IOWA provided the first caucus result for the Republican presidential race. It eliminated Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry’s political life support system is all but switched off.
The real winner, just eight votes behind Mitt Romney, was Rick Santorum. His near-victorious challenge to Romney turned Santorum overnight into a serious challenger and media magnet.
The headline he would most have wanted was “Santorum wins in Iowa”. He might yet get it, for Romney’s eight-vote victory is contested and the result is still unofficial. In the Washington Wells precinct it is claimed Romney got two votes, not the 22 allotted to him.
The most significant aspect of this potential electoral dispute, however, is the way in which Rick Santorum handled the issue. Instead of protesting, he adopted a totally relaxed attitude, even joking that he believed 21 votes had wrongly been allocated to him in another precinct. That showed a degree of political maturity: there is nothing America would less enjoy than a re-run of the “pregnant chads” scenario in Florida in 2000.
Santorum’s demeanour contrasted favourably with that of Newt Gingrich, fourth in Iowa, girning about negative advertising against him. Santorum knows that by the time an official result is declared in Iowa it will be history, as the focus of media attention will have moved on to New Hampshire, which votes on Tuesday. That is unfavourable ground for Santorum: Romney is massively in the lead in opinion polls, with 41 per cent to Ron Paul’s 18 per cent and Santorum’s 8 per cent. The best Santorum can hope for in New Hampshire is to gain a relatively credible share of the vote to stay in the race. Paul is the nearest thing there is to a challenger there.
Santorum has to rely on the New Hampshire Catholic vote from his co- religionists and his blue-collar credentials keeping him afloat. Pat Buchanan did well there and Santorum has enjoyed a poll bounce since Iowa. More strikingly, he has also enjoyed a financial bounce. Within a day or so of the Iowa result his campaign had attracted $1 million – as much as it had banked in the months since its launch.
The likeliest candidate to fall off his perch in New Hampshire is Jon Huntsman. His supporters are genuinely surprised that a Mandarin-speaking ex-ambassador to China is floundering in the race. That seems to reflect a serious incomprehension of the American – and especially Republican – electorate. If China wants to talk to Uncle Sam it can do so in English. Huntsman’s real disqualification is that he served as ambassador under Barack Obama, to whom he wrote a sycophantic resignation letter (“You are a remarkable leader…”). Yeah, great, Jon, so how come you are not standing for the Democrats?
Foreigners are always startled by the way in which the US primaries, quickly and ruthlessly, cull the weaker candidates, so that a baffling medley of wannabe presidents is suddenly reduced to a small field of serious contenders. It is still too early to predict the final two, but by the time South Carolina and Florida have followed New Hampshire to the ballot boxes the situation should be clearer.
Mitt Romney has long been regarded as the front-runner, but regarded by whom? Certainly by the British media, who simply label anyone with non-consensual politics a fruitcake. Romney conforms to the principles-free Dave/Nick model of liberal machine politics. The conventional wisdom is that this will attract “moderates”. The reality is that Romney is not popular even with that one-third of the Republican constituency labelled moderate. He is the ultimate “flip-flop” candidate. On abortion he has been both pro and anti; at one point he decided his stance on the basis of an opinion poll.
That contrasts with Santorum who is solidly pro-life and openly proclaims the relevance of his Catholic beliefs to public life. Romney can hardly play the “religious nutter” card against Santorum, since he himself is a Mormon who will not even drink coffee. Santorum also has a coherent free-market agenda; he has used Britain as an illustration of how a great nation destroys itself when it succumbs to the dependency culture and big government.
None of this is to say that Santorum is the emerging front-runner, or even the challenger. Both Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are big beasts with devoted followers and considerable appeal to American conservatives. Obama took America closer to socialism than any previous president and the backlash will be frenetic.
There is a steely determination now to overthrow the People’s Republic of Obamia and restore the United States of America.