SOUTHFIELD, Mich. After stumbling in the first two major states up for grabs, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney finally crossed the finish line first, winning Tuesday's Michigan Republican primary.
Romney faced tough competition in his boyhood state from Arizona Sen. John McCain, who vaulted back into the race for the White House by capturing New Hampshire's primary one week ago. But McCain's message to Michigan that Motor City jobs were gone and not coming back did not play well in in the heart of the nation's auto industry, allowing Romney to chalk up his big win.
"We're celebrating here in Michigan tonight, I'll tell you that," a jubilant Romney told several hundred supporters crowded into a hotel ballroom in this Detroit suburb. "Guess what they're doing in Washington? They're worrying."
Romney pledged to continue working to strengthen the economy, a message that clearly resonated with Michigan voters and one he said he'll bring to South Carolina, Nevada and Florida, which are the next states to vote. "I will never accept defeat for any industry here in America. We'll fight for them," Romney said to cheers.
His consultant in Michigan, Katie Packer, said the key to his victory was simple. "He had a message of hope," Packer said smiling. "Hope sells."
It did to Randy McCoy, an engineer in the auto industry who was out of work for seven months after losing his job at GM in that company's massive cutbacks three years ago. During Romney's victory party, McCoy said that Michigan has "been an awful lonely state, government wise. It seems like the federal government looks over it, around it, but not at it"
Gwen Blandy, a young homemaker, was also buying, explaining she's been a Romney supporter since he led the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City from scandal to success. "We are forgotten by a lot of politicians," Blandy said, rocking the youngest of her three children outside the ballroom. "A lot of people here have been aching for jobs."
On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Clinton rode support from women and older voters to victory in a meaningless contest in which she faced little opposition, except for a protest campaign engineered by supporters of Barak Obama and John Edwards urging the electorate vote "uncommitted" showing their lack of confidence for the former first lady's candidacy.
Both Obama and Edwards withdrew from the Michigan ballot because of questions about whether the state's delegates would be seated at the Democratic convention. State party officials, seeking to leapfrog other states on the calendar, scheduled Michigan's primary earlier than permitted by the Democratic National Committee wanted, resulting in the DNC punitively stripping Michigan of all of its delegates.
A similar delegate scenario also played out with the GOP in Michigan, but the Republican National Committee elected to only halve Michigan's delegate total from 60 to 30.
Michigan is where Romney was born and raised, and where his father, George, ran American Motors and served three terms as governor in the 1960s before launching his own, unsuccessful, bid for the White House in 1968. Although Romney has not lived in the state since leaving for college, he made sure his Michigan audiences knew he considered the state home.
But even more important than his ties to the state may have been his promise to revive Michigan's struggling auto industry. Lost jobs in the auto plants, including 200 announced last weekend, have resulted in Michigan having the nation's highest unemployment rate. That promise seemed to resonate with voters.
"He's hitting his stride," said Romney senior adviser Ron Kaufman. "The bottom line is people are starting to pay attention to his message."
Romney's new focus on economic issues in Michigan was a calculated move by the campaign to showcase his strengths while helping avoid turning attention to his Mormon faith, increasingly acknowledged as a weakness with conservative voters.
In recent days, Romney insiders have criticized his chief competition for evangelical Christian voters, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, for how he handled religion in Iowa. Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister, beat Romney in Iowa after raising questions about Romney's membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many evangelicals do not believe Mormons are fellow Christians.
At Romney's final campaign stop in Michigan on Tuesday, one of his supporters, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., told reporters Huckabee attacked Romney's religion in Iowa and it cost him (Romney) the election even though he had run a good campaign.
Hoekstra slammed Huckabee for "the whole attacks, and trying to create divisions based on religion lines and class warfare." We never played to the religious issue. I think Huckabee is continuing to play the religious card but I don't think it's going to have the same kind of impact here in Michigan that it had in Iowa." In Iowa, evangelicals made up an estimated 60 percent of the GOP caucus vote.
He said the campaign has learned from the experience. "I think we're now responding to it more effectively," Hoekstra said, citing the effectiveness of Romney's newfound economic message. "I don't think we ever kind of expected the religious card to be played as strong, as forcefully and as negatively as what it was."
Romney has already significantly scaled back his campaign in South Carolina, the next largely evangelical state and the first Southern state contested in the 2008 presidential race.
Although Romney is scheduled to head to South Carolina on Wednesday, he'll be in Nevada by late Thursday afternoon. Nevada also holds its Republican caucus on Saturday. Meanwhile, the other Republican McCain and Huckabee left Michigan earlier on Tuesday for campaign stops in South Carolina, where polls give Huckabee a lead over McCain and a trailing Romney.
It's not likely that Romney's new focus on his real-world business experience, which included turning around the scandal- plagued 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, would matter as much to voters in South Carolina as it did to those in Michigan.
Over and over again, Romney reminded Michiganders that he wouldn't give up on the auto industry and indeed, would bring back jobs and good economic times using the same skills that made him enormously wealthy. Romney earned a personal fortune estimated at $350 million by rescuing troubled businesses and launching national companies like the Staples office supply chain.
"The campaign has finally turned in a direction favorable to Gov. Romney," said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University in Boston. "Voters are beginning to associate him with his business background."
That's working much better for Romney than his early attempts to court the most conservative wing of the GOP, he said, especially since some of his conservative positions, such as his opposition to abortion, are relatively recent.
"He made a strategic error early on when he committed to being a serious candidate from the social right," Berry said. "He became associated with pandering rather than his strength, which is finding broken businesses and fixing them."
Berry said it seems clear Romney is conceding South Carolina. But Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said too much shouldn't be read into the decision to cut short Romney's time in South Carolina. Whether Romney will return to South Carolina or go on to Florida after spending two days in Nevada has yet to be determined, he said.Romney accepted a phone call from McCain conceding the election shortly after the polls closed in Michigan at 9 p.m., his traveling press secretary, Eric Fehrnstrom, said. "It was a short conversation. John McCain said it was warm in South Carolina and the governor said he was looking forward to joining him."
Associated Press contributed to this report.