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Super Tuesday: Will belief win again?

By James Naughtie
Today programme, Ohio

Mitt Romney

How much will Mitt Romney have to spend to get the Republican nomination for president?

The race reminds me of the contest many moons ago in which Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia and a member of one of America's richest families, was facing a tough challenge from a Republican opponent called Arch Moore.

It was so tough that Rockefeller decided to pay for blanket TV advertising in Washington DC for the sole reason that it would be seen by a few remote communities in rural West Virginia which local state stations couldn't reach.

Bumper stickers promptly appeared on the Washington streets: "Make him spend it all, Arch!"

You feel the same about Romney. As he might put it himself, he can't help being so rich. It just rubs up many in his party the wrong way, especially when the millions are deployed in negative advertising designed to remove one irritating opponent after another.

The latest, Rick Santorum, is proving a harder nut to crack.

This may seem a little strange to British observers, because he espouses a social policy that stirs up arguments most people had thought long been settled - for example, on any public support for contraceptive advice to women.

His stance is rigorous - he's one of the tiny minority of American Catholics who, according to surveys, go all the way with the church's teaching on contraception - and if he were nominated he would be a more conservative candidate on social issues that either major party had chosen since the 1950s.

That includes, you will note, Ronald Reagan, who was an extremely canny operator when it came to abortion and associated questions, and even Barry Goldwater, the ultra-conservative hero of the 1960s who was not interested in a moral crusade and who thought that the evangelical right (much less political then than now) was, in one of his favourite words, "nuts".

Rick Santorum
Rick Santorum is riding a wave of popularity for his social conservatism

So why Santorum? Remember that the long-term consequence of the Reagan revolution in the 1980s was the creation of a conservative movement that saw itself above and beyond party - a loose alliance of economic liberals, social conservatives and libertarians united above all by a hatred of big government.

The growth of the religious right, given fuel by a network of talk radio stations and, to an important extent, by Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, has given the movement power. And everyone in it knows that Romney is not one of them.

They also have a natural desire to stir up precisely the kind of passion that Obama inspired and exploited in 2008: it always feels better to have a cause than to fall back on rationality alone. So Santorum has found a wave that has carried him to Super Tuesday.

My own guess is that by the end of counting tonight, Romney will have done enough to suggest that he will eventually win the majority of delegates to take to the convention in Florida in August - and will therefore be the nominee-in-waiting. But he will not be able to deliver the knock-out blow.

Cue cheers from the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago. They want this to go on, and on.

Constitutional conundrum

If it is candidate Romney, he will have been weakened by the Republican fratricide and he often seems to lack the necessary ease on a platform to deal with that handicap. But it is equally important to remember how many Americans are either disappointed by Obama, or are revisiting their 2008 distaste.

Some of that opposition is depressingly predictable - a federal judge in Montana has submitted himself to investigation by his superiors after circulating an email to friends that contained a "joke" involving bestiality and the president's mother - but does not account in full for his low approval ratings (still under 50%). His re-election fight will be difficult.

Running through this election, however, is a current of weariness in the electorate.

Polls show that outside the Republican "family" of those who are energised by the primaries, there is a good deal of bemusement at the steady rightward lurches in policy.

Everyone knows that the American system has become polarized in the last two generations, so that on Capitol Hill the obligation to work "across the aisle" on legislation has turned into an obsession with difference and ideology.

Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich is facing his last stand on Super Tuesday

In a constitutional machine built on checks and balances, the party discipline of a parliamentary system is a complication and an impediment. Yet the ideological combat goes on: each side accuses the other of being un-American, of twisting the constitution, and there are big money donors who appear to have an interest in pouring petrol on the fire.

We will not see it go out this year, nor next, whoever wins. And that is raising some serious worries among thoughtful Americans who watch the Republican primary campaign and see a picture of the next era of politics - awash with (even) more money than before, characterized by negativism and character assassination, and apparently remote from the business of making government work in Washington.

Whatever happens to Romney and Santorum on Super Tuesday (it will surely be Newt Gingrich's last stand, and Ron Paul wants to be the perpetual outsider) that conundrum remains: that the more politics becomes a matter of belief the more difficult it is to make the American constitution work.

Every candidate has to say, at every meeting, that he reveres the Founding Fathers, whose wisdom and foresight are held to be unparalleled in modern human history.

Jefferson, Hamilton and the others might find it perplexing, and certainly depressing, that the current divisions in politics defended in their name are preventing the working of the deliberative government that they envisaged by the careful separation of powers.

Their most ardent disciples sometimes seem to be their greatest deniers. They would think it an odd truth to be self-evident on election day.

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