Ed Pilkington considers the evidence in today’s Guardian:
Listen to these words from a leading politician campaigning for their party's presidential nomination: "I'm a uniter, not a divider. This is the start of a new beginning for America." The speaker goes on to pledge support for single working women, black people and Hispanics, and promises never to "balance the budget on the backs of the poor". As the supporters go crazy the candidate adds these final words: "I want to bring hope to people's hearts. We will seize this moment of American promise."
Barack Obama? Hillary Clinton after the tears? The speaker was George Bush as he ran for president in 2000, the same George Bush who gave the world the concept of "compassionate conservatism". Seven years on, you don't hear many references to compassionate conservatism. Several wars, unfettered partisanship, rendition, Guantánamo, Kyoto and Katrina have put paid to that. And it seems rather shocking now, with the benefit of hindsight, to think about how affectionately Bush was regarded in the months leading up to his inauguration, when commentators gushed about lovable George with his waspish good looks, his folksy Reaganesque delivery and commitment to healing America's divisions. "There are a lot of people in the centre or centre-left who wrote about Bush in glowing terms who are embarrassed about how they fawned over the guy," says Franklin Foer, editor of the New Republic.
In November, America will decide who will fill Bush's shoes. In a replay of 2000, the town halls of middle America are filled once more with talk of uniting not dividing, of hope and of seizing moments. This time round the Republicans are on the back foot, weighed down by the fallout from one of the most unpopular governments in US history and riddled with uncertainty about their purpose and future. The party is in such a mess that it is perceived wisdom that the Democrats will take back the White House on November 4. But Republicans are a wily lot and only a foolhardy Democrat would think that a third successive conservative administration is beyond the realm of possibility.
At least on this occasion there is a chance to get it right: to be prepared so that if President Bush does hand over to President Romney or President Giuliani there is not the same miscalculation over lovable Mitt or folksy Rudy. There is no excuse in 2008 to repeat the mistakes of 2000.
So what's the story behind this year's Republican hopefuls - facing the South Carolina primary tomorrow - and how worried should the world be? The first three major races have thrown up three separate winners: Mike Huckabee in Iowa on January 3, John McCain in New Hampshire five days later, and Mitt Romney this week in Michigan.
Let's start with Huckabee, the first to win. In a highly colourful crowd, he is by far the most exotic. Can you think of another major politician from Hope, Arkansas, who plays bass guitar to professional standard in a band called Capitol Offense? (Bill Clinton also comes from Hope - a town with a population of just 10,000 - and preceded Huckabee as governor of Arkansas, but he plays the saxophone.)
Huckabee famously lost 110lb and calls himself a "recovering foodaholic". He likes to frolic in front of TV cameras, throwing snowballs at his wife while campaigning in Michigan. Such jollities have endeared him to commentators - shades of Bush here - who have labelled him "engaging", "warm" and even a "friendly teddy bear".
His track record also has a progressive streak. In Arkansas, he expanded public services to the displeasure of anti-government Republicans. He also risked opprobrium over immigration - the great fault line of the modern Republican party - by giving undocumented workers access to some education. That earned him a reputation for being "soft" on immigration that may cost him dear in South Carolina tomorrow.
Then there's the other side of the score sheet. Huckabee wants an end to gun controls, which has brought gun fanatics flooding into his camp. He opposes gay marriage and in the early 1990s called for people with Aids to be quarantined - a position he no longer holds but has never publicly retracted.
Since the start of his presidential campaign he has tacked steadily to the right. To assuage those who think him soft, he has recently begun beating the anti-immigrant drum. On his website he promises that, as president, he will ensure there will be "no open borders, no amnesty, no sanctuary"; instead he will pursue "the attrition of the illegal immigrant population".
But it is his deeply held religious beliefs that should give liberals most pause. An ordained Southern Baptist minister, he spent 15 years working in the church as a preacher and tele-evangelist. The Bible for him is literal truth. He says: "My faith is my life - it defines me. I don't separate my faith from my personal and professional lives."
