DETROIT — Native son Mitt Romney last night pulled out his first big win of the Republican presidential race, defeating a surging Sen. John McCain in Michigan’s primary and reviving his flagging bid to win the party’s nomination.
The victory further muddles the Republican race: Each of the first three major nomination contests has produced a different winner, and none has built lasting momentum. In addition, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has counted on a crowded field and disarray at the top, is still on track with his risky strategy to skip the early contests and focus on bigger states such as Florida, California and New York.
With 89 percent of the precincts reporting, Mr. Romney had 39 percent of the vote and Mr. McCain, a senator from Arizona, had 30 percent.
Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, was far behind with 16 percent, unable to build on his Jan. 3 win in the Iowa caucuses. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas stood at 6 percent, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee at 4 percent, and Mr. Giuliani at 3 percent.
“Tonight marks the beginning of a comeback — a comeback for America,” a weary-looking Mr. Romney told hundreds of jubilant supporters last night. “Tonight is a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism. … Washington is broken and we’re going to do something about it,” he said to cheers.
A loss would have been devastating — possibly fatal — to Mr. Romney, whose father, George W. Romney, was head of American Motors in Detroit and a popular three-term governor in the 1960s. The former governor of Massachusetts pulled all ads from South Carolina and Florida, the next two stops for Republicans, to focus on what his aides quietly said was a must-win.
Mr. Romney, born and raised in Michigan, fought off Mr. McCain, who sprang to front-runner status after his win last week in New Hampshire’s primary, by winning core Republicans across the state. Mr. McCain — who jumped into the lead in the latest national polls — was unable to capitalize on his Jan. 8 win, failing to corral the independents and moderate Democrats that gave him a win over Texas Gov. George W. Bush eight years ago.
Mr. McCain, who called Mr. Romney last night shortly after the race was called at 9 p.m. to congratulate him, said at his campaign”s watch party in South Carolina: “For a minute there after New Hampshire, I thought this campaign might be getting easier.
“But you know what? We’ve gotten pretty good at doing things the hard way, and I think we’ve shown them we don’t mind a fight,” the senator said.
Exit polls in Michigan yesterday showed far fewer Democrats voting in the Republican primary than in 2000. That year, 17 percent of the Republican primary voters were Democrats; this time, it was fewer than one in 10.
Just 25 percent of voters interviewed by the Associated Press called themselves independent, down from 35 percent eight years ago. Meanwhile, the proportion of Republicans voting in the party”s primary rose from just under half in 2000 to two-thirds yesterday.
Some analysts said the absence of a real Democratic battle could have brought more Democrats to the Republican primary. Michigan Democrats this year pushed their contest up in the calendar, angering the Democratic National Committee, which stripped the state of any delegates to the convention this summer.
As a result, only Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s name was on the ballot among major candidates, as former Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama opted out of the race. Mrs. Clinton won handily with about 56 percent of the vote, defeating “uncommitted” at 39 percent.
Only three Republican candidates made a strong push to win the nation’s fifth Republican nomination contest — Mr. Romney, Mr. McCain and Mr. Huckabee. The economy dominated the campaign in the state, which is reeling from the U.S. auto industry’s downturn and has the nation’s highest unemployment rate at 7.4 percent.
Mr. Romney sought to differentiate himself from Mr. McCain and Mr. Huckabee by highlighting his private-sector experience. He also co-opted the message that has brought Mr. Obama success — change. He said Mr. McCain is a Washington insider who cannot be the agent of change voters seek.