THE NOTE: Of Mitt and Mayhem

So much for winnowing the field.

Among the many lessons of Tuesday's Michigan primary:

1. Stick around long enough in the Republican race and you too can be a winner. (Slate's John Dickerson: "The GOP primary is starting to look like a Pee Wee soccer tournament: Everyone gets a trophy!" Whose turn is it to bring the orange slices to South Carolina on Saturday?)

2. Democrats, independents, and evangelical Republicans can all find better ways to spend their Tuesdays. (And in the process, they're helping hit restart on a GOP race that's fast turning into a fight for delegates.)


3. Smiling may take fewer muscles than frowning, but it can make you stronger. (On the economy, at least, straight talk loses to happy talk.)

4. Nearly half of those who trudged through snow to vote in the Democratic primary did so to NOT vote for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. (He's got a name fit for a thoroughbred, and surely, with 40 percent of the vote, Uncommitted's lawyers can sue to get included him included in remaining debates.)

5. Speaking of uncommitted, anyone who has figured out what Republican voters are truly looking for has the inside track -- but is probably spinning. (And staying warm in Florida while everyone else dodges snowflakes has never looked smarter.)

Former governor Mitt Romney's victory in Michigan forecloses any real possibility of a swift end to the GOP fight, ensuring a rumble that will continue at least through Feb. 5. If anything, the first three major contests (in addition to crowning three different winners) have contributed to enough chaos to add one to the ranks of major contenders: We welcome back former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., who's just a win in Florida away from looking every bit as strong as any of his rivals.

This much is clear: Romney, R-Mass., has found a product he's comfortable selling -- optimism. There have been many iterations of his candidacy, but this was probably the best fit from the start: the turnaround artist, the businessman, the overall optimistic leader who (even if he can't quite fill himself with empathy on command) conveys a sense of competence.

"Just as important as Mr. Romney's personal ties was that he found himself, after setbacks in Iowa and New Hampshire, in an economically downtrodden state that has shed millions of jobs," Michael Luo writes in The New York Times. "The economic woes here played neatly into his strengths as a candidate, and his newly retooled message centered around his private sector experience and a promise to bring change to Washington."

Romney can make as good a claim as anyone to front-running status. Asked if Michigan marked a "comeback" for his campaign, he told ABC's Robin Roberts on Wednesday, "sure was."

"The big one was here in Michigan. I now have more delegates than anybody else, a lot more votes for president than anybody else," Romney said on "Good Morning America" (displaying an appropriately short memory of the big dollars he spent in Iowa and New Hampshire).

Perhaps the man meets the moment meets the issue meets the man. Michigan accentuated the importance of economic issues, though it's not the only struggling state. Romney's victory speech blasted "Washington-style pessimism" -- an only slightly oblique tweak aimed at Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the victim of his own straight talk about how some jobs just aren't coming back to Michigan.

"Romney advisers said a message the governor had been hammering for months finally broke through -- in part because people in Michigan were anxious to hear his can-do message on jobs and the economy, in part because McCain sent a rhetorical softball over the fat part of Romney's plate," Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post.

The win "breathed new life into his faltering campaign for the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday, [with Romney] winning Michigan with strong support from conservative Republicans, those who favor deporting illegal immigrants and voters who consider the economy the most important issue facing the country," reads the Detroit Free Press wrap-up.

As the campaign heads south and west, Romney's got a new set of Michigan-specific proposals to explain. He does it as a serious contender now -- not the GOP's permanent (though quite well-heeled) bridesmaid -- but he still faces the old questions about his candidacy.

Says McCain adviser Mark Salter: "This will be one more item to add to the list for Romney's strategic plan to tell voters whatever the polls tell him to say."

"Not unlike the storyline Hillary Clinton latched onto after her comeback win in New Hampshire, Romney did seem to find his true voice in his home state," Time's Ana Marie Cox writes.

"Still, Romney's success here is a tacit repudiation of the candidate that ran in Iowa and New Hampshire, and could spur the same doubts about him that have dogged his campaign since it began. . . . Indeed, the very things that helped Romney handily defeat McCain by almost ten percentage points -- his more optimistic view of the economic future and claims that the auto industry's jobs could be saved -- could look to some voters like the worst kind of political pandering; in other words, the same old Mitt."

