With the refusal of New Jersey's governor, Chris Christie, to join the fray and the Texas governor, Rick Perry, imploding in slow motion, Mitt Romney is odds-on favourite to win the Republican presidential nomination and face off against Barack Obama in November next year. The US news website Real Clear Politics has a compilation of polls that puts the former Massachusetts governor and Ken doll lookalike 5.5 per cent ahead of his nearest rival. That his nearest rival happens to be Herman Cain, the bombastic former chief executive of Godfather's Pizza, speaks volumes about the weird and wacky line-up of GOP candidates jostling for the 2012 Republican nomination.
So, who is Romney? What does he stand for? Much has been made of his Mormonism, which could cost him votes in both the primaries and the general election. Despite a steep decline in hostility towards female, Catholic, Jewish and, of course, black presidential candidates in the United States over the past 50 years, one in five Americans continue to tell pollsters that they would be reluctant to vote for a Mormon. In evangelical Republican circles, anti-Mormon bigotry is rife: the influential Baptist pastor and Rick Perry ally Robert Jeffress hit the headlines on 7 October when he described Mormonism as a "cult" and urged voters to "support a Christian over a non-Christian".
The funds guy
However, it isn't Romney's faith that should disturb ordinary Americans; it's his political views. In a crowded field of far-right candidates, Romney is often portrayed as an old-fashioned, pro-business Republican moderate. But, in the context of modern American politics, "moderate" is a term that has been emptied of all meaning.
Romney is the moderate who wants to double the size of Guantanamo Bay and is opposed to having Muslims serve in his cabinet. He backs Arizona's immigration law, which encourages racial profiling. He would have allowed the US to default on its debts in early August, such was the intensity of his opposition to raising the so-called debt ceiling. And his moderation didn't prevent him from signing up to the anti-tax pledge promoted by the ultra-conservative Americans for Tax Reform, which argues for no new taxes. Ever.
The lazy logic of the Washington press corps seems to be: he isn't Michele Bachmann, ergo, he's a moderate. The Republicans - backed by their fanatically anti-government Tea Party outriders and the Fox News network - have succeeded in shifting the political centre of gravity so far to the right that Romney comes across as sober and mainstream.
It is an image that he and his advisers have been cultivating assiduously in recent months. Romney tried running as a social conservative in 2008, having backed abortion and gay rights during his gubernatorial days in Massachusetts, only to be rejected for his brazen opportunism and - the deadliest charge in US presidential politics - "flip-flopping".
This time round, with unemployment at 9 per cent, he has made the economy his main battleground. "I spent my career in the private sector," he has said. "I know how jobs are created and how jobs are lost." The problem for Romney, however, is that much of his career, first as a management consultant and then as a private equity boss, was spent telling companies to sack their workers.
During his brief, aborted bid for the Republican presidential nomination earlier this year, the billionaire entrepreneur Donald Trump belittled Romney as "a funds guy" who would "buy companies . . . close companies [and] get rid of the jobs".
“The Donald" had a point. As co-founder and chief executive of Bain Capital, Romney made hundreds of millions of dollars from private equity deals in the 1980s. (He is so fabulously rich that his aides are unable to say just how rich he is; in August, they said he was worth "between $190m and $250m".)
Master of reinvention
Romney is indeed pro-business - but, to borrow a line from Ed Miliband, he is pro-predator, not pro-producer. He's a shill for big business and Wall Street. Consider the leading members of his fundraising team: the hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer and the JPMorgan executives James B Lee Jr, Frank J Bisignano and Mary Callahan Erdoes.
He likes to attack Obama's economic record, but the former governor has offered few specific or convincing details of how he would kick-start growth - beyond the usual encomiums to capitalism, free enterprise and limited government. His jobs plan, unveiled to much fanfare last month, was summed up by an Associated Press headline: "Cut taxes, slap China, drill oil". This, it seems, is the motto of modern, moderate US conservatism.
In his unbridled pursuit of power - he has been doing little else but running for president of the United States since completing his one and only term as governor in 2007 - Romney has been a master of reinvention. He rails, for example, against Obama's health-care plan - even though it is based on his own reforms in Massachusetts.
He may have no consistent or sincere beliefs, but there is one issue on which he hasn't budged over the past 30 years: defending the interests of the rich and powerful at all costs.
In August, speaking at the Iowa State Fair, and in response to a heckler in the crowd who had called for higher taxes on corporations and big business, a smiling Romney asserted: "Corporations are people, my friend."
Don't be deceived by his smooth looks, or distracted by the eccentricities of his Republican rivals. Romney is the corporations' candidate; the nominee of the 1 per cent, not the 99 per cent. Ordinary Americans deserve better.