Celebrity Outshines Country

Tripoli

When asked where I am from, I now just say, “Chelsea” and then there’s instant understanding. For a Spurs fan this is irritating but one has to do what works. When Libyans on the street ask me where my wife is from (of course they ask me not her and quite right, too) I say, “Obama”. Again, this gets the job done much better than saying U.S. or America. Cameron, Nick Clegg, Mitt Romney, Santorum — absolutely no recognition. Beyonce works, though.

What a strange world we live in now: celebrities and sports teams have greater name recognition than countries.

I am thinking of trying Simon Cowell next.

Almost Enthusiastic

This quote in the Washington Post from a Republican voter in Illinois about Mitt Romney about sums it up. “I’m almost enthusiastic.”

Romney’s Illinois win last night  confirms that he’ll get the GOP nomination but Rick Santorum is unlikely to drop out, even though his campaign’s most optimistic projection has him short by nearly 150 of the necessary delegates to secure the nomination himself.

So, Romney’s less than triumphant progress to the convention is likely to have some more setbacks on the way, courtesy of Santorum wins.

 

South Carolina Is Not France

What a predicament evangelical Protestant Christians in South Carolina will face this weekend! They will make up an overwhelming voting bloc in the GOP primary on Saturday — up to about 60 per cent of the Republican electorate, and how they vote will decide not only this primary but, I suspect, the eventual Republican nominee.

Now that Texas governor Rick Perry has ended what must rank as one of the most disastrous GOP primary campaigns in recent U.S. politics, those evangelicals are going to have to pick between a Yankee Mormon, a thrice-married Roman Catholic convert who apparently lobbied his second wife to accept an open marriage, and another Catholic from a northern state.

This isn’t the best state for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. In 2008, he came in a poor fourth. Many evangelicals in the state consider Mormonism a non-Christian cult and his moderate Republicanism is also something to be held against him. Four years ago, he didn’t win a single county.

Unsurprisingly, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has surged in recent polls in South Carolina. Various analysts say this will be a close race between the two. Gingrich campaign advisers I have talked to remain confident and are over the moon with the Perry endorsement.

And in the ads they are running in the state they are doing everything to play up all the “moderate” positions Romney has adopted in the past – from his onetime support of abortion rights to immigration reform. Privately, they say that Gingrich’s repentance for his infidelities will play well and they suggest that Romney’s Mormonism will continue to harm him – not that they will pay that card openly.

But times might have changed and it may be that Gingrich’s past is more of a liability than Romney’s Mormonism.

First, South Carolina’s evangelicals have had four years to mull over his Mormonism – the shock value has diminished this time.

Second, conservative radio host Glenn Beck has helped to neutralize the disapproval of Mormonism among the evangelicals in the state. He chose the Palmetto State in 2009 to kick off his nine-city book tour marketing “Arguing With Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government,” and he now counts evangelical Protestants in that state among his most fervent loyalists.

Even an evangelical authority such as Gary Weier, executive vice-president of the Greenville-based Bob Jones University, believes Mormonism has become a non-issue. “He may have certain values but he is not seeking the office of the presidency to convert the nation to Mormonism,” he told the Financial Times.

And the polls suggest that Romney is doing much better among the evangelicals than he did in 2008. In fact, evangelicals are closely divided, with a Time/CNN/ORC South Carolina survey giving Rick Santorum 20 percent, Gingrich 23 percent and Romney himself a respectable 26 percent – a tremendous improvement on his showing four years ago when he garnered just 11 percent of the evangelical vote.

When it comes to the remaining 40 percent of likely primary voters in the Palmetto State, Romney is charging away, leading Gingrich 47 percent to 22 percent.

Gingrich’s supporters – and a media keen to keep the race from becoming dull in its inevitability – are playing up the Perry withdrawal and the Texas governor’s endorsement of Gingrich, arguing that Romney will not be able to benefit from his divide-the-conservative-vote and-conquer strategy of the past. But this is not a straight race between the former Massachusetts governor and the former House Speaker — Santorum is still in the race and even stronger than a week ago buoyed as he is by the announcement that he might after all have beaten Romney in Iowa.

Divide and conquer still stands.

Another factor seemingly working in Romney’s favor is that this year economics is trumping religion. Most primary voters in the state – as with voters everywhere – are looking for someone who can turn the economy around. Maybe Romney can, maybe he can’t, but most surveys show a majority of GOP primary voters believe he is the best candidate to do so.

Obviously, tonight’s debate could be crucial – neither Romney nor Gingrich can afford a major slip-up. But Gingrich has the bigger challenge. That’s because he goes into the debate with today’s background of attacks from his former wife, Marianne, who has claimed that he wanted an open marriage.

That disclosure will be aired immediately following the debate on ABC in which Marianne will say that Gingrich wanted to continue his six-year affair and proposed maintaining their marriage and keeping a congressional aide, who is now his third wife, as a mistress. While the allegation is not entirely new, the timing of it now is deeply damaging – especially on the eve of a primary vote in the Bible belt.

Gingrich supporters – including now Rick Perry – are emphasizing that their candidate may not be perfect and that he is a man who has learned from his past mistakes. But South Carolina is not France, and, I suspect, that Marianne’s revenge outweighs Romney’s Mormonism.

 

Iowa: Who Won? Don’t Know. Never Mind!

So apparently Iowa is now too close to call and maybe Rick Santorum won after all. And we trot around the globe encouraging others to follow our democratic processes!

Both the US and UK have excellent non-profit agencies funded by US AID and the Department of International Development counseling various electoral commissions in foreign countries, training poll-workers and advising on electoral process and we can’t get it right ourselves — the Florida debacle and now this in Iowa.

At the last UK general election there were several constituencies where thousands of voters were prevented from voting. But there were no re-runs — when there should have been. Now what does the Bible say, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

NBC points out that the Iowa Caucus results are not binding, meaning the results do not dictate which candidate the delegates at the national conventions in the summer vote for. “So not having an actual ‘winner’  of the caucuses will not have as big of an impact as it would in other binding states,” the news report states.

Maybe so, but declaring Mitt Romney did have an impact on the race: it allowed the former Massachusetts governor to build up a sense of inevitability about his candidacy that likely influenced some voters in New Hampshire and almost certainly helped his campaign fundraising. In short, it had a distorting affect.

 

The Surprising Rise of Rick Santorum.

A late surge in Iowa by Rick Santorum has the chattering class…well, chattering.  The former Pennsylvanian Senator has worked Iowa hard and the state tends to reward those politicians willing to engage in close personal encounters – retail politics is all in the Hawkeye state.

But the big question is whether the sudden enthusiasm for Santorum is a reflection less of his innate skills or what he has to offer than the continuing lack of excitement for frontrunner Mitt Romney.

The GOP primary race from the get-go has been about a search by the Republican faithful for a conservative alternative to Romney. A good showing for Santorum – being in the final three – would presumably put paid to Michelle Bachmann: a poor showing for her in Iowa, a state she too has banked on, would imprison her in the low single digits from here on.

My prediction for Iowa: Romney pulls off a win because the anti-Romney vote gets hopelessly split with Ron Paul coming in second and possibly Santorum third. Curiously, Newt Gingrich just hasn’t taken fire in Iowa, despite his national surge. Maybe that’s because his field operation in the Hawkeye State was late in being formed.  Some good blog reporting by The Hill’s Niall Stanage here.