A fretful, frightened conservative party is squinting at its leader this week and looking beyond him for a successor. The choice they make will determine the future of our politics, and the world's. Who will be bombed? Who will be saved? How rapidly will our climate unravel? These decisions are being made thousands of miles away from Britain's faded sea-side side-shows, across an ocean, in New Hampshire, in Iowa, in Florida, and in California. It now looks likely the Republican Party will choose a man even more extreme than Bush - and that he will be the next president of the United States.
A series of findings by the Democratic Party's leading pollsters, Lake Research, were leaked last week. Until now, Democrats have assumed the flat-lining opinion polls for President Bush guaranteed them a return to the White House. After all, CBS News recently found that with a 28 per cent approval rating, Bush is now as popular in opinion polls as Brussels sprouts, body hair on men, and reptiles. But the reality is "more sobering", the leaked study warned. In crucial swing districts, Rudy Giuliani beats Hillary Clinton, who is cruising to the Democratic nomination, by 10 points. Even if Barack Obama beats her, he still loses to Rudy at the general.
So who is the man most likely to be President? Giuliani was born to poor Italian-American immigrants in Brooklyn at the tail-end of the Second World War. His father, Harold, was an armed robber who had been banged up in Sing-Sing Prison, but he hid this from his son, raising him to have an intense, unquestioning loyalty to the police. This led Rudy to a career as a famously theatrical prosecutor, fond of arresting people in public and long press conferences boasting about it. From there he ran for mayor of New York City - and the myths begin.
You know the script: Giuliani rescued New York City from its spiral into ungovernable criminality, and then became the hero of 9/11. He says he "saved New York" by introducing the famous policy of Zero Tolerance: crack down on any sign of social disorder, no matter how small, with the full force of the law. There's only one problem. It's not true. The fall in crime that Giuliani brags about began three years before he became mayor. On the watch of his black predecessor, David Dinkins, murder fell by 13.7 per cent, and car theft by 23.8 per cent. Giuliani inherited these trends. They had a complex range of causes, none of which were primarily his responsibility: the global economic boom, the fall in unemployment, the improvement in the police computers available.
Nor is zero tolerance the reason why the fall continued: criminal violence fell even more dramatically in cities that adopted smarter, "softer" policies. For example, San Francisco chose to lavish cash not on chasing petty crime but on programmes to divert juvenile delinquents into job training, drug treatment and counselling. The result? Their crime rate fell by 33 per cent, compared to 26 per cent in NYC during the same period.
As for 9/11, nobody can doubt Giuliani's personal courage as he stumbled through the dust. This is at the core of Giuliani's presidential bid: his fundraisers have been asking for donations of $9.11. But the reality is that, even as he was bravely donning a dust-mask, many people were dying because of obtuse and foolish decisions taken by his administration.
When the World Trade Centre was attacked by jihadists in 1993, the fire service was horrified to discover that their radios didn't work properly in the towers. They spent eight years warning about it - but nothing was done. As a result, the heroic firefighters in the Second Tower couldn't be told that the building was about to collapse on them, and they died. Don't take my word for it. Ask New York's Uniformed Fire Officers' Association, a conservative organisation which endorsed George Bush in 2004. It loathes Giuliani. Its spokesman explains bitterly: "He had eight years to solve that problem."
Yet on the basis of these myths, Giuliani may be on the brink of becoming president. On foreign policy, he says George Bush is "a great example" - except that he hasn't been aggressive enough. Giuliani has pledged that, unlike the pansy Bush, he would bomb Iran imminently, offering last week "an absolute assurance" that "if they get to the point that they are going to become a nuclear power, we will prevent that or set them back five or 10 years. That is not said as a threat. That should be said as a promise."
This is only the start. He has appointed as his senior foreign policy adviser Norman Podhoretz, the godfather of neoconservatism. When I interviewed Podhoretz last autumn, he declared that the Iraq war has been "an amazing success." He added, "There were WMD, and they were shipped to Syria.... This picture of a country in total chaos with no security is false. It has been a triumph. It couldn't have gone better." He describes all critics of the war as "the domestic insurgency", and says the fight against them is "no less bloody than the war being fought by our troops in the Middle East." Giuliani agrees. This summer, he blamed the media for the impression that Iraq is a disaster, and reasserted that Saddam "was a major pillar of support for Islamic terrorism". Whatever you think US foreign policy should be, it cannot be achieved by these ideological hallucinations.
America's Mayor is even more hardline than Bush when it comes to the Palestinians. He chides Bush's purely rhetorical commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state, saying: "Too much emphasis has been placed on brokering negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.... It is not in the interests of the US to assist in the creation of another state that will support terrorism." He shares Bush's keep-on-burning approach to global warming.
Is there any way in which Giuliani is better than Bush? Well, he is not homophobic, supports civil partnerships and even moved in with a gay couple after he dumped his second wife, live, in the middle of a press conference. He is not against a woman's right to have an abortion. And that's it.
Yet it is in these personal, liberal views that a tiny glimmer of light can be glimpsed. If Giuliani becomes the Republican nominee, there is a significant chance that the evangelical wing of the party - obsessed with God, guns and gays - will break away and run a third party candidate against him. James Dobson, founder of the influential, hard-right Focus on the Family, has already said he "cannot, and will not, vote for Rudy Giuliani in 2008. It is an irrevocable decision." An evangelical third party could split the right-wing vote and let a Democrat through the middle - just as Ross Perot did in 1992. Or maybe the American people will see through Giuliani before it's too late.
If President Giuliani becomes a reality, then yet another tragedy will have been born in the burning rubble of the World Trade Centre.
© 2007 The Independent