RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
The economy is increasingly on voters' minds and nowhere is that more evident than Michigan. As it holds its presidential primary today, the Republican frontrunners are Mitt Romney and John McCain. On the Democratic side, a dispute between state and national Party officials over Michigan's unsanctioned move to this early date led most of the major Democrats to take their names off the ballot. Michigan is the first state with a large and diverse population to hold a primary this year.
NPR's Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA: Two things are happening simultaneously in Michigan today: in Detroit, the annual celebration of the car business is underway in the form of one of the world's premier car-related events: the annual North American International Auto Show; And there is the Michigan presidential primary.
At the auto show, there are glitzy and gleaming new cars on rotating pedestals. In the presidential campaign, the focus has been on the troubles of the Big Three domestic carmakers whose problems are at the heart of Michigan's ailing economy.
Talk to voters and you'll hear hope for better times mixed in with worries about the state of things today. Forty-year-old Michael Sharp is a restaurant manager. He says business is way down.
Mr. MICHAEL SHARP: We need jobs to stop people from running away to other states. We need people to come back here and have a place to work.
GONYEA: Sharp was joined by 33-year-old Erin Alexander, shopping at an outlet mall in the town of Howell.
Mr. ERIN ALEXANDER (Resident, Michigan): A disproportionate number of my friends are unemployed or working in industries that aren't their own - like for instance, I work in an industry that's not my own. I have a degree in automotive marketing, but I work in the restaurant industry.
GONYEA: Independent Michigan-based pollster Ed Sarpolus says in survey after survey, the economy is the number one issue in the state.
Mr. ED SARPOLUS (Pollster): Here in Michigan we have a very stagnant economy, perceptually. Unemployment is running around seven-and-a-half percent consistently.
GONYEA: That's half again the national rate of five percent, and the worst in the country, which brings us back to the car business. The Big Three have shed both blue and white-collar jobs and auto suppliers have cut back as well and the negative effects have spread through other sectors of the Michigan economy. The state has lost some 200,000 manufacturing jobs since the year 2000, and the lay-offs continue. A GM plant near Ypsilanti, just last week, announced another 200 job cuts.
University of Michigan economist Joan Crary says the state has worked to diversify its economy, but it's still got a very long way to go.
Ms. JOAN CRARY (Assistant Research Scientist, Research Seminar in Quantitative Economics, Department of Economics-University of Michigan): I think what we're dealing with here is the fact that the state economy is so much more concentrated in the automobile industry than in the rest of the country. And in particular, in the auto industry that is represented by the domestic nameplates: Ford, GM and Chrysler. Most recent estimates, 17 times greater concentration of jobs from the Big Three in Michigan and in the country as a whole - that's phenomenal.
GONYEA: And Crary cautions that there's no quick fix. Sitting in his office not far from the state capitol building in Lansing, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis describes the situation as a single-state recession.
Mr. SAUL ANUZIS (Chairman, Michigan Republican Party): We're a unique state in the entire country. We're the only state that lost jobs six years in a row. We're one of only two states that has a net outflow of U-Haul trucks going out of Michigan as people move out. You can feel it. So, I think we are pessimistic.
GONYEA: And that is the backdrop for today's presidential primary.
For Michigan residents, many feel that state's auto industry and its middle-class are in the balance. Many blame the Bush White House for taking such a hands-off approach to the industry. Detroit auto executives even had a hard time scheduling meetings with the president over the past seven years. That's something that candidates from both parties say won't happen if they are elected, although it's not clear that any of them have a plan for actually turning things around for the American automakers.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Detroit.