The Republican race heats up

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann wins the Iowa straw poll on Saturday, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty withdraws after his third-place showing, and Texas Governor Rick Perry announces his highly expected candidacy. Not bad for a weekend in U.S. presidential politics. The GOP nomination battle is as hard to predict as next week’s stock prices.

Bachmann’s victory may not be all it is played up to be in the media. The poll results are not binding and her victory was more a product of organizational prowess than a recognition of presidential acumen. Voters were bussed in at great expense, to be pampered and cajoled by organizers in the field. In 2008, Romney won the straw poll, but lost the Iowa caucuses to Mike Huckabee. This time around the liberitarian dark horse candidate Ron Paul finished a close second (29 percent for Bachmann to 28 per cent for Paul). With Rick Perry collecting over 700 write-in votes, the Bachmann victory in the straw poll looks far less certain come caucus time in early 2012.

The arrival of Perry is not good news for Romney because Perry is a fresh new national face with a record he intends to run on. Romney, on the other hand, seems to be running away from his, including his signature accomplishment—universal healthcare in Massachusetts. We should expect fireworks from the two well-financed candidates as the race heats up. The challenge for Bachmann, meanwhile, will be to keep her momentum against these two high-profile governors.

Where does that leave the rest of the pack? And can a saviour still emerge? Jon Huntsman, Obama’s former ambassador to China, is—on paper—a viable and appealing candidate, but his campaign has yet to take off. His main hope is to pull an upset in New Hampshire. The other candidates in the race will likely remain marginal with some running out of money before primary time.

In terms of new last-minute candidates, it is fair to accept at face value that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will not be a candidate, but the pressure will mount from establishment Republicans unhappy with the current crop and feeling that the White House is within reach. As for Sarah Palin, it is unlikely she will run, but her celebrity status casts a large shadow over the existing field.

Historically, the Republican party has consisted of movement conservatives (social, neo-con, Tea Party) and conventional fiscal conservatives. With the exception of Barry Goldwater in 1964, the GOP has chosen nominees the more moderate establishment favours. Even Ronald Reagan, who began as a movement Republican, became acceptable to the establishment in 1980, though it took him three runs at the nomination.

But today’s Republican party appears to have two dynamics at work: a primary process where movement conservatives seem to carry more weight in terms of issues and policies, and a Congressional leadership/establishment bent on winning the White House with a candidate that appeals beyond the GOP base. Evidence of this split come to light during the debt ceiling debate, when Speaker John Boehner seemed more willing to cut a deal with Obama than his Tea Party counterparts. The same tension is certain to have an effect on the race for the presidential nomination.

John Parisella is currently serving as Quebec’s delegate-general in New York City.

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