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Michigan primary too close to call
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2000
SAGINAW, Mich. -- House painter Dan Revesz took Washington's Birthday off to sit on the wooden bleachers in the Heritage High School gym and hold a hand-lettered sign declaring, "One Bush was Enough."
Revesz, 53, is an independent voter who supported Bill Clinton in 1992, then became disgusted with the president and voted for Ross Perot in 1996. He will vote for John McCain today instead of George W. Bush in Michigan's Republican primary.
"When he was in that North Vietnam prison camp and they tortured him and beat him, they said he could go home and he said, "No, if my bros don't go, I don't go home,' " Revesz said Monday afternoon as he waited for the McCain rally to start. "What a man."
The outcome in today's election hinges on how many votes McCain gets from independent voters like Revesz, as well as from Democrats who also can vote in the Republican primary here.
The former prisoner of war is expected to win his home state of Arizona today; Bush is not even bothering to stop there on his way to campaign in California. But Michigan appears to be a dead heat, and McCain needs a win here to prevent his insurgent effort from stalling.
In New Hampshire, enough independents and Democrats joined with Republicans who voted for McCain to enable the senator to stun Bush. In South Carolina on Saturday, their numbers weren't nearly enough to offset the flood of conservative Republicans who overwhelmingly supported the Texas governor.
Those were minor league contests compared to Michigan.
There are 6.9-million voters here, and a record 1-million of them could cast ballots today. The number of votes could exceed the combined total cast in New Hampshire and South Carolina. The number of convention delegates at stake in Michigan, 58, also is more than the total awarded in the two previous big-name primaries.
Michigan is the first large state to hold its primary in this accelerated 2000 election schedule. It is the first where television ads and spin are the undisputed kings and campaign events provide backdrops for TV cameras rather than opportunities for candidates to sway individual voters.
New Hampshire, where McCain held 114 town hall meetings, has one network television station. Michigan has eight television markets, and McCain held interviews by satellite for seven of them Monday.
Voters from Grand Rapids to Detroit to Saginaw say they are sick of the negative ads and barbs from both Bush and McCain.
The Texas governor continues to attack McCain on television for comparing him to Clinton in terms of truthfulness, even though McCain never ran the ad in Michigan. The National Right to Life group is criticizing the Arizona senator in radio spots, despite McCain's opposition to abortion. The McCain campaign also intercepted a taped message to voters from conservative activist Pat Robertson, trashing the senator on abortion and other issues.
McCain hit back again Monday, claiming Bush is campaigning by "character assassination." His campaign has telephoned thousands of voters to urge them to beware of negative attacks.
"It irritates me," said Pat Granowiez, a 42-year-old sales representative for DuPont in the Detroit area. "I want to hear the issues. I don't want to hear them talk about each other."
The issues and trends in Michigan are typical of larger states.
Education remains a key concern even as voters see different problems. In Detroit, some Democrats are angry that Bush's top supporter, Gov. John Engler, and the Legislature eliminated the locally elected school board. In more conservative Grand Rapids to the west, several Republican voters said they are disappointed the governor is not backing a ballot initiative for tuition vouchers.
Some of the rust has chipped off the Rust Belt city of Detroit, which is dominated by Democrats who have been advised by Mayor Dennis Archer's aides to vote for McCain.
The sprawling downtown Renaissance Center is undergoing an expensive face lift, and there are plans for more development along the Detroit River. The number of high-tech industries are up; the number of union workers are down.
But there are still plenty of run-down neighborhoods and abandoned buildings in the state's biggest city. "On Michigan Avenue you have got blocks and blocks of empty buildings," said Anthony Pillars, a cab driver who has lived in the city 30 years. "There are not enough hotel rooms, not enough parking spots."
Bush and McCain have spent far less time than they did in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and Pillars was among several voters who were still undecided. He thought Bush's record in Texas generally sounded good, but he noted plenty of voters like McCain's war record.
McCain's military heroics drew 18-year-old Justin Kalmes from nearby Bay City to the senator's rally Monday in Saginaw. Kalmes said he has been accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy, where McCain graduated fifth from the bottom of his class. The teenager held McCain's book, Faith of My Fathers, which recounts the senator's military experiences and those of his father and grandfather.
"He's a role model," Kalmes said. "My parents are both Democrats. I told them both to vote for McCain just so Bush won't get the nomination."
As in other states, personal character rises above specifics about tax cuts and education policy. There is an eagerness to move past President Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
"I am Joe Lunch Bucket, you know what I'm saying?" said Revesz, the house painter supporting McCain. "I want what's right for the country. We need dignity in the White House."
Bush supporters say the Texas governor also would achieve that goal.
"He sounds like he is honest and sincere," retiree Mary Jantosz said after a Bush rally Sunday night in Grand Rapids. "He's a family man, and he's proud of it. Character is so important, particularly after Clinton."
So as the ground game of attacks and counter-attacks continued Monday, the two Republican candidates for president polished their images.
Bush, the son of the former president backed by every Republican member of Congress in Michigan, spoke to the ultimate establishment group: the Economic Club of Detroit.
More than 1,000 listeners, nearly all middle-aged white men, filled the banquet room in Cobo Hall downtown as Bush sold his tax cuts, promoted free trade and ignored McCain. The Michigan governor sat at his arm, feeding him questions such as one about Gore's position that the internal combustion engine should be phased out in several years.
"I look forward to him campaigning up here and saying, "My vision for America is one where you won't be working,' " said Bush.
Later at the high school in Saginaw, McCain wore his underdog status as a badge of honor.
"I'm just like Luke Skywalker trying to get out of the Death Star," the white-haired senator said in a gym filled with high school students. "I'm telling you, they're shooting at me from everywhere. Everybody's against me. Gov. Engler. Gov. Bush. All the governors. All the senators. But were gonna kill 'em, right, we're gonna get 'em."
At end of his speech McCain recounted how a fellow prisoner of war in Vietnam made a small American flag with a bamboo needle so the inmates could daily recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The prisoner received a beating from their captors but began making another tiny flag.
"When I'm in your presence, sometimes I think of Mike Christian, because out there is the same nobility, the same sacrifice which has made us such wonderful, wonderful people," McCain said.
Then air cannons shot confetti and tiny pieces of colored paper into the air as loudspeakers blared the theme from Star Wars.
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