Michigan in the Mitt
Mitt Romney won his home state comfortably, besting John McCain 39-30%. Mike Huckabee finished a distant third with 16% of the vote, and Paul (6%), Thompson (4%), and Giuliani (3%), none of whom contested the state, finished at the back of the pack. As I said previously, this was a must-win for Mitt who spent lavishly for second place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. He did the same here, doubling McCain's advertising budget by pulling from his own deep pockets, and the bargain paid off handsomely. His campaign bounces on to Nevada, a state mostly overlooked by the rest of the field, but home to a friendly, and sizable Mormon population.
Romney emphasized his empathy with Michiganders crippled by the forces of globalization, and offered to be proactive in maintaining and restoring jobs in Detroit's beleaguered auto industry. According to exit pulls, Wolverine State Republicans bought the former businessman's sales pitch: 4-in-10 supporters who listed the economy as their chief concern picked Mitt, and only 3-in-10 went to McCain. Romney also capitalized on his ties to the state (his father was a former governor), as those who thought this important favored him over McCain by 41%.
McCain failed to replicate his 2000 victory in Michigan because independents didn't turn out in the GOP primary in the same numbers. Their percentage of the vote declined from 35% to 25%, and McCain's 10% lead among this group wasn't enough to overcome Romney's 16% lead among Republicans. This brings to the fore McCain's greatest weakness as a candidate: he's more popular among independents, even some Democrats, than he is among Republicans. This could doom his campaign in South Carolina and other states that hold closed primaries.
Huckabee's distant finish has to be a major disappointment given the fact that 40% of GOP voters were self-described evangelicals. Unlike Iowa, they broke to Romney 35%-29%, and sent him reeling to the Palmetto State in urgent need of southern life support.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton claimed 55% of the vote, besting 40% of voters who chose "undeclared," most of them Obama supporters. Dennis Kucinich finished third with 4%, and Mike Gravel failed to beat Chris Dodd who exited the race two weeks ago. Since none of the candidates campaigned here and no delegates are at stake as of now, the outcome did nothing to separate the frontrunners, if only to emphasize that 45% of Michiganders voted against Clinton even though she was the only legitimate contender on the ballot.
Back to the future. Saturday's GOP contest in South Carolina is critical for at least three candidates: McCain, Huckabee, and Fred Thompson. This may be Thompson's last stand as his bus touring the state is running on fumes. He needs a top-three finish to justify continuing on to Florida and Feb. 5, and polls show him in a close contest with Romney for third. Huckabee returns to home cooking and another significant swell of evangelical voters. Although he trails McCain in most of the recent polls, he is within shooting distance and needs a win to prove that he wasn't a one-hit wonder in Iowa.
The same can be said about McCain. He remains king of the Granite State, but most conquer the Palmetto State where he met his end in 2000. The state has crowned every GOP nominee since Ronald Reagan in 1980, so the importance of winning here cannot be overstated. McCain has racked up significant establishment support in a state that could hinge on turnout operations, and the largest percentage population of military veterans and active servicemen in the country shouldn't hurt.
I predict McCain beats Huckabee in South Carolina by a single-digit margin, and Romney uses his Michigan bounce and late-hour ad buy to eclipse Fred Thompson and end his candidacy. Nevada is more difficult to project given limited GOP attention and sparse polling data. I'll take Romney ahead of McCain, with Huckabee edging Thompson for third place. Regardless of what happens Saturday, Rudy awaits the winners in the Sunshine State.