Upcoming Michigan Primary Focus of GOP

Michigan is next on the presidential campaign calendar with its primary on Jan. 15. For the Democrats, it's not a contest since they've avoided campaigning in the state because Michigan moved its primary to January in violation of party rules. There is no such reticence on the Republican side.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next on the presidential calendar is Michigan, which holds its primary on Tuesday. For the Democrats, this is not a contest. They have avoided campaigning in the state because Michigan moved its primary to January and violation of Democratic Party rules.

There is no such reticence on the Republican side as NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: We've gone from the farms of Iowa to the snows of New Hampshire. And now, it's to the factory gates of the economically troubled state of Michigan, where the Republican race is extremely close among Mike Huckabee, John McCain and Mitt Romney. All want a win here, but it's Romney who needs one. Having lost in Iowa and New Hampshire, Michigan has now become critical to the Romney campaign. After all, he's almost a favorite son here. He was born in Detroit. His dad, George Romney, was an innovative auto executive turned popular governor in the 1960s. But Romney's homecoming has been mixed, featuring questions like this in an interview on WWJ all-news radio in Detroit yesterday.

Unidentified Woman #1: So if you don't win the Michigan primary next week, are you toast?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): No. Certainly not.

GONYEA: Now, Michigan represents a very different test for the candidates than did either Iowa or New Hampshire. Unlike those states, it's big and diverse in population, geography and economy.

Ed Sarpolus is a pollster for EPIC-MRA research.

Mr. ED SARPOLUS (Vice President, EPIC-MRA): You cannot focus your whole time talking about religious issues, talking about tax issues or war in Iraq.

GONYEA: And while those issues won't be ignored in Michigan, when you ask people what's most on their minds, you'll more than likely get answers like these.

Unidentified Man: Jobs. Absolutely. Economy is just really bad.

Unidentified Woman #2: Jobs. Unemployment.

Unidentified Woman #3: Jobs. Everybody needs job in Michigan. There's not enough to go around.

GONYEA: As the automobile industry has struggled in recent years with massive blue and white-collar job cuts, the impact has spread throughout the Michigan economy. The current jobless rate is a worst in the nation's 7.4 percent in December - well above the national rate of 5 percent.

And the candidates' messages in the state reflect that. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is offering empathy in a new TV ad.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas; Presidential Candidate): When you grow up and life is a struggle, you have a whole different understanding of what most people are going through. We're losing manufacturing jobs. Homeowners face a credit crisis. High fuel costs are spiraling and families are hurting.

GONYEA: Huckabee still hopes to tap into a large group of Christian conservative voters here, but his approach is as more of an economic populist.

John McCain, meanwhile, won the Michigan primary against George W. Bush eight years ago, thanks to a strong support from independents and crossover Democrats. He hopes to do the same this time.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): I've been coming here for years and years. And I've got to look you in the eye and tell you that some of those jobs aren't coming back. But I am here to look you in the eye and tell you that we are a nation that doesn't leave our people behind. We've got to help these people. We've got to give them retraining. We've got to give them education. We've got to get them jobs.

GONYEA: Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is stressing his business experience. This is from the interview on WWJ radio.

Mr. ROMNEY: We are way under investing in basic science and technology, particularly in the automobile field and that can be a licensed to our car companies for next to nothing so that they can be more competitive and spend more of their money marketing, manufacturing and producing cars that the world is going to be snapping up.

GONYEA: Whoever is the Republican Party's eventual nominee this year will also face a tough challenge in Michigan in November. It's been closed, but the state has gone Democratic in each of the last four presidential elections.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Detroit.

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