This story was written by CBSNews.com senior political editor Vaughn Ververs.
Thirteen days, three Republican contests, three different winners. For , the former governor of Massachusetts desperately seeking a win in the state where he was born, the third time was the charm.
Romney won the Michigan Republican primary Tuesday on the strength of a much different electorate than surfaced in 2000, the last time there was a contested Republican primary in the state. Arizona Senatorwon then with support from large numbers of independent voters and even Democrats, two groups that combined to make up over half of the 2000 vote.
Those groups did not materialize this year for McCain. According to CBS News exit polls, self-described Republicans made up 68 percent of the vote - and they supported Romney by a wide margin. Independents made up just 25 percent of the GOP primary vote today while just 7 percent were Democrats. In 2000, independents made up 35 percent of the vote while another 17 percent were Democrats.
The economy overwhelmingly topped the concerns of voters, with 55 percent of primary voters citing it as their top concern. The Iraq war ranked second, but lagged far behind. Just 17 percent said that was their top concern. Discussion of the economy dominated the Michigan contest in its closing days, as Romney sought to strike an optimistic tone about the future of a state which has seen some 76,000 jobs lost in the past year alone.
"The future of Michigan is bright and I will not rest until Michigan is back," he proclaimed in a get-out-the vote rally Tuesday morning. Romney, whose father served two terms as governor of the state and was the automotive executive in sunnier days for the industry, stressed his business resume and ties to the state during his campaign and was quick to point out any stumbles made by McCain. Romney also won among late-deciding voters, indicating that his arguments may have won some supporters.
Entering the day, Michigan was seen as a must-win for Romney. He has based much of his campaign on gaining momentum with wins in early contests and invested heavily in that strategy. His second-place finishes to candidates seen as either unknown upstarts, in the case ofin Iowa, or those once left on the political scrap heap, like McCain in New Hampshire.
After tonight's victory, Romney suddenly appears in much better position for what's shaping up to be a protracted battle. Romney leads in the small number of delegates awarded through the first three contests (including a handful selected in county conventions in Wyoming). But because of the large number of delegates up for grabs when nearly two dozen states holding contests on February 5th, that counts for little more than bragging rights.
More important in the near term is that Romney has won at least one of the first three contests in a race that grows more unpredictable almost by the day. 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.
For McCain, his second-place showing tonight is disappointing but not disastrous. He has come from the back of the pack in a short span of time to lead the Republican field in several recent national polls. A CBS News poll this week had him in first place with 33 percent.
McCain's must-win moment came in New Hampshire and while he was unable to repeat his Michigan win from 2000, he remains a force for this weekend's South Carolina primary. McCain will seek to rally that state's large population of veterans and active-duty military personal and their families. Delivering his concession speech in the South Carolina, McCain made sure to point out the state's tradition of military service. "I've long admired the deep patriotism of your state," he told supporters.
South Carolina was the state where McCain's campaign effectively ended in 2000, after a bitter battle with George W. Bush. But circumstances are far different in this campaign. Huckabee, who finished a respectable third in Michigan, will rely on the same support from evangelicals who fueled his Iowa win alongside his regional appeal. "We're going to win South Carolina," Huckabee told supporters there Tuesday night. "We're going to make it real clear that the first-in-the-South primary is going to give its support to the first-in-the-South candidate."
Former Tennessee Senatorhas camped out in the state since the day of the New Hampshire primary and appears to be making inroads. Recent polls show an increasingly competitive race between all four candidates with three days to go before Saturday's primary.
After Saturday, the race turns to Florida, which former New York City Mayorhas made his must-win state. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week showed McCain, Giuliani, Huckabee and Romney in a statistical dead heat in the Sunshine State, the final contest before Super Tuesday. A Giuliani win there would give four different candidates at least one major win going into February 5th.
Within three weeks, Republican voters in 24 more states will have made their voices heard on the process. If there were 24 more candidates in the field, we may have as many different results. As it is, there are four, possibly five candidates who remain with at least an outside shot at the nomination. With his win in Michigan, Mitt Romney solidified his place among that group. "Now on to South Carolina, Nevada, Florida," Romney said after his victory. "This campaign is going to go to all 50 states."