Michigan job woes pose challenge for GOP

January 11, 2008 6:19:35 PM PST
The economy is issue one in job-needy Michigan, where rivals in next week's Republican primary seek support from some of the very voters who are feeling threatened by international trade agreements the presidential contenders embrace. "The displaced worker programs we have are not working," Sen. John McCain said as he arrived in Michigan this week, fresh from a New Hampshire triumph that propelled him back into the thick of the race for the nomination.

"I believe most Americans want their next president to remind them of the guy they work with - not the guy who laid them off," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said in a made-for-Michigan television ad airing in the run-up to the primary.

And Mitt Romney, a businessman who has made the primary a must-win contest, regularly criticizes McCain for conceding that some of the lost jobs aren't coming back. "I'm not willing to accept defeat like that," says the Michigan-born, former Massachusetts governor, vowing to end what he calls a "one-state recession."

Pre-primary polls show a close race among the three in a state that McCain, as well as Romney, can ill-afford to lose.

"The number one issue in Michigan is jobs," says Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican from the area around Lansing, who has not endorsed any of the candidates for his party's nomination. "The number two issue in Michigan is jobs. And the number three issue in Michigan is jobs."

Not a surprise.

Michigan's unemployment rate, at 7.4 percent in November, is the highest in the country by a full percentage point, and about 50 percent higher than the national average.

Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show the state shed more than 76,000 jobs in the 12 months ending in November, a period in which the national economy added 1.5 million jobs.

In a further sign of economic distress, Michigan lost population in each of the last two years, according to Census Bureau estimates, as the auto industry was struck with a series of blows.

Nationally, the economy tied the Iraq war as peoples' top concern, with about a fifth naming each issue, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Friday. In October, the war was considered the nation's main problem by a 2-to-1 margin over the economy.

Independents as well as Republicans can vote in Tuesday's primary. McCain won the state eight years ago on their support, and hopes for a big turnout again this year. His odds appear better than they might otherwise be, because independents have little incentive to cast ballots in the Democratic race.

That's because Michigan Democrats scheduled their contest in defiance of national party rules, and none of the major candidates is campaigning in the state. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, alone among them, appears on the ballot, and her only concern is an effort by supporters of some opponents to force her into an embarrassing second-place finish behind the uncommitted line.

The ability of the leading Republican candidates to straddle the issue of trade - support international agreements while attracting backing from those who believe they are victims of the agreements - will presumably return as a general election challenge for one of them.

But for now, the challenge is somewhat different.

"The difficulty for Republicans is that anything they might say in Michigan contradicts their national message" of tax cuts and international trade, says Ed Sarpolus, a Michigan-based pollster. Additionally, he said, they also risk running afoul of Bush administration policies.

In a phone interview, Rogers disagreed with that assessment, saying Republicans candidates can confront the issue by stressing their determination to make foreign trade partners play by the same rules as manufacturers in the United States.

He said he ran a television commercial in an earlier campaign that referred to China, and fellow "Republicans thought I was crazy."

Now it's part of Romney's pitch, blended with references to his roots in a state where his father was governor, and his own claim to be a businessman who has managed turnarounds before and can do it again.

"Today they sell us clothes and cameras, tomorrow cars and jumbo jets," he says in an ad that describes the Chinese economy as an Asian tiger. "As president, I'll level the playing field. Lower taxes and invest in research and innovation. So that American companies can compete and win in the global marketplace and create jobs here."

McCain, criticized for saying some of the lost jobs are gone for good, says it's an example of the "straight talk" that is an essential part of his political profile.

"I am a free trader, and I will never change," he said recently, yet he stresses a need for "getting the workers into new programs."

Besides, he said, "I say that international free trade agreements have created millions of jobs in America. if you go up and see the border between Michigan and Canada, you'll see truckers lined up for miles."

Huckabee's pitch is a populist's one, and while he hopes to win independent support, he is also appealing to evangelical voters.

He has less to lose in the state than either McCain or Romney, but even a second-place finish would count as a surprising success for the man trying to prove his victory in the Iowa caucuses was the beginning, not a one-time success, in his run for the White House.

"I am a free trader," Huckabee told reporters on a conference call Friday, saying a level playing field is essential. "The more markets that we open, the better it is for our country as well as for those countries that have products that will help us."