The GOP gets gaudy in Michigan

How do Republican presidential candidates woo the beleaguered voters of what may now be a crucial primary state? Party like aristocrats!

Published September 24, 2007 12:05PM (EDT)

Despite the constant efforts of men with shovels, the road to the Grand Hotel, one of America's oldest resorts, stinks of manure dropped by the horses drawing carriages. This is an island without cars or right of passage. Those pedestrians who have not paid $400 or so for a room cannot even walk near the hotel. "This is as far as you can go," bark guards in red jackets. A nearby sign explains that ladies "may not be attired in slacks" and gentlemen must wear coats and ties after 6 p.m.

On its face, this is not the sort of place that Republicans would want to hold a two-day, four-meal banquet celebration of democracy, especially if they want to win any elections in Michigan. The blue-collar state, which is locked in a recession, has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, 7.2 percent. Homes are foreclosing in Detroit at five times the national average, and the state government is broke. As of a week ago, 73,000 employees of General Motors began working without a contract. "The hopelessness that exists is just something I have never seen," said Denise DeCook, a Republican pollster who has worked in the state for decades. In one of her recent polls, 81 percent of residents said Michigan was on the wrong track.

But these facts did not sour the mood this weekend at the 27th Biennial Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference, since the state GOP has a new reason to be hopeful. Several weeks ago, the gridlocked Legislature here rescheduled Michigan's presidential primary for Jan. 15, making it the third state, after Iowa and New Hampshire, to weigh in on the 2008 election. Democratic candidates responded to this apostasy by pledging not to campaign in Michigan, diluting the importance of any victory here. But Republicans have vowed to compete, making the state a potentially decisive factor in the Republican nomination battle.

In celebration of their good fortune, Republican ladies donned their fancy dresses and the gentlemen put on their blazers and striped ties. For about 36 hours beginning Friday afternoon, more than 2,000 politicians and party activists passed through the Grand Hotel, boozing and slapping backs in one of America's last bastions of Victorian aristocratic nostalgia. One by one, the leading Republican presidential candidates came as pilgrims to pay homage to the gaudy affair. At times, the scene recalled Jack Nicholson's ballroom hallucinations from the 1980 horror movie, "The Shining."

Built in 1887, the Grand Hotel is columned and cavernous, with a candy-striped interior, a pink hair salon, a maroon wine bar and a jewelry store named "The Colony Shop," which was sold out of canary diamonds for the weekend. The wait staff, imported from Jamaica on temporary visas, was entirely black, and they served food to invariably white Republicans while wearing white-tie tuxedos with jackets the color of AstroTurf. (Brochures left in the guest rooms explained that the Jamaican help is provided with laundry and "recreational facilities" at their on-island dormitories.) Croquet and bocce ball could be played down in the Tea Garden, which was decorated with abundant blooming flowers and bushes shaped like horses. At tea time, a harpist in heels played "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" while women in maid costumes served tea cakes and champagne just a few steps from an exhibit of vintage oil paintings that showed young girls in lace dresses and young boys with spent shotguns and dead birds.

The Republican Party has been coming to Mackinac Island (pronounced mack-i-naw) since the days of Dwight Eisenhower, and the walls are decorated with photographs of Gerald Ford golfing and George H.W. Bush giving a speech. It was a point of considerable pride for the party that each of the Republican presidential candidates had initially planned to attend this year's event. "Michigan has become a bellwether state," declared Saul Anuzis, the state party chairman.

But three of the candidates, including Sam Brownback and Tom Tancredo, dropped out at the last minute, evidently daunted by the enormous cost of traveling to the island, which is about 250 miles north of Detroit in Lake Huron. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee went so far as to put out a last-minute press release, explaining that his only option, given his schedule, was to charter a jet, which his cash-strapped campaign could not afford. "Commercial airline schedules couldn't get us there until after things were over Friday," Huckabee explained. "And we would have to have left even before they started on Saturday."

But the four GOP front-runners all made it to the Grand Hotel for long enough to display the eccentric styles that have made the Republican primary so interesting. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who used to stay on the island as a teenager when his father was Michigan's governor, made a grand entrance, shadowed by dozens of young supporters in blue shirts, whom some in the press called "Mitt-bots" for their super-human coordination when chanting Romney's name over and over again for minutes at a time. "I must admit it was a good piece of news, when I heard Michigan would come early," Romney said at a press conference on the hotel's front porch, which the owners claim is the longest front porch in the world. The bots, who'd gathered around him, cheered wildly. Over lunch on Saturday, he debuted a new, finely tuned stump speech, "Republicans for Change," which he read off a teleprompter. "I want to bring accountability back to Washington," he said.

