FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. - To the several hundred folks who packed the Birmingham Temple auditorium Tuesday night, there was little debate about the last debate. The heavily liberal audience came to hear famed author Garry Wills denounce vouchers, and stayed to watch George Bush and Al Gore projected on a large screen.
Silent at first, they got steadily more animated as it became clear that Mr. Bush was giving his weakest performance of the three debates. They scoffed and groaned at what they thought were weak or offending responses by the Republican, and even cheered Mr. Gore when he landed what they felt to be a zinger.
When it was over, the hundred or so remaining suburbanites, many of them Jewish retirees, were mostly upbeat. But these are folks who voted overwhelmingly for Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. And though they think Mr. Gore did well, more than one muttered “I don't know whether it will be enough,” as others nodded.
“It all depends on turnout,” one elderly woman said.
That's something everyone agrees on. Who votes and how many of them vote will determine who wins the state. And Michigan - like the nation - is more closely contested than it has been since 1960. That year, the state see-sawed back and forth on Election Night until John F. Kennedy finally won it early the next morning.
Michigan hasn't been really close in any election since. Bill Clinton won it twice easily; the Republicans took it four times in a row before that. This year, nobody pretends to know. The blue-collar voters who matter have yet to warm up to either man.
Some think seniors galvanized by the battle over prescription drug coverage may turn out in droves - which could be good news for Mr. Gore. However, Ralph Nader's presence could tip the state to Mr. Bush.
But as exciting - and nationally important - as the presidential race is, Michigan politicians have their eye on three other contests, too, some of which many care more about than the presidency. Here's how things stand 16 days before the big one.
U.S. Senate: Probably the most surprising development so far is the near-collapse of Democrat U.S. Rep. Debbie Stabenow's campaign against incumbent Spencer Abraham. A year ago, even top GOP politicians were calling “Spence” a goner. Not a compelling speaker or a natural politician, he was largely unknown by his constituents and had a voting record much to the right of statewide sentiment.
But huge financial resources coupled with an astonishingly inept Stabenow campaign have given Mr. Abraham a 50 per cent to 36 per cent lead. Mr. Abraham has outspent her by $8.2 million to $4.8 million, most of it on heavily intense TV advertising, much of it designed to paint a negative, ultra-liberal portrait of her.
Her own ads have been widely seen as weak. Worse, Ms. Stabenow has failed to create a strong positive image of herself, or tar the incumbent with an “ultra-right” brush. The margin may narrow, but it is hard to see her winning. On the plus side for Democrats, State Sen. Dianne Byrum is favored slightly over Mike Rogers in the race for the Lansing-area congressional seat Ms. Stabenow is vacating.
Statewide Proposals: This year there are two. Proposal 2, “Let Local Votes Count,” is, whatever else they say, a direct reaction to the Michigan Legislature's takeover of the Detroit schools last year. Proposal 2 would amend the state constitution requiring a two-thirds “super majority” for the Legislature to pass any law affecting local government.
Nearly every interest group now opposes this as an unwieldy bureaucratic nightmare, and polls show support for it still strong, but dropping rapidly.
Proposal I is the famous “voucher” proposal, which, though it is being billed as a “teacher testing” proposal, would essentially allow students to get vouchers to attend private school at taxpayer expense in troubled districts, or where districts vote to allow their residents to choose vouchers.
This is savagely opposed by the Michigan Education Association and other teacher groups, which contend it would destroy quality public education in the state. Supporters say it is the only hope for poor kids trapped in places (largely Detroit) where the public schools are failing. This race is thought to be tough to call.
Redistricting Wars: Michigan Democrats have something they want more than a state victory for Mr. Gore. They want control of the Michigan House, now 58-52 Republican, or the Michigan Supreme Court. Why? Without one of those bodies, the GOP will have a free hand in drawing new district lines next year.
The odds don't favor the Democrats. Bill Ballenger, the shrewd editor of Inside Michigan Politics, thinks they may pick up a seat in the House, but not much more
As for the Supreme Court, Dems would have to knock off all three GOP incumbents, each of whom was appointed to the bench by Gov. John Engler. Beating one looks quite possible, but knocking off all three far less likely.
Yet nothing is ever certain until the counting, and this year, it's far less so than ever.
Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman and a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit. E-mail him at OMBLADE@aol.com or call 1-888-746-8610.