The Canberra Times

by David Smith

US primary elections are unpredictable affairs. A candidate's prospects can reverse over the course of a week or a day, changing dramatically with events that seem trivial or irrelevant to outsiders. This volatility is built in to the foundations of the primaries, where the states vote one at a time over 12 drawn-out weeks until the Super Tuesday primaries in March when nearly half the states vote at once. The first four contests -Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida - are extremely important.

In the November presidential elections, hundreds of millions of voters will decide between two candidates from opposed parties with fairly different visions of government. But in the state primary elections, a few thousand supporters of the same party have to choose from a much larger field of candidates all promising very similar things. Tiny advantages and errors can have enormous effects in such contests. Where presidential elections are determined by huge, slowly changing factors such as the economy and the incumbent's record, the first few state primaries can be decided by one-liners in debates or televised gaffes. The results in these primaries then exert a huge influence over later contests, culling the field and giving voters an idea of who is electable.

Would-be presidential nominees often spend years preparing their primary campaigns only to see them smashed to pieces in one of the first four races, often by circumstances beyond their control. In 2008, Rudy Giuliani had been an impressive frontrunner for at least four years, but poor tactics and minor scandals saw his campaign fizzle out after a third-place finish in Florida, his best result. Less than 2per cent of the Republican electorate has voted so far this year but we have already seen the demise of the Bachmann, Perry and Huntsman campaigns, along with others who never made it to the starting gate.

For the candidates who remain, last week's South Carolina primary showed just how erratic, redemptive or cruel the early bouts can be. Newt Gingrich had appeared dead after Iowa, buried beneath a pile of attack ads reminding voters of his disappointments as a House leader in the 1990s and his subsequent career as a glorified lobbyist and political weathervane (they needed no reminders of his philandering). Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum had heavily outperformed Gingrich to come a very close second in Iowa and was making a claim to be the one true right-wing alternative to Mitt Romney, who seemed permanently stuck with the "electable moderate'' label. Romney's win in conservative Iowa, even if he only did it with a quarter of the vote, was starting to create a sense of inevitability about his nomination.

Gingrich nonetheless survived. Romney won an easy victory in New Hampshire and conservative activists grew desperate to find someone who could stop him, or at least prolong the race (Sarah Palin endorsed him just to "keep things going''). Gingrich had only managed fourth place in New Hampshire, but Santorum had come fifth and his national electability was now in doubt. A casino magnate donated $5 million to Gingrich's South Carolina "superPAC'' a surrogate political organisation that can collect money to mount attack ads on other candidates without violating campaign finance laws. Gingrich used the money to go after Romney.

At first conservatives were horrified by Gingrich-financed ads denouncing Romney's career as a "corporate raider'' who as CEO of Bain Capital had been responsible for thousands of layoffs at companies he took over. Right-wing commentators lambasted Gingrich for doing Obama's work for him and pandering to rank anti-capitalism. But a few days before the primary, Gingrich settled on the less inflammatory and more effective tactic of demanding that Romney release his tax returns, which everyone suspected would show he paid relatively little tax on a very high income (Romney is worth over $200 million and apparently pays about 15per cent in tax, less than an average middle class family).

A turning point in the South Carolina race was when Americans saw Romney squirm on television in response to a debate question about his tax returns. The crowd booed him when he failed to answer when he would release his returns, and for how many years. Suddenly, Romney's much-touted "electability'' seemed questionable. Everyone knows Obama's campaign this year will be built around making rich men play by the rules and pay their fair share. Romney would appear to be the perfect whipping-boy for such a campaign. His failure to stand up for himself against Gingrich also reminded Republicans of their fear that Romney might be something of a wimp in presidential debates, which Gingrich certainly would not.

Indeed, Gingrich used the same debates in South Carolina to bring crowds to their feet. For weeks he had been courting controversy by referring to Obama as the ''food stamp president'' and suggesting that ''poor inner city kids'' should be given menial after-school jobs to teach them a work ethic. Liberals detected racial overtones in these comments, given that ''inner city'' is a common euphemism for "black'' and Americans tend to associate welfare programs such as food stamps with racial minorities. When Fox News moderator Juan Williams (who is African American) asked Gingrich in a debate whether he thought this was insulting to African Americans, Gingrich bluntly said that it was not, and that ''only the elites despise earning money''.

This earned Gingrich a standing ovation from the crowd of conservative southerners who detest nothing more than accusations of racism by condescending ''elites'', and delighted in seeing him put one of them back in their place. Gingrich's second standing ovation came three days later when CNN's John King asked him about his ex-wife's allegation that he had demanded an open marriage. Gingrich, simulating outrage, used this gift of an opportunity to renew his attack on the media. He was sick of the ''elite media'' ''shielding Barack Obama'' by trying to undermine Republicans like this, and the fact CNN would open a presidential debate with such a ''tawdry'' accusation was ''the closest thing (he) could think of to despicable''. At that moment, Gingrich's famous infidelities had turned into an asset rather than a liability. Aspiring young politicians who have no plans to stay faithful to their spouses should study Gingrich's performance like the Torah.

