Can anyone bring the Republicans together again?
The convincing victory by Mitt Romney in the Michigan primary on Tuesday means three very different states — with dissimilar electorates driven by distinctive sets of priorities — have embraced three separate candidates in search of someone who can lead the party into a tough election and beyond President Bush.
Mr. Romney won easily in Michigan, where he grew up, with a pointed focus on the slowing economy, which voters there overwhelmingly identified as the top issue. Senator John McCain of Arizona won New Hampshire last week with the backing of independent voters, who are so influential there. And Mike Huckabee of Arkansas won the caucuses in Iowa powered by social conservatives who make up a substantial part of its population.
On the most tangible level, the vote on Tuesday was proof from the ballot box of what polls have shown: this is a party that is adrift, deeply divided and uninspired when it comes to its presidential candidates and unsure of how to counter an energized Democratic Party.
Even in victory, Mr. Romney stood as evidence of the trouble the party finds itself in. He won, but only after a major effort in a state he once expected to win in a walk. That was before he lost Iowa and New Hampshire, two other states where he had campaigned all out.
More than any candidate in the Republican field, Mr. Romney has made a conscious effort to reassemble the coalition of economic and social conservatives that came together with Ronald Reagan and that President Bush kept remarkably unified in his two campaigns and through much of his White House tenure.
Mr. Romney’s uneven performance has highlighted the strains in that coalition, and a central question about his candidacy is whether he will be able to rally its fractured components to his side. It was no coincidence that he invoked Reagan more than once in his victory speech on Tuesday, though it was perhaps equally telling that he also invoked the first President Bush, who like Mr. Romney struggled to convince Republicans that he was Reagan’s rightful heir.
“The problem for the Republicans is they all have part of it,” said Lou Cannon, the Reagan biographer, referring to the conservative movement. “Huckabee has the social conservative part of it. Reagan had a lot of draw among independents, and McCain has stepped into that. And you have the conservative Wall Street types who are with Romney.”
Mr. Cannon added, speaking of Mr. Romney, “I don’t know how you put Humpty Dumpty back together again, but certainly he has tried to do it.”
Indeed, no other candidate has tried so assiduously as Mr. Romney to stitch the ideological fabric of his party back together. He shifted positions on some social issues — including abortion rights, stem cell research and gay rights — with an eye to winning the allegiance of social conservatives.
He presented himself as tough on national security, calling at one debate for doubling the capacity of the prison for terrorism suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, when even the administration was starting to talk about closing it. He emphasized his background in business and his support for tax cuts and limited government to appeal to economic conservatives.
Reagan and Mr. Bush were always able to get different parts of the Republican coalition to overlook differences, in part through their own political skills and strength, in part by emphasizing their commitment to principles. Mr. Romney, with his reputation among some conservatives as an ideological shape shifter, has struggled to do that.
In Iowa, Mr. Huckabee outflanked him, picking off social conservatives in big numbers suspicious of Mr. Romney’s changes in positions over the years. But Mr. Huckabee has been hammered by another part of the old coalition — economic conservatives — upset over his record of raising taxes and spending while governor of Arkansas. Indeed, the Club for Growth, one of Mr. Huckabee’s biggest tormentors over his record on taxes, issued a statement nine minutes after the polls closed Tuesday headlined, “Huckabee Loses in Michigan, Taxpayers Win.”
Foreign policy conservatives have also expressed qualms about Mr. Huckabee because he criticized aspects of Mr. Bush’s national security approach.
Mr. McCain has embraced the national security mantle that first Reagan, by confronting the Soviet Union and communism, and then Mr. Bush, by emphasizing his aggressive approach to battling terrorism, wore with such success.
And Mr. McCain’s appeal to independents was proved once again in New Hampshire, where unaffiliated voters are permitted to vote in either primary, a point his aides were making Tuesday night in asserting that he, alone in the field, could put some of the pieces of the coalition together.
“I think McCain is the one guy in this race who can recreate the Reagan coalition and draw in independents,” said Mark McKinnon, a senior adviser to Mr. McCain who was media adviser to Mr. Bush in 2000 and 2004.
But Mr. McCain has his own problems. He continues to be viewed with great suspicion by many conservatives because of his views on immigration, campaign finance laws and the use of aggressive interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects, not to mention his history of fighting with Mr. Bush.
From Michigan, the Republican candidates head to South Carolina and Nevada on Saturday and to Florida the next week. Again, these are states with very different electorates and, at least potentially, very different concerns. The way things are going for the Republican Party this year, there may be five Republicans who can claim a victory by the time the votes are counted in Florida on Jan. 29.