With N.H. in the books, GOP field is muddled

MANCHESTER, N.H. - After Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) defeat of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the New Hampshire Republican primary Tuesday, only one thing is certain: the race for the GOP presidential nomination is completely up in the air.

In his remarks after being declared the winner, McCain said he was too old to be called a comeback kid. He told his supporters that he came back “to the state we’ve come to trust and love” to revive his campaign after many pundits had written him off last year.

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“We had just one strategy: to tell you what I believe,” he said. “I didn’t just tell you what the polls said you wanted to hear. I didn’t tell you what I knew to be false. I didn’t try to spin you.”

McCain focused on the war on terror in his remarks, arguing that he is the candidate most qualified to win it.

“Whatever the differences between us, so much more should unite us. And nothing should unite us more closely than the imperative of defeating an enemy who despises us, our values, and modernity itself,” he said. “In this great historic task, we will never surrender. They will.”

McCain’s victory over Romney moves him into a good position to win the nomination. With broad name recognition and an appeal to independents, McCain should be able to compete in many of the upcoming states.

However, he is far from having a lock on the nomination. He still trails GOP rivals, such as Romney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) in fundraising. In addition, Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, figures to play into the race as well, especially in southern states.

The upcoming Michigan primary on Jan. 15 will either boost McCain’s candidacy significantly or make the race even more convoluted. With Romney’s “win early and win often” strategy having now failed in the first two main contests, his candidacy rests on his performance in Michigan, where he was raised and his father was governor. Romney has already spent a large amount of money running ads in Michigan.

In his concession speech Tuesday night, Romney said he has learned that voters are tired of the way Washington works. He sought to cast himself as a Washington outsider who can change the political system, a common theme in the speeches of both Democratic and Republican candidates.

“I don’t think it's going to get done by Washington insiders, sending insiders back to Washington just to change different chairs. That’s not going to get the job done,” he said. “I think you have to have somebody from outside Washington who has proven that he can get the job done in one setting after another.”

After a fundraiser in Boston during the day on Wednesday, Romney will hope to regain his footing at two campaign stops in East Grand Rapids, Mich., Wednesday, according to his campaign. He will then travel to South Carolina for the GOP debate on Thursday.

Romney will have a hard time beating McCain in Michigan, however, having generated little momentum in Iowa and New Hampshire. McCain won the Michigan primary in 2000 over George W. Bush by seven points (50 percent to 43 percent) after upsetting him in New Hampshire.

The race will likely get more complicated on Jan. 19 in South Carolina. That contest will be pivotal to Huckabee’s chances for the nomination. There, he is counting on his appeal to social conservative voters to propel him to victory.

Huckabee viewed his third place finish in New Hampshire as a success and, in his remarks Tuesday night, expressed his satisfaction with the results.

“Tonight we’re going to come out here with continued momentum,” he said. “Tonight, you’ve given us so much more than we could have imagined just a few days or weeks ago. And over the last few days, we’ve seen that momentum build and the excitement at our rallies and the enthusiasm of our people and the size of the crowds. And we just sensed that we were going to do better than a lot of people thought that this old unknown Southern boy could possibly do up here in New England.”

The longer the GOP race remains muddled, the better for Giuliani. Giuliani largely neglected campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire, hoping instead to win in the Florida primary on Jan. 29 and several contests in larger states, like New York and California, on Feb. 5.

Despite that strategy, Giuliani’s fourth place showing in New Hampshire is a setback to his campaign. He did some campaigning in the Granite State, spending $3 million running commercials here in November and December but stopped running the ads because he was not rising in the polls. Moreover, the former mayor has been almost completely absent from the news cycle over the past two weeks and has seen his once formidable lead in national polls evaporate (both Huckabee and McCain now lead Giuliani in some polls).

Former Sen. Fred Thompson’s (R) distant fifth place performance will fuel speculation about if and when he will drop out of the race. An email from his staff before the voting was tallied said that he is heading to South Carolina to continue his campaign.