And so the contest turned on its head. In less than a week, Romney went from a double-digit lead to a double-digit defeat in South Carolina at the hands of a man who seemed like little more than a grotesque sideshow two weeks previously.

But at least Romney is still in the race. Santorum must have felt like he was suffering a terrible, cosmic practical joke when it emerged just before the South Carolina poll that the Iowa vote count had been slightly wrong and in fact he had won. This information would have been extremely useful to him before the New Hampshire and South Carolina campaigns, enabling him to make a truly credible case as the conservative who could beat Romney. Instead he was another runner-up, and conservatives continued their frantic search for an alternative.

It might seem odd that they would settle on Gingrich. For three years, the Tea Party has railed savagely against politicians like Gingrich, who has been in Washington since 1979 and is used to making deals with his Democratic counterparts, however uncompromising his rhetoric. Every character accusation the Tea Party routinely levels against Barack Obama - that he is a vain, arrogant, grandiose ''intellectual'' with a Messiah complex - seems to apply in a more obvious way to Gingrich. Many of his Congressional colleagues from the 1990s (including Santorum) hold his ego and temper responsible for derailing the Republican insurgency against Bill Clinton.

But the fact so many Republican Party elites now openly loathe Gingrich only makes him more agreeable to those in the party base who want someone to take on ''the establishment''. No matter how much he tries to appeal to the base, Romney seems so very establishment. He is the son of a governor who became a governor himself, a former venture capitalist whose campaign is fueled by Wall Street donations. As Massachusetts governor he looked like a classic northeastern ''Rockefeller'' Republican, concerned mainly with looking after big business, happy to make compromises on social issues and even willing to implement a patrician welfare state. People say he ''looks'' presidential, but they said the same thing about John Kerry.

In all three races so far, exit polls showed that the principal concern for Republican voters was electing someone who could beat Barack Obama. This will continue to be the main issue of the race. However ''beating Obama'' means different things to different people. For some it means trying to predict how the general electorate will vote and choosing the candidate most palatable to them. Here Romney has the clear advantage; polls have repeatedly shown him almost tied with Obama in favourability while Gingrich lags at least 10 points behind. Even as his popularity has soared among Republicans Gingrich remains unpopular with everyone else, and he will not find that easy to turn around.

For others, it means getting a candidate who will savage Obama in a debate. It is almost impossible to imagine Romney doing this, but Gingrich has based his entire campaign on his debating skills. One of his victory lines in South Carolina was telling; he claimed people responded so positively to his evisceration of the media not because he is a good debater, but because he articulates how the American people feel. People who buy this line might believe that voters will come round to Gingrich when they see him in action against Obama. Many Republicans believe that Obama would be helpless in a debate against Gingrich, stripped of his media ''protection'' and his teleprompter. They think the American people are ready to repudiate Obama and everything he stands for, if only someone had the guts to show them how.

At this point it is impossible to tell who will prevail in the Florida fight next Tuesday. Florida is even more important than usual this year because the previous three races have been so indecisive. Whoever wins the overall nomination will have to break an important historic precedent. Gingrich would have to be the first nominee since 1976 to win without capturing either Iowa or New Hampshire, while Romney would have to be the first nominee since 1980 to win after losing in South Carolina.

Florida is a lot bigger than the other races. Its 1.9 million primary voters are more than double the number of the first three states combined. Unlike the first three, Florida represents a broad cross-section of the electorate rather than specific niches. Nonetheless, small factors could continue to play a chaotic role. Maybe Romney gained a decisive advantage in the state by campaigning among early absentee voters in Florida before his popularity collapsed in South Carolina. Maybe Santorum will drop out due to lack of funds and give Gingrich a comfortable win. Any candidate seems capable of producing a single sentence disastrous enough to sink his own chances.

In the presidential election, Obama would certainly prefer to face Gingrich. Gingrich can definitely motivate the Republican base more, and would generate high turnout in places where Republican victories are already assured, like South Carolina. But he would also fire up the Democratic base, which hates him and is fairly indifferent to Romney. Romney has broader appeal but might fail to turn voters out in critical states. Romney's Mormonism is a turn-off to some voters, especially Evangelical Protestants who don't consider Mormons proper Christians. This will not lose Romney any Bible belt states (where large minorities remain convinced Obama is a Muslim) but it may depress Republican turnout just enough to lose him Pennsylvania or Ohio. If America (and the world) is dragged back into recession by a faltering European economy then electability is a moot point, Obama would almost certainly lose to either of them.

In the meantime, Obama will continue to enjoy the spectacle of the two candidates writing his attack ads for him.

Dr David Smith is a lecturer in American politics at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.