On to Michigan

Can McCain make Bush pay for his rightward shift in South Carolina?

Published February 20, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Arriving in Detroit on Thursday morning, I was expecting it to feel like Las Vegas days before a heavyweight fight. Though the political action was centered in South Carolina, Michigan was the next state that would host the Republican slugfest. At first, I was not disappointed. On the AM station in my rental car, a woman was telling me that Arizona Sen. John McCain broke his promises, that his campaign is "crawling with lobbyists" and wasn't I glad that I had another option?

But for a junkie, Michigan has so far been a letdown. After getting a full dose of the intensity of this race in New Hampshire, and tons of war stories from colleagues in South Carolina, there have been no signs of political activity anywhere around me. In the hours of television and radio I've absorbed, I've only seen and heard a handful of political spots. This weekend, cataclysmic reports of the three inches of snow that fell here Friday outdid any political coverage on the local newscasts by at least 10-1.

But the intensity level will rise Sunday, when the two GOP presidential front-runners begin their two-day push for votes in Michigan. After Saturday's drubbing in South Carolina, Michigan is a must-win primary for McCain. Though he and Texas Gov. George W. Bush are now even in head-to-head primaries, having each won one, Bush is hoping that the bounce from South Carolina will help him put the dagger in McCain's insurgent campaign. On Saturday night McCain headed straight to Michigan for a scheduled midnight rally with supporters.

The latest polls here show the race in a dead heat. Sunday's edition of the Detroit News reports that McCain is narrowly ahead of Bush, 40 to 38 percent, with 5 percent intending to vote for someone else, and 17 percent still undecided. But that poll was taken midweek, before Bush's commanding win in South Carolina. Now McCain must find a way to counter the new, high-decibel, feisty Bush who stole the reform mantle from him, beat McCain up for comparing him to Clinton, and galvanized his conservative base.

But Michigan starts a new phase of the presidential primary season. The GOP race has moved out of the small, eccentric hamlets of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Michigan is the first of the urban, industrial primaries. The auto industry, and the new high-tech manufacturing it has spurred, is the largest employer in the state, which is also home to some of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies. With its high-tech workers, business-owners and large union population, the electorate here may be more reflective of the national political mood. In fact, changing Midwestern "Rust Belt" states like Michigan, Illinois and Ohio may be a key battleground for the November election.

As the election moves to larger, industrial states, the primaries will, by necessity, go virtual. While McCain went to more than 100 town meetings in New Hampshire, he has only three large rallies planned for his campaign day Sunday. (McCain will split his time between Michigan and his home state of Arizona, which has a primary the same day.) Michigan voters will get only two days to see the GOP candidates, compared to the two weeks South Carolina voters just had. As far as campaign 2000 is concerned, retail politics is over.

Despite the lack of obvious signs of political engagement, Michigan Secretary of State Candice Miller claims there is great interest in the Bush/McCain battle royale. Her spokesman, Brad Whitman, says close to 1 million of Michigan's 6.7 million registered voters are expected to go to the polls Tuesday, up from just over 745,000 four years ago. And the state's open primary has created some bizarre political sideshows which have become routine in Michigan politics.

Democratic state Rep. Lamar Lemmons of Detroit has urged Democrats to come out and vote for McCain, just to stick it to Republican Gov. John Engler, who is a staunch Bush supporter (along with the rest of the state Republican leadership). Lemmons has even organized a group, Democrats Out to Get Gov. Engler (DOGGE), and has urged black pastors to try to convince their congregations to vote for McCain to give Engler "a political spanking."

While Engler has received accolades nationally for education and welfare reform, his policies have angered much of Detroit's liberal Democratic establishment, which frequently brands Engler's policies as racist. Engler initiated a state takeover of the failing Detroit school system, and most recently passed a bill which allowed city workers in Detroit to live outside the city limits.

Another one of Engler's enemies, 1998 Democratic gubernatorial nominee and political kamikaze Geoffrey Fieger, launched a new radio spot glossing Engler and Bush as "dumb and dumber." Both the Bush and McCain campaigns have criticized the ad.

"It's pretty sad when Democrats use a Republican presidential primary to try to get even with Gov. Engler," said Engler spokeswoman Susan Shafer.

The Michigan race is also something of a homecoming for McCain political strategist Michael Murphy, a Grosse Point native who has worked for Engler. It was Murphy who devised McCain's strategy of skipping Iowa and focusing on early states with open primaries: New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan. Now, Murphy and McCain need some hometown magic to regain the momentum Bush sucked out of the insurgent campaign in South Carolina.

But while some Democrats are hoping to make mischief, most Democratic leaders are more concerned about genuine flight from their party. They are cautioning that voting Republican may be the political equivalent of smoking crack -- people who do it once may find it hard to stop. Michigan Democrats are famous for crossing over -- it was here that the phrase Reagan Democrat was coined in the 1980s. But most of those one-time Democrats are now Republicans.

Of course, the notion of who is a true Republican is somewhat moot, since Michigan voters do not sign up with a party when they register to vote. Still, Bush phone bankers have been calling their supporters and warning that "liberals want John McCain to be our nominee because they know they can beat him in the fall, and it's up to us to stop them" -- this taken from a calling script in Bush's East Lansing offices.

McCain's campaign is not shy about admitting to looking for votes beyond party lines, and as in New Hampshire and South Carolina, he holds a huge lead among self-identified Democrats and independents who are likely to vote Tuesday. McCain himself says he's reaching out to "Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, vegetarians and Trotskyites," desperate to wrest the nomination from Bush.

"Our volunteer base is smaller than Bush's, but we have people who've never been involved in politics before," said McCain's Michigan spokesman Peter DeMarco. "It just illustrates that John McCain is reaching people who have been turned off to politics." Some Bush advisors also expressed some concern that a state library bond measure, which is also on the ballot Tuesday, may drive Democrats and independents to the polls.

Ironically, the open primaries in South Carolina and Michigan were supposed to help Bush. As the campaign began, the conventional wisdom was that Bush would receive a strong challenge from the party's right wing. Plus, early on, Bush campaigned as "a uniter, not a divider," and his ability to garner support from traditionally Democratic groups, including Latinos and African-Americans in Texas was seen as proof that he could attract nontraditional GOP voters to the Republican Party.

That is the Bush his advisors expect to see in Michigan, which does not have the large conservative Christian block that South Carolina has. Bush spokeswoman Geralyn Lasher denied there would be any change in the Bush message, however, insisting that the Bush who comes to Michigan will be same man who's been running all year: a compassionate conservative reformer with results.

But Murphy said Saturday that the campaign would try to make Bush pay for pandering to the Christian conservatives in South Carolina, by painting the Texas governor as an unabashed right-winger. "Showdown in the Motor City, nothing could be better," Murphy said. "Michigan is a state with clean politics and common-sense conservatism. It fits John McCain like a glove.

"George Bush won South Carolina because of his support from the Christian right. We're going to make sure the people of Michigan know that." Expect McCain to hit Bush on his visit to Bob Jones University, whose leaders' anti-Catholic bile won't go down easily in this heavily Catholic state.

Bush staffers say Saturday's results in South Carolina confirm what the governor said Feb. 1 -- that New Hampshire was simply a bump in the road. "If New Hampshire decided who our presidents were, we'd be looking at President Tsongas and President Buchanan," said Lasher -- a reference to two candidates who did well in the Granite State but then floundered.

McCain's supporters are hoping Michigan will be yet another bump in the road for Bush, and one that, paired with a probable defeat for the Texan in Arizona, halts the momentum he clearly picked up in South Carolina.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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