Iowa Caucus results 2012: In this contest, there is no perfect or ideal candidate who will beat Obama

Melanie Phillips

Last updated at 9:49 PM on 4th January 2012

Crunch time: The real question is whether any of these prospective Republican candidates will be able to beat Obama

Crunch time: The real question is whether any of these prospective Republican candidates will be able to beat Obama

What is the one question the successful Republican candidate for the US Presidency has to answer?

It is whether this person will beat Barack Obama.

What is the one thing that, squinting at the US political scene from a long way away, I have learned from the Iowa caucus?

It is that, unless a large light-bulb goes off somewhere in the Republican cerebellum pretty damn quick, President Obama will win a second term.

The Republicans are split between culture warriors, Cameroon crawlers and crazies. The culture warriors are deemed to be way too scary and will put off the only folk who matter, the floating voters. The crazies are, well, crazy. The received wisdom is that the only candidate who can win against Obama must be a Cameroon Crawler because he inhabits the safe and very unscary centre ground.

Well, in the UK that was the theory behind David Cameron’s march to the left and look where it got him: he failed to win a general election he could not lose against an incumbent Prime Minister who had brought the country to ruin. Why? Because people could see he was a temporiser, a flip-flopper, an opportunist devoid of principle and vision and interested solely in winning for winning’s sake. In other words, you wouldn’t choose to go into the jungle with him.

Would Americans go in to the jungle with Romney? I don’t think so. Nor, it would seem, do all those Iowans who voted for Rick Santorum who, as if from nowhere, came within a hair’s breadth of snatching Iowa from under Romney’s nose. ‘Anyone but Romney’ does not exactly correspond to the big mo that a winner needs to propel him into the White House.

Ah, but Iowa is Iowa, say the savants; and Santorum, who is very extreme (ie he is unbendingly moral and tells the truth about the world), will terrify voters out of their wits in New Hampshire and other similarly sensible places where the middle ground means – well, you know, going with the flow of cultural change.

Frontrunner: Mitt Romney, pictured with his wife Ann, was hoping to ride his momentum into an Iowa win

Dark horse: Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum (pictured with his wife Karen, left), whose campaign has been surging in recent weeks, was deadlocked with Mitt Romney

Competition: Mitt Romney (left) plays too much to the centre ground, and Rick Santorum (right) will terrify voters in New Hampshire with his extreme views

Well, maybe. For sure, we are living in one mighty confused society here in the west. But once those negative campaigns against Romney get going, I guess Mitt ain’t gonna look quite such a safe bet. After all, if you are a floater then by definition you don’t have a terribly strong animus against Obama. So presented with Mr Flip-Flop Nil-Charisma, you are likely to say look, y’know what? This Obama isn’t such a bad fellow after all. After all, what’s the big difference ? At least Obama has style.

That’s the problem with the centre ground – you tend to get run over if you stand there. But the real issue is that it is not actually the centre ground at all: it’s Mount Unprincipled. Obama v Romney would be Bill Ayers v blancmange. And Romney will be as able to mount a savage counter-attack as would a dead sheep (to mix my metaphors by borrowing a particularly pungent one from Britain’s own internecine conservative wars in the Thatcher years, a war from which the Conservative party has never recovered).

Now that was close: Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, pictured, has emerged the victor in the Iowa caucuses after hours of being deadlocked with former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum

Concern: Once the inevitable negative campaigns against Romney get going, he may not look like such a safe bet

To repeat: in this contest, there is no perfect or ideal candidate. These are extraordinary times — it’s a terrifying jungle out there, and we’re being sucked into the very heart of darkness — and extraordinary times require an extraordinary and larger than life character. The question is not whether candidate X presses all the right buttons – it’s whether the one button he does press is so big and crucial that voters need to set aside all his ‘baggage’ because the other guys have no button at all.

Republicans! Are you leaders or lemmings? Is there really no-one in the whole damn country who has what it takes to lead the free world away from disaster – and persuade the American public to follow?

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