Republicans are losers as Romney win leaves the race wide open

Click to follow

Fresh from his convincing, native-son victory in Michigan, a jubilant Mitt Romney rode his jet plane straight back into the campaigning fray in South Carolina yesterday as all bets were off in the still wide open race for the Republican presidential nomination.

"I'm not making predictions about what's going to happen in every other state, but I'm feeling pretty darn good at this point," said Mr Romney, who scored highly among mainstream Republicans. Pundits had said that a loss for him in Michigan may have put a stake through his White House bid. It can't have hurt that he outspent his closest rival John McCain three to one on television advertising.

His win has done nothing, however, to clarify the struggle between Republican hopefuls. A baffled national party finds itself back to square one in its search for a nominee. Mr Romney may claim momentum, but victories have gone to three candidates in three major contests after Senator McCain won New Hampshire and Mike Huckabee came top in the Iowa caucuses.

This is unsettling territory for the Republican Party, which has traditionally coalesced behind a consensus candidate by now. Instead, it finds itself still unable to choose whom it should be building up. It bodes well for whoever emerges on the Democrat side, but for the Republicans it is an identity crisis deeper than any in decades.

With no sign that anyone will be chosen by acclaim, the battle between Republican runners is shaping up to be an old-fashioned scramble for delegate numbers. This means the contest could extend beyond even 5 February – Super Tuesday – when 21 states hold primaries. What also seems likely is that whoever finally wins the party's nod will have been weakened by the long struggle.

South Carolina, which holds its Republican primary this Saturday, will be a crucial test for all three. And the competition there may be wider still. Fred Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee, hopes to use his Southern roots and conservative credentials to kick-start his so-far fizzling campaign there. Also lurking is Rudy Giuliani; he is banking on a win in Florida on 29 January.

"Everyone gets to be hero of the day," Mr Thompson said, hoping he will be next. "There's no question we've got to do very well here. Different people are winning these different major contests and I think a different person will win Saturday in South Carolina. No one has settled in on anyone."

Mr Huckabee vowed to supporters yesterday that South Carolina would be his. A former governor of Arkansas, he has a Southern advantage and the state has a large pool of social conservatives. However, he will be competing head-to-head for their support with the avuncular Mr Thompson.

It was a positively giddy Mr Romney who appeared late on Tuesday evening before supporters and members of his extensive family in a suburban Detroit hotel. Evoking Ronald Reagan twice and borrowing some of the upbeat phrasing of the late president, the shirt-sleeved Mr Romney declared that his win in the state was "victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism".

His margin of victory was healthy, with 39 per cent over 30 per cent for Senator McCain. Mike Huckabee managed third place with 16 per cent.

Because of a spat between Michigan and the national party, no Democrats campaigned in the state. In the Democrat primary, voters gave 56 per cent to Hillary Clinton, the only major candidate on the ballot. "Uncommitted" drew 39 per cent.

"Tonight marks the beginning of a comeback – a comeback for America," Mr Romney declared. He later evoked the memory of his father, George Romney, who was governor of Michigan in the Sixties. Indeed, exit polls suggested that his family history in the state influenced 42 per cent of Republicans voters.

The home-state advantage vanishes for Mr Romney as the contest moves south and west, with caucus voting also in Nevada on Saturday. Exit poll results show he drew most support from "country-club" Republicans who still feel favourably about President George Bush – a constituency thin on the ground across the rest of the nation.

However, the exit-poll tea leaves were not especially good for Mr McCain either. As ever, he did well among independents on Tuesday. By contrast, he drew only about a quarter of the votes cast by registered Republicans in a state where citizens were allowed to participate in either party's primaries. His quest for the nomination may not be viable without deeper backing from the mainstream.

The result

Mitt Romney 39%

John McCain 30

Mike Huckabee 16

Ron Paul 6

Fred Thompson 4

Rudy Giuliani 3