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The Third Comeback Kid By: Ben Johnson
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, January 16, 2008

It’s official: Mitt Romney has become the Republican Party’s third alleged frontrunner and the third “comeback kid” in the ’08 campaign’s two-week history. Yesterday’s Michigan primary highlighted more than Republican indecision; it also further underscored the futility of polls and confirmed that the party’s underlying dynamics remain inhospitable to (at least) one of his media-anointed fellow frontrunners.

Romney’s nine-point victory in a primary open to independents and Democrats revisited this campaign’s leitmotif: the media’s preferred candidates fizzle and their ever-present polling data diminish the strength of the more conservative candidate. As in New Hampshire, all major polls showed a neck-and-neck race; only the Mason-Dixon poll, taken a week ago, came close to approximating the results.

Although the media are learning the truth of Yogi Berra’s words, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” they continue to try. They took the occasion of McCain’s New Hampshire win to increase the stature of their favorite Republican. Another kind of polling data reveal a GOP indecisive about its eventual nominee but decidedly unsuited for McCain.

Parsing the numbers, this primary was a blowout defeat for McCain, and it would have been more embarrassing yet had the state – a projected “dead heat” – not allowed registered independent and Democratic “crossover voters” to participate. In future primaries, he will have to compete for Republicans, whom he lost badly. Romney won the primary 39-30 percent, a larger victory than McCain enjoyed in 2000, when registered Republicans made up a minority (48 percent) of voters. According to exit polls, this year John McCain won over:

  • Registered Democrats (41-33) and independents (35-29), who together made up 32 percent of the vote;
  • Self-described “Moderates” (also 33 percent of the electorate), by 40-34;
  • Union members (43-27), though he lost among their family members (22-40);
  • Pro-choice voters (39-35);
  • Pro-amnesty voters (35-30);
  • Urban voters (40-31); and
  • Those who view the Bush administration negatively (37-28), especially those “angry” at the president (39-23).

Put another way, McCain carried the Democratic portion of the Republican electorate – and given the uncontested Democratic primary, precious few of them.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, won big among registered Republicans (41-27), who made up 68 percent of voters. This is roughly in keeping with McCain’s showing in 2000, when he lost GOP members by 42 points (67-25). Romney won conservatives handily (41-23), especially those who called themselves “Very Conservative” (48-11), together some 53 percent of voters. (He also barely won “liberals.”) Of considerable interest, the governor (who happens to be a Mormon) beat Mike Huckabee among born again Christians by five points.

Above highlighting the damage McCain has done to himself within his party, the results showed the people experiencing Michigan’s “one-state recession” prefer Ronald Reagan’s economic policies to those of Gerald Ford.

A Different Kind of Leadership

McCain won veterans (41-32) and those who believe Iraq is the most important issue (41-31). However, he also won antiwar voters (36-29), especially those who “strongly disapprove” of the war (35-22) – which means much of this support came from those who disapprove of his main selling point: the fact that he was “right about the surge.” (Romney barely beat Ron Paul among this segment of the electorate.) The 55 percent of voters who listed the economy as their main concern gave Mitt a lopsided victory (42-29). Running against a lion of the Senate like McCain, the one-term governor won a lion’s share of those voters whose most important criterion was “experience” (52-40). This indicates the Wolverine State is looking for a different kind of experience, a CEO instead of a war hero.

The voters’ pocketbook issues and desire for economic revitalization plays into Romney’s strength: he projects competence. Sometimes criticized as “too perfect,” he has the credentials and alternative leadership to back it up. The Brigham Young valedictorian graduated Harvard Law and Business cum laude before turning around Bain & Company and saving the 2002 Winter Olympics. He then took Massachusetts from deficits to surpluses, cutting taxes by millions and reducing unemployment by one percent – a fact most relevant in Michigan, which has the highest unemployment rate in the nation (7.4 percent), more than two percent higher than the national average. The number of voters who said the economy is most important issue nationally has more than doubled since September. If a market correction makes the economy the nation’s leading issue, Romney – all-but written off last week – may have a compelling case to make to primary voters.

