- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2000

If you want to know who's ahead in the presidential race, you have to know what is going on in Macomb County, Mich., where George W. Bush and Al Gore are locked in a dead heat.
Michigan is a pivotal battleground state in this neck-and-neck, down-to-the-wire election. It is hard to see how either Mr. Gore or Mr. Bush can win the presidency without carrying it. But the key to the state is in Macomb, a county that is a political bellwether. It is the automotive capital of America and home of the legendary Reagan swing Democrats of the 1980s and early 1990s.
Ronald Reagan carried Macomb in '80 and '84 by appealing to its heavily unionized, blue-collar workers with a message of tax cuts, economic growth and opportunity, and an arsenal of social and cultural wedge issues, from gun control to abortion.
George Bush carried Macomb County against Michael Dukakis in 1988. He even carried it against Bill Clinton in 1992, when he lost his bid for re-election. In 1996, Mr. Clinton became the first Democrat to carry Macomb in 20 years.
This is where Mr. Bush's compassionate, tax-cutting, socially conservative agenda should be doing well. But as of last week, he was running slightly behind Mr. Gore in a variety of state polls, though the numbers did not reflect Mr. Bush's latest upward surge in the national surveys.
"If Bush can't win in Macomb, he can't win Michigan, and if he can't carry Michigan, he can't win the presidency," said Michigan-based pollster Steve Mitchell. A number of other pollsters in the state echoed that view.
Mr. Gore is clinging to a 2 percent to 4 percent lead in the statewide polls, and is ahead by a similar margin in Macomb, according to several polls taken in the past two weeks.
Why isn't Mr. Bush doing better in Macomb? One reason is Mr. Gore's strength among union voters in a state where 1 in 3 voters comes from a union family. Nationally, Mr. Bush attracts the support of 38 percent of labor-union households. But in Macomb's precincts, and in Michigan at large, Mr. Gore has solidified his labor base.
The United Auto Workers has put aside its enmity over free trade and the China trade deal and is now pulling for him. So are the Teamsters. Mr. Gore is supported by 61 percent of union households in Michigan, according to polls. In contrast, Mr. Bush, who is beating Mr. Gore in the state among nonunion voters by 46 percent to 41 percent, is attracting less than 30 percent of labor-union members.
Why? Mr. Gore is certainly vulnerable on several wedge issues, such as gun control, that union members care about. Mr. Gore wants law-abiding new gun purchasers to be registered, licensed and photographed, but it is not an issue Mr. Bush is campaigning on there. The National Rifle Association is mailing heavily on the issue, though, and that may be why polls show the two running nearly even, with the momentum in Mr. Bush's direction.
Sadly, Mr. Bush's softer, gentler tone has ruled out or worked against such wedge issues. "Bush has soft-pedaled a lot of these social issues. There hasn't been the harder-edged rhetoric that you had in the '80s with Reagan that led to the rise of the Reagan Democrat," said Bill Ballenger, a veteran political analyst who tracks Michigan politics.
Another problem for Mr. Bush has been campaign coordination in Michigan. Gov. John Engler is the chairman, but Mr. Bush's Austin managers have been micromanaging it to a fault until last week's meeting between Mr. Engler and Bush strategist Karl Rove, that is. Now Mr. Engler, Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, and other GOP governors have been given much more freedom to run the show in their states.
One big change: Mr. Bush will make many more trips to Michigan than previously scheduled. "He'll be campaigning here just about every week between now and the election," said a top Engler aide.
But Mr. Engler, in his meeting with Mr. Rove, made it clear Mr. Bush has to be much more aggressive against Mr. Gore on strategic issues if he is to peel away more of Mr. Gore's labor-union support.
Earlier this year, Republicans vowed that the infamous statements Mr. Gore made in his book "Earth in the Balance" favoring higher gas taxes and the elimination of the internal-combustion engine would be drummed into the minds of every auto worker in Michigan, especially in Macomb. But that hasn't happened.
Tax cuts, too, have not resonated here as strongly as the Bush campaign had hoped among Macomb's middle-class voters despite polls showing that voters there believe the existing tax system is especially unfair toward people making $60,000 or less.
Surprisingly, a recent Michigan poll by Mr. Ballenger showed Macomb voters preferred Mr. Gore's modest, targeted tax-credit plan to Mr. Bush's across-the-board tax cut by 52 percent to 31 percent. That is especially disappointing when you consider that Mr. Gore's plan gives no tax-rate relief to anyone, while Mr. Bush's plan is weighted toward those in the lower-income tax brackets.
This means Mr. Bush is going to have to take the gloves off in Michigan if he is to cut into Mr. Gore's dominance on economic issues and duplicate the Reagan social and economic offensive that changed American politics two decades ago. But by late last week, Mr. Gore had the edge in Macomb, and with it the chance to carry the most pivotal battleground state in the Midwest.

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