Lt. Gov. John Cherry's withdrawal from the Michigan governor's race has opened the door to a free-for-all that could lead to a Democratic candidate not saddled with the state's economic baggage or a splintered party unable to block a Republican win.
Although Cherry blamed fundraising woes and said the White House played no part in his decision, President Barack Obama is sure to have an eye on this battleground state, which he doesn't want to see slide into GOP hands as New Jersey and Virginia did last year.
Obama won Michigan by 16 points in 2008 as Michigan's already troubled economy sunk into a deep recession, but 55 percent of Michigan voters gave him a negative job rating in a recent poll.
Cherry had been considered the Democratic front-runner. A sportsman and former union activist who could appeal to conservative Democrats as well as more liberal supporters, his two decades in the Legislature and two terms as lieutenant governor gave him the credentials to keep most challengers out of the race.
But even some members of his own party saw the unassuming Cherry as unlikely to win in November, given voters' sour mood with the current administration. Seventy percent of likely voters polled statewide gave Granholm a negative job approval rating last month, and Cherry was not seen as distancing himself from the damaged governor quickly enough.
Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney noted that "Democrats will now have to quickly find a standard bearer."
Cherry's withdrawal could lead to a race the likes of which the state hasn't seen in at least half a century. It has been decades since either the incumbent or a lieutenant governor has not been on the gubernatorial ballot in the primary or general election.
Michigan Republican Party Chief of Staff Josh Venable noted that, "with the potential pull out of the heir-apparent candidate, Democrats find themselves where they began: leaderless." Michigan Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer simply described the race as "wide open."
Six Republicans are running for the nomination, but could soon be outnumbered by Democrats. GOP Attorney General Mike Cox has led most polls, with U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra and Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard next in line.
Already running in the Democratic primary are former state Rep. John Freeman and current state Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith, who praised Cherry as a great legislative leader and called his decision to withdraw "unfortunate."
State Sen. Hansen Clarke, a Detroit lawmaker, was the first Democrat to jump in after Cherry's announcement, which also could clear the way for a bid from either House Speaker Andy Dillon or Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, who won national airtime last year defending the bailout of two domestic automakers. Both have been weighing entering the race.
Bernero released a statement Tuesday speaking of restoring the state economy and noting he intends to make a formal announcement "in the very near future." Dillon put out a statement praising Cherry but said nothing about his future plans.
Dillon could become the front-runner if he jumps in quickly, but he has angered some union groups by suggesting public health care plans are too generous and should be rolled into one state-run plan. He also is open to criticism for his role in two state government shutdowns in the past three fiscal years.
Cherry, 58, had said he was looking forward to taking on naysayers who don't see a bright future for Michigan and added he was sorry to disappoint those who backed him.
Granholm said in a statement she'd wanted him to run.
"I am proud of John Cherry's work in our administration and the integrity he demonstrated in considering a gubernatorial campaign," she said.
Associated Press Writers Mike Householder in Detroit and Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.
Cherry campaign site: http://www.peopleforcherry.com