Gov. Mitt Romney’s win in Michigan was larger than Sen. John McCain’s in New Hampshire last week, and just as broad. Romney won in all regions and among all age groups, among people who never went to college and people with post-graduate degrees. One continuity between the two states: Romney won among conservatives both times. A second continuity was that McCain won independent voters — but Romney, in both states, did respectably among them.
There are still more continuities, even in this unpredictable race. Gov. Mike Huckabee continued to have limited appeal to voters who are neither evangelical nor born-again Christians. Among the remaining majority of voters, he again placed behind Ron Paul. Sen. Fred Thompson continues to be a regional candidate at best. He deserves better, but his tie for third place in Iowa has been his best showing so far. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani continues to adhere to his late-state strategy. But the longer he waits, the farther he sinks — and thus the more he has to bounce back when the race comes to him.
It is easy to joke about Romney’s previous comments on having won “two silvers” in Iowa and New Hampshire, but in the first three contests — or three and a half, counting the Wyoming caucuses– he has placed either first or second each time. No other candidate can say that. He is ahead in the delegate count, in a race in which that looks more likely to matter than winning early states does.
In Michigan, Romney was able to “connect” with voters, as the cliché goes, by spending his time on the issues that most animate him, which is to say the economic issues. He will not be able to replicate his Michigan success precisely, because his message there was too parochial to travel.
He should keep his economic focus, but with two adjustments. First: One of Romney’s standard applause lines is that the middle class needs a tax cut. So far, however, all he has offered the middle class is the chance to earn interest, dividends, and capital gains tax-free. He ought to broaden his appeal among middle-income voters by offering something more substantial.
Second, Romney needs to demonstrate a better grasp of the national economy than his rivals. Since his main competitors in the next two states are McCain and Huckabee, that task ought to be feasible. Romney’s original strategy — use Iowa and New Hampshire as a catapult to the nomination — may be in tatters, but he continues to be the most conservative viable candidate in the Republican primaries.