- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Among all of the 2008 presidential battlegrounds, Democratic-leaning Michigan - with 8.5 percent unemployment and an auto-industry economy in deep recession - should be an easy slam-dunk for Sen. Barack Obama.

But the freshman senator from neighboring Illinois remains stuck in a dead heat in the state against Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who is “within striking distance of winning, strange as that may sound,” veteran Michigan election analyst Bill Ballenger said Tuesday.

Mr. Obama narrowly leads his Republican rival by 3.2 percent, 46 percent to 42.8 percent, according to the Real Clear Politics Web site, which tracks the presidential campaign polls and maintains a running state-by-state average for all of them.

“We have Obama with a 2 point lead, 43 percent to 41 percent, and a few months before that McCain held a 4 point lead,” said Michigan pollster Bernie Porn, president of EPIC/MRA. “With the economy the way it is and higher gas prices, it’s a perfect storm nationwide for the Democrats, but the race is tight here, and I think right now the undecideds would break for McCain.”

With its 17 electoral votes, Michigan is a pivotal Midwest target that Democrats have carried in the last several presidential elections, though it was close in 2004 when Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry won it by a 3.4 percent margin.

Mr. McCain won the state’s Republican primary in his battle for the nomination in 2000 against George W. Bush and has been back to the state numerous times since.

“McCain always had this spicy, maverick, independent streak that has appealed to Michigan voters. He is perceived as almost the anti-Bush, at least among swing Democrats and independents who might be persuaded to vote for a Republican under the right circumstances, as they did for Ronald Reagan,” said Mr. Ballenger who publishes a newsletter on Michigan politics.

While Mr. McCain must contend with a party whose brand has been tarnished as a result of an unpopular war, a weak economy and higher gas prices, the state’s Democrats are having their own troubles lately.

Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat in her second term, is being increasingly blamed by voters for her handling of the state’s troubled economy, and the Republican Party’s campaign to end the ban on increased offshore oil drilling has won support across the state’s political spectrum, pollsters said. Mr. Obama supports the moratorium.

“A 66 percent majority now supports offshore drilling, except in the Great Lakes, and even that is now close, with 45 percent in favor and 50 percent opposed,” Mr. Porn said.

“During the 2006 gubernatorial race, when we asked voters who do you blame for the state’s economic situation, they always blamed Bush more than Granholm. This last poll we did, they narrowly blamed Granholm more than Bush,” he said.

Part of Mr. Obama’s problem in Michigan stemmed from his decision to take his name off the Democratic primary ballot in a scheduling dispute with the national party’s rules. He has made four appearances in the state since then, but has strong backing by the state’s unions who are providing his campaign with an army of volunteers in a massive voter-registration and get-out-the-vote drive.

The reason the race is tight has more to do with the nature of the state and that Mr. Obama has still not fully defined himself to Michigan voters, Democrats say.

“Democrats have carried the state in the last four presidential elections, but never with more than 52 percent of the vote. This is always a swing state,” said Liz Kerr, communications director for the Michigan Democratic Party. “The voters are still getting to know Senator Obama here in Michigan, and the more they get to know him, the better he does in the polling.”