The state that Kerry can't afford to lose

September 22, 2004|By Jules Witcover

DETROIT -- Of all the swing states up for grabs on Nov. 2, none is more critical for Sen. John Kerry than Michigan. Because of its strong labor base and traditional party organizational base, the Democratic nominee can hardly afford a loss in this state.

Put another way, perhaps the surest means for President Bush to nail down his re-election would be to deny Michigan and its 17 electoral votes to Mr. Kerry. Since the Depression, Michigan has gone Democratic in most presidential elections, though in 1980 and 1984 Ronald Reagan made deep inroads among blue-collar workers, thereafter known as the Reagan Democrats, and carried the state.

But without Mr. Reagan on the ballot, many of these Republican-voting Democrats, centered largely in the working-class suburbs of Macomb and Oakland counties north of Detroit, returned to the party fold. They voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and four years ago for Al Gore. Macomb County went for Mr. Gore 49 percent to 47 percent, and he carried Michigan 51-46.

Of the old Reagan Democrats, Macomb Democratic Chairman Ed Burley says: "A lot of them are dead. I think we've moved past that whole notion of things. We're not the poster child of the Reagan Democrats we used to be."

Mr. Burley's predecessor during their heyday, Leo LaLonde, says, "Most of them have turned into Republicans." And former Democratic Gov. James J. Blanchard, now campaigning for Mr. Kerry, notes that even before Mr. Reagan, many blue-collar Democrats in Macomb and Oakland counties were "Wallace Democrats," conservative supporters of Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

But overall, Mr. Blanchard says, Michigan has a progressive tradition that gives Mr. Kerry a strong shot here. A recent Gallup Poll for CNN and USA Today had him ahead among likely voters, 50-44, though other polls show it closer.

John Truscott, a former key aide of retired Republican Gov. John Engler, says, "Kerry has a problem with the old Reagan Democrats because they're real strong on defense, and his waffling [on Iraq] doesn't help him with the voters."

In any event, Mr. Bush has set his sights on Michigan. His bus trip last week to Muskegon, Holland and Battle Creek in the western part of the state was his 21st visit to Michigan, aimed at driving up the GOP base there as a counter to the overwhelmingly Democratic vote in Detroit.

One reason Mr. Gore managed to carry the state in 2000, Mr. Truscott says, is that the Bush campaign was out-organized by the Democrats in parts of western Michigan. Calhoun County, for example, went to Mr. Gore. With that history, he says, the Bush field effort in the state, especially in rural Michigan, has been stepped up significantly. "I've never seen a grass-roots mobilization like this one," he says.

Also, Mr. Truscott says, the Bush campaign's hammering at Mr. Kerry has found fertile ground outside Detroit and environs as a result of a deep sense among Republicans that there is a sharp cultural difference between them and the aristocratic, liberal "other" senator from Massachusetts. Mr. Bush has pointedly tweaked Mr. Kerry with this allusion to one of his chief supporters, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, drawing laughter and shouts of approval from his audiences.

With the unemployment rate in Michigan nearly a percentage point higher than the national average, Mr. Kerry has accused the Bush administration of abetting the outsourcing of jobs in the auto industry. It is an argument that appeals to members of the United Auto Workers union, whose ranks have shrunk from 2 million 20 years ago to only 900,000 now.

Mr. Kerry's campaign manager in the state, Donnie Fowler, says nightly phone bank conversations reinforce jobs and health care as the issues about which Michigan voters are most concerned. But he acknowledges that Mr. Kerry has not yet sold himself with many of them.

"They're ready to fire Bush," he says "but they're not ready to hire Kerry."

That observation underscores the burden on the candidate to keep Michigan in the Democratic column on Nov. 2.

Jules Witcover usually writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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