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As Michigan Goes . . .

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, September 19, 2008

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- If he carries Michigan, many routes to victory are open for Barack Obama. Without Michigan, he's got a big problem.

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This state, which was living with economic catastrophe long before this week's Wall Street meltdown, could be to this election what Ohio was in 2004 and Florida was in 2000.

And voters here are so angry -- about unemployment at 9 percent and some of the country's highest rates of foreclosures and outbound one-way U-Haul rentals -- that no one is certain where they will lash out.

"What's challenging about Michigan is that they've suffered this economy in its worst form," said Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who has studied the state for years. "They blame the Democratic governor and the Democratic Party, and the Republican president and the Republican Party, and an elite they believe sold out their state."

It's no wonder, then, that John McCain and Sarah Palin held their first joint town hall meeting in this solidly Republican city Wednesday, or that McCain played his newly discovered populist tune during a visit earlier in the day at a General Motors plant. "We are not going to leave the workers here in Michigan hung out to dry," McCain said, "while we give billions in taxpayer dollars to Wall Street."

It's also no wonder that Detroit, Grand Rapids and Flint were three of the top five media markets nationally for political advertisements in the week after the party conventions, according to the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project. Grand Rapids alone saw 1,197 of them.

Michigan matters hugely because it will be exceedingly difficult for Obama to assemble an electoral college majority unless he holds virtually every state carried by John Kerry four years ago. This is the most vulnerable of the big Kerry states. "Michigan," says Greenberg, "is the key to the whole map."

Most polls have given Obama a small lead, but he has special problems here. Because of the Democrats' wrangle over delegate rules, Obama did not campaign in the state's primary. "There's a lot of catch-up going on," says Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat.

Republicans are also trying to link Obama to Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, whose popularity has suffered with the economy. Saul Anuzis, chairman of the state Republican Party, describes Granholm as "an articulate, attractive woman who happens to be a Harvard graduate," generous words that he uses as a stiletto against Granholm's fellow Harvard Law graduate Obama.

"If you like what Jennifer Granholm has done in Michigan, you'll love what Barack Obama will do for America," says Anuzis, reciting the Republicans' battle cry. But Democrats such as Stabenow scoff at the idea that Republicans will be able to use Granholm to dodge local ire over President Bush's policies.

The choice of Palin has been helpful to McCain in western Michigan, with its large constituency of conservative Christians. On Wednesday, the faithful here greeted her with loud cries of "Sarah! Sarah! Sarah!" And noting the Palin family's penchant for snowmobiling, Anuzis reports that Michigan has the largest number of registered snowmobiles in the country -- more than 300,000, according to the American Council of Snowmobile Associations.

Obama is counting on a huge African American vote in Detroit, but the city's politics are in turmoil following Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's departure from office yesterday as part of a plea agreement related to perjury charges. Anuzis said the controversy has left the Detroit Democratic organization "splintered and divided." And a pro-McCain group has run an ad, clearly aimed at white suburban voters, linking Obama and Kilpatrick.

Anuzis is one of the few Republican politicians who say openly that Obama's race is an inescapable factor in the election. "Racism, like sexism, is not something people admit to," he says. He notes that McCain voters typically offer diverse reasons for supporting their candidate over Obama. His conclusion: "When they have five or six reasons, it's usually for another reason they don't want to mention."

"It is one of the most taboo subjects people can talk about," Anuzis adds. "Every time I bring it up, people cringe."

But by forcing Obama to sharpen his economic appeal, the bad news from Wall Street may prove to be a particularly potent tonic for his chances here. Former Democratic representative David Bonior believes that a very bad economy will brush aside "the Reagan Democrat social issues that are normally important in our state." So does Stabenow.

"For us to win Michigan, people have to understand that Barack Obama is going to put people back to work," she says. "That's going to trump every other division in the state."

postchat@aol.com

Read more from E.J. Dionne Jr. at washingtonpost.com's new opinion blog, PostPartisan.


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