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Washington Post The Fix blogger, Chris Cillizza, analyzes Michigan and South Carolina

Thursday, January 17, 2008

HH: Joined now by Chris Cillizza of the, where he writes The Fix almost every single day. Chris, welcome, good to have you. Your take on the big Romney blowout in Michigan last night?

CC: Well, he needed it and he got it. And you know, it wasn’t, the thing that I was interested in, Hugh, was to see what the margin was going to be. You know, a one or two point victory, it still would have been the victory Romney needed, but I’m not sure he could have claimed a lot of momentum. But look, he won very convincingly, nine points, I think the last time I looked. He won all over the state, he won in the UP, he won down in Detroit. So you know, I think that is a convincing victory for him. I think it is an affirmation that this change message that Washington is broken, and I’m the guy who can fix it, I think that is a message that can resonate. And now, I think Romney’s faced with a choice. Does he try and compete in South Carolina? He has spent a lot of money over the past year and a half putting an organization together, running ads in South Carolina. But you know, Huckabee and McCain are both pretty strong there. Does he try and compete there, or does he shift most of his focus to Nevada, which is the same day, both go on Saturday. There’s a big Mormon population in Nevada. Romney would seem to have an appeal there. It probably would be a little bit cheaper for him to play there. So I think that’s the real question, is where does he put his money and time? Today, he’s in South Carolina. I’m not sure what he does the next few days.

HH: Now Chris, I don’t think he’s going to win South Carolina. I think that’s a veteran state, and it’s much more of an Evangelical state. I don’t think he has to, either. I don’t think he has to actually win anything until February 5th, although it would be nice. I think he could put one or two of these candidates out. I think Huckabee’s finished if he doesn’t win in South Carolina, and I don’t know how John McCain continues on if he doesn’t win. So I think it is an elimination round in some respects for those two guys. Your assessment?

CC: I think that’s probably right. You know, I think given where we are in the process, in terms of we’ve had four states with three different winners. I never want to say anyone’s going to be eliminated, but look, Mike Huckabee won in Iowa. It was I think a pretty stirring win, a pretty convincing win. But you can’t just get by coming in third and saying well, you didn’t try all that hard. I mean, at some point, if you’re going to be the nominee, you have to win. I mean, that was always Romney’s problem. He was saying well, I came in second here and second here, and won Wyoming. But he had never won a really hotly contested state. Well, he got that out of the way winning Michigan, and I think that’s the problem for Huckabee, is he was the first to win, but that also means he’s the candidate that’s gone the longest without winning. And I think South Carolina’s important to him, and I think, and I wrote this last night, with McCain in Michigan losing, I think South Carolina becomes something he’s got to have if he wants to try to be the frontrunner here. You’ve got to win races.

HH: Yeah, I agree. I think one of those guys truly is out of gas after South Carolina, and maybe both of them if Fred or Mitt sneaks up on them. Let me ask you about the one exit poll piece of data. Obviously, the polls were wrong. Romney wins by nine points. Yesterday, John Zogby had on his last poll, released on the day of, McCain up by one point. So they obviously missed a huge swing based on turnout models. But the Evangelicals, Romney won the Evangelical vote in Michigan. That’s very surprising, and I think very bad news for Mike Huckabee.

CC: Yeah, I think so, too. I mean, you know, again, Huckabee came out and sort of declared a distant third victory, as he had done in New Hampshire. I’m just not sure how you do that. You don’t third place your way to the nomination. We know that. I mean, ultimately, and I think it’ll probably be February 5th, but ultimately, you know, you’ve got to win states. You’ve got to win the majority of states, you’ve got to win the most delegates. And I think Mike Huckabee, if he doesn’t win South Carolina, and I think that’s a big if, because I do think to the extent Romney plays Thompson and Huckabee, they’re all targeting some level of that conservative, social conservative, Evangelical vote. McCain is really swimming in a lot of his own waters with military veterans, with folks who went for him in 2000, more moderates. You know, Giuliani is the guy who would split that vote with McCain, but he’s not in South Carolina at all. So I think that Huckabee has a hard task in front of him, because Thompson is for real in South Carolina. I’m not saying he’s going to win, but he’s not the one or two percent candidate that we’ve seen in these other states. And Romney has spent money there, but it remains to be seen how he does. I think you’re right, he doesn’t need to win it, but I think he can influence it, because if he splits up a bunch of those conservative votes between himself, Thompson and Huckabee, I think it becomes all that much more difficult for Huckabee to beat McCain.

HH: I’ve been talking all afternoon, you talk about John McCain, Chris Cillizza, swimming in his own waters. On a blogger conference call today, John McCain said, “As far as ANWR is concerned,” I’m quoting now, “I don’t want to drill in the Grand Canyon, and I don’t want to drill in the Everglades. This is one of the most pristine and beautiful parts of the world.” You see, that’s classic McCain. It’s not just that he doesn’t want to drill in ANWR, it’s that everybody who does is a despoiler of the Grand Canyon and the Everglades. It’s an attack ad for every Republican who’s ever voted for exploration there. That’s the kind of stuff, Chris, I think that makes him practically unpalatable to a lot of Republicans.

CC: You know, I think what easily gets lost, or what got lost in New Hampshire, was that John McCain still has trouble winning if it is just Republicans voting, and that was one piece that I took from exit polls you mentioned earlier, Hugh. 68%, I believe, of folks who voted in yesterday’s Michigan primary were self-identified Republicans. Romney won that group overwhelmingly. Now if you remember back to 2000, McCain wound up winning the Michigan primary, but that was because the composition of the electorate was a lot more independents and Democrats. Look, at some point, and this is what happened to McCain in 2000, he went to South Carolina. He was unable to convince rank and file Republicans, and in the end, those are the people who choose the nominee. He was unable to convince rank and file Republicans to vote for him. He has to do that to win. I think he has a better chance to do that this time around in South Carolina, for the reasons I mentioned before, the fracture of the vote on the conservative right. But still, I think that is a real challenge for him. You do not win the nomination based on independents and Democrats. They can help you in some of these open primaries, but ultimately, it is the people within your own party who make the decision. And McCain has to show that he is palatable to the base.

HH: And then, let’s go back to ANWR, though. As far as I know, there is no groundswell to make ANWR the Grand Canyon of the north among Republicans. If it’s only going to be Republicans, I think probably Republicans favor exploring ANWR, maybe nine out of ten, Chris Cillizza?

CC: Right, and you know, that’s the hard thing with McCain. Part of his appeal, and I do believe there is an appeal in this, is that straight talk. Now it did not work all that well in New Hampshire, but his whole line is that he’s going to tell people what they don’t want to hear, that sometimes, that’s what a president requires. Now when it is an issue that the base of the party is so against you on, like ANWR, or I’ll give you, I think, more of a hot button issue, illegal immigration, McCain, I think, is in dangerous territory. If illegal immigration and his work on a comprehensive bill becomes a major issue in South Carolina, that is going to remind people in the base of that party why they didn’t trust or didn’t like or didn’t vote for him in 2000. And again, straight talk is well and good, but you also have to win. I mean, that’s what I always get down to, is you know, you can run the greatest campaign ever, but in the end, if you don’t win, you don’t win.

HH: Chris Cillizza of the, many thanks to you. We’ll check in with you as we move closer to South Carolina, and Florida beyond.

End of interview.

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