The Republican primary campaign lurches into life again tomorrow, with primaries in Arizona and Michigan — the first such contests for a fortnight, ahead of the massive 10-state competition on “Super Tuesday”, March 6, next week.

Months and even weeks ago, it was assumed that these competitions would be formalities. Mitt Romney would have sealed the deal by now, would dominate in Arizona, and would be without competition in Michigan, where his father was governor. Instead, Arizona is Romney’s base tomorrow, with a clear lead there, and he is fighting for his life in Michigan. Latest polls swing back and forth between Romney and Rick Santorum, but only with a margin of 2% each way, which is within the margin of error. The fortnight gap has turned the Michigan campaign into an old-style primary, with the two lead candidates working every workplace, wacko church and live-bait shop across the state.

The process has generated the paradox that has now become a potential catastrophe for Republicans — in order to scarf up the type of people who would be Republicans in a state like that. Thus, what would win Michigan for the GOP — and it is, potentially, a swing state — would be hardcore Reagan Democrat campaigning, a proud mix of cartoon patriotism, vague moralising and industrial protection, disguised under the rubric of “working together to get America working again”.

That formula allowed Reagan to pose as the workers’ friend, even while he was abolishing their jobs. But that sort of balanced appeal is exactly what won’t fly with the base — and so Santorum, in a desperate appeal to get that right-wing base out against the Romney-aligned state Republican machine, has put religious-culture warfare at the centre of his campaign once more.

You have to give one thing to Santorum, even though it must necessarily be given through clenched teeth — he has taken to heart the lesson, best enunciated in the best ever chronicle of a US campaign, What It Takes: The Way to the White House, that not one trace of sentiment must remain if you are to even have a chance of winning the nomination. Santorum has charged into the heart of controversy, attacking in particular a famous speech by JFK, in which Kennedy asserted the primacy of church and state in the US. Kennedy’s goal at the time was to persuade southern Democrats — many ferociously anti-Catholic — to vote for him, only the second Roman Catholic candidate in US history.

Santorum has said that the speech “makes him want to throw up”, and that the existing notion of separation of church and state has to be revised. The statement plays to the obsessions of a small, but vocal, number of people who argue incessantly that there is a “war against Christianity” going on in the US. The cause is a motivating one, capable of getting a phalanx of people out to do enormous amounts of work in favour of the cause.

Indeed, it is the founding issue for the Christian Right, who argue that three-quarters of a century of Supreme Court interpretation of the establishment clause of the first amendment has been in error. For nearly 200 years, they argue, there was no question but that the separation of church and state did not make it impossible to for Christian prayer, observance, etc, to go on in public life. Beginning in the 1940s, those practices began to face legal challenges from secular groups, and the cases established a whole series of anomalous rulings — on the one hand “In God We Trust” could go on the currency (“in Jesus we trust” would not have made it), yet on the other, no prayer, however vague and pantheist, could be uttered in a government school.

You don’t have to be a raving Republican Jesus freak to see that as somehow odd, and a process by which a state mechanism cuts off large areas of social life from its inherited culture. That split is the domain within which the Christian religious right lives and thrives. Their war is not with Barack Obama, it’s actually with Thomas Jefferson, but that would never be admitted.

With 48 hours to go, Santorum doubled down, trying to fuse religious struggle with class warfare, citing Obama’s statement that “every American should have higher education” and arguing that this the statement of “a snob”, who wanted to make “everyone just like him, indoctrinated by liberal professors”. It was a reach into the deepest populist traditions of the American Right — know-nothingism, the idea that book learning would lead one away from the virtuous path. The sally provoked a rare riposte from Obama — who pointed out that he was talking about training and skills improvement, not merely college degrees — and had Republican governors, such as New Jersey’s Chris Christie and even Arizona’s Jan Brewer running for the exits, distancing themselves from Santorum’s position, which is of course, a disaster, if you’re trying to get the votes of millions of people who want their kids to go to college.

For Santorum to take that tack is a case of “whatever it takes” indeed. He has previously alluded to the influence of his father, a clinical psychologist who worked for the Veterans Administration, and credited the GI Bill with allowing him to go to college and being the making of him. It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, but when ever did Santorum not? And no one knows whether this appeal is working or not, because accurate polling of such primaries is so variable.

What one can say, however, is that if Mitt Romney loses Michigan, he will be that rarest of things — a lame duck front-runner. Both competitions allocate delegates proportionally, so there will be no great difference in the delegates they get, and both have hidden factors — mischievous democrats in Michigan who may vote for Santorum (the primary is open), and Hispanics in Arizona, who may also vote him up to a surprise result. But the talk of a brokered convention has now become thunderous and multiple, and bad results for Romney in this contest, and then in super Tuesday would have everything up for grabs.

Lurching indeed, across the landscape, towards Bedlam or the city on the hill or both. Tomorrow, into Ohio …

Peter Fray

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