Missing in 2008: a front-runner

Romney's Michigan win deepened GOP uncertainty before crucial upcoming contests.

shannon stapleton/reuters
Michigan winner: Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney at his primary night rally in Southfield, Mich., Tuesday.
SOURCE: Associated Press/Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

The most elusive commodity so far in the 2008 presidential sweepstakes is momentum. In both parties, the opening contests have been won by different candidates, creating lots of "comeback kids" but little ability to claim the mantle of front-runner.

Mitt Romney's decisive victory in the Michigan primary Tuesday may have been the most successful "do or die" performance of the season, to date. Having lost the first two major contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, the former Massachusetts governor almost certainly had to win his native state of Michigan to appear viable heading into Nevada and South Carolina (both this Saturday) and Florida (Jan. 29).

Now, the Republican field is murkier than ever. Not only are Iowa winner Mike Huckabee and New Hampshire winner John McCain still in the hunt, locked in stiff competition for South Carolina, Rudolph Giuliani also must still be considered viable. By saving his fire for the big-delegate states – first Florida, then the 22 Super Tuesday contests on Feb. 5 – the former New York mayor was counting on disarray in the early contests, and that has borne out.

At this point, the GOP race shifts from an effort to appear inevitable, to one of amassing delegates to win the nomination. It's no longer clear that a consensus nominee will emerge even after Super Tuesday.

"It's a race about arithmetic," says Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "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 checkmate in a game of chess. But now it's a counting game, not a chess game."

So far, Mr. Romney leads with 42 delegates, followed by Mr. Huckabee (32) and Mr. McCain (13). In the Democratic field, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York leads with 187 delegates, followed by Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois (89) and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina (50). But wins in big-delegate states by any of the candidates could render those early totals meaningless. California alone offers 441 delegates to the Democrats and 173 to the Republicans. To win the nomination, a Democrat needs 2,025 delegates and a Republican needs 1,191.

On the Democratic side, the Michigan primary was technically won by Senator Clinton, but no delegates were at stake and turnout was extremely low. The national Democratic Party stripped Michigan of all its delegates after the state scheduled its primary earlier than party rules allowed. The national Republican Party took away half of Michigan's delegates, but the primary remained meaningful.

Romney won Michigan with 39 percent of the vote, with 30 percent for McCain and 16 percent for Huckabee. But key for Romney is that he won decisively among registered Republicans, who accounted for 68 percent of the GOP primary electorate. McCain won among independents and Democrats, who were allowed to vote in the Michigan Republican primary. Going forward, some states allow only registered party members to vote in a party's primary, which could hurt McCain.

Romney seemed to be helped by several factors in Michigan, including his own status as native son whose father was a three-term governor and chairman of American Motors Corporation. In the past week, Romney worked to remind Michiganders that he was one of them.

His rallies and TV ads focused heavily on the economy, an issue of particular concern in Michigan, which is already in recession with a 7.4 percent unemployment rate.

The Michigan exit poll showed that 55 percent of GOP voters considered the economy to be the most important issue, compared with 17 percent who cited the Iraq war and 13 percent who said illegal immigration. Among those voting on the economy, Romney beat McCain 42 percent to 29 percent.

"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."

McCain made several big errors in the state, including his "straight talk" admission that some of the jobs lost in Michigan aren't coming back and his overt appeal to independents and Democrats, says Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.

"Romney came in and seized the economic issue and he really went after it – it's such a big factor here compared to the first two states," says Mr. Ballenger. "Even though McCain was the guy with the foreign-policy credentials, the fact is that the war on terror and Iraq are way down the list from the economy here in Michigan."

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.

Money is also likely to be a major factor moving 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.

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