IMAGINE TONY Blair and Gordon Brown, clown-like smiles glued to their eroded faces, spending week after week pressing flesh and chatting up the locals in the pubs and chippies of Barrow-in-Furness. And imagine an electoral system that gives more strategic clout over the selection of the Labour leader to Cornwall and Essex than to Liverpool and Glasgow.
Indeed, a system that puts London almost last in line, after the press have already anointed a winner and the punters have collected their bets. Such, indeed, is the crazy logic of the US Democratic Party primaries taking place now. They catapult Iowa, New Hampshire (Manchester, New Hampshire, equals Barrow) and South Carolina ahead of the queue of large states.
The system deprives the big divisions of democracy, like Chicanos in California, public sector workers in New York and African-Americans in Illinois, of roles proportionate to their size or historic importance as voters. It is a system, to be fair, that actually forces candidates, with their robot-like spiels and carefully coiffed personas, into brief but spontaneous contact with real people.
But it also a system that gives the corporate media a strategic advantage in shaping images of candidates and issues long before the primaries reach the big cities and major industrial centres. A lurid and typical example was the press gang-up on Howard Dean, the most outspoken critic of Bush's Iraq invasion, after the Iowa primary.
Dean's Iowa election night yawp-variously interpreted as a crowd-pleasing holler to his supporters or a nervous breakdown-was rebroadcast incessantly for several days. The New York Times estimated that the average TV viewer saw it 20 times. The same television networks, like Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, that never lift an eyebrow over Bush's idiot smirk or Rumsfeld's gloating megalomania, were suddenly whispering in the public's ear that Dean was a madman.
Although Dean himself is a rather ordinary centrist Democrat with an austere record as governor of the state of Vermont, his campaign has aroused elite fear and loathing not seen since the nomination of George McGovern on an anti Vietnam War platform in 1972.
Dean's campaign-now rapidly being refashioned and moved to the right by party regulars-originally grew up in the political and moral vacuum created by the Democratic leadership's abject surrender to Bush's war on terrorism. Dean became a hero to angry students and trade unionists because of his willingness to articulate what millions believe but no other Democrat had the guts to say-that the president of the United States is a warmongering fool controlled by a cabal of oil millionaires and Christian fanatics.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, ironically, Dean became the victim of his own campaign's success in forcing other candidates, particularly John Kerry and John Edwards, to speak out against the Iraq deception. Indeed Kerry, so long embalmed in compromise and hypocrisy, suddenly showed faint signs of a former self-the militant anti-war veteran who so eloquently denounced American war crimes in Vietnam before Congress in 1972.
In the last days before the Iowa primary, surrounded by Teddy Kennedy and an honour guard of veterans, Kerry reinvented himself as the 'tough dove'. Without a monopoly on the anti-war issue, Dean crumbled on his domestic flank, where his policies on healthcare, tax reform and welfare are indistinguishable from or to the right of other candidates.
In particular, his trademark 'taking back America' appeal wilted in face of Senator John Edwards' more militant us versus them contrast of 'two Americas'. Edwards, boasting of his milltown origins, won unexpected second place with a rhetoric targeted precisely at the pain of Iowa's many downsized or deunionised meatpacking towns.
In this week's new crop of primaries, Edwards needed to win his home state of South Carolina to preserve his serious-contender status, while Kerry was attempting to fortify his lead by carrying Missouri and Arizona.
Dean, meanwhile, must grimly hang on until the big states' 'super-primary' in early March at last gives voice to his hardcore support among college students and public sector workers. The bomber of Belgrade and the Clintons' stealth candidate, General Wesley Clark, has so far proven more of a stiff cardboard cut-out than a charismatic hero.
Unlike the upcoming re-coronation of Bush, the Democratic race will remain a tense cliffhanger for a few weeks at least. But it is drama with little substance.
Despite a facade of deep debate, all the leading Democrats, including Dean, have no higher aspiration than to be the new Bill Clinton, whom they all profess to adore. None has dissented from US policy in Afghanistan or unconditional support for Israel.
All endorse the war on terrorism (but want it more focused) and all vow to pour more, not less, money into Homeland Defense and the promotion of national paranoia. Kerry, meanwhile, is a bigtime World Trade Organisation internationalist, Edwards (despite his log cabin CV) a wealthy trial lawyer, and Dean a notorious fiscal conservative.
The ultimate anti-Bush, inevitably, will be a clone of Clinton, promising rapid (but not immediate) withdrawal from Iraq and partial repeal of some of Bush's fiscal giveaways to the super-rich. 'Freedom' fries, moreover, may become French again, and allies may be occasionally consulted about bombing targets. What is slouching toward November, then, is a dispiriting choice between the Bushite 'super-imperialist' status quo and the Democratic 'normal imperialist' status quo.
Ralph Nader, meanwhile, has bowed out of a Green Party nomination and, indeed, the Greens are bitterly divided over what to do in November. Prominent progressives are also all over the map, although none more so than Michael Moore, who has been canvassing votes for that 'Stupid White Man' Wesley Clark.
Third party forces may still get their act together (perhaps behind California Green Peter Camejo) but, for the moment, it looks as if the Democrats will once again succeed in stealing the thunder from the grassroots.
Peculiarities of the primaries
THE US presidential election will take place in November this year. George Bush is almost certain to be the candidate for the Republican Party, one of the two parties which dominate official US politics. The other main party, the Democratic Party, is in the middle of a complex process of selecting its candidate.
This takes place through a series of votes in each US state. In a few, like Iowa last month, meetings called caucuses are held. In most states ballot box votes called primaries take place. These elections select delegates backing a particular presidential candidate. A national party convention of all these delegates then takes place in the summer to decide (in reality rubber stamp) the presidential candidate. Many of the key primaries are bunched, with a large group taking place this week and another big group set for 2 March.
Those who vote in the primary elections are usually registered voters who have declared support for one or other of the two main parties. In the final presidential election in November all registered voters are entitled to cast a ballot.
In November's vote each state elects delegates to an electoral college which then selects the president in a way which means that the candidate who gets the most votes across the US does not necessarily win. George Bush got less votes than his Democratic Party rival Al Gore in the election in 2000, but was declared the winner.
Bush also secured victory by grabbing all of the state of Florida's votes in very dubious circumstances and amid accusations of ballot rigging-with some help from his brother who was the state governor.
Two creatures of big business
THE DIVISION between Republican and Democratic parties is not a clear left-right split. Nor did it grow out of a division between a party of the bosses and one with roots in the trade unions-as with the history of Britain's Tory and Labour parties.
Both Democratic and Republican parties are financed by and totally controlled by the very rich and big business. These rival big business parties and candidates use their wealth and control of the media to dominate the election campaign and exclude anyone seeking to challenge their domination of politics.
This makes it hard for a 'third party' or left wing challenger to the two main parties to gain a hearing. In the 2000 election Ralph Nader did stand, with backing from the US Green Party and many radical and left wing activists. He was right to stand, and his campaign was a breath of fresh air. Nader won 2.6 million votes, around 3 percent.
It is not yet clear whether there will be a similar challenge to the big business candidates this year, as many radical figures have mistakenly called for supporting one or other Democratic Party candidate against Bush. Anti-war protest in the US-but will any presidential candidate express that mood?