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National Perspective | POLITICS

Fieger's Invective Grabs Attention but Not Loyalty of Voters

Democrat calls Michigan Gov. John Engler a fascist, racist and coward but trails in polls, 2-1.

October 20, 1998|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Geoffrey Fieger stridently compares his Republican opponent, Gov. John Engler, to Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy--the 1950s communist hunter. Like McCarthy, Fieger yells, Engler is a hatemonger and bigot who wraps himself in the American flag and God.

Before this recent day of campaigning is over, Fieger calls Engler a tyrant, racist, fascist, extremist and coward. He suggests that Engler--a popular two-term governor--is mentally ill and says he "couldn't fight his way out of a paper bag with his intellect."

Welcome to Fieger time, an unconventional campaign by a most unusual candidate. Fieger's celebrity status as the attorney for assisted-suicide practitioner Dr. Jack Kevorkian has made the Michigan governor's race one of the most watched in the nation.

But the contest is largely one-sided in Engler's favor. He leads in the polls by a 2-1 margin, while Fieger continues to hurl caustic attacks at Engler, his own party, pollsters, the media and anyone else who disagrees with him.

The 47-year-old Fieger--a boyish-faced millionaire personal-injury lawyer--is making his run after scoring an upset victory in a brawling Democratic primary in August, capturing 41% of the vote over two moderates, one of whom was hand-picked by party and union leaders.

After winning the nomination and spending $1 million of his own money, he promised to show a kinder, gentler side in the general election. Then he promptly declared plans to kick Engler's "gluteus maximus across the state."

Such colorful one-liners are bringing Fieger loads of air time, but also are leaving Michigan voters with a mostly negative impression.

"He's unethical, he's irrational," says Sharon Boda, 50, of St. Clair Shores. "I tend to vote Democratic, but I can't vote for him."

Indeed, two polls conducted for Detroit's newspapers show Fieger has virtually no chance of winning Nov. 3. He trails Engler by more than 30 percentage points, and his disapproval ratings are a staggering 61%.

"If Gov. Engler would die before the election, God forbid, Fieger wouldn't win," says Steve Mitchell, an East Lansing pollster.

Fieger's poor showing, coupled with his shrill rhetoric, take-no-prisoners style and political naivete, has prompted state Democratic leaders and candidates to distance themselves from him. It appears he needs no assistance in committing political suicide.

"Fieger isn't just a loser, he's a disaster," says William Ballenger, editor of a newsletter on Michigan politics. "He . . . could take everybody over the side with him."

If the Fieger factor weren't enough, Michigan Democrats are also worried by the impeachment inquiry against President Clinton stemming from the Monica S. Lewinsky affair. The Democrats are fearful that the dual Fieger-Clinton embarrassments could prompt the party faithful to bypass the midterm elections, giving Republicans a sweep of state offices.

"Democrats are running for their lives," says Craig Ruff, president of Public Sector Consultants, a public policy research firm in Lansing.

To be fair to Fieger, political analysts say any Democrat would have trouble unseating Engler, a rotund, unexciting career politician who has never lost an election. It is not so much that the 49-year-old Engler is beloved by the electorate as much as it is the booming state of Michigan's economy.

With a resurgence of the auto industry throughout the 1990s, this state is enjoying its most sustained growth since the early 1960s. The unemployment rate has been below the national average since 1994.

Engler takes his share of the credit for the economic recovery. He notes that he has lowered taxes more than 20 times in the last eight years and has made the state more business-friendly. He has equalized school funding among districts, pared welfare rolls and pushed education reforms.

Fieger's personal attacks on Engler run from the crude to rude: Engler is the "result of miscegenation between humans and barnyard animals" and he is "dumber than Dan Quayle and twice as ugly."

Such shots have allowed Engler, a wooden speaker lacking charisma, to take the high road. On the campaign trail, he talks of his record while pushing his agenda for the next four years. He ignores Fieger.

"He has one way of running a campaign," Engler said in an interview. "Mine is obviously different."

Although seen as conservative, Engler operates as a pragmatist willing to compromise rather than an ideologue consumed by dogma. He understands that legislating requires brokering.

In contrast, Fieger presents himself as the coming of the anti-politician, an outsider with no ties to special interests or party bigwigs. His credentials are decidedly liberal, tinged with libertarianism. His pitch is passionately populist.

"Nobody owns me, nobody controls me and nobody can buy me out," he tells a group of teachers at a campaign stop.

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