WASHINGTON — By 9 p.m. Tuesday night, on one of the oddest days on the 2008 presidential election calendar, we had learned that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had won the Michigan primary.
At that moment, 2,000 miles away, the top three Democratic contenders — Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and former Sen. John Edwards — had just begun tangling in a televised two-hour debate airing on MSNBC TV.
It was a night at the political multiplex, with junkies running back and forth between theaters to watch two competing thrillers — "Wait Until Dark" and "Vertigo.”
But by 10 p.m., we’d learned that the Democratic debate would be neither a festival of incendiary rhetoric, nor an epic battle between rivals.
The striking number in Michigan
So while watching the Democrats’ mostly genteel sparring, the political junkie’s mind was irresistibly drawn to the Michigan vote, and the most striking number of the evening was this: About 870,000 people voted in Michigan's Republican primary.
Eight years ago, nearly 1.3 million people voted in the primary, in which Arizona Sen. John McCain beat George W. Bush. McCain got more than 650,000 of those votes; Tuesday, he got less that half that number.
The one-third decline in the Michigan GOP primary turnout since 2000 should be enough to give Republican strategists the chills.
People vote when they are angry, fearful or demanding a new leader or new policies.
In 1972, nearly 1.6 million ballots were cast in the state's Democratic primary. Anti-busing candidate Alabama Gov. George Wallace scored a landslide victory over liberals George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey.
Circumstances are different today than they were in 1972, but none of the GOP candidates has demonstrated the ability to rouse voters to the passion that generates huge voter turnouts. Michigan marked the third contest in row where GOP voter turnout was tepid.
A nine-point Romney win
Apart from the total vote, how convincing was Romney’s win?
It was pretty big, a 9 percentage point victory over McCain. It sets the stage for yet another round of hand-to-hand combat in South Carolina this Saturday, when the GOP holds its primary in the Palmetto State.
Michigan voters do not register by party, so some Democrats and independents joined the fray on the Republican side. According to exit poll interviews, about one-third of those who voted in the GOP primary were Democrats and independents.
Romney performed 14 percentage points better among self-identified Republicans — a good harbinger for him for coming primaries in Arizona, California, Colorado and New York, which are closed, meaning only Republicans can vote in those contests.
But among independent voters, McCain got 36 percent to Romney’s 29 percent. Independents made up an estimated one-quarter of the Republican electorate on Tuesday, according to exit poll interviews.
McCain can use this showing among independents as an argument that he’s more likely than Romney or Mike Huckabee to expand the GOP base and thus beat the Democrats in November.
Romney beat McCain two-to-one among Michigan voters who saw illegal immigration as the biggest problem facing nation; but he also did much better than McCain among voters who saw the economy as the most serious problem. Among such voters, 41 percent backed Romney, and 29 percent backed McCain.
Among voters who called themselves conservatives, an estimated 56 percent of the GOP electorate, Romney crushed McCain, 40 percent to 22 percent.
Back in Las Vegas, at the Democrats’ debate, the backdrop was this: The Clinton and Obama campaigns had spent the previous seven days waging a war of words over, among other things, whether Clinton showed sufficient respect to Martin Luther King and Obama.
Obama, asked by NBC’s Tim Russert about his campaign operatives who had issued a statement alleging that the Clinton camp had used race-based politicking, brushed it off as the action of “overzealous” staffers.
By about 30 minutes into the debate, the race-gender fracas seemed shelved.
Is Obama up to the job?
The debate got interesting when the talk turned to whether Obama was really up to the job of being president.
Russert asked Clinton what the consequences would be for the fall election of her refusing to say whether Obama is ready to be president.
“I have the highest regard for both Sen. Obama and Sen. Edwards. … When we have a nominee we’re going to have a unified Democratic Party.” But she asked, “Who is ready on Day One?” to handle foreign and economic challenges.
Later Obama turned his fire on Clinton, implying that she was exploiting what he called the “politics of fear” and using “the specter of a terrorist attack” in her reference to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown being tested by al-Qaida.
“That is part and parcel with what we’ve seen in the use of the fear of terrorism in scoring political points. ... That’s part of why we ended up going into Iraq,” said Obama.
It was a clever linkage of Clinton with President Bush.
But Clinton stuck to her implication: Voters should worry about whether a new president has the stuff to face what she called “a relentless enemy.“
She said she felt the national security imperative “acutely because I do represent New York.”
At times, Obama echoed Clinton, saying he would “call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff” and order them to “start to phase out” the American entanglement in Iraq. He also quoted 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Mike Dukakis as promising to bring “good jobs at good wages” if elected.
The debate took place four days before the Democrats' Nevada caucuses, with the Silver State serving as a test of the Democrats’ Western states strategy.
Some party strategists hope to offset the Democrats' weakness in the South with November Election Day wins in Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, all of which Bush won in 2004.
Clyburn 'very proud' of Obama
Earlier Tuesday, in Washington, House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn, the chief Democratic power broker in South Carolina, which holds its Democratic primary in 10 days, told reporters it was “a shame” that the Clinton-Obama war of words had overshadowed discussion of the issues.
Although he said he'd remain neutral in the South Carolina primary, he also said very sympathetic things about Obama.
Asked about the Clinton camp’s argument that Obama has inadequate experience to be president, Clyburn emphatically said, “I don’t think that’s a valid argument at all.”
Clyburn recalled chatter several months ago asking, “'Is Obama black enough?' Now they’re talking about, ‘Is he too black?’ I said back then that was not a discussion we ought to be having.”
The Democratic whip said he had done everything he could to ensure that his three daughters “would not have to answer those kinds of questions.”
He then noted that his daughter Mignon and Obama are the same age. “I’m very proud of Mignon; I’m very proud of Barack. That’s what I worked for.”