Tea Party hopefuls edge closer to the winning line

Michele Bachmann in Waterloo, Iowa. 14 Aug Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Tea Party candidate Michele Bachmann: leading the field?

The Republican race has moved a little closer to the finishing line while I've been taking a few days' break on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Bad timing, but it reinforced some of my views about next year's election. More on that in a moment. What did I miss?

Tim Pawlenty has taken a hint from his own campaign slogan, "results not rhetoric" after being beaten in the Iowa straw poll. He's bowed out. Michele Bachmann won the contest and, were that all that happened, would be very strongly placed to be the conservative champion. But Texas Governor Rick Perry is now in. He too will be vying for the votes of the right of the party.

They are tailoring their message to the times. But for all the Tea Party movement's insistence that it is about fiscal responsibility and economic conservatism, these two candidates are both evangelical Christians, with a strong line on social conservatism. Perry signed a law that makes a woman about to have an abortion look at an image of her foetus. The stand out question to Bachmann in last week's debate was whether she still believed, for religious reasons, that a woman should be "submissive" to her husband, and how that would touch the authority of the commander in chief.

The right has attacked the media for focusing on such questions. But it is the media's job to look at weakness, and it may be that social conservatism is not the priority of most Americans right now.

Which takes me back to the Eastern Shore. The coast along the Chesapeake Bay is a two-hour drive from Washington but it could be a million miles away. Amid beautiful inlets and waterways, tiny beaches and miles of marshes, there are towns named by homesick settlers: Oxford, Cambridge and Salisbury. There are big mansion houses and yachting marinas. There are also small farms, fishing villages denuded of fish, and towns wearing a dejected underemployed air.

We didn't meet anyone who was following the Republican race. But we did meet plenty of bewilderment at DC politicians and the state of the economy.

There was a couple running a bar who still seemed slightly surprised they were having their best three business years ever, but worried about what would happen next. There was the woman in the state park depressed and ashamed about the state of America, its education system, and the difficultly of setting up a business. There were late night drinks on the balcony of a motel with a Democrat who still had faith in Obama, but shook his head over the state of the economy.

There is huge uncertainty in this country. Wise candidates will focus on that, as well as the more concrete issue of jobs. In his call to arms, Rick Perry said: "The change we seek will never emanate out of Washington DC. It will come from the windswept prairies of Middle America, the farms and factories across this great land, from the hearts and minds of the goodhearted Americans who will accept not a future that is less than our past, patriots - patriots who will not be consigned to a fate of less freedom in exchange for more government."

An appeal to future and past greatness will, I suspect, strike a chord. Mitt Romney too tries to appeal to this instinct that something is deeply wrong with America, although he sat out Iowa. On the Republican side this now looks like a three horse race, with plenty of hurdles ahead.