WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney finally won a primary. There've been three big ones in the past two weeks, and Republicans have chosen three different winners, which tells you something about the state of the Republican Party this election year.
Romney won Michigan on Tuesday. He grew up there. His dad was a famous auto executive there, then governor. The former Massachusetts governor campaigned hard there. Nobody else did.
Michigan's economy is in the pits, and Romney, who made hundreds of millions as a venture capitalist, promised economic salvation if they'd just elect him. So Michigan gave him 39 percent to John McCain's 30 percent and Mike Huckabee's 16 percent.
Now each of those three has won a big one. On to South Carolina on Saturday, where Fred Thompson's mounting his biggest effort yet. Then Florida on Jan. 29, where Rudy Giuliani's betting everything. Will the Republican Party send five one-time winners into Super Tuesday on Feb. 5? Polls suggest that's unlikely, but then again, the polls' record so far doesn't inspire much confidence.
DEMS BURY RACE FLAP:
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were civil — even nice — to each other at Tuesday night's debate in Las Vegas, especially about the recent flap over allegedly racially tinged comments from both camps.
"Neither race nor gender should be part of this campaign," Clinton said. Obama took full responsibility for a list of allegedly offensive comments about Clinton and her staffers that his staff had put out. Both candidates blamed their staffs for the controversy, saying they get overzealous in the heat of campaigning.
Obama even apologized for curtly telling Clinton at a New Hampshire debate that she was "likable enough." That was widely interpreted as cold and arrogant, so Obama said he regretted saying it because he'd intended to project that, "I think you're pretty likable."
They disagreed on substantive questions such as policies on energy and the economy, but even then they disagreed agreeably, like senators. To some viewers, this was refreshing; to others, it was boring compared with the sniping.
LATE POLLS OF S.C., NEVADA:
McCain and Huckabee were neck and neck in South Carolina among likely Republican voters three days before they vote Saturday. A new McClatchy-MSNBC poll found McCain up 27-25 percent, with Romney third at 15 percent and Thompson fourth with 13 percent. The poll, by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, was taken Monday through Wednesday and had an error margin of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
In Nevada, which holds caucuses for both parties Saturday, Romney held a solid lead among likely Republican voters in a Mason-Dixon poll for the Las Vegas Review-Journal with 34 percent to 19 percent for McCain, 13 percent for Huckabee and all others in single digits.
Nevada Democrats tilted toward Clinton, 41 percent to 32 percent for Obama, with John Edwards at 14 percent. The Nevada polls had an error margin of plus or minus 4.5 points.
South Carolina Democrats, who vote Jan. 26, favor Obama by 40 percent to 31 percent for Clinton, with Edwards trailing far behind in his native state at 13 percent, according to the McClatchy-MSNBC survey.
Significant blocks of voters in both states and both parties, however, remained undecided or mulling a possible switch of candidates.
Bottom line: Both parties' presidential races remain wide open and volatile.
DEPT. OF DIRTY TRICKS:
McCain's campaign condemned a flier that's floating around South Carolina as "absolutely despicable." It features a cartoon of McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, sitting in a cell, and an attached support document accuses him of having collaborated with his captors. It wasn't clear who put it out, but South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a McCain supporter, said he was appalled by it and that it was "incredibly hurtful" to McCain and all the families of servicemen captured or still missing in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, Romney's campaign condemned a McCain mailer that attacked Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts. A respected neutral source, Factcheck.org, a project of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, said McCain's mailer distorted Romney's record beyond recognition.
Thousands of South Carolina voters also got phone calls from "push polls," calls disguised as poll questions that spread false information about a candidate's opponents.
McCain complained Wednesday that he's been the target of abortion push-poll calls from a group called Common Sense Issues, which promised last month to make a million calls in South Carolina on behalf of Huckabee. The evangelical Christian and former Arkansas governor has denounced such tactics, but he hasn't stopped the group from using them. Thompson complained that he, too, has been victimized by similar calls suggesting that he supports abortion and gay marriage, which he doesn't.
South Carolina has a reputation for nasty campaign tactics. This week embellished it.
What's ahead: On Saturday, Nevadans of both parties and S.C. Republicans vote. On Monday, Democrats debate 8-10 p.m. in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on CNN. The debate, on the holiday that honors the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., is co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. South Carolina Democrats vote in a primary Jan. 26.