even a week ahead has become a perilous exercise for US political analysts as the impeachment process against Bill Clinton - which could deposit Vice-President Gore in the Oval Office before next year - develops.
But most academic experts believe that Gore will get an electoral, rather than a judicial, chance to delete "former" from that "former future president" description. This does not necessarily mean that he will win in November 2000, but it is hard to find anyone who thinks he will not at least secure the Democratic nomination.
Simply being vice-president is an immense plus when you are in the race to be president. Every postwar incumbent vice-president who has sought his party's nomination - Richard Nixon (1960), Hubert Humphrey (1968), George Bush (1988) - has won it, although only Bush went on to win the presidency immediately.
Alan Brinkley, professor of history at Columbia University in New York and this year's Harmsworth professor of American history at Oxford, points out:
"It isn't just about the vice-presidency. Next year's primaries are heavily loaded into the first part of the year, so candidates need to start with a lot of money. Gore has already raised a great deal."
Nor is anyone terribly convinced by the alternatives. Richard Gephardt, leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, has already had one (unsuccessful) go at seeking his party's presidential nomination in 1988. Few academics would put their money on him this time round.
Philip Davies, professor of American studies at De Montfort University, says: "Gephardt has long-term credibility within the party and a lot of congressmen owe him favours." However, Davies also points out that the Democrats might hope to regain control of the House in 2000. If Gephardt were to run as a long shot for president, it would mean giving up an excellent chance of becoming Speaker of the House.
Bill Bradley, a former basketball star and New Jersey senator, might just decide that 2000 is the year he finally runs. And the pollsters are already having nightmares about the possibility of both Nebraska war hero Bob Kerrey and Massachusetts senator John Kerry, whose marriage into the Heinz family means he should have few money worries, seeking the Democratic nomination. Leftish maverick Paul Wellstone of Minnesota is already running.
But the consensus is summed up by Davies: "Al Gore's main problem is probably that he is such a frontrunner. This means he is expected not just to win primaries, but to win them by a large margin. If he drops below the expected percentages he could look as though he is in trouble even when he is winning."
Some observers believe that the Republican nomination is equally predictable and that 2000 will see the battle of the dynasts with Gore, son of a senator, facing George Bush, son of a president. A senior New York Times journalist told a recent London seminar that Bush junior's nomination was a foregone conclusion. Certainly, the case for him seems compelling. He was re-elected last autumn as governor of the pivotal state of Texas, as a fluent Spanish speaker he can appeal directly to the growing and traditionally Democratic Hispanic vote, he has massive name recognition and espouses a "compassionate conservatism" that distances him from unpopular hard-righters such as Newt Gingrich. In national polls he beats Gore.
But the analysts are sceptical. John Rowett, warden-designate of Rhodes House, Oxford, says: "Bush is in much the same position as Colin Powell's notional candidacy last time. People don't know much about him and project the qualities they would like to see in a presidential candidate on to him."
Gary McDowell, director of London University's institute of US studies and an active Republican, says: "It isn't at all clear what 'compassionate conservatism' actually means, assuming that it means anything." And Byron Shafer, professor of politics at Nuffield College, Oxford, believes that the name recognition is deceptive: "People think they are voting for his fatherI I think Bush's standing is a polling error. It is conceivable that he could win, but he has never run for anything outside Texas, and national politics is very different.'' Columbia University's Alan Brinkley admits to being nonplussed that so uncharismatic a president as George Bush should have founded the most potent political dynasty since the Kennedys but adds: "When I voiced this thought at a dinner party, a lot of people shouted at me."
Bush will also have to deal with the well-organised, well-funded Republican right and its fixation with abortion. Dan Quayle or Pat Buchanan, running from the hard right, might not win the nomination but could force the nominee to make concessions.
If not Bush, who? Arizona's Republican senator John McCain wins several honourable mentions. "I can imagine a scenario where he wins. There isn't much evidence of support for him at the moment, but it can grow rapidly," says Byron Shafer. New York Times columnist Michael Lewis credited McCain, a Vietnam war hero, with "an alarming preference for the truth" - that could be a mixed blessing in aspirant politicians that might go down well in the aftermath of Clinton.
McDowell admits to being "more impressed than I expected" by a recent London speech from publishing multimillionaire Steve Forbes, who ran in 1996 with promises of a flat tax rate.
Who will emerge as president in November 2000? De Montfort's Philip Davies says: "I would be marginally happier at the moment if I were a Republican." Oxford's Byron Shafer believes that Gore is the likeliest winner, but that either an economic downturn or public disgust as Clinton's personal life is worked over yet again during impeachment might derail him.
Gore's task, says Michael Foley, reader in politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, is "to find a way of differentiating himself from Clinton, to come out of his shadow without being disloyal to him". Rowett points to his support, before the House voted to impeach, for censuring Clinton as an astute move. "Clinton can live with it, and it differentiates Gore to some extent." Yet nobody gets terribly excited about Gore, and, in contrast to Clinton's acknowledged brilliance as a campaigner, he is distinctly average in the field.
Perhaps the last word should go to Alan Brinkley. "(Gore) is pretty wooden and his humour about his limitations read as scripted rather than natural. He's a perfectly capable, worthy figure. And sometimes they win."