And they are off in the big race…

The presidential election campaign starts in earnest this week, and what happens in the coming days will decide much about the coming race.

Obama, with an approval rating under 50 percent in many crucial states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, which he won in 2008, is heading out to make his case before the voters. He is wounded, no doubt about it, and many people including myself, ask themselves, “What Happened to Obama?” as Emory University professor Drew Westen does in his fascinating article in yesterday’s New York Times. We do not seem to know what Obama believes, Westen writes, he has not told his story.

The President still has some time to clarify this, but not much. The pace in the presidential campaign is now picking up markedly, as the Republicans are gathering in Iowa for a debate on Thursday and the Ames Straw Poll on Saturday. The Ames poll is a strange political event which is seen as the first indication of who are the candidates in the lead but has not always predicted the winner of the Iowa caucuses early next year.

Some of the Republican candidates are wounded, too, from how they handled last week’s momentous events. All of them, except Jon Huntsman, but including Mitt Romney — “the cowardly candidate,” as Michael Tomasky called him on the Daily Beast, criticized the debt ceiling deal. Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, and Thad McCotter voted against it in the House, all willing to take a default rather than a deal. Bachmann then blamed Obama for the downgrade of U.S. credit, echoed by Rich Santorum and Mitt Romney. They clearly see an opening here.

Have they shown themselves to be “presidential” last week? The answer is no. Still, the frontrunner, Mitt Romney, gives Obama a run for his money in recent polls in several States, but there is no enthusiasm for him among Republican voters. That’s why there is still so much speculation that Sarah Palin and/or Texas governor Rick Perry might still make a run for it. Both do well in the latest Gallup poll in spite of not formally being candidates, at least not yet.

The odds are for Perry to run. But is the country ready for another conservative republican governor from Texas? I doubt it, and I don’t think the prayer rally in Houston this weekend did him any good. He probably scared a lot of voters, who believe in the separation of church and state. And to beat Obama, you need a much broader base than the Christian right and the Tea Party.

So, it comes down to Mitt Romney as the man to beat, if he can survive the primaries…