It will take more than shirt-sleeve pleas from state-fair gazebos and lunches with workers at auto plants for Ronald Reagan to drive away with the Michigan's elec toral votes.
Much of the GOP nominee's 1980 game plan rides with his appeal to the largely Democratic, ethnic, working-class voters found in Michigan -- whose auto industry has served as the pace car for American recession, unemployment, and loss of competitive edge to foreign products.
The target is not Michigan alone, but the several Great Lakes states -- Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin -- with concentrations of auto assembly plants and rubber, steel, and other auto-related industries. Even Pennsylvania shares a Great Lakes Coast and the region's jobless doldrums.
But in Michigan, a key test of his success, Mr. Reagan has a narrow edge at best. In the absence of polls, nobody is quite sure just where the race stands. Republican Gov. William G. Milliken -- himself adept at winning Democratic workers's votes -- puts Reagan "a little ahead."
Milliken, hosting Reagan's two-day Michigan visit this week, indicated the GOP nominee must go beyond fault-finding with Carter and spell out his own steps to aid Michigan industry. So far, Reagan has mentioned broad-gauge economic solutions, such as tax cuts to spur business investment and cutting government red tape so US industry can better compete abroad.
Reagan told Detroit auto workers Tuesday at Chrysler's Jefferson plant: "Jimmy Carter has promised Detroit his administration will ease the burden of regulation by tinkering with a few environmental test procedures. I can promise you my administration won't do just a little tinkering. We'll give government regulation a major overhaul, and prove you don't have to lay people off to have clean air, safe cars, and good fuel economy.
"It's time to get the heavy hand of government off the backs of American industry, and that's just what I'd like to do."
He added: "There . . . is a place where government can be legitimately involved -- and that is to convince the Japanese that in one way or another, and for their own best interests, that deluge of their cars into the United States must be slowed while our industry gets back on its feet."
Reagan did not indicate how we would bring pressure to bear on the Japanese. An aide said later he was not talking about import restrictions, but rather diplomatic talks with Japanese officials. He also was not proposing legislative remedies, according to the aide.
As to the Reagan-Carter contest in Michigan, a neutral observer of state politics says: "It's a watery situation. Carter may actually be ahead now. But this state can still be won or lost by either man.
"Milliken's very popular here, and he's pulling out all the tops for Reagan. Ford's going to stump this state heavily for Reagan. Labor's going to do as much as it can for Carter.
"Milliken may be the key," said the source. "He thinks Reagan can win. More people are out of work in this state than any time since the '30s. The state's unemployment is more than 14 percent. Flinths unemployment is the highest in the nation.
"But Michigan is an Anderson state, too. There are more independents in Michigan than anybody else. The lead could change four times by election day."
In interviews, Michigan voters reflect a feeling that Mr. Carter let them bear the brunt of anti-inflation policy -- a point they thought he tried to avoid by skipping the once- traditional Detroit Labor Day parade appearance by Democratic presidential nominees. But they are not sure Reagan is their man either.
"No one really knows who Ronnie is," says Bruce Penner, a young food broker who lives at the southern end of the Toledo-Detroit-Bay City auto plant axis.
"I'm not thrilled with any of the three," Mr. Penner says. "I wish there was a box on the ballot for none of the above.
"Jimmy Carter finally realizes what he's up against -- but it's a little late. If Reagan can keep his foot out of his mouth, Reagan can win. There's general dissatisfaction with Carter.
"It's a miserable choice. You don't hear people talking over lunch about the election. The issues are very undefined. and who knows what Reagan would do differently?
"Who's been letting all those little Japanese cars come in here? It's really Chrysler's, GM's, and Ford's fault. The gut problem is people won't buy the big hog. But Jimmy carter takes the heat."
Guy Ramazetti, a shopworker from Allen Park -- and a neighbor of the family visited by Reagan for a Labor Day barbecue with jobless Detroiters -- has never voted for a Republican before. He finds it hard to think of going to the polls at all in 1980.
"They're the same," he says of the nominees. "It's stupid for Reagan to say Taiwan is China, Mainland China is China. There's a billion people in mainland China.
"I never did vote Republican before. But now the Democrats blew it. They're not for the workingman any more. Carter can't be trusted. On things like medical care he promised one thing and did the opposite." Mr. Ramazetti seems inclined to follow Governor Milliken's lead. "Milliken's a very good governor," Ramazetti said. "He's not a conservative. He's a real middle-of-the-roader. A lot of Democrats voted for him and a lot will vote Republican this time. They don't know what Reagan is going to do, but they sure know what Carter is."