SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — All eyes turn now to South Carolina, where Republicans vote Saturday with the fight for their party's presidential nomination still wide open after Mitt Romney's much-needed win in Michigan on Tuesday.
Romney was the third winner of major Republican contests in the past two weeks. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had taken Iowa, and Arizona Sen. John McCain had won New Hampshire. South Carolina offers each of them, plus former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, a chance to get traction before the race heads into Florida on Jan. 29 and then a nationwide obstacle course on Feb. 5.
The Democratic presidential candidates, meanwhile, continued their retreat from the precipice of racial and gender animosity that earlier this week threatened to tear their party apart. At a Tuesday night debate in Las Vegas that happened to fall on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton both reiterated their support for racial and gender equality.
"We're all family in the Democratic Party," Clinton said. "There's more that we have in common than what separates us," Obama agreed.
When the GOP cavalcade whirls into South Carolina starting Wednesday, both McCain and Huckabee bring strengths. And while Romney had faded there in recent polls, his win in Michigan could invigorate support for him, too.
Also pulling out the stops in South Carolina is Thompson, a son of the South who's touting himself as a trustworthy conservative who's reliable and electable. South Carolina is his last best hope; he's finished far behind everywhere else.
McCain is counting on the many veterans living there, as well as moderate retirees who've relocated along the coast. Aides hope that McCain's core message of strength on national security and fiscal responsibility will inspire both groups.
"Unlike any other candidate, John McCain speaks the language of men and women in uniform," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a key McCain supporter.
But Huckabee, the Baptist preacher, has tremendous appeal to evangelical conservatives, who make up 63 percent of the South Carolina GOP primary electorate. They're especially strong "upcountry," around the Greenville-Spartanburg area. It's no accident that Huckabee delivered guest sermons at a Spartanburg church last Sunday. He predicted Tuesday that he would win South Carolina — hardly the sign of a candidate trying to manage expectations.
"Huckabee has this completely wrapped up," said Don Aiesi, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville. "This is a bastion of conservative Christian Republicans. ...They're not voting on electability, or immigration or anything like that. They want to make a statement on values."
After South Carolina comes Florida on Jan. 29, where former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been campaigning for weeks. That will be the final staging ground before Feb. 5, also known as "Super Tuesday," when 24 states hold nominating contests.
Each candidate hopes a Florida win will launch him with a final burst of momentum into what amounts to a national primary. Giuliani's bet his entire campaign on that.
Romney's Michigan win gives him reason to stay in the race through Feb. 5, and he's rich enough to do so.
McCain's leading polls in mega-states such as California and New Jersey.
And Huckabee is pitching primarily to the social conservatives, who are a central plank of the GOP coalition and perhaps a plurality in several of the Southern and border states that vote that day.
Democrats, meantime, prepared for Saturday's Nevada caucuses by holding a debate in Las Vegas. The forum's first 20 minutes focused on the racially tinged barbs that the Obama and Clinton campaigns had traded in recent days over issues including Obama's admitted past drug use and the relative roles of King and President Lyndon Johnson in achieving the civil rights revolution of the '60s.
Both candidates had issued statements Monday that signaled a truce, one they honored in their debate — perhaps ending a bitter exchange in which the biggest loser might have been the Democratic Party's fragile coalition when the party has its clearest shot at the White House in years. At Tuesday's debate, both Obama and Clinton said they regretted the tone the discussion had taken and suggested that their campaign aides had gotten overheated.