For Republicans, a big jumbled mess

The Republican race heads south as a complete jumble.


Michigan — Mitt Romney.

New Hampshire — John McCain.

Iowa — Mike Huckabee.

Now, after Romney won Michigan on Tuesday, the GOP contest is more up in the air than ever just four days before the South Carolina primary and Nevada caucuses. For more than a year, the field has lacked a clear favorite as polls indicate unhappiness with the bevvy of Republican candidates.

The Michigan victory revived the candidacy of Romney, the wealthy former Massachusetts governor who returned to his roots — his father was Michigan governor — for a reprieve. It also raised questions about McCain's viability beyond quirky New Hampshire, where he won last week.

Exit polls showed Democrats and independent voters were much less of a factor in the GOP primary in Michigan than eight years ago, when they lofted McCain to a momentary win over George W. Bush. This time, bedrock Republicans solidly backed native son Romney.

The sad state of Michigan's economy topped voters' agenda in Michigan, and Romney tapped into their anguish by promising help. In contrast, McCain said he would tell them the truth, that their jobs disappeared forever with the decline of the auto industry, which was not what they wanted to hear.

Indeed, far more Republican voters in Michigan rated the economy as the most important issue facing the country than in the New Hampshire or Iowa contests, according to exit polls. Given four choices, half of Michigan Republican primary voters picked the economy, compared to just 26 percent in Iowa and 31 percent in New Hampshire.

Romney, McCain and Huckabee all offered scant specifics and ruled out a government bailout, but they made general promises of lower taxes and less regulation and more job training and greater investment in research and technology. And Romney and Huckabee disputed McCain's contention that lost jobs will never return to Michigan.

In contrast with the economy, one in five GOP voters picked Iraq, one in seven chose immigration and one in 10 called terrorism the country's most important issue, according to the exit polling, which was done by The Associated Press and the television networks.

With the history Romney and McCain have in Michigan, there was less oxygen for Huckabee. But the ordained Baptist minister hoped that his strongest supporters to date, born-again Christian voters, would turn out along Michigan's conservative western edge to help him finish a strong third or better.

Huckabee's chances are better in the next state to vote, South Carolina, where conservative Christians dominate the GOP. He is vying for their support with actor-politician Fred Thompson. Despite a strong debate performance last week, Thompson has kept a lethargic campaign schedule in the final days of the contest, especially compared to Huckabee's rallies and two sermons at a Spartanburg megachurch on Sunday.

GOP consultant Rich Bond said Romney's win in Michigan keeps the field wide open for at least a few more weeks, with only one thing certain: "A Thompson fourth-place showing in South Carolina pretty well finishes off Fred Thompson," said Bond, a former Republican National Committee chairman.

Now Huckabee has Romney to contend with; Romney countered Huckabee's strength among religious voters in Michigan, where they ran even among white evangelicals. Romney beat Huckabee among all but the most frequent churchgoers, according to exit polls. McCain ran close to Romney among non-evangelicals while Huckabee lagged badly.

The winner, or winners, of Michigan and South Carolina should have an edge going into Florida in two weeks, where polls show the race narrowing to a four-way tie among former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, McCain, Huckabee and Romney.

Giuliani, who led national and many state surveys for several months but has lost ground as the voting began, has been camped out in delegate-rich Florida since he abandoned efforts to compete in earlier states; he spent millions of dollars in ads and mailings in New Hampshire and Iowa and now in Florida.

"Now on to South Carolina, Nevada, Florida," Romney said. "This campaign is going to go to all 50 states."

Probably not all 50 states. But it is now likely the Republican race will go well past Feb. 5, when it is possible the 20-plus states voting that day will be just as fractured.


Libby Quaid covers the presidential campaign for The Associated Press.