The AP's Ron Fournier takes a harder edge: "The former Massachusetts governor pandered to voters, distorted his opponents' record and continued to show why he's the most malleable -- and least credible -- major presidential candidate. And it worked," he writes.

"To go all the way, Romney must overcome the original sin of his campaign -- his choice to do whatever it takes to be president. The smart money says he can't."

But as the focus moves to South Carolina -- where Romney has resuming his advertising, and his rivals arrived even before the race in Michigan was called -- the other contenders have just as many questions to answer.

McCain leaves a state he lost in 2000 in sore disappointment, unable to draw success from his old brand, even in a contest where Democrats and independents could have flocked to him without ignoring a race with any import.

"In addition to restoring the former Massachusetts governor's fortunes, the outcome underscored Arizona Sen. John McCain's challenges of translating support centered on independents and moderates in a party dominated by conservatives and mainline Republicans," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes.

(Here's guessing he won't hit any funeral homes in South Carolina.)

"After finishing second Tuesday in the Michigan Republican primary," ABC's Ron Claiborne writes, "McCain is in the precarious position of having to win in South Carolina to have any kind of realistic hope of becoming the GOP presidential nominee."

For his part, former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., has yet to prove that Iowa wasn't a fluke (*"good faith effort" = very good line,* but that's not enough).

Giuliani and former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., have yet to prove anything at all.

"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," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times.

"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."

Even Ronald Reagan can't like what he's seeing. "GOP candidates might have miscalculated: Republican voters may still love Reagan, but his antigovernment message isn't playing well on the campaign trail," The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos writes.

"If one thing is clear, it's that the early-voting states have sent a clear signal in favor of activism over ideology, suggesting that the traditional Republican anti-tax, anti-spending message might not satisfy even some conservatives in a time of economic unease."

Per ABC's John Berman and Jennifer Parker, Romney is reinvigorated. Now his efforts move to Nevada and Florida -- South Carolina, not so much. "The Romney campaign is clearly trying to send a not-so-subliminal message that it doesn't care quite as much about South Carolina. If it loses there -- and Romney's behind in most polls -- the national media will not say he blew it in another state."

Clinton was (not really) sweating out a victory on the Democratic side (though this was a headline writer enjoying his or her job too much: "Clinton Fends Off Uncommitted").

(But what does this factoid say about her South Carolina prospects? Seven out of 10 black voters chose "uncommitted" instead of voting for Clinton. "If that kind of margin among African Americans continues into future primaries, she faces major problems," Tom Edsall writes for HuffingtonPost.)

As results rolled in Tuesday night, the Democrats settled in for a cozy debate at a table for three (perhaps it's time for Dennis Kucinich to fire his lawyers).

The takeaway: The truce held. This group showed they'd rather be talking about something other than the raging racial debate that's consumed the race since last week.

"Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton seemed to agree on the issue of race in the campaign, both saying that while they acknowledge race will always be a factor, it should not drive voters toward one candidate or another," ABC's Emily Friedman writes.

"The political tone was purposefully gentle on stage here at the Cashman Center in downtown Las Vegas," Jeff Zeleny and Patrick Healy write in The New York Times. "It was a night of 'John' and 'Barack' and 'Hillary,' soft voices, easy jokes and belly laughs."

The Democrats "were taking no risks as they sought to make their closing arguments to Nevada voters with just days to go before Saturday's caucus here," Molly Ball writes in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "The candidates stuck to the messages they wanted to impart. Obama: I'm inspiring. Clinton: I'm seasoned. Edwards: I'm a fighter."

"Nevada residents were also clear winners: They saw the candidates argue about killing Yucca Mountain and who would do it with more alacrity," J. Patrick Coolican and Michael Mishak write in the Las Vegas Sun.

Before they got down to policy, the vision thing divided the candidates. "Obama and Clinton, in one of their sharpest distinctions of the night, offered starkly different visions of the presidency," Dan Balz and Anne Kornblut write in The Washington Post. "Obama said he believes that the job is about 'having a vision for where the country needs to go' rather than ensuring the 'paperwork is being shuffled effectively,' while Clinton emphasized the need for understanding how the system works."

