GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan (Reuters) - Republicans in Michigan voted in the presidential race on Tuesday, with native son Mitt Romney battling for political survival in a primary that could either revive or sink his campaign.
As the results roll in from Michigan soon after the last polls close at 8 p.m. EST, Democratic White House contenders Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards are scheduled to meet in an evening debate in Nevada — site of the party’s next contest on Saturday.
The hectic schedule reflects the heightened intensity of the wide-open presidential race, as both parties choose candidates for the November election to succeed President George W. Bush.
Polls show Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who was raised in Michigan as part of a famous political family, running neck-and-neck with Arizona Sen. John McCain in a state where the ailing economy has moved to the top of the agenda.
A Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll released early on Tuesday gave McCain a statistically insignificant 1-point edge, 27 percent to 26 percent, over Romney. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was third with 15 percent.
Romney needs a breakthrough win in Michigan where his father was a top auto executive and popular governor in the 1960s to keep his White House hopes alive after second-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.
A McCain win after last week’s New Hampshire victory would thrust him into the front-runner’s role heading into Southern contests in South Carolina and Florida.
“This is a big day. This is a day that I believe will change our nation,” Romney said at a rally in an office furniture warehouse.
“I think Michigan is going to vote for a Romney again, I’m counting on it,” added Romney, who stresses his venture capitalist past as a plus to the economically troubled state.
Wearing his lucky green sweater and clutching his lucky penny, McCain visited a polling place early in Traverse City.
“It’s going to be a very close race,” he told reporters who outnumbered voters at the polling site shortly after voting began. “We’re confident because of the enthusiasm at the town hall meetings and the rallies but we’ve got a long way to go.”
Democrats also will hold a primary in Michigan but a dispute over the date of the vote led the national party to strip the state of its delegates to this summer’s presidential nominating convention.
As a result, Obama and Edwards kept their names off the ballot and Clinton is the only top contender listed. None of the top Democrats have campaigned in the state since the dispute arose.
The Republican race in Michigan, which suffers the highest unemployment rate of any U.S. state at 7.4 percent, nearly 3 points above the national average, elevated the struggling economy to the top of the campaign agenda.
McCain promised lower taxes and reduced government spending would make the United States more competitive globally and create new jobs in the slumping auto industry, but he said those jobs that had been lost would not be coming back.
At a rally in Traverse City, McCain called for re-education and training program for workers who lose their jobs. “I will not leave these workers behind I assure you. We will give them another chance.”
Romney, stressing his experience running the Salt Lake City Olympics as well as a venture capitalist, has called McCain a pessimist. He has said he would restore Detroit’s lost power by lifting the regulatory burden on companies and boosting research to generate new jobs.
“I spent my life in the private sector. I didn’t spend my life in government. If you only talked, and didn’t get things done, you got fired,” Romney told supporters at the rally.
While Romney and his family have a Michigan background, McCain also has an advantage in the state. He won the state’s primary during his failed 2000 presidential bid and has considerable support among Democrats and independents who can vote in either primary.
Democrats were focusing on Nevada, and the debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday night will be the first showdown between the top contenders since Clinton’s upset win in New Hampshire last week stopped Obama’s surge following his victory in the opening contest in Iowa.
A poll on Monday showed Obama, an Illinois senator who would be the first black president, with a slight lead on Clinton, a New York senator who would be the first woman president, and Edwards a close third.
That creates a three-way scramble in a state that will give the winner valuable momentum ahead of the potentially decisive February 5 “Super Tuesday” primaries in 22 states.
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan in Michigan; Writing by John Whitesides and Deborah Charles; Editing by David Wiessler)
For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/