Appealing to voters anxious about an unraveling economy, Mitt Romney scored a decisive victory in the Michigan primary Tuesday, setting up a free-for-all among the leading Republican presidential candidates in this weekend's pivotal party contest in South Carolina.
Romney's clinching of a long-sought electoral "gold medal" after disappointing silver trophies in the Iowa and the New Hampshire contests revived a richly funded campaign that appeared to be teetering on collapse.
FOR THE RECORD:
Michigan primary: A Section A article on the state's presidential vote that appeared in some editions Wednesday said Hillary Rodham Clinton was the only candidate on the Democratic ballot. Three other Democrats —Dennis J. Kucinich, Mike Gravel and Christopher J. Dodd -- also appeared on the ballot. In addition, the article said Mitt Romney's victory in the Republican primary was "a long-sought electoral gold medal." Romney earlier won the Wyoming Republican caucuses. Also the article identified Ken Khachigian as an advisor to GOP candidate Mitt Romney. He is an advisor to Republican hopeful Fred Thompson.
With his crucial Michigan win, the former Massachusetts governor now has momentum to vie as a top-tier candidate against Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who won last week in New Hampshire but finished second here, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who scored an upset victory in Iowa.
Even as Romney lauded his first major win as "the beginning of a comeback," he foreshadowed a tough four-day stretch of campaigning ahead in South Carolina. Romney tweaked McCain and his Senate career by claiming that Michigan was "a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism."
With all of Michigan's precincts reporting, Romney captured 39% of the vote. McCain had 30%, and Huckabee was a distant third, with 16%.
Democrats also voted in Michigan on Tuesday, but Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York was the only major candidate on the ballot. Her chief Democratic rivals withdrew after party officials stripped the contest of its delegates, a response to state party leaders who had pushed the primary date forward.
Clinton had 55% of the Democratic vote, and a movement by supporters of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois to vote "uncommitted" picked up 40%.
Romney, 60, a Mormon multimillionaire venture capitalist, ran a moderate pro-business administration in Massachusetts. Michigan is his home state, where his father, George Romney, built a national career as a GOP politician.
On Tuesday night, Romney was ecstatic as he took the stage with his wife, Ann, and his family in a hotel ballroom in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, just 10 miles from the hospital where he was born in 1947.
"Let's take this campaign to South Carolina and Nevada and Florida . . . and all the way to the White House," Romney exulted before plunging into a crowd of supporters chanting "Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!"
Romney credited his primary win to his optimistic take on rebuilding Michigan's shattered auto industry -- and, by extension, suggesting he could steer the nation away from looming recessionary harm.
He also chided McCain for recent comments that many auto industry jobs were gone forever -- remarks that appear to have been a political miscalculation.
McCain tried a last-minute recasting to insist that he, too, felt Detroit's ills could be overcome -- but did so only after Romney sniped at him repeatedly as pessimistic. Exit polling indicated that GOP voters appeared to have more confidence in Romney than in McCain on economic matters.
"I will never accept defeat for any industry here in America," Romney said.
Bill Ballenger, a political analyst based in Lansing, Mich., said McCain might have damaged himself with his self- proclaimed "straight talk."
"Romney hopped on it and said, We don't need pessimism -- this state is not going to fall," Ballenger said. "Even though Michigan people are pretty realistic, they needed a little happy talk."
McCain was already in South Carolina when the Michigan results came in Tuesday night.
There was an air of forced cheer at the Hibernian Society in Charleston when he was introduced by independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who accompanied him earlier in the day in appearances in Traverse City and Ypsilanti at distant ends of Michigan.
Acknowledging the controversy over his comments about vanished auto industry jobs, McCain struck a defiant note, despite his attempt to exude a sunnier stance over the last several days in Michigan.
"We fell a little short tonight, but we have no cause to be discouraged or to second-guess what we did differently," he said. "We did what we always do: We went to Michigan and told people the truth."
Exit polling suggested that McCain performed decently among Michigan's independent voters, mirroring his crossover appeal from his 2000 primary win here.
His standing among independents hinted that independents and Democrats -- who are allowed to cross over and vote in the GOP primary in South Carolina -- might provide him a crucial base of support in South Carolina.
But McCain could not match Romney's solid appeal among GOP voters -- a cautionary note for a veteran politician who has long been viewed suspiciously as a maverick by many right-leaning Republicans.
By overtly appealing to independents and Democrats in Michigan, McCain may have angered core Republicans resentful of outsiders choosing their candidate, Ballenger said. And he also appeared hurt in Michigan by a light crossover vote that did not break as overwhelmingly as it did for him when he won here in 2000.
Romney's resurgence scrambles the board for Saturday's primary in South Carolina. He approaches the primary with a newly minted reputation as the economy candidate, fresh from his winning approach in Michigan of emphasizing his Massachusetts experience and his business successes.
McCain returned to South Carolina, the scene of his crushing 2000 primary loss to George W. Bush, as the Republican most steeped in foreign policy, by dint of his strong support of the military surge in Iraq and long tenure in the Senate.
Charles Black, a McCain advisor and a longtime Republican party strategist, said the campaign hoped to do well among solid Republican voters in South Carolina and in Florida, which holds its primaries Jan. 29.
With former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani now retreated to his Florida "firewall," McCain will have a clear field in speaking to South Carolina's moderate Republicans, Black said.
"He practically has a monopoly," Black said.
Huckabee arrived Tuesday afternoon in South Carolina as the candidate most attuned to evangelicals and GOP populists, talking up his Christian values and promoting a "fair tax" that would eliminate the income tax and substitute a national levy on consumption.
"There's a world of hurt out there in America," Huckabee said during a concession speech from Lexington, S.C., adding: "We'll change the tax system. And we'll also make it so that your government doesn't work against you in your job, but helps work for you, because good government ought to facilitate the free- enterprise system; it ought not to complicate the free-enterprise system."
Winless GOP candidates Giuliani and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee may have benefited slightly from Romney's win.
After three early primaries, there is still no GOP front-runner, noted Romney advisor and longtime Republican strategist Ken Khachigian.
"The victory rotation -- Huckabee, then McCain, then Romney -- underscores the openness of the race," he said.
But Tuesday's results particularly buoyed Romney supporters such as Carolyn Schmidt, 58, a hospital administrator who lives in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich.
"If he wouldn't have won, it could have been disastrous for him," she said after listening to Romney's victory speech. "But this is going to jump-start the rest of his campaign."
Martelle reported from Bloomfield Hills, Reston from Charleston, S.C., and Braun from Romulus, Mich. Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak in Las Vegas and Michael Finnegan in Southfield, Mich., contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times