All eyes on Iowa as win for Romney far from certain

Tue, Jan 3, 2012, 00:00

SIX REPUBLICAN hopefuls are engaging in a frenzied round of canvassing across Iowa in the final hours leading up to tonight’s caucuses, which formally open the race for the 2012 presidential nomination.

In a normal election, front runner Mitt Romney would win. Indeed, Nate Silver, author of the influential FiveThirtyEight blog on the New York Timeswebsite, gives Romney a 63 per cent chance of winning the caucus, followed by Texas congressman Ron Paul, at 20 per cent, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum at 11 per cent.

But this has been anything but a normal election. Since last summer, seven of the nine original candidates have shot to the top of polls, only to fall back again, as fickle voters toyed with the thought of various “not Romney” candidates.

Romney was favoured to win the Iowa caucuses four years ago, when victory was snatched from him by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, on the strength of Huckabee’s credentials as a Southern Baptist preacher.

Ever since televangelist Pat Robertson won the Ames straw poll in Iowa in 1987, and finished second in the 1988 caucuses, evangelical Christianity has been the wild card in Iowa politics. At the weekend, in the last two days of polling done by the Des Moines Register, Santorum surged into second place – 21 per cent to 24 per cent for Romney. This was largely on the strength of endorsement from two evangelical leaders.

If tonight Iowans choose the radical Paul or the Pollyanna-like Santorum over Romney, a rather safe and dull investment capitalist with a personal fortune of $250 million (€193 million), the state could lose its credibility as designator of presidential candidates, according to commentators.

Romney is less than a stirring speaker, but moderate Republicans hope he will tie up the nomination quickly to pull the party back from its drift into right-wing kookiness.

When it awarded Romney its precious endorsement last month, the Des Moines Register, the newspaper of record in Iowa, credited him with “sobriety, wisdom and judgment”, and implied he was the best of a particularly poor field of candidates. The Registergenerously attributed Romney’s frequent policy shifts to an “ability to see the merits of tough issues” rather than political expediency, and hoped his flexibility would enable him “to bridge the political divide in Washington”.

Romney describes his campaign as a fight “to save the soul of America” and condemns US president Barack Obama for seeking to “fundamentally transform” the US. Echoing the Europhobic strain among Republicans, Romney last week accused Obama of “making us more like Europe, with government playing a larger and more intrusive role in our lives and in our enterprises. But Europe doesn’t work in Europe, and it is not working here.”

Romney is favoured to win the New Hampshire primary next week. If he takes Iowa tonight, his likely triumph in the first two important contests will create history. No non-incumbent Republican candidate has taken both states since the present system was established in 1976.

Romney’s quest for the Republican nomination would be boosted by “the big mo” (momentum), a phrase coined in Iowa by George HW Bush in 1980.

In the meantime, Paul and Santorum are nipping at his feet.

The front runner portrays Paul as a fringe candidate who “is not going to be our nominee”. When Santorum surged in popularity at the weekend, Romney reminded voters that Santorum endorsed him four years ago.

Romney has largely been spared the criticism the other candidates heap on each other.

“It would be very good for the future of the Iowa caucuses for somebody other than Ron Paul to win,” Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House whose own candidacy is now floundering, told Bloomberg News.

“Somebody who wins because a lot of college students show up in favour of drug legalisation doesn’t exactly strengthen the idea that this is a good environment to fight in.”

Gingrich shot to the head of the pack in November, then plummeted to fourth place in late December, mainly because of a close to $3 million negative advertising campaign by a pro-Romney “Super PAC” (political action committee) called Restore Our Future. The Super PACs are in theory not allowed to consult with candidates, and do their dirty work for them.

Paul, a 74-year-old medical doctor who has delivered several thousand babies, is the most unconventional candidate, and has developed an almost cult-like status among college students.

He denounces runaway spending on social programmes and foreign military adventures under both political parties, as well as the complicity of lobbyists, Wall Street bankers and politicians of all stripes. He opposes bombing Iran to impede its nuclear programme, and is the only Republican who has not expressed extensive praise for Israel.

But Paul’s image has suffered from revelations that newsletters published in his name in the 1990s included racist and bigoted statements, for example accusing the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King jnr of paedophilia, and saying that Aids sufferers “enjoy the attention and pity”.

Paul says the offensive passages were published without his knowledge. More recently, his campaign boasted of an endorsement from a pastor who had spoken of executing homosexuals.

Paul has also come under attack from congresswoman Michele Bachmann, the founder of the Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives, who won the Ames straw poll last August but is now in last place in the polls.

After Iowa state senator Kent Sorenson defected from Bachmann’s campaign to Paul’s last week, Bachmann accused Paul of bribery. “[Sorenson] told me that he was offered money, he was offered a lot of money by the Ron Paul campaign,” she said.

Evangelicals will cast some 40 per cent of the vote in Iowa, and that share is fought over by Texas governor Rick Perry, Bachmann and Santorum.

Perry has brazenly exploited stained glass windows, steeples and a crucifix in his television advertisements. He advocates using Predator drones and the US army against immigrants on the Mexican border, and portrays Bachmann, Santorum and Gingrich as Washington insiders.

“Expecting them to overhaul Washington is asking a fox to guard the henhouse,” a statement from the Perry campaign said.

An old truism says there are “only three tickets out of Iowa” – first, second or third place. Those who lose in both Iowa and New Hampshire may dance for a while, like chickens with their heads cut off, trying to hold on for the January 21st South Carolina primary, where socially conservative evangelicals will again stand a chance.

CAUCUS VOTING:

HOW IT'S DONE

At 7pm local time today, some 120,000 registered Iowan Republicans will converge on schools, churches, homes and public buildings that have been pre-designated as caucus places. There are 1,774 voting precincts in Iowa – originally established so no one had to travel more than a day on horseback. But many hold joint caucuses, so there will be several hundred meetings.

Unlike the primary states, where polling stations are open all day and it takes only a moment to drop a ballot into a box, participating in a caucus requires a commitment of several hours. You have to go out in the dark, in sub-zero weather, and listen to last appeals by advocates of all six participating candidates, vote and wait for the tally, which is communicated to the Iowa Republican Party headquarters.

Each caucus begins with the pledge of allegiance. A chair and secretary are elected to run the meeting and take notes. Republicans vote by secret ballot, a less colourful event than the standing clusters formed by Democrats in their caucuses, where shifts in opinion are made visible by people walking across rooms.

Despite the unpredictability of tonight’s vote, there is little of the excitement of four years ago when Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in Iowa, setting him on the path to the White House. Because Mr Obama is unchallenged, tonight’s Democratic caucuses will focus on policy issues.

Iowa is proud of its “first in the nation” status. Residents see themselves replicating the agora and forum of ancient Greece and Rome.

“The Iowa caucuses are a great tradition here in America,” says Bill Schickel, co-chair of the Iowa Republican party. “They represent grassroots democracy at its best. People pay so much attention because this is an example of what America is all about.”

Every four years, when it opens the presidential election season, Iowa is famous for the political equivalent of Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes.

“Iowa is not first because it’s important; it’s important because it’s first,” explains Dennis Goldford, professor of politics at Drake University.