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Who will the GOP choose?

Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann lead the field.

Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann lead the field.

Published in the Sunday Herald on July 3, 2011.

The Allentown steel works, in Pennsylvania, is the perfect spot for a Republican campaign event. The windows are boarded up and there are weeds thriving in the cracked concrete. When Barack Obama toured the plant, in December 2009, to promote his economic stimulus package, he delivered a speech about “good news, just in time for the season of hope,” that is remembered by factory workers as the type of empty promise politicians pack in their overnight bag, as reliably as a hard hat and sturdy boots.

Hope has been in short supply here for decades. Manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas, union membership has declined and wages have fallen. Billy Joel’s song about Allentown – “they’re closing all the factories down” – was written in 1982, but the brutal political truth is that voters have short memories and are apt to blame a struggling economy on the party in power. No president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has been re-elected when the unemployment rate has been above 7.2%. It is currently 9.1%.

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney made the most of the post-industrial setting. “The plant here had been open 100 years. It survived the Great Depression. It couldn’t survive the Obama economy,” he said. “Now the president says, ‘Just give me more time’ and ‘it could have been worse.’ It couldn’t have been worse for the people who worked at this plant.”

Romney never mentioned his Republican rivals, concentrating his fire on the present occupant of the White House. This is partly a front-runner’s strategy, designed to suggest that, as the outcome is inevitable, any intra-party bickering would be a waste of effort. But is also in keeping with what has been, so far, a very cordial nomination contest. Well over a year before the election, the Grand Old Party’s candidates are running against Obama, rather than each other.

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has stripped her critique down to the essentials: “This is the Obama debt, this is the Obama deficit and this is the very poor working Obama economy.” Former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s formulation has a little more flair: “The Obama administration is an anti-jobs, anti-business, anti-American-energy destructive force.”

The first GOP debate was notable for its collegiate spirit. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, declined the opportunity to attack Romney’s prior support for gay marriage, abortions and state-run health care. Bachmann gave a polished performance that introduced her as a force to be reckoned with.

In six months, the primary season will begin in Iowa. There is every chance of a bitter fight before the eventual nominee is chosen. In 2007, Hillary Clinton started out with an inevitability strategy much like Romney’s, while Obama initially pretended to float above the fray, but their struggle for the Democratic nomination descended into an ugly slanging match. Romney still wears the scars from his losing battle with John McCain.

Romney has been running a slow-motion campaign ever since that defeat, seeking to establish his conservative credentials and distance himself from his record as Governor of Massachusetts. He presents himself as a safe pair of hands, a businessman who understands that “every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”

According to the most recent nationwide polls, he leads the field, with the support of 24% of registered Republicans, almost double his nearest rival, Sarah Palin, who has yet to announce whether she will enter the race. Even in socially conservative Iowa, he is tied with Bachmann, following her strong showing in the debate.

Romney’s problems are essentially the same as they were four years ago. 22% of the electorate say they would never vote for a Mormon. No matter how vociferously he claims to be “pro-life,” Christian conservatives remember that he sanctioned abortion rights and failed to stop gay marriage in Massachusetts.

One hurdle that is significantly higher this time is the health care law he passed as Governor, subsidising coverage for the most needy and requiring residents to take out insurance or pay a fine. Massachusetts has the fewest uninsured people in the nation and more than two-thirds of residents support the law, but as a model for Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it is loathed by conservatives.

It has been a good month for Romney. The economic recovery has faltered and Pawlenty’s campaign has struggled to gain traction, highlighting a lack of charisma that even the best organisation and most consistent conservative message cannot overcome. Better still, Bachmann, a Congresswoman from Minnesota, has emerged as his main challenger.

As a Tea Party favourite with an extremely thin legislative record and a history of making inflammatory, factually incorrect comments, Bachmann is the perfect foil for Romney’s reassuringly corporate style. His best hope of winning the nomination is convincing party elites to rally behind his candidacy to stop her. She must convince them that she could win an election.

The response to Bachmann’s first official week of campaigning was summed up by liberal pundit Ari Berman: “She seems far less crazy in person than she does on TV.” Bachmann is from the Christian right, with a record of picking fights about Sharia law, picketing abortion clinics and demanding a symbolic constitutional amendment against gay marriage in a state that already bans same-sex unions. She says God called her to run for Minnesota state senate: “I had no idea, no desire to be in politics. None.”

Bachmann considers global warming to be “voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax.” She accused Speaker Nancy Pelosi of spending $100,000 on alcohol on government business trips, without any evidence, and similarly suggested Obama’s state visit to India was costing taxpayers $200 million a day. She once noted that swine flu pandemics only tend to occur under liberal presidents.

None of this matters, because she has perfected the stance of small town American victimhood that Palin has used to such effect. When journalists jumped on a silly mistake in her announcement speech, confusing John Wayne’s birthplace with that of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, she brushed it off. The more the political class ridicules her, the more popular she becomes with people who share her faith and her resentments.

