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Romney's decisive win in Michigan scrambles G.O.P. field

Now, the Republican presidential nomination battle shifts from the typical tack of achieving inevitability to one where candidates work to amass the most delegates.

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That's starting to be the case across the country, too, as many polls show the economy topping the Iraq war in importance to voters. Romney's success playing off that issue in Michigan – he emphasized his desire to bring private-sector expertise and efficiency to Washington – may bode well for him as he moves on.

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"The fact that he was able to capitalize on economic discontent – that's something that's likely to become an even bigger factor in other states as the national economy weakens," says Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "Romney tested his economic message in Michigan and did very well."

Still, Romney faces an uphill battle in the next major contest in South Carolina, where he's unlikely to do well. Most political experts say the field is still wide open, with Romney and McCain perhaps in the best positions, but with Mr. Huckabee and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the race as well.

At this point, the race shifts from the typical tactic of achieving an aura of inevitability as candidates work to amass delegates to win the nomination. It's no longer clear that a consensus nominee will emerge even after 22 states weigh in on Super Tuesday Feb. 5.

"It's a race about arithmetic," says Dr. Pitney. "For many years, the assumption about the nomination contest was that one candidate would jump out to lead and everyone else would fall, like a check-mate in a game of chess. But now it's a counting game, not a chess game."

Huckabee, say many analysts, was a loser in Tuesday's primary. Though he only actively campaigned in the state for about a week, his economic populist message seemed to resonate among some Michiganders, and he had hoped to do better than the 16 percent he ended up winning. He didn't manage to win even among the more social conservative, evangelical voters in western Michigan, who tended to vote instead for Romney.

"If Huckabee doesn't do well in South Carolina, then he's gone multiple times without his name being talked about on the national scene," says Ed Sarpolus, an independent pollster in Lansing, Mich.

Mr. Giuliani, who has staked his campaign strategy on a win in Florida on Jan. 29, also performed poorly, garnering just 3 percent of the vote, and less than Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee.

As the GOP race turns into what looks like a long, grueling contest, many experts say money is likely to be a major factor going forward. Romney, who has a large personal fortune he has already tapped, is better positioned than other candidates. McCain, however, may be able to capitalize on his win last week in New Hampshire to ramp up fundraising.

McCain, who tends to appeal to independent voters more than hard-core Republicans, may be hurt in closed-primary states that don't allow independents to vote, says Dr. West. But he's also higher in the national polls, where Romney has been lagging.

"This is like political soap opera," says Denise DeCook, a Republican Party strategist and vice president for public affairs for Marketing Resource Group in Lansing. "It's really one cliffhanger after another."

Ms. DeCook says that in watching Romney over the past week, she was struck by the change in tone in his campaign. His appearances seemed more personal and less structured, she says. "Romney caught his stride and found his voice as a native son," she says. "I think he needed this badly."