By Juliet Eilperin and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
SOUTHFIELD, Mich., Jan. 15 -- Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney resoundingly won the Michigan presidential primary Tuesday, seizing his first big victory in the Republican competition and blunting the momentum of his chief rival, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
Romney's triumph in the state where he was born and where his father served as governor further scrambles a GOP field in which no candidate has been able to win more than one major contest. McCain captured first place in the New Hampshire primary Jan. 8 and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee topped the Iowa field five days earlier.
The race now shifts to South Carolina, where a tough three-way contest is expected in the first Southern state to vote this primary season. McCain and Huckabee flew to the Palmetto State before the voting in Michigan ended, and Romney will head there Wednesday for a bus tour through the state.
With 89 percent counted, Romney had won 39 percent of the vote to McCain's 30 percent. Huckabee trailed with 16 percent.
The surprisingly easy win in Michigan by a candidate whom many had written off vaults Romney back into contention and reaffirms the sharpened campaign message that he debuted several days ago: an attack on Washington and an emphasis on the need for dramatic change in the way politics is practiced.
In his speech Tuesday night, Romney proclaimed a "victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism," and he promised to carry his new theme into the rest of the primary states.
"Guess what they're doing in Washington?" he asked supporters in a cramped ballroom in Southfield. "They're worrying. . . . Washington is broken and we're going to do something about it."
Romney adopted that message just hours after the Iowa caucuses, when Democratic Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) used a similar message of change to defeat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). In New Hampshire, Romney attacked McCain as a standard-bearer of the old guard, but he was overwhelmed by the strength of the independent vote for McCain and by the senator's close ties to the people there.
In Michigan, it was a different story. Here, it was Romney whose long connection to the state appeared to have helped. The son of a former car-company chief, Romney pledged billions in Washington aid to bolster automakers. And his anti-Washington, pro-change message resonated with Republicans in the state whose economic fortunes have declined along with the auto industry.
"The change message, with the governor's ability to get things done, is obviously our strongest message right now," said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden.
Huckabee placed third in Michigan but has spent most of the last week in South Carolina, appearing at churches in the hopes of appealing to the state's large evangelical community. Former Tennessee senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.), who came in fifth in Michigan with less than 4 percent of the vote, will make his last stand there on Saturday.
For McCain, the Michigan loss raises questions about whether his campaign can build support beyond New Hampshire, especially among mainstream Republicans who backed Romney strongly in Michigan.
The longtime senator and former prisoner of war has surged to the top of national polls in recent days and had predicted a narrow win earlier Tuesday. But Michigan's Democrats and independent voters who had turned out in droves for him eight years ago largely stayed home this year.
"For a minute there in New Hampshire, I thought this race was getting easier," McCain said Tuesday night at a rally of several hundred people in a ballroom in downtown Charleston, adding that he will continue on because he doesn't "mind a fight."
"We did what we always try to do: We went to Michigan and told people the truth," he said.
McCain prides himself on being a "straight talker" but it sometimes gets him in trouble, especially with the Republican base. In Michigan, he bluntly said that some jobs that had been lost would never return. In South Carolina last summer, he angered conservatives with his support of immigration reform backed by Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.).
But McCain is hoping that South Carolina proves his appeal with the GOP establishment, many of whom are now backing him. Several longtime Washington figures, including Sens. Trent Lott (Miss.) and Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and former senator Dan Coats (Ind.), have appeared in the state on McCain's behalf.
In a sign of how the presidential campaign may be reshaped as it shifts to South Carolina, Huckabee declared in Rock Hill that he favored stopping immigrants from countries that sponsor terrorism. His aides quickly clarified the statement, saying he would review procedures for immigrants from such countries.
Shortly after arriving in South Carolina, McCain's team responded to the Vietnam Veterans Against McCain, a group that has blasted the senator's military service. One flier shows a picture of a bloated McCain with "SONGBIRD" and "AN ENORMOUS CRIME, THE POWS I HELPED LEAVE BEHIND" printed next to his face. A separate mailer alleges that McCain received medals despite having spent little time in combat.
McCain's campaign released a statement from Orson Swindle, who was a prisoner of war with McCain in Vietnam and who said that McCain never told the North Vietnamese anything.
"Nothing could be further from the truth. I know because I was there," Swindle said in the statement.
McCain's team was quick to respond to the veterans group's attack, mindful of his 2000 loss in South Carolina, when negative attacks contributed to his downfall, and of Sen. John F. Kerry's 2004 run, during which a similar group questioned the Democrat's military service.
But Tuesday was Romney's night, as senior aides basked in their success, having dodged what could have been a disastrous night for their candidate. While the campaign had long emphasized the need to win in Iowa and New Hampshire, several said Michigan is a better indicator of how Romney could capture the GOP vote nationwide.
The margin of victory was "pretty significant. It's a big win," said senior aide Ben Ginsberg. "There are three to four times more voters here than in New Hampshire, and ten times more than in Iowa."
In Michigan, Romney made himself a champion of the state's beleaguered automobile industry and promised to make the state's faltering economy a priority during his first 100 days in office.
"A lot of Washington politicians are aware of the pain, but they haven't done anything about it. And, of course, I hear people from time to time say, 'Well, that's Michigan's problem,' " Romney said in a speech Monday at the Detroit Economic Club. "But that's where they're wrong. What Michigan is feeling here will be felt by the entire nation unless we win the economic battle here."
The speech -- and others like it -- were an appeal to the residents of Michigan, who have been among the hardest hit by the nation's economic slowdown. The state's unemployment rate is the highest in the country, at 7.4 percent, and the mortgage crisis is severe.
Romney also pledged to ease fuel-efficiency standards and to spend billions of dollars in federal money to bolster automakers. "This is personal to me," he told crowds.
Romney initially launched his candidacy in Dearborn, Mich. in February and quickly hired several full-time staffers here. By primary day he had volunteer operations running in all 83 of the state's counties, placing calls to tens of thousands of likely Republican voters.
He also spent a little more than $2 million on television commercials here, according to Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of the Campaign Media Analysis Group. By contrast, Tracey said, McCain spent just under $1 million and Huckabee spent "a couple hundred thousand" on TV ads.
In his victory speech, Romney repeatedly coaxed the crowd into frenzied chants. "I have a couple of questions for you. Is Washington, D.C., broken?" he asked.
"Can it be fixed?"
"Are we the team that's going to get the job done?"
"All right, let's take this campaign to South Carolina and Nevada and Florida and all over the country," he told them. "Let's take it all the way to the White House!"
Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr. in Michigan and Matthew Mosk in Washington and research editor Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.