GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The McCain-Palin campaign plane roared out of this largely Republican western Michigan city Thursday following a Wednesday night town-hall meeting that produced upbeat local news coverage, a throng of Republican faithful and a handful of protesters.
John McCain and Sarah Palin gave about 70 minutes of "Straight Talk" on the economy, energy, health care and the state of the world to an energized, tickets-only crowd of nearly 3,500 inside a warm community college gymnasium.
But as to whether their visit brought everyone on board, the initial results appear mixed.
The McCain campaign is betting that town-hall events in markets like Grand Rapids will help push the Republican presidential ticket over the top in battleground states such as Michigan, Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin, where the candidates campaigned Thursday.
Just by being here, McCain and Palin generated extensive — and mostly positive — free local media coverage. One local TV station covered the entire event live. The Grand Rapids Press blogged the event live and printed a front-page headline Thursday proclaiming "Republican Ticket's Power Couple Impresses Western Michigan Audience."
Creating media buzz is one thing, but capturing public opinion is another. Several attendees said going in that they wanted to hear what the Republican ticket was going to do to repair Michigan's economy. Some left still thirsty for answers.
Take Joe Castiglione and his wife, Trish. Joe Castiglione, 40, is an independent voter who came looking for answers about how to fix Michigan's economy.
"If you look at Michigan, you're going to find people saying 'we've heard the speech, where's the answers,'" said Castiglione, an account manager who's struggling to decide whether to vote for McCain or his Democratic rival, Barack Obama.
McCain and Palin landed in Grand Rapids the same day as a report showed that Michigan's jobless rate jumped to 8.9 percent in August. It was 7.2 percent a year before. The national unemployment rate in August was 6.1 percent, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Forecasters say more economic gloom is coming. Economists at the University of Michigan now predict the state will lose 51,300 jobs this year and another 37,800 next year before adding 33,300 jobs in 2010.
The economy of Grand Rapids, a major auto-parts supplier, office-furniture manufacturer and banking center, traditionally hasn't suffered as severely as the Detroit area, said Douglas L. Koopman, a political science professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, but it's feeling it now.
In July, the four-county Grand Rapids metropolitan area had an 8 percent jobless rate.
The city's home-foreclosure rate has risen steadily from 1 percent in 2004 to 2.8 percent last year. Some 7.2 percent of the city's homes have been foreclosed over the four-year period, according to Michigan's Community Research Institute.
McCain spoke generally about getting Michigan's auto industry back on its feet through ingenuity and new technology. He also vowed to take on the "casino" mentality of Wall Street that's forced the federal government to rescue Bear Stearns, American International Group, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
"I reject the doom and gloom that says our nation is in decline, because our best days are ahead of us," he told the crowd. "We will restore America, we will restore this economy."
That wasn't enough for Joe Castiglione.
"You don't hear about the average person who's being laid off here, can't pay the mortgage," he said after hearing McCain. "What are you going to do about that?"
By Thursday afternoon McCain's campaign appeared to be trying to provide some answers with a new 30-second TV ad focused on Michigan's economy.
"Michigan families depend on the auto industry," an announcer says. "John McCain and his congressional allies know it. Their plan: Loans to upgrade assembly lines. Tax credits to boost sales of clean vehicles. Offshore drilling to reduce the cost of gas and spur truck sales. And financial reforms to protect your retirement. Change is coming."
Trish Castiglione, a Republican, was sold on McCain-Palin before Wednesday's event. Now she's not so sure — particularly after hearing Palin answer questions from the public for the first time since becoming McCain's running mate.
When asked about her foreign-policy experience, Palin said: "You know that I think I am prepared . . . If you want specifics you can even play stump the candidate."
"The only thing she knows about is oil. She was kind of wishy-washy," said Trish Castiglione, a 38-year-old foundation officer at Grand Rapids Community College, which held the event. "I came in knowing I would vote for them — I don't know now."
However, Carl Trot, a 54-year-old truck driver, said he was satisfied with what he heard.
"I'm waiting for the real issues, which we're not going to hear until after the debates," said Trot, a Republican who lives outside Grand Rapids. "I don't think anybody has said what their plans are, other than Obama wants to give everybody money and McCain wants to cut taxes."
Koopman, the political science professor, said McCain and Palin "did what they had to do. There were specifics on some things — energy policy, which they painted as a national-security issue, and they were pretty specific about the Michigan auto industry," said "They helped themselves because that place was filled with people who man the phone lines for the Republican Party. It helps with the ground troops.
"As far as wooing independent voters, there wasn't much of that."
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