It is difficult to know what to make of tonight's Republican contest in Iowa. The Mitt Romney - Mike Huckabee contest for first place may best be seen as a potential eliminator from which the right-wing contender for the nomination will emerge.
Somehow, the Mike Huckabee campaign is giving the impression of having turned into a serious Presidential bid. It shouldn't be. Huckabee has some charm, some startlingly absolutist right-wing views and no Presidential credentials at all, especially on foreign policy. Picking the low point of his campaign to date is difficult.
Was it attributing his poll surge to divine intervention?
There's only one explanation for it, and it's not a human one. It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people.
Not having heard of the Iran intelligence report the day after it had dominated the news agenda was worrying.
But he topped that this week as his spat with Mitt Romney got nastier. Huckabee's decision to defend John McCain from negative Romney attacks - John McCain is a hero - was a smart move. Somewhat, less smart was declaring that he was resisting the temptation to go negative himself in retaliation - before showing the negative attack ad he had decided not to air at his press conference. Huckabee is putting himself beyond satire.
Mitt Romney is deeply unimpressive. Apart from the high profile issue of his being a Mormon, he stirkes me as a something of an identikit Republican, running a nasty, negative campaign from the Lee Atwater-Karl Rove textbook. ( Joe Klein's Tale of Two Romneys nails this). His credentials to be President don't seem to stretch that far beyond running the Winter Olympics. He has already struggled with his various campaign misstatements.
I haven't been able to work out what Fred Thompson is for. Neither, I think, has the candidate.
For a long time, Rudy Giuliani seemed the Republican most likely to threaten the Democrats in November. He is a worrying prospect as President. Nuance would not be the watchword of his foreign policy. But the Democrats have not yet worked out how to counter their vulnerability on national security in the General Election - and a single issue 9/11 Giuliani campaign could exploit that. Giuliani's problem has always been the strategy to secure the nomination, given that he is beyond the pale for a significant part of the Republican base. He is rewriting the rules of the primary contest. It will be another month before we know whether his unconventional gameplan of marginalising the early contests has paid off, or has cost him his frontrunner status.
My Republican pick is John McCain. He has the credibility and experience to be President, as the (London) Times set out in a well argued editorial this week. I don't agree with his views on foreign policy - and he has done much to bolster President Bush - but he is a candidate who commands respect. McCain has problems with the Republican base but perhaps also, by trying to reposition towards them, with the independent voters he appealed to in 2000. He has struggled for momentum, but seems to be picking up as the voters think seriously about the Presidency.
I suspect Huckabee or Romney would be easier for the Democrats to defeat in November. But Clinton, Obama or Edwards are capable of winning against any of the Republican nominees. And, given that the US Presidency is at stake, it might be a good idea for both parties to put up somebody who could do the job.