For Republicans, a muddled mess

It’s a different winner every day in the Republican presidential race.

Mike Huckabee took Iowa, John McCain won New Hampshire and Mitt Romney was second to both — but claimed victory in scarcely contested Wyoming.

Unpredictable from the outset, the most wide-open GOP nomination fight in half a century is becoming even more scrambled, a consequence of no natural successor to President Bush and a party searching for someone who appeals to economic, social and national security conservatives alike.

“We’re going to move on to Michigan and South Carolina and win the nomination,” McCain declared Tuesday night after he toppled Romney in an extraordinary comeback. His first-place New Hampshire finish came six months after his candidacy was widely perceived to be on the brink of extinction, rocked by money troubles and staff upheaval.

Undeterred by two No. 2 finishes, Romney made clear he wasn’t going anywhere even though his wealth and superior organization didn’t produce wins in states where he campaigned the most and where he had comfortable leads in polls for months. “On to Michigan and South Carolina and Florida and Nevada,” Romney said. “I’ll fight to be back here in November in those states and others.”

Highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of both men, exit polls conducted for the AP and the television networks in New Hampshire showed:

_McCain was viewed as the most electable Republican, and he had an advantage among GOP voters seeking a president who says what he thinks. McCain also had an edge with those who most value experience, and he was considered the strongest leader and most qualified to be commander in chief. He won the moderate vote, the women vote and the independent vote.

_Romney led among voters wanting a candidate who shares their values, as well as among conservatives. He also was seen as having run the most negative GOP campaign.

Next up on Tuesday, Michigan amounts to a high-stakes rematch between McCain and Romney — with the winner getting a wave of momentum into South Carolina four days later. Both men were traveling there Wednesday while their rivals turned elsewhere.

Although Huckabee is polling strongly in Michigan, the former Arkansas governor and one-time Southern Baptist preacher is focusing more on Southern states home to many evangelicals. Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator, is hunkered down in South Carolina, friendly territory for a Southerner. Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, is lying in wait in delegate-rich Florida, the winter home of tons of retired New Yorkers.

McCain won Michigan in 2000, coming off another New Hampshire victory that year, and still has support there. He could benefit from independents who can vote in Michigan’s primary, as they can in New Hampshire. Romney was reared in the state, is the son of a former governor and has a strong organization in place. Both are running TV ads in the state.

In the coming days, McCain will continue arguing that he’s the most authentic Republican while contrasting himself with Romney and his record of shifting positions; Romney will claim that he’s the outsider best able to fix Washington while portraying McCain as the consummate insider.

Economic issues dominate in Michigan, and exit polls showed the economy was the prominent issue among New Hampshire residents as well. One-third indicated that it was the most important issue to them followed by Iraq, illegal immigration and terrorism were next. McCain led on every one of those issues among New Hampshire voters except immigration, where Romney prevailed.

Giuliani, national front-runner in the polls until recently, is gambling on an unorthodox game plan that has him downplaying the early voting states in favor of bigger battlegrounds like California and Illinois that vote in early February — and offer larger caches of delegates to next summer’s nominating convention.


Liz Sidoti covers the Republican presidential campaign for The Associated Press.