SOUTHFIELD, Mich.— Before the results were known, the best news for Mitt Romney may have been the estimated proportion of Michigan GOP primary voters who were registered Republicans: 68 percent, according to Saul Azunis, the state party chairman.
Independents, who were allowed to vote in the Republican primary, have tended to favor John McCain, but they were apparently not enough for the Arizona senator to overcome Romney's advantage among the party faithful.
Romney won handily in the night's final count, defeating McCain, his nearest opponent, 39 to 30 percent. Mike Huckabee placed a distant third with 16 percent of the vote.
"Only a week ago, a win looked like it was impossible, but then you got out and told America what they needed to hear," Romney said as he took the stage for a victory speech around 9:15 p.m. at the Embassy Suites, before a crowd of well-dressed attendees holding wineglasses and beer bottles wrapped in cocktail napkins. "Tonight is a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism."
The win in Michigan gives Romney his first high-profile victory of 2008 and very likely revives his candidacy, which had faltered earlier this month in Iowa and New Hampshire. It also turns what was already a complex Republican race into a free-for-all resembling a Jackson Pollock painting. The field is splattered.
Romney won here through a careful combination of heavy advertising, native son rhetoric—Romney was born and raised in Michigan, and his father served for six years as governor in the 1960s—and a doggedly optimistic message about the future of the state's economy. At campaign stops in the days before the election, Romney received emphatic applause for his contention that Washington and excessive federal regulation were responsible for the woes of the auto industry and the state's unemployment rate. He also succeeded in framing a difference of spirit between himself and McCain, whom he portrayed as being pessimistic about the Michigan economy.
Exit polls confirmed that Romney's strategy paid ample dividends for the former CEO. Fifty-five percent of voters Tuesday said the economy was their top issue, and they voted overwhelmingly in Romney's favor. Likewise, 42 percent cited Romney's ties to Michigan as either "very important" or "somewhat important" to them. They voted for Romney by more than a 3-to-1 margin over McCain.
Romney also drew strong support from the state's religious base, which voted for Huckabee, a Baptist minister and the winner of the Iowa caucuses, in weaker numbers than many had predicted. Weekly churchgoers, accounting for nearly half of Michigan GOP primary voters, gave Romney a 12-point advantage over Huckabee. (Huckabee won narrowly among voters who said they attended church more than once a week.)
To illustrate Romney's backing from religious conservatives, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a Republican from Michigan's far-west Second District, held out his right hand to a reporter and offered it as a map.
"We are here," he said, pointing to his thumb, representing the Detroit area, including suburban Southfield. "And I represent this part"—he pointed to the left side of his palm—"which is God's country." Things looked "pretty good" there for Romney, he said.
In a speech in South Carolina, where McCain had arrived earlier in the day, the Arizona senator congratulated Romney and joked aloud: "I thought this campaign might be getting easier. But you know what? We've gotten pretty good at doing things the hard way too. And I think we've shown them, we don't mind a fight."
In the absence of a clear front-runner, a protracted dogfight for delegates and the party's eventual nomination now appears likelier. After Tuesday, three candidates—Romney, McCain, and Huckabee--have one high-profile win each. The South Carolina primaries and the Nevada caucuses now loom on the horizon: They will be held this Saturday. Huckabee is counting on South Carolina's evangelicals to bolster his candidacy; McCain, who says that he has learned from his loss there to George W. Bush in 2000, is leading the state in recent polls.