GOP Race Goes to Michigan Without a Frontrunner

What we have learned from the New Hampshire primary is that as much as things change in the GOP nomination fight, they stay the same.  John McCain won the New Hampshire primary for a second consecutive time and the GOP race remains wide open.  While Senator McCain ran a solid race to come from behind and win in New Hampshire, the race now goes to Michigan without a clear front-runner.    

So where to from here and what does it all mean.  Here is my take.

McCain:  Victory for Senator McCain was more important than for Governor Romney.  McCain had to win New Hampshire given how much time he spent here and because he beat then Texas Governor George W. Bush by 18 points in the 2000 campaign when Governor Bush was an established front-runner in the primaries. 

McCain certainly has the "big mo" heading into Michigan, a state he won in 2000, but the political dynamics are a bit different than 2000.  Romney has roots there and Huckabee can galvanize social conservatives and economic populists to make Michigan a true battle ground state in the GOP nomination fight.  Additionally, Senator McCain will not have a large number of independent voters at his political disposal in Michigan, where he must depend much more on loyal GOP voters. 

Additionally, McCain has a cash flow problem that will hurt him down the line and as his momentum builds a big question is how conservative and more loyal Republican primary voters react to his surging campaign in Michigan, South Carolina and beyond.  Do they unite behind Romney or Huckabee to stop Senator McCain, given his troubled political relationship with conservatives not only over McCain-Feingold but over more recent issues involving immigration policy and his vote against the Bush tax cuts?

Key going forward:  Finding a way to appeal to conservatives.  The success of the surge has helped him win favor with conservatives, but he needs to champion a couple of other conservative issues to try and appeal to conservatives who won’t rule him out.  And, to emerge as the GOP establishment candidate replacing Giuliani, he needs a win among GOP rank and file without the aid and assistance of Independent voters.

Romney:  Governor Romney’s early state victory strategy is not working as planned but he has finished second in both states and won Wyoming.  While these second place showings are certainly not helpful to Romney’s strategy, Romney’s roots are in Michigan and he has a strong economic message for a state that has struggled economically.  But, Romney needs to win Michigan before heading South, where he will meet Governor Huckabee’s Christian conservative base. The rise of McCain may help galvanize voters around Romney who will make the argument that conservatives should unite around him in Michigan and beyond to stop McCain or the more liberal Rudy Giuliani over the long haul. 

Key going forward: Needs to feature a bit more economic populism in Michigan where the economy is not as strong as the rest of the country.  Needs to connect better with average working folks, rally conservatives stressing that he is best equipped to stop McCain or Giuliani from getting the nomination.  

Huckabee:  Governor Huckabee was not expected to finish strong given McCain and Romney’s history in New Hampshire.  His third place showing demonstrates that he did get some lift out of Iowa and the fact that Governor Huckabee finished stronger than the more socially liberal Rudy Giuliani in a more socially liberal state demonstrates that Governor Huckabee has appeal beyond his Christian conservative base.  Michigan and South Carolina offer Governor Huckabee a much bigger welcome matt.  If he can score in Michigan, South Carolina is a tailor-made state for Governor Huckabee, where he could rally Christian conservatives as he did in Iowa.  He needs to win South Carolina in order to gain the kind of substantial momentum that will be necessary for victories in the February 5 mega primary.

Key going forward:  Huckabee combines a values message with his authentic economic populism, forging a coalition of Michigan social and populist conservatives that rally to him.  Additionally, he needs to define his Fairtax as doing away with IRS and allowing workers to keep their whole paycheck. 

Giuliani:  It is one thing to lose primaries and say you are holding off until the "big states," but it is tough to see Giuliani’s Gator strategy (losing the first four primaries but starting his victory tour in Florida), still working after not just losing but losing badly in Iowa and New Hampshire. Would his beloved Yankees keep him as a starting pitcher after going 0-4 and losing badly, or would they send him back to the minors?

While any political analysis would say Iowa was to be expected, New Hampshire is a much more socially liberal state and given the Independent vote, Giuliani should have faired better than fourth place.  To come in behind the socially conservative Huckabee in a state like New Hampshire is a blow to the Gator strategy. 

Also, over-estimated in my judgment is that moderate to center left Republicans who vote in general elections will show up to vote for Mayor Giuliani in the February 5 primaries.  Past history shows that it is largely establishment to more conservative Republicans that show for primaries, which would not bode well for Mayor Giuliani if the race in Florida is a three way race between McCain, Romney or Huckabee, and Giuliani.  It is still hard to fathom that a candidate going 0-4 suddenly starting a victory tour, but for now the Gator breathes only because the race remains wide open and Presidential campaigns often realize historical breakthroughs.

Key going forward:  Show a little political leg on issues other than the war.  Develop and announce one or two conservative policies that he commits to fighting for in his first hundred days.  Needs to do more retail politics and rely less on paid and earned media for everything.

Thompson:  Been a tough road for Senator Thompson.  He never really lived up to the huge expectations voters had anticipating his entry into the race.  I am not sure anyone could have lived up to those expectations.  His disappointing showing in New Hampshire makes South Carolina a do or die state, provided he stays in the race.  Look for Senator Thompson to get out and endorse Senator McCain before South Carolina. 

Key going forward:  With no clear front runner he can limp into South Carolina, but needs a substantial and moving appeal to rally conservatives in South Carolina.  One idea would be for Thompson to outline five conservative things he will do in his first hundred days as President.

Key looking forward to the general election:  Republicans need to be careful not to over-position on the war on terror.  That is our issue, we have it won.  Clearly it helped McCain in New Hampshire, the ever patriotic "Live Free or Die" state.  But Republicans need to start connecting with working families and middle America over issues such as jobs, economic burden, and rising competition from nations like China.  We need to tell more of a conservative story through real people examples rather than facts and stats.  We do not want to head into the general election phase of the 2008 cycle known solely as the "War on Terror" party.  It may not be enough, particularly if Senator Clinton is the nominee.