“This is a wake-up call to the Republican party”, “the Republican brand is in the toilet”, “if we were dog food, we’d be taken off the market”.

Now, come on boys and gals, say what’s really on your mind. The wails of anguish coming thick and fast today are a reaction to the GOP’s loss in a Congressional special election (ie, by-election), this time in the Mississippi first district, which voted 62% for George Bush in 2004, but has just turfed out the Republican representative Roger Whicker, giving the Democrat contender a 54-46 victory. There are no excuses the Republicans can offer for this one – the state is solidly conservative, and the district did not change hands in the 2006 wipe-out, while the candidate was a local mayor and well-liked. The Republicans thought the seat would go close, but the degree of the swing still comes as a shock, the third in a row.

On these projections the Republicans would lose another 30-40 seats in the 435 seat Congress House of Representatives, thus putting them about 70 seats behind, and effectively a decade away from even having a shot at regaining the House.

Wake up call, wake up call – it’s more like a snooze button they keep hitting, hoping for those last ten minutes of slumbrous dreaming involving Heide Klum and an oil slick, with thre-…I mean slumbrous dreaming involving a sudden return to mass popularity.

What’s really terrifying them is that Republican candidate Greg Davis’s candidacy relied heavily on tying his opponent to Barack Obama, whose reverend problems, elitism problems and general fey weeniness in bowling alleys etc featured heavily in the Right’s campaign. That the electorate wasn’t buying it doesn’t necessarily indicate they will vote for Obama – people split their votes more often than they take the party ticket, especially – but it does indicate that a Pavlovian scare campaign ain’t gonna work.

But of course the Republicans have nothing to run on, not even fumes. The Mississippi first district is in the north of the state, and takes in areas that are suburbs – or ex-urbs – of Memphis in Tennessee. When you have to spend two hours or more a day commuting, the gas prices are effectively ten free ads a week attacking the ruling government. Every roadside petrol station price board is a standing condemnation of the government’s seeming paralysis and lassitude over past years.

McCain’s gas tax holiday suggestion was meant to address that, without getting into the tricky issue of actual change, structural transformation and so on. But every poll indicates that the approach backfired magnificently, not only for McCain but for Hillary, who endorsed them in the lead up to Indiana. Her pyrrhic victory there suggests that the appeal of the suggestion was zero, and may even have been counterproductive, communicating frivolity and lack of seriousness.

The duration of the gas tax rise and the remorseless upward creep of prices has made people well aware that a structural change is underway. Together with widespread public concern over climate change, people’s minds have been concentrated, cutting through even the usual American reflex optimistic bullsh-t.

With 81% of the population believing the country’s going in the wrong direction, and at least half of the people who voted for Bush no longer supporting him, the one thing the electorate is looking for is someone to take charge.

Such a situation may mean that there is far more fluidity in the expressed support for the three candidates left in the race, than they would otherwise indicate. The Republicans couldn’t believe their luck when the Reverend Wright tapes and the San Francisco “elitism” tape turned up – but paradoxically while that may steer Democratic voters Hillary’s way, it may in the end have less of an impact in the general contest when the fate of the country is at stake, and McCain continues to give off the vibe that only a few tweaks and fixes in the general programme are required.

Just in case it isn’t, however, John Edwards has finally stepped in to endorse Obama, citing concerns that some of the thoughts expressed in West Virginia by those who wouldn’t vote Obama if he had his own porch and fiddle — and Michelle was his sister — was an indication that the party was being irrevocably split. Since Edwards won 7% of the West Virginia vote without even being a candidate, the endorsement counts for something, but it would be easy to exaggerate it. Hillary has taken most of his schtick and all of his policies, and Edwards is not a charismatic leader of Southern whites – so it’s hard to know whether anyone’s going to come across with him.

Edwards is no big deal for the Republicans. Their real worry might be that, not only are their attacks not working as well as they hoped, but they have no new ones left in their locker, leaving them with the invidious choice of throwing a bunch of stale scandals at Obama or – gasp! – fighting him on the issues.

The issues? Less a dream extended by the snooze button than a nightmare from which the Republicans are desperately trying to wake…

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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