Mich. Voters Focus on Economy

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

PONTIAC, Mich. -- Mike Bouchard was eager to make the sale as he bantered with Tracey Allen at a Labor Day street fair. Pitching his Republican candidacy for the U.S. Senate, the Oakland County sheriff heard her say she favored Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow.

"Tell me," Bouchard smiled, holding a plastic water bottle under Allen's chin as a mock microphone, "what has she accomplished to make your life better? Thirty seconds or less."

When Allen merely smiled, he persisted: "I'll get you results!"

The candidate's high-spirited determination charmed Allen, but after he had moved on, she said Stabenow was her choice.

"I just want my gas to go down and my cost of living to go down," Allen said. "Everybody has felt the wrath of Bush. Anybody who is attached to the Republicans, I want out of office."

In Michigan, the November election is likely to come down to whom the voters blame for one of the nation's most troubled economies. With unemployment higher than the national average and many residents frustrated with Democratic Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, Republicans see a chance for a swing-state victory.

Bouchard has kept within striking distance in his first statewide race. But as he works to cultivate an image as a seasoned lawman and a pragmatic politician, he is finding that many voters are unwilling to replace a Democrat in Washington with a largely unknown Republican.

Recent polls show Stabenow with about 50 percent of the vote and a lead of eight to 13 percentage points. She took her Senate seat six years ago after a one-point victory over incumbent Republican Spencer Abraham.

At this point in the 2000 race, she was more than a dozen points behind -- a fact cited by both sides this time. Stabenow's team points out how much better she is doing. Bouchard's advisers suggest there is plenty of time to catch up.

The GOP draws hope from polls showing that two in three voters are dissatisfied with Michigan's direction. The jobless rate rose to 7 percent in July, compared with 4.8 percent nationwide. Given deepening troubles in the auto industry, economists expect the number to remain high even with seasonal hiring.

A brain drain fueled by pessimism about the state's economic future has left Michigan ranked 49th nationally between 2000 and 2005 in retaining young adults, according to the Census Bureau. Detroit, no longer vibrant no matter how its leaders try, has lost a million residents since its heyday.

"Only three states have lost jobs in the last four years," as one Republican ad puts it. "Two of them -- Louisiana and Mississippi -- were devastated by hurricanes. The third is Michigan."

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