There are three obvious ways to interpret Mitt Romney’s victory in the Republican primary in Michigan. The first is that Romney — whose father, George, was a three-term governor of the state — won on the basis of his favorite-son status, nothing more and nothing less. The second is that Romney, whose campaign for the past year has been an object lesson in the dangers of absolute and abject artifice in national politics, finally, to steal a phrase from Hillary Clinton, found his own voice: the voice of pragmatic, problem-solving managerialism. And the third is that the GOP nominating contest has become a full-fledged goat rodeo: On any given day, any given candidate might just emerge (temporarily) triumphant.
These interpretations are not mutually exclusive, of course. Though the favorite-son thing surely didn’t hurt Romney, there is reason to think it was not dispositive; after all, being related to old George didn’t much help his wife, Lenore, his son, Scott, or his former daughter-in-law, Ronna, all of whom have sought statewide office in Michigan and all of whom have lost. And while Romney’s reversion to the politician he once was — and probably should have run as all along, instead of contorting himself into some atavistic avatar of the collapsing Reagan coalition — surely helped his cause, a greater factor may have been an opening presented by John McCain to Romney to engage in a bit of reassuring, if completely unfounded, optimism.
From the moment that McCain arrived in Michigan on the heels of his victory in New Hampshire, the Arizona senator addressed the state’s economic woes — its unemployment rate, 7.5 percent, is the highest in the nation — in a tone unfamiliar to presidential aspirants. A tone of bald, bracing candor, that is. Speaking of Michigan’s hollowed-out manufacturing base, McCain declared, “Those jobs aren’t coming back.” As it happens, this is true: The automobile industry, the core of the Michigan economy, has been contracting for years, and no sane economist believes that the trend will reverse itself. But that didn’t stop Romney from mau-mauing McCain incessantly for indulging in “economic pessimism,” casting himself as a can-do Mr. Fix It who would “fight for every single job.”
Whatever mix of factors propelled Romney’s victory, its short-term implications for the race are clear. For Governor Headroom, the win lets his beleaguered campaign — the plausibility of which, please recall, was premised on winning Iowa and New Hampshire — stagger on and fight another day. For McCain, whose people came out of New Hampshire confidently (though off-the-record) predicting victory in the Wolverine State, it turns the South Carolina Republican primary this Saturday into something of a must-win proposition. Ditto for Mike Huckabee, who finished a distant third, a finish that suggests his economic populism pales beside his Christianism as a vote-accumulating force. The Romney win even creates a tiny bit of daylight for Deputy Dawg Thompson, who now has a chance (however faint) to capitalize on the chaos engulfing his party and pull off a shock-the-world upset in the Palmetto State.
The real winner last night wasn’t any of these guys, however. The real winner was Rudy Giuliani, whose strategy of essentially blowing off the first month of the nominating process now seems to have a whiff of (mad) genius about it. Giuliani, to be sure, has seemed off-kilter the past few weeks, lurching from event to event, spouting themeless bromides and adopting a posture of Alfred E. Neuman–esque what-me-worryism. His standings in the polls have been eroding steadily — and not just nationally, but even in such Rudy strongholds as California, where he’s fallen from nearly 40 percent to less than 20 and from first place to third.
Yet now the Republican field is exactly where Rudy’s people believed (hoped, prayed) it would be at this point: in utter disarray. If he wins in Florida, where he’s essentially been living, basking in the warm sunshine and building up his firewall, while his rivals have frozen their asses off in Iowa and New Hampshire, he will be in the catbird seat. Indeed, you could even argue that, despite having won nothing thus far, Giuliani is now the GOP front-runner again, albeit by default. Bizarre? Incomprehensible? Perverse? No doubt. But what better words to describe the man himself and the party he seeks to lead? —John Heilemann