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Michigan's over.  Now what for the GOP?

Will Republicans ever find a front-runner? Mike Huckabee, John McCain and Mitt Romney have each found a niche, but none of them have expanded beyond it.
/ Source: National Journal

Will Republicans ever find a front-runner? , and Mitt Romney have each found a niche, but none of them have expanded beyond it. Did Michigan offer any clues as to who might be able to transcend his natural constituency and give the GOP a consensus candidate?

The ordained Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor heads to friendlier territory this weekend. The Jan. 19 primary in South Carolina is tailor-made for Huckabee. Evangelical voters will almost certainly make up a larger part of the GOP vote than they did in New Hampshire or Michigan.

But the fact that his strength remains predicated on a strong showing among those voters suggests Huckabee hasn't found a way to expand his narrow following. To broaden his appeal, he pushed a populist message in Michigan. A TV ad he ran there emphasized his humble upbringing and efforts in Arkansas to increase job growth. The ad ended with the line: "I'm Mike Huckabee, and I approve this message because most Americans want their president to remind them of the guy they work with, not the guy who laid them off."

Even so, exit polls in Michigan showed that he did poorly among the very voters he was targeting -- those making less than $50,000 a year. Among the 68 percent of voters who said that they thought the state of the national economy is "not so good/poor," Huckabee finished far behind both McCain and Romney. (In New Hampshire, he was supported by just 13 percent of those voters, which was also behind McCain and Romney.) Where did Huckabee do well? You guessed it: with religious conservatives. For voters who said that it mattered "a great deal" that a candidate share his/her religious beliefs, Huckabee took 37 percent of the vote. But he trailed Romney among the 39 percent of voters who described themselves as evangelical Christians by 5 points.

McCain's State Of Independents
McCain was another candidate who hoped to show an ability to coalesce the GOP base. In 2000, McCain was able to win states like New Hampshire and Michigan by running up the score among independents, even while losing among traditional Republican voters. But Florida and 11 of the Super Tuesday states have closed primaries, which means McCain needs to do better among Republicans. He has actually done better so far with Republican voters than he did in 2000, suggesting that he's seen as less of a "maverick" this time around. But his margins among independents are also much lower than they were eight years ago, suggesting he's seen as part of the establishment by these voters. In Michigan, 28 percent of independents picked or Mike Huckabee, 29 percent went for Romney and McCain took 35 percent. In 2000, McCain carried 60 percent of the independent vote.

Of course, the choice in 2000 was between two candidates: one clearly defined as the establishment (George W. Bush), the other as the outsider.

The big question for McCain, then, is whether the contest will ever thin out to a two- or three-person race. If it does, McCain's ability to appeal to both independents and moderately conservative Republicans will give him a big advantage.

He finally got his gold, but will he get a bounce? Probably not in South Carolina, which is why his campaign seems to be turning its attention to Nevada instead. Both hold contests on Jan. 19. It's something of risk for Romney to put his effort into a caucus that hasn't gotten any attention so far. It could make a win there about as relevant as, say, Wyoming. But it may be better for him to concentrate out West than battle for South Carolina with McCain, Huckabee and Fred Thompson, all of whom have more significant operations -- and opportunities -- in the Palmetto State.

The fact that Romney's been at the front of the pack in all three major states so far should not be underestimated. He's also been able to compete with Huckabee among evangelicals in both New Hampshire and Michigan. Of course, Romney spent heavily on advertising and campaign infrastructure, like staff and GOTV, in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan. But no one, not even Romney, can afford to make those kinds of investments in the 19 states holding GOP primaries/caucuses on Feb. 5.

Finally, does the lower turnout among independents in New Hampshire and Michigan compared to eight years ago bode poorly for Republicans in November? The souring economy has been an issue in Michigan for years. And Michigan Republicans have claimed that the large turnout of Democrats and independents in 2000 had more to do with internal Michigan politics -- namely the desire among labor unions and Democrats to embarrass then-Gov. John Engler, who had endorsed Bush -- than it did with McCain. National polls are beginning to reflect an increasing nervousness among voters regarding their financial situations. A weakening national economy could hurt Republican prospects to attract independents in November.

The wild ride continues.