LANSING - For anyone with the slightest interest in presidential politics or the Republican Party, the place to be this weekend is Mackinac Island, that teardrop-shaped tourist destination best known for horse-drawn carriages and the sweet smell of fudge.
That's because every single presidential candidate is trooping off to climb into hydroplane ferries or land in small planes at the island's airstrip to mingle and network with state leaders in the biggest gathering of the party's star power in Michigan since the GOP held its national convention in Detroit in 1980.
Anyone on the island may well have a hard time strolling a few blocks without bumping into the likes of Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, or Ron Paul. (Ah, but the real test: Can you recognize any of them?)
Those fortunate few allowed to stroll along the Grand Hotel's famous 880-foot-long front porch may well bump into the race's big enchiladas: Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson, not to mention the man some say is still thinking about maybe getting in, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
The occasion is the state GOP's biannual Republican Leadership Conference, which has been going on for half a century but never with quite so much fanfare. Saul Anuzis, the party's relentlessly active chairman, pressed every candidate to take part.
He probably didn't have to press very hard. "Michigan has always been a big donor state," Mr. Anuzis said. "They are looking for donations and to firm up support."
That's true, but the Michigan conference took on added new importance earlier this month, when the state re-established its presidential primary and moved it up to Jan. 15.
That happened because leaders of both parties were tired of being essentially irrelevant in the selection of the party's nominee, cycle after cycle. This time, Michigan will be the first major state to vote, and its primary will come just days after Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.
Moving the primary up seems to have backfired for the Democrats. The party is threatening to strip Michigan of all its convention delegates for violating the rules on how early a primary can be held. And - at least for now - all the major candidates say they won't campaign here as long as the date violates those rules.
Republicans have fewer qualms. True, Mr. Anuzis said, there is a risk they could lose half their convention delegates. "But I can't believe either party will do that, when it comes right down to it. They can't afford to lose large states like Michigan and Florida," he said. (Florida is also being penalized for moving its primary to Jan. 29.)
Regardless, what is clear is that none of the candidates can afford to ignore Michigan, and that the presidential primary is bound to be a huge event, for a number of reasons.
First of all, for the first time in generations, there is no clear favorite to win the nomination. Mr. Giuliani leads in the polls, but is more liberal on social issues than most Republicans. Mr. Romney leads in fund-raising, but it isn't clear whether he can get beyond "the Mormon thing." Mr. Thompson is a matinee idol, but some think he is getting into the race too late, especially in terms of raising money. Mr. McCain has been slipping, but still has some following here.
Michigan is critical for nearly all these candidates. Mr. Romney has to win in Michigan; he was born and grew up here, and has declared it will be "ground zero" of his campaign. Mr. McCain has to repeat his stunning victory of 2000 if he has a prayer of recovering momentum. This will also be the first test in the industrial Midwest for Mr. Thompson and Mr. Giuliani.
Michigan will also be crucial for the so-called "second-tier" candidates, the Brownbacks and Huckabees. One of them needs, at the very least, to break out of single digits and attract media attention.
What may be the real effect of the Michigan primary is how it impacts the money game. Candidates who do well here will find it far easier to raise the millions they'll need for TV advertising.
That's money they'll need fast. Twenty states, from New York to California, are voting in what's being called the "super-duper primary" Feb. 5. Being competitive coast to coast will be vastly expensive.
Nobody can say that winning Michigan will mean the nomination. It is clear, however, that more than ever before, the state will be crucial in deciding both parties' nominees.
No cattle show here: The Mackinac conference will not pit the GOP candidates against each other in one of the "debates" that seem to occur almost nightly. Instead, the candidates will circulate, talk with the estimated 3,000 party activists present, and make more formal presentations, two at a time, at each meal.
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