Republican candidate Rick Santorum may be on the way to either victory or a close second in the Minnesota and Missouri contests tonight, throwing the smooth coronation of Mitt Romney into fresh doubt. For the last few days, Santorum’s numbers have been edging up in these states as the candidate did relentless passes through the rural backblocks, where his base lives. The work has paid off, with Santorum edging ahead of Gingrich as the preferred conservative candidate to challenge Romney, in Minnesota — and Gingrich absent from the ballot altogether in Missouri.

The final results won’t be known until around 6pm AEDST, and perhaps not for a day or two — both contests are caucuses, and, as we have come to learn, counting can be irregular if not downright chaotic. Colorado is also returning its caucus results tonight, a predictable large win for Mitt Romney.

Both Colorado and Missouri are unpledged contests, delivering no bound delegates to candidates. Minnesota is more complicated — the caucus result itself does not bind the delegates, but the state convention to which the delegates are elected may decide to pledge its whole delegation to a particular candidate.

The return of Santorum was not unpredictable, and gives credence to his argument that conservatives should not give up on him, and flock to Gingrich. Santorum’s hope is that he will be able to convince a crucial slice of the conservative vote to detach from Gingrich and return to him ahead of Super Tuesday — where half a dozen southern primaries could deliver a solid block of victories.

That’s the official story anyway. In reality, the Santorum camp has little real hope of overtaking Gingrich in the South. Moonman Newt had worked hard on portraying himself as a southern candidate without saying so, hence his ceaseless remarks about “food stamps” and “talking to black people about getting jobs”. The more this creates howls of outrage from other sections of the Republican camp and the wider society, the more Gingrich knows he’s winning.

However, Gingrich’s faltering performance of late, and the sense that he’s a busted flush, has given the Santorum camp hope of an upset. And they are unconcerned about the worst possible result for conservatives as a whole — that a strong Santorum showing on Super Tuesday would split the conservative vote, and possibly deny Gingrich a victory he might otherwise expect.

Santorum would be unconcerned by that. Neither he nor his followers regard Gingrich as a genuine conservative candidate — instead they see him as a big government, professional negotiator, supporter of immigration amnesties, action on global warming, and a proponent of the “individual mandate” system that lies at the heart of Obama’s health care plan.

Santorum is now gunning for a vice-presidential slot, and wins in Minnesota and Missouri would give him a great claim on the prize. Though Minnesota is a liberal state, its GOP is hard-right, the home of crazy-lady Michele Bachmann, a centre for evangelism and home-schooling.

Indeed, that drift within a state that has been the home of post-New Deal liberalism — both Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale came out of the distinctly named Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as it is known there — is a measure of the cultural and social change of the US.

Republican or Democrat, Minnesotans were once uniformly liberal and progressive, their worldview grounded in the Lutheran Protestantism of their northern European founders.

The last thirty years have seen that complexion change, as mainline Protestantism loses it cultural centrality, and those searching for a Christian experience have been increasingly attracted to the evangelical and fundamentalist movements. The process is part of the wider cultural and intellectual decline of the US.

Lutheranism is a sophisticated rational faith, which offers no easy solutions to its followers. Fundamentalism and evangelism is a mythological literalism, which offers those attracted to it a simple framework of meaning, and a glow of specialness and the possibility of miraculous intervention. The religious transformation leads the political one, and delivers a self-defined gaggle of enthusiasts to the GOP Right.

The Republicans wouldn’t win Minnesota or Missouri on the base of hard-right votes alone — but Romney know that to get these states he would have to both turn out the base, and have sufficient boots on the ground to reach a crucial number of independents. Missouri is a bellwether state — on all but the most recent election, it has gone for the winning candidate. If 2012 runs close, it may well decide the result. Minnesota is more solidly Democratic, but far from secure, and it’s the sort of state that Obama would have to actively defend if he’s in serious trouble, drawing resources from elsewhere.

So on account of both those places, and half a dozen others, Santorum has a major claim on a VP title. Furthermore he has the only serious claim of the other candidates — neither Gingrich nor Ron Paul are VP material. Without Santorum, Romney would have to go hunting amid the wilder shores of the Right, with the same problems that John McCain encountered when he selected a dashing young woman discovered by Bill Kristol and other neocon grandees in the wilds of Alaska.Possibly Romney would go in the other direction and take a more centrist candidate such as Tim Pawlenty, or an ethnically specific candidate such as Florida senator Marco Rubio. But it is almost certain that he would shore up the doubts over his conservative credentials with a VP candidate who can turn out the base — and then hope that further economic strife would persuade enough independents to grit their teeth and vote for him.

Romney’s path to victory on economic issues has taken a battering in the past few days. Further news that the unemployment rate is lowering — by the entirely tepid figure of 200,000 jobs — has nevertheless given a sense that things are moving in the right direction, leaving the GOP with the unenviable task of criticising good news.

Obama’s handling of foreign policy has also given them little traction. In general, people seem to like his minimal approach — eschewing nation-building, or getting involved in complex situations like Syria — which has been applied at the same time as a statement that he would “take nothing off the table”, in relations with Iran.

Indeed, right-wing attempts to portray Obama’s foreign-policy as some sort of disaster is coming apart through sheer incoherence. Trying to project the idea that Obama has somehow “lost” Egypt, they invite memories of the “nation-building” of the past decade. Arguing that Obama has participated in the overthrow of “friendly” regimes leaves them at the point of embracing Gaddafi. As far as one can tell, Obama’s foreign policy is doing exactly what many people want it to — keeping it well down the list of priorities.

The result of that, combined with Mitt Romney’s unprecedented gaffe-a-thon, is that Obama’s lead has gained some clear blue water. A whole raft of recent polls show a startling uniform result, with Obama leading by 5-6% against either Romney, or the “generic Republican candidate”. Previously, he’s been running no more than 1-2% ahead of Romney and behind a generic Republican.

The widening of the result is particularly encouraging for Obama because it has come after the public has got to know Romney, and the whole GOP team, much better. That bodes ill during the election period proper, as much of the GOP claim to an easy victory has been that once they actually campaign it would be all over.

Though it’s true that the energy would flow differently once the primaries are over, nevertheless the GOP can scarce claim that Obama remains unscrutinised — they have focused extensively on the notion that he is not a real American, worst President ever, etc etc.

That message is clearly not working. Their affirmative message is not working. Filing now, and with no exit polls on offer, no-one has a clue how this will play. Stay tuned, and then it’s on to Arizona … and Michigan … and Washington … and…

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.

 

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW