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US election race about to get real

After years of jockeying for position, and with another 10 months to go, the American presidential election race reaches a voting stage -- of sorts -- with the "Iowa caucuses" today.

These events resemble informal gatherings of citizens more than guides to election results.

At their best, they are admirable in that large numbers of people meet and discuss public affairs in a serious and well-informed manner.

But the numbers involved are too small, and the criteria for attendance too lax, to give the voting results much credibility.

Nevertheless, millions of words have been expended, and millions more will come, on the performance of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in Iowa.

To a considerable extent, the nomination campaign so far has been an exercise in weeding out the buffoons.

This process still has some distance to go, but it is unlikely that any truly weird Republican will face President Barack Obama in November.

The former Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, has done relatively little campaigning in Iowa. He expects an easy win in the first primary election in New Hampshire shortly.

Mr Romney would be recognisable anywhere as a mainstream candidate, unlike so many of his fellow-contenders.

On the principle that the centre always wins, he must have a good chance of the nomination, and a fair chance of the presidency.

But will those on the wilder Republican shores, who have tried to prevent Mr Obama governing the country, let Mr Romney do it?