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Republican candidates, former Gov. Mitt Romney (MA), Sen. John McCain (AZ)and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR) stand on stage, prior to the debate in South Carolina, Jan. 10.
The race for the Republican presidential nomination is as muddled as ever after Tuesday's Michigan primary.
There are now three different GOP winners in three states: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won in Iowa, Arizona Sen. John McCain was the victor in New Hampshire, and Mitt Romney triumphed Tuesday in Michigan, the state where he grew up.
Up next: South Carolina's GOP primary on Saturday, where former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson is ready to make his stand. And on Jan. 29, Florida holds its primary, where former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has staked his campaign.
The orderly, hierarchical GOP tends to line up behind a front-runner early on in the primary season; this year's wide-open field breaks all the rules. When the Republican National Committee began its annual winter meeting Wednesday in Washington, D.C., committee member Robert Shelander from Illinois couldn't point to a single trend or clue from the results so far.
"There's no clarity here," he said. "We've had three major races and three different winners, and this is going to go on a long time. It's a very fluid situation. Anybody that tells you they know what's going to happen is pulling your leg."
Some Wins More Important Than Others?
One thing is clear: The retail part of the campaign — when voters can vet the candidates from the comfort of their living rooms — is over. Now it's time for wholesale politics.
A mass of primaries are coming up all at once — and in big states where it is a lot more expensive to advertise. In Florida, for instance, television ads can cost up to $2 million a week.
Republican strategist Scott Reed, who is not backing one particular candidate, says although there are three winners, some winners are better positioned than others.
"I think it's fair to say Romney has a clear edge, because he has a win under his belt in Michigan, and he has financial resources to go the distance," Reed says. "Having the resources to run a campaign is going to make a difference as you go into this rapid-fire string of states, where there are not only a lot of delegates, but you're going to need momentum."
South Carolina Key for McCain
Romney isn't counting on a win in South Carolina, where his Mormon faith is an obstacle for evangelical voters, but, says Reed, McCain really needs to win there.
"A McCain loss in Michigan has hurt him," he says. "It's not devastating, but he has to follow it up with a win in South Carolina, the state that tripped him eight years ago, that everybody's waiting and watching. Can he break out? Short of a victory in South Carolina, it's going to be very difficult for McCain to go on, mostly because he's not going to have the financial resources to carry on an extensive campaign in Florida, and in all those 22 Super Tuesday states."
One thing that hasn't changed: conservative activists' unhappiness with all of the candidates. Don Devine of the American Conservative Union says grudgingly that Romney is probably the "least bad" of the Republicans who seem to have a shot at the nomination.
"[Romney] says everything right," Devine says. "The question is his credibility. There's no question that if after South Carolina — [if] Thompson hasn't won South Carolina — then Romney will probably be the one [candidate] conservatives will have to rally around."
Longtime Republican National Committee member Morton Blackwell of Virginia says the rush of primaries in January and February is coming back to haunt the party.
"I think the front-loading is not a good thing," Blackwell says, adding, "On Feb. 5, I think it's likely now that we'll see one candidate carrying some states, another candidate carrying other states, another candidate carrying other states. So it seems to me a really live possibility that no one will have 50 percent plus 1 when the [GOP nominating] convention assembles in Minneapolis-St. Paul."
And that means that just maybe, the GOP nominee could actually be decided only after delegates cast multiple ballots at the national nominating convention. That hasn't happened since 1948.