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Chaos in the GOP as Romney wins in Michigan

Mitt Romney revived his flagging candidacy this week by beating John McCain in Michigan

What happenedMitt Romney revived his flagging candidacy this week by beating John McCain in Michigan’s presidential primary, giving a fractured Republican Party three different winners in its first three major contests. After second-place finishes in both Iowa and New Hampshire, a defeat in his native Michigan would likely have ended Romney’s presidential bid. But he campaigned furiously in the final weeks, reminding Michigan voters of his roots there—his father served as the state’s governor—and vowing to bring back the auto industry jobs lost to foreign competition. McCain said those workers needed to be retrained for new jobs, and after his second-place showing, implied that Romney had won by pandering to the voters. “We went to Michigan and told people the truth,” McCain told supporters. In his victory speech, Romney countered that his win was a “victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism.”

Romney’s win left the GOP race wide open going into South Carolina, site of the next primary, on Jan. 19. Despite Romney’s win, he was still polling in third place in South Carolina as The Week went to press, behind McCain, who earlier won in New Hampshire, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the winner of the Iowa caucuses.

What the editorials saidNow you know why Romney’s Republican rivals “truly loathe him,” said The New Republic. Mitt Romney’s greatest—perhaps only—political weapon is the fact that he “holds no core beliefs,” and apparently has no compunction about telling voters absolutely anything they want to hear. In Michigan, Romney may have outdone himself with his shamelessly empty promise to rebuild the auto industry. What a “demagogue.”

Romney “did go over the top with his pandering to the auto industry,” said The Wall Street Journal, but on the broader topic of the U.S. economy, he was persuasive and impressive. As an entrepreneur with solid fiscal credentials, he is far more convincing on economic matters than he is when he tries to come across as a social conservative or an anti-immigration reactionary. If he continues to emphasize his fiscal competence, Romney may see his star continue to rise in a GOP race that is “more muddled than ever.”

What the columnists saidWith Romney’s win in Michigan, “the GOP race has now descended into total chaos,” said Dick Morris in the New York Post. This is not surprising given the widening ideological rifts within the party. The economic conservatives are now squarely for Romney. The evangelicals are for Mike Huckabee, who only scored 16 percent in Michigan but can expect to do much better in South Carolina. And McCain now has not only the moderates but the national security conservatives, who are fleeing Rudolph Giuliani in droves. “This is no way to select a nominee who can win.”

With a recession looming, the economy is “emerging as the overriding issue in the 2008 presidential race,” said Fred Barnes in The Weekly Standard. To keep Romney from becoming the front-runner, McCain will have to craft his own economic message, with an emphasis on conservative policies such as tax cuts, ending the Alternative Minimum Tax, and providing a stimulus for growth. If he can win over a wary conservative base, the nomination is McCain’s, since he already has the media behind him. In case you hadn’t noticed, “the press thinks Romney is a stiff and a phony.”

Don’t underestimate McCain’s ability to blow this, said John Podhoretz in Commentarymagazine.com. In Michigan, McCain not only said that the lost auto jobs weren’t coming back, but trumpeted his support for more stringent mileage emissions—a position bound to anger that state’s conservatives. Call it “straight talk” if you like, but “there are moments when he seems to make a fetish of his own honesty, and asks others to support him solely because of it.”

What next?The suddenly wide-open GOP race is good news for former front-runner Giuliani, who has plummeted in the polls and has openly staked his campaign on a win in the Florida primary, on Jan. 29. A win in Florida, Giuliani hopes, will give him momentum going into Super Tuesday, on Feb. 5, when more than 20 states will hold their primaries. But with polls now showing Giuliani virtually tied in Florida with McCain, Romney, and Huckabee, the strategy is a risky one, admitted Patrick Oxford, national chairman of Giuliani’s campaign. “We’ll be the smartest guys in America or the dumbest guys in America.”

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