McCain surges nationally and faces tests next week, as Kos helps Romney and Huckabee relies on the South

It's only been three days since John McCain's New Hampshire victory, but all evidence is that the Arizona Senator has regained his status as the GOP front-runner. And remember, his surge started way before January 8th, so it cannot be attributed to a post-New Hampshire bounce. The first sign of movement in favor of McCain occurred in Iowa, where he looked stunningly strong considering he had barely campaigned in the state. Now, a series of polls released this afternoon confirms that McCain is marching towards the nomination and his rivals better stop him fast, preferably next week:

  • A Michigan poll has McCain up 23% to Mitt Romney's 16% and Mike Huckabee at 11%.

  • SUSA, meanwhile, released a poll of Florida that shows some big movement: McCain leads with 27%; behind him comes a three-way tie for second, with Giuliani at 19% and Romney and Huckabee at 17%. A month ago, Giuliani got 32% with Huck at 16% and McCain at 11%.

  • Last but not least, a national poll from CNN has some shocking numbers. Not only is this the first (non-Rasmussen) survey with McCain up, but he is ahead big: 34% to Huckabee's 21% and Giuliani's 18%. In the last CNN poll, McCain only had 11%.
Remember that many in the GOP were waiting for a front-runner they could rally around, and that Giuliani tried to fill that position without every being really convincing. The McCain surge is not just a post-victory bounce; it might be the base that had abandoned him after an early vetting coming back around after having vetted everyone else.

McCain has two obstacles. The first is that he needs to eliminate Romney for good on Tuesday in Michigan. He has a lot going for him there, in particular the fact that the primary is open again. Furthermore, he won the state in 2000 in a much less divided field, as Bush had coalesced the conservative vote. This time, that vote will likely divide itself between Huck and Romney.

Yet, Romney is strong in that state as well. Naturally his dad was governor there, but the Romney camp believes his emphasis on business experience and economic issues will play particularly well here. And now comes a truly bizarre story: DailyKos's Markos is organizing a Democrats for Mitt campaign to get Michigan Democrats to cross-over to the GOP primary (since there is no contest in the Dem side) and vote for Romney. His explanation: "We want Romney in, because the more Republican candidates we have fighting it out, trashing each other with negative ads and spending tons of money, the better it is for us. We want Mitt to stay in the race, and to do that, we need him to win in Michigan."

I am not suggesting that Romney will win the primary out of this, but it is an interesting reference point in the post-New Hampshire dynamics of the GOP race. Though you should not underestimate the strength of the netroots. Kos cites many prior examples of this happening in Michigan, starting with the 1972 presidential primaries in which 1/3 of voters in the Dem primary were GOPers who helped segregationist George Wallace win the contest. The main issue here is how to spread the word in 6 days -- and efforts are already under way, starting with a booming Facebook group.

The second obstacle to McCain is Huckabee's strength in Southern states. A new poll of Georgia released today has Huckabee leading the field, and Huck is still very much in contention to win South Carolina next week. His hold of evangelicals demonstrated by his big Iowa win should be very useful there and going into Feb. 5th where a lot of Southern states will vote (including Georgia).

If Huckabee sweeps Southern states, it would be hard for McCain to force him out of the race and the GOP race could get more muddied. The South awards many delegates, and its importance cannot be understated in a GOP primary. After all, Thompson's strategy always relied on winning the South -- which explains why he is now going after Huck so ferociously.

Of course, McCain winning South Carolina would ease those concerns and show his own strength in the South. And winning Michigan would allow him to knock Romney out and coalesce much of Romney's establishment-type support around himself. McCain could go a long way towards clinching the nomination if he succeeds next week.

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