Officially, victory in Michigan belongs to Mitt Romney. But for all practical purposes, tonight’s result is a win for every candidate in the race not named John McCain.
McCain came into Michigan in the same position Romney was two weeks ago. Back then, Romney was poised to score lead-off victories in both Iowa and New Hampshire, a one-two punch that would have sent the G.O.P.’s establishment massesvoters who have mixed feelings about all of the candidates and who have been content to wait for one to claim the mantle of inevitability—rushing into his camp, while marginalizing his opponents. But then Romney fell short in those states, and McCain inherited is spot as the would be-inevitable candidate.
The combination of Romney’s twin losses and McCain’s New Hampshire victory sent McCain’s poll numbers soaring, both in the next wave of primary states and in national polls. The Republican rank-and-file seemed to be signaling its willingness to rally behind him if he could maintain his momentum. That is why Michigan was so crucial to him: A win would have eliminated Romney and made follow-up McCain wins in South Carolina, Florida and in the big states on February 5 even more likely.
But he has fallen short. And now it is anyone’s guess who the favorite is on the Republican side. Each of the five remaining contenders can now point to a viable nomination roadmap (although some scenarios are more remote than others).
Romney would have been written off by much of the media and his party’s money men with a loss tonight. It would have been the third straight state that he’d lost after investing more heavily—with both his money and his time—than his rivals. Plus, his native-son status—he grew up in the state, his father governed it in the 1960s, and his sister-in-law ran for the U.S. Senate several years ago—gave him even less of an excuse for losing. With his win, he maintains his viability in South Carolina and Florida. If he can outperform McCain (and Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson) in those states, he might yet position himself as the rank-and-file’s preferred candidate on February 5.
McCain is still viable as well. His challenge now, much like Romney, is to outperform Giuliani and Thompson (and Romney) in South Carolina and Florida, which would marginalize them and position him as the establishment’s candidate on February 5. The only candidate he (and Romney) can afford to finish behind in South Carolina is Mike Huckabee, since there are signs that Huckabee, because of the religious themes of his campaign and fears about his electability, will have trouble corralling the G.O.P. masses on February 5. In essence, McCain and Romney (and Giuliani) are all competing among themselves for the right to advance to a one-on-one showdown with Huckabee on Super Duper Tuesday.
Giuliani’s (much fainter) hopes received a boost tonight, since his campaign’s decline has been directly tied to McCain’s rise. Giuliani is trying to make a stand in Florida, so presumably his best chance now rests on a very strong Huckabee win in South Carolina this Saturday—with Romney and McCain running far off the pace and, perhaps, with Thompson even in second place—a result that might sour Florida’s Republicans on the idea of McCain and Romney as viable alternatives to Huckabee. Then, Giuliani would need to post a strong Florida win and would again benefit from poor performances by every candidate except Huckabee. That could give the former mayor a one-on-one match-up with Huckabee on February 5, when Rudy-friendly states like New York, New Jersey, California and Illinois will vote.
Thompson, meanwhile, has even more remote prospects. He is targeting the same Christian conservative voters that have made Huckabee one of the leaders in South Carolina and must pull off a come-from-behind win there to keep his campaign afloat. A Thompson win in South Carolina could prompt the fence-sitting G.O.P. masses, who held high hopes for him eight months ago only to watch his campaign fizzle from the start, to give him a second look, making him a contender in Florida and on February 5. But after writing off so many early states, he must win South Carolina on Saturday, and the odds of that are very long.
Huckabee also benefits from the chaos caused by Romney’s win tonight, since it prevents the G.O.P. establishment from rallying around a non-Huckabee candidate—something that a McCain victory would have achieved. Huckabee also needs a South Carolina win, but McCain’s loss tonight also helps him in that quest, since he has been running even with Huckabee in South Carolina polls. The longer this chaos prevails on the G.O.P side, the better Huckabee’s chances: With a split field, he could gobble up many states with les than 40 percent of the vote.
If Michigan’s voters had made a different call tonight, they could have settled things. But, like their counterparts in Iowa and New Hampshire, they have thrown the race wide open.