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Published: Friday, 7/7/2006

Congressional race may decide future of Michigan's GOP

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - U.S. Rep. John J. "Joe" Schwarz has been a sailor (U.S. Navy Vietnam veteran) a state senator, and a spy. He is also a physician, a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, and has been heartily endorsed for re-election by President George W. Bush.

So why does he have a strong challenge from the right in the Aug. 8 Republican primary? And how can his opponent say that he is "just too liberal" to represent his district in Congress?

"Well, I think they are delusional," Mr. Schwarz, at 68 the nation's oldest freshman congressman, says with a hearty laugh.

His opponent, Tim Walberg, 55, a former state representative and fundamentalist preacher, isn't laughing.

"Joe is out of touch with the Seventh Congressional District," says his opponent, who lives in the Lenawee County town of Tipton. "We need someone who will represent our values in Congress."

Welcome to what is expected to be Michigan's closest - and most closely watched - race for Congress in either the primary or the general election this year. The Seventh Congressional District extends from the Ann Arbor suburbs down through Lenawee and Hillsdale Counties and out to Battle Creek, where Joe Schwarz was mayor and state senator for many years.

What this is really all about is social issues. Mr. Schwarz is not exactly part of the counter-culture. A tall, bear-like man, he is a dedicated University of Michigan football fan and a railroad buff. But he believes abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare," a view that amounts to heresy in some GOP circles these days.

Long regarded as an authority on higher education, the congressman is in favor of keeping the state's colleges and universities well-funded and competitive.

He is not in favor of single-payer health care, but does think our system badly needs reform. He opposes drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. He doesn't like gay marriage, but doesn't think we need a constitutional amendment to ban it.

Nor does he think everyone should have the right to carry a concealed weapon. Those views are all anathema to Tim Walberg, who for many years was a fund-raiser for the Chicago-based Moody Bible Institute. For him, this is a battle for the Seventh District's soul. He brags that during 16 years in the legislature, he "never voted for a tax increase, compiled a 100 percent pro-life voting record, and earned a lifetime rating of A-plus from the National Rifle Association."

The district, it ought to be noted, isn't Utah. Yes, it is Republican, but not overwhelmingly so. President Clinton carried it. President Bush did, too, but won with only 51 percent and 54 percent.

Yet the GOP primary voters are a much more conservative universe. Two years ago, Mr. Schwarz easily beat Mr. Walberg, 28 percent to 18 percent, but they had company.

Four other candidates, including the outgoing congressman's son, were in the race. All the others also were more socially conservative than Joe Schwarz. Had he had only one opponent, many reasoned, he might have lost. Since then, however, he has worked hard at shoring up support. One of his 2004 opponents, Gene DeRossett, who got 11 percent, is endorsing the congressman this time.

Both of this year's candidates have an out-of-state ace in the hole. Mr. Walberg has been endorsed by the Washington D.C.-based Club for Growth, a free-market group that is pouring money into his campaign. But Mr. Schwarz has the man whom he calls the nation's most popular political figure, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

The two are old political and personal friends, and the senator has repeatedly campaigned for the congressman across the district. Mr. Walberg, however, has the muscle of Michigan Right to Life, a powerful factor in today's Republican Party.

The race will be expensive; both sides may well spend more than $1 million, a sum thatcauses Mr. Schwarz to shake his head as a ridiculous amount to spend in a primary election. "But you have to do what you have to do," he said.

Whoever wins in August will be heavily favored in November, though there also is a three-way Democratic primary.

But should Mr. Walberg win, Democrats are apt to make more of an effort in the fall, or work hard to recruit a strong candidate for 2008, on the theory that he is in fact too extreme for the district's voters.

The real significance of this race, however, may be what it says about the future of the GOP in Michigan - and perhaps nationally as well. If the congressman, a man with impressive credentials and endorsements loses, it may mean the days when there was room for moderates in the Republican party are over.

That would please a lot of people. And most of them would be Democrats.

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