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Republican eyes on Michigan vote

The early primary will cost the state delegates, but it's still seen as a must-win contest for the GOP's top contenders.

January 14, 2008|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — Castigated by the national party for moving their primary ahead in the nominating calendar, Michigan Republicans could inject even more volatility into the 2008 GOP presidential campaign when they go to the polls Tuesday.

Although only half of the state's delegates will be seated at the Republican National Convention as punishment for flouting party rules and jumping ahead of the approved Feb. 5 date, Michigan is a crucial state for all three of the top contenders.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the son of a popular former Michigan governor and auto executive, needs a win to counter growing perceptions that he can't do better than his second-place finishes in the first two significant nominating contests.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, who won here in 2000, needs a win to keep his New Hampshire-born comeback alive.

And a first-place showing by Mike Huckabee could help propel the former Arkansas governor through the South Carolina and Florida primaries heading into the coast-to-coast balloting Feb. 5, on which former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who is not campaigning in Michigan, has pinned his hopes for the nomination.

The significance of the vote here can be read in the candidates' schedules. With South Carolina and the Feb. 5 states looming, McCain and Romney focused exclusively on Michigan over the weekend, each arguing in town halls, drop-ins and party dinners that he is better suited to end Michigan's economic slide.

Romney is to address the influential Detroit Economic Club today. Huckabee, who spoke before the club Friday, returned here Sunday night after a whirlwind spin through South Carolina, where he is trying to protect a lead in the polls.

Recent Michigan surveys show a tight contest among Romney, Huckabee and McCain, but a local Detroit Free Press-Local 4 poll released Sunday gave Romney a slight advantage. Conducted by Selzer & Co., the poll found that he had a 27% to 22% lead over McCain, with Huckabee trailing at 16%, tied with "uncommitted."

If the poll holds up and Romney wins, that would mean that three different candidates had won the first three major Republican nomination fights.

With state unemployment at 7.4% -- the highest in the nation -- and an industrial base dominated by the embattled auto industry, the campaign has focused more directly on economic issues than it did in Iowa and New Hampshire.

An added wild card: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is the only major candidate on the Democratic ballot Tuesday -- Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina dropped off after Michigan scheduled its primary for Tuesday.

State rules allow anyone to vote in any party's primary, and it was independents and crossover Democrats who gave McCain the win in 2000. With an uncompetitive Democratic primary Tuesday, they could again be a determining factor.

"McCain needs momentum and crossover. Huckabee needs the young voter turnout, and he needs the evangelical turnout," said Ed Sarpolus, a veteran Lansing pollster. "Romney's really in the best position when you consider he's got the time [campaigning in the state], money and organization."

But Romney also has the most pressure on him to win, said Bill Ballenger, a Lansing-based analyst.

"Romney has got to stop the hemorrhaging," Ballenger said. "His strategy is predicated upon winning in the first three contests, and he's already lost two of them. This is his native state. He's invested an enormous amount of time . . . and he's spent $1.5 million on TV already."

After finishing second in New Hampshire, Romney abandoned his ad campaign in South Carolina, where Republicans vote Jan. 19, to focus on Michigan. Except for last Thursday's debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., the former Massachusetts governor is spending all of his campaign time in Michigan.

Romney is generally believed to have the strongest Michigan organization, including the backing of many of the state's business leaders. McCain has the edge among independents likely to vote in the Republican primary, but he dismissed the significance of a Democratic crossover vote.

"There's not the motivation for a Democrat to vote in a Republican primary," McCain told reporters last week in South Carolina. "The Republican base is obviously clearly the majority of our effort."

McCain picked up some symbolic help Sunday night: the endorsement of William Milliken, who was lieutenant governor under Gov. George Romney -- Mitt Romney's father -- and who succeeded the elder Romney as Michigan governor from 1969 to 1982.

Huckabee has the benefit of strong proxies: a loose network of evangelical Christians, proponents of the "fair tax" proposal to replace a federal income tax with a national sales tax, and antiabortion activists.

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