David Gilkey, NPR
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney celebrated his victory in the Michigan primary on Tuesday night.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney celebrated his victory in the Michigan primary on Tuesday night. David Gilkey, NPR
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney professed his love for his native Michigan, and its Republican voters returned the feeling on Tuesday, giving him his first notable win of the primary season.
Now that its first three significant events have been won by three different candidates, the GOP contest can only be described as wide open.
"It's a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism," Romney said during his victory speech, with his hair dangling down uncharacteristically onto his forehead. "Now on to South Carolina, Nevada, Florida."
The Romney camp celebrated the early Michigan returns with a sense of relief. Leading up to this primary, Michigan polls showed Romney locked in a tight contest with Arizona Sen. John McCain, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee threatening to become a factor as well.
This was a particularly emotional win for Romney, who grew up in Michigan and met his wife there, and whose father served three terms as the state's governor in the 1960s. His only previous win was in Wyoming's GOP caucuses. It was widely perceived that Romney needed to win in Michigan after losing in New Hampshire, next door to his home state. It was not so much a need to solidify his campaign as to salvage it.
Republican rival McCain said he had called Romney to congratulate him. Then, he told supporters gathered in Charleston, S.C., that he had always expected a struggle. "I'm pretty good at doing things the hard way. I think we've shown them that we don't mind a fight," he said.
Huckabee finished third, followed by Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Turnout was as low as 20 percent, according to early exit polls conducted for the Associated Press and TV networks. Election officials blamed this on the snowy, frigid weather and on the lack of competition on the Democratic side.
Michigan Democrats have been at war with their national party over the date of their primary. The state fled from its February date to Jan. 15 in violation of national party rules. In response, the Democratic National Committee stripped Michigan of its 156 delegates to the national convention in Denver. It also told the presidential candidates not to campaign in Michigan, a stricture they obeyed.
All but four also removed their names from the ballot for the Jan. 15 primary. Those still on were Sen. Hillary Clinton (NY), former Sen. Mike Gravel (AL), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (OH) and Sen. Chris Dodd (CT) — even though Dodd ended his campaign earlier this month.
Clinton received the votes of most of those Democrats who did turn out, but more than one-third chose to vote for the "uncommitted" line instead. Exit polls indicated that was a popular choice in African-American precincts. Most of the active Democratic candidates spent the evening at an MSNBC debate in Las Vegas.
Early Exit Polls: Economy Loomed Large for Voters
The economy dominated the mindset of voters, such as 33-year-old Erin Alexander, who spoke with NPR outside of an outlet mall in the town of Howell.
"A disproportionate number of my friends are unemployed or working in an industry that is not their own," she said. "Like for instance, I have a degree in automotive marketing, but I work in the restaurant industry."
Howell was accompanied on her shopping trip by 40-year-old Michael Sharp, a restaurant manager who says business is way down.
"We need jobs to keep people from running away to other states. We need people to come back here and have a place to work," he said.
Exit polls conducted by the Associated Press and TV networks showed Michigan voters overwhelmingly were focused on the economy. Half of Michigan Republican primary voters surveyed picked the economy as the most important issue facing the nation, compared with just 26 percent in the Iowa GOP caucuses and 31 percent in the New Hampshire Republican primary.
Issues such as the Iraq war, immigration and terrorism followed closely behind, according the early exit polls.
Slightly more than half of the Michigan Republicans interviewed said they would like the next president to focus more on reducing the budget deficit than on cutting taxes.
In the Democratic race, several voters interviewed expressed disappointment at the scant choices on the Democratic ballots. Nearly three-quarters of Democrats who voted uncommitted told exit pollsters they would have voted for Obama. Democratic primary voters did have the option of checking "uncommitted" on their ballots rather than supporting one of the three candidates.
Economy Drove the GOP's Campaigns in Michigan
Throughout their campaign stops, the candidates' most common refrain was the weak state of the Michigan economy. Michigan suffers from a high unemployment rate of 7.4 percent — half again higher than the national average of 5 percent. The big drag on job growth has been the failing auto industry, which ironically was holding its biggest event of the year — the Detroit Auto Show — just as the Michigan primary campaign reached its peak.
All the GOP candidates played off the state's economic insecurities in their speeches. Romney promised to promote a revitalized transportation sector with research dollars, better trade deals, negotiated fuel-efficiency standards and a tax-free savings plan for people making $200,000 or less.
McCain promised to create a federal job re-training program through community colleges. Huckabee ran ads touting his message of economic populism, saying he was the candidate that reminded voters of their co-worker, rather than the stiff who laid them off.
Romney altered his campaign messages in Michigan, dropping his social conservative bend to focus on business credentials as a former management consultant and Harvard M.B.A.
But history was also at work in Michigan. Native son Romney highlighted his father's legacy on the campaign trail, along with ads that touted his "Michigan values."
Michigan voters supported McCain in the 2000 primary. Republican rival Huckabee did not have the Michigan connection the other two front-runners did, although he had hoped to appeal to an evangelical community that lives in the western part of the state.
The next contest for Republicans comes up quickly — on Saturday, when South Carolina will hold its much-anticipated GOP primary. The GOP candidates will try to woo the state's myriad block of Republican voters, including Christian conservatives, right-to-lifers, military veterans and more-moderate Republicans who migrated from the Northeast to retire on the South Carolina coast.
Although he pulled advertisements in South Carolina and focused solely on Michigan for the past week or so, Romney is hoping to prevail in the Nevada caucuses and South Carolina GOP primary on Jan. 19. The latter race is considered crucial for Republicans: Since 1980, the winner of the GOP South Carolina primary has gone on to win the party nomination.
With this in mind, McCain and Huckabee left Michigan Tuesday afternoon for South Carolina. Former Sen. Fred Thompson (TN) has been camped out there since the New Hampshire primary. All of the GOP candidates participated in a Fox News debate in Myrtle Beach on Jan. 10.
Although former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani came to South Carolina for the debate, he has been focusing his campaign on Florida. Giuliani hopes to do well in that state's early primary on Jan. 29 with the large number of former New Yorkers who now live there.
The Democratic candidates barely campaigned in Michigan. They are focusing instead on the upcoming Nevada caucus on Jan. 19 and the South Carolina Democratic primary on Jan. 26. Polls show tight races between Clinton, Obama and Edwards.
From NPR Staff Reports and the Associated Press