LANSING - Locally as well as nationally, Michigan's gubernatorial race is viewed as a toss-up with now less than 100 days to go before the November election. The contest may come down to the economy, which is largely outside of the control of either side, analysts contend.
Already, the contest between Republican challenger Dick DeVos and Democratic incumbent Gov. Jennifer Granholm has produced some surprises, including record spending by DeVos that has put him on nearly equal footing, competitive poll standings and high name identification.
The campaigns and analysts all say they expect a tight election and signs currently do point in that direction. Yet other than runaway races, history has shown surprises can occur, such as 1990 when Gov. James Blanchard appeared comfortably ahead of John Engler, the Republican state senator whose scant name identification came as much from Blanchard attacks as anything. And four years ago, Granholm ended up with a narrow four-point victory after polls and pundits figured her to be an easy winner.
So while traditionally, an incumbent governor with good personal appeal would seem to be in a position that it's her race to lose, many factors are in play to make this year different. Two that stand out are the state's continuing economic problems that dog Granholm and the more than $10 million that DeVos has spent in a continuous TV ad campaign dating to February.
Much is still ahead and many issues will be addressed. Granholm has not yet made an official announcement of her re-election with expected trips around the state to rally supporters and generate a new round of local publicity.
DeVos has a looming decision on his running mate, which analysts say is best approached from the standpoint of avoiding a political mess. Many names have been floated and some have been interviewed by DeVos and top campaign officials, but the field is still apparently wide open.
What is clear is that the economy has been at the center of the campaigns and is expected to remain there, presenting opportunities and pitfalls for both candidates.
To at least one pollster, the economy, the likelihood it will not show promising improvement before November and the DeVos spending combine to make the governor the underdog, despite her personal popularity and power of the incumbency. But others, including the DeVos camp, are continuing to put the underdog label on that side.
Polls do show Granholm falls short of hitting the 50 percent mark in match-ups with DeVos, and nearly 60 percent say the state is on the wrong track, factors that are the worst news at this stage for the governor.
Ed Sarpolus, vice president of EPIC/MRA polling firm, said it appears recent high tech job announcements and slightly improved polling numbers indicate Granholm has weathered the storm of bad economic news and opposition spending.
But he said if Granholm cannot break above the 50 percent mark by the end of September, her best hopes will rest on whether DeVos fails to follow through and convince voters he has a better vision.
"Sooner or later he has to tell people who he really is," he said. That applies not just to more specifics in his economic plan, but touchy subjects such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research, he said.
Bill Rustem, president of Public Sector Consultants, said he finds it "remarkable" that polls show the contest so tight at this stage, and that it shifts back and forth between the candidates.
"It's anybody's race to win," he said. "Dick DeVos has done a remarkable job in getting his name recognition up at a very early stage. The people of Michigan are looking for a vision of how we get out of this, where do we head. Both candidates are trying to articulate that vision."
Tom Shields, president of the Republican consulting firm Marketing Resource Group, said he is surprised at how well DeVos has done, but said the key is to whether he can sustain what he has gained. Other candidates with business backgrounds had also caught on early, but then faltered, such as Dick Chrysler who lost in a 1986 GOP primary.
But Shields said with attitudes still against the governor based on the right track/wrong track numbers, "I don't know if she can withstand that on Election Day. Can she paint a picture of hope? That's what she has to rest her efforts on."
On the other hand, he said the DeVos strategy is to capitalize on the need for change, "that we have to do things differently and have to go in a different direction."
Pollster and Republican consultant Steve Mitchell said the governor is in trouble not only because of the match-up numbers that have kept her under 50 percent, but terrible right track numbers that according to GOP research have always resulted in an incumbent's defeat.
"The interesting thing is people don't blame her for unemployment but when you ask them who do they blame for fact that state seriously off on wrong track, 35 percent say Granholm," he said. "She's got real problems. Very rarely do undecided voters go for incumbents."
The big question for Granholm, he said, is the direction of the state and the prospect that the economy is not going to show signs of turning around by November. "If she's defeated, that's the reason, that and the fact she faced a candidate with enormous resources," he said.
For the candidates themselves, officials say they're pleased to see the race where it now stands.
Despite the advantages of incumbency, Granholm campaign manager Chris De Witt said the campaign is encouraged the race is as close as it is because of the money poured into ads by the challenger.
"This campaign is going to be different than anything else we've ever seen in Michigan," De Witt said. "The DeVos campaign is clearly on track to hit that $60 million figure that we have heard he will put into this race, but it's interesting that his favorable/unfavorable numbers are fairly close and even more interesting that 28 percent had no opinion of him."
DeVos campaign spokesperson John Truscott, who served in the same role for John Engler campaigns, said this race stands out because of the "buzz" that surrounds it at this stage. "That surprised me because that usually doesn't happen until after Labor Day," he said. "People are talking about the campaign."
The reason why the race is getting so much attention, Truscott said, is because of "fear out there in terms of the direction of the state and a tremendous amount of concern as to whether people have jobs whether their kids stay in state or go out of state. There's no doubt jobs and economy will stay at the top (of voters' concerns)."
In the remaining 100 days, the analysts see pitfalls from such things as saying the wrong thing in a debate or on the campaign trail, whether more bad economic news, particularly from the auto industry, could serve as the straw that broke the back of the Granholm bid, and whether the troubles in Iraq/the Mideast escalate and produce a Bush drag on DeVos as appears to be at work in some other states.
Rustem said expects attacks to inevitably ramp up between the two sides and their supporters, particularly after Labor Day. But with economic news still troubling and the Mideast continuing as a world hot spot, Rustem said, "Much of what can happen is out of their control."
Sarpolus said Granholm has not answered the question of what's ahead for most workers who will never get the types of jobs that Google will create, but said DeVos has not done so either.
"If the public is in the mood for change, they will vote against incumbent," he said. "But he has to show he has a vision and does not just represent the old tired ways of cutting taxes. He's doing all the right things, but the question is what will he do next?"
Shields added that DeVos has created an impression that people like, but now "they need to see if they li