Romney: a man whose Buggins' turn has come

Perry, Paul, Cain, Santorum, Bachmann or Gingrich? None of the above, it seems
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One hates to spoil the party, after the most rollicking pre-game show American politics has come up with in decades. But duty obliges. The truth is that the contest to be the Republican challenger of President Barack Obama on 6 November could be all over bar the shouting in the next 10 days – with exactly the rather boring outcome most people expected all along.

On Tuesday, Iowa's caucuses kick off the GOP nominating process, followed a week later by the New Hampshire primary. Outwardly, these final few days of campaigning have been in keeping with the switchback ride that has gone before: a sudden moment in the sun for a candidate who had previously been overlooked, in this case Rick Santorum. In reality, the ascent of Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, could have been easily predicted by the simple principle of Buggins' turn. After all, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich at one stage shot to the top of the polls only, for differing reasons, to crash back to earth. So why not Rick Santorum now?

But, after all the disorder and frenzy, a duller and more orderly version of Buggins' turn seems to be playing out – the ancient Republican tradition of handing its crown to an heir apparent, to the candidate blessed by the establishment and who has paid his dues. So it was with George Bush Snr in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, and in 2008 John McCain, next in line after being vanquished by the younger Bush eight years before. And so, it would seem, with Mitt Romney now.

Last time around, Romney was soundly beaten by McCain. But scarcely had the dust of that failure settled than he was preparing for 2012. Stilted and yet over-smooth, and usually giving the impression of being guided by no principle except his own craving for the Oval Office, Romney is not the perfect candidate. But he's learnt from his mistakes, and has been the front runner for 2012 almost from the start.

Yes, many Republican activists, notably Tea Party types and evangelicals who dominate in places such as Iowa, haven't warmed to him. But he's the choice of the party elders. And if he has not inspired, he has kept plugging away. In the debates he's been competent. On the stump he is relentlessly disciplined. Now, the hard work looks to be paying off.

Iowa initially was never a Romney priority, and not surprisingly. For one thing, the thinly populated state, agricultural and overwhelmingly white, has been an unreliable guide to eventual Republican nominees; in 1988 the televangelist Pat Robertson finished ahead of president-to-be George H W Bush in the caucuses, while in 2008 Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist minister, scored a shock win over Romney who had invested vast time and money there. Until very recently, the Romney camp was downplaying Iowa's importance and focusing its attention on New Hampshire – a far better pointer to eventual GOP nominees, and where their man has held a comfortable lead for months.

But in Iowa, too, Mitt's hour may have come. Polls show him running neck and neck with the Texas congressman Ron Paul and ahead of Newt Gingrich, whose star is fading as rapidly as it soared. Romney's unwavering argument that he is the candidate best equipped to attract centrist voters and defeat Obama in the autumn seems to be paying off. Many senior Republicans privately wrote off 2008, but this time they believe the party not only can, but should, regain the White House.

The bombastic Gingrich and the quirky Paul have many devotees, but no one believes either would have a prayer against Obama. Romney the pragmatist may win few hearts. Republican heads, however, are more susceptible to his evident economic expertise, in a year when the economy is the only issue in town.

Most important, the evangelical vote that four years ago closed ranks in Iowa behind Huckabee is this time divided, splintered between Perry, Bachmann and the rising Santorum. Separately, his rivals come no higher than third, but their combined support of roughly 35 per cent, according to the most recent poll, eclipses Romney, in first place to be sure, but stuck, as usual, at about 25 per cent.

Perhaps a clear-cut conservative alternative will emerge from the mysterious alchemy of the caucuses. If not, though, then Romney could win by default – and the candidate senses the opportunity. He has dropped events in New Hampshire to clear the decks for an Iowa blitz, parading star endorsers such as the New Jersey governor Chris Christie and scheduling a series of eve-of-caucus rallies tomorrow in Iowa's biggest cities.

The strategy carries risks. The early primaries are all about expectations. Exceed them and you have what George Bush Snr called the "Big Mo", but fall short and you are deemed a loser. For Romney the danger is obvious. Having, albeit belatedly, committed much to Iowa, even second place will probably be regarded a failure.

But the potential rewards are greater still. In modern times, every eventual Republican nominee has won either Iowa or New Hampshire, but never both. For Romney to land that combination would give him near unassailable momentum. The qualifying "near" is de rigueur, since in 2012 many Republican primaries will allocate convention delegates proportionately, rather than on the old "winner-takes-all" basis. This makes it more likely that the nominating contest will stretch later, diminishing the impact of the first primaries – but even then Romney's organisation and fundraising ability surely give him an advantage.

Twelve months hence, America will be preparing to inaugurate a president. Politics is a funny old business, but few right now would bet that the man taking the oath on 20 January 2013 will not bear the name of either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.