EXETER, N.H.—The one clear thing to emerge from the Republican primary in New Hampshire is an even greater uncertainty about who will end up leading the party into the November elections. Sen. John McCain, who got 37 percent of the record turnout vote, pulled off an improbable win from voters who still harbor considerable goodwill from his previous efforts there. Mitt Romney, in second place, met the lower expectations he had set right before the primary. Mike Huckabee finished third, and Rudy Giuliani, whose strategy was to focus on Florida and Super Tuesday, a distant fourth.
In Michigan, Nevada, and South Carolina, where the candidates head next, the McCain-Romney-Huckabee slugfest promises only to escalate. The GOP has not paid much attention to the Nevada caucuses, held the same day as the South Carolina primary, but early polls show Romney and Giuliani in a dead heat there. McCain, meanwhile, is riding a wave of support after his win in the Granite State; he has received more funding and now flies on a campaign jet that will take him through the Super Tuesday primaries in early February. Romney, meanwhile, is back on his heels; last week he yanked his television ads in South Carolina to concentrate his efforts in Michigan.
The dynamics of the two states couldn't be more different. In Michigan, where the contest for delegates takes place this week, the loss of manufacturing jobs has hit the state hard, and voters want to know how candidates will restore them. Huckabee, who speaks candidly about the economy and the government's role in helping the disadvantaged, could find himself a strong contender there. But evangelicals, who supported Huckabee overwhelmingly in Iowa, and to some extent in New Hampshire, make up less than 20 percent of the registered Michigan electorate. As for Romney, he was born in Michigan, and his father was a popular governor of the state, but that was decades ago. McCain has a more recent hold on Michigan—he beat George W. Bush in the primary there in 2000.
The South Carolina vote, on January 19, could be a bruising contest in which issues dear to the Republican Party's base, namely immigration and the war, become contentious. McCain, in particular, needs to do well there to maintain his newfound momentum, says one GOP strategist. In 2000, the state's Republican establishment supported Bush, but now McCain has won some of those backers. South Carolina is home to one of the highest percentage of military and retired military voters in the country—a demographic that McCain, a decorated veteran, hopes to tap. On the other hand, he faces conservatives who may punish him for supporting last year's failed immigration bill, which conservatives considered equivalent to amnesty for illegal immigrants. "Immigration is an important issue to this campaign—no one has minimized it—but voters are considering a lot of different issues, and McCain's appeal is that he represents all of what the party stands for," says Jill Hazelbaker, a McCain spokeswoman.
Religious right. Evangelicals could be the deciding factor in South Carolina. Polls in December showed them strongly breaking toward Huckabee, and their turnout will be critical. Romney's past support of abortion rights could hurt him with this camp, while McCain's assertion that the country is a "Christian nation" could endear him to these religious voters. This year, however, unlike in years past, there are no social issues like gay marriage initiatives on the fall ballot.
Those looking for a GOP front-runner out of South Carolina may be disappointed. The state is no longer necessarily indicative of the way the whole South will vote. "We'll need to start looking at the head count for delegates rather than the percentage of support in the state to see who is leading the field nationwide," says Blease Graham, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina. But in a crowded field, the candidates are just hoping their cash and media coverage last until Super Tuesday. That's when the race goes national and those still standing get to make an appeal to the whole country, rather than to just a single state.