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In Michigan, a Sale the GOP Can't Close

By E. J. Dionne

HOUGHTON, Mich. -- While Republicans scratch their heads over why a seemingly good economy is not helping them nationally in this year's elections, Michigan is where the party once hoped a bad economy would help it seize a governorship.

The heavy hits endured by the auto industry's Big Three have left the state with a 7.1 percent unemployment rate, just above the 7.2 percent rate for Mississippi, which endured Hurricane Katrina. The job hemorrhage seemed the ideal issue for billionaire businessman Dick DeVos, the Republican nominee, against Gov. Jennifer Granholm. She is a nationally respected Democrat whom many think would have made a fine presidential candidate if only she had not been born in Canada.

DeVos, a conservative whose wealth comes from his family company, Amway, is auditioning for her job by insisting, Kennedy-style, that Michigan can do better. "We have gone backward while the country has gone forward,'' he said during a debate on Monday. "It's just unacceptable.''

Tying himself to this season's most popular institution in the state, he said earlier this month: "If we need inspiration, look at the Detroit Tigers. They've succeeded against all odds because they changed leadership and changed their attitude.''

Spending heavily from his own fortune, DeVos was on the verge of making the sale. A Detroit News Poll in mid-June found him leading Granholm 48 percent to 40 percent.

But Granholm has come back. The News poll in mid-October had her ahead, 51-42. More recent polls give her a comparable lead. Her recovery helps explain why the economy is not helping the Republicans elsewhere.

The problem for the GOP is that while voters in better-off states seem to be voting on Iraq and other issues, those who actually are thinking most about economics live in lagging industrial states such as Michigan and Ohio and are blaming President Bush and national policies for their troubles. In the Ohio Senate race, for example, Rep. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, has built a lead over incumbent Republican Mike DeWine using hard-hitting advertisements on trade and the loss of manufacturing jobs.

For her part, Granholm has done everything she could to turn the argument on Bush and Washington. "My opponent began advertising way back in February trying to put the blame for Michigan's economic contraction on me,'' she said in a telephone interview, "when most people who work in the plants know that the shift of jobs to India or China is much more the result of federal policy and these trade agreements.''

While Granholm has been helped by ads sharply attacking DeVos, the exchange between the two is at heart a substantive choice between the challenger's tax-cutting approach and the incumbent's argument that recovery can come only from changes in federal policy.

"They feel this president has not stood up for them,'' Granholm says, arguing that voters are skeptical of "old-time solutions of just tax-cutting your way to prosperity.'' She calls for changes in federal trade, training, education and health care policies. In the meantime, she has offered loans and tax breaks to the auto industry to preserve jobs. She says she is embarking on "as robust an industrial policy as we can to keep those jobs here,'' but adds: "My tools can do only so much.''

In Michigan's Senate race, anti-administration feeling has also helped incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow, once considered vulnerable, to a double-digit lead in most polls over Republican Mike Bouchard. In an unusual display of solidarity between senatorial and gubernatorial candidates, Stabenow and Granholm regularly reinforce each other's arguments.

"We have a national policy that says if you work for less, lose your health care and lose your pension, then we can compete,'' Stabenow says of the status quo. "The No. 1 way we could help employers in this country is to change the way we fund health care.''

Granholm says she understands that economic change has been a rule in this state. The population here in Houghton County on Michigan's Upper Peninsula reached 88,000 in 1910 because of the copper industry boom. It declined, with the industry itself, to 35,000 people a half-century later, where it's held steady, buoyed by the presence of Michigan Tech.

The problem with the current manufacturing decline, says Granholm, is that it has been "so quick, so frightening ... so cataclysmic and there has been so little transition time and people are left reeling.'' And the people who are reeling seem to be targeting Bush.

The president is coming into the state on behalf of Stabenow's opponent and that's just fine with her. "I would welcome him back three or four times before the election,'' she says.

(c) 2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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