LANSING, Mich. – Mitt Romney won the Republican primary in his native state of Michigan on Tuesday, registering his first major win in the GOP nominating process and further muddying a presidential race with no front-runner.
Romney, avoiding a loss that would have seriously crippled his campaign, gathered 39 percent of the vote, outpolling Sen. John McCain, the New Hampshire primary winner last week, with 30 percent. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the leadoff Iowa caucuses, finished a distant third at 16 percent.
The Republican race is now wide open and the failure of McCain to capitalize on his New Hampshire win creates more pressure on the candidates to win on Saturday during the South Carolinia primary.
And it creates an opportunity for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who calculated he could bypass early contests and compete in bigger, later states like Florida and New York.
Romney, who had spent millions of dollars only to finish a disappointing second in Iowa and New Hampshire, told supporters in the Detroit suburb of Southfield that his win “marks the beginning of a comeback, a comeback for America.”
Romney, the only candidate who remained in Michigan for the result, declared victory as McCain was in South Carolina conceding defeat. Romney also vastly outspent McCain and Huckabee in Michigan and, in a clear shot at the Arizona senator, Romney said his win Tuesday was “a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism.”
McCain told supporters in South Carolina, “We’ve shown them we don’t mind a fight. We don’t mind a fight, and we’re in it.”
Underscoring the evolving chaos in the Republican race, Huckabee congratulated Romney for his win and promptly declared, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to win South Carolina.”
Michigan’s Democratic primary was rendered almost irrelevant after the state party was stripped of its convention delegates when Michigan moved up its primary date. None of the major candidates campaigned in the state and Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York was the only top-tier Democrat on the ballot.
Despite that special status, Clinton carried less than 60 percent of the Democratic vote. About one-third voted uncommitted and most of those – more than 70 percent, according to exit polls – said they would have voted for Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois had he been on the ballot.
In the Republican race, exit polling showed that Romney, 60, the former governor of Massachusetts and the son of a former governor of Michigan, carried the state with strong support from conservative voters. McCain, who won the Michigan primary in 2000, drew most of his support from moderates and independent voters.
In contrast to Iowa and New Hampshire, more than half of the Republican primary voters interviewed at polling places said the economy was the top issue, far ahead of the Iraq war, immigration and terrorism. Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the nation – 7.4 percent.
McCain had hoped for a repeat of his 2000 success in Michigan over then-Gov. George W. Bush in Texas, a win aided by crossover support from Democrats and independents. But exit polls found fewer Democrats and independents casting GOP ballots.
At times, the candidates’ appeals to voters became so Michigan-centric that they appeared to be running for governor, rather than the White House. McCain offered his belief that some of the state’s manufacturing jobs had been lost for good, prompting Romney to label the Arizona senator a pessimist and Washington insider who had done nothing to ease the regulatory burden on Michigan’s business community.
While Huckabee sought to cultivate Christian conservatives, he also promoted his call for a massive overhaul of federal taxes, including an end to income taxes in favor of a national sales tax. Huckabee contended that income taxes wrongly tax productivity and that unfair trade policies have handicapped the state’s businesses. But the exit polls found that while 40 percent of the voters identified themselves as evangelical Christians, they split their vote between Romney and Huckabee.
Michigan was the first of the early primary states that is broadly representative of the nation’s racial, ethnic and economic diversity and it required contenders to address key economic issues.
The road ahead for the Republican candidates is difficult to read. Recent polls showed Huckabee ahead in culturally conservative South Carolina. However, McCain is popular as well in the state.
Among the other Republicans on the ballot, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas finished fourth with 6 percent, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee was fifth with 4 percent and Guiliani was sixth with 3 percent.
Giuliani, who has played the role of the near-invisible man in early primaries, has been campaigning aggressively in Florida, which holds its primary Jan. 29, and also is counting on the “Super Tuesday” collection of Feb. 5 states.
But that group of more than 20 primaries and caucuses, from California to Maine, could still result with no clear-cut leader from the Republican pack.
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