Here it comes again, that sinking feeling. Four years ago I traveled across the US, following the presidential campaign, and came away alarmed that Al Gore was not doing enough to win an election that should have been his. Now I have that same queasy feeling - except this time it's not only about the simple matter of who will win and who will lose on November 2. Now it's a deep concern about what is happening to the United States itself.
Start with the contest. Of course, after the 2000 melodrama, only an idiot would dare predict the outcome of this election. The polls are a statistical breath apart - though the latest all nudge in President Bush's direction - and the electoral college system means any number of twists are possible. Holding the states that should be reliably his, coupled with even a small uptick in Democratic turnout in the single state of Ohio, could still win the presidency for John Kerry.
But the intangible, unscientific indicators - of mood, of atmosphere - leave me anxious. The events I saw on Monday are a good example. The morning was spent in Marlton, a small town in the rural south of New Jersey. The community center there was packed for a Bush rally, filled with the usual cast of characters - the local pols, the dedicated volunteers, the women in stars-and-stripes sweaters. I was expecting enthusiasm from this loyal Republican audience. What I saw was fervor.
The ear-splitting applause began before the candidate was in the room, stirred by the thunderous sound of Marine One - the presidential chopper - overhead. Once Bush entered, it was uncontained. He was received as a hero, his every sentence greeted with a rapturous ovation.
His theme was "A Safer America"; his argument, that only he could protect the US. His opponent was weak, proposing a "strategy of retreat". He would "take the fight to the enemy". His opponent "had chosen the easy path of protest and defeatism", he stood firm and resolute: "We will not let up in this fight."
Every statement, delivered and punched home by Bush, brought a new wave of euphoria. "You'll keep us safe!" shouted one man. "Amen!" said another, before finally the room erupted in a chorus: "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"
The very sight of Bush in New Jersey was a mark of confidence: the state, which has not voted Republican since 1988, should be firmly in the Kerry column. But that self-belief was entirely in keeping with the mood of the crowd. Asked if Bush was going to win the election, none hesitated: absolutely.
Later that day, Kerry's running mate was performing in the next-door state of Pennsylvania. That the energy would be of lower voltage here was obvious; John Edwards is not at the top of the ticket. The contrast was striking, all the same. Edwards is a smooth, effective performer, but the room was hardly electrified. People wandered in and out; the applause was strong but not fervent. Asked if they thought they would win on November 2, these Democratic loyalists ummed and erred: they hoped so but were not certain.
You can hardly blame them. America's center of gravity has moved rightward, creating a set of shibboleths that cannot be challenged. If liberals established a few forbidden zones in the last 20 years under the rubric of so-called political correctness - making it off-limits to demean women, gays and ethnic minorities - then the right has now erected some barriers of its own.
First among these taboos is the military. No politician can utter a word that seems to question the armed services: so Kerry does not mention the Abu Ghraib scandal. Next is 9/11, which has been all but sanctified in American discourse. Because of that event, the US has re-imagined itself as a victim nation: witness the yellow-ribbon bumper stickers, usually bearing the slogan "Support America". (Ribbons were previously reserved for the suffering: red for Aids, pink for breast cancer.)
As a result, any action taken in the name of 9/11 cannot be questioned. Oppose the Patriot Act, with its restrictions on civil liberties, and you are a friend of the terrorists - and, if you are a Democratic congressional candidate, Republicans will air TV ads against you placing your face alongside that of Osama bin Laden.
Show concern for international opinion, and you are some kind of traitor. Kerry spoke French to a Haitian audience in Florida on Monday, the first time he had done so in public for many months: even to appear to have links with the outside world is a negative in today's politics, which has become all about America first.
All this is partly caused by, and certainly reinforces, that gut feeling of certainty that animates today's American right. Bill Clinton used to joke that when Democrats are in the White House, they think they are renting it. Republicans believe they own the place.
The proof came during the Clinton years, culminating in the impeachment process: Republicans fundamentally did not accept the legitimacy of a Democratic president. Something similar was on display in Florida in 2000: the Republicans were determined and disciplined, convinced power should belong to them. That's what I saw in that hall in Marlton and why I am anxious about these next 13 days: when it comes to the dogfight of winning this close contest, I suspect the Republicans will simply be more ruthless about seizing the prize. But this political sense of entitlement has an extra edge, one embodied by the president himself. For his inner certainty is about more than partisan affiliation. It is a question of faith.
