Triumphant McCain and Spinning Romney Set for Winner-Takes-All Michigan Contest

It took the networks about 11 minutes to call New Hampshire for John McCain, silencing the speculation that Mitt Romney would score a last-minute victory in his neighboring state.

The margin–it appears that McCain’s margin will approach double-digits–means that Romney has suffered debilitating setbacks in the first two states, but his campaign will press on to Michigan, which will vote next week. That state, where Romney grew up and where his father served as Governor in the 1960’s, now becomes a must-win for Romney, whose strategy calls for parlaying early primary and caucus wins into consolidated establishment support.

But McCain will also contest Michigan, and he will do so with a jolt of momentum (and an infusion of cash), thanks to tonight’s outcome. Michigan is fertile ground for McCain. He won the state in 2000, an unexpected triumph that momentarily revived his campaign following his loss in South Carolina, and figures again to benefit from its open primary–meaning that independents, who accounted for McCain’s margin in New Hampshire, are free to participate. Additionally, the G.O.P. establishment in the state is less conservative than others, raising the possibility that rank-and-file Republicans there might be receptive to McCain. And because there will be no contested Democratic primary, McCain will not have to compete with Barack Obama in Michigan for the loyalties of independents.

The Romney campaign figures now to borrow a page from George W. Bush’s 2000 playbook by making an issue of McCain’s support from non-Republicans in New Hampshire. Romney will also benefit from the unlimited budget that his personal fortune affords him. But McCain, who will undoubtedly be the subject of numerous “He’s back!” stories in print and on television in the coming days, will receive a quantitative bounce from his win tonight, while Romney’s poll standing–in Michigan and elsewhere–will take a hit.

The loser of the Romney-McCain death battle in Michigan will, for all practical purposes, be eliminated, while the winner will become the main alternative to Mike Huckabee, who is favored to win South Carolina (which will vote on the Saturday after Michigan). In that scenario, Romney and McCain would both bank on being able to corral a party establishment that is panicky about nominating Huckabee. The Romney/McCain survivor would probably enter the February 5 mega-primary as the slight favorite over Huckabee, mainly because the largest states to vote that day (California, New York, Illinois and New Jersey) spell trouble for Huckabee and his religious conservatism.

For now–and probably for good–Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson have been squeezed out of the nomination picture. Thompson is counting on jump-starting his campaign in South Carolina, but Huckabee is overshadowing him there. Giuliani has been pointing to Florida, which will vote on January 29. He is better positioned there than Thompson is in South Carolina, but he could be left behind when the McCain/Romney winner in Michigan gathers momentum.

Triumphant McCain and Spinning Romney Set for Winner-Takes-All Michigan Contest