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July 11, 2008 9:01 pm
Jim Zawacki, chairman of a metal-stamping manufacturer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was apologetic but firm as he doled out some “straight talk” to John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, at a town hall meeting this week.
Though Mr Zawacki has donated $1,000 (€628, £502) to the Arizona senator’s campaign, he said he disagreed with Mr McCain’s commitment to free trade and challenged his suggestion that Michigan’s staggering 8.5 per cent unemployment rate could largely be fixed by retraining displaced workers at community colleges.
“Where are you going to find teachers to teach them? What we need to do is control some of these trade issues. What we are asking for is fair trade,” he said.
Mr McCain has admitted he has “a lot of work to do” to win over the likes of Mr Zawacki. This week, he travelled from Ohio to Wisconsin to persuade voters to reject “isolationism” in favour of an economic agenda centred on tax breaks for small businesses, free trade and cuts in government spending.
Many Republicans are
betting their candidate’s message will resonate in the home state of the big three US car manufacturers.
Just as Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is trying to redraw the electoral map by campaigning hard in Republican strongholds, known as “red states”, Mr McCain’s party sees Michigan, which has supported Democrats in presidential campaigns since 1992, as its best chance of doing the same.
In Michigan, Mr Obama leads Mr McCain by just two percentage points, according to Real Clear Politics, the Chicago-based political news and polling data aggregator.
Asked why they believed they could win on this battleground, most Republicans pointed their finger at Jennifer Granholm, the state’s Democratic governor, who this week said Michigan needed a “lifeline” from Washington.
Mark McKinnon, a former senior adviser to Mr McCain, says: “Michigan is suffering economically more than other states and because the state has been under Democratic leadership for some time, Republicans have a very good shot to take it back. I think you’ll see John McCain planted like a weed in Michigan this fall.”
Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Republicans’ state party, predicts Mr McCain will
have an edge among “Reagan Democrats” – working-class “gun owners and religious people” in what is a socially conservative state.
“A lot of the ‘bitter’ people Obama talked about live in Michigan,” says Mr Anuzis, picking up on remarks by Mr Obama earlier in the year about small-town Americans.
Republicans may also be boosted by a scandal involving Detroit’s Democratic mayor that, says Mr Anuzis, has “divided” the Democratic machine in
a city critical to Mr Obama. Mr McCain may also benefit if he chooses Mitt Romney, the son of a popular former Michigan governor, as his running mate.
It is far from clear whether Mr McCain will be able to persuade voters facing record unemployment and home foreclosures that he would be the better steward of the economy. However, Jennifer Duffy, of the non-partisan Cook Political Report, says Michigan has felt the downturn for so much longer and harder than the rest of the country that it may be more receptive to his views.
“Voters hate his message yet they know he is right – the sort of thing that, if you are waiting for the jobs you had 10 years ago, you are going to wait a long time,” says Ms Duffy.
Democrats insist their rival’s campaign is grasping at straws, particularly in attacking Ms Granholm. “The economic challenges we face are a direct result of failed trade policy and lack of enforcement and everyone knows that,” says a state party spokesperson.
Mr McCain responded to Mr Zawacki’s concerns about trade and the loss of jobs by saying the US needed to “unleash innovation” and reminding him: “Bill Gates started in a garage.”
Asked if he would ultimately support the Republican, Mr Zawacki said: “I don’t like a lot of his issues, [but] the answer is yes.”
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