Romney himself said it was "very possible" that Republican voters don't know what they want in an appearance on CBS' The Early Show Wednesday, while seeking to downplay any expectations that his win in Michigan could give him a boost headed into Saturday's South Carolina primary.
"I think John McCain is way in the lead there but we'll give him a run for his money, and then comes Florida," Romney said. "I think one of the big surprises is that someone like Mayor Giuliani, who was leading in all these states, either no. 1 or no. 2, really hasn't been able to hold on to that lead in any way. I'd love to be able to pick up some portion of the delegates if I could, and maybe pull off some kind of surprise."
The South Carolina contest is followed on Jan. 29 by a primary in Florida, where former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani hopes to score a win and kick off a strategy based on amassing delegates in big states, especially those among the 21 holding GOP contests on Feb. 5.
Meanwhile, McCain, an Arizona senator, has risen to the lead in national polls while Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, continues to be the favorite of evangelical Christians, one of the Republican Party's most influential voting blocs.
In remarks Tuesday night, McCain sought to portray Romney's triumph in Michigan as nothing more than a win by a "native son" - a terms used to refer to candidates only viable in their home state. Romney was born in Detroit and his father, George Romney, was a three-term governor there and is still remembered fondly.
Romney won 39 percent of the primary vote, followed by McCain at 30 percent and Huckabee at 16 percent. Folling them were with six percent, with four percent and with three percent.
"Michigan welcomed their native son with their support," McCain told the AP. The Arizona senator congratulated Romney and vowed to "win in South Carolina" on Saturday. (
Huckabee, too, already campaigning in the next primary state, said in Lexington, S.C.: "We're going to win South Carolina. We put a flag in the ground here Saturday." He also jabbed at Romney, who has poured at least $20 million of his personal fortune into his bid: "We need to prove that electing a president is not just about how much money a candidate has."
Three GOP candidates now have won in the first four states to vote in the 2008 primary season.
"There has been no Republican primary like this since the dawn of primaries," said CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield. "They are an organized party - they like a frontrunner. This time, good luck finding one."
Of the three GOP candidates competing hard in Michigan, Romney needed a victory the most to right a bid weakened by searing losses in Iowa and New Hampshire.
"Momentum has yet to make an appearance for any candidate but his win in Michigan gets the monkey off Romney's back for the moment," writes CBSNews.com senior political editor Vaughn Ververs.( )
Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses, McCain prevailed in New Hampshire's primary, and Romney was second to both - but claimed victory in scarcely contested Wyoming. , the former Tennessee senator, is camping out in South Carolina looking for his first win. , the former New York mayor, is doing the same in Florida, which votes Jan. 29.
"The more candidates that are in there, the worse it is it seems to me for John McCain, who is now leading in the national polls," said CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer.
Without an established front-runner South Carolina may not serve as a firewall for any of the candidates like it has in the past. In 2000, McCain's momentum came to a halt there and his loss put George W. Bush on a clear trajectory to his party's nomination after a campaign that saw Bush accused to using under-handed tactics to secure victory.
This year, Huckabee has been accused to using push-polls containing disparaging information and charges against his rivals, including Thompson, according to the Associated Press. One country chairman of Thompson's campaign reported receiving a call containing attacks on Thompson's position on abortion and his past job as a lobbyist.
The group behind the calls is promising to make 1 million more of them in advance of the primary despite the Huckabee campaign's calls for them to stop. "We know nothing about that and don't condone it. Anyone who is doing that in an effort to help us needs to stop. This does not reflect the positive spirit of the campaign," a spokesperson told the AP.
"In 2008, the firewall isn't there, at least not for any one candidate," Ververs wrote for CBS's Horserace blog. "There is no front-runner on the ropes for it to save and the field is fragmented like never before. But the ugliness appears to be alive and well."