The political genfuses in Washington have been talking about a nationwide swing to the right among voters this fall.But somebody apparently forgot to explain this to the voters of the seventh most populous state.
The people of Michigan are turning away from their conservative Republican senator, Robert P. Griffin, and may well replace him with a liberal Detroit Democrat. They are also giving a warm reception to a glib young liberal legislator who wants to retire the state's moderate Republican governor, William G. Milliken.
Griffin, who seemed a fairly safe bet last summer to win a third Senate term, now concedes he is trailing Carl Levin. The election still seems up for grabs, though, because Griffin has a history of coming from behind to squeak through on election day.
Milliken, governor since 1969, has been stunned by the hard-hitting media campaign of state hitting media campaign of state Sen. William Fitzgerald. Although Milliken holds a small lead, the race is much tighter than the political pros here expected.
Candidates at every level here seem to be playing down issues so as not to confuse voters, who will be deciding on 11 different referenda (plus six more local proposals) on Detroit; ballots). The initiative include three different tax-cutting plans, an increase in the drinking age, and automatic denial of bail to anyone accused of certain violent crimes.
If Michigan voters are bucking some perceived national trend, the candidates are also paying little attention to the chief national issuse. THey talk about inflation, energy, and taxes, but those are not the central points of either race.
The Senate contest focuses on Griffin's Washington press conference announcement of April 29, 1977, that he would no run his year. After 22 years in Congress, Griffin said then, he was tired; it was time for new blood in Washington.
In the next few months, Griffin took it easy, missing a third of the Senate's roll calls in 1977 -- 216 in all.
Under pressure from GOP leaders, Griffin, 54, eventually changed his mind about running again. But that press conference has haunted him ever since. In effect, the senator wrote the text for his opponent.
Levin, 44, a scruffy, casual veteran of the Detroit City Council, has toured the state reminding voters that Bob Griffin himself said Michigan needs new blood in the Senate.
His advertising has hammered away at Griffin's 1977 attendance record, making 216 the unerical equivalent of a household word across the state.In a televiwion debate Saturday, Levin cited Griffin's missed votes in his opening and closing statements, and also managed to work them into answers to questions about inflation and the Middle East.
The diffident Griffin, for whom campaigning is not much fun, is frustrated that the campaign has targeted one four-month segment of his 12 years in the Senate. He notes, accurately, that he has a reputation in Washington as a workhorse.
"If missing those votes is the hardest thing he can say about me." the senator says, "If that's the worst thing he can hit me for, I'm probably a pretty good senator."
Griffin says he should have responded earlier to Levis's attacks, but he thinks he has countered the charge by intense campaigning since Congress adjourned. He has spent $1.3 million to Levin's $65,000. Some Democrats, too, fear that Levin peaked about two weeks ago and is slipping before Griffin's final charge.
The gubernatorial race centers on an issue of substance -- a poisonous chemical fire retardant known by its initials, PBB.
In 1973, granules of PBB were accidentally mixed into cattle feed distributed by the Michigan Farm Bureau. The poison passed through the food chain. Eventually, $40 million worth of liverstock was destroyed and buried in huge pits. Mothers were warned that breast milk was probably tainted, and grocery stores began to advertise "No Michigan Beef Sold Here."
Milliken, a native of Traverse City near the top of the state, maintained that the situation was not as serious as farmers and environmental groups cleaimed. That cut deeply into his long-standing popularity.
Fitzgerald, the governor's challenger, was state senate majority leader when the PBB crisis surfaced and he, he too, was initially show to respond. For the past year, though, he has attacked the incumbent furiously on the issue.
"You see that billboard everywhere with the governor's big smile," Fitzgerald shouts in his stock speech. "What does he think is so funny? Smiling Willie put poison in our bodies and poisoned our state's reputation."
Fitzgerald's driving rhetoric has cut into Milliken's lead, and his self-assurance.In a classic example of an assertion that disproves itself, the governor tells that disproves itself, the governor tells audiences here: "I am not personally on the defensive about PBB."
Milliken may have been helped by a county judge's ruling last Friday that PBB in small concentrations is not toxic. The governor also benefits from his opponent's grating personality.
Fitzgerald, a lany, coarse-talking individual who yields to none in his admiration for himself, is almost a caricature of the total media candidate.
When a reporter showed up recently to travel with the Fitzgerald campign, the candidate observed helpfully that "instead of talking to me you realy ought to go over to headquarters and see the tape of our ads. I mean, they're great!"
Last weekend Fitzgerald stopped at a home fixup show in the Detroit suburbs. The show drew a big crowd and local TV crews.
A businessman came up to Fitzgerald at the door and asked a question about taxes. The candidate brushed him curtly aside. The man turned angrily to his partners and said, 'Aw, he's just another politician."
"Fitzgerald later explained his action "I knew he was mad that I didn't answer him, but I had to get to the cameras," the candidate said. "I just don't have time to talk to a voter about taxes when Channel 2 is way over on the other side of the room."