Native son Mitt Romney has the most at stake in Michigan’s Republican primary.
Polls show that Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who grew up in Michigan, is running close to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Arizona Sen. John McCain in Tuesday’s race.
According to Bill Ballenger, a former state legislator and the publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, a third-place finish could be catastrophic for Romney, who finished second to Huckabee in the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3 and second to McCain in the New Hampshire primary Jan. 8.
Romney would be “a dead man walking,” if he came in third to McCain and Huckabee, Ballenger said.
Romney invokes his native roots while campaigning, reminding people that his father, George Romney, was governor from 1963-69. “My mom and dad are buried here,” Romney told the audience at a rally in Warren on Friday. So far, Romney has underperformed in the two major contests of the early presidential nominating calendar – Iowa and New Hampshire – and his win in the Wyoming caucus on Jan. 5 drew little notice.
Romney leads his competitors in Michigan in terms of money and ground organization. He has been campaigning in the state for two years and arrived with name recognition among older voters because of his background. McCain, however, has momentum coming out of his win in New Hampshire and won Michigan’s 2000 primary over George W. Bush, aided largely by his base among independent voters. Tuesday’s primary is open and since the state Democratic Party was stripped of all their delegates by the Democratic National Party, Democrats and many independents may decide to weigh in on the GOP primary, all to McCain’s advantage.
“The stars are aligning for McCain, even here in Michigan,” said David Dulio, associate professor of political science at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.
Analysts say Huckabee has surged following his victory in Iowa and a third-place finish in New Hampshire.
Internal numbers indicate “it’s a McCain-Romney race, neck-in-neck.” said Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. Anuzis put Huckabee in the second tier. “My guess is Huckabee will be the third place, but the real question is where in third does he show up?”
Ballenger says Huckabee could pull off a surprise. “Huckabee is going to do better than a lot of people believe here,” he said, adding that Huckabee is a great natural campaigner and his more populist economic message will resonate much more strongly in Michigan – where voters rank economics as a top issue – than the national Republican message of laissez-faire economics.
Most important, polls indicate more than half the primary voters remain uncommitted but voters are following the race, according to Ed Sarpolous, a pollster with the independent EPIC-MRA, who said trends among Michigan voters have reflected developments in Iowa and New Hampshire. Huckabee’s continued relevance to the race depends on how long the bounce from Iowa can last, Sarpolous said.
Anuzis said he expected some 1 million voters would cast a ballot in the Republican primary. He predicted that about 20 percent of self-identified Democrats would choose to vote in the GOP primary, the same percentage as in 2000 when Democrats did not have a primary.
Thirty delegates are at stake Tuesday. The state is designated 60 delegates to the Republican National Convention in September, but the national party penalized Michigan Republicans half that number when the state legislature violated party rules and changed the primary date to Jan. 15.