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Michigan Battleground Town Is Ready for Some Peace and Quiet

Campaign: Gore came to Grand Rapids. Then Bush. Then Bush's mom. Then his dad. Then Gore again. Then Bush. 'We're not flattered anymore,' city manager says.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The Texas governor, a young aide for George W. Bush was saying last winter, had a campaign stop in "Grand Rapids . . . or Grand Forks . . . or, well, whichever 'Grand' is in Michigan."

If folks here might have taken offense back in January, they'd be thrilled with some political anonymity today. And they'd be quite happy to direct the Bush camp, or Vice President Al Gore's camp, or any other candidate's camp to any 'Grand' that isn't this one.

"We're getting used to all the campaigns, but it's not like we lay out the red carpet," said City Manager Kurt Kimball. "On the contrary, we're just not flattered anymore."

An election season that, to many, has felt a bit long and a tad slow, has become downright interminable in this town of about 200,000 on the southwest side of the state.

Gore was here. Then Bush was here. Then Bush's mom was here. Then his dad. Then Gore came back, and brought his wife. Then Bush came back, and brought his wife.

And that's just in the last month. And it's only for the presidential race. And it doesn't include nonfamilial surrogates.

It's also eight years after Mayor John H. Logie, tired of presidential candidates with the security needs of "insecure monarchs," wrote a testy letter to the Republican and Democratic national parties and the Secret Service. Either pick up the tab for police overtime and other city costs--running between $2,000 and $5,000 per visit--or stay away, he wrote.

They did neither.

"Yes," sighed Kimball, "we always breath a sigh of relief when the candidates leave."

With 18 electoral votes and a seesaw track of opinion polls, Michigan has been one of the most heavily contested states in the country for the two major presidential campaigns this year.

In the final hours of the contest, it remains close. Four polls have been taken during the last five days with Gore clinging to a single-digit lead in three of the surveys and Bush leading in one.

The high stakes are reflected in the frequency of the candidate visits. Since early last year, Bush has been to Michigan 22 times--more visits than all but five other states, according to a tally by the Washington political newsletter Hotline. Gore has been to Michigan 17 times during the same period.

And since January, Republicans and Democrats combined have poured about $15 million into the state for political television ads.

This year, Grand Rapids is a battleground town--an unlikely and increasingly surly one, in virtually every contest from the presidential race on down. This despite the fact that the city is famously conservative--having voted against Bill Clinton in both 1992 and 1996 even as he carried the rest of the state--and almost certain to vote Republican again.

"We're trying to build big margins in Grand Rapids and western Michigan to combat the big margins the Democrats are building in Detroit," said Sage Eastman of the state's Republican party.

The Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to thwart those big Republican margins.

Hence the dueling yard signs, which outnumber the yards in some neighborhoods by a ratio of 5 to 1. Hence the unexpectedly high pile of mail awaiting Kurt Griffioen upon his recent return from vacation.

"I'm out in Wyoming for three weeks, hunting deer, and I get back and a third of my mail is political stuff--at least a third," said the 45-year-old parking lot attendant as he sat recently in his booth listening to Bach. "And I made up my mind months ago. And anyway, I'm sure not going to vote for a guy based on what he says about himself."

If the mail is bad, though, TV is worse. Campaign ads everyday, all day, three and four in a row during the network news and repeating again during the local news programs a half-hour later.

One especially surreal sequence airing over the weekend began with the lull many here have grown accustomed to: a run-of-the-mill anti-Bush ad followed by a dull anti-Gore ad.

Then came the dueling Senate ads with the first-grade vocabulary--which folks here used to find amusing and now find infuriating--with the first declaring a candidate good for families and the next insisting she's bad for families.

Then the capper--an ad that seems to suggest a Republican state legislator is partly responsible for an April chemical explosion at a nearby factory.

Betty Reneker was so overjoyed to see a nonpolitical ad--right in the middle of the Saturday night news hour, no less--that she called out for a witness.

"I yelled to my daughter, 'Look, it's not a campaign ad!"' the 69-year-old secretary said. "I was just so happy."

It will all be over Tuesday, of course. Some here wonder, though, whether those last-minute mailers, the final attack ads, the campaign calls that actually interrupted the viewing of those attack ads, were really necessary.

They wonder if Bush and Gore really needed so many visits--so frequently that many here remember little but the traffic jams.

"I tell you," Reneker said, "I've had enough."

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