The campaign looks likely to sharpen America's divisions.
AMERICA'S primary elections are not yet formally over, but with the exit of Rick Santorum it is at last plain that Mitt Romney will be the Republicans' nominee. After the bruising primaries, Mr Romney starts from behind. Barack Obama leads in the head-to-head polls. But there are still seven months to election day, and Mr Romney has a fair chance of victory in November. Less than half of America's voters approve of the way Mr Obama is doing his job. Six out of ten think the country is on the "wrong track". The recovery is still weak and 12.7m Americans are unemployed. America added only 120,000 jobs in March, below expectations and fewer than in previous months.
This fight is going to be nastier than the one in 2008. By instinct Mr Romney is a moderate, but the primaries tugged him sharply right, forcing him to boast that he was "severely conservative" by embracing policies, including deep cuts in social spending, that even the famous flip-flopper will now find it difficult to drop. After the primaries, candidates pivot towards the centre. But Mr Romney knows that to turn out a conservative base that does not love him he must mobilise their hatred of Mr Obama. In the meantime Mr Obama appears to believe that he cannot afford to present himself once more as a healer who will soar above party divisions. He is running a more partisan campaign this time round. An already polarised America therefore faces a deeply polarising election.
The second time, it's harder
In 2008 Mr Obama promised audacity, hope and "change we can believe in". His appeal sprang from who he was: a fresh young senator offering a new direction after the clapped-out administration of George Bush and a safer pair of hands than the 72-year-old John McCain. But incumbents cannot run on promise alone. This time he will be judged less on who he is and more on what he has done.
Considering the circumstances, he has not done badly. He can justly claim to have prevented a GREat recession from turning into a GREat depression. He rescued Detroit's carmakers and finished the job of stabilising the banks. Mr Romney says he made a bad situation worse, but if Mr Obama had not used billions of borrowed dollars to stimulate the sagging economy, even more Americans would be out of work today. By battering al-Qaeda and killing Osama bin Laden, he has disproved the notion that Democrats are soft on national security.
Still, "it could have been worse" has never been an inspiring re-election slogan. The recovery is still so tepid that Mr Obama cannot risk running on his record alone. He has therefore to cast the election as a choice, not a referendum on his performance. That requires him to make the choice as stark as possible. For months he has portrayed the Republicans as ruthless asset-strippers who care nothing about the middle class so long as they can promote the interests of the super-rich. How lucky for Mr Obama that the super-rich Mr Romney made his fortune in the cut-throat business of private equity.
This is the electoral logic behind the speech last week in which Mr Obama claimed that the Republicans had embraced a form of "thinly veiled social Darwinism" that would deprive needy children of healthy food, slash cancer research, close down national parks and eliminate air-traffic control in swathes of the country. It sounds scary, and it contains more than a grain of truth—but in fact the Republicans have proposed none of these specific cuts. Mr Obama's dystopian predictions are based on his own extrapolations from the broad spending cuts proposed by the Republicans in ConGREss.
Mr Romney's retort is that the president is attacking policies nobody is proposing, "setting up straw men to distract from his record". Coming from the Republicans, this is rich. They have attacked a straw man since the day Mr Obama was inaugurated. They labelled his conventional Keynesian response to a deep recession "socialist". They called "Obamacare" unAmerican, even though this market-based scheme to extend health cover to 30m uninsured Americans is almost identical to the one Mr Romney adopted as governor of Massachusetts.
Mr Romney also accuses Mr Obama of drowning the American dream in a sea of red ink. But on this issue there is plenty of blame to go round. Although Mr Obama has yet to come up with a serious plan to tame entitlements, he did try last summer to negotiate a "grand bargain" on the deficit. And when that failed, ConGREss voted for an automatic deficit-reducing spending cut (the "sequester") of $1.2 trillion over the next decade that is supposed to kick in at the end of this year.
Elections that offer clear choices can be good things. Isn't that politics as usual? But American voters are in danger of being forced to choose in November between a Republican Party that is allergic to needed tax rises and a Democratic Party that lacks the courage to make the spending cuts required for America to live within its means. The prospect is for a shouting match that pushes the parties ever further apart and threatens to make the whole system of government seize up.
This is not politics as usual
Indeed, the system is already dangerously close to seizing up. The present ConGREss is the most polarised of modern times. The Republican landslide in the 2010 mid-terms swept a new breed of conservative zealot into office, destroying the middle ground and making legislating next to impossible. The Supreme Court is polarised, too—so much so that it might strike down Obamacare, the president's flagship achievement, on the deciding vote of a single judge.
In short, America is in dire need of the sort of comity Mr Obama promised in 2008. We are not red states and blue states, he said then, we are the United States. What a pity that he is changing tack this time, bashing the rich via gimmicks such as the "Buffett rule" (which is supposed to make millionaires like Mr Romney pay at least the same tax rate as their secretaries) and galvanising his base by brushing aside even the sensible part of the Republican argument that something radical must be done to curb entitlement spending. He may feel he has no choice. But it is a miserable portent for the future.