|Posted on November 6, 2011 at 9:10 AM|
Flying across Iowa, the flat fields of corn stretch way into the distance until the handful of tower blocks which mark the centre of Des Moines suddenly loom into view.
In just two months, the Midwest state, will for a short time become the most important one in the union. Just three days after the New Year begins, the state’s Republicans will gather in caucus to decide who they would like to see challenge Barack Obama for the Presidency of the United States.
Yet two months out – what is happening here reflects the state of the Republican party nationally. There is no clear front runner, no obvious winner from a wide and determined field. The most recent opinion poll – conducted by the respected local paper, the Des Moines Register puts two candidates clearly in front, Herman Cain and Mitt Romney. Both have bucked the perceived orthodoxy of political campaigning for the presidency by spending little time in the state.
Herman Cain’s campaign has been unusual from the start. His campaign office in the state is based in a shopping area a short drive from the city centre. A flag flies outside, the front of the building is covered in banners. Inside there are just four full time employees who co-ordinate the efforts of a few hundred volunteers. All are committed to the cause; all speak highly of their candidate unconcerned that his visits to the state have been few and fleeting, dismissive of the claims he was guilty of sexual harassment which have surfaced over the past few days.
Mitt Romney campaigned hard in Iowa four years ago. He massively outspent his rivals and spent so much time here some thought he’d taken up residency. But he lost. So this time he hasn’t quite turned his back on the state, but he’s not making the trips across the cornfields he has in the past.
The former Massachusetts governor seems to be the one the party establishment would like in place. He's tall and handsome; he has legislative experience as well as a business background. He’s impressed in the series of debates among the candidates appearing the most presidential. He’s been in the front two for months and seems the man most likely.
The next contest up after Iowa is New Hampshire. It’s where Romney now calls home and he’s the clear favourite there. If anyone is going to stop him, it has to be here in Iowa.
Yet many party members don’t get Romney. They don’t trust him and the right wing believe he has flip flopped on issues close to them. And so they have consistently cast around for other candidates, flirting with Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, almost crying out for someone, anyone, who is not Mitt Romney to appear over the horizon and guide them to victory.
For the conservatives, there is no one candidate they can rally around. Congresswoman Michelle Bachman who won the state’s important straw poll in August has seen her star fall rapidly and unexpectedly. She’s currently polling in single figures. The Tea Party standard bearer in Congress – the far right wing of the Republican Party – may do better than expected though as people reject the top two. It’s certainly what her campaign – based in the same shopping area as Cain – is hoping. The closest to her politically would be former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum who has visited all 99 counties in the state and whose socially conservative views on homosexuality and abortion might chime with Iowa’s older voters. As he told me before an event in Des Moines: “I don’t run for anything to finish second or third I only run to finish first and we are going to work hard to do that”
Some seasoned observers tip him to confound expectations – and in Iowa that’s almost as good as a win.
The Texas Governor Rick Perry could spend some of his massive fundraising efforts to buy advertising in the hope it will turn a few more votes his way. He has the advantage of not being disliked by any wing of the party, he would lock up the south and he is a phenomenal fundraiser.
Defeat in Iowa is not fatal – John McCain tied third but still won the nomination in 2008. But it’s likely many of the campaigns know they are now simply going through the motions and will end here in the snow and the chill of January.
Perhaps the most telling figure in the survey is that just 25 percent of people interviewed said their minds are made up. The rest have either no allegiance or can easily be persuaded to change horses. The Republican Party faithful believe – given the state of the economy – that Obama is vulnerable and can be beaten. Over the next two months they have to overcome their anguished indecision to anoint the person to take the fight to the country.