So we're back to square one in the Republican Party. Mitt Romney beat John McCain handily in Michigan, which means there have now been three major GOP contests and three different comeback winners. At this rate, Thompson will win South Carolina and Giuliani Florida. The GOP primary is starting to look like a Pee Wee soccer tournament: Everyone gets a trophy!
After Romney's losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, he offered the flaccid boast that he had won the silver medal, but Tuesday night he was finally able to claim that he had won a genuinely hard-fought primary. Until now he had done nothing but watch his leads in the polls diminish, but in Michigan he trailed McCain and battled back to win. Yes, he had long ties to the state, which voters said influenced their vote; and yes, he bought nearly three times as much TV time in Michigan as his nearest rival, but McCain had advantages too. He won the state in 2000 and had momentum coming into the primary from his New Hampshire victory.
The state was essentially do-or-die for Romney. After two big losses, it was starting to look like no matter how much money, organization, and rigid smiles he threw into the race, none of it was enough to make voters like him. Romney would have had the resources to continue after a Michigan loss, but it would have been a sad death march.
Romney also now has something else he hasn't had all election season: momentum. His prospects will almost certainly improve in South Carolina, where polls show he is in third behind Huckabee and McCain. But since he has only three full days to campaign before the Jan. 19 vote, that momentum won't mean very much. And South Carolina doesn't have the same kind of economic malaise that Romney capitalized on in Michigan, where he won the 55 percent of those polled who said the economy was the most important issue.
Romney ran in Michigan the way many people thought he should have from the start: as a man from the business world who could fix their problems. He also pandered robustly. Romney told Michiganders he would protect them from the business cycle and save their jobs. (It was a neat trick that Romney could win support for his success in the business world—where he succeeded by not protecting every job—while simultaneously promising to protect every job.) McCain had decided not to tell locals what they wanted to hear and said that some jobs weren't coming back. McCain said he'd cut pork-barrel projects. Romney promised Michigan-specific help from Washington. (At times it felt like he was running for Senate.)
Romney returned to the image he'd presented at the launch of his campaign, before he took a detour by trying to run as the campaign's true social conservative. The question for Romney is whether he'll spend the remaining days in South Carolina running as Mr. Fix-It or return to the previous mishmash that voters have found so inauthentic.
The issue terrain will be different in South Carolina. The economic downturn is on the minds of voters in South Carolina, and the key bloc of voters is social conservatives, who make up 40 percent to 60 percent of the GOP electorate. Their influence will make Mike Huckabee a much stronger presence than he was in Michigan, where he came in a distant third. McCain might be able to bounce back from his loss by exploiting his strong ties to the state's considerable veteran community, as well as by winning over ex-Giuliani supporters. And then there's Fred Thompson, long left for dead, who—while he's not climbing in the polls—is nevertheless getting aggressive in a way that might cause trouble for Huckabee and Romney.
The Republican contest is a muddle, and it's only going to get more so as the campaign heads to South Carolina. But for one night at least, the most orderly man in the race sits atop the chaos.