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View from the campaign trail

Livin’ on a prayer

By Sasha Issenberg

The first major campaign biography of the election year has arrived and it contains no blockbuster scoops. The Real Romney, by two reporters from the former Massachusetts governor’s hometown Boston Globe, delivers a slow-boiling revelation: that Mitt Romney’s life has been as tied up in his faith as any major political figure in modern American history.

Romney’s theology is, of course, no secret. The fact that he would be the country’s first Mormon president has been a matter of media fascination since the earliest days of his first campaign in 2007. Romney deflected attention from the subject, on the logic that any hostility towards Mormonism derived from a lack of familiarity. But the issue didn’t go away and that December Romney gave a speech on “Faith in America”, insisting his candidacy should not be viewed through a spiritual lens.

Coverage of Romney’s religion has continued largely in that same vein, an ongoing debate over the propriety and political impact of considering a candidate’s religion. But what The Real Romney makes clear is that while it might not be fair to define Romney’s political career in religious terms, it is impossible to understand his life without them – Romney comes from one of Mormonism’s founding families and served as a missionary in France.

Romney rose quickly to some of the highest church positions open to lay members – bishop and president of the Boston stake (a regional jurisdiction roughly equivalent to an archdiocese). He managed church budgets and interpreted religious doctrine on controversial issues such as the role of women in a church that had historically excluded them from active roles. He also counselled adherents facing personal dilemmas, encouraging one pregnant woman not to seek an abortion and pushing another (who was unmarried) to give up her child for adoption.

But few Americans have the knowledge to decode this. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has a peculiar relationship with outsiders – it embraces them as targets for missionary conversions but bars non-believers from its churches. While Romney brings up his religion more frequently than he did in his first campaign, it is only in far more generic terms than he describes his links to a series of prestigious secular institutions such as Harvard Business School.

Republican voters may respect Romney, his self-discipline and his accomplishments. But few identify with him – a distant, cold figure whose passions are hard to discern. The Real Romney points to one possible explanation: nearly all of Mitt’s personal friends come from the church – he has never developed close relationships with those from outside his own insular circle. If voters could understand the role Mormonism plays in Romney’s life, they might not grow fonder – but they might be able to better articulate why.

America’s religious leaders:

1. Al Smith, 1928: The first Roman Catholic nominee, the New York Democrat had to rebuff charges he would build a tunnel from Washington to Rome for easy papal passage.
2. John F Kennedy, 1960: Kennedy gave a speech before Protestant ministers (“I am not the Catholic candidate for president”) that Romney cited as a model.
3. Barack Obama, 2008: Even as he was criticised for statements made by his Baptist minister, Jeremiah Wright, rumours that Obama was a Muslim were rampant.

Rock on

Argentina [ENERGY]

Argentina is hoping to imitate North America’s success in turning useless shale rocks into mammoth oil and gas resources using technology called fracking. Argentina has watched hopelessly for years as oil and gas consumption outpaced production. Now shale beds in Neuquén province could make Argentina an exporter once more. It may have 22 trillion cubic metres of shale gas, enough to supply the region for more than a century. But this year President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner eliminated an incentive programme for new oil production. The country’s environmentalists and indigenous activists are also likely to put up a fight.

Après Obama

USA [ACADEMIA]

Win or lose the November election, Barack Obama’s campaign mastermind is retiring from politics and moving into academia. David Axelrod, a longtime Obama adviser, is set to launch the new, non-partisan Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago in January 2013. The institute is modelled on a similar body at Harvard University and will focus on visiting fellows, a lecture series and student internships.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and former Bill Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos recently joined Axelrod at the institute’s launch event held at the university.

Flip-flopping

Cuba

The Cuban National Assembly, which meets twice a year, had begun to slowly open up, allowing foreign journalists to watch the opening and closing speeches. Then followed a backtrack – when it last met in December the doors remained firmly closed.

Gender wars

Mexico [ELECTIONS]

Whispers of a potential presidenta can be heard as Mexicans ponder the final list of candidates for Mexico’s elections scheduled for 1 July. If things go her way, Josefina Vázquez Mota will be the first female to take top office in a country often known for its machismo both in and out of politics.

This is anything but a sure bet. Vázquez Mota’s worst enemy could be her own National Action Party (pan). The military offensive run by current pan president Felipe Calderón remains deeply unpopular – more than 50,000 have been killed in drug war-related deaths.

Mexicans appear to be ready for change. Vázquez Mota needs to convince voters that she – and not the party she represents – is the change needed. Previously education minister, her minimal role in the drug war permits her a critical distance from the pan’s least popular decisions (she has emphasised her role as woman, a mother and a housewife almost as much as her background as an economist).

With the help of recent political reforms, female delegates now hold one-third of national legislature seats. Supporters hope backing for female politicians will help pull her past Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (pri) who has half the vote. But she will also need to fend off the leftist candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Four issues that will shape Mexico’s election:

Drug war: Though candidates seem reluctant to roll out official plans, polls show a reliable change in policy is needed: with 50,000 dead, voters want a candidate who will do something.
Jobs: Almost 50 million Mexicans (roughly 40 per cent) live below the poverty line and 12 million in extreme poverty. These voters want more gainful employment.
Corruption: Sky-high impunity and government graft have eradicated confidence. A candidate will need to tackle this head on.
Peña Nieto’s mouth: His election appeared almost inevitable last year but a series of highly publicised gaffes have raised questions about his ability to get through the campaign without putting his foot in his mouth. Blunders so far include not knowing the minimum wage or the price of a tortilla.

Best of the west

Canada [ECONOMY]

The release of Canada’s most recent census results confirmed what pundits had long been saying: the country’s economic and demographic centre of gravity is shifting west.

While Ontario in central Canada remains the country’s most populous province, it is for the first time growing at less than the national average. Meanwhile the resource- rich western provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia are winning a greater share of the immigrants that are key to Canada’s long-term growth. High commodity prices have also boosted the area’s fortunes.

The big sell-off

Brazil [AIRPORTS]

This month in Miami, the American Association of Airport Executives will meet to discuss the potential of airport privatisation across the world. Brazil clearly didn’t require their input. In February, three of the country’s main airports were successfully auctioned off in São Paulo. The winning bid for Guarulhos – the most important in São Paulo – was for €7.1bn; Viracopos in Campinas cost €1.7bn; and Brasilia was sold for €4.5bn. Together, they are responsible for 30 per cent of Brazil’s passenger travel and 57 per cent of its cargo.

The privatisation is an attempt by the government to get investment leading up to the Brazil-hosted 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics. Most of the country’s airports battle with terrible infrastructure.

Selling off the airports proved to be profitable. Next on the list are Rio, Minas Gerais and Salvador.

Taxing question

USA [IRS]

In the US, the Internal Revenue Service expects to receive more than 144 million individual tax returns by the middle of this month. This year’s deadline for filing annual income reports is 17 April. Of those, 112 million are expected to be filed electronically.

With a tax code reaching nearly 73,000 pages and growing each year, America’s political establishment is grappling with the need to overhaul the system. The arguments over tax simplification will no doubt remain among the hot topics in this election year.

Majority rules

Canada

Two of the nation’s three territories – the northern regions predominantly populated by First Nation people – have consensus governments. There are no political parties and the executive is always in a minority, forcing it to find agreement with the majority of members.

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