The mayhem called the US presidential primaries officially kicked off on 3 January, traditionally, in Iowa with the first Republican caucuses.
However, the campaign actually started more than seven months ago, when the majority of candidates announced their intentions to run, formed their exploratory committees and started decamping from one fund-raiser to another, from Iowa to New Hampshire, from talk-shows to debates.
And it was precisely the campaign [mind that only Republican Party (GOP) is having primary elections for the presidential candidate this year, as Barack Obama is finishing his first term and will run for re-election, therefore sparing the Democrats of a painstaking process] this year that was something special.
From the very beginning (and even before the campaign started), Republicans had one front-runner – former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney – so to say a pre-destined candidate who was seen by both the GOP establishment and the mainstream media as Obama's certain competitor for November 2012 election. And Romney lived up to that role, leading the pack throughout the campaign and winning the first caucuses in Iowa, state which he lost four years ago.
However, socially conservative and especially religious members of the Republican party and their pundits were never sold to Romney as their candidate, leading to an enormous train of 'alternative' frontrunners, virtual number twos. Total of five different candidates emerged as challengers to Romney, each of them spending several weeks in contention, before slipping to a virtual obscurity.
Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, a Tea Party favourite long stood as the traditionalist conservative alternative to more moderate Massachusetts governor, until she made a crucial mistake saying that vaccines against HPV cause mental retardation. Soon, she was overrun by the Texas governor Rick Perry, who seemed a viable candidate, with truly conservative record.
However, Perry choke in one of the countless debates, forgetting the incremental part of his electoral platform, which opened space for an unlikely anti-Romney contender – African-American businessman Herman Cain. Cain performed well, despite being under fire for alleged sex scandals and adultery, but his campaign suffered badly due to a slip, dubbed 'brain fart' by media in US, similar to Perry's, on the subject of Libya, when he could not quite remember what was Libya all about.
Search for not-Romney candidate brought to surface the former Speaker of the Congress Newt Gingrich, who was finishing 2011 as a strong contender, but exposed to a barrage of negative advertisements from Romney's camp he too started dropping in polls, to end up a distant fourth in Iowa.
All of these things propelled in the spotlight the most unlike of all contenders – highly conservative, catholic former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who was from the beginning considered an outsider and the dark horse of the race. Santorum benefited from the lack of exposure and demise of other conservative candidates, staying the only “Bible-belt-proof” candidate not smeared by ghosts from the past.
Santorum lost Iowa caucuses by unprecedented 8 votes [out of some 120,000 votes cast], giving Romney a serious run for his [quite substantial] money. Former Pennsylvania senator played the low-budget, old school ground game, which eventually, in combination with misfortune of his conservative counterparts, brought him success.
However, Santorum is a highly polarising politician, both in terms of his views and the ways in which he tends to communicate them, making him very unappealing to moderate republicans and independents alike, ergo making him completely unelectable. In addition, Santorum benefited from lack of attention, which is deemed to change after Iowa and already has.
Media attacked him for some borderline racist remarks, libertarian Cato institute and various small government groups attacked his earmarking and spending track record as senator and in fact it seems that it is merely a question of time when Santorum will face the destiny of his predecessors.
In addition, with the religious conservative voters still divided between three candidates – Santorum, Gingrich and Perry [Cain completely abandoned his race after the Libya incident and Michelle Bachmann withdrew after a crashing defeat in her home state of Iowa where she came the last among the candidates running] – it will be increasingly more difficult for former Pennsylvania senator to defeat Romney.
Even in a [not unlikely] scenario where he wins South Carolina primaries and remain the only candidate of the religious constituents, Santorum is poised to face the destiny of Mike Huckabee in 2008 – to win the Bible-belt states, but not much more. Also, he lacks Mike Huckabee's southerner's charm, reverend's appeal and people skills [lest we forget Chuck Norris].
Santorum's best option in these primaries seems to be to play it positive, stay out of the smear and “bash the Mitt” games, prove his credentials with religious conservatives and hope to be a Vice-Presidential candidate on GOP ticket.
From this overview it may seem as if these Republican primaries are simple a two-horse race between Mitt Romney and religious conservatives in which Romney is winning by not doing much and countless media analysts and pundits spent a lot of time and energy portraying it that way.
For reasons best known to themselves, anchors and pundits keep neglecting a 12-term Texas congressman Ron Paul, a 76-year old libertarian with impeccable record of ideological consistency of over 35 years [something that the frontrunner Romney could only envy him for] and an amazingly motivated and energetic grass-roots movement behind him.
Paul is the most outspoken proponent of small government, cutting taxes and public spending, he doesn't object gay marriages, or decriminalising marijuana, and remains the strongest opponent of war in either party. The latest, as well as his doveish foreign policy approach, seems to be the major issue for his fellow Republicans, who often fail to take him for serious.
But, Paul proved to be an extremely capable man with a capacity for strategic thinking. He succeeded in raising serious funding for his campaign and create an astonishing network of volunteers, matched only by Obama in 2008. In addition, Paul managed to double the percentage of supporters and voters since 2008 [again, something that thus far Mitt Romney failed to do], attracting unprecedented number of young people, moderates and independents, and active military personnel.
Most importantly, as a true libertarian and a good strategist, he achieved two major things [I still believe that he, himself, is not in this to win] – brought the ideas of libertarianism to political mainstream and debate [amongst people at least, if not in media], and promoted his son, freshman Senator Rand Paul, as one of the stars of the Tea Party movement and so to say his successor as the carrier of the torch of freedom and libertarian values. One could say that for the past 5 years [his campaign for 2008 primaries started in early 2007] Ron Paul has been paving the way for Rand to appear as a serious contender in the upcoming presidential contests [including Rand's election to Senate].
This brings us back to Romney and the question of what he should do to secure the Republican nomination [chances of winning will be duly examined]. The answer is – not much, just to avoid making a serious mistake. He is poised to win the New Hampshire primaries on 10 January and with a decent margin [probably losing another contender – John Huntsman – in the process].
Romney received endorsement of a large part of GOP establishment, raised great sums of money, gathered influential supporters and set up a decent network on the ground. In addition, division of the conservative votes between three remaining candidates in the 'anyone but Romney' camp increases his chances to win even in states where his popularity is well below 40%.
The only major threat to his plans [aside from his own mistake] is a scenario in which all three socially conservative candidates drop out of the race in fairly early stage of the process without endorsing him, as Iowa caucuses showed that Ron Paul [who will, for sure run until the end, as in 2008] actually has better appeal among the evangelical and socially conservative voters than Romney.
It seems that by Super Tuesday [when majority of states will hold their primaries] on 6 March, we will already have a clearer picture, but probably no decision. So one state at the time; next stop, New Hampshire.