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Corn, Hogs and US Politics

The American presidential contest begins tomorrow in Iowa.

Michael Fellman 2 Jan

Michael Fellman, an American historian and cultural critic living in Vancouver, will write a series or articles about the 2008 U.S. elections.

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Republican frontrunner Mike Huckabee.

The cliché is that in politics, a week is forever. In that case, American presidential elections give eternity a whole new meaning. The first contest of the November 2008 election will take place in Iowa this Thursday, Jan. 4.

Something of a primer might be of some use for bemused Canadians. We of course are used to brief party conventions where delegates choose prime ministerial candidates, and to blessedly short federal election campaigns of no more than five weeks. But then, what would the United States be without excess countering our primness.

Iowa has only two million citizens, overwhelmingly white and conservative, none living in a big city. New Hampshire, with its Jan. 8 primary, is similarly unrepresentative of American demographics. Yet these two states will have a major say in winnowing the crowded primary fields in both parties, and giving momentum to a few.

Frontrunners expected to dominate after Feb 5

Then comes the rush. By the end of January, Michigan, South Carolina and Florida will have voted, and on "Super Tuesday," Feb. 5, 23 more states will hold primaries, which could decide the whole shebang. (View the complete primary calendar.)

The nine months after Super Tuesday will most likely be a prolonged contest between two anointed candidates.

This weird chronological scheme came about because nearly every state wanted to hold its primary earlier than others in order to play a larger role in the choice. No national organization, including the two national parties, could veto this absurd calendar. Sprint now; plod later.

Iowa caucus to narrow field

Although the majority of states hold presidential primaries open to voters going to polls as during general elections, some limit the voters to registered members of one of the parties, while others hold "open" primaries, where voters can cross party lines, and non-party members, the majority of the voters, also can vote.

Several of the states hold "caucuses" rather than primaries -- meetings open only to registered party members, where they hold up their hands in front of other voters, or sometimes clump themselves into little groups backing their candidates. Usually they are rewarded with coffee and doughnuts.

In Iowa, around 125,000 Democrats and a similar number of Republicans will caucus this Thursday to choose between six candidates each -- a bunch of white guys and the Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It is a fair guess that several of the lesser candidates will drop out of the race in the next two weeks, though many will be keen to stick it out until Feb. 5.

Among the Democrats, according to recent polls, Clinton, Obama and John Edwards are in a dead heat, each with about a quarter of the vote, with the remaining 25 per cent divided between Joseph Biden, Bill Richardson and Christopher Dodd, probably in that order.

Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are the Republican front-runners in Iowa, although nationally, Rudy Giullani, John McCain and possible Fred Thompson, the TV star, may have more strength in later primaries. Giullani, for example, is pinning his hopes on Florida, which votes Jan. 29, but by then it may be too late.

Parties differ sharply on issues, candidates less so

In terms of the issues, each set of candidates closely matches the others of their own party, while each set stands in considerable contrast to the other party. In that sense, this is a polarized election. Put another way, all the candidates are looking for the votes in the centre of their party's constituency, ultra-conservative for the Republicans, centre-left for the Democrats. After securing the nomination, both national candidates will then have to adopt a new set of tactics to appeal to the foggy centre of the electorate taken as a whole.

All the Republican candidates (with the exception of the gadfly Ron Paul) oppose setting any timetable for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, while all the Democrats propose timetables. Dodd, Biden and Edwards would withdraw the quickest -- within ten months -- while Clinton would be by far the slowest, withdrawing "most troops" only by 2013.

All the Democrats would repeal the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy, while all the Republicans would make them permanent.

Republican candidates, with the exception of Giullani, would get tough on immigrants, actively pushing them out of the nation, while all the Democrats support some path to legalization for illegal immigrants, with various sorts of conditions attached.

All Republican candidates oppose mandatory and universal health care, while all Democrats favour expanding national health care coverage, four making sure, through varying means, that everyone is covered, while Biden and Obama would extend it to children only.

Curiously, abortion and other "social issues" are far less talked about in this campaign than previously, although many Republicans have trouble with Giullani's support of a woman's right to choose. The other Republican candidates are stridently right to life. Huckabee, a Baptist preacher and biblical literalist, also opposes teaching evolution in school curricula.

As always, within each party, as all the candidates more or less resemble one another ideologically, success depends on differentiation on personal grounds -- the potential "leadership" factor. Each hopes to the knock the others and to shine with that mysterious attractiveness called charisma, the X-factor that usually decides such contests.

A pundit's predictions

Unless Dave Beers fires me, you will get 10 months of election coverage from me in The Tyee. So I will speculate, not on the candidate I think the ablest (Bill Richardson as it happens), but on what I sense about which candidate is likely to catch fire. On this I am informed mainly by intuition, not a very scientific calliper. After Feb. 5, we will all see who takes off like a rocket.

First Republicans.

Mike Huckabee, another child of Hope, Arkansas and long time governor of that poor small state, seems to have the mojo. Giullani, the candidate from Mean, the guy to crush Islamic fascists, strikes many Republican voters as the most electable candidate. They hate his stand on abortion and immigration, and regret his brutal history as a husband and father, but they admire his toughness. Huckabee, by contrast, is the candidate from Nice, appealing to voters who are tired of macho Republicanism of the Bush variety. He is also open to taxes and vaguely knocks rich capitalists, the honchos who run his party, and this might appeal to independents and conservative Democrats outside the party. His is the freshest personality in the Republican run, and I sense the X-factor at work in him. He is also totally inexperienced nationally and in foreign policy, and, although shrewd, is rather ignorant and might step in it too often to win the nomination.


Hillary Clinton, an experienced and highly intelligent person, is the establishment candidate, the most cautious and the most aloof personally. She inspires admiration rather than love among Democrats, and considerable hatred among non-Democrats.

The Democratic candidate from Nice is Barack Obama. Although African-American, he runs not as what used to be called a "good race man," but as a non-partisan humanist who wants to appeal across angry divides. As well as being bright, introspective and adept, he has that magic something in buckets.

Alternatively, John Edwards is running an angrier campaign on behalf of American have-nots, the approach last attempted by Bobby Kennedy in his magical 1968 campaign that ended in tragedy. Lately Edwards has taken to saying that Obama is too nice to confront the issues. He is the other Democratic candidate with enormous personal charisma.

This party could go any of three directions, though my hunch is Obama. Buckle your seatbelts; stay tuned...

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