This week offers three compelling contests, the Michigan primary tomorrow, the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, and the GOP primary in South Carolina on the same day. One week later, the Democrats have their own primary in South Carolina on Jan. 26. The month winds down with a Florida primary three days later, and the quasi-national primary on Feb. 5 to follow one week later. More campaign obituaries are sure to follow, perhaps even this week. What we know now is that both parties are arguably without a definitive frontrunner at this juncture, and these contests will likely provide us with at least one.
Turning our attention to Michigan, this is a contest with only three participants: Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Mike Huckabee. Democrats have forgone campaigning there with no delegates available for the taking (The DNC punished Michigan for moving their primary earlier than the Feb. 5 deadline, IA, NH, NV and SC excepted). Hillary Clinton is on the ballot along with longshot Dennis Kucinich, and she should win overwhelmingly, attracting at least 50% of the vote. A substantial percentage of Democratic voters will choose "uncommitted," mostly to reflect their allegiance to the other frontrunners, Barack Obama and John Edwards, who are noticeably absent from the ballot. Disaffected Democrats and Independents are the true wildcards in this race, for as in New Hampshire they can cross over and vote in the GOP primary.
Speaking of the GOP, Mitt Romney and John McCain remain in a pitched battle for the graces of the Wolverine State. Romney is playing the part of native son and leads in most polls, although all recent measurements remain within the margin of error. He is emphasizing his understanding of the state's economic "DNA," namely automobiles. In promising to bring jobs back to a depressed region, Romney is taking on McCain's contention that many of these positions will never return. McCain offers "straight talk" and a promise that he will work to train displaced workers. Lost in the shuffle is Mike Huckabee's appeal to evangelical Christians, a sizable presence in the western part of the state. Huck is poised to finish a solid third.
Short of a sizable crossover from Democrats and Independents to McCain, I see Romney winning his home state in a close shave. Polls sway from Romney to McCain, but Ann Selzer, the queen of Iowa polls in 2004 and 2008, has Mitt with a 5-point lead. A caveat is the large number of uncommitted voters who could decide the race if they break decisively to any one candidate.
McCain did win the Wolverine State in 2000, his last gasp in a two-horse battle with George W. Bush, and a bounce from New Hampshire is possible here. He has certainly gained nationally, as polls now reflect that he has displaced Rudy Giuliani as the GOP frontrunner. Like college football in 2007, this appears only a precarious honor, as #1 remains ripe for the picking among a pool of contenders (besides Romney and Huckabee, don't count out Fred Thompson or Giuliani just yet).
Thankfully for McCain, he need not win Michigan. Should he pull off a surprise victory over Romney, the former Massachusetts governor may exit the race. Either way, McCain turns his attention to South Carolina, the site of his undoing in 2000. Recent polls have the Arizona senator ahead, with Mike Huckabee his most formidable foe. A win for Romney in Michigan probably doesn't equate to similar success in the Palmetto State as he has pulled his ads and placed all bets on tomorrow's outcome. Same is true in Florida where Rudy Giuliani waits for the South Carolina winner.
If any one candidate runs the table in these three contests (MI, SC and FL), however unlikely it may be, he will enter Tsunami Tuesday as the prohibitive favorite. Short of this, I expect the first true southern test, South Carolina, to be pivotal to the GOP contest. The same can be said for the Democrats, and I'll have more on this Friday. Check back here for a podcast tomorrow providing a snapshot of the state of the race for the White House, followed Wednesday by an analysis of Tuesday's Michigan results.