David Usborne: A democracy where money doesn't always talk – but the press is kept on its knees

US Election Diary
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Rick Santorum, not my favourite politician, congratulated a group of voters in the Rising Sun Cafe in Polk City, Iowa, early last Monday for a job well done putting all the candidates for the party's presidential nomination through their paces and then some over the previous weeks.

They then proceeded to ask him some tough policy questions and, to his credit, he gave some pretty specific answers. The first thing he would do if elected president? End all federal government support for abortion, no exceptions. (Making life as hard as possible for gays would presumably come later.)

I am now into my sixth presidential election for The Independent. (My first was Clinton-Gore in 1992. I arrived the weekend of Jennifer Flowers, the former showgirl who claimed she and Bill had been "friendly".) The primary part of the 2012 election certainly isn't going to be as gripping as four years ago when Barack and Hillary fought it out for the Democrats' nod.

But I am still excited, in part because of what Mr Santorum was saying: these early weeks in Iowa and New Hampshire is when the candidates really get their feet held to the fire by regular folks and it's fun to watch. In the bigger states, the fight moves to television, and money largely decides who wins, but that isn't so yet. Exhibit A: Santorum spent $10 for each vote he won in Iowa to tie in first place with the much richer Mitt Romney who spent $75 per vote.

Every four years I meet people like Amy Thomsen, a 60-year-old retiree, who, like me, had to push and shove a little to get inside the cafe to see Santorum up close. Before nightfall she was planning to catch up with all three of the candidates that interested her – Santorum, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann – so she would know how to vote the following day. This is a very, very big country and yet its system allows people like Amy to brush cheeks with would-be-presidents and that's very cool.

Yes Mr Romney, three bags full

And just as things can get pretty earthy for the candidates in these early days so it can for the press.

Last Sunday, I found myself in the Family Table diner in Atlantic, in western Iowa, where perhaps 20 voters and 100 journalists were lying in wait for Romney. When he was done, his aides announced that the candidate had a few words to share with the press in a small room in the back. Present was half the royalty of American political reporters – network anchors, veteran columnists, even Jill Abramson, the editor of The New York Times. Squished in like sardines, we were ordered to get down on our knees by the camera operators at the back so they would have a clear shot of Romney when he came in. So there we were, grand correspondents all, kneeling before the microphone and eventually the candidate. Before Romney finally appeared, someone to my right offered his unique commentary on our ungainly predicament. He began to baa like a sheep.

Saying goodbye to your fondest hopes

I took a punt last April and flew to Arizona to spend a day shadowing a certain congresswoman from Minnesota who had been dropping hints about running for president. Michele Bachmann declared in June. By August, she was on a roll after winning the Iowa Ames Straw Poll. I don't like her politics either, yet I felt moved on Wednesday watching her throw in the towel in a Marriott ballroom in west Des Moines after winning only 5 per cent of the vote on Tuesday. When she was finished, the reporters quickly packed up, but I lingered to watch as one by one she hugged members of her family who had been up there on the podium with her. It's what they do, but moments like that must be crushing.

Gay marriage reduced to polygamy

Santorum was forced to show his social colours at an event before college students on Thursday and they weren't those of the rainbow. Asked to explain his opposition to gay marriage – as president he would push for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman – Santorum repeatedly equated gay marriage to polygamy. "What about three men?" he repeatedly asked when questioners tried to query his stance. At least he didn't mention farm animals.

It really ain't over til it's over

I was also in another hotel ballroom on Tuesday night where Rick Perry emerged to say he was going back to Texas to "reassess" his campaign. Later, I spoke with his spokesman, Ray Sullivan, who seemed to have "surrender" written all over his face. I squeezed his shoulder in commiseration and went upstairs to write a post for The Independent website saying confidently that Perry was pulling out.

It won't be the last thing I get wrong between now and November, I am sure.

d.usborne@independent.co.uk // twitter.com/dusborne