Magazine article The Spectator

Elephant Trap

Magazine article The Spectator

Elephant Trap

Article excerpt

The Republican voters of Iowa could not make up their minds. Months of flirting with different candidates preceded their decision to give Rick Santorum a moment in the sun. Hardly able to believe his own good luck, he could not help knowing, even in the euphoria of his virtual dead heat with Mitt Romney for first place, that he too would probably sink back into the obscurity from which he had only just emerged. He told his astonished supporters, gathered in a ballroom in Johnston, Iowa, 'I've survived the challenges so far by the daily grace that comes from God.'

Romney remains the presumptive Republican candidate, having won in Iowa by eight votes, but suddenly Santorum looks like the principal alternative.

Santorum, aged 53, a rich lawyer who represented Pennsylvania in the US Senate from 1992 to 2007, depicts himself as the pro-family candidate. The Catholic son of an Italian immigrant, he is attractive to fundamentalist Protestants because of his opposition to homosexuality and abortion, and his scepticism about the theory of evolution.

He favours a militant foreign policy against Islamists and supports 'enhanced interrogation' techniques against suspected terrorists.

American Muslim groups protested Santorum's suggestion, in a November debate, that Muslims should be singled out for scrutiny at American airports. Gay rights activists have conducted a campaign of scurrilous abuse against him, while Hispanic groups resent his plans for a more vigorous blockade of the Mexican border against illegal immigrants.

A mere two weeks ago, Santorum's tie with Mitt Romney and his victory over Ron Paul were unimaginable. Despite tireless campaigning in all of Iowa's 99 counties, he stayed near the bottom of the popularity list.

He admitted that one of the 380 'town hall' meetings he conducted in the state last year was attended by only a single citizen. Why the sudden burst of popularity? When Newt Gingrich emerged in December as temporary favourite, mainstream Republicans began pouring money into anti-Newt TV commercials, denouncing him as a superannuated scoundrel. The ads worked, scuppering Newt's candidacy and creating a vacuum that Santorum was able to fill. Santorum has not yet endured the wounding investigations that have harmed his rivals. Now an immense spotlight will be turned on him. Even if there are no skeletons in his closet, his policy positions mark him as a rank outsider, unlikely to prevail for long.

The near-tie with Santorum was far less pleasing to Mitt Romney (64), who had hoped and expected to be the outright winner. He can still reasonably expect to win the Republican nomination next summer, but it's hard to imagine that he can beat the incumbent in the general election next November. Once a sensible middle-of-the-road fellow, Romney found during the autumn campaign that he had to move sharply to the right to win favour with the Republicans' militant 'Tea Party' activists. They still didn't quite trust him but he has been everyone's second choice, the more or less steady frontrunner since last April. Apparently willing to say whatever the voters want to hear, however, he has gained a reputation for unprincipled opportunism.

Romney spent the autumn rummaging around in his own past for something about which he had shown long-term consistency.

The only things he could come up with were decades of loyalty to his wife and an even longer fidelity to his faith. Unfortunately for his election prospects, that faith is Mormonism. At the height of the Vietnam war during the late 1960s, Romney was hard at work as a missionary in Bordeaux and Paris, trying in vain to turn bibulous Frenchmen into teetotalling Mormons.

Snapping at the heels of Santorum and Romney is the 76-yearold Ron Paul, the most consistently libertarian of the candidates. He is a genuine minimalist when it comes to government, outspokenly opposed to all foreign adventures, a foe of taxation and currency manipulation. …

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