One thing about the Republican presidential race is certain – the nomination won’t be by acclamation.
The fight for the party nod isn’t likely to end until well into February – or even beyond – as Mitt Romney, John McCain and Mike Huckabee have divvied up the early states, and no clear front-runner with a burst of momentum has emerged. South Carolina is next up on Saturday.
The battle between the top-tier candidates “is going to be like the Bataan Death March,” said Ron Kaufman, a top adviser to Romney.
So far, each candidate and an array of electoral constituencies has staked its claim to a share of the party’s first open nomination in decades.
Mike Huckabee said his victory in the Iowa caucuses showed strength among the social conservatives who will play a pivotal role now that the campaign moves to the Bible Belt. John McCain said his win in the New Hampshire primary showed crossover appeal and a yearning for straight talk.
And now, Romney, who won Tuesday here in the Rust Belt, said his success heralds the importance of economic competency, as well as triumph of Washington outsiders over the Beltway establishment.
“Guess what they’re doing in Washington?” the Michigan native son said at a rollicking victory party. “They’re worrying, because they realize – the lobbyists and the politicians realize – that America now understands that Washington is broken, and we’re going to do something about it.”
That may be, but the early results more clearly show that no one has gained a decisive edge in the campaign.
And that is like a victory itself for former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has hunkered down through a pummeling in the early contests in the hope of rebounding with a victory on Jan. 29 in Florida, where polls show the race narrowing to a four-way tie among Giuliani, McCain, Huckabee and Romney. Grabbing the state’s 57 delegates would put Giuliani back in the hunt for the nomination in a single day.
A week later, 24 states vote, and they will distribute 1,038 delegates, a potent-enough bloc to begin bringing clarity to a race now unlikely to be settled until late February.
“Tonight, my friends, we congratulate another candidate’s campaign but tomorrow we get up and fight,” McCain told supporters in South Carolina, where he awaited the Michigan election returns.
The Arizona senator said that on Tuesday, “Michigan welcomed their native son with their support,” belittling Romney’s victory in the state where he lived for the first 19 years of his life, and where his father, George, served as governor for three terms. A deciding factor for many voters was Romney’s family ties, exit polls showed, as well as his emphasis on the stricken economy there.
Nonetheless, McCain could not ignore the fact that he engaged Romney in Michigan, spending a weekend campaigning here and counting on the support of the same Democrats and independents who propelled him to victory over George W. Bush in the 2000 Michigan primary.
Instead, they largely stayed home, deflated by a Democratic primary that lost its power to award delegates after party elders objected to the state moving its election from February to January.
McCain took a further risk, using his concession speech to predict victory in Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, where Huckabee also has shown strength.
Likewise, the former Arkansas governor promised a win.
“We put a flag in the ground here Saturday,” Huckabee said in his own concession speech. “We’re going to make it real clear that the first-in-the-South primary is going to give their support to the first-in-the-South candidate.”
Huckabee nonetheless acknowledged he faced a challenge in South Carolina, where a fifth candidate, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, is also competing.
“Whatever it takes, we’re in it for the long haul,” Huckabee proclaimed.
Romney, despite only four years in elective office as Massachusetts governor, has shown remarkable staying power in his first national campaign.
While he has been criticized for not winning in Iowa and New Hampshire, he finished second in each state and now has pulled off a pair of wins in Wyoming and Michigan.
All told, there have been four nominating contests so far. Romney has finished first or second in all of them.
None of his rivals has competed to the same degree in any of them, allowing them to dodge the questions Romney has faced about winning the big one, but making it impossible to ignore whether they have the ability to go all the way.
With his business millions, his recalibrated message focusing on change and the most votes of any GOP candidate to his credit, Romney declared Tuesday that he, too, is in the race for the long haul.
“Let’s take this campaign to South Carolina and Nevada and Florida and all over the country,” he told his cheering supporters, standing in shirt sleeves to underscore his workmanlike effort. “Let’s take it all the way to the White House.”