Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Republican primaries

Business Times - 05 Jan 2012


Wide open GOP race after the Iowa primary

The Republican caucuses in the state have thrown up, not one, but three front-runners

By LEON HADAR
WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

THE Republican front-runner has changed seven times since leaders and activists started their party's process of nominating the 2012 presidential candidate early last year, according to an analysis of opinion polls issued by the Gallup company last Monday.

And after the year in which the candidates took part in numerous televised debates and the Republican race dominated the chatter on cable news, the radio talk shows and the biosphere, Republican voters were finally provided with their first opportunity to pick up a favourite candidate during the first presidential primary of 2012 in Iowa on Tuesday.

But the results of the Republican caucuses in Iowa have failed to determine who is going to emerge as the party's presidential candidate.

In fact, there now seem to be three front-runners, each representing three different political brands: former Massachusetts governor and business executive Mitt Romney, who represents the more moderate pro-business wing of the party; Representative Ron Paul from Texas, who is the leader of right-wing libertarians who want to abolish the Federal Reserve, legalise drugs and withdraw US troops from around the world; and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a devout Christian who enjoys the support of Christian Evangelists and social conservative activists in the Republican Party.

No sure thing

None of the three now has a lock on the party's presidential nomination. Mr Romney is expected to win the Republican primary in New Hampshire next week but may not do as well in the coming primaries in the southern states, where Mr Santorum could gain new electoral momentum. Mr Paul has succeeded in mobilising young and enthusiastic supporters who could help him win more votes in other states.

And then there are the former front-runners who could come back to political life in the coming weeks and try to challenge Mr Romney and the other two new front-runners.

In the early summer last year, it seemed as though the main contender for the Republican vote in Iowa would be Representative Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, an outspoken social conservative and a leading figure in the Tea Party movement who ended up winning the Republican Iowa Straw Poll in Ames, Iowa last August, narrowly defeating Representative Paul and dealing former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (who finished in third place in the poll) a mortal electoral blow and forcing him to withdraw from the race. Ms Bachmann, who did not do well in Iowa on Tuesday, may now have no choice but to withdraw from the race.

Iowa Republican voters include a large number of Christian Evangelists and other social-cultural conservative, which explains why Christian broadcaster and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee won the Republican presidential primary four years ago and why former senator Santorum did so much better than expected on Tuesday.

But Mr Huckabee as well as four other popular Republican politicians - Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, former Alaska governor (and the 2008 Republican vice- presidential candidate) Sarah Palin, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Wisconsin Representative and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan - decided to take a pass on running for the White House (Mr Huckabee and Ms Palin preferred to keep their lucrative jobs as Rupert Murdoch's Fox News pundits).

With those four political heavyweights as well as former governor Pawlenty out of the race and following a brief political infatuation with the potential presidential candidacy of business magnate and television personality Donald Trump, Republican voters seemed to be gravitating to Ms Bachmann, and next to Texas Governor Rick Perry, and then to former pizza executive Herman Cain - and a week or two before the Iowa vote even to former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich.

In a way, the Republicans were searching - and may continue to do so for a few more weeks - for the non-Romney candidate, reflecting their main political predicament.

The mostly conservative rank-and-file Republican primary voters, mostly working-class whites, and the members of the powerful Tea Party movement dislike ex-governor Romney, whom they perceive to be too moderate, if not a closet liberal (who at one point was opposed to banning abortions and supported an activist agenda to deal with climate change). They would prefer to see a 'real conservative' politician heading the party's presidential ticket.

Moreover, Mr Romney is a Mormon, and many Christian Evangelists in the South and Midwest regard the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a non-Christian religious sect - which makes it difficult for the candidate to win the support of a large number of Republican primary voters.

Yet, according to opinion polls, Mr Romney is the only Republican candidate who has a better-than-even chance to beat Democratic President Barack Obama in the November election.

Indeed, most opinion polls suggest that President Obama's approval rating remains lower than Mr Romney's approval rating, and that economically distressed and very angry voters are clearly dissatisfied with the current White House occupant's management of the economy.

Mr Romney seems to be doing particularly well among independent voters, including those who had voted for Mr Obama in 2008 and who have deserted him since then. The members of this crucial bloc of voters seem to feel comfortable with the former governor of the very 'blue' state of Massachusetts and perceive the former business executive as an effective manager who would be able to fix the economy.

Swing voters

And these independent voters have the electoral power to deliver several key swing states to the Republican presidential nominee and get him elected as the next president.

President Obama and his political strategists believe that they could defeat Mr Romney or any other Republican nominee by launching a populist presidential campaign that would try to paint the former investment banker and the Republican leadership in Congress as the political allies of the 'fat cats' in Wall Street who want to lower taxes for the super-rich 'one per cent' of Americans - using the rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street protesters - while gutting major social-economic programmes, such as the government-backed retirement and healthcare insurance systems, that help provide assistance to the middle class.

But if Mr Romney fails to force Mr Santorum and Mr Paul to withdraw from the race anytime soon - and if former Speaker Gingrich and Texas Governor Perry, or perhaps even former US Ambassador to China and Singapore Jon Huntsman, succeed in gaining new momentum - the Republican presidential primaries could end up being very long, very gruelling and very nasty.

And a divided Republican Party could prove to be President Obama's greatest electoral asset.

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