Said Clinton: "I think you have to be able to manage and run the bureaucracy."

Clinton turned in a solid performance, complete with Yucca shout-outs and a return to the confident style where she sought to rise above her competitors. Her question for Obama was an invitation to join her in battling the Bush administration over the Iraq war -- though Obama's response was pitch-perfect.

"We can work on this, Hillary," he said, smiling.

And there's this moment, where both candidates scored. "It is a fact that immediately upon taking office the new prime minister in Great Britain, Gordon Brown, confronted, thankfully, two failed attacks by Al Qaeda," Clinton said. Obama: "When Sen. Clinton uses the specter of a terrorist attack . . . during a campaign, I think that is part and parcel with the use of the fear of terrorism in scoring political points."

Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., took a slightly different tack than he did in the last encounter, at ABC's debate in New Hampshire. Edwards "stepped back from his role in the previous debate as Obama's eloquent surrogate, and instead sought to use the debate to cast himself as the true reformer of the group," Politico's Ben Smith writes.

Edwards told Obama: "Sen. Clinton had raised more money from drug companies and insurance companies than any candidate, Democrat or Republican -- until you passed her, Sen. Obama, recently, to go to No. 1. . . . My question is, do you think these people expect something for this money?"

It's on to South Carolina (land of dirty tricks) for the Republicans, and Nevada (land of dirty hands) for the Democrats. Check out all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

And Karl Rove gets his crack at the GOP field Wednesday afternoon in Washington, at the RNC meeting.

Also in the news:

What is it about South Carolina, anyway? The latest anti-McCain flier is "pretty nasty stuff," ABC's Jake Tapper writes.

It reads: "For years McCain has been an unchecked master at manipulating an overly friendly and biased news media. The former POW turned Congressman, turned US Senator has managed to gloss over his failures as a pilot and his collaborations with the enemy to become America's POW hero presidential candidate."

The pushback is thorough and swift. "McCain ally and former POW Orson Swindle slammed the allegations, saying that while 'the group claims that John McCain turned his back on his fellow POWs in order to save his own skin . . . nothing could be further from the truth. I know because I was there.' "

As McCain's truth-squadders kick into gear, McCain gets some social-conservative budget-cutting street cred with the endorsement Wednesday of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Race subsided as an issue at Tuesday night's debate, but it's not going anywhere in the Democratic contest. It's playing out as a generational split, Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons write in the Chicago Tribune.

"Obama himself appears cognizant of an uneasy relationship with the old guard civil rights leadership," they write. "Despite the shared bond of race, the African-American leaders who emerged from the civil rights movement and the ensuing struggles for a fair share of political power were shaped by starkly different life and career experiences than Obama."

Count Rep. Jim Clyburn (who did so much to stir the pot last week) among those who want the race part of the Democratic race to go away. Clyburn, D-S.C., "told reporters on Tuesday that he would not break a year-old pledge to abstain from endorsing a presidential candidate before the Democratic primary in his home state of South Carolina on Jan. 26th," ABC's Z. Byron Wolf reports.

Said Clyburn: "Doctors need plumbers. Plumbers need lawyers. We all need each other."

The State's Wayne Washington: "Clyburn, the state's highest-ranking black official and a key promoter of the Jan. 26 S.C. Democratic primary, said he has received personal assurances from Obama, Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, that they would welcome a return to policy discussions."

Martin Luther King III weighs in (slightly and lightly) on Sen. Clinton's MLK/LBJ quote: "I wish it was said in a different way," he said Tuesday, per The Boston Globe's David Abel.

Former President Bill Clinton wants it to go away, too. "We don't wanna play into Republican hands by crippling either one of them, and making this race something it's not," he said on Al Sharpton's radio show on Tuesday, per ABC's Kate Snow, Eloise Harper, and Sarah Amos.

Your dash of indie news: A new draft movement has formed to lure Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., into the race, with the guys from Unity08 leaving their jobs to run it. "Gerald Rafshoon, a former spokesman for President Jimmy Carter, and Doug Bailey, a longtime Republican consultant, are not the first to launch an online petition drive for the mayor, but their move comes at the height of primary campaign season," the AP's Devlin Barrett reports.

"The two filed papers with the Federal Election Commission and the IRS to start the draft Bloomberg effort."

