SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — Mitt Romney's pitch that he uniquely understood Michigan's economic plight — and some help from an overnight snowfall — carried him to a win in the state's Republican primary Tuesday and revived his staggering campaign.
Arizona Sen. John McCain had hoped to all but knock Romney out of the presidential race here, but he and other Republicans now move on to Saturday's Nevada caucuses and, more important, South Carolina's primary the same day in a nomination struggle that has no clear front-runner. With 80 percent of precincts reporting, Romney led with 39 percent, McCain trailed with 30 percent and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee placed third with 16 percent.
The economy was most on the minds of this state's voters, and Romney, the son of a former Michigan auto executive and governor, blitzed TV screens reminding people how "Michigan is personal to me" and this is "the place I feel at home." At a time when the nation's economy is widely believed to be slipping toward recession, Romney, a successful businessman, may have found a message he can sell.
McCain was wounded here, but he lives to fight another day. A week after his New Hampshire primary victory, he figured that he could again mobilize the armies of backers who gave him a Michigan triumph eight years ago and that his feisty, tough-guy style was well-suited to frustrated voters in this economically ravaged state.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, fought back by stressing how he had a special understanding of Michigan's ailing economy.
"Tonight is a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism," he told a cheering crowd Tuesday night, adding that "America now understands that Washington is broken and we're going to do something about it."
An example he often cited during the campaign here was the effort to impose strict fuel efficiency standards, a plan backed by McCain.
On Monday, Romney told the Detroit Economic Club what it wanted to hear, explaining that "Washington-dictated (fuel efficiency) standards is not the right answer." McCain told the same group in October that tough standards are necessary and that the auto industry could adapt.
McCain was gracious in defeat Tuesday.
"We did what we always try to do: We went to Michigan and told people the truth," he said. "I am as committed now as I have ever been to making sure that no state, whether it's Michigan or South Carolina or anywhere in this blessed country, is left behind in the global economy."
But it was Romney's message that resonated. Fifty-five percent of GOP voters said the economy was their top concern; second was Iraq, at 18 percent, according to exit polls. And 68 percent said the economy was "not so good" or "poor."
Romney also got a boost from the weather. Snow, accumulating as much as 6 inches in some places, held down voter turnout, and fewer independents and Democrats crossed over to vote Republican than in 2000.
McCain got strong support from those groups eight years ago and won the primary. He had hoped that Democrats, whose primary this year was meaningless because the party refused to recognize the results and no major candidates campaigned here, would help him again.
Instead, Romney's triumph, after second-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, derailed any hope that McCain was building momentum to steamroll through ensuing contests. Michigan thus scrambles the Republican nomination race.
McCain leads in the latest Nevada and South Carolina polls, but Romney is heading to South Carolina Wednesday for a day-long bus tour.
Huckabee has a sizable following among South Carolina's huge GOP evangelical Christian community. Also banking hard on a big showing in South Carolina is former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who's making a last-ditch effort to keep his campaign alive.
This state's race was somewhat unique because Michigan is suffering, as Romney put it, a "one-state recession." Its 7.4 percent seasonally adjusted jobless rate in November was the nation's highest. The gathering nationwide economic gloom, however, may make Michigan a harbinger of voter moods elsewhere.
The centerpiece of McCain's pitch was a pledge to revamp federal retraining and unemployment benefit programs. But he stirred controversy by saying that many Michigan jobs will never come back and urging more attention be paid to environmentally friendly technology. He also insisted that the state's beleaguered workers can adapt. The message resonated in some quarters, though evidently not enough.
"I don't necessarily agree with McCain, but I like how he's willing to say what he thinks," said college student Aaron Martin from Holland.
"McCain has proven he's not afraid to take on anyone, to play devil's advocate," said Mike Kenny, an Allegan financial planner.
Romney kept stressing his roots. He recalled, for instance, that as a boy he would accompany his dad to Detroit's auto show.
"How proud I was of those cars," Mitt Romney told a rally in Southfield. "I hear people say it's gone, never coming back. Baloney! I'm going to fight for every single job."
Many voters thought Romney understood them like no other candidate. As Kay Schepke, a Troy bank teller, put it, "He's a businessman, and I'd like to see business come back to Michigan."