When Fox News presenter Chris Wallace asked if she was a “flake” she responded furiously. “I’m 55 years old. I’ve been married 33 years,” she said. “I have a post-doctorate degree in federal tax law. My husband and I have raised five kids, we’ve raised 23 foster children. We started a charter school for at-risk kids. I’ve also been a state senator and member of the United States Congress for five years.” He apologised.

Bachmann has a proven capacity for hard work and desperately wants to be president, something that seems less true of Palin the longer her extended media tease continues. For the time being, she is relatively unknown outside her Tea Party fanbase, with none of the baggage Palin carries, in the form of a approval rating of just 24%. While Palin schemes with her husband, Todd, Bachmann has surrounded herself with top Republican strategists, notably Ed Rollins, who managed Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign.

In her opening speech, Bachmann described a coalition similar to the one Reagan assembled in that landslide victory. “It’s made up of disaffected Democrats, independents, people who’ve never been political a day in their life, libertarians, Republicans,” she said. “We’re people who simply want America back on the right track again.”

Bachmann’s wilder pronouncements may yet hurt her. As a “small government” crusader she will be reminded of the fact that her family clinic received $137,000 in Medicaid payments and her father-in-law’s farm took in more than $250,000 in subsidies. The early Republican primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina are open, meaning Democrats and Independents can vote, so it will be more difficult for an energetic group of Tea Party activists to make an impact.

There is still time for another candidate to jump in, but it is unlikely to be Palin. Texas Governor Rick Perry has been flirting with a run, on the basis that Romney is too moderate and Bachmann untested, creating an opening for a social conservative with executive experience.

Perry is as popular with the religious right as he is with Tea Party supporters. He recently pushed through a law mandating that any woman seeking an abortion must see a sonogram first. He boasts that he carries “a Ruger .380 with laser sights and loaded with hollow-point bullets.” He famously suggested that Texas might have to secede from the Union, if politicians in Washington continue to tax and spend recklessly.

His pitch is that Texas has weathered the recession better than most states, because he has stuck to his conservative principles, simplified the tax code, done away with unnecessary regulation and offered incentives for businesses to relocate. He tells potential donors that “in the last few years we’ve created more jobs than all the other 49 states combined.”

This expansion has come at a cost. Following years of lax environmental regulation, Texas is one of the most polluted states in the USA. It has the highest percentage of minimum-wage workers. Tax revenues have declined sharply, so that in the most recent budget, Texas was forced to cut $5 billion in health care funding and $4 billion more from education. But while unemployment remains high nationally, the broad outlines of Perry’s economic success story are a powerful selling point.

In a CBS/New York Times poll last week, more than two-thirds of respondents said that the country is on the wrong track. This is a substantial improvement from the last days of the Bush administration, when nine in ten Americans had a pessimistic outlook, but it is still a worrying sign for Obama, whose approval ratings hover around 47%. Asked to name a Republican presidential candidate they were enthusiastic about, two-thirds of the people surveyed said they were not excited by any of them. Obama’s opponent is the stagnant economy, whoever the Grand Old Party chooses.
Other candidates:
Tim Pawlenty – The former Governor of Minnesota has been playing a long game, building an organisation in key primary states and presenting himself as the mainstream conservative alternative to Romney. Once viewed as a potential front-runner, his campaign has failed to excite Republican voters. He recently spent $50,000 on television advertising in Iowa, a state he has visited several times and that he must win to have a chance of being nominated.

Newt Gingrich – The former House Speaker has run a disastrous campaign, but insists he is still a viable candidate. After it was revealed that he and his wife owed Tiffany’s jewellers several hundred thousand dollars, he took a cruise to the Greek islands, causing his staff to resign en masse in protest. In a much viewed video clip, an Iowa voter urged him to drop out of the race “before you make a bigger fool of yourself”.

Ron Paul – The “Godfather of the Tea Party” is playing his accustomed role, enlivening debates with proposals to legalise drugs and prostitution, shut down the Department of Education and withdraw from all overseas military engagements. As a libertarian spoiler, he has a committed fanbase, but his son, Rand Paul, a Senator from Kentucky, wields more power in Congress.

Jon Huntsman – Obama’s Ambassador to China has views far to the left of the Republican mainstream on immigration, gay marriage and climate change, but he has made a strong start, becoming the media’s favourite candidate and an outside bet to win establishment backing, should Romney falter. As Governor of Utah, he once dismissed Republican leaders in Congress, telling the Washington Times “I have not met them. I don’t listen or read whatever it is they say because it is inconsequential – completely.”

Herman Cain – The radio talk show host, formerly a senior executive at Burger King, was the star of February’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Cain calls himself “black American” rather than African-American, pointing out that he can trace his ancestry back several generations in the USA. He once said he would not be comfortable with a Muslim in his Cabinet “because you have peaceful Muslims and then you have militant Muslims, those that are trying to kill us.”