Romney’s Michigan win leaves Republicans adrift

NEWS ANALYSIS

With first three contests now won by different candidates, the party is ominously divided.

REPUBLICAN Mitt Romney won resoundingly in Michigan yesterday to keep his presidential bid alive but left his party deeply divided and further adrift in its search for a White House favourite.

His comeback means that three different Republican candidates have won each of the first three major nominating contests: Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee in Iowa, Arizona senator John McCain in New Hampshire and, now, former Massachusetts governor Romney in Michigan.

This tangled succession of front runners stumbling over each other looks set to continue as the Republicans head for another bruising battle in South Carolina this weekend with a tough three-way contest in the offing.

Michigan was really a two-horse race and it was reflected in the results. Mr Romney, a native son of the blue-collar state, won 39 per cent of the vote versus 30 per cent for his closest challenger, Mr McCain.

Mr Huckabee, a late entrant in the race, trailed with 16 per cent. Mr Ron Paul, the anti-war congressman from Texas, came in fourth with just 6 per cent of the vote.

Mr Romney built his campaign on a strategy of winning Iowa and New Hampshire. After losing both, he had to win his birth state of Michigan to retain credibility as a candidate.

Anything less than victory could have dealt a fatal blow despite his ability to spend millions of his own dollars to stay in the race.

“Tonight marks the beginning of a comeback,” a victorious Mr Romney said.

“Tonight is a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism.”

His anti-Washington, pro-change message resonated with Republicans in a state whose economic fortunes have declined along with the auto industry.

Indeed, Mr Romney, who grew up in Michigan, won easily with a pointed focus on the slowing economy, which voters there overwhelmingly identified as the top issue. He capitalised on his business background and his father’s leadership in the auto industry to persuade voters that he was best equipped to deal with problems in the state, which has the highest unemployment in the nation, and pledged billions in Washington aid to bolster automakers.

He managed to capture the Republican votes by double-digit margins – boosted by the fact that more than two-thirds of voters in the Michigan primary described themselves as Republicans, up from 48 per cent in 2000.

Mr McCain garnered stronger support among independents and Democrats, but they made up a smaller share of the electorate than eight years ago when he defeated then Texas governor George W. Bush. This time, 32 per cent of voters described themselves as unaffiliated or Democrats, down by 20 points compared to 2000.

Democrat voters were prevented from voting for their own party’s candidates because of a boycott, which came about after the state’s party defied national party rules by moving its contest ahead of Super Tuesday on Feb5, when 22 states hold primaries.

The inability to win over the Republican ground could come back to haunt Mr McCain, a 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran.

He did well in New Hampshire last week mainly because of the independent vote.

In the end, Mr McCain ended up the biggest loser in Michigan. He needed to ride on the momentum of his New Hampshire victory by beating Mr Romney and going on to win South Carolina. It would have set up a major confrontation with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani on Super Tuesday.

Mr McCain does retain some advantage in South Carolina that could tip the balance in his favour. The deeply conservative southern state is home to a large number of military bases and war veterans.

The key is whether he can counter perceptions that he is too liberal for many Republicans, especially on illegal immigrants.

In recent years, the state has seen an influx of Hispanics.

Mr Romney has taken a harder line on immigration, but he faces a rocky ride as well. South Carolina is home to a large number of Christian evangelicals who will not be enamoured with his Mormon credentials.

On paper, Mr Huckabee, a southern Baptist preacher, looks the strongest given that he can tap into this large pool of conservative voters. But again, his soft stand on immigration could prove to be a liability.

According to observers, the volatility of the race – with no clear front runner – benefits Mr Giuliani. His strategy has been to ignore the earlier contests and focus on the big states, starting with Florida on Jan 29 and then Super Tuesday.

But given the way the battles have shaped up for the Republicans, the race looks increasingly likely to stretch beyond Super Tuesday as the party heads ominously towards its first convention fight in 30 years.

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