DETROIT -- The film is slightly grainy and warmly fuzzy. Rep. Bill Schuette (R-Mich.) is leaning against a kitchen counter, wearing jeans and holding a half-empty pot of coffee.

"I've seen Levin and Riegle in action," he says conversationally, referring to Michigan's two Democratic senators, Carl Levin and Donald W. Riegle Jr. "The cozy deals, the pay-raise bills, the S&L scandals. You and I know the people who made the mess just can't clean it up. That's why I'm running for the U.S. Senate."

It is a message that Schuette, youthful and sandy-haired at 36, had hoped would strike a chord with Michigan voters who have twice elected Levin by margins of 5 percent or less.

But Schuette's message, which takes dead aim at Levin in ad after ad, has so far had negligible effect. A recent Detroit Free Press/WXYZ poll shows Levin leading by 36 percentage points, with 35 percent of those polled saying they were unaware of Schuette at all.

Nevertheless, Levin, 56, a former Detroit City Council president who the latest poll showed is viewed favorably by 64 percent of likely voters, said he is working "harder than I ever have" to retain his seat. His television advertising portrays him as a pedestrian candidate -- "not flashy, just effective," as he boasts he has never accepted honoraria for outside speaking engagements.

The campaign has been most competitive on the television airwaves. Both candidates have taken advantage of the Persian Gulf crisis in commercials to claim a stronger commitment to defense than their opponent. Levin flew to the gulf with a congressional delegation recently and Schuette promptly blasted him for having his photograph taken on the deck of a battleship he had voted not to recommission.

Levin responded with ads quoting local newspaper editorials that have variously called Schuette's charges a "lie," "inaccurate" and "nonsense." Schuette, meanwhile, has sought to break with President Bush on unpopular issues like the reversal of Bush's no-new-taxes pledge while tying himself to the popular president's coattails on defense issues.

It's not clear that the voters are paying any attention to all this back and forth, but it is clear both candidates are just now hitting their full campaign stride.

"It's this that gives you name ID," Schuette manager Douglas J. McAuliffe said, pointing to the television set in his office. "It's how people meet you."

But even Schuette's fellow Republicans agree that tagging Levin as a liberal and a creature of special interests is not likely to work. "I don't think you can beat Carl Levin just by beating up on Carl Levin," said Clark Durant, Schuette's primary opponent.

"Everybody knows Carl Levin's a liberal," he added.

Levin campaign manager Gordon Kerr, who spent a recent day in the candidate's Ferndale headquarters fielding phone calls, juggling the candidate's schedule and approving television commercials, said it has been a "curious campaign." But the Levin campaign's decision to strike out at Schuette before voters had a clear picture of him appears to have paid off.

"We've had some success in painting a warning label on this guy's face," Kerr said.

Schuette's McAuliffe works out of a ground-floor office in a Republican-leaning suburb with a crew of mostly young campaign workers who organize "Ask Bill Schuette" nights when the congressman returns for weekend campaign visits. Last week, Bush included a Schuette fund-raiser on his midwestern campaign swing, delivering a Democrat-bashing message that fits neatly into Schuette's anti-Levin strategy.

McAuliffe, who was tutored in campaign organizing by Bush operative Rich Bond, could talk for hours about Levin. The Free Press poll, he said, was conducted before voters had had enough time to fully appreciate Schuette's ads.

"Until people focus, he always maintains his high leads," McAuliffe said of Levin.

To prove the possibility of eleventh-hour surges, McAuliffe cites Levin's race against former astronaut Jack Lousma in 1984. Lousma lost by only 5 percent of the vote even after being outspent by the incumbent and irretrievably damaged when Levin aired a campaign commercial featuring Lousma praising Toyotas.

Levin, he said, "is a tough, mean city politician," a frequent refrain for McAuliffe and a broadside he hopes will hit its mark with the suburban swing voters who often decide Michigan elections.

In an interview, Schuette called his 1984 House victory over Democrat Donald Albosta "Michigan's first miracle," and said he expects a triumph over Levin to be the second. He said he can win the election by convincing Michigan voters that Levin's liberal tendencies -- including his staunch opposition to the death penalty -- are out of step. "Maybe that's how they think in Massachusetts," he said. "But not in Michigan."

Schuette compares the next five weeks to the last quarter of a Detroit Pistons basketball game.

"It's kind of like the NBA playoffs, decided in the final seconds," Schuette said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. "The lead changes, and the Pistons and Isiah {Thomas} win it."

But when the Pistons won their second NBA championship in a row last spring, it was incumbent Levin who received their memento, a long black mallet inscribed -- perhaps prophetically -- with the words "Hammer Time."