The crisis of identity within the heart of the US Republican party has sharply intensified with the victory in the Michigan primary on Tuesday night of Mitt Romney – a result which has thrown the race for the presidential nomination wide open and left the party mired in confusion about the way ahead.
The former governor of Massachusetts used his local ties to Michigan, a state in which he spent the first 19 years of his life, as well as populist anti-Washington rhetoric to achieve an unexpectedly commanding victory over his main rival, John McCain. The final results put Romney on 39%, McCain on 30% and Mike Huckabee on 16%.
The Michigan result leaves the Republicans with no clear front runner and none of the momentum from early races that traditionally drives a candidate towards the finishing line. The first three major elections have had three separate winners – Huckabee in Iowa, McCain in New Hampshire and now Romney in Michigan.
"The race has moved from a sprint to a marathon," the chairman of the Michigan Republican party, Saulius Anuzis, told the Guardian.
All eyes now turn to Saturday’s Republican primary in South Carolina. But even in that southern state the party appears to be in the mood more for a muddle than a coronation. Both Huckabee, the ordained Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas, and McCain, senator for Arizona, are vowing they will win.
Huckabee said he would "put a flag in the ground here Saturday", while McCain used his concession speech on Tuesday night to declare that "starting tomorrow, we’re going to win South Carolina".
Romney, McCain, Huckabee and Fred Thompson were all out on the stump throughout the state yesterday. South Carolina is the first of the contests to be held in the South and the state has a reputation for political brutality and dirty tricks. An early taste came in a flier being distributed by a group calling itself Vietnam Veterans Against John McCain claiming he betrayed his fellow PoWs during his years in jail in Hanoi.
A Vietnam veteran who was in the same prison as McCain, Orson Swindle, described the flier as "half-truths and misinformation". McCain is dependent on the backing of veterans to give him a chance in South Carolina.
Another group, from the Christian evangelical community, which makes up an estimated 40-60% of the state’s Republican vote, is putting out hostile fliers against Huckabee, describing him as "The Huckster" and claiming he is lying about his record on immigration.
The apparent inability of the Republicans to select a candidate to replace George Bush in the White House signals a fundamental internal debate about what the party stands for.
"This is clearly a battle for the future of the Republican party," said David King of the Kennedy school of government at Harvard. He said the fight was between Huckabee’s social and moral conservatism and Romney’s economic conservatism.
"They represent two sides of a coalition that was put together by Ronald Reagan and has held together only tenuously. I think it will be split apart for all time by this election, though which side triumphs within the party is not clear."
Paradoxically, Romney fought a heavily moral campaign in Michigan, stressing God, patriotism and the family in his appeals to the party faithful. But his main message has been traditional economic conservatism – cutting taxes and rolling back spending, with the federal government in Washington his bogey figure.
"Here’s what they are doing in Washington – they are worrying because they know that America now understands that Washington is broken and we are going to do something about it," he said in his victory speech to ecstatic cheering from supporters.
Exit polls in Michigan suggest that more than half of voters had been primarily swayed by the economy in the recession-bound state where unemployment stands at 7.4%, the highest in the country. Of those, four out of 10 said they voted for Romney to only three out of 10 for McCain.
The exit polls also indicated that McCain suffered from a relatively low turnout of independents – about a third of voters described themselves as independent compared with a half in 2000 when McCain beat Bush in the Michigan primary.
The election in South Carolina is now seen as particularly important as a stepping stone towards Florida on January 29 – a large state where Rudy Giuliani is fighting an all-or-nothing war. Florida in turn will be important leading into super Tuesday on February when more than 20 states go to the polls.
It had been perceived wisdom that super Tuesday would throw up a clear winner for both main parties, but with the Republicans as evenly divided as they are, some commentators are now expecting the race to stumble on well beyond then.