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Rupert Cornwell

Rupert Cornwell: New rivals threaten Obama's second term

Out of America: Michele Bachmann is the rising star for the Republicans as economic woes and troubles abroad add spice to next year's campaign

Elections in which sitting presidents are seeking a second term tend to be less than gripping: think Reagan 1984, Clinton 1996, and George W Bush 2004. Can you remember anything about those three campaigns? For one thing, incumbents usually win. Not always, of course – think Carter 1980 and the elder Bush in 1992 – but usually. Mr Obama's re-election attempt in 2012 may, however, be different.

For one thing, this will be one of the most ideological elections in decades. Every four years, unfailingly, we are told an election is a watershed, but 2012 truly could be. Already two over-arching themes have emerged, both brought into relief by the dismal economy: the role of government at home, and the place of America in the world beyond. And for now, Republicans are on the right side of both. Which means that this time, the incumbent could lose.

Even six weeks ago, such a thought would have been a stretch. Osama bin Laden had just been killed, and the recovery still seemed on track. Today, a series of lousy economic indicators have raised fears of a double-dip recession, and the President's Bin Laden bounce in the polls has vanished.

The fact is that no president since Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s has been re-elected when unemployment was above 7.2 per cent; and that last figure refers to Reagan in 1984, when the rate was falling, and people sensed that the worst was over. Right now, the figure is 9.1 per cent and rising, while real unemployment, including those who would like to work but have given up all hope of doing so, may be double that. The President will blame his predicament on the mess he inherited from his predecessor, but in a country where memories are short, that argument is unlikely to wash. For Americans this is no longer Mr Bush's economy, but Mr Obama's.

Come autumn next year, things may be getting noticeably better, but few would bet on it. More likely, Republicans will be recycling the old Reagan campaign quip from 1980 that, far more than dessicated statistics, captures the reality of bad economic times: "Recession is when your neighbour loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter [Barack Obama] loses his."

For this to happen, of course, the Republicans have first to find a credible standardbearer, but the first proper candidates' debate last week brought progress on that front too. The event was not inspiring, and the final field for the primaries that will select a nominee is not even complete.

Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who served as Mr Obama's ambassador to China, will enter the race on Tuesday, and he could be followed by Rick Perry, the colourful current governor of Texas, and/or Rudy Giuliani, New York's mayor during 9/11 who tried and failed spectacularly in 2008. Then there remains the increasingly tiresome enigma of Sarah Palin, of whom more in a moment.

But the debate wasn't an embarrassing festival of crankiness, and it produced two clear winners on the night. The former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, another disappointing also-ran in 2008, established himself more clearly than ever as front-runner for the nomination. As a successful businessman, he has the economic credentials. His problem is the health care plan he introduced in Massachusetts, a model for the "Obamacare" so reviled by every right-thinking Republican. That, along with some other well-documented policy U-turns over the years, has led many conservatives to consider Mr Romney a "Rino", the despised species of "Republican In Name Only". Nonetheless, he has one precious quality: he looks presidential. He may be as spineless as his critics say, but he's central casting's candidate for the Oval Office and last Monday he behaved like it. Indeed, one poll even put him ahead of the President in a putative 2012 match-up.

The other winner was Michele Bachmann. Attractive and a darling of the Tea Party, the Minnesota congresswoman was dubbed "Palin-lite" when she first hinted she might run. No longer. On the night, Mrs Bachmann was crisp, coherent and serious. Like everyone else, she directed her fire at President Obama, not her rivals on the rostrum; such unpleasantnesses can wait for later.

With Mr Romney clearly in the lead, the search is now on for an alternative more palatable to conservatives who dominate the primaries. That alternative certainly won't be Newt Gingrich; but it could be Mr Huntsman, or Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, or Mr Perry or Mr Giuliani – or even Mrs Bachmann. Which raises the question, whither Sarah Palin?

Curiously, her standing has been improved by the hysteria over her emails when governor of Alaska. The liberal pack rushed to Juneau, scenting the kill. Instead the portrait that emerged from the emails was highly favourable, of a governor with the popular touch, her feet firmly on the ground, determined to defend her state's interests. One can only wonder, what happened to that Sarah Palin?

Today, she is merely a distraction. She flirts with the idea of running, but only from the confines of Fox News, where she is still retained as a commentator, or the safety of a bus tour of historic American landmarks. If she were to become a candidate, she would be competing for the same votes as Mrs Bachmann, a contest that would guarantee a "catfight" media circus, and divert attention from the real issues on which election 2012 will be won and lost. Today, she would best serve her party as a cheerleader on the sidelines. The odds remain that she will do just that.

In the meantime the issues are moving the Republicans' way. On Monday, every candidate called for a speedy exit from Afghanistan and Libya, and insisted that US foreign policy cloth must be cut to what the country can afford. According to every available poll, the American people agree. On deficits, too, the American people broadly agree that government has grown too big and must be cut back. In short, Barack Obama could lose this election. Not, however, to Sarah Palin.