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For GOP, It's Still The Economy, Stupid

This column was written by Fred Barnes.

Mitt Romney had a light home field advantage in the Michigan primary since he grew up in Detroit and his dad was a three-term governor. But that's not why he won. Romney defeated John McCain because the economy is emerging as the overriding issue in the 2008 presidential race, and Romney's message on the subject is stronger than McCain's. And Romney is far more comfortable and persuasive in talking about the economy.

So McCain needs to make an adjustment in his campaign. His strength is still national security and the idea that he could step in as "commander in chief on day one." But he can't expect to win the Republican nomination if he treats the economic issue as a marginal concern.

There's plenty he can focus on. McCain has proposed to repeal the alternative minimum tax (AMT). He wants to make it easier for individuals and families to buy health insurance and get a $5,000 (families) or $2,500 (individuals) tax credit for doing so. And he wants to cut taxes for research and development, plus make the Bush tax cuts permanent.

But McCain has two problems in discussing economic issues. One, he keeps insisting his votes in 2001 and 2003 against Bush tax cuts were not a mistake. When he says that, it drives conservatives crazy and it's their votes he needs. Two, he now says he's for a bipartisan commission to deal with Social Security solvency. Conservatives regard the commission option as a way to force Republicans to raise taxes.

The most alarming thing for McCain in Michigan is that Romney beat him handily among Republicans. (McCain won independents.) One reason is his tendency, which McCain refuses to curb, to mention Democratic-sounding positions favorably, like opposition to oil drilling in ANWR and unease over global warming. This infuriates conservative Republicans, the party's base. And they will matter all the more in upcoming primaries in which only Republicans and not independents will vote.

McCain has an opportunity now to craft a proposal to stimulate the economy and stimulate Republicans as well. Jack Kemp, the champion of supply-side tax cuts, is reported to be drafting one for McCain. Romney hasn't yet produced a stimulus package either. His economic proposals in Michigan focused on reviving the auto industry, once the state's pride and joy.

It's too bad Romney gave his victory speech just as McCain was delivering his. McCain would have benefited from hearing Romney run down a list of conservative goals he hopes to achieve as president. McCain could - and should - do the same, citing his votes for conservative judges and support for free trade, just to name two.

But McCain's loss in Michigan - a stage on which he trounced George W. Bush in 2000 - is hardly fatal. Nor does victory make Romney the frontrunner. Not that he'd want to be so dubbed. Winning improves a candidate's poll numbers, but actual voters don't appear to be affected. They don't swoon. Momentum? Winning hasn't generated much of that in 2008.

This means Romney shouldn't expect a serious bump in South Carolina, which holds its primary on Saturday. In fact, he doesn't. Instead, Romney intends to concentrate on winning the Florida primary ten days later, on January 29. However, if he doesn't finish in the top three in South Carolina - that's a distinct possibility - the press will surely gig him for it.

In case you hadn't noticed, the media loathes Romney and likes McCain. Reporters think Romney is a stiff and a phony. They give McCain credit for straight talk, though not as much credit as they gave him in 2000.

Anyway, this allows McCain to call reporters "jerks" and other playful names. They know he's joking. On Fox News yesterday, McCain said he needs not only "Republican, Democratic, libertarian, vegetarian" votes, but also "Trotskyites. I know there's still Trotskyites around because I travel with the media on the bus."

If Romney had said that, the press would have pilloried him.
By Fred Barnes

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