Economy is focus in Michigan primary

Voters could give a clearer indication today of GOP candidate they feel has best solution

January 15, 2008|By Stephen Braun and Scott Martelle | Stephen Braun and Scott Martelle,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Romulus, Mich. -- Michigan takes its turn today as a presidential primary battleground after a week of sharpening arguments by Republican contenders over how to revive a state laid low by disappearing auto factories and jobs.

With only the Republican primary a contest of consequence here because of an earlier pullout by most of the Democratic contenders, the GOP's leading rivals have carefully tweaked their campaign messages to emphasize economic concerns.

The two candidates with the most at stake, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have sniped at each other over how best to cure Michigan's ills - and in the process, shed light about how they might tackle signs of a looming national recession. McCain is trying to build on his recent comeback New Hampshire win, while for Romney, a loss in his birth state could be crippling after losses in Iowa and New Hampshire.

While McCain has taken a realistic economic tack, warning that some jobs "are not coming back" and stressing job retraining and new business opportunities, Romney has hewed to a sunnier insistence that old industries can be restored. "The pessimists are wrong," Romney told the Detroit Economic Club yesterday. "The auto industry and all its jobs do not have to be lost."

Even Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has campaigned more in Michigan in recent days than he had been expected to, has broadened his appeal to evangelical religious voters with a conservative pitch to replace the federal income tax with a "fair" national retail sales tax.

Some economic experts question whether any of the Republican solutions would have a real effect on a state that was once the center of the automobile industry but now struggles with an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent, the worst in the nation.

Even McCain's effort at realism - which he drew back from yesterday with more hopeful comments - does not reckon, the economists said, with the grim scale of Michigan's plight.

"It's real bad," said Don Grimes, a University of Michigan economic researcher and a moderate Republican. "All the people who talk about a one-state recession, I think they have understated the depths of the economy. I would have used the word depression. I believe this is worse than anything we experienced in the 1930s in terms of the length of time the state has been going down."

Detroit and smaller factory towns across southeastern Michigan have been ravaged by plant shutdowns and the layoffs of nearly a half-million workers since the mid-1980s. In places such as Flint and Pontiac, old auto plants have become ghost dumps, abandoned to decay.

Adding to the state's stark economic portrait, growing numbers of unemployed Michigan workers have fled to other states. Since July 2006, said Michigan State University economics professor Charles Ballard, the state's population has dropped by 30,000.

"I understand the rhetorical approach Governor Romney's trying, but he's just wrong," Ballard said. "Senator McCain is speaking to the realities, but I'm not sure if he even understands how perilous it is."

Parts of the Detroit area are reeling from some of the housing foreclosure woes that have led to huge banking losses on Wall Street and raised fears about a nationwide recession. Macomb County, a northern suburb that once led the state in housing starts "has now done a 180 and leads in foreclosures," said James Carabelli, the county GOP chairman and a Romney supporter.

But as Romney, McCain and Huckabee have crossed the state from Detroit's sparsely populated downtown to the thriving western Michigan communities of Grand Rapids and Holland, the rivals have concentrated more on Michigan's devastated industrial landscape than on America's looming banking crisis and whispers of recession.

During his speech in Detroit yesterday, Romney promised a "fivefold increase - from $4 billion dollars to $20 billion dollars - in our national investment in energy research, fuel technology, materials science and automotive technology."

McCain vowed to "regain Michigan's position as the best in the world. We will create new jobs."

Stephen Braun and Scott Martelle write for the Los Angeles Times.

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