“The best thing about the New Hampshire primary is that anybody can run and anybody can win,” conservative activist Graham Bosse said last Friday at a Tea Party rally in Concord, as the first week of the 2012 election cycle kicked off in the US.
New Hampshire is the site of next year’s first primary and last week played host to a fresh pack of Republican candidates. Four aspiring presidents followed Bosse to the podium, from the charmingly dilettantish (long-ago Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, who has spent most of the last two decades running a community bank) to the ultra-focused (former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who has been meticulously preparing a run for at last four years).
Yet the field of aspirants crisscrossing the first primary state last week was so weak that developer Donald Trump’s ritual stunt candidacy accidentally looked serious. Trump has threatened to run since 1988: typically he blusters about a campaign for a few weeks — simultaneously raising public awareness of his casinos, golf courses or The Apprentice TV show — before abruptly receding from politics.
Yet soon after he publicly floated 2012′s campaign, rich with wanton China-bashing and Obama birth conspiracy theories, polls showed him looking like a contender for the Republican nomination. Last Friday, a national survey had him nine points ahead of all competition.
If Trump speaks for Republicans’ true identity – driven to expose Obama’s presidency as “the greatest scam in history” – the party’s ego is House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan. The earnest Wisconsinite has become a conservative folk hero after formulating a balanced-budget plan that would, among other reforms, effectively end the Medicare pensioner health programme.
The looming off-stage presence of Ryan and Trump illustrates the conflicting ideologies of conservatives in how to tackle Obama next year — hot with personal rage or cool with policy contrasts — and the duality is pushing likely candidates to new extremes.
Even Pawlenty, a once mild-mannered moderate, has reinvented himself in anger, bent on dismantling public services through any means necessary. “I had the first government shutdown in 150 years in my state!” he thundered to a Republican city committee, before boasting of presiding over the longest transport strike in the country.
At the same time, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour — former lobbyist, national party chairman and roly-poly embodiment of the Republican establishment — has awoken as a peacenik.
While most Washington Republicans, including Ryan, refused to entertain new defence cuts as part of their deficit-reduction plans, Barbour is declaring that “anybody who says you can’t save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon.” In private meetings in New Hampshire last week, he suggested that he thought the US mission in Afghanistan was all but hopeless.
Republicans say they think Obama is beatable. They just can’t agree how.