Republican race for White House takes a right turn
The race for the Republican Party's presidential nomination has started, though the election itself is 32 months away. Even in a place so brash and upfront as the United States there is some subtlety, at least at this stage, about the process.
Sarah Palin, beloved of much of middle America despite her limitations, is doing the equivalent of turning up at weddings and bar mitzvahs and putting herself about.
However, Mitt Romney, the man deemed by America's media to be the frontrunner, is (as his greater experience would seem to dictate) more sophisticated in his approach. He has written a book, 'No Apology', and is undertaking a 40-stop national tour to promote it. It looks astonishingly like an election campaign.
The Republican Party is giving the impression of once more being a serious fighting force in its opposition to the Obama programme for America. This may be deceptive. Its opposition to the Democrats, who not only occupy the White House but control both houses of Congress, is based for the moment more on contradiction than on constructive engagement.
When Mr Obama won his great victory, he and his adherents liked to represent it as a mandate for change. It is now clear it was not. America wanted to punish the Republicans for dragging America down in the world between 2001 and 2009; and Mr Obama was their weapon of retribution. He has served his purpose now: America has decided it remains a centre-right country in which Democrats and other breeds of leftist represent opinion more marginal than is apparent from the noise they make. All that remains is to get the Republicans organised again.
This may not be so easy as the president's tribulations would suggest. The Republicans lack any visibly charismatic or dynamic figure in Congress to provide a lead in the run-up to the crucial mid-term elections in November. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, is a 68-year-old Kentucky senator who is regarded as a strict conservative.
It says much for the nature of American politics, or for Mr McConnell's sense of caution, that his official Senate biography chooses to omit the rather harmless fact that he was born in Alabama. To describe Mr McConnell as colourless in terms of his political dynamism would be an overstatement: he seems blander than that. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a pressure group that pursues, largely in vain, higher standards among politicians, named Mr McConnell last year in its report as among the 15 most corrupt members of Congress. His mind appears to be on things other than a new vision for America.
More impressive is John Boehner, who leads the Republicans in the House of Representatives. He, too, is a conservative, largely untainted by allegations of corruption.
He also seems to believe in things other than his own survival in office: he helped Newt Gingrich in the 1994 mid-term elections devise and promote the 'Contract with America', whose popular anti-statist appeal secured a majority for the Republicans in both houses for the first time in 40 years.
Washington think-tanks are pouring ideas into the Republican Party now, as they were before 1994, and for the same reason: motivated by a sense of shock that a left-of-centre president (then Bill Clinton) could have sought to liberalise America so rapidly, and to concentrate so much power in the executive. It remains to be seen whether, as in 1994, the Republicans will have a coherent and exciting programme to put to the electorate in November, and to inflict on President Obama's party the sort of reversal that could terminally handicap his chances of re-election.
Such a triumph would, though, bring no guarantees of Republican success in 2012.
If the Republicans are going to stand a chance even against a hobbled Barack Obama, they have to beat him on two fronts; experience and vigour.
Sarah Palin is younger than Mr Obama and a pin-up for rednecks everywhere. If she chooses to fight in 2012, she will be better coached and prepared: but she would be unlikely to be so compelling a candidate as Mr Romney. He was a successful governor of Massachusetts and, unlike Palin in Alaska, completed his term.
However, only a shift to the right by the Republicans will appease the Tea Party. That can only mean, by 2012, that whatever the falterings now, America will have an enviably clear choice between its two presidential candidates. (© Daily Telegraph, London)