“Washington is broken, and I can fix it, because I’ve worked in the real economy. If ya watched the Democratic debate – I bet ya didn’t ha ha ha – ha ha ha ha…” Stay on the surface, and Mitt Romney is a bland cipher. But dig deeper and he’s not that interesting. Yep, the man is bland all the way down.

We’re in the mid-Florida hinterland, away from the retirement and tourism strip, in the industrial mid-stretch of the sunshine state, a vast stretch of mid-tech industries indistinguishable from any other state, save for the Avocets, sort of a cross between gulls and flamingos, rooting about in the roadside.

Insofar as Romney has Florida territory, this is it – prosperous workers in high-end manufacturing pulling in good wages, many scientifically trained. They’ve got retirement plans, college funds, share portfolios, they respond to the talk of “management” and the President as a CEO of USA Corp.

Or Romney hopes they do. The trouble with offering yourself as the eminently reasonable candidate, up against the war hero, the preacher or the New York wiseguy, is that you measure your success by systematically lowering the temperature of the room. McCain can get whoops and air-punches from those of his supporters with the strength to lift their fists, when he says he’ll be a “leader not a manager” because “Americans don’t surrender”. When Romney starts talking about his Massachusetts assisted private health care program, the only possible response is a studious nodding of the head, one of the few signs that people here are breathing.

“We know we can do it cos we’ve done it,” Romney says, giving his stump mantra which leads directly into his CV – turned the Winter Olympics around, turned the state of Massachusetts around.

It’s like he’s sitting across a boardroom table at an executive headhunter interview, rather than trying to connect with a crowd. Why is he so studiously avoiding any last trace of the prophetic, the visionary, the uplift needed to float a campaign? Is it because he believes he just can’t swing it, given his opponents’ credentials? Or is he desperate not to remind people of his missionary – i.e. Mormon – heritage, cleaving desperately to the secular, the professional, the unobjectionable? If the latter, he couldn’t be more out of luck, with Mormon church head, 189-year-old Gordon B Hinckley, choosing this week to die.

Romney appeals to the chamber of commerce conservatives across the nation. He’s Mr Rotary, straight down the line on all the issues: business, immigrants, abortion, the war etc etc. McCain is prepared to talk about the complexities of things like illegal immigration, climate change etc etc. Not Romney.

“My opponent wants to put a green tax to pay for global warming. Hey, it’s not America warming, it’s global warming. Why should we pay for it?”

That goes down well with a loyal crowd – and Florida is a closed primary, GOPers only, so every candidate is playing to the base. So Romney’s strategy makes sense, but would that hard line, and the CEO style, work for the electorate as a whole? Given the current polling, the only chance the GOP has of winning is to keep hold of the Nixon/Reagan/Dubya Democrats – and that means a completely different strategy. Hitherto, these voters could be tempted over with social and cultural themes – the war, gay marriage etc etc. That strategy appears to be well and truly busted. A lot of those things – gay marriage is a good example – just don’t seem to matter much anymore, beyond the 35% hardcore.

Quite possibly such things might become live again, if the Democratic candidate could be trapped in a pincer movement, but the trouble for any Republican venturing to raise them is that things have become a bit more well, real, for a lot of Americans, as the economy starts to tank and the war drags on seemingly interminably.

Start all that stuff about “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” and it would simply confirm the deeply-held suspicion that the GOP just doesn’t get the degree to which people are feeling the squeeze. For the Republicans to have a chance, any candidate they put up would have to be able to project some sense of being able to channel the desire for change as energy.

That’s especially so as the results of South Carolina’s primary made it all the more likely that whoever gets the brass ring will be facing Barack Obama come November. Mr Audacity of Hope scored a massive 55% in the South Carolina primary, pushing Hills down to 28% and John Edwards to 17%. That is a huge result and a crushing – though by no means terminal – blow for Clinton, with Obama taking a larger majority than even the polls were forecasting (they had him on a 10% lead).

The reason it is not being regarded as a slam-dunk-lay-down-misere comes down to questions of race which, like it or not, has become a key question in voting patterns. Fifty per cent of South Carolina’s registered Democrats are black, which almost exactly matches his vote. That doesn’t mean it was a one-to-one correspondence – Clinton appears to have got about 17% of black voters – mainly older ones – and the remainder of Obama’s vote was from white youth. Critically for the Democrats, there was almost no crossover between black and white older voters for Edwards and Obama. Neither got much of any of the other’s racial group. Edwards would be lucky to have got ten black votes.

This means that the result is not unequivocally good news for Obama, as outlined by professional political slimeball Dick Morris last week. Morris argued that a crushing Obama victory in SC would make him so absolutely the black candidate (only Georgia and Alabama come close in proportional black population) that it would position Clinton as the one candidate capable of getting the vote of both groups – and Hispanics as well. You would have to be wilfully naive not to see the likely truth of that – and a brokered Democratic convention would.

However, Obama’s SC victory means it may not come to that – the sheer appeal of his message of “hope”, “change”, etc, the spiritual, even transcendental, dimension he is giving politics may sweep all before him. The Democratic rank and file may live up to the spirit of the primary system and deliver a result the party machine doesn’t want. But, as yesterday’s endorsement by the Kennedy “dynasty” – ain’t democracy a wonderful thing? — shows, the Democratic great and good are split on a preferred candidate too.

But whether it is Clinton or Obama, it strikes me that the only chance the GOP has against either of them is McCain. Whatever the black-white split, I can’t see Romney tempting anyone over to vote against their immediate interest, or for a continuation of the war. Nixon got a big slice of Democrats because of the 60s, Reagan because he gave the appearance of being one of the boys. Romney looks like everyone’s boss, the pr-ck in the tie from head office who’s come down to the warehouse to talk about productivity benchmarks and layoffs.

When he tries to dress down it’s embarrassing. Last time he was wearing an open collar shirt, you could still see the square folds on it – the clown had just taken it out of the box, which made him look like the square of cardboard it comes with. It looked less like casual sportwear than those weird see through shirts Ferdinand Marcos used to wear at karaoke nights.

McCain, by contrast, has positioned himself as someone who recognises that people are doing it tough, and that there’s no easy answers. His sheer battered physicality would show up Obama’s youth, sleekness, the absence of content in much of what he says. He’d grab white Democrats from Obama, and male Democrats from Clinton. The question is: how many?

And there’s an earlier question: will the Republican machine let him? And to make things even more complex – how many of these Romney supporters, gathered in this factory canteen modelled like a New York boho deli – people for whom Vietnam is from the history books, Reagan a childhood half-memory – would actually cross back to the Democrats, based on the question of age?

For updates on President Bush’s State of the Union address check online through the afternoon.

Peter Fray

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