“Man, we can’t take another four years of this.”

At Tony Packo’s bar and grill in Toledo’s Little Budapest, Roy is expounding to me the line that is now standard issue on the Right. With a ginger Newk ‘tache, and in overalls, he looks like a recruit for Circus Oz, but apparently he’s a carpenter and came straight from work. We’re here — this was last night — with a few dozen other people, waiting on an appearance from Sam Wurzelbacher, better known as Joe the Plumber, who has put himself up for the Republican primary for the 9th district, the new seat covering both Cleveland and Toledo, running along the shore of Lake Erie.

The Democratic competition was a vicious one between two sitting high-profile Dems, Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich. The GOP slot was vacant, in what is a pretty solid Democratic area and Joe put his hand up, to be of service to his country/extend his 15 minutes into injury time (strike out whichever does not apply). His opponent was a policy wonk, but Joe outspent him about five to one, and worked the local Republican clubs assiduously.

He also gained the support of Herman Cain. Despite that, hopes remain high. But at Tony Packo’s Joe is nowhere to be seen, and no one’s clear whether he’s already been and gone, or hasn’t arrived yet. His whole campaign was like that, his website updated once in 10 days, his campaign “office” an answering machine that never garnered a reply. The crowd at Packo’s are like Joe — a lot of the ex-forces, they project an air of being just plain working-class types, but quickly wander into the byways of paranoia and extremism.

“They want to get control of the health system, cos when they get that they’ve got control of the whole system.”

“That is true, that is very true.”

“This is part of a much larger plan.”

“We can’t afford four more years of this — there won’t be an America.”

“What does that even mean. Do they think the USA will simply cease to exist?”

“Well no, of course not, but it won’t be, you know, itself, you know what I mean.”

”Well not really,” I say, finding some final burst of energy to actually talk back, rather than nodding and wanting to be back at the room watching a Law and Order repeat. “I mean as far as redistributing the wealth, the tax rate was higher under Reagan.”

“Well you know man, just I dunno, clearly our opinions don’t count!” He pulls deep on a beer. “Our” being the people here, tradies, tradies without jobs, ex-forces types, their wives and girlfriends. Later, it would transpire that they — and an easy 50 grand in expenditure — had pushed Joe over the line to a narrow victory. Sadly, Kucinich lost to Kaptur, because that would have been an era-defining struggle. As it is, Kaptur, very popular, very powerful, good at getting pork and earmarks, will most likely take poor old Joe apart.

That likely result looks likely to be repeated on a grand scale. The day after Super Tuesday, with Mitt Romney winning a tepid victory that seemed — as Markos Moulitsas noted — to detract yet further from his appeal, a series of new polls came out, ones incorporating the reaction to the new Republican Limbaugh/Iran clusterf-ck, and showing Obama to be leading over Romney by a cool seven points. Given that that seven points is on a Rasmussen poll — a poll that, according to 538.com is regularly GOP shifted by three points — those are some major numbers indeed.

An NBC/WSJ poll gives the same figure, and a whopping margin over Santorum — Obama by 14 points, a measure of how much ground the conservatives have lost with independents following the contraception mosh-up. For Romney, the news couldn’t be worse — his support is falling  in the Republican base, and among independents.

His less-than-stonking victories at Super Tuesday will not help either. Romney took Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia — as he was always going to, though even he was less than commanding in Vermont, with the combined vote against him being 60% — he took Mormon-heavy Idaho, and he got a narrow victory in Alaska, 33% to 29% for Santorum. But he was defeated in North Dakota, where he should have prevailed, and of course he went down in Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma, the latter two going to Santorum.

Most importantly, in Ohio, he was run to the wire — Santorum led throughout the evening, and Romney eventually transpired by 0.8%, with votes from Cleveland, a strongly Democratic area. In the next fortnight, he faces three southern primaries — Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana — and a bellwether state, Missouri.

His likely gains are going to be consolations prizes — Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and his only dependable victory is Illinois. Following that, in early April, two likely victories — Wisconsin and Maryland — will be offset by, if yesterday’s results are any guide, a Santorum victory in Texas. And on it goes. Neither Santorum nor Gingrich have any clear path to the 1144 delegates needed for a pre-convention victory — but, importantly, it is not clear that Romney does either.

The problem for Mittens is the rule changes put in by the Republican National Committee following the 2008 election — converting winner-take-all contests to proportional ones. In ’08, McCain had locked the nomination up by February, which was too soon — Obama gained months of publicity, and blooding, from the six-month battle with Hillary. But the GOP centre, never believed that the lead candidate would be so legitimised as to see the victories split between three candidates.Now they have a real nightmare on their hands — if Romney continues to win his existing share of 40% delegates, he won’t get 1144 by the time the season is concluded, and the matter will have to be sorted out at convention. And with that open, who knows what is possible? Ron Paul will ultimately swing his delegates behind Romney, but what if Santorum offered Gingrich the VP spot? With Romney running so far behind Obama, his one claim to pre-eminence — legitimacy — is gone.

Of course at that point, all convention discipline falls apart, and the notion of a ‘pledged’ delegate or one ‘bound’ to a specific candidate, becomes purely fictional. With the convention reduced from four days to three — given that they have been for decades, coronations — there is the real possibility that there would not be enough time for a smooth deal to be put in place. The nomination would be decided by waves of ballots, and, as with the McGovern victory in ’72, achieved at three in the morning. Credentials, disputes, blackmail, craziness and desperation — everything is on offer. Please, please oh god, please let it be.

For this and other reasons, many US conservatives — George Will is the most prominent — are already calling ’12 as a repeat of ’96 and ’84, and arguing that the GOP should take the same strategy as the losing side took then, and put its energies to shoring up the vote in the House, and trying to regain the Senate. That is itself an increasingly fragile notion, with the announcement by GOP Maine moderate Senator Olympia Snowe that she will retire — thus making a Democratic or independent gain possible, and the Democrats retaining the Senate.

At Tony Packo’s no one wants to believe it. They cannot believe it. The possibility that Obama may not only win but win easily, will provoke a fundamental crisis in their identity. “Man, polls are polls, they ain’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Obama was behind in the polls this time in ’08.”

“Actually he was ahead — by the same margin he is now.”

“Well whatever — say who’s gonna PUT SOME GODDAM GOOD MUSIC ON!”

“DAMN RIGHT!”

That is the sign that I have been dismissed. They are getting their drink on, still waiting for Joe. The most important election of our time for them, not for the reason they think — America will still be here — but because their whole worldview is dependent upon winning, and if they do not, will slide down to the shore, and into the dark waters of Lake Erie.

Peter Fray

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