In Michigan, three in tight G.O.P. race

The state's economic woes are the central focus for Romney, McCain, and Huckabee before Tuesday's primary.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Native son: Mitt Romney with his wife, Ann. Romney's father, shown in the portrait, was Michigan's governor in the 1960s.
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    Business: John McCain with Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard CEO, in Warren, Mich., Saturday.
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    On the road to Michigan: Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee speaks at a campaign stop at William Brice Stadium at the University of South Carolina in Col
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Just three days before Michigan's Republican primary, Van Siegling still can't make up his mind.

A Department of Defense worker who attended the US Marine Corps Command and Staff College, he admires Sen. John McCain's war position and military experience.

As someone concerned about Michigan's plummeting economy – he figures his home has lost $20,000 in value in less than two years – he's drawn to native Michigander Mitt Romney. He likes Mr. Romney's promise of using private-sector ideas to make government run more efficiently.

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"I'm leaning toward McCain because of the military angle," says Mr. Siegling, a Kalamazoo resident. "But running government as a business? That would be true change as opposed to just talking about change."

The next key test in a wide-open GOP contest hinges upon people like Siegling and no clear favorite has emerged. Mr. Romney is a native son whose father was a popular three-term governor here in the 1960s.

Senator McCain won this state's presidential primary in 2000, and has a surge of momentum coming off his recent New Hampshire win. He hopes to benefit from independent and Democratic voters crossing over to vote in the GOP primary.

And former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who didn't even have a campaign presence in Michigan a week ago, has found a welcome audience for his message of economic populism in a state already in recession.

"It's a three-way tie," says Ed Sarpolus, an independent pollster in Lansing, Mich. "And I can easily point out the positives and negatives for all three of them."

In most recent polls, McCain and Romney have been neck and neck, with Huckabee trailing slightly. But many voters are still uncertain: Two polls over the weekend showed that about half of Michigan voters are either undecided or may change their mind before Tuesday's contest. Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Sen. Fred Thompson, and Rep. Ron Paul are polling in single digits.

McCain, Romney, and Huckabee all have a lot at stake in this primary – the first big state to weigh in – though none more so than Romney. After two second-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire – despite spending more money than any other candidate – Michigan is Romney's best chance before Super Tuesday, when 22 states weigh in, to show that he can win. It's a state where he has name recognition and family history, where he owns one of his three homes and has already spent some $3 million on television ads.

"Everything's riding on it for Romney," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "At a certain point, you really do have to win."

In his rallies here, Romney is doing everything he can to remind people of his ties to the state and convince them that he'll have Michigan's interests at heart if he takes office.

"When I lived here, Michigan was the envy of the world," Romney tells a group of cheering supporters during a rally at the Battle Creek airport. "Our roots are very deep here, and I will not rest as president until Michigan is mended again, and the pride of the nation."

It's a message that resonates with some here, especially those who are more conservative or who are old enough to remember his father.

"We need a manager and we need a leader," says Sandy Morgan, as she waits with her husband for a Romney rally to begin. They attended the Salt Lake City Olympics, she says, and "it was smooth as silk." McCain, as far as she's concerned, is "a liberal – a wolf in sheep's clothing."

All three candidates are focusing heavily on Michigan's economy, with slightly different tacks. John McCain reinforced his "straight-talker" image as he admitted that many lost manufacturing jobs are not likely to come back. Instead, he emphasized job retraining and education to help those laid off.

Governor Huckabee, like Romney, waxed nostalgic for the state's glory days and remembered when Michigan manufacturing plants were able to shift gears to make weapons for World War II.

"This country owes Michigan a lot for its freedom," he told a packed ballroom at the Amway Grand Hotel in Grand Rapids. "Michigan helped save America. Now it's time that America helps save Michigan."

Huckabee's surge has been a surprise to many political observers. Michigan is a moderate state, with less of a religious base than Iowa, where Huckabee won the caucuses. But some 20 to 30 percent of Republicans who vote in the Michigan primary consider themselves evangelical, and Huckabee is doing well among many in that group.

He's also finding fertile ground in his appeal to blue-collar workers. Many support his plan to replace income and other taxes with an across-the-board consumption tax, the "fair tax" proposal. "I'm a small-business owner, and that would help my business so much," says Tim Palomaki, a service provider for the auto industry, at a Huckabee rally with his wife and three children.

Samantha McCrea, an X-ray technician, says when she casts her vote for Huckabee on Tuesday it will be the first time she's ever voted for a Republican. She likes the way he appeals to her "faith in the nation" and his authenticity.

"I like that he doesn't change from debate to debate," she says. Ms. McCrea's vote represents one of the big wild cards in Tuesday's election. Any Michigander can vote in the primary, regardless of party affiliation. Eight years ago, independents helped deliver the state to McCain over George W. Bush. This time, even more independents and Democrats may choose to vote in the Republican primary since the Democratic contest has less meaning: Hillary Rodham Clinton is the only major candidate whose name is on the ballot.

Charlotte Houseman, a retired English teacher at the Huckabee rally, says she's generally a Clinton supporter, but because the Democratic primary matters less, she's likely to vote for McCain – whom she also likes. "I might be a switch-over," she says.

A large showing by such independents and Democrats could have a big influence on the race, says Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. "Will most of those voters go to John McCain? Probably they will, but Huckabee might cut into that. Romney would be the loser in that scenario. It's more the rank and file that find Romney appealing."

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