DETROIT -- In their second and final debate Monday, Democratic Rep. Debbie Stabenow zinged Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham's tax cut as "just too liberal for me." He shot back: "I'm flattered ... She's an expert on liberalism." From the tables of exuberant labor union members seated at the normally sedate Detroit Economic Club luncheon came unmistakable sounds of hissing.
Neil Staebler, the 95-year-old architect of the proudly liberal Michigan Democratic Party of the 1950s and 1960s, would be stunned to hear hisses by party activists because the dreaded L-word was pasted on their candidate. While launching heavy populist attacks on corporate business, Democrats are careful to cultivate a non-liberal image in a battleground state that may determine who is elected president and possibly which party controls the Senate.
This is not your father's Michigan, where in the '50s and '60s the labor-Democratic machine dominated and only Republican liberals like George Romney and William Milliken could slip into office. In the '80s, Spence Abraham (then the youthful Republican chairman) and State Senate Republican Leader John Engler (now a third-term governor) built a new GOP that elects conservative candidates by breaking into labor's rank-and-file. Today, Abraham is clearly ahead of Stabenow, and George W. Bush is running no worse than even against Al Gore in the state.
With first-termer Abraham a prime Democratic target this year, he and ace Republican operative Mike Murphy quickly took the offensive. Their television ads effectively trashed the prescription drug subsidy that is supposed to be the centerpiece of all Democratic campaigns this year. More important, they branded Stabenow as a liberal (with a "Liberal Debbie" Web site listing big government votes during her long service in the Michigan Legislature).
Appalled at the very idea of so labeling Stabenow, Democratic leaders call her a "moderate" who might well be a member of the centrist Blue Dogs in Congress (actually, she isn't). Her supposed moderation is based on her support for business and agriculture special interests. But ratings on her House votes don't lie: 95 percent by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action; 81 percent by the League of Conservation Voters; 4 percent by the American Conservative Union; 13 percent by the Christian Coalition.
Moreover, chances for Stabenow (as well as Gore in Michigan) depend on organized labor's muscle. "I've never seen so much energy (by unions)," State Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer told me. So far, union political action committees have given $318,850 to Stabenow (the third highest contribution to any Senate candidate this year) according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But it's not like the good old days of Neil Staebler and the United Auto Workers (UAW). When Gov. Bush visited the General Motors truck factory in Pontiac recently, workers on the production line treated him like a rock star while grim-faced UAW shop stewards stood by. Internal Republican polls show half of the state's male union members supporting Bush.
The labor union contract making Election Day a holiday for all auto workers worries Republican leaders. Gov. Engler calls it "the (automotive) industry's biggest contribution in kind to the Democrats." But nobody can be sure what the UAW members actually will do Nov 7. Might some just take a four-day hunting weekend? Or might some possibly vote for Bush and Abraham?
The real power here today may not be in the hands of labor leaders but in rank-and-file voters who oppose abortion: estimated at a surprisingly high 600,000 out of 4.1 million. Bush and Abraham are pro-life, Gore and Stabenow are pro-choice. Nevertheless, many anti-abortion voters are suspicious of Bush, particularly his vagueness about the RU-486 pill. "If we get out the right-to-life vote, we win," Republican State Chairman Rusty Hills told me.
The final irony is that for Michigan to go Democratic, it may need the intervention of a politician who old-time liberals like Neil Staebler would have viewed with some suspicion: Bill Clinton. The president is idolized by African-Americans here, and leaders of both parties in the state recall with awe his spell-binding performance last April 30 before 10,000 at the NAACP dinner in Detroit. Democratic leaders here want Clinton to come back, generate enthusiasm by blacks, and thus save Michigan.