Engler leaves GOP intact

10:16 AM, Jan 22, 2002   |    comments
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But concerns mount over Dems' growing support

By George Weeks / The Detroit News

As lame duck Gov. John Engler touts an impressive legacy in his final State of the State Message Wednesday, let us look at the state of his party as it seeks to elect another Republican to carry the torch.

Despite some internal mutterings from the left and right of the party, the Michigan GOP is united, soundly organized and well-financed.

But there are these concerns:

* Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus, longtime Engler ally and the party's establishment choice to succeed him, has a lingering name identification problem, particularly in voter-rich southeast Michigan. In early polling he substantially trails ex-Gov. Jim Blanchard and Atty. Gen. Jennifer Granholm, the leading Democratic contenders.

Posthumus's strategy is to underscore that he isn't Engler Lite, has a more conciliatory style and is his own man with his own message and vision. He has split with Engler on some issues, including calling for a ban on drilling for oil under the Great Lakes, which Engler favors.

* Democratic Sen. Carl Levin is heavily favored for an unprecedented fifth term, especially after several prospective high-profile GOP challengers declined to run. State Rep. Andrew Raczkowski, R-Farmington Hills, is willing and was embraced by party leaders -- but he faces the daunting task of raising enough money and voter awareness to be competitive.

* The Michigan Democratic Party no longer is the financial basket case it was after Engler's 1990 defeat of Blanchard. Democratic State Chairman Mark Brewer said the party wiped out a $850,000 debt and "is ready for 2002."

* In the 2000 presidential race, despite Engler's strong push for George W. Bush, Democrat Al Gore carried Michigan. Democrat Debbie Stabenow defeated Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Auburn Hills, known years ago along with Engler and Posthumus as one of the "Three Amigos" of the Michigan GOP.

* Michigan, long a ticket-splitting swing state, has an electorate more inclined to identify as Democrats than when Engler took office, according to Lansing pollster Ed Sarpolus of EPIC/MRA.

In the early 1990s, his polling found self-declared Republicans leading Democrats, 43-37 percent. "Now the numbers have flipped," he said, citing a 43-37 edge for Democrats.

The contrariness of the Michigan electorate was evident decades ago when such diverse Democratic presidential contenders as George Wallace and Jesse Jackson won Michigan convention delegations.

So it was in 2000 when Sen. John McCain scored a stunning 51-43 upset of Engler-backed Bush in a Michigan GOP presidential primary that attracted many Democrats.

The Almanac of American Politics proclaimed, "the McCain vote was really an anti-Engler vote."

There was more to it than that, including McCain's appeal to independents.

State Sen. Joe Schwarz of Battle Creek, McCain's 2000 Michigan chairman, hopes to appeal to independents and moderate Republicans in his longshot quest for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

Schwarz is not sanguine about the state of the party. He says its "single-issue orientation" -- notably on abortion and guns -- "has got to end. It is marginalizing and trivializing the party."

While generally content with the direction of the party, some conservatives object to such Engler policies as providing state grants and tax breaks to stimulate economic development.

Greg Brock, who was executive director of the Michigan GOP when Betsy DeVos was state chair, said: "The governor may have been too heavy-handed" in party affairs, but "overall, it is a better party" because of Engler.

Republicans now rule all three branches of state government -- a matter of justifiable Engler pride.

A new generation of leadership for both parties will emerge after the Nov. 7 election. It will be an election unlike anything Michigan has seen in modern times. There could be open seats for all four top state offices, in addition to redistricting for the Legislature and Congress, and the first time impact of term-limits on both legislative chambers.

Says former Michigan GOP Executive Director Brock: "There is no question this year will shake the foundation (of Michigan politics) unlike any election in recent history."

And Engler, that shrewd fox who has so long dominated the political scene, will be just a bystander.

Detroit News

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