Anyone else think this is fast approaching silliness? "No matter how many times you ask the question, I'm not a candidate," Bloomberg said at a press conference, per the New York Sun's Grace Rauh. When asked if he is paying for national polling, he said: "That's the answer. I can't go into nitpicking. This is ridiculous." (Who is making it so, Mr. Mayor?)

With a ruling on the labor-on-labor lawsuit expected on Thursday, attempts to change the caucus system may have come too late, David McGrath Schwartz writes for the Las Vegas Sun.

"A doctrine allows courts to throw out a challenge if the person bringing it has unduly delayed taking action, to the detriment of the opposing party," he writes. "Supporters of the lawsuit have said they didn't become aware of the caucus rules until recently, though the rules were passed by the state party in March."

Good luck trying to handicap Nevada, June Krunholz warns in The Wall Street Journal. "Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton have worked Nevada hard. The state's elected Democratic leadership and Hispanic leaders have lined up behind her, and a last-minute federal-court challenge to the caucus rules could undercut a big Obama advantage. But what could decide the winner here is whether Nevada voters can figure out what a caucus is and then decide to attend."

Obama heads into Saturday's caucuses with a major Nevada newspaper endorsement: the Las Vegas Review-Journal comes out for him on Wednesday, in an editorial that's more about taking down Clinton than building up Obama.

"For starters, imagine Sen. Clinton and 'co-president' Bill Clinton invited onto a 'This is Your Life' talk show where they're joined by Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky," the editorial reads, cleaning out Bill Clinton's closet. "And that's before we even get around to a HillaryCare plan that could have sent you to jail for offering to pay your doctor in cash to 'get to the head of the line.' "

The authors of that editorial may be among those disappointed in this news: "A conservative group must abide by campaign finance laws if it wants to run advertisements promoting its anti-Hillary Rodham Clinton movie, a federal court ruled Tuesday," per the AP's write-up. "The group, Citizens United, had hoped to run the television advertisements in key election states during peak primary season. The ruling means it must keep its commercials off the air or attach a disclaimer and disclose its donors."

You know you're headed for South Carolina when . . . On the trail Tuesday, Huckabee took his hardest line yet on immigration, calling "for ending immigration from countries that sponsor or harbor terrorists," ABC's Kevin Chupka, Kirit Radia, and Teddy Davis report. "Huckabee's sweeping proposal goes farther than anything offered thus far by any of his G.O.P. rivals."

Said Huckabee: "I say we ought to put a hiatus on people who come here and give them permits, if they come from countries that sponsor and harbor terrorists."

Anti-Huck forces convene at South Carolina's state capitol on Wednesday afternoon, to highlight Huckabee's record on fiscal issues.

Former GOP oppo-researcher Stephen Marks has a new book out, and he takes on Fred Thompson for his handling of President Clinton's impeachment, ABC's Marcus Baram reports. Thompson, he writes, was unwilling to pursue leads involving potentially illegal campaign contributions. "Thompson flunked the test," writes Marks. "From the beginning, he went straight into the tank."

Another state, another sixth-place finish for Giuliani: Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, doubled his vote total in Michigan. But, writes The New York Times' Michael Cooper, "The good news for Mr. Giuliani is that Mitt Romney's victory leaves the Republican field unsettled -- which is what he needs if his unconventional strategy of waiting until Florida on Jan. 29 to try to eke out his first victory is to work."

As for the Democrats in Florida, we'll see how this plays: "Barack Obama doesn't care what Florida Democrats say on Jan. 29," Adam Smith reports in the St. Petersburg Times.

"In a memo released Tuesday, he reiterated his long-standing view that their primary votes will be worthless. And he vaguely charged that Hillary Rodham Clinton may violate her pledge not to campaign in Florida by holding events here later this month."

The kicker:

"In a close-fought victory, Senator John McCain succeeded again [in] the Michigan Republican primary, winning over a traditionally unpredictable voter base in Michigan." -- Press release from the Michigan Republican Party, (mistakenly) sent out just minutes after Romney was declared the winner by the AP and the major networks.

"In a close-fought victory, native son Governor Mitt Romney won an important contest here tonight." -- Corrected press release, sent a few minutes later.

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