Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Democrats may be an endangered species in Michigan, where the re-election prospects of Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Sen. Debbie Stabenow are slipping, owing to one of the weakest state economies in the nation.

Granholm is in worse shape than Stabenow, but both have fallen below 50 percent in the latest polls in a political environment that has turned sour for their party, especially among Democratic blue-collar voters who have suffered the most from massive auto-industry layoffs and an unemployment rate that has hit 7 percent.

Late last month, a Michigan EPIC/MRA poll of likely voters showed that Republican gubernatorial challenger Dick DeVos was leading Granholm by 48 percent to 40 percent. That not only foreshadows a likely comeback for the GOP in the statehouse, but it has raised fears among the Stabenow campaign's high command that she could be caught in the undertow of an anti-incumbent tide in the state.

Granholm's deepening economic troubles are bad enough, signaling the GOP may well pick up several Democratic governorships to offset expected losses in New York and elsewhere. But Stabenow's race, which has been overlooked by the pundits, could well be the sleeper of the midterm elections.

She won in a squeaker in 2000 but since then has been one of the least effective senators in Washington, passing no major legislation of her own and taking no proactive leadership role on behalf of Michigan's failing economy. Stabenow has been one of the most invisible Democrats in the Senate.

Knowlegis, a government management group that ranks lawmakers as to their legislative effectiveness, places the senator near the bottom of their Senate list at No. 95.

But heading into this year, Republicans seemed unable to find a strong candidate to challenge Stabenow. Their hopes seemed centered on the Rev. Keith Butler, a former Detroit city councilman who does not have the political heft needed to finance and run a competitive campaign.

But then North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, the Republican senatorial campaign committee chairperson, convinced popular Oakland County sheriff Mike Bouchard to get in the race.

While Michigan Republicans must first go to the polls Aug. 8 to choose their candidate, Dole and other party leaders here have already anointed Bouchard as their candidate. In a whirlwind series of meetings here last month, former Michigan governor John Engler hosted a fundraiser for him, picking up $80,000, followed the next day by a closed-door luncheon with Dole and other Republican senators who promised their full support if, as expected, he wins the primary.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.