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Analysis: Romney takes Michigan gold as S.C. fight heats up

  • Story Highlights
  • Romney captures coalition of ideological conservatives, self-identified Republicans
  • Key issues to Romney's advantage over McCain: the economy, native-state ties
  • Romney beats Huckabee with evangelicals, will split focus between Nevada, S.C.
  • Already getting dirty, Southern primary favors Huckabee, McCain, Thompson
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By Alan Silverleib and Mark Preston
CNN Washington Bureau
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Almost a half century ago, the state of Michigan put an auto industry executive named George Romney on the political map. On Tuesday evening, it may have put his son's presidential campaign back on track.

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More than four in 10 GOP voters called Mitt Romney's Michigan ties important, and they sided heavily with him.

Mitt Romney scored a sorely needed victory in his native state's GOP primary by assembling a formidable coalition of ideological conservatives and self-identified Republicans.

In a state suffering from the highest unemployment rate in the nation, voters turned to the businessman-turned-politician who pledged to help turn their economy around.

Not surprisingly, the economy was by far the most important issue to Michigan voters. For Romney's chief competitor in the Michigan primary, John McCain, that was bad news. Only three in 10 voters who cited economic concerns as their top priority gave their votes to McCain; almost four in 10 went for Romney.

Eight years ago, the maverick Arizona senator stunned then-Gov. George W. Bush by beating him in Michigan with a coalition based primarily on the votes of independents, moderates and liberals.

On Tuesday, McCain's coalition included the same voters, but it was noticeably smaller. In 2000, independents comprised 35 percent of the total Republican vote; Tuesday, they comprised only 25 percent. Eight years ago, moderates and liberals were 54 percent of the vote; Tuesday they were only 44 percent.

McCain also found himself fighting a losing battle against the legacy of Romney's father. George Romney served three terms as Michigan's governor in the 1960s and is fondly remembered there. More than four in 10 Republican voters said that Mitt Romney's ties to the state were important, and those voters chose Romney over McCain by a solid 41-point margin.

Finally, Mike Huckabee finished a distant third in Michigan in large part due to his disappointing showing among born-again and evangelical voters. The former Baptist minister relied on this key segment of the GOP electorate in his stunning Iowa victory and was hoping to repeat the feat in Michigan.

It didn't happen. While born-again and evangelical voters constituted almost 40 percent of Michigan's total vote, they actually broke for Romney by five points, 34 to 29 percent. Huckabee will need to perform much better with this portion of the electorate as the race for the Republican nomination now shifts to Saturday's South Carolina primary -- for most of the candidates.

McCain and Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, had already landed in South Carolina before the Michigan results were announced Tuesday -- leaving Romney alone to bask in his first major win of 2008. And Fred Thompson bypassed Michigan altogether, putting all his Southern conservative chips into South Carolina in what many believe is a make-or-break contest for his presidential campaign.

South Carolina Republicans proudly boast that the state's primary voters have sided with every eventual Republican presidential nominee since 1980 -- the beginning of the Reagan Revolution.

But Rudy Giuliani is looking to break that streak by skipping the primary altogether as he continues to pursue his Florida and Super Tuesday strategy. Romney has decided to split his time between South Carolina and Nevada -- which is holding caucuses the same day.

With three major contests having produced separate winners, the wide open race for the Republican nomination has turned into a hunt for delegates.

"We believe we can be competitive in all of these early primary states, and Nevada is one of them," said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden, explaining the former Massachusetts governor's decision to campaign in Nevada and South Carolina in the coming days.

"I think the expectations are greater on the other campaigns in South Carolina, because they have been there for this past week. But we expect we can be competitive there. A competitive finish, a lot of people would see it as a victory, and it shows that we are competitive across the board."

A very well-connected South Carolina Republican operative, who is supporting another candidate, said Romney had been well positioned to win the South Carolina primary, but back-to-back losses in Iowa and New Hampshire took the wind out of his sails. A victory in Michigan Tuesday night came too late, the operative said.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the operative added that even though Romney worked hard over the past year to appease evangelicals' concerns about his Mormon religion, he was not altogether successful.

That said, his religion likely will not be as big of an issue in Nevada. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints estimates that there are more than 34,000 Mormons residing in South Carolina, compared with almost 170,000 living in Nevada.

Nevada has 31 delegates on the line Saturday, compared with South Carolina's 24. Romney apparently did the math.

The South Carolina primary now seems to be a battle between Huckabee, McCain and Thompson. Huckabee and Thompson are competing for the evangelical vote, while McCain is banking on his decorated military service appealing to Republicans in that patriotic state.

And McCain hopes the bridge burned between him and the evangelical community following the 2000 campaign has been repaired enough to help him pull out a win Saturday.

While South Carolina is legendary for operatives engaging in dirty campaigning, South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson noted that this is "one of the cleanest, above-board campaigns I have ever witnessed in South Carolina."

Dawson said he thinks that it has been relatively above board because "there has not been a distinct frontrunner" in the race for the nomination.

But within hours of Dawson making this statement, the McCain campaign e-mailed reporters a copy of a direct mail hit piece focusing on his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. And late Tuesday night, the Thompson campaign accused Huckabee's campaign of making deceptive telephone calls distorting Thompson's record to voters in South Carolina.

With only four days remaining, Dawson thinks the campaigns need to shift their focus to get-out-the-vote operations if they want to win on Saturday.

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"Everyone needs to switch to get-out-the-vote efforts," said Dawson, who added he personally has already received phones calls asking him, "'Are you going to vote? Who are you going to vote for?' They are IDing the base to find out what kind of work they need to do."

"They have got 72 hours to go ahead and strike gold," he added. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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