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Mitt Catches The Ball

Mitt Romney's win in Michigan gives him the most delegates of any candidate. It also puts him in a surprisingly good position to win the nomination and displays the weaknesses of John McCain's campaign. Some quick observations:

1) As Jonathan Cohn showed in his prescient report on Michigan, the slide in the economy gives Romney an advantage among Republican voters. He is most comfortable and least contrived when he talks about the economy. Voters look to his expertise as a former businessman. In Michigan, 52 percent thought he had the "right experience" to be president. That's about the economy. And that advantage should persist and even grow down the road in important states like California and Illinois.

2) Romney's early attempt to appeal to social conservatives by changing his positions on gay rights, abortion, and guns was craven, phony, unprincipled, you name it. But in Michigan, it seemed to work. He won the votes of conservatives. (Forty-eight percent of "very conservative" voters preferred him. Only 11 percent took McCain and 24 percent Mike Huckabee.) He bested Huckabee and McCain among "white born-again or evangelical Christians." True, in Michigan, these could be the more moderate Calvinists in the western part of the state, but it still shows remarkable success in selling himself as a social conservative. Among those who thought abortion should be illegal, he led McCain and Huckabee, even though the latter two have been consistently pro-life throughout their political career. That shows that Romney's strategy may work--that is, as long as what voters are primarily concerned with is the economy, he becomes an acceptable conservative, whereas McCain retains his disadvantages with conservative Republicans.

3) McCain won independents in Michigan, but what should worry him about these voters is turnout. McCain's message in 2000 was good-government, national interests vs. special interests, the people vs. the powerful. It was bound to appeal to Perot voters and liberal-leaning independents. All that remains is McCain's "straight talk," and if what he talks about is unpalatable to independents--for instance, Iraq--then they are not going to vote for him. That showed in Michigan.

4) McCain's strongest suit among conservative and "old guard" Republicans is his military experience and his position on Iraq, but if the war in Iraq becomes overshadowed by the economy, McCain is on very shaky ground politically. Republican voters don't care that much about foreign policy. In fact, their default position is Fortress America isolationism. They become concerned about foreign policy when they see their security at stake. But if they see the main threat as economic, as they did overwhelmingly in Michigan, they won't care about McCain's position on Iraq. It'll be irrelevant, and they may even worry about him wasting money and lives overseas. You can say Michigan was an outlier, because it already has such high unemployment, but if a recession takes hold, or even if Republican voters begin to fear that it is taking hold, they are going to choose someone like Romney over McCain--or, for that matter, over a candidate like Giuliani, whose main appeal is "toughness" on terrorism.

All in all, a good night for Romney and a bad one for the rest of the Republican field. And it was probably a good night for Democrats, too, who can envision the Republican race extending into March, and who, if Romney is the nominee, can trot out the strategy that Sen. Edward Kennedy used to defeat him in Massachusetts in 1994. You'll start seeing ads about the businesses Romney shut down and the workers he laid off when he was a business consultant.

--John B. Judis