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Michigan's DeVos is 'Capturing the Future'

By Thomas Bray

The tide may be running in favor of Democrats in much of the country - though President Bush's free-fall in the polls appears to have ended - but in Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, tabbed as a Democratic star only four years ago, is in deep trouble.

The likely GOP candidate for governor, businessman Dick DeVos, has surged to a 48-40 lead over Granholm (with 12 percent undecided) in a Detroit News/WXYZ-TV poll released a week ago. Other polls have showed them in a dead heat - with none showing Granholm over 50 percent, a danger sign for an incumbent. Perhaps more galling, DeVos leads 48-40 among union households.

The conventional wisdom is that DeVos has bought the lead with a $5 million TV ad blitz that shows no signs of abating. But Democrats are kidding themselves if they don't acknowledge that the DeVos ads are striking home with their message: that the Michigan economy is in a shambles, that Granholm has failed to develop a strategy to resurrect the state and that a hard-nosed businessman who owes nothing to anybody is just the guy to sort things out.

The DeVos name, after all, doesn't need much introduction, thanks to his family's founding role in Amway, the direct sales outfit based near Grand Rapids, his wife's past chairmanship of the Michigan Republican Party and the very substantial DeVos family contributions to Republican campaigns over the years.

DeVos also led a school voucher referendum in 2000. The measure lost badly, but DeVos and his wife have personally funded thousands of private "vouchers" for low-income students, making it clear this wasn't just an ideological stunt on their part. He now says "the people have spoken" and that he will seek other ways to reform the K-12 system.

The central reality is that the Michigan unemployment rate is 7.2 percent, well above the national average, while per capita income has fallen sharply. Almost daily comes depressing news about the latest layoff or buyout in the auto industry. Economist David Littmann says Michigan's economy "is rapidly becoming the 'Mississippi of the North.'"

At its recent convention in Las Vegas, the United Auto Workers resoundingly reelected Ron Gettelfinger as president after a speech in which Gettelfinger noted that "[T]he challenges we face aren't the kind that can be ridden out. They're structural challenges, and they require new and farsighted solutions." That's exactly what DeVos is saying, even if DeVos and Gettelfinger wouldn't agree on the solutions.

And unlike in Ohio, where Republican incumbents have been branded as tax-increasers, the Republican-dominated legislature has teed up the debate for DeVos with an initiative to replace the Single Business Tax by the end of 2007 with a less burdensome tax. Even Granholm has conceded Michigan's unique SBT, which essentially taxes payroll, is a job-killer.

None of which is to say DeVos is a shoo-in. Granholm is a charismatic politician who remains personally popular and has all the advantages of incumbency. Democratic interest groups can be expected to go massively negative on a "billionaire businessman" like DeVos who inherited much of his wealth. And so far not even DeVos is talking about the real elephant in the room: Michigan's legacy as a union state, which probably does more to drive away jobs than its tax system.

But Granholm's inaugural campaign ad - which whines about "Bush economics" and touts a "21st Century Jobs Fund" that relies on borrowed funds to extend a corporate subsidy program dating back more than a quarter century - is even less likely to fire voter imaginations. DeVos has surged into the lead because so far he has come closest to "capturing the future," not because he has ploughed the most money into campaign ads.

Tom Bray writes columns for The Detroit News and RealClearPolitics.com. Email: tbray@detnews.com

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