The Magazine

High Noon in Michigan

The McCain-Romney shootout.

Jul 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 40 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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WHEN POLITICAL HANDICAPPERS START LAYING ODDS on a presidential election, the conversation inevitably turns to Iowa and New Hampshire. Their status as the first caucus and primary states remains critical, but as media scrutiny has amplified their importance, both have morphed into a kind of Heisenberg fishbowl. Otherwise humble locals, constantly harassed by marauding network TV crews to name their candidate, sometimes retort, "I don't know. I haven't met him yet."

It's no surprise political prognosticators are starting to look elsewhere for early clues about the race in 2008. Michigan's status as an important early primary state has been overlooked--until now. The Democratic National Committee is currently considering moving its Michigan primary to occur in between Iowa and New Hampshire.

And Republicans have taken notice of the battleground state as well. As Michigan State Republican Party chairman Saul Anuzis told the Detroit Free Press in February, "We're much more representative of the country than either Iowa or New Hampshire. Anyone emerging out of Michigan as a winner will have a clearer picture of how viable a candidate they are." Adds Michigan political consultant Craig Ruff, "It's the first state with a significant industrial base to vote, so a lot of the candidates view us as kind of a bellwether."

In fact, as Republican insiders and political consultants break out the laminated maps and dry erase markers, it's becoming clear that the entire Republican nomination strategy may come to hinge on the battle in Michigan.

McCain vs. Romney

This view has a lot to do with the two frontrunners, Senator John McCain of Arizona and Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. McCain, who has a rocky relationship with the Republican base dating back to 2000, has been vigorously mending fences with social conservatives. He's also rounding up old Bushies, such as 2004 national political director Terry Nelson and media adviser Mark McKinnon, for his campaign. So far it's working. McCain has emerged as the clear favorite among Bush's top fundraisers--the "Pioneers" and "Rangers"--who are lining up to "max out" their political action committee donations for him.

Romney, the Mormon from Massachusetts, has an equally interesting story. He's armed with movie star good looks and loads of charisma. He has a critically acclaimed health-care plan. And his appearances in early primary states are already drawing rave reviews. The great question mark on primary day? Romney's religion is slightly less popular among Christian conservatives than Brokeback Mountain. Luckily for him, he's drawn John McCain as his opponent. Those same Christian conservatives who make up the Republican base may dislike McCain even more than Mormonism.

Besides, in the political poker of presidential politics Romney has an ace in the hole. The fact that he is governor of Massachusetts may prove to be far less significant in electoral terms than the fact that, as the son of revered Michigan governor George Romney, he is seen by many as the state's prodigal son. According to Thomas Ginster, longtime aide to another revered Michigan governor, John Engler, "Anybody over forty years old here remembers his dad; one of the main state government buildings here is called the Romney building. It's just a household name. I think Romney will do better in Michigan than he would in Massachusetts."

Right now, the Michigan Republican party is charging hard to move up the date of its presidential primary. If it has its way, the electoral powerhouse of Michigan will hold the first major primary after New Hampshire, the same day as South Carolina. If McCain can sweep New Hampshire and Michigan--states he won in 2000--and rack up South Carolina, the nomination is a lock.

But if Romney can pull off an upset either in New Hampshire, next door to his own Massachusetts, or in his home state of Michigan, he'll survive past South Carolina, where he's likely to get a thumbs down from Christian conservatives. The fight for the nomination could last all the way to Super Tuesday.

If Romney loses in New Hampshire, the media will pronounce his campaign on life-support. If McCain (who won the state by a hefty margin last time) loses in New Hampshire, we'll be reading all the same stories about a reeling frontrunner that we did about Bush in 2000, and the media will put the same heat on McCain to win Michigan.

Both candidates realize how important Michigan is, and they're acting accordingly. Romney's national campaign headquarters is currently under construction in Oakland County. McCain is also active on the ground; his PAC recently announced it was giving over $120,000 to county and local parties in Michigan.