DETROIT -- Mitt Romney scored his first major primary victory Tuesday in his native Michigan, a win he desperately needed to give his weakened candidacy new life and set the stage for a wide-open Republican showdown in South Carolina in just four days.
Republican presidential hopeful, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters at a campaign rally on primary day in Grand Rapids, Mich., on the day of Michigan's primary election Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2008. [Agencies]
Romney was the third Republican victor in the first four states to vote in the 2008 primary season, further roiling a volatile nomination fight that lacks a clear favorite.
The former Massachusetts governor defeated John McCain, the Arizona senator who was hoping that independents and Democrats would join Republicans to help him repeat his 2000 triumph here. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, trailed in third, and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson was waiting for the top three candidates in South Carolina, already campaigning.
"It's a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism," Romney said in an Associated Press interview, echoing his campaign speeches. "Now on to South Carolina, Nevada, Florida."
McCain said he had called Romney to congratulate him "that Michigan welcomed their native son with their support."
"Starting tomorrow, we're going to win South Carolina, and we're going to go on and win the nomination," McCain declared, also in an AP interview.
Romney's ties to Michigan proved beneficial.
Four in 10 voters said his roots factored into their votes, and more than half of that group backed Romney, according to preliminary results from surveys of voters as they left their polling places, taken for The Associated Press and the networks. He also led among voters who said the economy and illegal immigration were their most important issues, and won a majority of Republicans, conservatives, and voters looking for a candidate with experience.
McCain had an edge with those who wanted an authentic president, and he won among moderates, independents and Democrats. But fewer non-Republican voters participated in the GOP primary this year than in 2000 when those voters helped him beat George W. Bush. Independents and Democrats accounted for roughly one-third of the vote, compared with about one half eight years ago.
Romney had a slight edge over McCain as the candidate likeliest to bring needed change.
The economy proved the most important issue for Republicans in Michigan, the state with the highest unemployment rate in the nation and an ailing auto industry. Given four choices, half of Michigan Republican primary voters picked the economy as the most important issue, while one in five picked Iraq, one in seven immigration and one in 10 terrorism.