LANSING, MICH. — It's one of America's most closely watched congressional races. A self-made millionaire and Gingrich acolyte is taking on a centrist Democratic mom with a flair for campaigning.
The race, so far, is tight. Polls show Republican freshman Rep. Dick Chrysler, representing Michigan's Eighth District, lagging slightly behind former state Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
The race is garnering attention, not only as a sort of referendum on the Contract With America, but as a "swing district" indicator. It's also seen as a test of the influence of labor money in congressional campaigns. Representative Chrysler's seat is one of 19 that Democrats need to regain control of the House of Representatives.
Mindful of that and the 18 presidential electoral votes at stake, Bob Dole spent two days campaigning here in Michigan this week, and President Clinton chose Detroit for a major foreign policy speech on Oct. 22.
The Eighth District, which stretches from East Lansing up to Flint, is considered a swing district because it could go to either major party. It is hardly a Republican stronghold. Mr. Clinton carried the district in 1992, and it had a Democrat representing it before Chrysler.
"Dick Chrysler got swept into Congress because of the national Republican tide in 1994," says David Rohde, a professor of political science at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "The real test for control of the House rests in districts like Chrysler's. That's why so much attention and money is being spent on this race."
With the help of $2.7 million in television advertisements from the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, and the Democratic National Committee, Democrats see Chrysler as vulnerable. He won the central Michigan seat by 7 percentage points in 1994.
This year, however, the dynamics have changed considerably. House Speaker Newt Gingrich - who orchestrated the so-called Republican revolution - has seen his popularity sink among voters. Equally striking is Clinton's turnaround since the sweeping GOP victories two years ago. The latest polls show Clinton holds a double-digit lead in Michigan.
The vulnerability of the Republicans nationally is also what persuaded Ms. Stabenow, a former state representative, to challenge Chrysler. Her popularity was evident at a recent parade in Webberville - a traditionally Republican stronghold about 25 minutes east of Lansing.
"I don't think people understood what the Republican Contract was all about," says Stabenow, hopping down off a vintage-1940 John Deere tractor she rode for several blocks through the heart of town. "We saw such extremism by my opponent with regard to Medicare and education. The real issue for voters this November will be who can best represent middle-class families."
If Chrysler is worried about his chances for reelection, he certainly doesn't show it. The softspoken businessman - who made his fortune with the patent for automobile "T-tops" - has the demeanor of a confident incumbent. Mr. Gingrich has flown in twice to support Chrysler.
Far from disavowing his agenda, Chrysler boasts of GOP attempts to balance the budget, reform welfare, save Medicare, and provide tax relief to working families. Wearing a Detroit Lions leather jacket during a recent campaign stop, he comfortably talked with his constituents about politics and pets at the Humane Society's Dog-walk-a-thon in his hometown of Brighton.
"I can honestly look at everyone and say, 'I told you what I was going to do, and I kept my word, and what you see is what you get'," says Chrysler. "Voting for good legislation is going to help me in this election."
Each side claims the opposition is out of step with the constituents. Chrysler speaks often of Stabenow's liberal voting record when she represented a good chunk of the district in both the Michigan State House and Senate. His campaign ads focus on the 79 times Stabenow voted for tax increases. Stabenow says that Chrysler's voting record does not match majority opinion in the district. She reminds voters about his votes on the environment, welfare reform, education, and his opposition to the minimum- wage increase.
The other battle being waged in the district is on the airwaves. The AFL-CIO - an umbrella organization for 78 unions - began broadcasting ads against Chrysler early this year and new commercials highlighting the congressman's votes on the minimum wage and Medicare pop up daily. The war was joined in September by Republican proxies, when some of the nation's largest business organizations linked forces as "The Coalition" and began airing their own ads in defense of Chrysler.
But so far, the AFL-CIO's advertising blitz has been "like acid" on Chrysler, says Peter Snyder a Republican pollster for Luntz Research in Arlington, Va. "With a district that consists primarily of blue-collar voters, when you get to November, the union campaign will have hurt Dick Chrysler, period," says Mr. Snyder.