The US presidential hunt: a long and pheasant season

America’s quadrennial political merry-go-round has finally begun in earnest and the results of the opening skirmish in the US presidential nominating season – the Iowa caucuses — will be announced next Wednesday morning Australian time.

Since President Barack Obama has already launched his re-election campaign, the only race that really matters in the mid-western state is among the Republicans, whose candidates include social conservatives, a pheasant-hunting Catholic, a state governor with a predilection for gaffes, and an anti-war, anti-drugs laws politician with support from white supremacists.

Given all that, it’s not surprising that many are not taking the Republicans very seriously, but that could change if the anti-Obama mood in the electorate grows and one of the uninspiring opposition crew finally gets his or her act together.

The Republicans have been pretending they didn’t care about Iowa, but suddenly with the caucuses to be held next Tuesday, all the major candidates bar one (Jon Huntsman, a former diplomat, who actually knows something about foreign policy, is staying in New Hampshire for the January 10 primary), have started barnstorming the Hawkeye State.

Former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, once the clear leader in Iowa, is now behind second-placed Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts Governor, who’s fighting on a platform of fiscal conservatism and family values – and he’s not the Lone Ranger on this score. Gingrich’s standing has fallen as a result of negative ads, and media reports about his three marriages – making it difficult for him to campaign on family values.  (Here’s a link to the latest NY Times Iowa poll:

The new and surprising leader is Texas congressman and obstetrician, Ron Paul, who has built up a  following since the 2004 campaign when Republicans sick of George W. Bush were looking for a candidate of independent mind opposed to the Iraq war. Like John Kerry, Dr Paul didn’t stand a chance against the Bush juggernaut, but his supporters remain steadfast, even in light of public backing from a white supremacist group. Ron Paul has condemned their extremist views, but doesn’t reject their support – a strange reaction from an intelligent politician (

Two of the flakier candidates, also with evangelical and Tea Party backing, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, are also on the hustings in Iowa, fighting for God and against Obama. They are tied for fourth place behind Paul, Romney and Gingrich, suggesting their religious affiliations are helping them. Both have suffered from well publicised gaffes: a Minnesota representative, Michele Bachmann, named the wrong state where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired, and Texas governor Rick Perry couldn’t remember during a televised debate the name of a Federal department  he promised to axe, compounding a problem from a previous forum when he appeared to be tired and emotional.

The pheasant-hunting politician is Rick Santorum, a former Senator from Pennsylvania, who is highly religious and strongly against abortion and gay marriage, who lost his seat in 2006 to Bob Casey, a Democrat with a famous family name in the Keystone State (like the Kennedys in Massachusetts). Santorum also supports the powerful National Rifle Association, and was photographed with his rifle and his NRA hat by the New York Times on a pheasant hunt with a popular conservative politician in Iowa (picture by Eric Thayer above: here’s a link His presence with pheasants in the conservative state will not hurt the Santorum campaign.

All these candidates will be campaigning hard over the next week until more than 100 thousand Iowans gather next Tuesday night in places like churches, schools, libraries, even family living rooms to vote for their favourite Republican nominee.

Although only one per cent of the nation’s Republican delegates are chosen in the Iowa caucus, the results often point to the potential strength of the candidate at campaign’s end, as occurred in 2008 when Barack Obama won the state’s caucuses or 2000 when George W. Bush triumphed there.

The Democrats will use the Iowa caucus and the upcoming primaries next year to build their campaign for the re-election of the president. The Republicans hope they can get a credible nominee early enough in the primaries so they can concentrate on the real game: defeating Barack Obama.

Once one of the candidates wins enough primaries and caucuses to secure a majority of delegates to  the Republican National Convention — to be held this year in Tampa Bay, Florida from August 27-30 – he or she will be selected as the party’s nominee for president. The nominee will then choose his or her vice-presidential running mate – usually from a state or faction the party hopes will help them win the election. Sometimes the choice backfires, as it did with Sarah Palin, John McCain’s partner in 2008. The selection of Lyndon Johnson as John F Kennedy’s running mate in 1960 helped the liberal Democrat from the Northeast take out a close election (and reminded Americans that the vice-president was only a heartbeat from the presidency on November 22, 1963).

The Democrats will hold their national convention from Sept 2-5, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina, in a bid to make further inroads into the south made by Barack Obama in 2008. Following the convention, which begins on Labor Day in the US, the campaign goes into high gear until election day on November 6. The Democrats and the President hope there will be an improvement in the economy and employment numbers, so the Republicans and their nominee will have to find something else to bolster their campaign. At this stage, it is a faint hope.

The Iowa caucus is too close to call, but I will give it a go anyway: Romney to win, followed closely by Ron Paul, with Newt Gingrich in third place.

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