Michigan Stakes: McCain Means Order, Romney (or Huckabee) Means Chaos

It’s true that this year’s Republican presidential race is the most fluid on record. At varying points, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee have all seemed to be plausible front-runners.

But by Tuesday night, after the results from what is only the third major contest of the nominating season are tallied, the race may be close to over—or it will be more jumbled than ever.

It will be close to over if McCain can score a decisive victory in Michigan, a state he won eight years ago over George W. Bush. A McCain triumph would represent the third and final nail in Mitt Romney’s coffin. The former Massachusetts Governor, who was already dealt setbacks in Iowa and New Hampshire and who diverted resources from South Carolina and Florida to make a stand in Michigan, might try to stay in the race after a loss, but his support would quickly dry up—no matter how much more money he spends.

McCain, meanwhile, would be ideally positioned to gobble up broad support from the G.O.P.’s rank-and-file masses in the next wave of primary and caucus states. They may have lukewarm feelings for McCain, but they feel no more affection for the rest of the G.O.P. field. And many of them are anxious to stop Huckabee, whom they see as a certain November loser. By getting rid of Romney, McCain would be able to lay claim to these Republicans, which in turn would make him the runaway favorite in Florida and most of the big states that will vote on February 5. He also has a fighting chance in South Carolina, which will vote this Saturday, where he and Huckabee now run even.

There is already strong evidence that the party’s voters are prepared to coalesce around McCain and ignore Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson, the other two remaining contenders. New polls show McCain’s support doubling and even tripling in the last few weeks at the national level, and he’s even edged into a lead in Florida, which Rudy Giuliani has long claimed as a firewall (and which will vote on January 29). Giuliani’s support, which was always wide but not at all deep, is rapidly melting away.

Thompson, meanwhile, is making a last-ditch push in South Carolina (although “push” might be too strong a characterization—he had no campaign events on Sunday). Heading into this Saturday’s primary, he lags badly in polls, with Huckabee and McCain vying for the lead. Absent a dramatic result, he’ll be out of the race after South Carolina—no matter how Michigan turns out.

But here’s the catch: McCain may very well lose Michigan. Most polls give Romney, whose father ran American Motors and governed the state four decades ago, a slight edge (one has it at eight points). And Huckabee, who hasn’t invested heavily in Michhigan but who benefits from the predominance of religious conservatives in the western part of the state, is a not-too-far-off third place.

If a McCain win simplifies the G.O.P. race, a Romney win—or a Huckabee victory, for that matter—turns it into a wide-open contest without precedent. Instead of heading for the exits, Romney would be rejuvenated. He’d halt any mass stampede by the G.O.P. establishment into McCain’s camp, and the jolt of good press and newfound momentum would make him viable in both South Carolina and Florida, with a chance to strip McCain of the “most credible” label.

It would also give hope to Giuliani, whose decline has tracked perfectly with McCain’s resurgence. If McCain falters in Michigan and again in South Carolina, then Giuliani would have an opportunity to win back the casual supporters he’s been losing to McCain. A win in Florida would then position Giuliani to make a score in the major February 5 states (New York, New Jersey, California, and Illinois) that he has long been banking on.

For Giuliani, then, the stakes for Michigan are stark: A McCain win essentially ends Giuliani’s campaign; a Romney win keeps him alive (but at the risk of being squeezed out by Romney, if Romney can then win South Carolina); a Huckabee win is ideal (although highly unlikely), since it would deal severe blows to both McCain and Romney, sending the G.O.P. masses scrambling for a new alternative to Huckabee.

McCain, too, could survive a Michigan loss. He’d still be viable in South Carolina. A win there (the state where McCain’s maverick ways finished him off in 2000) would put him in a great position to win the nomination. Otherwise, he’d be best served by a Huckabee win in South Carolina, which would prevent Romney from posting back-to-back wins (thus accruing momentum heading into Florida and February 5). Then he’d need to edge out Romney and Giuliani in Florida, which might give him a leg-up for rank-and-file G.O.P. support on February 5.

But even then, it’s doubtful the Republican race would be settled on February 5, raising the legitimate possibility of a brokered convention—a stunning prospect for a party famous for settling its nomination fights with speed and order.

Michigan Stakes: McCain Means Order, Romney (or Huckabee) Means Chaos