Religious devotion is hardly unique in a political leader - think John Kennedy (Catholic) or Jimmy Carter (Baptist). What sets Huckabee apart is that he is prepared to put his religion into practice through his politics, as he demonstrated as governor of Arkansas where he helped pass anti-abortion legislation and instigated moves to allow students to pray at college. He advocates overthrowing Roe v Wade, the US's landmark legal ruling legalising abortion and, as someone who does not accept evolution, he has called for creationism to be taught alongside Darwinism in schools. Most remarkably, he recently said that he wanted to amend the American constitution in line with the Bible: "It's a lot easier to change the constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God."
It is hard to overstate how revolutionary it would be to insert God into the American constitution. The idea runs wholly counter to the spirit of the Founding Fathers who believed sovereignty was derived exclusively from "We the people".
"When I heard him say that, my eyes opened a little wider," says Laura Olson, co-author of Religion and Politics in America. "I'd be astonished if he ever managed to do it, but the fact that he has said it shows how far he is prepared to go to win the nomination."
If Huckabee is the most exotic, John McCain, the champion of New Hampshire, is the most heroic. His personal story would be barely believable in a Boy's Own comic: shot down over Vietnam and held as a PoW for more than five years, bound with "torture" ropes and for long periods beaten every two hours. Yet he refused an invitation to be released ahead of his fellow PoWs and never revealed any secrets, though he did eventually crack and sign a bogus anti-American "confession". "Every man has his breaking point," he later recalled. "I had reached mine."
On the campaign trail this week in Michigan he pointedly avoided any reference to what happened other than to poke fun at himself. "I was able to intercept a surface-to-air missile with my own plane," he quipped. He evoked implicitly his own experiences to make a passionate renunciation of the use of torture on al-Qaida terror suspects: "These tools are not American tools, and the easy way is not the American way."
Of all this year's crop of Republicans, McCain is the closest thing to the liberal's friend. He is a bipartisan progressive in the mould of Teddy Roosevelt. He has a record of challenging abuses of authority that go back to his early days in the navy, and he has often incurred the wrath of his own party by following his convictions. He opposed Bush's massive tax cuts in 2001, fought a seven-year battle against incipient corruption in political funding to forge the 2002 McCain-Feingold act, and has been a leading proponent of action against climate change. When his disaffection with the Bush administration grew intense in 2001 he even had conversations with Democratic leaders about changing party, and in 2004 there was talk of McCain becoming John Kerry's presidential running mate.
But it seems that in politics, as in a Vietnamese prison, McCain has his breaking point. In recent weeks he, too, has shifted right. He now speaks sotto voce about the need to legitimise undocumented workers while shouting from the rooftops about securing the Mexican border. He moved to mend bridges with the religious right and backed a raft of Bush tax cuts as vocally as he had opposed them in 2001. On Iraq he was a lone voice in support of Bush's troop surge - a heartfelt move for McCain that will make many liberals uneasy about his almost neocon belief in the right of military might. And he's always been vehemently anti-abortion.
"We are left with some serious questions about who is John McCain," says Foer. "The press corps has a weakness for him because of his zaniness, sense of humour and extraordinary personal story, and tend to position him closer to the centre than his record implies."
There's no danger of mistaking this week's vanquisher, Mitt Romney, of being a closet liberal. On the stump he spells out his credentials as a firebrand conservative as if he were addressing a class of infants. His speeches are filled with stars and stripes, the national anthem and tales of great patriots making the ultimate sacrifice. In his Michigan victory oration on Tuesday night he ended with the words: "We are a great and good people. That is why America will always be the most powerful nation on Earth." It's not a surprise to hear, then, that he's absolutely behind the neocon projects abroad; he believes that "this president has kept us safe over the last six years".
Much has also been made of his being a Mormon, partly one suspects because it is a headline-writer's dream. "The Mormon the merrier" was the New York Post's effort on his Michigan triumph.
In his speech on faith in American politics last month, Romney argued, much like Huckabee, that there was a place for God in the public realm. But unlike Huckabee he pledged not to "confuse" his religion with his politics. "Romney knows that his church has only 2% of the population and that if he became president he would have to be very cautious," says Olson.
A more serious criticism would be that Romney slithers about on policies. Today he vows to overturn Roe v Wade and to uphold the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. Yet when he ran against Teddy Kennedy for a senate seat in Massachusetts in 1994 he described himself as pro-choice and pro-gay. In 2003, as governor of Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the US, he said he felt like a "cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention", but he continued to hold nuanced positions, opposing gay marriages but approving civil unions.
