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Unemployment stands at 9 per cent in the United States. Economic growth remains meagre. The federal deficit yawns wider; the national debt grows. The country's government is dysfunctional.

Polls aggregated by show that on Thanksgiving weekend, 73 per cent of Americans think the country is on the "wrong track." President Barack Obama's approval rating is 43 per cent positive, 50 per cent negative.

With just under a year before the next election, Mr. Obama ought to be seriously wounded. But the same polls show him easily beating all opponents. Happily for him, the Republican Party is an angry, boiling, roiling mess, throwing up a gaggle of second- and third-rate would-be candidates.

Just two things have come to define Republicans politically: They hate Barack Obama with a frenzied passion, and the bulk of them don't want Mitt Romney to be their nominee. Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and unsuccessful seeker of the nomination four years ago, may yet win it this time, but only as the last man standing.

Mr. Romney, slick, packaged and rich, has changed positions on key issues more times than Jennifer Aniston has changed boyfriends. No matter how much he tries to pander to religious Republicans, Tea Party frothers, antigovernment ideologues, isolationists and the close-the-border crowd, they just don't see him as a True Believer.

His record as governor was that of a Republican moderate, of the kind that is almost extinct these days. That he ran a successful Olympic Games in Utah reflected well on him. Both efforts suggest a pragmatic, pro-business, managerial kind of guy.

But pragmatism is not what the Republican Party wants. It's mad at Wall Street for the financial collapse. It doesn't want an internationalist, it wants somebody who can boss the world around. And it doesn't want a Mormon, or at least the evangelicals in the party don't, because for them, Mormons are weird deviants from the true faith of Christianity.

So the party has searched and searched for anybody else. Some of them prayed (literally) for Alaskan wing nut Sarah Palin. Fortunately, the vast majority of Americans wrote her off as a flake, so she decided to keep making millions of dollars rewriting her autobiography in speeches and appearing on Fox News.

Then they examined Rick Perry, the Texas Governor, whose chiselled good looks made him appear presidential and whose beyond-the-horizon conservatism got lots of people temporarily excited – until it became clear, even to Republicans, that the guy really didn't know what he was talking about a dangerous amount of the time.

Then arrived Herman Cain, who had made millions selling pizzas. He arrived with an economic formula as simple as a dough recipe: 9-9-9, each digit standing for a tax rate. Even Republican-oriented economists blanched at its simplicity, to say nothing of its stupidity. Derided for his economics and trailed by allegations of past sexual misdeeds, Mr. Cain joined Mr. Perry as a fly-by alternative to Mr. Romney.

Michele Bachman, a congresswoman from Minnesota, had suitably fiery right-wing credentials, but an alarmingly shaky grasp on basic facts, including in which state the patriots had fired their first shots in the U.S. Revolution.

Having scanned these alternatives, some Republicans, in their desperation and delusion, are taking another look at Newt Gingrich.

Earlier in the campaign, those who know Mr. Gingrich best – his entire top political staff – resigned en masse. They saw arrogance when none was warranted, insufferable wordiness, political immaturity and a candidate who would listen to no one but himself.

And yet, he now stands atop the Republican leaderboard: a windbag, thrice-married in a party of holy rollers, condemned for improprieties by the House of Representatives over which he once presided as speaker, a lobbyist in a party that hates insiders.

As long as Mr. Gingrich leads the Republican pack, Mr. Obama can only smile. Despite all the economic bad news, polls show him whipping Mr. Gingrich 49 to 42 per cent.