Republican Candidates in Michigan: The Scoop

Once again the GOP primary schedule has been turned upside down, sending candidates and pundits scrambling. We’ve been down this road before. First states crowded into the February 5 Super Duper Tuesday primary date. Then Florida jumped ahead to January 29. Then South Carolina leaped ahead to January 19, forcing New Hampshire and Iowa to back up earlier in January. Now Michigan is poised to vault into a January 15 date and hold a full fledged primary, not merely a caucus. What does this all mean and who does it hurt and help?

For starters, those who want to enjoy the Christmas holiday may find themselves trampling through New Hampshire and Iowa. Larry J. Sabato explains: “There is no chance that New Hampshire will ever yield its ‘first in the nation’ primary, or permit itself to be pinned on the calendar in a way that reduces its influence. That’s a given. So New Hampshire, like the proverbial 500-lb gorilla — odd for such a small state — sits wherever it wants now. That gives Iowa the back of the hand. I assume they’ll have to be satisfied with a date right after New Year’s Day, which means no Christmas vacation for anyone.”

What is bad for Iowa is good for Michigan. This industrial and diverse state will now lay claim to being the most important state primary before Florida. Saul Anuzis, Director of the Michigan GOP, notes that the Michigan legislature is poised to vote in favor of the date change this week despite opposition of state Democratic Party leader Mark Brewer. If the legislature does indeed pass a bill and Governor Jennifer Granholm signs it the Democratic party could still elect to hold its caucus rather than a primary, unraveling the entire deal, but he is “fairly confident” that with other major Democratic leaders including both U.S. Senators supporting the January 15 primary that this will not happen. (A state chair of one of the GOP contenders says “If I had a buck I’d bet 99 cents” on the January 15 primary going forward.)

Instead of pitching to party activists the GOP hopefuls will have to appeal to the broad range of GOP voters, who Anuzis says are “mainstream conservatives” in the mold of former Governor John Engler and former Senator Spencer Abraham (who is now helping to lead the Fred Thompson campaign). More than a million voters may turn out for a primary. In a state with five full media markets and shares of two others candidates must mount both a media campaign( costing up to a million dollars a week) and a solid ground game with plenty of volunteers and strong retail politicking.

Candidates have already been upping their visits. Anuzis notes that Giuliani has visited four or five times, most recently this week. All the candidates will gather on Mackinac Island on September 21 and 22 for a GOP meeting with an opportunity to speak before activists and gain local media coverage. In early October a presidential debate in the state is anticipated.

For now, Rudy Giuliani leads in most polling. Anuzis explains that he has “big appeal to Reagan Democrats” and, as one GOP voter described to him, is someone “I could actually walk into a bar and have a beer with.” Candice Miller, Congresswoman from Macomb County — home of many of those Reagan Democrats — is his state chair. She explains Giuliani’s appeal is to Michiganders “looking for leadership,” explaining that GOP voters have experienced economic doldrums resulting from the lack of leadership by Governor Granholm, whose solutions to the state’s current economic difficulties has been to propose raising taxes. She also notes that GOP voters are especially concerned about finding someone who “can actually manage government” and who can win the state which has not voted for a Republican for president since George H.W. Bush. As the representative from Macomb County she is confident he will appeal to Independents and women (noting he is the rare Republican with a “reverse” gender gap.) She explains “You don’t know what’ll happen tomorrow. No one knows. But you want to pick a person who will respond appropriately” to huge challenges which face the country.

What about social conservatives? Miller is pro-life but says she was reassured by Giuliani’s record of reducing abortions and increasing adoptions in New York City and, most importantly, is convinced he will appoint strict constructionist judges to the courts since she contends that if there is a change in abortion in the country “it will happen in the courts.” She concedes that “If you want a perfect candidate you should look at yourself.”

Governor Mitt Romney also stands to benefit from the primary move up. Anuzis notes that his organization is the biggest and has been there longer than any of his competitors. He also benefits from his family name — his father George Romney was a popular Governor and head of American Motors Corporation — and the fact that he "gets the auto industry" which is so central to the Michigan economy. Anuzis also says that an intelligent candidate who “looks presidential” like Romney has great advantages. He also explains that because Romney’s father was a well known and liked politician, this is a state where there is a “neutralized Mormon factor.”

Romney Political Director Carl Forti feels confident about Romney’s chances — whether it is a primary or a caucus. He says simply “We’ll play the hand that’s dealt.” A GOP strategist comments that a primary would likely help Romney by forcing his opponents to spend money if they want t compete in yet another early primary state. Moreover, the strategist explains, a primary on which Democrats and Republicans would run on the same day may limit the influx of Independents into the GOP primary (such as occurred in 2000 and helped McCain to victory) and aid a more conservative candidate like Romney. According to this strategist, Romney benefits not just from his family name but because “he can talk cars as easily as the war on Jihad or the economy of China.”

John McCain won the Michigan primary in 2000. Anuzis concedes he has fallen on hard times in this campaign cycle but says he would “not write his obituary yet” and contends that it is a mistake to count him out yet. McCain’s State Chair John Yob, (son of longtime GOP committeeman Chuck Yob, a controversial powerbroker in Michigan politics who opposed then Governor Enlger’s chosen pick for attorney general in 1998 — Romney’s brother, Scott) refuses to say whether McCain prefers a primary or a caucus, saying only that McCain is “confident of his ability to win” in either forum. He explains McCain still enjoys a strong base of support from 2000 and that his “maverick” streak appeals to Michigan voters. As for social conservatives, Yob notes that for “twenty four years” McCain has demonstrated his pro-life credentials and enjoys the support of the former head of the Michigan Christian Coalition Glen Clark. He also maintains that as more Americans realize the success of the Iraq Surge and credit McCain for opposing the losing strategy which preceded it he will gain support.

What about soon to announce candidate Fred Thompson? Anuzis notes that he is in second or third in many polls and enjoys a reputation as a “straight talking southern Republican,” although he cautions that he has “not been scrutinized” like the other contenders. He notes: “Politics takes two things: money and everything else. Thompson is behind in money and everything else.” Nevertheless, he acknowledges that an open primary gives him as well as other candidates every chance to make their pitch to Michigan voters.

An advisor to Fred Thompson who agreed to speak on background since he is not a declared candidate agrees that Michigan “changes everything” for candidates plotting their campaign schedules and strategies and the January 15 date will make this a “higher priority” for all the campaigns. The advisor contends that Thompson will have a “cultural advantage” there, appealing to social conservatives and sportsmen who care about the Second Amendment. In short, Thompson is convinced that Michiganders are his “type of voters.”

Anuzis notes that Michigan offers a “unique process” in which each of these four leading candidates — plus Mike Huckabee who is starting to generate interest — has a shot at winning. In this wide open race the GOP nominee may get a big lift heading into South Carolina, Florida and then on to Super Duper Tuesday. As a result, expect to see all the GOP contenders in Michigan and a lot of talk on the campaign trail about the American auto industry.