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Sunday 22 January 2012

Obama's best hope lies in a savage media

Negative coverage is the main reason why the Republican candidates are so poor, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Unless you're reading this indecently early, you'll now know the result of the South Carolina primary. Not being enough of a mug to do any predictions, I'll just offer a few thoughts about the latest episodes in the Republican Party reality show that last week evicted two more contenders.

Ex Utah Governor Jon Huntsman dropped out. He probably could have attracted enough independent voters to give Obama a real run for his money, but he realised that since he couldn't enthuse the Tea Partiers, he couldn't win the nomination. Being smart, he decided to pack it in. He's only 51, and might well do much better in four years' time. Endorsing Romney half-heartedly, he reserved his passion for a comment on his party which will resonate with many. "This race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative attacks not worthy of the American people and not worthy of this critical time. At its core, the Republican Party is a party of ideas, but the current toxic form of our political discourse does not help our cause."

Texas Governor Rick Perry quit next. Explaining that he no longer had a "viable path" forward, he threw himself enthusiastically behind Newt Gingrich: "I believe Newt is a conservative visionary who can transform our country." Conscious of all the dirt that's been thrown at Gingrich, he added: "Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?... I believe in the power of redemption."

This was a blow for Rick Santorum, the darling of the evangelicals. But Santorum then had a boost when it was revealed that recounting in the Iowa primary showed him to have been ahead of Romney by 34 votes rather than behind by eight. However, it's unlikely that the electorate got that excited about 42 votes.

Gingrich, who recently promised to be Bold rather than Nice Newt, has over the past few weeks turned into Big Bad (But Extremely Effective) Newt. He patronisingly dismissed the obviously limited Santorum as "a nice man" and continued going for Romney's throat. Gingrich's supporters have been producing brilliant attacks on Romney's tendency to change his mind to suit whatever electorate he's trying to please. And brutally effective use has been made of Romney's Irish setter.

In 1983, Romney took his wife and five sons on a 12-hour drive to Canada. On the roof in a carrier, the dog indicated his discomfort by emitting a torrent of brown fluid. Romney stopped at a gas station, hosed down the car, carrier and dog, and continued merrily on his way with the dog back on top.

The story periodically haunts Romney, who bleats that the dog loved being on the roof. Gingrich supporters managed to get hold of a clip of Romney saying: "Who let the dogs out? Who? Who?" Additionally, to the usual attacks on Romney for being

a bland, boring, charmless flip-flopper (and a Mormon to boot) have been added accusations that he was a hard-hearted asset stripper who is afraid to reveal his tax returns.

Big Bad Newt has had his own problems, but the big issue last week was junior ex-wife's claim that he once asked if they could open their marriage to include the mistress who is now the third Mrs Newt. Asked about this at the last debate, Gingrich produced an eloquent denunciation: the timing of the question was "as close to despicable as anything I can imagine". He won a standing ovation. The constantly underrated libertarian candidate, Ron Paul, responded later with a neat statement explaining that his problem was not that Gingrich "lied to his wife but that he lied to the American people".

In condemning his questioner, though, Gingrich made a serious point. "I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office."

That's true. It's the fundamental reason why the Republican candidates are such a poor bunch. And why Barack Obama, against all the odds, could yet win a second term.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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