George Bush is a born-again Christian, one of the 42% of Americans who describe themselves that way. Other presidents were religious, but Bush seems to have created something new - what even some of his allies call "the faith-based presidency".
A striking profile in Sunday's New York Times magazine interviewed a clutch of Republican insiders who had discovered that belief is the organizing principle of the Bush White House. Advisers, even cabinet members, are simply meant to believe in the wisdom of the president, whatever countervailing evidence there may be. Bush's former environment secretary, Christine Todd Whitman, is quoted: "In meetings, I'd ask if there were any facts to support our case. And for that, I was accused of disloyalty!" Senators are told not to worry about the complexities of Iraq; the president's "instincts", his "gut" tells him he's doing the right thing.
"This instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do," Bruce Bartlett, a Republican and former official in Bush's father's administration, tells the magazine. At a recent campaign event, one voter told Bush he truly believed God was now in the White House: the president did not argue.
Most revealing of all is the phrase used by a Bush aide to dismiss the inquiries of the New York Times writer. The journalist is told he lives in "the reality-based community". People like him worry about observable facts, while the Bush camp lives in a different universe, a realm where belief shapes reality.
Look hard enough and you can see this mindset in the current Bush campaign. The Bush-Cheney billboards with the single slogan: One Nation Under God. The unwavering certainty of the supporters in Marlton. Bush's inability to name a single mistake of his presidency. There can be no doubt; they are doing the Lord's work.
Bush is a subtle enough politician not to make his campaign an overt religious crusade. But he communicates, through nods and winks, to his evangelical base: they know the mission he is on. He uses their language, answering a question on abortion by referring to a "culture of life", one of their favored phrases, or nodding to a 19th-century supreme court ruling often cited in their own literature.
This is a revolutionary shift for a country that was founded on the separation of church and state. If Bush wins on November 2, the chances are strong that the shift will accelerate, perhaps even towards permanence.
Thanks to mortality, three or four spaces are likely to open up in the next four years on the nine-person Supreme Court. The next president will get to pick whether those judges are liberals or conservatives.
In 2000, Bush said his favorite supreme court justices were the ultraconservatives, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. If he named four more in their image, giving them a majority on the court, then the face of modern America could be changed within a few years.
Such a bench would no longer deem abortion a constitutional right; it would allow individual states to ban it, which they would do, across swathes of the country. If past Scalia-Thomas decisions are any guide, laws on everything from clean air to access for the disabled, affirmative action for ethnic minorities to gay rights would all be struck down. (When the supreme court last year heard the case of a gay man arrested for having sex in his own home, Scalia and Thomas sided against the man and with the police.) Crucially, Thomas has argued that the Constitution's ban on established religion might not apply to the individual states.
The campaign has hardly been fought on this ground. If anything, John Kerry has had to go along with the intrusion of religion into politics - insisting on his own Catholic credentials, telling audiences that he was once an altar boy. But the tension is there.
It has manifested itself in the issue of research using embryonic stem-cells. Kerry says it should continue, using new lines of cells if necessary; Bush wants no more lines to be created, no more of what he calls the destruction of life. Kerry says stem cell research might have found a cure for Ronald Reagan's Alzheimers or for Christopher Reeve's paralysis. Bush says the work will have to stop.
As the faithful streamed out of the Evesham Recreational Center in Marlton, a Kerry-Edwards bus with a loudhailer was taunting them from across the road: "Don't be scared of science, guys. Please guys, we need science."
It seemed an odd kind of election slogan, but it might be right to the point. For the clash under way now is about more than Bush v Kerry, right v left. It seems to be an emerging clash of tradition against modernity, faith against reason. The true believers pitted against the "reality-based community".
That leaves two questions, one for the future, one for November 2. For the future: how long can these two competing world views, so far apart from each other and so sharply divided, co-exist in the same country? For November 2: which of these two camps is going to be absolutely determined to win?
© 2004 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.