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Sunday 26 February 2012

It'll be Rombo v Obama, say Facebook forecasters

Republicans are reeling from the rollercoaster nomination process but Romney looks safe, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

ON Tuesday, voters will turn out in (Republican) Arizona in t-shirts and (Democratic) Michigan in overcoats to give their views on who should be the Republican presidential nominee.

They must be as punch-drunk as Republicans everywhere, for over the last several months they've seen 10 of their favourite sons and daughters tumble from the very top of various national polls. 'Who will be next?' they must wonder.

Poll-toppers Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump didn't even run in the end, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry self-destructed in debates and pulled out, as did Herman Cain, when allegations of sexual misconduct did for him. The other two, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, have not yet fallen so far, and still soldier on, but will have been distressed -- if hardly surprised -- when Rick Santorum became frontrunner last week. He leaped ahead of Romney (34 per cent to 28 per cent) with Gingrich bobbing around at 14 per cent and Ron Paul doggedly plodding along on 12 per cent.

Santorum's trajectory looked to go further upwards when his witty campaign ad went viral on YouTube. Called 'Rombo', it builds on the perception that Romney has got this far mainly by throwing millions of bucks at destroying his opponents. The scowly Romney lookalike roams a deserted warehouse with his automatic shotgun, firing mud at a moving cardboard cutout of a sunny Santorum. Not only does Rombo miss at every turn, but his gun misfires and splatters mud all over his shirt, illustrating the ad's point that "In the end, Mitt Romney's ugly attacks are going to backfire."

In Arizona, in the latest key TV debate, Santorum was in a brilliant position to dismiss any attacks from Romney as more of the negative same. But the money Romney's been spending on media gurus and coaches hasn't been wasted: he was primed and rehearsed to push Santorum onto the defensive, which is exactly where Santorum ended up.

Probably fatally for a man who spent years as a congressman and senator, and is fighting the accusation that he's spent too much time in Washington, Santorum bored his audience with near-incomprehensible justifications for various of his votes on earmarks (what we would call deals) -- money given to politicians' local pet projects. Pundits say

that a candidate 'who is explaining is losing', or, as the mean but wise Lyndon Johnson put it, "If you're covering your ass, you're losing your ass." Santorum lost his ass.

Since Romney and Santorum agree on so much -- both being social and fiscal conservatives -- mostly their exchanges consist of 'Yah, boo, sucks, I'm more ideologically pure than you are'. In the debate, in several interventions, Ron Paul, the intellectually coherent and consistent libertarian who is personally friendly with Romney, inflicted serious damage on Santorum. Asked by the moderator why one of his ads labelled Santorum a fake, he replied genially, "Because he's a fake." Paul can't win the nomination, but he could be a key figure at the Republican convention.

"I may have given up Santorum for Lent," said a contributor to an entertaining and well-informed Republican Facebook group I follow. "Mitt Romney is inevitable again," said another, "although his detractors can take heart that he's been inevitable before and it's never lasted." The reason he never lasts, remains the same: he just doesn't inspire passionate support. And even by politicians' standards, his disinclination to answer questions grates. "You know, you get to ask the questions you want," he said to the moderator. "I get to give the answers I want."

A clever tweet translated that into: 'Moderator: "What's your favourite colour?" Romney: "Hot dogs."'

Newt Gingrich was relaxed, perhaps because he's almost certainly given up and is staying in the race to make himself even more marketable as a speaker and writer, with an outside chance of a big job in the unlikely event of Obama being defeated. Asked to choose a word that described him, he said "cheerful". Romney, predictably leaden, opted for "resolute".

Those dreaming of the unlikely eventuality of a white knight candidate emerging from a brokered convention still have some grounds for hope. But a contributor to the Facebook group probably got it right with this prediction: "Folks, when everything has been said and done, we will have Obama vs Romney with Obama winning the election by a small margin." It was his view that this margin would have been "bought by huge influx of funds to entitlement programmes and mortgage programmes for the independents".

Obama's certainly throwing money and patronage and anything else he's got at this election, but what he most has going for him is the inability of the Republican party to unite around a candidate right-wing enough to win the nomination but centrist enough to attract independents.

There's not much the voters of Arizona and Michigan can do about that.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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