Mitt Romney is, for the moment, the closest thing that the Republican party has to a frontrunner. He has won the most contests (two), he has placed in the most contents (two), and he has the most delegates (59). Pundits have begun to talk about Romney’s Michigan performance as though it were inevitable, but just hours ago they were asking whether he could really pull it off. Make no mistake: Romney cleaned up in Michigan, and Michigan is a big win for Romney.

This has proven to be a momentum-free nomination cycle, wherein individual states assert their own preferences instead of seeking a clear winner. It’s too much to say that Romney has momentum, but he may well have found his stride. The biggest question facing Romney is whether he can broaden his appeal beyond Michiganian voters. This will not be an easy task. But it seems a lot more doable than McCain broadening his appeal beyond independents or Huckabee broadening his appeal beyond ne’er-do-wells and evangelicals (N.B., Romney beat Huckabee among evangelicals in Michigan; we don’t know how he did among ne’er-do-wells, because nobody exit-polled them).

Romney’s appeal in Michigan, beyond being a “native son,” consisted largely of his economic message. His I-will-fight-for-every-job tack was compelling enough to get McCain to flip-flop on his “straight talk” approach of telling people that their current career was a lost cause. Indeed, McCain’s tough-luck approach harkens back to J. Earl Carter’s administration, when Carter told Americans that their problems were with them and not with their leadership — a proposition that Ronald Reagan repudiated in the 80s. And in the end, McCain proved much more vulnerable on CAFE standards, greenhouse gasses, and global warming than he did on immigration.

This is a winning message, and one that Romney can communicate authentically. It plays to his strengths, and it is a good foundation for a plethora of other issues that are important to conservative primary voters; these include lowering taxes, dealing with the economic threat of environmental extremism, fighting excessive regulation, and addressing globalization concerns by making America a more attractive place to do business.

It is fitting that Romney timed his victory speech to pre-empt McCain’s concession. McCain supporters were livid, because they were the victims this time. But they’ve frequently cheered from the sidelines as McCain has repeatedly shown himself to be snide and ungracious. McCain’s loss at the hands of Michigan Republicans represents their repudiation of McCain’s message, which is frequently rambling, cocky, and difficult to pin-down when it runs beyond his I-told-you-so about the troop surge. (But hey, his colleagues in the the Senate called him “The Sheriff”!) Indeed, McCain’s biggest problem is that he doesn’t appeal to self-identified Republicans. If Romney were to be elected president, it’s likely that McCain would sulk and carry-on with Democrats for a few years the way he did when he lost the nomination to Bush — this is true no matter how Romney treats McCain. Romney does best to step on McCain as often as opportunity allows.

In one of my earlier, incorrect predictions, I forecasted that the South Carolina primary would be the one to watch. At this point, no candidate is strong enough to allow South Carolina to put his candidacy over the top, and a victory in South Carolina (or Nevada or Florida or Maine) is just one more piece of campaign spin going into Super Tuesday on February 5.

Romney has escaped the trap of appearing to be the candidate who can’t win. I’m hoping he shows that he’s the candidate that can’t be kept down.