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Republicans look to Iowa, Romney looks further ahead
After a tumultuous few months of volatile polls and tense debates, conservative presidential hopefuls are bracing themselves for the Iowa caucuses that kick off the 2012 Republican primary season on January 3. France24.com takes a closer look.
After months of headline-grabbing debates, volatile polls, and the usual sniping back and forth, Republican presidential hopefuls are bracing themselves for the first voting contest of the 2012 primary season: the Iowa caucuses, which will take place on Tuesday, January 3, in the mostly rural Midwestern state.
With either former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney or longstanding Texas Congressman Ron Paul widely expected to win, the Iowa caucuses are the first step in what could be a nearly six-month-long process of nominating a Republican to try to unseat a vulnerable President Barack Obama.
A win in Iowa does not always predict the ultimate nominee; in 2008, John McCain placed fourth in the state before winning the nomination later that year. However, the Iowa caucuses narrow the field, usually forcing the candidates who finish outside the top tier to bow out of the race. The caucuses also offer the winner a shot of momentum and an air of presidential credibility that can – as it did for Barack Obama in 2008 - carry him or her right up to the convention at which a nominee is officially named at the end of the summer.
Romney, the inevitable?
According to Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institute, “the Republican contest appears to be returning to where it started”. In other words, no matter who wins Iowa, Romney, a sharp debater, former businessman, and mainstream conservative, is best-positioned to be the nominee – despite the general lack of enthusiasm for the candidate among Republican voters. “It has been apparent from the outset, and reinforced over recent months, that Romney is the only plausible nominee - plausible as a serious opponent to Obama and as an occupant of the White House,” Mann told France24.com. “He now appears likely to do well enough in Iowa and win big enough in New Hampshire to move inexorably to the nomination.”
After spending much campaign time and money in Iowa in 2008, only to lose it to Mike Huckabee, Romney has done little to court the state’s voters this time around. That may explain recent surges in the state by two candidates who have failed to gain much ground in nation-wide polls: libertarian Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
But even if Paul or Santorum were to eke out a victory in Iowa, Romney still would probably not have much to worry about in the long run. As Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told France24.com: “Paul's set of beliefs - libertarian on drug use, gays, defence expenditures, and foreign wars - are simply not acceptable to a sizeable majority of Republicans. And though Santorum is more in the Republican mainstream, he’s on the right side of it, and he has little money and few troops.”
A threat from the rest of the field is looking increasingly unlikely. Newt Gingrich, the controversial former Speaker of the House of Representatives has seen his lead in a slew of nation-wide Republican polls erode in the face of recent attacks from rivals, as well as his own shaky campaign organisation.
And two candidates who once enjoyed plum positions in the polls, Texas Governor Rick Perry and Tea Party darling Representative Michele Bachmann, are now seen as long-shots. As for the most moderate Republican candidate, Obama’s former US China envoy Jon Huntsman has failed to transcend the underdog image that has clung to him since the day he declared his candidacy.
Focusing on Obama
Aware of his frontrunner status, Romney has been aiming most of his criticism not at his conservative rivals, but rather at the man he hopes to face in the general election. “Gone is the ‘hope and change’ candidate,” Romney told a crowd of 300 supporters at a speech in Iowa earlier this week. “Instead, the campaigner-in-chief divides Americans, engages in class warfare and resorts to distortion and demagoguery.”
With candidates swiftly rising, falling, withdrawing (in Herman Cain’s case) and sometimes giving less-than-stellar debate performances (in Rick Perry’s case), the Republican race thus far seems to have benefitted Obama slightly; even though plagued by a sluggish economy and unimpressive job approval ratings, he has continued to poll solidly against all potential Republican opponents in nation-wide surveys.
If Romney eventually emerges as the Republican nominee, all indicators point to an extremely close race in November. “I would give a slight advantage to Obama, based on the successful track record of most presidents seeking re-election, the low ratings and ideologically extreme position of the Republican party, and signs of life in the US economy,” Thomas Mann assessed. “Of course, previous signs of recovery in 2009 and 2010 have been followed by bad news, and that could happen again. If it does, the race becomes a tossup.”