Sen. John McCain joked that he needed crossover votes from Democrats, independents and vegetarians to win Michigan’s Republican primary. But red-meat Republicans dominated Tuesday’s voting and gave native-son Mitt Romney his first major victory of the primary season. The former Massachusetts governor got 39 percent of the vote to 30 percent for McCain and 16 percent for Mike Huckabee.
Romney’s convincing win further scrambled the race for the Republican presidential nomination and raised the temperature for Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, where Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, and McCain, the Arizona senator, are expected to do best.
“Anything can happen now” was a popular conclusion of analysts who noted that three very different candidates have won the first three big GOP contests: Huckabee in Iowa, McCain in New Hampshire and Romney in Michigan.
“The Republican Party is searching for someone to replace George Bush and someone to pick up Ronald Reagan’s mantle, and they haven’t found anyone,” said CNN’s Gloria Borger. Republicans, as a whole, have been unenthusiastic about their choices so far, she noted, and their party has yet to find a unified message.
Romney won last night because independent voters failed to turn out for McCain, as they had when he won Michigan in 2000, signaling, perhaps, that they’re leaning toward the Democrats this time. And Romney won because, as Borger suggested, he ran as if for the presidency of Michigan. In a state with the nation’s worst economy and highest unemployment rate, he told beleaguered voters what they wanted to hear: that with help from Washington, the hundreds of thousands of auto industry jobs lost in recent years could return. Economists pronounced that unlikely.
Turning the page on Bush years
McCain, in contrast, leveled with voters, saying that auto jobs won’t be coming back and offering retraining programs instead. He also mentioned higher auto fuel efficiency standards and global warming, topics that Michigan conservatives don’t want to hear about.
Romney was effective also in casting himself as a Washington outsider who would bring change to the capital’s broken political system. That’s a potentially powerful message, given the unpopularity of both President Bush and the Democratic Congress. And it’s a message that places McCain and all the leading Democrats squarely in the Washington crowd.
What’s so odd is that the GOP primaries are unfolding almost as if Bush, who has dominated Washington since 2001, doesn’t exist. “Change” has been a word that every candidate, in both parties, has glommed onto.
“Even members of [Bush’s] own party want to turn the page on the past seven years,” columnist E.J. Dionne wrote in Tuesday’s Washington Post. McCain’s victory in New Hampshire last week was “built in large part on anti-Bush votes,” Dionne wrote. Romney, while portraying himself as an agent of change, “tries to minimize the fact that the capital whose habits he deplores has been dominated by George W. Bush.” Huckabee, too, has attacked the “arrogant bunker mentality” of the Bush foreign policy.
Another oddity is that in Michigan, at least, the Republican candidates sounded more like Democrats, promising aggressive programs to turn around the state’s economy rather than just offering tax cuts and breaks for business. That emphasis should change as the focus shifts toward South Carolina and Florida, which holds a GOP primary Jan. 29. The focus in those states will be on national security and family values.
The Reagan legacy
The central challenge as the campaign proceeds is to rekindle the Reagan legacy, Adam Nagourney wrote in today’s New York Times. No candidate has convinced GOP voters that he is Reagan’s rightful heir.
“The problem for the Republicans is that all have part of it,” Reagan’s biographer Lou Cannon told Nagourney. “Huckabee has the social conservative part of it. Reagan had a lot of draw among independents, and McCain as stepped into that. And you have the conservative Wall Street types who are with Romney.”
By shifting his views on a number of matters, notably abortion, Romney has tried hardest to reassemble the Reagan puzzle. But, said Cannon, “I don’t know how you put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”
Even the much-discussed evangelical vote didn’t hold together Tuesday. Exit polls found that while 40 percent of Michigan voters said they were evangelical Christians, their vote was split between Huckabee and Romney, the Chicago Tribune noted (registration required). Michigan, the Tribune said, was the first of the early primary states that is “broadly representative of the nation’s racial, ethnic and economic diversity, and it required contenders to address key economic issues.”
Still, it’s difficult to access Romney’s national appeal. He grew up in Michigan, his father was governor for three terms, and his campaign was intensely personal. As the Tribune noted, the road ahead is difficult to read. Huckabee has led recent polls in South Carolina, where McCain also has strong backing from Sen. Lindsey Graham and others.
Rudy Giuliani, who placed sixth last night, has been saving himself for Florida, where he has been campaigning aggressively. His hope is to win that state as a springboard to Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, when 20 states hold contests and, after which, a frontrunner should finally emerge. Among the candidates in Michigan, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas finished fourth with 6 percent, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee was fifth with 4 percent and Giuliani, the former New York mayor, was last with 3 percent.
Steve Berg, a former Washington Bureau reporter, national correspondent and editorial writer for the Star Tribune, reports on urban design, transportation and national politics. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.