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All Revved Up Over Michigan's Place in Politics

Later on she bellows, "We want them talking about our jobs! We want to see them talk about manufacturing! They talk about wood-burning stoves but they're not talking about manufacturing or how we're going to save manufacturing jobs in this state or saving union jobs! That's what this is about! We keep hearing the word 'change'! Well, let's start at home."

In Levin and Dingell's view, the current primary system should be scrapped in favor of rotating regional primaries that combine big states and small.

"We tried to stay to the rules," Dingell says afterward in the car, en route to another meeting of local Democrats. "We tried. But Iowa and New Hampshire have a hold on the whole thing. What you have with Florida and Michigan are two states who've said, 'Enough is enough!' This has never been about Michigan going first. We don't think any state should have that hold. Every state should have the kind of opportunities Iowa and New Hampshire do."

"I'll tell ya something," Dingell continues. "Our state is in trouble and everyone's bashing it. It's all about political strength, and Midwest manufacturing states have not been players in the political process. Part of the problem I have is that I think politicians are contributing to the problems of the domestic auto industry. The domestic auto industry is doing a lot of good stuff and they are at the forefront of developing a lot of good technology. But it's the in-thing to bash it, and people don't think about who they're bashing! They're not only bashing the executives who are good men and women who are making far less than the executives on Wall Street. They're bashing working men and women!"

Dingell, 53, has always been a woman of two worlds. She is a Washington fixture, the younger, second wife to a powerful congressman who grew into the role of den mother for both Republican and Democratic political spouses. The organizer of fundraisers and charity events, she is also someone who will take you aside at a book party, look you in the eye and ask, "Is everything okay?" But she also never really left Michigan, spending two or three days a week here, despite living in Washington for more than 30 years.

Says Gov. Granholm: "I think anybody who runs for office or wants to get something done in this state has to contact Debbie Dingell."

"She's very involved in Michigan," says her Republican friend Marlene Malek, with whom Dingell holds an annual bipartisan, women-only lunch during the December holiday season. "She's always there. She's always doing something political and not political. She has a whole other life out there."

The current situation feels as if it's taking place on a whole other planet. Perhaps it's one inhabited by Richard Pryor. In the movie "Brewster's Millions," Pryor portrays a character named Montgomery Brewster, who successfully persuades the citizens of New York to vote "none of the above" for mayor.

At another meeting of local Democrats, also held in a UAW hall, they're angry about the ballot, but angrier at Iowa and New Hampshire.

"They don't realize the problems we have," says Madeline Arkuski, an account clerk for Wayne County. "We can't be the only one in a recession. There have to be others. People are losing jobs, you see foreclosed homes. You can drive down the block and see two to three homes in repossession."

The meeting begins with a short speech from 81-year-old John Dingell, hunched over on crutches because of a pinched nerve. Sitting down, the congressman places his hand in Debbie's, and she gently kisses it. Soon enough, Christina Montague, an Obama supporter, addresses the room.

"Even though my candidate is Senator Obama and he's not on the ballot, I do appreciate the work Debbie Dingell and others have done in trying to make Michigan have a much more prominent role," Montague says. "I am very much in support but I still feel like I have been disenfranchised to hell, but I am telling you that I am going to participate in this process."

Then it's Dingell's turn. It is apparent over the course of a week that she can speak about the primary at only one speed, no matter the venue. There's no soft beginning, no slow crescendo. You simply get Debbie Dingell, Angry or Angrier or Angriest -- a point where her voice is strong enough to destroy whole star systems.

"You tell me what kind of power it takes to have a candidate take their name off the ballot!" Dingell screams. "These are great Democratic candidates! These are people who believe in democracy! But they have to bow to Iowa and New Hampshire! They signed this pledge saying they won't campaign in the state! Then they took their names off the ballot because Iowa and New Hampshire were looking!"

Staff researchers Madonna Lebling, Magda Jean-Louis and Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.

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