Monday, January 07, 2008

Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond

It's been a while since I looked over the water at the interminable manoeuverings for the next US Presidential election, but as the race has finally begun, and as it has been a rather surprising beginning, now seemed as good a time as any to do so. Iowa was a total disaster for one candidate, a triumph for two more and a qualified success for another. I've always thought that there are basically only two realistic Democrat contenders and three Republicans. Since I appear to have been wrong on the latter point, I'll quickly look at those two Dems and four Republicans - Mike Huckabee having rather blind-sided me.
Hillary was really badly damaged by Iowa. As David Davis found in the Conservative leadership elections, if you base your campaign on inevitability, the moment that you lose anything, anywhere - even if it's just a debate, let alone a primary, the very foundation of your candidature is called into question. With people suddenly questioning why it has to be Hillary, all her negatives are suddenly coming into sharp focus, while the area she was trying to stake out - that of a change candidate - has been stolen from her. To get an idea of how much trouble she's in, try to imagine what you would do from here in her shoes. Going negative now would be a disaster - Obama already has the sunny, optimistic thing going on. So, restate her positions? But she's triangulated so hard and for so long that she doesn't have any unique positions. Tack to the left? John Edwards has the leftist populist corner taped. With latest polls showing her well behind in New Hampshire as well, Hillary needs to do something fast - or hope that Obama does something incredibly stupid. She does have one hope to cling to. In 1992 Bill Clinton garnered precisely 3% of the vote in Iowa. Another Comeback Clinton?
Which takes us, of course, to the winner in Iowa - the clearest winner on either side - Barack Obama. His is a mood candidature - I defy anyone to explain clearly and simply what his programme would be, or what his core beliefs are on economic policy. He is running as 'change' 'youth' 'reconciliation' and a handful of other greeting-card mottoes. And it's working. The things that ought to be playing against him - his farcical lack of experience, his youth, his rather light-weight style - are all currently being seen as strengths. He has captured the narrative (yes, I know, sorry) and is making it work. How long he can run on hope and optimism must be an open question - but there's a chance at least that he can run it all the way to the White House - he already has one hand on the Democrat nomination.
For the Republicans (and I'm going to ignore the outriders, from Ron Paul to Fred Thompson) it looked like there was one clear winner in Iowa - Mike Huckabee. He's personable, witty, quick on his feet and a very good politician. His defeat of Romney, after Romney spent so much time and money in Iowa, is little short of remarkable. But it also highlights the Republicans' problem. Huckabee is, in lots of ways, a dreadful candidate. Apart from denying the Theory of Evolution (I really cannot believe I'm writing this) he's also whiny. When people go negative on you, the worst thing to do is go whiny. Actually, the worst thing to do is to prepare a negative counter-ad, call a press conference at which you show the ad, then say that you're not going to show the ad across the state because negative politics are bad. Whiny, hypocritical and farcical all in one go is not encouraging. You'd think that Huckabee simply isn't serious enough to go all the way - but if he's winning in Iowa, surely he'll do better down in the South. Not done with Huck just yet I fear.
The man he beat, Mitt Romney, is beginning to look about as popular with his fellow candidates as a horny dog at a Miss Lovely Legs competitions. All the debates have this sub-text that everyone: McCain, Huckabee, Thompson and Giuliani, spend half their time beating up on Romney. I can sort of see why. For all his granite-jawed, granite-haired patrician-ness, he's changed his mind on so much, at such convenient times, that he looks like a rather slimy careerist. This shouldn't make him stand out at a gathering of politicians, but, surrounded by people like McCain - who really has stood by his principles - it sort of does. Losing Iowa was very bad for Romney - if he can be pushes into third place in New Hampshire, that might very well be it for him.
You wouldn't have guessed it from the BBC coverage (on the first bulletin I heard, they didn't even mention the Republican primary) but perhaps the second most significant result was third place for the Republicans. 'Ugly as sin and old as the hills' McCain may be, but he's a sticker and a gut politician. To come third in Iowa when you've spent your career fiercely opposing agricultural subsidies is something of an effort. To do it when you looked dead and buried in the race a few months ago is even more impressive. The Republicans have been thrashing around looking for their dream candidate - Fred Thompson, Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee - all have had their moments when the faithful think they recognise the new Reagan. All so far have flaked except Huckabee, and I think that will come. So they're left with the flawed knowns. And McCain, for all his flaws in the eyes of the party, is probably the best choice they could make now.
What of the final national front-runner? Rudy Giuliani decided not to campaign at all in Iowa - his style of politics is probably not best suited to the country in any event. But his decision has meant that he's dropped out of the public eye and it has left McCain to take over the 'rational, sane candidate who might actually win an election' mantle. If he doesn't pick up soon, Giuliani may have had it. He needs Romney to get knocked out altogether, and for the choice to look like a straight one between him and McCain. His age, vigour and more robust fiscal conservatism might then be enough to win. The risk is that there's a third candidate - like Huckabee - to sweep up the purists. When Ken Clarke stood against Portillo for the Tory leadership he joked that it would make the Tories decide whether they were more Europhobic or homophobic. It didn't - because a more ideologically pure, electorally impossible candidate slipped up the right. Giuliani needs to be sure that won't happen - and he may already have left it too late.
It is, however, the most fascinating race. There haven't been many elections where the candidature for both sides has been so uncertain so late into the campaigning season. And what's almost guaranteed is that there are scandals, revelations and rumours aplenty still to come. It's beginning to look rather like an Obama/McCain fight though. I wonder who the Vice President will be...

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