03/11/2012 17:47 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Divine Intervention and the US Elections

On the eve of the US presidential elections, plenty of Democrats in this deeply religious country will have seen Hurricane Sandy as a sign from heaven that God backs Obama.

You can understand why. Sandy was a God-given opportunity for Obama to display the power of incumbency. He seized it ruthlessly. He had learnt the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 destroyed New Orleans. President Bush was widely criticised for an uncaring and incompetent response. But, Obama was very visibly on the ground in the worst-hit state of New Jersey. His reward was immediate. After a month spent fending off a resurgent Romney, the initiative passed again to the president. The icing on the political cake was the effusive public praise from New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, a major Romney ally and darling of the Tea Party movement.

This was a 'game changer' - some event that alters what seems to be the fixed trajectory of a campaign. Hurricane Sandy was one such; but it has not been the only one. Until the beginning of last month, Obama was cruising serenely to a substantial victory. He was ahead in the national polls and in almost all the battleground states. It was not that his campaign was especially effective. It had none of the spirit of 2008, when he had galvanised millions with his message of hope and change. But, Romney was far worse. He was wooden on the campaign trail and prone to gaffes. At the primary stage he had seen off with too much difficulty a bunch of Republican competitors, who would not have looked out of place in that Star Wars film, where weird creatures are drinking in a bar in some distant galaxy.

Then came the first game-changer. In the initial presidential debate, Romney surprised everyone with an assured performance. Obama was lacklustre and out of practice. Romney began to surge in the polls. Obama clawed back some of the lost ground with better performances in the next two debates. But, the damage had been done. The momentum, such as it was in this closest of races, passed from the incumbent to the challenger.

I was not surprised by Romney's performance. I met him once years ago. He was urbane and affable, a successful businessman without a hint of the extreme right ideology that has today seized control of the Republican party. Romney then went on to become an effective governor of Massachusetts, where a managerial pragmatism was the hallmark of his administration. If this is the 'real' Mitt Romney, it went on public display for the first time this year in that 3 October debate. The viewers liked what they saw. Friends of Romney will say in private that, to win over his party base, he has had to take positions, which were far to the right of his political comfort zone. In all three debates Romney softened the hard edges of these positions, something tactically necessary to win the centre ground.

The Democrats have had great sport with the policy contradictions between 'moderate Mitt' and 'severely conservative Mitt', as Romney once described himself. The question is: if he wins, which Mitt will turn up on inauguration day? It is as much a question for America's allies as for Americans themselves. Whoever wins this election will lead a country that will continue to have enormous influence on world affairs. The US remains Britain's most important national partner, even if the so-called Special Relationship has become a rhetorical anachronism.

The conundrum of the two Mitts is much in evidence on foreign policy issues. There is the Mitt whose foreign policy advisers are stuffed with neocons and hold-overs from the George W. Bush presidency. These people, if they have their way, would lead us into war with Iran, confrontation with China and Russia and subcontract Middle East policy to Israel. None of that is in the British interest. But, there is also the Mitt, who has hired Bob Zoellick to head his transition team on national security. Zoellick is a former president of the World Bank, US trade chief, and senior member of the State Department. I knew him well. He springs from the 'realist' school of American diplomacy - pragmatic, prudent, clear-eyed, somebody Britain could do business with.

Would it be a neocon Mitt or a realist Mitt in the Oval Office? We simply do not know. This makes Romney too great a risk. Obama may not show much warmth towards Britain (does he to any foreign country?). But, by and large, under his presidency his cautious pragmatism in foreign policy has suited us well. We have to hope that Hurricane Sandy was powerful enough to blow Obama back into the White House.