East Lansing, Mich. — Surrounded by a group of Michigan State University students who are between classes, Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D) ticks off the names of a half dozen plants in the state that have closed or plan to close.
''Michigan is Exhibit A in terms of the shutdown of this nation's industrial base,'' he insists. ''We have a bona fide crisis in this state.''
Indeed, everyone in this auto-reliant, blue-collar state is aware that Michigan leads the nation in unemployment with a rate almost 6 percent above the national average. The issue of jobs is clearly No. 1 in this campaign. One sign of its priority: Both Democratic and GOP Senate candidates here advocate public works jobs - at least for the short term.
Many Michigan voters blame Republicans for much of the current economic trouble. All indications are that 1982 will be a Democratic year for Michigan's top political jobs.
Incumbent Riegle - a leading Senate strategist of the 1979 Chrysler bail-out legislation - is given a wide lead in most polls here over Republican Philip E. Ruppe, a former six-term congressman from Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
The race to succeed moderate Republican Gov. William Milliken is generating considerably more interest here than the Senate contest. US Rep. James Blanchard (D), a four-term congressman from a Detroit suburb, enjoys a significant lead over conservative Republican Richard Headlee, president of a Detroit insurance company. But Mr. Headlee, a vigorous campaigner with a hard-sell style that some listeners say borders on the evangelical, insists his polls put him only 5 or 6 points behind his opponent.
Michigan's undecided voters could still change the outcome. State GOP chairman Mel Larsen says recent Republican phone surveys indicate that as many as 50 percent of the voters are undecided.
Though the economy is the key issue, Mr. Ruppe has been trying hard to shift the focus in his race to the question of Senator Riegle's effectiveness. Some political analysts attribute this effort to the lack of interest in that contest and the absence of sharp differences on issues between the two candidates. Riegle is a former Republican who left the party over the Vietnam war and Ruppe is a moderate Republican who favors Defense Department cuts, has a strong civil rights record, and is against social program cuts.
One Ruppe aide suggests that Riegle is overly ambitious, lacks the respect of his colleagues, has done little to increase the flow of federal dollars to Michigan, and cannot get hearings scheduled on his own proposals.
''He has conducted a negative campaign from the beginning - he's distorted my record,'' Riegle tells the Michigan students who are asking about the ads and why they should vote for him. He tells them he is running a counter ad that might otherwise appear ''boastful,'' citing recent awards for outstanding service from the National Council of Senior Citizens and the National Association of Towns and Townships for outstanding accomplishment.
Ruppe press aide Mary Mead defends her candidate's strategy: ''The No. 1 issue in any campaign is who is the most effective leader to do the job. Somebody had to expose his (Riegle's) record and certainly Riegle wasn't about to do it.''
One criticism from some of Riegle's Washington colleagues - that he is too Michigan-oriented - suits him just fine right now.
''Yeah, I'm pretty parochial,'' he says as he pumps the hands of workers rushing to the parking lot after their shift ends at a Lansing Oldsmobile plant. ''I do concentrate intensively on Michigan's problems and I properly should. This state is in the deepest trouble of any, and I feel an obligation to try to turn that around.''
Ruppe is termed ''the wrong man at the wrong time'' by some political analysts here. He faces an uphill fight for money as well as votes. He is expected to dip into his own ample pockets (he owns some oil and gas wells and the family of his wife, Loret, who heads the Peace Corps, once owned the Miller Brewing Company) to finance the last days of the campaign. But he in effect gets a free five-minute ad on many Michigan TV stations this week because the Democratic National Committee chose Riegle to make the party's five-minute response to the President's televised Oct. 13 economic speech. Ruppe, contending the Democrats could have chosen someone who wasn't up for reelection this year, has been given equal time by most stations here.
In the governor's race, Headlee, a former president of the US Jaycees and the father of nine children, is actively supported by former Michigan Gov. George Romney. Headlee stresses that his extensive business experience is exactly what's needed to improve the state's economy. He criticizes Mr. Blanchard's close ties to labor and his experience in government as too limited. The GOP candidate has also run negative ads, attacking Blanchard's record.
Blanchard, who chose former US Rep. Martha Griffiths as his running mate, has reunited the somewhat divided labor, black, and academic factions of the state Democratic Party. Headlee picked a conservative running mate for lieutenant governor and appears to be making little effort to reach moderate and left-of-center voters.
Headlee appears to be in some trouble with women voters. He opposes abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment and has made what some women consider insensitive statements about women's worth. Some prominent Michigan Republicans, including former GOP chairwoman Elly Peterson, support the Blanchard ticket in this race. Headlee insists he has been misunderstood.