A few hours later, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson walked out of the hotel into a mob of reporters, who pressed around him in a chaotic scene that the Romney advance team, not to mention the Mitt-bots, would have never allowed. He muttered some bland answers to a handful of questions and then fled back inside. His speech at dinner that night was mostly a dry rendition of his life story, which seemed to put the crowd to sleep. "It was the worst speech I've ever heard up here," one local Michigan pol, who wore a Rudy Giuliani pin, told me afterward. "You want to lead the free world, have some passion about it."

Thompson was followed by Arizona Sen. John McCain, who garnered some of the biggest cheers of the conference, in part because it was late and people had been drinking for hours. "I was informed that I was the last speaker," he said on taking the stage. "I feel a bit like Zsa Zsa Gabor's fifth husband, who on her wedding night said, 'I know what I am supposed to do; I just don't know how to make it interesting.'" Reading from a prompter, he offered a vigorous defense of the current military policy in Iraq. "We must not choose to lose," he said. But perhaps the biggest applause of the conference came when he criticized Columbia University for inviting the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to speak on campus. "A man who is directing the maiming and killing of American troops should not be given an invitation to speak at an American university," he thundered, yielding a standing ovation.

The night before, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani visited the island just long enough to deliver a 35-minute dinner address. After speaking at length about the importance of staying "on offense" in the war on terror, he offered what has become the central argument of his campaign: his own electability. "I honestly think I have the best chance of defeating Hillary Clinton," he said. "If we are going to win back the House, if we are going to win back the Senate, we cannot go into the next election giving up New York, California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan." As soon as the speech was over, he left without shaking voters' hands or glancing at the press. His ferry off the island that night was packed with supporters of the libertarian Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who, according to several accounts, spent the ride shouting Paul chants in Giuliani's general direction.

The candidates' appearances, however, were almost tangential to the real point of the weekend, which was to celebrate the pleasures of money and privilege. The diners supped on cold strawberry soup, prosciutto, and pecan-coated ice cream balls. People did not use the word "money" when they talked about money. "Everyone in this room understands the importance of resources, the importance of finance, in winning campaigns," said Dick DeVos, the son of the billionaire founder of Amway, who lost a costly race for governor last year, which he funded with $35 million of his own fortune.

Scratch beneath the glitz, however, and it was not hard to find the real economic concerns that shape modern-day Michigan. Not everyone in attendance was as rich as the setting made it appear. Anuzis said many had saved up money for months to make the biannual trek up to the island. And everyone, regardless of class, understood that the state was in trouble. "Michigan is just going down the tubes," said Gordon Trute, a committee member of the Mecosta County GOP, who has seen two manufacturing companies he worked for go out of business. "We have nothing left now."

These economic concerns are likely to loom large as primary day approaches. About 80,000 Republicans are expected to vote in the Iowa caucuses. The New Hampshire primary could garner around 260,000 Republican ballots. By comparison, the Michigan Republican primary, which will occur just days later, is expected to bring about 1.2 million voters to the polls, a group that includes independents who can vote on a GOP ticket. Whatever the final outcome, the voters on primary day will surely represent a broader coalition than the elites who traveled to the Grand Hotel to admire the view from the porch. As it stands now, Romney leads in most polls, in part because of his family's name identification, and in part because he is the only candidate with a full team of staffers devoted to Michigan.

After the final speech was given and the last pecan ball consumed Saturday night, I stumbled away from the hotel, glad to be free of tea times and low-tax talk. Farther down the street, where people can walk wherever they please, I found a local watering hole where no one wore a pastel sport coat. "Too many damn Nazis around," said a lady sitting at the bar, when I asked her how she was doing. She was a local, one of the few hundred who live year-round on the island, and she was not referring to the man sitting next to her, with the human skulls tattooed on the back of his hand. Rather, it was the boatloads of visiting Republicans that had gotten her goat. "That is their safe haven up there," she said of the Grand Hotel.

Asking to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the hotel's powerful owner, she told me about the tensions between the Grand Hotel and the island residents. She explained how the hotel seemed to parcel out jobs by race and ethnicity: Jamaican waiters, Austrian chefs, Hispanic housekeepers and grounds crew, Caucasian drivers for the horse-drawn carriages. She told me how the locals sneak into the hotel pool in the summer, and how the winters are better, because there are no tourists and you can snowmobile down the street. She said she had no plans to vote in the coming election, nor did most of the people she knew. She couldn't stand President Bush, and she was convinced the whole political game was crooked.

For the first time all weekend, I felt I was finally speaking with someone who wasn't playing a part. Her political views seemed likely to be more representative of the state than those of the 2,000 Republicans up at the Grand Hotel. "There is a whole other side to this island from the lilac fudge and the horses," she said. It was a side of the island that probably didn't smell half as bad.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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