Mixed bag of seven for Republicans to chew over

Iowa voters to choose Obama's rival after months of scandal.

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CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA // Can the US president, Barack Obama, win another term in the White House? That question begins being answered tomorrow across schools, gymnasiums, churches and community centres in the agricultural state of Iowa.

Registered voters will go to 800 centres to cast their vote for who the Republican party challenger to Mr Obama should be.

After months of campaigning, televised debates and scandals, the choice is a mixed bag.

Among the seven candidates, there is Newt Gingrich, who says the Palestinians are an "invented" people, despite once embracing Yasser Aarafat, the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.

And Mitt Romney, a Mormon and the wealthy former governor of Massachusetts, who once boasted about how much money he made.

Ron Paul, a libertarian congressman from Texas, wants to eliminate eight federal government agencies. A former aide says he is anti-Israeli, something Mr Paul rejects.

Michelle Bachman, a congresswoman from Minnesota, who wants to phase out social security and Medicare.

Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator who believes Islamic fascism rooted in Iran is the source of much of the world's strife.

This vote is important because it is the first ballot in the contest to choose which Republican will challenge a Democrat president whose popularity has wavered.

Voters here are beginning the process of choosing delegates who will then join other delegates from around the country at the Republican party convention in Florida in August to decide who will challenge Mr Obama in November's election.

Democrats too have a caucus, or a vote, but there are no challengers to Mr Obama, and the party's efforts will be focused on organising for the presidential campaign.

For a time this largely rural and sparsely populated state will be at the heart of American politics.

Without a good start here, it could be hard for candidates to maintain momentum, although the picture could change as the campaign swings through the south.

The caucus are grassroots democracy at its best. Candidates have to leave the bubble of Washington or state politics and travel through the towns and cities here to talk with people. And listen to them.

Mr Santorum, for instance, has visited every one of Iowa's 99 counties and it could stand him in good stead tomorrow.

In effect, a candidate is successful in Iowa if his party workers can convince their neighbours to vote for him.

It is a process that makes Iowan politics inclusive and simple, said Jim Conklin, a former Republican Party chairman in Linn County.

"Iowans will listen to anyone, once," Mr Conklin said, sitting in a sparse office functioning as a temporary Republican headquarters on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids, Linn County's largest town.

"If you can reach them, you have a chance with them."

And while winning Iowa does not necessarily mean winning the eventual nomination - in fact, it usually doesn't - a good showing is necessary to garner national attention and secure vital campaign financing.

"You want to be propelled out of Iowa," said Renee Schulte, a Republican state legislator from Cedar Rapids.

"In order to do that, you want to be among the top three."

But this year, things may be different.

The field remains wide open and only Mr Romney has shown anything resembling consistency in polls.

He has more money and a bigger campaign staff than his competition.

As a Mormon, Mr Romney struggles for support from the important evangelical constituency. And his support seems tepid, more grounded in the perception that of all the leading candidates he would stand a better chance against Mr Obama. In effect, the least worst choice.

The other candidates arouse greater passion. But each is problematic.

Mr Santorum is relatively unknown, and while doing well in polls in Iowa, he has concentrated all his efforts here and has very little presence in the states that follow, especially New Hampshire, Nevada and Florida.

He is also socially conservative, a position that might make him popular in the America's heartland, but would be harder to translate onto broader support nationally.

Mr Paul garners near fanatical support, and is running a highly disciplined campaign.

But his critics say he is too radical to beat Mr Obama, with his plans to bring back the gold standard - where gold is the standard economic measure - and abolish the Federal Reserve.

Mr Gingrich carries a lot of baggage, with three marriages and one admitted affair, which could be an issue with socially conservative Republicans.

Moreover, questions over the more than US$1.6 million (Dh5.8m) payment for consultancy work he did for Freddie Mac, a government mortgage provider embroiled in the 2008 housing finance crisis.

Mrs Schulte, who is supporting Mr Romney, said any nominee's chances against Mr Obama would to a great degree depend on their choice of vice-presidential running mate.

"There will have to be some Yin-Yang with the choice of vice-president," she suggested.

But she conceded that did not help Republican challenger John McCain when he chose Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate against Mr Obama in the 2008 election.

But Mr Conklin, who supports Mr Gingrich, said that doesn't really matter.

Republican dislike of Mr Obama ran so deep, he said, that the party would unite behind the eventual nominee.

"Any of them is better than Obama."