Michigan's Death Star

Gov. John Engler and George W. Bush have mobilized their imperial forces in the Wolverine State. Can rebel John McCain fight his way through?

Topics: George W. Bush, Republican Party, John McCain, R-Ariz.

It helps to have friends in high places. And for the past two days in Michigan, George W. Bush‘s powerful friends — mostly loyalists of Gov. John Engler — have been turning out in droves. In the end, Engler’s political machine, with its formidable ability to mobilize and bring out voters, could spell doom for Sen. John McCain‘s insurgent campaign.

In his last full day of campaigning Monday before the Michigan primary, Bush’s itinerary roughly traced the same route traversed by McCain the previous day, taking him from Detroit to Lansing to Grand Rapids. But the similarities ended there. McCain’s events were well attended, but the crowds were nothing compared with the numbers Bush drew. Bush’s rallies, buoyed by the support of the state Republican Party, were jampacked and had the feel of official party functions. By contrast, McCain’s events felt like loosely organized political rallies.

At Michigan State University in East Lansing, where McCain drew a meager crowd of about 400 on Sunday, Bush attracted more than 1,000 supporters. The Kellogg Center overflowed with young Republicans waving Bush placards; chowing down on enchiladas, they flooded the room with the din of clanking silverware and glasses that is typical of Bush events. An Ingham County Republican Party banner hung prominently behind Bush as he spoke — the kind of official support that was notably absent from McCain’s campaign stops.

This is because Bush has the endorsement of nearly every Republican elected official in Michigan. While McCain totes around Joe Schwarz — president pro tem of the state Senate and his only supporter in the Michigan Legislature — Bush campaigned Monday with Gov. Engler and Secretary of State Candice Miller. In all, 21 of the state’s 23 Republican senators and all 58 Republican state House members have backed the Texas governor.

Bush’s ground operation also crawls with Engler staffers and loyalists. Everyone from Geralyn Lasher, Bush’s Michigan spokeswoman, to Del Chenault, his state events director, has direct ties to Engler. “There are certainly a lot of us,” said Dave Doyle, a former Engler media consultant who has cut radio spots for Bush here.

Bush’s Michigan State event was organized by Sylvia Warner, who serves on the Ingham County Republican Party’s executive committee and is on the staff of Republican state Sen. Mike Rogers. She said her group turned out more than 1,000 people for Monday’s luncheon, nearly 25 percent of the people she said have contacted the Bush campaign about volunteering in the county.

“The party calls for Bush show him up about 5 to 1 here,” Warner said. “We have a huge volunteer base here, and there’s a real sense that the momentum is building.”

In Ingham County, the Bush phone bank effort is spearheaded by Martha Truscott, vice chairwoman of the county party and wife of the governor’s press secretary. Her husband, John Truscott, who was shopped out to reporters at the Michigan State event, said he expects volunteers to make “a couple hundred thousand” phone calls to help get out the vote statewide. “Gov. Engler has led the effort here,” Truscott said. Other elected officials, including Secretary of State Miller, Lt. Gov. Richard Posthumus and Oakland County Sheriff Mike Buchard, have been instrumental in organizing Bush’s efforts in the Wolverine State.

“They’re all friends,” Truscott said. “These are the people you have to know to win an election in the state of Michigan.”

McCain has tried to use Bush’s strength against him, and still likes to say he is “Luke Skywalker trying to fight his way out of the Death Star.” The anti-establishment crusade has been one of McCain’s major campaign themes, and it is principally responsible for his appeal among Democrats and independents.

While the candidate rages against the machine on the stump, McCain strategist Mike Murphy discounts the power of Bush’s Engler endorsement and ground operation. “The days when a governor could just deliver a state on a silver platter are long gone,” said Murphy, a Michigan native who has done media work for Engler in the past.

On that point, Engler and Murphy agree. “Talking about the Engler machine is about as helpful as talking about the George Bush coronation and about as accurate,” Engler said. “You can build an organization by recruiting people, but the word ‘machine’ implies that somebody hypothetically could, like some machine operator, give the command or punch the right key and something happens. That’s not the way politics works. That day is long, long past.”

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Call it what you will, the fact remains that Engler, one of Bush’s earliest boosters, has been aggressively courting party leaders and the endorsements of other Republican governors for Bush, though he jokes that he has not been exercising his political muscle to do so. “There are no broken limbs here today,” Engler quipped. “Bush has been a very easy sell with a lot of our citizens — people both who hold elected office, or just citizens who care about the next president. The local, grass-roots effort is as good as I’ve ever seen it.” Engler was instrumental in organizing Bush’s precinct captains in all 83 Michigan counties.

The state Democratic Party has levied charges that Engler has “broken the law” in his efforts to deliver Michigan for his fellow Republican governor. Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer said Engler stepped over the line by using official government offices as contact numbers for Bush phone bank efforts, which is a violation of state electoral law. “The firewall is collapsing, the governor is grasping at straws and, in his desperation, he is breaking the law,” Brewer said. “How low will this governor stoop to ensure a political win for Bush?”

Brewer’s statement is certainly political hyperbole. While ethically marginal, it is common practice in all elections for elected officials to dispatch their staffers to help out with campaigns for their political allies. Though it is illegal for state employees to get paid for campaign work while on the clock, it is unwritten law that campaign staffers commonly take “vacation time” whenever election day draws near.

Now that the latest polls have the race in a deadlock, many here believe it is the Engler organization that may put Bush over the top. “If they’re doing all the things they say they’re doing, with the mailings and the phone calls, then I think Bush is going to pull this out,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics.

McCain has tried to do an end run around Bush by appealing to independents and Democrats, the way he did in New Hampshire and South Carolina. As they did in South Carolina, the Bush forces here are sending out mailings warning that “liberals and labor leaders want John McCain to be the Republican nominee,” in an effort to rally the Republican base.

Meanwhile, some Democrats, including political stuntman Geoffrey Fieger, former attorney for Jack Kevorkian and the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, have made an explicit anti-Engler push here, hoping to turn Tuesday’s vote into a referendum on the governor by encouraging Democrats to vote for McCain.

But Bush seems to be getting more mileage out of the Democratic efforts than McCain. At every stop Bush assails the efforts of “Kevorkian’s lawyer,” hoping it will galvanize the Republican base in Michigan, just as it drew record numbers of conservatives to the polls in South Carolina.

“Again, it’s almost like a zero-sum game,” said Ballenger. “They’ve been able to use this information to scare the hell out of Republican regulars that their primary is being hijacked.”

Meanwhile, McCain has sent mailings to Democrats and independents letting them know in capital letters that they can vote in the Republican primary Tuesday “and still participate in Democratic Party activity.”

“That’s pretty shameless,” Engler said. “It’s pretty transparent, what they’re trying to do.”

In the end, Ballenger said, the Engler/Bush organization may help to sink McCain simply because of one factor: time.

“I don’t think McCain has time to recast Bush as a hostage of the Christian right. If he had two weeks and he could put an ad up, that would be one thing. But you can’t go around the state making speeches and hope that’s picked up and replicated by the news media,” Ballenger said. “You can’t do that in the space of 24 hours. All he can do is run frantically around the state and try to energize his base. But it’s much easier for Bush to energize his base of Republican regulars than McCain. Getting Democrats and independents to turn out in a Republican primary is a bit like herding cats.”

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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