David King, a political scientist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, has followed Romney's progression with interest, not least because the politician lives next door. He sees his neighbour as a classic tax-cutting economic conservative who adopts socially regressive policies when he has to. "He presents himself to different people in different ways for different constituencies. We can expect him to start speaking in a southern drawl in South Carolina and have a deep tan in Florida."
In his willingness to blow with the wind, Romney has much in common with Huckabee and McCain, it's just that he does it so blatantly and with such aplomb. He may not be the only one to flip flop in the 2008 presidential race, but he is undoubtedly the flip-flopper in chief.
Which brings us to the fourth Republican candidate to watch. He hasn't won a state yet, and is doing increasingly badly in the polls, but don't write off Rudy Giuliani just yet. If he can take Florida on January 29 - and he is devoting all his money and energy to doing that - then the recent comebacks of Romney and McCain will look timid by comparison.
Giuliani is the most intriguing of the four. Shakespeare would have enjoyed sinking his teeth into him, because the former mayor of New York is such a whirlwind of contradictions and passions, the main one being admiration of his own abilities. His stalwart behaviour on 9/11 has earned him the title of America's mayor, or Churchill in a baseball cap, and virtually his entire presidential campaign is posited on those 24 hours. But people forget, in the glare of September 11, what he was like on September 10.
For liberals, there is a lovable side to Giuliani, much like Bush circa 2000: a thrice-married man who slept on a gay friend's couch after one of his bust-ups is hardly the kind to arouse fears of a reactionary plot. But it's easy to forget the other stuff. Such as the fact that whereas McCain has been a scourge of bullies throughout his career, Giuliani is the bully. As the joke goes: "The thing about Giuliani is, either you love him or he hates you."
Mark Green, the president of the liberal radio network Air America, knows Giuliani well, having been the public advocate - a city watchdog - for New York throughout Giuliani's mayoralty. He categorises his style of leadership as "abusive, authoritarian and often effective. He would threaten and frighten people - staff, press, rivals - and they would frequently do his bidding. A close ally once told me that Giuliani gets up every morning looking for a fight he can win. That's fine for a prosecutor, and good for headlines, but it's awful for a chief executive."
There's been plenty of flip-flopping by Giuliani, too. Tough on guns while mayor of New York, but champion of the right to bear arms in 2008; pro-choice for many years, now in favour of appointing Supreme Court judges who would take a hard line on abortion. Above all, his pumped up "I'm-tough-on-terrorism" grandstanding has led him to utter some highly belligerent threats, not least to Iran which he says he would "set back five or 10 years" rather than allow it to become a nuclear power.
When Giuliani gets going, he makes George Bush appear as resolute as a marshmallow. Which makes you want to scream out the same question to him as to McCain: Who is the real Rudy Giuliani? Is it the man who slept on a gay friend's couch or the one who would bomb Iran to oblivion?
As for the other two soon-to-be-forgotten candidates: Fred Thompson, the character actor and former Tennessee senator, is making a last stand in South Carolina and can all but be discounted - if he fails to take the state on Saturday, which would be astonishing, he is effectively dead in the water; and Ron Paul has a devout following of libertarians, but he has even less of a chance.
If there's one cautionary tale to be gleaned from the trajectories of all four main candidates, it is that their flip-flopping should not be mistaken for innocent politicking. Giuliani is only talking tough on Iran to win the nomination, the argument goes, he doesn't really mean it. Romney only promises to overturn Roe v Wade as a sop to the religious right - he would never go through with it in practice. But sup with the Devil and there are consequences. As King puts it: "Any candidate who makes promises to the right of where they have been in the past might find himself beholden if he ever makes it to the White House."
One way for liberals to approach the next few days and weeks is to pray that the weakest Republican takes the nomination, thus ensuring victory for Clinton or Obama in November. It was such thinking that led the leftwing Daily Kos blog to exhort Democrats and independents in Michigan to vote for Mitt Romney, the theory being that he is one of the least electable. But this is playing with fire, because what if he won? Mental note to self: remember to see how Daily Kos covers the inauguration of President Romney on January 20 2009.