The Iowa caucus thrust into the international spotlight the fifth NMR (Not Mitt Romney) hopeful, the little-known Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, who after visiting all 99 Iowa counties, tied with Romney at 25 per cent, with only eight fewer votes.
The Republican establishment, which knows Obama is weak and the presidency is there to be won, is having yet another nervous breakdown. It's aware that Romney is seen as dull and inconsistent, but he can talk coherently, has political experience, no scandals seem to be lurking and he just might be electable, so he's the one that they want.
Iowa, however, has helped to clear the field of wannabe NMRs.
Remember Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachman, the first hopeful, whom the establishment thought even flakier than they thought Sarah Palin? On August 31 she topped the Iowa Republican straw poll: on January 4 she came sixth (with 5 per cent), not least because until December she took Iowa for granted and focused on her national campaign. She's quit.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, who replaced Bachman as the hot favourite, was inclined to gaffes, which culminated spectacularly in November with his 'Oops' moment (on TV he forgot the name of one of the federal agencies he intended to abolish). In Iowa he came fifth (with 10 per cent), and though polls show he will bomb in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, he's hanging in there for South Carolina on January 21. But he's done for.
Herman Cain, who had more charisma than the rest of the contenders combined, ruled himself out in December after a slew of sex allegations sent him plunging down the polls. The main beneficiary, former House Speaker and intellectual heavyweight Newt Gingrich, who triumphed in debates, began his slide as conservative voters contemplated his propensity to discard wives and be alarmingly volatile. Newt managed fourth place (with 13 per cent, turned from being Happy Newt into Angry Newt blaming his opponents' negative campaigning) and has now promised to campaign as Bold Newt. It's unlikely to work.
And then, of course, there's Ron Paul, never quite NMR top hopeful, but always in there making a decent show. In Iowa, with 21 per cent, he managed to come a very respectable third, but though his libertarian, small-state, anti-debt and anti-war policies attract many, his age (76), his uncompromising isolationism, and a growing scandal about racist newsletters (written under his name 20 years ago and later repudiated) make him a likely also-ran for the Republican nomination. Still, as he has done before, he might well run for the presidency as an independent, so he can't be written off, and he is likely to have a real influence on Republican policies.
What of Rick Santorum then? Well, he seems to be a man with impeccable family values, humanity, strong principles and a devout Christianity that make him beloved of Tea Partiers. Still, even the faithful must recognise that Obama can't be beaten by a Catholic so traditional that he opposes all abortion and contraception, sees same-sex marriage as being on a par with polygamy and is suspect on evolution. Bono said of him in 2006: 'I would suggest that Rick Santorum has a kind of Tourette's disease; he will always say the most unpopular thing. But on our issues, he has been a defender of the most vulnerable.' Additionally, he's in favour of bombing Iran, which will frighten war-weary Americans.
Seventh in Iowa came Jon Huntsman (1 per cent) although, at least on paper, he seems an outstanding candidate who could have a wide appeal. He worked as a staffer for President Ronald Reagan, was a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce under Bush Senior and then Ambassador to Singapore. Under Bush Junior he was involved in successful global trade negotiations. He also ran his family's very successful company and was an outstandingly successful state governor, who won re-election in 2008 with nearly 78 per cent of the vote, resigning early when Obama asked him to become Ambassador to China. His seven children include an adopted Chinese and an adopted Hindu and he speaks fluent Mandarin. At a time when Obama is identifying China as the new world hope and threat, these are impressive credentials. Since he'd ignored Iowa, that result doesn't matter: he's focusing on New Hampshire.
But Huntsman's a Mormon. Like Romney. It was Utah that he governed. And it's not clear yet if a Mormon could become the sixth NMR, let alone win the presidency, even though moderate Mormons are reasonable people and monogamous to boot. Too many people still think of the religion as polygamy and puritanism.
The Boston Globe, which can't stand former Massachusetts Governor Romney, has endorsed Huntsman, praising him for articulating bold goals and ideals. I'm making no predictions. If you enjoy American politics, this is the soap opera that guarantees you a cliffhanger every time.