The traditional role of the kick-off states as winnowers of the field has been turned on its head as the same five candidates who were viable when voting began in the Iowa caucuses remain in the race today, each with a case to make over the next four days, before the race turns south to this state Saturday.
However, some clarity about what won’t happen did come from the Michigan results.
First, there will be no coronation for John McCain. Successive wins in New Hampshire, Michigan and then South Carolina would have put him in an extraordinarily strong position to win the GOP nomination. But with Romney’s very solid victory, McCain's momentum has, at the very least, been slowed considerably.
In his concession speech, a clearly downcast McCain sought to downplay Romney’s win, twice deeming it the success of a “native son.”
His advisers contend that the results of Michigan will have not impact here in South Carolina. They better hope that turns out to be the case.
Back-to-back losses for McCain would raise questions about whether, as in 2000, his New Hampshire victory was an aberration, owing mostly to his extensive campaigning there and his appeal among the state’s famously independent voters.
McCain's loss is also troubling for his supporters because it raises anew the question about whether he can win contests outside New Hampshire that are predominantly made up of Republican voters. Unlike in 2000, when exits polls had Democrats and independents making up over half of Michigan's total GOP primary turnout, Republicans made up a solid majority of the vote on Tuesday.
Another resounding statement sent by Michigan is that Romney is not to be counted out. The Wolverine State, where Romney grew up and where his father served as an auto executive and governor, was cast as a must-win for the former Massachusetts governor.
And with his presidential hopes hanging in the balance, Romney came through.
His family name may have helped him, but that advantage was at least partially counter-balanced by McCain’s ability to peel off independents and Democrats participating in the open primary.
Michigan also vindicates Romney’s heavy television spending and early organizational investment, a strategy that failed to pay dividends in Iowa and New Hampshire. He spent far more on TV in the state, beginning commercials in mid-December, but he also was the only Republican hopeful to have an extensive paid staff on the ground there.
Perhaps more importantly, if the GOP battle does continue onto Feb. 5 and beyond, becoming a fight for delegates, Romney is now well-positioned. He has won two states, finished second in two others and has the deep pockets to advertise in more of the 21 “Tsunami Tuesday” states than his rivals can afford.
“One of the important things about this win is that Michigan is a microcosm of the national electorate as well as the Republican Party electorate,” said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden, speaking over the din of his candidate's victory party. “This is indicative of the governor’s broad appeal to the entire spectrum of the party.”
In the short term, Romney felt confident enough about his Michigan prospects to resume advertising in South Carolina Tuesday morning. Still, his aides recognize the difficulty, regardless of the Michigan results, of getting a win here. So after spending all Wednesday in the Palmetto State, Romney will jet off to Las Vegas mid-day Thursday and try to obscure a potential loss here by winning the little-contested Nevada caucuses on Saturday.
Despite Romney&rquo;s effort to draw attention west, the next high-profile GOP contest will take place in what has traditionally been a firewall for establishment candidates and has propelled every GOP candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1980 on to victory.
But, with McCain’s defeat in Michigan, there remains no contender who can claim consensus.
The Palmetto State will, though, almost certainly offer the first real measure of clarification to the muddled contest.
Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee, both native Southerners, will face major expectations to perform well in the first Dixie contest.
For Thompson, Saturday is everything. He skipped New Hampshire and Michigan to plant himself here in a last-ditch effort to salvage his candidacy.
“So I need a win,” Thompson explained at a campaign stop in Greenwood Monday. “It’s just that simple.”
Huckabee, also, could use a victory. The glow from his Iowa success has begun to fade, as his momentum has only gotten him distant third-place finishes in New Hampshire and Michigan.
With a state so full of his fellow Southern Baptists and a split party, there is no reason why Huckabee should not fare well in a race where only a plurality is needed to win.
For McCain, a win in a conservative and Republican-dominated South Carolina primary would answer questions about his ability to win support from his own party, help chase the ghosts of 2000 and put him right back into top contention heading in Florida.
Tonight’s results have little direct bearing on Rudy Giuliani, who has staked his candidacy on a victory in Florida. But the former New York mayor will be pleased with Romney’s victory; perhaps more than anyone else in the field, chaos is Giuliani’s friend.
By halting any momentum McCain would have built up, Romney keeps the race uncertain and ensures that there will be no unstoppable force hurtling into the Sunshine State on Jan. 29.
Still, the risk of Giuliani’s decision, after his numbers didn’t move despite steady advertising in New Hampshire, to ignore the early states and focus on Florida was again underscored Tuesday night. Despite his natural appeal in an ethnic, blue-collar state having an open primary, Giuliani was toppled by both Thompson and Ron Paul — another embarrassing finish for the one-time national front-runner.
Giuliani will not set foot in South Carolina before Saturday, choosing instead to remain in Florida.
McCain backers here recognized early it was going to be a tough night, but repeatedly came back to South Carolina’s traditional role as deciding the GOP nominee.
“Like in 1980, it was Reagan’s time, 2008 it’s John’s time,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), his top backer here, said after most of the disappointed guests had left the party.
“He’s going to win,” Graham flatly predicted. “It’s going to be huge, it’s going to end it.”
Had McCain won tonight, that may have been in the case.
But South Carolina now appears to be just another stop on the way to Florida and beyond — a path that will eventually turn into victory lane for one candidate.