Southfield, Michigan — As I arrived at the Executive Suites Hotel here and saw swarms of Mitt Romney supporters, I found the mood of the crowd apprehensive and subdued. The polls had just closed in Michigan and no one wanted to guess whether their hero would emerge triumphant in the state he once called home. Following considerable optimism and confidence on the eves of what turned out to be defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this month, no one wanted to say for sure whether Romney would win the Michigan primary.
Even the candidate’s older brother was guarded in his predictions. When I asked whether he thought Mitt was going to win tonight, Scott Romney would tell me only: “He’ll do fine.”
At 9:11 p.m., a shout went up in the ballroom that spread out to the lobby: Fox News had just projected Romney the winner, that he not only topped John McCain but did so by a substantial margin. Within two hours, that margin was a handsome 39%-to-30%, with Mike Huckabee a distant third at 13%. (These figures were not final by the time I left the hotel last night ).
Unofficial estimates held that the turnout statewide was between 16% — roughly the same turnout as in the 2000 primary in which John McCain defeated George W. Bush — and 20%. One exit poll showed that, of all the voters who participated in the Republican balloting, only 9% considered themselves Democrats and 25% considered themselves independents. The ranks of non-Republicans going into the GOP contest, then, was substantially down from 2000, when self-described Democrats and independents turned out in droves and were pivotal to McCain’s triumph.
Although agreeing that Romney played better than McCain in a Republican contest in which participation was primarily Republican, several Romney campaigners I spoke to also said that the former Massachusetts governor’s more positive economic agenda helped him break away from McCain in the twilight days before the Tuesday balloting. As Ingham County (Lansing) GOP Chairman Norm Shinkle told me, “When Mitt began to find his voice and say ‘Washington is broken,’ that he fixes things and could fix it, voters began to listen to him and like him more. Where polling showed Romney tied with or trailing McCain up until the last few days, he began to take the lead after hitting that theme.”
Williamston Mayor Michelle Hyne agreed and told me “Mitt’s talk about dealing with the manufacturing industry, reviving the auto industry, cutting taxes, and running government more efficiently resonated in a state that has double the nation’s unemployment.”
So Mitt Romney became the third Republican candidate to win one of the three major nomination battles held so far. In so doing, his presidential candidacy was saved from the oblivion that would have followed defeat in the state of his birth and where his father was a popular governor. Now Romney basks in the same glow that surrounded Huckabee after Iowa and McCain after New Hampshire. He lives to fight another day — specifically in South Carolina on Saturday.
The final Rasmussen poll of likely South Carolina primary voters conducted before the Michigan balloting showed John McCain at 28%, Huckabee 19%, Romney 17%, and Fred Thompson — for the first time out of single digits in the Palmetto State and on a surge — at 16%. But all of those numbers may change tomorrow when news of Romney’s Michigan surge sinks in, much as the news of McCain’s New Hampshire win a week ago caused his Michigan numbers to take off.
“We’re certainly not in a 100-yard dash,” Romney strategist Alex Gage told me soon after news of the Michigan win sank in, “I’d say the Republican nomination contest is more like an 800-meter race.”
Gage and other consultants, once convinced that the ’08 presidential nomination battle would be over now, are changing their tune and beginning to deal with the scenario that makes political reporters like me salivate: for the first time since 1976, when one could not be sure whether the Republican nominee would be either Gerald Ford or Ronald Reagan until the Kansas City convention, that the presidential nomination fight might go to the national convention floor and make the conclave actually mean something.
Should Thompson or Huckabee win in South Carolina Saturday, and Giuliani dumbfound the punditry by winning in his first serious state primary effort in Florida on January 29, then four and possibly five heavyweight Republican contenders go into the “Super Tuesday” sweepstakes February 5. With contests in 23 states, it would be financially and physically impossible for a candidate to wage a campaign in all of them. That means candidates would have to focus their time and resources on selective states and no big winner would be likely to come out of February 5 a front-runner.
California, for the first time, is not winner-take-all statewide and thus what Ronald Reagan called “the big casino” of the primary season. As a result of a change orchestrated by then-State GOP Chairman John McGraw in 2000, delegates will be winner-take-all by congressional district.
After “Super Tuesday,” a good chunk of the remaining delegates will be chosen by either state party conventions (Missouri, for example) or caucuses (Colorado). This process increases the chances all candidates wil stay in and none will be forced out.
Now national pundits and even some international observers of U.S. politics are starting to consider the scenario of a meaningful Minneapolis for Republicans. Phillippa Thomas of the BBC called me up to her podium at the Executive Suites and asked: “Now for some outside the United States, this idea of a brokered convention is unknown. Will you explain it?”
Carefully, I began to do so — with a trace of a smile.