Page last updated at 11:03 GMT, Saturday, 20 August 2011 12:03 UK

US politics and the lure of raw red meat

Republican candidates in Iowa
Eight Republican candidates recently took part in a debate in Iowa

By Mark Mardell
BBC North America editor, Washington

The politicians hoping to win the US Republican Party's nomination for next year's presidential election have begun a marathon gladiatorial contest that exposes them to piercing and relentless scrutiny.

One of my favourite TV cartoons as a child was Wacky Races.

I hugged the sofa as improbable characters in unlikely vehicles careered around a course, smashing and crashing, plotting and conniving in seemingly endless contests of wills and wiles.

Now I feel like I am having flashbacks. This time it is not Dick Dastardly and Penelope Pitstop but Texan Rick, Mitt the flipper, and the Bachmann Overdrive revving and roaring in the race known as the Republican primaries.

An experiment in ultra-democracy that somehow has stuck

Perhaps I am so enthralled because for years I had a professional disdain for those fascinated with this part of the US presidential race.

When I was the BBC's Europe editor and trying hard to sell a profile of the woman who was about to run Europe's biggest economy, I noted a problem with characteristic hyperbole. It seemed, I grumbled, that some editors would rather run a report about the dog that once belonged to the grandma of the bloke who clearly was not going to be the next president of the United States.

I would still champion the importance of Angela Merkel over Red the Connecticut Coonhound, but now that I am in the States I cannot resist the magnetic pull of politics at its most brutal, most basic - democracy as a demolition derby.

We have already had some spectacular smash ups. Donald Trump, who I picture in a precarious racer shaped like skyscraper, topped by a model of his odd hairstyle, with girls in bikinis hanging of the sides, has ground to a halt and given up.


T Paw - Tim Pawlenty - veered off the road when he lost a vital if tiny opinion poll.

Newt Gingrich is left pushing his old crock round the track after his team fled in dismay at his lack of discipline.

There are some stern editorial reasons for covering this in detail - we would feel a bit silly if Herman Cain, the pizza millionaire, became the most powerful man in the world and we had not bothered to tell you he was standing.

But really, it is the lure of politics in the raw. Really raw. Flayed to the bone, nerves exposed, gory and gladiatorial.

Cliff-hanger tour

The primaries, coming round every four years, are so familiar that it is easy to lose sight of the fact they are unique, alien - an experiment in ultra-democracy that somehow has stuck.

A process so extraordinary that it would be laughed out of court if you suggested it today.

Journalists gorge on the red meat of this dramatic narrative, gnawing on the bare bones of the result, chewing over their implications

The voters choosing their party's candidate need not be party members. They do not need to pay any fees, or attend any meetings. They simply register as Republicans, or Democrats.

Some states go even further. You simply turn up and vote.

Just think. In the United Kingdom (however much lip service is paid to the principle of one member one vote) the power to choose a party leader still has not really been prised out of the hands of the party elite - the men in dark suits, the MPs or the unions.

This is designed to stop "ordinary party members" making a naive, shallow, choice, by plumping for their heart throb, however extreme and unelectable he or she might be.

As for the very idea of allowing mere voters who just happen to prefer one party over another to choose - unthinkable. And when a British party chooses a leader it is well before an election and it is over in a flash.

The rolling, rollicking American campaign lasts for more than a year, a travelling circus, moving from prayer breakfast to BBQ, from town to town, debate to debate, before a series of votes spread out over months as one state votes, then another, in a cascade of cliff-hangers.

Journalists gorge on the red meat of this dramatic narrative, gnawing on the bare bones of the result, chewing over their implications. The candidates' flaws and foibles, abilities and indiscretions are put under a blazing spotlight. Who will sweat and crack?

Political puzzle

Some tough questions are already out there.

Montage image - Texas Governor Rick Perry (L) and Michele Bachmann
Rick Perry (L) and Michele Bachmann (R) are facing some tough questions

Opponents are asking how close Michele Bachmann is to a very right-wing Christian philosophy called Dominionism, one proponent of which even argues for the death penalty for homosexuals and adulterers.

Why has she, in the past, recommended a book in which the author appears to endorse the argument that slavery could not be abolished until the slaves became Christians?

What about the controversy over Texas Governor Rick Perry's backing for the death penalty in a case where the evidence of guilt was so scant, critics say, that one Perry supporter is supposed to have told a focus group "it takes real guts to execute an innocent man".

It is perhaps a puzzle that this system, so wide open to allow anyone, or at least anyone with the money to enter has not produced a more glittering field.

Even those who know no other system are a little worried. I ask every senior Republican I come across the obvious question: "Who do you want as your presidential candidate?"

Just about all of them reply "none of the above". Some are beginning to say so in public.

While even that old cartoon favourite of mine had a clear starting line, this wacky race can be joined at just about any time.

Many hope that the mists will part and a new champion, perhaps looking a little less like a cartoon caricature, will ride in, scattering and smashing the others out of the way.

It may not be the most sensible way to choose a potential leader of the free world, but as theatre it is hard to beat.

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