Hillary Clinton’s performance in the Michigan primary — where she got 55 percent against no-one — reminds me of Peter Cook’s crack about sitting for an exam to become a judge: “The first question was: ‘What is your name?’ — and I got 75 percent on that.” It has to be bad news for Hillary when about 40 percent of the voters take the trouble to go out in order to vote against her.
It also has to be a sign that she has damaged herself badly with black Americans as a result of the race flap of the last few days. Small wonder she immediately established a rule in last night’s Nevada debate that all three of them should avoid anything that smacked of the race-gender wars. It worked in the room, but it may not fly outside.
For the GOP, the Mitt Romney victory means that the race for the nomination will now continue for the long haul. There is no clear front-runner: Romney, John McCain, and Mike Huckabee are all level-pegging.
This is bad news for McCain above all, because the more Republican voters are exposed to his record — especially on immigration – the more they will likely turn against him. There were clear signs of that in the Michigan exit polls where McCain did best among Democrats, independents, pro-choicers, and even, astonishingly, among those skeptical about the war.
It’s not great news for Huckabee because his low scores in the last two primaries suggest that he will do badly in states without a large evangelical vote. Worse, he actually lost to Romney among evangelicals in Michigan last night.
Obviously, Romney is delighted to be back in the race, but he now has to win a state where his father wasn’t governor in order to make it real. His exit poll results from last night suggest that he is the candidate who is closest to uniting the conservative coalition. He won handily among conservatives and Republicans and did respectably among independents. But he is only one among three favorites.
And in a five-man race with three favorites, quite small shifts of support can produce major changes in the ranking of candidates.
This means that Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson could both rise again if South Carolina and Florida both continue the trends of this season — namely, that every winner loses the next contest and every next winner comes from behind, sometimes from way behind.
There is one clear winner, though: the GOP itself. Contrary to all expectations, the Republican race is exciting. No candidate has proved to be a complete dud. All have shone for their moment in the sun. And so far all have fought tough but fair in a series of good-humored debates. I suspect the voters are beginning to like them.
The bitter internecine crack-up that every political columnist has predicted has occurred all right — not in conservatism where they’ve been looking for it but in the Democratic party which was supposed to be coasting to triumph.
Hillary and Obama drew back from the abyss last night. But they were tense under the courtesies. They looked like a couple who have said unforgivable things to each other but who are staying together for the sake of the voters. A great soap opera is beginning to unroll. Take out your handkerchiefs. Hillary will not be the only weeper in this one.
John O’Sullivan is NR editor-at-large.