FLINT, Mich. – Allies of Democrat John Kerry (search) in this down-on-its-luck industrial state are armed with depressing statistics on unemployment and poverty, hoping to persuade voters to blame President Bush for the hit on their pocketbooks.
In Michigan, 6.6 percent of workers are unemployed, with the strain sharpest in communities that have suffered plant closings and manufacturing cutbacks as jobs moved overseas. There is widespread anger, spreading into conservative areas, that Bush is not doing enough to keep those jobs at home or help the poor.
"There's a lot more they could be doing rather than fattening the rich man's pocket," said Michael Rucker, who was fired from his job at a packing plant. As Rucker stood in line for help at a state work force development office in Flint, several cars circled its expansive parking lot, waiting for a space to open.
"I thought Bush was doing pretty good, but when you don't have a job, that makes a difference," said Chuck Westerfeld, as he smoked a cigarette outside the building. Westerfeld said he makes ends meet by doing odd jobs but needs one with benefits because his girlfriend is pregnant. He isn't sure who he'll vote for in November.
Kerry plans to discuss his ideas for creating jobs during a visit to the state Friday, with particular emphasis on the manufacturing sector that has sent jobs abroad.
Republican Rep. Candice Miller (search), chairwoman of Bush's Michigan campaign, acknowledged that the state economy needs to improve to give Bush a boost. Economists predict improvement in coming months, she said, and January's 6.6 percent unemployment rate was down a full percentage point from December.
"If the economy goes south, that's not a good thing for my guy," Miller said. "But if the economy gets good, that's a bad thing for the Democrats."
Miller said Bush doesn't have to win the state, but that Kerry must to win the presidency. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore (search) narrowly defeated Bush in Michigan, one of more than a dozen battleground states Bush and Kerry are targeting for the Nov. 2 election. Other key states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Missouri, also are suffering economically.
In 2000, Michigan's annual unemployment rate was below the national average, at 3.5 percent compared to 4 percent. After Bush, the rate crept upward, as did the nation's, and stood above 7 percent for the last seven months of 2003. January's 6.6 percent rate was a full point higher than the national rate of 5.6 percent.
Poverty also is higher. Under President Clinton, the number of residents receiving public assistance steadily decreased to 589,000 in 2000, from 1 million in 1992. That number is now at 910,000.
A survey last month by Lansing-based EPIC/MRA showed that a majority of Michigan voters gave Bush negative ratings on the economy in every region of the state. Only 38 percent rated Bush's handling of the economy as excellent or good, compared to 61 percent who said it was fair or poor.
Bush and Kerry were in a statistical dead heat in the poll, conducted Feb. 22-25.
In Greenville, in western Michigan, Electrolux AB recently announced that it's moving its refrigerator plant to Mexico, eliminating 2,700 jobs in the town of 8,000. Republican Mayor Lloyd Walker said he worked with the union and Gov. Jennifer Granholm to offer Electrolux a $74 million incentive package, but didn't get help "or sympathy even" from the Bush administration despite pleas to the Labor Department.
"I've never voted for a Democratic president, but I think that's going to change this year," Walker said.
Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer said Democratic clubs are starting in the more conservative western and northern parts of the state. Teacher Jack Schneider, who formed Democrats of West Oakland County two years ago in a conservative section of Detroit's suburbs, said dozens of people have joined because of outrage at Bush, the economy being the chief complaint.
"Some members have seen their jobs outsourced," Schneider said. "Others are concerned about their own futures, people who have white-collar and manufacturing jobs."
Miller countered the stark economic figures by promoting Bush's economic growth package and rosy economic forecasts. Michigan voters will be turned off, she said, when they learn that Kerry has been the Senate's chief advocate for higher federal requirements for gas mileage. Kerry unsuccessfully pushed for a large increase in fuel economy over objections from auto manufacturers and union workers who said it would cost about 300,000 jobs.
Miller said she thinks the race will be decided by a small group of swing voters, less than 10 percent of the turnout. They tend to be socially conservative, she said, and likely will take Bush's side against gay marriage and partial-birth abortion.
Mark Gaffney, president of the Michigan State AFL-CIO (search), travels the heavily unionized state with a Power Point presentation that portrays Bush as favoring the rich. He ticks off statistics — 37 million people in poverty, 38 million without health insurance, the worst job loss since the Depression, the largest deficits and worst trade balance in history.
"That's why it's such a good issue. The numbers are the numbers," Gaffney said. "The unemployed people are the unemployed people. How do they play defense?"