For McCain, Romney, Michigan race could hinge on independent voters

 Tuesday’s primary in Michigan, the next step in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, has turned into a pitched battle between Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Both campaigns see Michigan as crucial to their hopes of winning the nomination. Romney, having lost the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire despite investing heavily in both states, clearly views Michigan as critical to resurrecting his strategy of building momentum in the early states.

McCain, fresh off a win in New Hampshire after being written off last summer, has less to lose in Michigan, but a win there would likely cement his new status as the national front-runner.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses, is also campaigning actively in Michigan, and a strong showing in the state could help legitimize him with some Republican voters who see him as a one-trick pony who scores well only with evangelicals.

Still, despite Huckabee’s efforts, Michigan state GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis told The Hill late last week that he sees the contest as a tight two-man race between McCain and Romney, with both men in desperate need of a strong finish.

“I don’t think it’s a must-win, but I think they have to play well here,” Anuzis said.

Romney enjoys something of a home-field advantage in the state where he was born. His father, the late George Romney, was a three-term governor in Michigan as well as a one-time presidential candidate.

Anuzis said those family ties make Michigan a tougher place to win for McCain, but he noted that the senator won the state’s primary in 2000 when he defeated then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

State officials predict the trend of record-setting turnout that began in Iowa and New Hampshire will continue in the Wolverine State, so Anuzis said the key could be which candidate appeals most to the state’s independent voters.

McCain, Romney and Huckabee all appeal to different types of independents, Anuzis said, but “the economy and jobs is a dominating issue” in an area that is said to be experiencing a “single-state recession.”

Bill Ballenger, publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, agreed with the premise that the independent bloc could have a huge impact on the outcome of the race.

He noted that some independents might be wary of voting, however, because of an ongoing court battle over what the political parties are allowed to do with the lists of people who vote in their respective primaries. At the same time, it is very easy for people to vote since there is no party registration in the state.

Romney and McCain have been trading a series of blows over the economy since the dust settled in New Hampshire.

The Romney campaign has been trying to use McCain’s words against him. It says McCain’s “straight-talk” assertion that some automotive manufacturing jobs in the state simply cannot be recreated represents a pessimistic outlook at odds with what Michigan Republicans need.

In a speech Monday to the Detroit Economic Club, Romney targeted McCain repeatedly for his “pessimism.”

“I don’t know about the Washington politicians, but I can tell you this: If I am president, I will not rest until Michigan is back,” Romney said. “Michigan can once again lead the world’s automotive industry. But it means we’re going to have to change Washington. We’re going to go from politicians who say they are ‘aware’ of Michigan’s problems to a president who will do something about them.”

The big question may be whether voters view McCain’s statements and outlook as pragmatic or pessimistic. There again, the independent voter, long thought to be McCain’s base, could end up making the difference.

Huckabee remains a big question mark. Anuzis said Huckabee’s Michigan campaign, as in Iowa, is very “organic” and dependent on word of mouth rather than an organized state infrastructure. Huckabee last week insisted he would do better in the primary than most observers are predicting.

Surprisingly, Anuzis said, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the national front-runner for most of last year, does not seem to be seriously competing in the state. The former mayor’s strategy centers almost entirely around winning Florida’s primary on Jan. 29, but his absence in the early states is puzzling, Anuzis said.

“I was shocked,” Anuzis said. “I think he could have very easily competed in New Hampshire and Michigan.

“He’s lucky that nobody else has really emerged in the early states.”

On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) is the only major candidate on the ballot after the Democratic National Committee (DNC) stripped the state of its delegates because it moved its primary so far up in the calendar. Other candidates insisted that their names not be placed on the ballot, partly to curry favor with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

All of the Democratic candidates pledged not to campaign in the state, but Anuzis noted that Clinton could be dealt a significant setback if she fails to win in a landslide over uncommitted.

Already, a whisper campaign is under way to get Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards’s (D-N.C.) supporters to vote for uncommitted.

Given these factors, it is unclear how seriously Michigan voters will take the Democratic contest.

“Are people going to just dismiss it as nothing much better than 2000 and vote in the Republican primary, or are they going to take it a little more seriously and stay home or maybe not vote at all? That’s what we don’t know,” Ballenger said.

Aaron Blake contributed to this report.