U.S. Presidential Election 2008

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Romney wins Michigan primary

Mitt Romney won his native state's presidential primary today, earning his first major victory in the Republican race, in which candidates seemingly win and then lose the leadership spot each week.

Romney, the son of a former governor and auto executive here, defeated a Republican field headed by Arizona Sen. John McCain, who won the New Hampshire primary last week, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Jan. 3 caucus in Iowa.

With about 55% of Michigan's 5,385 precincts reporting, Romney was leading McCain, 39% to 30%. Huckabee was in third with about 15%.

At Romney's election night party in Southfield, a suburb of Detroit, several hundred supporters chanted, "Go, Mitt! Go, Mitt!" as they awaited the candidate in a hotel ballroom. Many waved red foam mitts, American flags and signs proclaiming, "Change Begins With Us."

"Tonight marks the beginning of a comeback, a comeback for America," Romney told several hundred cheering supporters.

With his beaming wife, Ann, at his side, and other family members behind him, the jubilant candidate said, "Tonight is a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism."

He then recited a litany of issues, from immigration reform to Social Security, that Washington politicians have left unsolved and asked the crowd who would fix them.

"Mitt! Mitt! Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!" it responded.

Carolyn Schmidt, 58, a hospital administrator and Romney supporter who lives in Grosse Pointe Woods, welcomed the former Massachusetts governor's first big victory of the campaign.

"If he wouldn't have won, it could have been disastrous for him," she said when Romney finished speaking. "But this is going to jump-start the rest of his campaign."

Both McCain and Huckabee called Romney and conceded moments after the polls closed. Each stressed that he had won other primaries and caucuses and was prepared to continue the fight.

"For a minute there in New Hampshire I thought this campaign might be getting easier," McCain said, speaking in South Carolina before a ceiling-high American flag, flanked by royal blue velvet curtains. "But you know what? We've gotten pretty good at doing things the hard way too, and I think we've shown them we don't mind a fight."

Huckabee pledged to campaign hard in South Carolina, with its larger number of evangelical votes, which are expected to go to the Baptist minister.

"I congratulate Mitt Romney. He won a great race. He worked hard. He, of course, has a great base there, but our hats are off to him for his victory there tonight," Huckabee said in a televised speech. "So it looks like that I won Iowa; John McCain won New Hampshire; Mitt Romney won Michigan. Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to win South Carolina!"

In addition to giving him bragging rights, Romney's victory propelled the onetime national frontrunner into the winner's circle, from which he had been absent except for a brief stop after earning delegates in the barely contested Wyoming battle.

A loss here, in Romney's birth state, where his father was a popular governor, would have been devastating as the campaign moves to South Carolina for Saturday's GOP primary.

In stops across the state, Romney, a former executive who stressed his business acumen, often played the legacy card, reminding potential voters of his roots.

"Michigan is going to vote for a Romney again," he predicted earlier today in Grand Rapids.

It was those ties that proved to be key in the race, according to preliminary exit polls, taken for the Associated Press and several networks. About 40% of those who voted said Romney's Michigan ties were a factor in their decision.

Romney also ran strongly among those who cited the economy as a key issue. About 20% of Republican primary voters said the war in Iraq was the key issue According to the exit data, McCain ran strongly among moderates, independents and Democrats, who could cross over and vote Republican in Michigan's primary.

The turnout was considered light, about 20%. The Democratic primary had no standing because no delegates were at stake.

Hillary Rodham Clinton was the only top candidate on the Democratic ballot. She and other Democrats debated in Las Vegas, where the party was preparing for its next test, Nevada's caucuses on Saturday.

It was a homecoming of sorts for the two leading Republican contenders in Michigan's primary, which had gone down to the wire. McCain won the state's primary in 2000.

Both he and Romney ran strong in a campaign that played to Michigan's economic woes. A weak economy has deflated the state's auto industry and pumped up its unemployment rate to 7.4%.

But it was Romney who faced the biggest test here, according to independent analysts and McCain advisors, who tried to build up expectations.

"It's a home-state win, a must-win for Romney," advisor Steve Schmidt said on McCain's campaign plane between Traverse City, Mich., and Ypsilanti.

If Romney can't win Michigan, "Where's he going to win?" he asked.

Schmidt, a former campaign advisor to President Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said a McCain loss in Michigan would be a "quarter-step back," but he said he didn't expect the senator's lead to diminish in national polls if he finished second.

"It's an enormous deal for Mitt Romney. The stakes are very, very high for him," he said.

With the political leader changing after each race, the emotions at campaign camps have followed the ups and downs of the candidates' fortunes.

Last week, Romney's camp was crestfallen while McCain's was jubilant. Tonight in South Carolina, McCain supporters fought to lighten the mood.

There was an air of forced cheer at McCain's gathering at the Hibernian Society in downtown Charleston. Golden oldies, from "I'll Be There" to "Can't Hurry Love" to "Mr. Postman," blared from the speakers, but the crowd lacked the electricity of McCain's recent rallies. As the ticker on Fox News showed Romney ahead in early returns around 8:30 p.m., a group of young girls began the signature McCain cheer: "Mac is back," but it quickly petered out.

It took South Carolina Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell and Atty. Gen. Henry McMaster to shake the crowd out of its gloom.

"If Michigan had a history of picking our nominee for president, John would already be president, because he won that last time," McMaster said, noting McCain's 2000 Michigan victory. "We don't have to wait till November to win this presidential election.... We're going to pick the next president of the United States right here in South Carolina on Saturday and that president is going to be . . . ?"

"John McCain!" the crowd shouted back.

Fred Thompson, a former Tennessee senator, is also fighting hard in South Carolina, while former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has placed his big bet on the Florida primary on Jan. 29.