Who says presidential debates and straw polls don't matter?
The field of Republican presidential candidates has both narrowed and expanded after the presidential debate-cum-straw poll at Ames, Ia., the capital of American presidential politics until it moves to the snowy fields of New Hampshire. What a system. If the United States of America follows any plan in selecting its presidents, it must be the same one Topsy followed when she just growed.
These close-up-and-personal encounters of the political kind give Americans a chance to judge the field. And after each one, there aren't as many contenders as there were before. Or there may be new ones. For the moment all is still in flux. Like the American economy.
The candidate who's out is Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota. His first reaction to doing less than well in Iowa's straw poll was to say he was in this race for the long haul, then quickly decide that a short haul was best after all. The question raised by his departure -- well, one of them -- is not why he left the race but why anyone sane would want to run for president of the United States in the first place.
One of the other questions left dangling after these results in Iowa is why Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania who failed to win another term, is still in this race. His showing in Iowa was dismal. Maybe he just likes to travel and see the country, going from primary to primary. There have got to be more enjoyable ways to tour America the Beautiful. Like hitchhiking. Or driving from one Motel 6 to the next. Or taking a slow train through Arkansas.
The new addition to the GOP race, whose entry was so expected it came as an anticlimax, is Texas' Rick Perry. The Texan enters with one heck of a handicap, namely: He's a Texan. And the rest of the country, to indulge in the broadest-based, unfairest, most stereotypical of generalizations (my specialty), doesn't much like Texas. Which is just fine with Texans, who (a) don't much care, being Texans, and (b) may not like the rest of the country, either.
Case in point: Governor Perry, who in one of those moments that haunts every presidential candidate, once said something offhand about Texas' seceding from the Union. As if it hadn't once before -- with dire consequences. You'd think all of us in these Southern latitudes would have learned better after The Late Unpleasantness.
Among those Republicans candidates still standing after this latest straw in the wind, literally, since the show at Ames was only a straw poll, are Michele Bachmann, the big winner; Mitt Romney, who had the good sense to avoid this carnival at Ames, and, oh, yes, the inescapable Ron Paul, who might as well have walked in from some convention of gold bugs circa 1896.
Congressman Paul hasn't accepted to any development in American foreign affairs since the Spanish-American War, or any change in the monetary system since the Federal Reserve System was created in 1913. He's a society for creative anachronism all by himself.
Whether or not Ron Paul goes anywhere in this quadrennial American circus, he'd be a big hit on PBS' "Antiques Roadshow."
Back in the real world, to repeat a thought I've had before, like immediately after the GOP's last presidential debate, any American political party that matters is always divided between its passions and its calculations. The candidate who satisfies its passions -- a Barry Goldwater, a George McGovern, a Robert A. Taft -- might prove a disaster in the general election, when not just the party faithful but independents and even the more flexible members of the other party will need to be courted. Which is why, once again, we're all going to hear the word "electable" next year till we're sick of it.
But that quality -- electability -- remains the attraction of any centrist candidate, preferably one with a non-threatening personality who assures rather than scares. Like an Eisenhower. Or, this year, maybe a Mitt Romney.