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Iowa’s a sideshow: It’s still Romney versus Obama

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Iowa’s a sideshow: It’s still Romney versus Obama

The Iowa caucus is a sideshow — a good one, but a sideshow nonetheless. The one man who knows that is President Barack Obama. He and his re-election team publicly slam the only challenger that can make the 2012 presidential race competitive, if not an actual horse race.

That’s Mitt Romney. It doesn’t much matter how hard ultra-conservatives, Christian evangelicals, tea party leaders and followers rail at him for being too moderate, too vacillating, too establishment and too bland. The hard reality is that not one of his GOP presidential rivals is electable, no matter how close they hue to the social and fiscal conservative political faith line.

The GOP conservative base just simply doesn’t have the votes to put any of them in the White House. Independents do. The 2012 election will be won as the 2008 election was — on whether Obama or his GOP presidential rival can do the best sell job with them. Obama did it in 2008 and he won.

There’s some truth to the contention that Independents conform pretty close to a party affiliation, be it Democrat or Republican, and tend to reflect their views and vote for one or another of the parties that they identify with. In other words if an Independent is pro-Democrat, the Democratic candidate is likely to get their vote. If they are pro-GOP leaning, the GOP candidate is likely to get their vote.

But that doesn’t change three facts. One is that Independents are Independents because they have serious doubts, criticism and conflicts with Democrats and Republicans and prefer to keep their vote option open. The other is that they back candidates based on their positions on the issues first. And they have made it plain that the two issues they will judge Obama and his GOP rival on are the economy and budget deficits and how each one handles both. The other fact is that Independents are inching closer and closer to making up nearly half of the total American voters. This is a staggering number.

In 2008, McCain had a good shot at winning the majority of Independent voters with his maverick, bucking the party, restore fiscal responsibility line. The fiscal meltdown on President George W. Bush’s watch wrecked any chance he had to make the case that he could do a better job than Obama on the economy and the fiscal crisis. Nothing has changed in 2012. In repeated polls Obama has hit crushing lows and at times inched back up all on the basis of what Independents thought of his handling of the economy.

But there’s more. Independents also are fickle, and scare easy. The bare hint that a presidential contender is an ideological hard liner on waging wars, torpedoing abortion, imposing iron-clad religious dogmatism, reinforcing gender and sexual preference inequities, and backing a radical slash and restructure of government will drive them into the opposing candidate’s camp faster than a skyrocketing sonic missile.

Romney understands that and has taken great pains to make sure that he has stood slightly to the center of the oftentimes wacky pronouncements from the successive GOP flavor of the month presidential candidates. He’s done this even though this further stokes the ABR (Anybody but Romney) mania from GOP ultra-conservatives.

In 2008, Romney was the first GOP presidential candidate to publicly warn that Obama would be the likely GOP opponent, and then say that he could beat him. This was not mere political braggadocio. He, like Obama, sold himself as the change guy who can go to Washington and cut the cronyism, bureaucratic and congressional inertia, and restore public confidence. But more importantly, Obama was then and is now a cash cow and again will have a king’s ransom campaign war chest. And the 2012 presidential race will be the costliest in American history, with some estimates putting the price of winning the White House at more than two billion dollars.

Romney is every bit the corporate cash cow as Obama. He pumped tens of millions into and virtually self-bankrolled his campaign in 2008. He can do what no other GOP contender can do and that is open the GOP’s corporate money spigot in 2012.

The one policy issue on which GOP ultra-conservatives have pounded Romney and say that makes him unfit to be the GOP presidential nominee is the much harangued health care plan he helped craft as Massachusetts governor. But that won’t scare Independents away in the general election. In fact, it could be an asset since polls showed that more Americans supported some or all aspects of the health reform law than opposed it, and lambasted Congressional Republicans for their hysteria in opposing the health care reform law, and for continuing to snipe at it.

The presidential race will be a yearlong slog. The winner must have lots of cash, feed the perception that he can best handle the economy and not give any hint that he will pander to the GOP or Democratic hardliners in how they will govern. Romney is the only GOP candidate that comes close to fulfilling that bill. And President Obama knows that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.