It all comes down to Michigan

Recognizing its importance, both George W. Bush and Al Gore are storming the state.

Dave Ciampa hangs up the phone and grins broadly, then fills in the circle on his form with a No. 2 pencil. Another voter contacted. Another potential vote for George W. Bush.

At this Republican "victory center" in suburban Detroit - a large room filled with telephones and pizza - volunteers are contacting voters who have asked for absentee ballots. Their job is to locate supporters of the GOP nominee and make sure he gets their votes. On the Democratic side, unions dominate get-out-the-vote efforts - with phone banks, door-to-door leafletting, and worker-to-worker contact during lunch and at shift changes.

In a way, Michigan is turning into a general-election version of New Hampshire at primary time.

The zeal of volunteers is palpable. The state is crawling with national media. Bush and rival Al Gore have been here early and often, and almost daily, surrogates are on the stump. Michigan - often a reflection of the national vote - looks like it will be one of the decisive states.

Just two weeks before the election, the race is so tight that a recent statewide poll in the Detroit News put the margin between Bush and Mr. Gore at one vote. That represents a decline for Gore, who until recently maintained a slight edge.

"What it comes down to is who will do the best job in the ground game, who can deliver their voters," says Steve Mitchell, the Michigan pollster who conducted the Detroit News poll.

Here in affluent Oakland County, there's a little extra oomph to the volunteers' phone calls: Republicans still dominate local politics, but the county is diversifying. Democrats and independents, many of them the children of the fabled "Reagan Democrats" in working-class Macomb County next door, are moving in.

There's also now a substantial black professional population here, who largely vote Democratic. Analysts say Oakland County is on the verge of becoming the bellwether for the state - and even the nation - that Macomb County was once seen to be.

That sense of import comes through on the phone. "People are starting to care," says Mr. Ciampa, a sheriff's deputy in neighboring Wayne County. "They've been told by people this is ground zero. They actually feel, 'I'm important.' "

Wooed by Bush

The Bush campaign itself is showing Oakland County just how important it believes it is. On the night of the first presidential debate, Bush domestic policy director Steve Goldsmith came to the Farmington Hills victory center to preside over the festivities. For the third debate, former national GOP chair Haley Barbour was the honored guest.

Elsewhere, surrogates are standing in for both men. National Rifle Association head Charlton Heston has been here for Bush to woo gun-owning union voters.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson has come through to turn out the black vote for Gore.

The "W is for Women" tour - featuring Bush's wife and mother and the wife of his running mate - stopped in nearby Southfield last week to appeal to the women of Oakland County.

But the biggest surrogates of all - Sen. John McCain and President Clinton - haven't been here yet with the top candidates. Senator McCain, who won the crucial Michigan primary last winter, and nearly stole the GOP nomination from Bush, appeared in Michigan with Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, last weekend.

But, Republicans here believe, an appearance with Bush himself may help seal votes from some of the 650,805 Michiganders who chose McCain in February.

For Gore, the key to Michigan - the most unionized state in the country, encompassing about 40 percent of the labor force - is the union vote.

The latest poll in the Detroit Free Press shows Gore's union support at 51 percent, down from his post-convention numbers, but higher than they were in the spring.

Unions soft on Gore?

Publicly, union officials in Michigan are optimistic that they can deliver enough votes for Gore, as they focus on worker to worker contact over the high-priced television ads of previous elections. On issues affecting working people, leaders say, such as family leave, healthcare, and wages, Gore is an easy sell.

But privately, some are worried that Gore's support of free trade with China - a big blow to the unions, which fear job loss abroad - could cost him votes. Two big unions, the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters, withheld their endorsements of Gore until later in the campaign, and some union activists say that has dampened energy among the rank and file.

Still, the official union effort here is massive - and in a dead-heat, every vote matters. Green Party nominee Ralph Nader is polling at about 2 percent, and isn't gaining much traction among union voters, despite their shared views on trade.

"Nader is not a threat," says pollster Ed Sarpolus. "Most of his voters wouldn't be voting otherwise."

Perhaps the bigger danger for Gore among union members is a proposal in his 1992 book, "Earth in the Balance," that the internal combustion engine be phased out.

In a campaign appearance in Michigan Sunday, Bush's father, the former president, tried to play on concerns that a President Gore would hurt the auto industry.

Dennis Henry, head of UAW Local 160 in Macomb County, dismisses the notion that Gore's environmentalism could hurt him among union workers. "Do workers really think Gore wants the end of the car?" he says. "Not at all."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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