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Analysis: After Iowa, New Hampshire, every Republican for himself at GOP debate

    MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — It was every Republican for himself.
    Iowa and New Hampshire now behind them, each GOP presidential candidate is going in his own direction, cherry picking the upcoming states he believes he can win — and trying to siphon votes from his main competitors.
    That was clear from the outset of Thursday’s debate, held in the thick of the primary season.
    Mitt Romney drew a distinction with John McCain while answering the opening question on the economy, a salient issue in Michigan more so than South Carolina.
    ‘‘He said, you know, some jobs have left Michigan that are never coming back. I disagree,’’ Romney said, challenging his chief rival five days before the primary in the economically suffering state. It’s one the former Massachusetts governor can’t afford to lose after defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire.
    McCain shot back: ‘‘Let’s have a little straight talk. There are some jobs that aren’t coming back to Michigan. There are some jobs that won’t come back here to South Carolina.’’ But, the Arizona senator said, the country is obligated to help displaced workers find new employment.
    And so it went as the 90-minute debate wore on; candidates looked for openings to set themselves apart from their top opponents on issues that matter in their must-win states.
    Broadly, the debate had little effect on the overall nomination fight.
    ‘‘I didn’t see any game changes,’’ said Tucker Eskew, a former aide to President Bush.
    A muddle from the outset, the race has become even more scrambled since voting began just a week ago.
    Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses, McCain won New Hampshire and Romney was second to both — but claimed victory in scarcely contested Wyoming. Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator, has yet to prevail in a state. The same is true of Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor.
    Over the next four weeks, more than two dozen states hold nominating contests, beginning with Michigan on Tuesday. South Carolina and Nevada follow Jan. 19, with the Florida primary ten days later. Twenty-two states vote in the first week of February.
    The expanding battlegrounds, the rapid-fire calendar and the divided results of the early voting states has prompted all Republicans to narrow their strategies to states where they believe they can win on their individual paths to the party nod.
    ‘‘It’s a wide open race, it’s anybody’s game,’’ said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. That, he said, explains why there appeared to be five different agendas on the debate stage.
    Romney, for his part, is looking to rebound in Michigan; he faces a resurgent McCain in a matchup of their New Hampshire tussle. The economy is the dominate issue. Seeking an edge, Romney worked during the debate to weaken McCain and peel off some of his supporters in Michigan, where unemployment is 7.4 percent, compared to 5 percent nationwide.
    Continuing that line of criticism Friday, Romney told CNN: ‘‘It’s unacceptable to say that some jobs just can’t come back to Michigan. All jobs we should fight for. Every industry has every reason to believe it can survive and thrive in Michigan if we have the right kind of federal and state policies working together.’’
    In South Carolina, Thompson is pushing for his own comeback while Huckabee, a Baptist preacher turned Arkansas politician, hopes Christian evangelicals lift him to victory, as they did in Iowa. Both candidates draw voters from the party’s right flank.
    So, Thompson let loose on his rival with an obviously staged rant.
    Glancing at his notes, he questioned Huckabee’s commitment to the Reagan Revolution, favored, still, in the South. Thompson called his opponent a liberal on economic issues and foreign policies.
    ‘‘That’s not the model of the Reagan coalition, that’s the model of the Democratic Party,’’ he said.
    That prompted Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, to say: ‘‘The Air Force has a saying that says that if you’re not catching flak, you’re not over the target. I’m catching the flak, I must be over the target.’’
    Shortly thereafter, Thompson aligned himself with Huckabee over whether Navy commanders acted properly during an incident between Iranian speedboats and U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf.
    ‘‘I agree with the governor on that. You can’t take the judgment like that out of the hands of the officers on the ground there,’’ Thompson said, signaling to voters that he’s similar to Huckabee on some issues and could be an acceptable alternative.
    Later, it was Giuliani’s turn to try to go after an opponent’s voters.
    He took on McCain over the troop increase strategy in Iraq, hoping to become the dominant candidate on national security before the Florida primary, a contest he’s built his strategy around and desperately needs to win.
    ‘‘John, there were other people on this stage that also supported the surge,’’ Giuliani said.
    ‘‘Not at the time,’’ McCain responded.
    Countering, Giuliani said: ‘‘I supported the surge, I’ve supported it throughout.’’
    But McCain, unwilling to cede ground or the national security mantel, got the last word: ‘‘My point was that I condemned the (Donald) Rumsfeld strategy and called for the change in strategy. That’s the difference.’’
    ———
    Liz Sidoti covers the presidential race for The Associated Press.

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