Mich. governor's race focuses on rising star

Front-runner Granholm draws national attention, comparisons to Clintons

September 16, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DETROIT - Jennifer M. Granholm, the Democratic nominee for Michigan governor, is the "it" candidate of 2002.

Her front-running campaign is attracting national attention. News accounts spotlight her alluring mix of brains (she's a Harvard Law School graduate), movie-star looks (she spent several years in Los Angeles as an aspiring actress) and Clintonesque people skills.

"Everybody falls in love with her," laments a top adviser to Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus, her Republican opponent, who trails in the polls by double digits.

At a boisterous rally here Friday night, former President Bill Clinton praised her as articulate, charismatic, competent and strong, and he compared her favorably to another "attractive, blond-haired" woman - his wife, Hillary, a U.S. senator from New York.

For months, analysts have been promoting this as the "year of the woman" in gubernatorial contests. But prospects for a major breakthrough appear to be fading.

Serious female contenders have fizzled in large states such as Illinois and Florida, where former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno apparently lost last week's primary to a neophyte. National Democratic strategists are privately worried about the performance of Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, whose run for governor has drawn international media coverage but only a middling response from voters.

Predictions that a record-setting number of women would be nominated for governor this year have not been borne out. The number of female governors - five - might well increase after the November elections but probably will not double, as some had forecast.

The shifting fortunes of other candidates have served to highlight the sudden rise of Granholm, 43, who, if elected, would make Michigan the largest state with a sitting female governor.

Although she's running in just her second race for public office (she was elected attorney general four years ago), she has shown that she can win support from women, baby boomers and younger voters, in particular. She has also done unusually well for a Democrat in the more conservative western and northern portions of Michigan.

She set fund-raising records in dispatching two heavyweight rivals - a former governor and the former No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. House - by a surprisingly large margin in last month's primary.

If Granholm wins this fall, she would seem to offer Democrats something both parties have been desperately searching for: a woman who could add luster to a national ticket.

A political moderate and abortion-rights Catholic from a large swing state, Granholm could automatically find her name on the short list of future vice presidential possibilities. She might even have presidential appeal for moderate and conservative Democrats eager to find a female alternative to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Except for this: her "constitutional impediment," as Granholm puts it. Her Canadian parents moved the family to California from British Columbia when she was 4, and she became a naturalized citizen at 18. Only a native-born American can become president.

"It's kind of a relief" that the road to the White House isn't open to her, Granholm said in an interview. "I'm running for governor to be the best darn governor Michigan ever had, and that's my ambition."

Longtime watchers of state politics describe her as the hottest political property to emerge in Michigan in decades. Craig Ruff, who once served as an aide to a Republican governor of Michigan, says that like Bill Clinton, she is an electrifying personality with "aerobic listening skills" who causes those who come in contact with her to "melt away."

"You're just captivated," said Ruff, an independent analyst. "It isn't just the body language and the empathy and the good looks and the well-dressed appearance. It's also her ability to distill complicated policy topics to things that ring true."

Granholm supporter Kirsten Fisk, 40, of Lansing describes her as "a dynamic, charismatic, captivating person. The first time I heard her speak I was completely drawn in. She was just so smart and so knowledgeable."

Michigan Republicans call Granholm light on substance and are attempting to turn her blue-eyed glamour against her. State GOP Chairman Rusty Hills recently remarked that, unlike the Democrats, Republicans aren't presenting a "Spice Girls" ticket.

Granholm has countered by posting 58 pages of position papers on her campaign Web site. "I just wonder if I were a man, whether that would even be said, it's so insulting. It's so wrong, as a factual matter. But you say it enough, people begin to believe it," she said.

Her Web site also contains her campaign biography, which lists her honors degrees from the University of California-Berkeley and Harvard Law. It does not mention that she also received a certificate from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Hollywood during the three years she spent trying to make it as an actress after high school.

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