Michigan Woes Alter Campaigns


By: Wall Street Journal

Republicans Push Economic Ideas Over Traditional Themes
By JACKIE CALMES

DETROIT — For a year, Republican presidential candidates mainly have debated antiterrorism and immigration, same-sex marriage and abortion, even as the economy surpassed all those topics as Americans’ top concern. But campaigning for tomorrow’s primary in hard-hit Michigan has forced their attention to voters’ economic anxieties — an issue sure to loom large in the general- election battle against the Democrats’ nominee.

The two men with the most riding on tomorrow’s Republican presidential primary — Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — are competing to promise that if they are elected president, the government will do more to provide job training for workers and incentives for new businesses.

Both are sounding more like Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, who said here Friday, “There was a time in this nation’s history when Michigan saved America, and now it may be time for America to help save Michigan.”

Until now, Mr. Huckabee had been mostly alone in the Republican pack in speaking to middle-class Americans’ angst about the economy in general, and their own insecurities about jobs, health insurance, energy prices and college costs. His populist rhetoric against Wall Street and for a national sales tax, together with his Christian conservatism, has powered his rise in Republican polls past better-known figures such as Mr. Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and unnerved the Republican establishment and its corporate allies.

Yet top Republican strategists and pundits have been arguing that the party’s candidates should steal a page from Mr. Huckabee and start addressing Americans’ real-world concerns. The Democratic candidates have been doing so all along, given their party’s reliance on organized labor and working-class voters, and the fact they are running against the record of a Republican White House.

“The Republican nominee is going to have to address this significant economic unease,” says party pollster Bill McInturff, who isn’t committed to any candidate. That response, he adds, has to go beyond what he calls Republicans’ “comfort zone” — their all-purpose solution of tax cuts; it must address issues from household spending on gasoline and health care to a vision for ensuring the nation’s long-term ability to compete globally.

The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, which Mr. McInturff conducts with Democratic pollster Peter Hart, in December registered a record level of economic anxiety among Americans. And the concerns about globalization aren’t limited to lower-income and less-educated Americans, but extend to high-income, educated professionals as well. “It is kind of unexpected it took getting to Michigan to get candidates to start talking about it,” Mr. McInturff said. “The Republicans do not have to do this today to win the nomination,” but “the Republican nominee will need to address these economic concerns to win the election.”

Republican strategist John Weaver agrees, but says all the candidates are struggling with the issue. Mr. Weaver, formerly Sen. McCain’s adviser, says: “Huckabee shows the correct empathy, but is offering medicine which will kill the patient. Romney knows the topic, but his bedside demeanor doesn’t strike a chord. McCain and Giuliani are clearly more comfortable talking about national security and foreign policy issues. No Republican candidate has yet to get the right mix.”

Amid fears that the U.S. could be slipping into a recession, no place is as bad off as Michigan, the onetime manufacturing capital that has been losing jobs and population as the auto industry has been thrown on its back by foreign competition.

Today, Mr. Romney speaks to the Detroit Economic Club; Mr. Huckabee was there Friday. Over the weekend, Mr. Romney held events more typical of Democrats — standing outside a General Motors plant to bemoan new layoffs, and visiting a single mother who is unemployed, without health insurance and can’t sell her home.

Having lost in Republicans’ first two nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire — the first to Mr. Huckabee and the second to Sen. McCain — Mr. Romney is making what could be his last stand in Michigan. He grew up here, and his father was the head of American Motors and then a popular governor.

Though campaigning as a small-government conservative in the mold of Ronald Reagan, Mr. Romney stumps the state asking its worried Republican voters, “Where is Washington?” His aim is to implicate one of Washington’s longest-serving politicians — Sen. McCain — in his indictment that federal officials haven’t done enough to help.

Specifically, he attacks Sen. McCain for his bipartisan efforts in recent years to raise fuel-efficiency standards for auto makers, and to limit fuel emissions that are contributing to climate change. Mr. Romney says those steps could strangle the industry. Meanwhile, he has stopped short of proposing short-term stimulus ideas — much as the Democratic candidates have done in recent days — and instead tells Michigan voters he would spend more on research, technology and basic science to “rebuild this industry.”

He has seized on Sen. McCain’s response in a recent Republican debate, that many auto-making jobs are gone for good, to lambaste him for a “just give up” approach to job creation. The senator says Mr. Romney is stoking “false hopes.”

“Here’s a little straight talk I know the people of Michigan will understand: some jobs that have left Michigan are not coming back,” Sen. McCain said to a conservative group Saturday in Livonia, Mich. He proposed more spending for education and job training, an overhaul of the federal unemployment-compensation system and better coordination between local employers and community colleges so that residents are trained for the available jobs. Of the other Republicans, Mr. Giuliani and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson aren’t contesting Michigan but instead are staking their time and lagging funds on states where they have a better chance — Mr. Giuliani in Florida, which votes Jan. 29, and Mr. Thompson in South Carolina, whose Republican primary is Jan. 19.

Mr. Huckabee, as a fellow Southerner, is Mr. Thompson’s biggest threat in South Carolina, but he is campaigning in Michigan as well. He hopes to do well not only among Christian conservatives but also among so-called Reagan Democrats, the union members, Roman Catholics and other voters who traditionally voted Democratic but were drawn to Republicans’ socially conservative agenda in recent decades.

–Elizabeth Holmes contributed to this article.

Write to Jackie Calmes at jackie.calmes@wsj.com

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