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Politically, Michigan Is in the Swing

The state's suburbanites, worried about Iraq and the economy, may be key in the 2004 election.

November 02, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

WARREN, Mich. — One year from today, Americans will go to the polls to decide whether President Bush gets a second term. If the election is close, as both sides expect, the reason may be people like Steven Freers.

The burly 54-year-old attorney is a Republican who has long seen Democrats as "the party of government giveaways." But right now, he is lukewarm toward Bush and open to voting for one of his Democratic rivals -- even though they are largely a mystery to him at this point.

Freers worries about the situation in Iraq. He also frets about the economy -- never mind the robust numbers now coming out of Washington -- as bills pile up from his delinquent clients.

"I'd like to see a more focused program on improving the economy, improving foreign relations," Freers says before heading into a supermarket on a recent chilly afternoon. "When we spend all this money overseas, we should get more for it than we do."

The absence of either peace or widely felt prosperity could make Bush vulnerable to the same fate as his father, who soared to record heights in popularity polls, only to sink under the weight of economic anxieties. Surveys show the younger Bush's support generally now hovering around the 50% level in national polls -- not awful, but not great either.

The problem for his Democratic rivals is that most of them are little-known outside Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that kick off the presidential primary season in January. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who sit atop most surveys of Democrats, are pulling support in the 20% range -- scarcely a national following.

"They may feel as if they've been running around the track quite a bit," Peter Hart, a longtime Democratic strategist, said of the party's nine White House contestants. "But they're just getting out of the starting gate."

Hart recently convened a politically mixed panel of 12 voters in Pennsylvania, one of a few states -- including Michigan -- that will probably prove decisive in the 2004 election. Shown portraits of the Democratic hopefuls, people studied them quizzically. They figured Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina must be a country singer or sports agent. They guessed that Sen. John. F. Kerry of Massachusetts might be a TV talk show host. While most of them could identify Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democrats' 2000 vice presidential nominee, and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the former House minority leader, only about half of them recognized Dean or Clark.

"What they know about [the candidates] is sort of a one-line sketch relief," said Hart, who has conducted hundreds of polls and focus groups over more than two decades. "Nobody's anywhere."

The political dynamic gives both sides reason for optimism during the next 12 months.

Although Bush is clearly at risk, no Democrat has yet emerged as a strong threat. That makes the sentiments of people like Freers, an undecided voter in the swing suburbs of a swing state, all the more important.

Michigan can be a tough place for Republicans, particularly when the economy is hurting, said campaign consultant Mike Murphy, one of the GOP's leading experts on the state. "But you've got to win the tough swing states ... if you're going to be president."

Indeed, Michigan and Pennsylvania are two places the White House has targeted in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the cliff-hanging 2000 election. Bush lost them both by small margins. Since taking office, he has visited Pennsylvania 22 times -- more than any other state -- and traveled to Michigan on 11 occasions.

Still, there is work to be done. In a recent poll in Michigan, just 37% said Bush deserved reelection. Roughly 60% gave the president poor marks for his handling of the economy, as they did for the situation in Iraq. Overall, Bush had a 52% negative job rating. By contrast, 60% gave high marks to the state's new Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, even as she wrestles with a $900-million deficit after having slashed $2 billion in programs over the summer.

"The bottom line is the economy," said Ed Sarpolus, an independent researcher who conducted the October survey. "People don't see the president putting enough focus on the economy."

Michigan, which tends to follow the nation's economic cycles in the extreme, has been especially hard-hit by the downturn in the country's manufacturing industries.

The 1990s were a heady time here, with state unemployment dipping as low as 3%. This September, it stood at 7.4%, a 10-year high and a full percentage point above the national rate.

Since 2000, Michigan has lost 300,000 jobs, including 168,000 in manufacturing, or one of every five factory positions. The auto industry, still Michigan's main economic engine, continues to lose ground to foreign competition. By 2002, Detroit's combined share of the U.S. car and truck market had fallen to 61.5% -- down from 72.1% a decade earlier.

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