The base has spoken: Mitt Romney is the man most likely to win America’s next top Republican and challenge Barack Obama in 2013.

Republicans, tea party revelers and assorted young conservative types were among the 2500 apparatchiks at the weekend’s influential Conservative Political Action Conference, which wrapped up with a straw poll that many politicos interpret as a sneak peak at how the presidential primaries will play out.

And if you’re crossing your fingers and whispering “please let it be Sarah Palin”, sorry, the Alaskan darling doesn’t get a look-in. Palin came a distant third in the running with just 7% support from the same groups that were supposedly her biggest champions.

The man who scored highest can also be written off. Virtually unknown in mainstream Australian circles, 74-year-old Ron Paul has been credited with founding the new anti-tax tea party movement that’s so in vogue in the US right now.

Young conservatives love the Texan doctor, who has served 18 terms in the House of Representatives. His constant criticism of George W Bush economic and foreign policy and his vote against the Iraq war, however, has put him in very bad graces with the party’s establishment.

Paul’s age and aura of quackery — he’s a Young Earth creationist and stands alone in support of legalising marijuana — have ruled him out by the full spectrum of US commentariat.

Instead, the clear favourite to take the mantle from failed GOP presidential candidate John McCain was summed up well by the bold headline plastered across the front page of the big-selling USA Today newspaper: “Is it Romney’s time?”

Indeed, the charismatic Mormon multimillionaire and former Massachusetts governor came second in the straw poll at 22%, more than twice any other candidate but Paul.

The party has been struggling with leadership since Obama took office, at times using party chairman Michael Steele for attack but failing, and recently using too spanking new Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell to return serve during State of the Union. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint has also been mentioned as a dark horse. None are yet in Romney’s league as a de facto elder statesman in the party.

Romney was almost close enough to buy his way to victory during the 2008 presidential primary but was plagued by allegations of “flip-flopping” — the peculiar belief that American politicians should not update their policies to reflect new economic, scientific or social findings. He’s trying the same organising tactics this time, turning up early to the CPAC conference to rally the volunteers — some of whom it is understood aren’t actually volunteers but paid Romney plants.

Romney’s 2008 political action committee, the organisational structure of a campaign for office, still has many full-time staff and raised more than $2.9 million last year. He doesn’t need the money, so it could only be for another run.

This week he’s on a three-month campaign-lite across 19 states to promote his new book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. USA Today made pointed inclusion of key early primary states Iowa and New Hampshire.

Careful of the Republican opposition to Obama’s health-care reform, Romney has written a defence of his own state’s universal coverage, claiming it is nothing like the Democrat’s plan.

Romney would be the safest choice for Australia’s Liberal party to chum with. He supports the same core conservative principals of fewer workplace regulations and less government spending, while still seeing a need for limited environmental efforts.

As the Liberal party has softened with Australian society, Romney’s already on the same page. Amid a new Tea Party conservative campaign, he’s one of few not to get caught up in far-right social policy of returning to  “a simpler time” as many in the party want. Rare in the Republican party, he supports removal of discrimination against same-s-x couples and reproductive choice for women.

With Obama’s support in the polls slumped to precursors of electoral oblivion, Tony Abbott (and Kevin Rudd) would do well to look across the big pond and see who they might next be, ahem, sharing policy ideas from.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey