Deciphering the color code on the electoral map

Howard Dean came to this state last week and abruptly left. He had wanted to make a stand in Michigan against the sudden John Kerry juggernaut. But when he arrived and put his finger to the wind he decided that the whole thing might need some rethinking.

He got back on a plane and announced that his stand had been postponed until Feb. 17 in Wisconsin, where, he says, if he doesn't win he'll drop out. Not that anyone really cared that much. By Sunday morning here everyone could read the writing on the wall. Dr. Dean can stand if he wants or sit if he likes; the race for the Democratic nomination is all but over.

After victories in five of seven contests, John Kerry didn't just win Michigan. He took the biggest delegate prize in the nomination race so far without working up a sweat, without breathing heavily - 52 percent versus 17 percent for Dean and, perhaps even more important, only 13 percent for the man some consider Senator Kerry's real opponent now, John Edwards. And across the country, he also stomped his opposition in Washington State.

There's still some tidying to be done around the edges. The last stands of Senator Edwards and Wesley Clark are still to be announced - not to mention the tearful "I just missed by a few million votes" speeches from Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich - but the general election more or less began when the polls closed Saturday night.

Let the speculation begin.

This Detroit suburb is an interesting place from which to view a potential John Kerry versus George W. Bush race. A neatly laid-out mix of strip malls and middle-class homes developed in the past 30 years, it is the picture of an American political battleground in 2004. Political analysts like to break the country into a duotone map, red for Republican states and blue for Democratic ones. But lines can be blurry, colors often run, and in red and blue America, Sterling Heights is about as purple an enclave as one will find.

People here are leery of government power, but they don't dismiss it out of hand. Republicanism here is more moderate in general than it is nationally. And while faith is important to voters here, they aren't necessarily interested in having politicians that quote scripture. In 2000, Al Gore won Michigan by 5 percent, 51 to 46, but Sterling Heights went for Mr. Bush by 1,400 votes, or 2.5 percent. The precincts here were split, 32 for Bush and 26 for Mr. Gore.

And in 2004, voters here sound a lot like the nation in general. Most people who voted for Bush last time say they are going to vote for him again. Those who voted against him are ready to cast their votes for Kerry. But the few undecided voters that you find here, and there are few, are Bush 2000 voters who are not completely happy - and Kerry has generated interest. They want to learn more and they will listen closely to him, but they like his experience and, most important, they are open to change.

So here in purple America, there are signs of problems for the president. The unemployment rate here is not particularly high - it sits slightly below the national average - but people are uneasy. There are more than a few empty storefronts here. Even the president's supporters wonder about the planning behind the war in Iraq.

And on top of all these concerns, even driving these concerns, may be one problem the president can do nothing about: timing.

For the first three years of his term, the Bush did not face serious scrutiny. Critics attack his policies, but voters largely gave him the benefit of the doubt. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and then the Iraq war put the American people where they often are in times of national crisis and war - behind the president. As those issues fade, Bush is bound to face what all presidents face - a reconsideration by voters.

Normally that reconsideration happens when a president is years away from reelection and his opposition is largely unorganized. But President Bush faces this environment with an election only 10 months away. Following Michigan, he faces a Democratic Party that is organized and will soon fall in line behind one voice. And in places like Sterling Heights that combination of issues could be enough to turn purple into blue.

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