- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2000

George W. Bush is in a dead heat with Al Gore in Michigan's Macomb County amid predictions that whoever carries the famous political bellwether county will win the state and most likely the presidency.
Mr. Gore was running just four points ahead of his Texas Republican rival in this pivotal, heavily unionized, industrial battleground state home of the legendary Reagan-swing Democrats according to a CBS-New York Times poll. Other polls showed the race is even closer than that, with Mr. Gore running a razor-thin two points ahead in the latest Chicago Tribune poll.
But campaign strategists in both camps are paying especially close attention to Macomb, whose generally blue-collar swing voters have long been viewed as an accurate political barometer for the state and perhaps the nation.
Michigan Gov. John Engler, who is managing Mr. Bush's campaign in the state, says the Bush campaign's internal polls "show that it is very close and it's moving in our direction."
An independent poll conducted between Sept. 19 and Sept. 24 by political analyst and newsletter publisher Bill Ballenger showed that Mr. Bush was trailing Mr. Gore 44 percent to 41 percent statewide, with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader drawing 3 percent. But Mr. Gore was running ahead of Mr. Bush by just two points in Macomb County.
"Gore should be happy that he's even in the hunt in Macomb County because Democrats have carried it only once in the last 20 years and that was Bill Clinton in 1996," said Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus of EPIC/MRA. "He's getting back some of those conservative Democrats who have taken another look at him.
"But Gore's certainly not as strong here as Clinton was at this time among union workers," Mr. Sarpolus said.
By all rights, Mr. Bush should be doing better than he is in Macomb. It is a district where Mr. Engler's two dozen tax cuts have proven popular, where Mr. Bush's emphasis on education reforms play well and where his father, President Bush, beat Mr. Clinton in 1992.
"This is a pivotal bellwether county and could go either way. 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 Lansing-based pollster Steve Mitchell. It was an observation repeated by several other pollsters in the state.
Notably, Mr. Bush is leading Mr. Gore by 46 percent to 41 percent among nonunion voters statewide, according to the latest polls.
But in a state where nearly one out of every three voters lives in a union family, Mr. Gore is beating Mr. Bush by about 2-1 among union members, giving the vice president his narrow edge in Michigan and in Macomb County.
Still, national polls show that Mr. Bush has been drawing about 38 percent of union household voters and internal campaign polls show that he cuts into the union vote partly because of his support for gun owners and his pro-life position on abortion, among other issues.
But political analysts in the state say Mr. Bush is not playing these and other cultural and social issues that Ronald Reagan used in his 1980 and 1984 campaigns and that appeal to the labor vote in Macomb.
"Bush has soft-peddled a lot of these issues. There hasn't been the hard-edged rhetoric that you had in the 1980s with Reagan that led to the rise of the Reagan Democrats in Macomb," Mr. Ballenger said.
At the same time, Mr. Bush's proposed across-the-board tax cuts do not seem to be attracting majority support in Macomb.
"They prefer Gore's more modest targeted tax cuts by a margin of 52 to 31 percent," Mr. Ballenger said his poll showed. Statewide, Michigan voters who said they considered anyone making more than $100,000 to be "rich" preferred Mr. Gore's targeted tax credit plan 44 percent to 30 percent.
"Macomb is not particularly affluent. It's more blue collar, more working-class oriented. Gore's populist rhetoric of a smaller 'middle-class' tax cut and paying down the debt appeals to them more," Mr. Ballenger said.
Also missing from the Bush campaign offensive has been any mention of Mr. Gore's criticism against the internal combustion engine that the vice president leveled in his best-selling book on the environment, "Earth In The Balance."
The nation's automobile industry has headquarters in Macomb County and Mr. Gore's liberal views on environmental regulations, coupled with his earlier proposal for higher gasoline taxes, were expected to be drummed into the minds of voters before Election Day by the Republicans.
But Republican activists and pollsters in the state say the GOP and the Bush campaign have not made much of this issue so far, and when they have it has not had much traction.
"Bush hasn't been able to make the case to Macomb's swing Democrats that he would be better on the economy than Gore, or that Gore is a wild-eyed liberal Luddite on the subject of the internal combustion engine. It's just not playing here," Mr. Ballenger said.

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