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Sunday 12 February 2012

Santorum is just another twist in this evolving tale

Obama's position looks ever more secure as the GOP's internal battle stretches out, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

THE story so far: the race to be the Republican nominee began with everyone agreeing that President Barack Obama would be defeated by anyone half-way decent.

Popular figures like Sarah Palin and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels ruled themselves out because they thought they couldn't beat Obama (Palin) or they didn't want the aggro (Daniels). Despite being a Mormon and therefore appearing a bit weird, Mitt Romney -- who has had successful business and political careers and an irreproachable private life -- was way out ahead in the polls and the man to beat.

The problem was that on close inspection, Mitt's like the guy who takes the girl-next-door to the prom and proves so dull she wants to ditch him. ABM (Anyone but Mitt), the voters whispered to themselves as they eyed sexier alternatives like Texas governor Rick Perry, businessman and general fun bloke Herman Cain and big-brained, visionary, volatile and thrice-married Newt Gingrich, and gave them the come-hither look. In the event, Perry (messing up a debate) and Cain (sexual allegations) left the dance floor.

In the Iowa caucus, another clean-cut, good-living but little-known candidate, Rick Santorum, was the surprise winner, Mitt then won in New Hampshire and seemed back on course, but in South Carolina, Big Bad Newt swept the board. Mitt then threw millions and bucket-loads of dirt at Newt, and licked him in Nevada and Florida. It's all over, said the pundits, until on February 7, in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, Rick sensationally whopped Mitt.

So where are we now?

So far, Romney's at his strongest in the Northeast and the West, Santorum stars in the Midwest and Gingrich has stormed the Bible Belt. There was a Maine caucus yesterday, but what count now are the primaries in Arizona and Michigan on February 28, the Washington caucus on March 3 and the 10 'Super Tuesday' contests on March 6.

Gingrich can still spring surprises, but Santorum expects Romney's 'gotcha politics' to be primarily trained on him from now on. As he put it rather neatly, Romney's campaign "has been about serially tearing down opponents without offering any kind of vision for what he wants to do for this country".

That's thought to be one of the reasons for low turnout everywhere: negative tactics can succeed, but they don't inspire. Romney's campaign team are good at explaining what's wrong with the opposition, but they can't seem able to get their man's virtues across. He seems pleasant enough, but he's short on passion or empathy and he makes occasional gaffes that suggest he's so rich he hasn't a clue about what life's like for struggling Americans.

Santorum has little in the way of organisation or money, but although liberals everywhere believe a socially conservative traditional Catholic (with eight children to prove it) has no chance of becoming president, it is no handicap to winning the nomination.

He's no dummy. A lawyer by trade, 53-year-old Santorum was an effective congressman and then senator for Pennsylvania from 1991 until he lost his seat in 2007. Subsequently, he joined a conservative Washington think tank, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, as director of its America's Enemies Program. Santorum's neocon instincts may shock many Democrats, but his views on what should be done about such threats as Iran, North Korea and Russia will resonate with the grass-roots.

He's a good communicator, who's been a commentator on Fox News and a columnist in the well respected Philadelphia Inquirer.

Obama is enjoying a bit of a spurt in the polls at the moment because of some encouraging economic figures, but he elicits little enthusiasm these days. His first State of the Union speech, in 2009, was watched by 52 million: this year, it was 38 million. He recently, and, it would seem, almost absent-mindedly, began a fight with the Catholic Church by insisting that their hospitals and relevant charities could not be exempted from providing such services as sterilisation and the morning-after pill. Obama's already beginning a retreat on this, but those secular instincts could give Santorum the opportunity to rally the religious right.

This race has been full of such twists and turns that no one's predicting anything. Indeed there are dark mutterings about the possibility of a deadlock at the convention in late August, where the ABMs (Gingrich, Santorum and the libertarian Ron Paul, still doggedly trudging on) combine their delegates to defeat Romney and the convention is forced to bring in an outsider. Mitch Daniels could yet be dragged kicking and screaming on to the podium.

One way or the other, this story will run and run.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards