LOS ANGELES -- It would seem that the United States has a five-party system right now. What was done in Iowa last Tuesday could unravel in New Hampshire, but whatever happens next, the United States is more politically fractured than it has been in decades.
Iowa is the beginning but has never been the bellwether of presidential campaigns. Too white, too rural, only 5.7 percent unemployment, and all that. But hard ideological lines shone through the Iowa results, even if the state had caucuses rather than an all-out primary, which means most of the folks who showed up were not only ordinary American citizens but also activists to some degree.
So this is the American political landscape at the moment:
-- Moderate to liberal Democrats, led by a president tangled in a country still unable to provide jobs for many of its people. Read Barack Obama.
-- Liberal Democrats, who believe the president is too moderate and too willing to compromise with an intractable Republican opposition. Read Matt Damon and other celebrities who think life is a movie with a happy ending.
-- Semi-moderate Republicans, looking for a candidate with a chance to defeat Obama in November. Read Mitt Romney.
-- Socially conservative Republicans, interested in only two pieces of literature -- the Bible and the Constitution, though they understand neither. Read Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann.
-- Libertarian Republicans, who deeply believe the less government the better, and that includes isolationism. Read, of course, Ron Paul.
The Democrats don't have to fight out their differences. Obama is effectively unchallenged. The Republicans, though, will get to the point of uniting to try to defeat Obama. That's the only thing the three Republican parties agree on right now. There is something disturbing about the fact that the Republican candidates rarely seriously address the economy or national security. Their only mantra is getting rid of Obama. What would they do? I don't know, and I don't think most of them do either.
The Republican parties -- or factions -- are fighting a vicious internal battle because three-quarters of them hate Romney; they think he is a secret moderate and an open Mormon. Fundamentalist Protestants consider Mormonism a cult and Romney some kind of anti-Christ. In some ways, the 2012 campaign mirrors attempts to destroy the Mormons in the mid-19th century when the country was literally at war with Mormonism in the western territories. Tribal warfare in a new country then; now tribal warfare in the Republican Party.
(It's fascinating to speculate on how many God-loving people will vote against Romney for his religion or against Obama because of his race. That's what a secret ballot is about. More than 60 percent of Iowa caucus participants identified themselves as evangelical Christians.)
Despite all that, Romney will probably be the Republican nominee. Odds are that many of his current adversaries -- candidates and voters -- will hold their noses and vote for what they consider the lesser of two evils. The question is how many?
I'm not sure how this five-sided battle will turn out. I would guess that there will be a third-party candidate this year -- probably Paul or Gingrich. That would be very bad news for Romney. But he got good news and good luck in Iowa. If any of the God-loving conservatives to his right -- say, Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry -- had not been in the race, Romney would have lost, and we might be busy writing his political obituary.
On to New Hampshire!