All Revved Up Over Michigan's Place in Politics

By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

DETROIT -- On a steely cold Saturday morning, Debbie Dingell walks into a local UAW hall choked with people looking for answers. Tuesday's Michigan presidential primary -- one not recognized by the Democratic National Committee -- is only days away, and Democrats from the 13th Congressional District have assembled to ask what will happen when they walk into a polling booth where neither Barack Obama nor John Edwards is on the ballot.

As much as she's here to explain what to do inside the booth, Dingell -- General Motors executive, wife of the long-serving Rep. John Dingell and Democratic Party committeewoman -- is also going to explain how it's come to this: how a large industrial state was stripped of its convention delegates and how voters can't even write in the names of their favored candidates.

Stating the obvious, Dingell says, "I am not happy."

This is the "Mishegoss in Michigan," now seven years in the making. It began in 2000, when Dingell and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) approached the DNC about changing the presidential primary system that gave preference to Iowa and New Hampshire when it came to first-in-the-nation status. Dingell and Levin were promised the issue would be addressed. Three years later, Levin threatened to move the Democratic caucuses to the same date as the 2004 New Hampshire primary. Again talked down by the party leadership, Dingell and Levin were told that a commission would examine adding additional states to the early part of the campaign.

The result? A January caucus for Nevada and a primary for South Carolina. Michigan Democrats weren't thrilled, but agreed to keep to their Feb. 9 slot so long as both New Hampshire and Iowa stayed with their assigned dates. When it became apparent last year that New Hampshire would move up its primary, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed a law in September setting up primaries for both parties on Jan. 15.

What happened next was simply chaos. The DNC threatened to strip Michigan and Florida (which also moved up its primary) of their convention delegates. On the other side, the Republican National Committee took away half of the state's delegates. All the Democratic candidates signed pledges not to campaign in Michigan.

Then some candidates went even further: Citing loyalty to party leaders in the early states, Obama, Edwards, Bill Richardson and Joe Biden said they no longer wanted their names on the ballot in Michigan. In order to receive write-in ballots, the four had to agree to accept them -- which none of them did. (Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, kept her name on the ballot. Her ally, former governor Jim Blanchard, told the Detroit Free Press: "Hillary's strategy is not just to honor the DNC's rules, it's to win in November. Michigan's important.")

"It's been a mess," says Stephen Henderson, deputy editorial page editor of the Free Press. "It's shameful."

Thus, in the most wide-open presidential election in a generation, confusion and disillusionment reign supreme in a state already full of both. While Republican candidates devote advertising money and time to win their remaining delegates, Democratic voters have been ignored (save by Dennis Kucinich, the one candidate to break from the pledge). Edwards and Obama supporters have been told to vote "uncommitted" to support their candidates, though there's no guarantee of whom uncommitted delegates will support -- if they're even seated at the convention.

So it's understandable when Dingell walks into the UAW hall and begins to rant.

"For months," she says, "you have seen these candidates live in New Hampshire and Iowa. . . .

"You have seen them covered by thousands of reporters talking about issues filtered through the eyes of Iowa and New Hampshire! And these candidates are not running for president of Iowa and New Hampshire! They're running for president of the United States!"

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