It's endorsement time

Let's just pretend that for a non-citizen blogger, who has never even visited Iowa, to endorse candidates in Iowa's caucuses isn't mind-bogglinly arrogant, and just play along. If you are unwilling to play along, feel free to tune out now.

First, I should stress these are not my real endorsements. Those will come in advance of the New York primary on Tsunami Tuesday (05 Feb). (My endorsements in New York are a little less arrogant, since I am a paid political columnist in that state, and endorsing candidates there is part of my job). My Iowa endorsements differ significantly in that I am taking a more tactical view. These endorsements do not necessarily reflect my preferences for President of the United States.

First, the Republicans.

If the polls are to be believed (and polling Iowa caucus goers is notoriously difficult) then the race is between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. I suspect Huckabee may have peaked, but this may be wishful thinking, and polling seems to show only small indications of this. Of the two, Romney is infinitely preferable. While some doubt his sincerity, he is clearly contesting this election on a sensible and achievable conservative platform. It is possible that he is only pretending to be a conservative. But Mike Huckabee is not even pretending. Huckabee is soft on the War on Terror; soft on crime; an outright liberal on taxes, spending and healthcare; and deeply suspect on issues of trade and business regulation. He hasn't actually promised to ruin America's international standing in global trade (as John Edwards has) but he has strongly implied that this is what he would like to do. When his personal ethics problems are added to the equation he seems to be an appalling candidate and a worse executive. Mitt Romney is so far ahead of him in terms of his platform, his competence, his achievements and his personal probity that comparison is almost risible.

But, of course, there are other candidates. Iowa may turn out to be the last chance for Fred Thompson to make a breakthrough - and his message of confronting America's serious problem with entitlements deserves to be heard. Even if Thompson does not end up as the nominee, it is in everyone's interests (and I mean globally, not just in the US) that this debate should be held. Thompson does not need to win to stay in the race. A good third place would do it. A strong performance by Thompson is a good in itself.

Rudy Giuliani also enters Iowa with low expectations. If he were to do well he would enhance his campaign immeasurably. If he were to win - and this seems extremely unlikely - he would be difficult to stop. His unparalleled record of achieving conservative goals in government is an outstanding qualification to be president.

A surge by John McCain would make him favourite for the New Hampshire primary and a strong contender for the nomination. This, however, cannot be considered a good thing. His almost complete lack of executive experience, his volatile temperament and his love of the maverick status strongly undermine his credentials. Despite his resolute approach the the War on Terror and a generally solid record on limiting the role of government he is well down my preference list for the presidency. If his campaign were to fail the early hurdles I would celebrate.

Overall, my preference for the presidency is Giuliani followed by Romney. This makes a tactical decision rather awkward. I have no doubt that Romney is Giuliani's most formidable opponent. He lacks the name recognition of Giuliani and McCain - but early state victories can solve that problem overnight. He has the most impressive campaign infrastructure, and early state victories cannot put that in place for candidates like McCain, Thompson and Huckbee who suffer from this lack. A Romney victory in Iowa could seriously undermine my ultimate preference of electing Giuliani. By contrast, strong performances by Giuliani and Thompson would be highly desirable.

If I were more confident that Huckabee would lose, I would be inclined to endorse Thompson. However, the most pressing need is ending Huckabee's campaign. A decisive defeat in Iowa could meet that need and the way to achieve it is to support Mitt Romney. While such a strategy is not risk-free - in that it could damage the chances of my first preference candidate - it would do so by enhancing the campaign of a man who is eminently qualified to lead the US. If the result of a Romney victory is a hard-fought campaign between Romney and Giuliani it is a result worth seeking. Either of these men could serve with distinction and a choice between them shows a strength in depth on the Republican side which the Democratic Party utterly lacks. I thus endorse Mitt Romney.

Secondly, the Democrats.

It is tempting to endorse John Edwards. There is nothing to be said for his qualifications to be President. He has none. He has never led anything and his platform is the most cynical amalgalm of populist tripe since . . . well, since he last ran for the presidency. But a strong performance by Edwards would prolong the primary campaign and help expose the weaknesses of the leading contenders. But such a strategy is too risky. Edwards is not a wholly incredible president - at least not in electoral terms. He polls well against Republican candidates in the Mid West and the South. This may, in part, relate to his low profile in comparison with Clinton and Obama, but his southern accent and homey charm are factors too. He would be a dreadful President, and victory in Iowa could lead to his becoming that President.

Despite their weaknesses, either Clinton or Obama would be preferable. A decisive victory by Clinton would be dangerous as it could end the campaign immediately. This implies a narrow win for Obama is the best option.

But, in the end, Democrats deserve to punished for putting three Senators in their front rank. The only candidate with any actual leadership experience is Bill Richardson. He has run a state and a Washington department. He actually has the sort of diplomatic experience that Hillary Clinton pretends to have. He has even served in Congress - for people who find this experience relevant - longer then Clinton and Edwards combined. An uexpectedly strong performance by Richardson might force the party to consider a stronger field next time, which is surely good in a competitive democracy. As long as one party passes over candidates with actual leadership experience - as the Democrats have done for two cycles now and seem likely to do again - American democracy will suffer. Despite his policy weaknesses - especially on Iraq - I therefore endorse Bill Richardson.

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