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Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who ran as a son of Michigan though he left the state nearly 40 years ago, won the Republican primary here with a message aimed at voters deeply anxious about the state’s economy and their own financial prospects.

Promising to revitalize the distressed automobile industry, Romney defeated his principal rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, by winning a clear plurality of Republicans and conservatives, who turned out in greater numbers than they had in the 2000 primary, which McCain won.

“Tonight marks the beginning of a comeback,” Romney said in declaring victory at a hotel rally in Southfield. “Tonight is a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism.”

Romney needed a victory in Michigan to save his candidacy after finishing second to McCain in New Hampshire and to Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, in Iowa. Huckabee finished third in Michigan.

Romney’s victory here means three different Republican candidates have won each of the first three major contests. The race moves to South Carolina and Nevada this weekend with no clear front-runner and two credible candidates, Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, and former Sen. Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee, yet to seriously contest a state.

Recognizing the importance of winning here, Romney devoted considerably more time and money to Michigan than either of his chief rivals. He ran a much larger and more disciplined campaign and vastly outspent them on television, radio, direct mail and telephone appeals.

The economy and the troubles of the auto industry dominated the contest here from start to finish, with Romney seizing on McCain’s suggestion that the jobs lost “are not coming back.” Romney also capitalized on his business background and his father’s leadership in the auto industry to persuade voters that he was best equipped to deal with those problems.

Surveys of voters leaving the polls showed that 55 percent cited the economy as their biggest concern, and 40 percent cast their ballots for Romney.

A senior McCain adviser here said the Michigan result means that McCain has to win in South Carolina to reassert his field-leading status. If he does not, this adviser said, it makes it more likely that even after Republicans in 21 states go to polls and caucuses on Feb. 5 there may be no decided leader.

By an overwhelming margin, the economy was the top concern of Michigan voters, dwarfing Iraq, immigration and terrorism. In Iowa, by contrast, only 26 percent of Republican caucusgoers cited the economy as the most important issue, behind immigration. In New Hampshire, the economy was cited as the top concern by 31 percent of Republican primary voters, followed closely by Iraq, at 24 percent, and immigration, at 23 percent.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the only major candidate whose name was on the ballot in Michigan, was the winner on the Democratic side. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina withdrew their names at the request of the national Democratic Party, which penalized Michigan with the loss of its delegates because the early date of its primary violated party rules.

But state party leaders said they believed the Michigan delegates would be seated.