“It's a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism,” said Romney in his victory speech (carefully timed to drown out McCain’s consession), taking aim at McCain’s dispeptic pronouncement that jobs lost in Motown’s flagging auto industry “are not coming back.” Romney’s “optimism” theme calls to mind the sunny disposition of Ronald Reagan – and not without calculation. McCain won among those who favored balancing the budget over cutting taxes (37-32) – a slight majority of voters – but Romney won twice as many of those who believed tax cuts were the best way to revitalize the economy. McCain has earned his budget hawk reputation through a principled, Senate-long opposition to pork barrel spending. However, he has also antagonized supply-side conservatives, opposing both Bush tax cuts and repeatedly calling such moves irresponsible. Ironically, those tax cuts alone allow McCain to run as a tax-cutter; McCain now campaigns against Democratic proposals to repeal the tax cuts he opposed, in effect running against raising this tax, a modest proposal to be sure. It seems as though Michigan Republicans echoed George W. Bush’s devastating debate line of 2000: “Is that your final answer?”

McCain won New Hampshire by running ads questioning Romney’s foreign policy credentials. Yet in an executive capacity, Romney appears competent on this front, as well. In August 2006, when he learned of a failed terrorist plot to blow up U.S.-bound foreign flights, Romney called the National Guard into Logan Airport. In a typically business-savvy move, this not only provided added security but also eased congestion. When the State Department allowed former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami to travel the country at taxpayer expense, Romney denied him state protection.  And denying all PC niceties, he dared suggest the government follow students on visa from state sponsors of terrorism and wiretapping imams suspected of inciting their mosques to terrorism. It may be a slender record, but it denotes one attribute Romney has that McCain lacks: executive experience.

The Michigan win does not make Romney a “frontrunner” so much as it shows the Republican nomination’s own course correction. Iowa, a haven of interest bloc voters, rewarded the evangelical candidate, as it did to a lesser degree in 1988 (Pat Robertson’s #2 finish) and 2000 (Alan Keyes’ surprisingly strong bronze medal), both years far more clear-cut than 2008. New Hampshire reintroduced foreign policy into the race, but McCain’s strong ties to the Granite State and the state’s own penchant for favoring “mavericks” in its open primary may have skewed the results.

Although no one can be certain about the future, it appears likely Republicans will finally commence selecting the most electable conservative. With special interest-dominated caucuses and home states out of the picture, and the next several contests open only to Republican voters, the race will finally begin. Romney is now positioned to present his strengths: private sector leadership, executive experience, and a stance reasonably acceptable to all Republican constituencies. As a bona fide primary winner (Wyoming notwithstanding) and as the candidate currently leading the delegate count, he can once again campaign as everyone’s second choice and try to convince the party to coalesce around him as the conservative alternative to McCain/Giuliani.

This goal will be complicated by Saturday’s South Carolina primary, where Romney had pulled up stakes, and where several candidates are in a statistical tie for different parts of the electorate. Romney shows greater vitality than he should in a state where he pulled his TV ads. John McCain benefits from the fact that the state is home to 413,000 veterans and “is in the midst of its largest, single-unit deployment of National Guard troops since World War II.” However, McCain has often underscored his outspoken centrism with a sharp poke-in-the-eye for conservatives. Bob Jones University’s home state should favor Mike Huckabee, but pollsters contend he has been in a freefall in the Palmetto State since winning Iowa. Huckabee made a covert play for western Michigan’s evangelicals, with virtually nothing to show for it last night. According to the most recent Rasmussen poll, he has lost five points in South Carolina since last Thursday, with Fred Thompson picking up four percent. Thompson is surging on the strength of his conservative message and renewed (or more appropriately, “newed”) campaign vigor. He may overcome setbacks early in his campaign to unite conservatives around his more consistent voting record. A strong showing in South Carolina would help cement his bid as “the consistent conservative” heading into Super Tuesday. After Florida, the compressed schedule will make “Tsunami Tuesday” a national primary.

The nomination is far from over. But last night’s primary suggests the contours the nominee will take, and they lean to the Right.

Ben Johnson is Managing Editor of FrontPage Magazine and co-author, with David Horowitz, of the book Party of Defeat. He is also the author of the books Teresa Heinz Kerry's Radical Gifts (2009) and 57 Varieties of Radical Causes: Teresa Heinz Kerry's Charitable Giving (2004).

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