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OPINION: First in the nation

Dale Alison, The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa –

Next Monday will be the day after Christmas; the Monday after that will be the eve of the Iowa caucuses.

Democrats will meet Tuesday night, Jan. 3, but few will care. Attention will be riveted on who Republicans will choose. Mitt? Newt? Rick One or Rick Two?

Mitt Romney’s support has been remarkably consistent. On Sunday, he secured the Des Moines Register’s editorial endorsement. Earlier this month, the Sioux City Journal did the same.

But rank-and-file Republicans are not so easily convinced. Nearly each week since the Ames straw poll in August a candidate has surfaced to be the anti-Romney.

First it was Michelle Bachmann, the straw poll winner and native Iowan. But Rick Perry entered the race and sucked up all the attention – until he opened his mouth. Suddenly the former Democrat became his biggest liability.

Following Perry’s stumbles, Herman Cain curiously caught fire. He crystalized his tax position to a marketing tagline, “Nine-nine-nine,” befitting his previous life as a pizza chain CEO.

Critics and journalists would ask, “What does that mean?”

Cain responded, “Apples and oranges.”

Supporters said, “Can we have a yard sign?”

No one cared that taxes would go up for nearly everybody but the very rich under the nine-nine-nine plan, whatever it was.

Murmurs of sexual harassment about Cain gained legitimacy when settlement agreements were produced from his time at the National Restaurant Association. Almost in defiance, Cain’s support continued. But Cain dropped from the race after a woman came forward with news of a 13-year affair.

Next in line was Newt Gingrich. Yes, the Gingrich who carried on an affair while impeaching a president suspected of having one. The Gingrich who’s on spouse No. 3. Marital infidelity? That’s so-o-o-o yesterday.

But Gingrich did create the modern Republican Party. Reagan may be the patron saint, but Gingrich did all the dirty work. His disciplined message encapsulated in the Contract with America reclaimed a House majority for Republicans in 1994 after 40 years out of power.

Yet immediately after ascending to control, Gingrich lost all sense of that discipline. He introduced himself as speaker of the House with a rambling speech that emphasized equipping students with laptop computers. It was a noble goal, but had nothing to do with the contract that elevated him to his leadership post.

While speaker, welfare reform was accomplished, as was a balanced budget. But Gingrich overplayed his hand and led a shutdown of government. Finally, he was undone by the same ethics charge he used to ascend to relevance – a suspect book deal meant to inflate numbers and line his pockets.

Since resigning, Gingrich carved out a niche writing books in the genre of alternative history. In other words, history that isn’t history.

U.S. history, though, includes a very real Constitution, which lays out the functions of three branches of government. Each has checks designed to keep the other two in balance.

In Sioux City last week, Gingrich took aim at one of those three, the judiciary, repeating his desire to subpoena judges and make them accountable to Congress.

The rant obviously was designed to attract staunch conservatives rather than be a governing manifesto, which wouldn’t be possible. Still, it reminded Republicans why Gingrich fell out of their favor.

One Republican who seems deserving of that attention is mired in polls’ single digits.
Rick Santorum has spent more time than any candidate in the state, and he actually helped Iowans with their recall of the three supreme court justices that made same-sex marriage possible here.

Nevermind that even when conservative-friendly judges will be asked to overturn the unpopular Varnum decision, they’ll be hard-pressed to do so without turning themselves into pretzels.

The decision was rendered in response to Iowa’s Defense of Marriage statute, which declared marriage was limited to between a man and a woman. The court determined – unanimously – “(excluding) gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage does not substantially further any important governmental objective.”

It didn’t, it doesn’t, and it won’t.

Still, Santorum would seem to be everything Republicans want in their leader. He’s articulate and unyielding in all the causes Republicans hold dear.

Ron Paul’s like Santorum. You know where he stands, and he’s unflinching in his beliefs.

Trouble is, not all Republicans are on board with all that. Supporters complain the media has not paid the attention due him, but Paul’s support likely is capped with his true believers.

As the constitutionalist, Bachmann believes our forefathers knew best. All Americans need to do is determine how they’d resolve any issue – until it pertains to her: As our forefathers wrote the Constitution, she’d be ineligible for office.

As cherry-picking’s not an admirable trait, I doubt Bachmann will last much past Jan. 3.
Jon Huntsman is the pragmatist in the field. He realizes to unseat Barack Obama, a candidate must control the political middle. But that involves compromise, a dirty word with party activists.

Which candidate moves past Iowa depends largely who shows up caucus night.

With 24-hour news channels, talk radio and the Internet, it’s easier than it used to be to herd cats. It’s doubtful, for example, that a precinct will support universal health care like the Republicans did who gathered in a Perkins School classroom in 1986.

That platform plank, of course, failed to make it past the county convention.

My hunch is Romney remains the best equipped to win the Republican nomination. He has the money to last, his message is focused and since Gingrich’s rise, he has displayed a willingness to go for the jugular. Each is necessary for a candidate to win any party’s nomination.

Strangely, as Romney has moved further and further to the right, it’s not enough for those fearful he’s the dreaded RINO, Repubican in Name Only. For a party that eschews evolution, that’s a high hurdle to clear and could end up costing the GOP the general election.

For Republicans, Iowa’s less about picking a winner than clearing the field. So far, Romney’s been able to knock down every challenger presented.
In two weeks we’ll see if that holds.

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