TAYLOR, Mich. — Michigan's Republican presidential primary on Tuesday is this election year's first clear referendum on who voters think can best manage — and revive — the slumping economy, which has hit this state harder than most.
Wherever the candidates go, job security and the threat of inflation are the political topics people most want to discuss. Most voters are highly uncertain about who, if anyone, can get this state moving again.
Many also are highly uncertain about whom to support. Two new polls Monday suggested that Arizona Sen. John McCain now holds a narrow lead over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in Michigan, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee running a strong third in both polls, one for Zogby and the other for the Detroit News. A Jan. 9-11 McClatchy-MSNBC survey by Mason-Dixon, however, found 11 percent of voters undecided and another 39 percent who could still change their minds.
Raquel Reardon of Grosse Pointe Woods went to a Republican rally in Taylor Sunday night with her children — son Richard was laid off last month and daughter Micaela had her hours cut. Mom herself is having trouble finding work.
Such stories are legion here, where the November jobless rate was 7.4 percent — the nation's highest.
Even people with jobs worry. Geoff Platte works in customer service at an auto credit firm, but the company headquarters is moving to Virginia, and he's not sure he'll have a job in a year. Jill Kloster of St. Clair Shores, who's about to graduate from college, is concerned that she'll have trouble finding a teaching position.
If voters aren't talking about jobs, they're talking inflation and housing. Kathleen Gibson, a GMAC project analyst from Troy, finds that with food, energy and other staples costing more, "everything seems tighter." Raye Houlden, a university administrator, has seen home prices in her Saline neighborhood drop at least 15 percent.
The prospect of hard times is hardly new to Michigan folks. What's different this time is that these workers are survivors who've been retrained or who've saved for hard times. To live in this state often means knowing that a layoff can be as likely as a thunderstorm.
With most major Democratic candidates not competing here, the focus is on the Republican candidates.
Romney stresses his family ties to Michigan, recalling how he uniquely understands the state's plight, since his father was once the highly regarded president of American Motors, and later, the governor.
"I remember when Michigan was the pride of America, the envy of the world," Romney says.
He outlined his vision Monday to the Detroit Economic Club and later toured the city's mammoth auto show. He's been blasting rival McCain, the Arizona senator, as insensitive to the auto industry, saying his push for higher fuel-efficiency standards would hurt the nation's auto industry. Romney says McCain's claim that some jobs are simply lost forever is irresponsible.
McCain, appearing at rallies in the western part of the state Monday, said that government programs aimed at helping workers are outdated. He'd revamp jobless benefits and retraining efforts to prepare people for what he calls the "new jobs of the future."
Huckabee talks about how he'd revamp the nation's tax system. He spoke at an auto plant and visited the auto show Monday, but has spent less time here than Romney and McCain have. He's also emphasized his conservative social views, which are especially popular with evangelical Christians here.
Most voters look at who'd be the best leader rather than at specific policies.
Reardon, for instance, likes former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's record of getting things done. Ronald James, a Southfield auto worker, went for McCain in 2000 but probably will back on Romney on Tuesday.
"He's been around the rhetoric of the industry a long time," James figured.
Perhaps more typical is Linda McGhee, a homemaker whose husband is an auto executive. She likes New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, but also Romney. While she differs with Romney on social issues, "he's talking about being innovative." And she likes how he worked with Democrats in Massachusetts to enact a comprehensive health insurance law.
McGhee was the voice of ambivalence. "We need change, but I have to figure out what direction that change will take," she said. "I've never been so confused about an election in my life."
ON THE WEB
Read the McClatchy-MSNBC poll.
Read the Zogby poll.
Read the Detroit News/WXYZ poll.