Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney looks over a Chrysler while visiting the North American International Auto Show downtown Detroit on Monday. All the Republican hopefuls visited the auto show the day before the state's primary.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney looks over a Chrysler while visiting the North American International Auto Show downtown Detroit on Monday. All the Republican hopefuls visited the auto show the day before the state's primary. David Gilkey/NPR
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee looks at a Chrysler concept car on Monday.
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee looks at a Chrysler concept car on Monday. David Gilkey/NPR
Sen. John McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman walk across the Chrysler stage at the auto show Monday.
Sen. John McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman walk across the Chrysler stage at the auto show Monday. David Gilkey/NPR
Michigan is the first state with a large and diverse population to hold a primary this year. It is also the first place where the economy has dominated the debate.
In Detroit, the annual North American International Auto Show is under way, featuring glitzy and gleaming new cars on rotating pedestals. In the presidential campaign, meanwhile, the focus has been on the troubles of the "Big Three" domestic automakers whose problems are at the heart of a troubled Michigan economy.
Talk to voters and you hear hope for better times mixed with worries. Forty-year-old Michael Sharp is a restaurant manager who says business is way down.
"We need jobs to keep people from running away to other states. We need people to come back here and have a place to work," he said.
Sharp was joined by Erin Alexander, 33, shopping at an outlet mall in the town of Howell.
"A disproportionate number of my friends are unemployed or working in an industry that is not their own," Alexander said. "Like for instance, I have a degree in automotive marketing ... but I work in the restaurant industry."
Independent Michigan-based pollster Ed Sarpolus said in survey after survey the economy is the No. 1 issue in the state.
"Here in Michigan we have a very stagnant economy," Sarpolus said. "We have an unemployment rate of around 7.5 percent."
That is the worst in the country. The national rate is 5 percent.
The Big Three have shed both blue- and white-collar jobs. Auto suppliers have cut back as well, and the negative effects have spread through other sectors of the Michigan economy.
Michigan has lost some 200,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000, and the layoffs continue. Just last week, a GM plant in Ypsilanti announced another 200 job cuts.
University of Michigan economist Joan Crary says the state has worked to diversify its economy, but it still has a long way to go.
"The state economy is so much more concentrated in the automobile industry than in the rest of the country," she said.
By most estimates there are 17 times more jobs exposed to the struggling Big Three in Michigan than in the country as a whole.
"That's phenomenal," Crary said, cautioning against any quick fix.
Saul Anuzis, the Republican Party chairman, sits in his office not far from the state capitol building in Lansing. He describes the situation as a single-state recession.
"We're a unique state in the entire country," Anuzis said. "We've lost jobs six years in a row. We're one of only two states that has a net outflow of U-Haul trucks leaving Michigan as people move out. You can feel it, so I think we are pessimistic."
And that is the backdrop for Tuesday's presidential primary.
Many blame the White House for taking such a hands-off approach to the auto industry. Detroit auto executives have even had a hard time scheduling meetings with President Bush. That is something that candidates from both parties say will not happen if they are elected.