Make-or-break time for Republicans

MICHIGAN PRIMARY

Winner will gain vital momentum in wide-open three-way race.

VOTING got under way in Michigan yesterday in a wide-open race which could make or break the charge to the White House by the Republican Party candidates.

On the eve of the polls, the top two candidates – Arizona senator John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney – were still locked in a statistical dead heat as the party struggled to search for a presidential contender whom it could rally around.

A Reuters/C-Span/Zogby poll released early yesterday gave Mr McCain a statistically insignificant one-point edge – 27 per cent to 26 per cent – over Mr Romney.

Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, who did not even have a campaign presence in Michigan a week ago, emerged as a surprise contender, trailing with 15 per cent in the three-way fight that underscores the volatility of the Republican race.

Surveys showed that about half of Michigan’s voters were either undecided or might change their minds before the nominating contest.

Mr McCain, once written off after being near broke and plummeting in the polls, is now viewed more favourably than his major competitors.

Riding on his surprise win in last week’s New Hampshire primary, he has taken a national lead with 34 per cent support among registered Republicans, according to a CNN poll.

But that could change if one or more of his rivals break through in the depressed blue-collar state of Michigan – and South Carolina later in the week.

Given such high stakes, Mr McCain and his two closest challengers were slugging it out first in Michigan, which is home to a troubled car industry and the country’s highest unemployment rate. Economic woes clearly took centre stage in their campaigning.

The Michigan-born Romney, whose father was a three-time governor of the state, sought to remind voters of his ties to the state and recalled its glory days when it made weapons during World War II.

“It is inexcusable to me to see these jobs going away again and again and again,” he said. “When I lived here, Michigan was the envy of the world,” he told supporters.

Mr McCain emphasised job re-training and education to help those who were laid off.

Mr Huckabee sees fertile ground in his appeal with blue-collar workers. Many support his plan to replace income and other taxes with an across-the-board consumption tax.

His surge has been a surprise to many political observers. Michigan is a moderate state with less of a religious base than Iowa, where he won the caucuses. But some 20 per cent to 30 per cent of Republicans who vote in the primary here consider themselves evangelical. Mr Huckabee is tapping into this group for support.

Michigan is the first big state to weigh in – it is the country’s eighth-largest state with 10 million residents – after the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. A win for Mr McCain or either of his challengers would give them momentum in the Republican race.

Mr Romney stands to lose the most if he crashes in Michigan, coming after two high-profile defeats.

“Romney has vowed to continue even if he loses here. But he is really on the edge of disaster, and he realises he has almost no margin for error,” Mr Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, told AFP.

“He might try to continue to Super Tuesday on Feb 5 even though most people would view him as fatally wounded. He has deep pockets to continue if he wants to, but this is crunch time.”

Super Tuesday is the day when 22 states hold primaries.

Mr Romney has the support of the party rank and file in the state. Observers believe that a large showing by unaffiliated voters and Democrats could have a big influence on the contest, given that it is now a three-way fight.

Mr Huckabee might cut into the votes of such a group at the expense of Mr Romney, leaving him the loser in such a scenario.

The day-long Michigan primary is complicated by a Democratic boycott after the state’s party defied national party rules by moving its contest ahead of Super Tuesday.

All the major Democratic candidates except for Mrs Hillary Clinton removed their names from the Michigan ballot, in deference to the national party.

Democratic voters were urged to mark their ballots “uncommitted” so that Mrs Clinton does not win the state by default.

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