WASHINGTON – When Rep. Candice Miller (search) got a phone call from the Bush-Cheney campaign last fall asking her to chair their re-election committee in Michigan, the first-term Republican from the 10th Congressional District didn’t have to think twice.
Never mind that Michigan is one of the key battleground states in the 2004 election, viewed by campaigns and pundits alike as a bellwether and perhaps tie-breaker in what promises to be a razor-thin victory for either President Bush (search) or Democratic Sen. John Kerry (search).
"Whatever they wanted me to do I was going to do. I was very flattered to be asked," she told Foxnews.com. "Frankly, I would be disappointed if I had to sit on the sidelines."
Miller, who fellow Republicans in the state say has rocketed in stature since she took over the job as state chairwoman, says Bush’s re-election is of vital importance for the country and for her party.
"I think he is a great leader in historically challenging times and I am going to do everything I can to see him re-elected," she said.
Miller's enthusiasm also extends to the Republican majority in Congress. "I am for keeping the majority and growing the majority. I am very big on teams and politics is a team thing in my mind."
In a recent Detroit News poll, Bush has pulled ahead of Kerry 44 percent to 40 percent, a flip from a poll two months ago which had Kerry ahead. In 2000, former Vice President Al Gore beat Bush in the state by a slight majority.
"Both candidates are all over Michigan, it’s clearly in play," said Miller, who served as secretary of state there from 1994 to 2002. "It’s going to be about voter turnout."
Miller said her team has helped to build a networked organization from the precinct level on up. "I really think it's fundamental politics, which I think some Republicans have forgotten about over the years," she said. "But I tell you, the president has not."
Greg McNeilly, executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, said Miller has been a real "rock star" for the Bush-Cheney campaign. "We’re pretty proud," he said, adding that his state continues to be "a toss up" in the presidential election.
But political analysts say there is only so much Miller can do in the face of mounting external issues that have driven the president’s numbers down. Bad news from the war front and Michigan’s slow economic recovery have forced Bush, and by extension Republicans like Miller, to defend and explain themselves at every turn.
"Our national election is more captive to outside events than ever before," said McNeilly.
Greg Dirasian, a member of the Michigan Libertarian Party (search), which is running Phoebe Basso (search) against Miller, said Bush is losing support among libertarian Republicans throughout the district.
"I don’t think he’s inspiring Republicans to turn out to vote," said Dirasian. "I think Republicans have a lot to worry about in this state."
Miller, a self-dubbed career politician who serves on the House Government Reform and Armed Services Committees, dismisses what she calls "hyperbole," but agrees the swing vote in the state will be impacted by people's sentiment about the war and economy.
Democratic challenger Rob Casey (search), who does not have the blessing of the state Democratic Party apparatus, is nonetheless trying to drum up opposition using these same two key issues against her.
"We’ve had 7.2 percent unemployment — everyone of these jobless are families in crisis, struggling to decide where they can make the mortgage payment," he said, blaming Miller for what he calls a lackluster effort to assist constituents suffering from the downturn.
The suburban-rural 10th Congressional District, which stretches northeast along the Great Lakes (search) from Detroit and incorporates half of Macomb County voters as well as Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac and Huron Counties, was redistricted in 2001 with Miller in mind.
"It’s particularly enticing for a challenger like me to try and take the prize away from her," said Casey, a designer for General Motors (search) and a political novice. "I know it’s going to be tough."
Casey said a letter sent by Miller to constituents after her February trip to the Middle East inspired him to run. It featured a photo of Miller posing at the mouth of the spider hole used by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (search) before his capture.
"It didn’t mention the 600 men and woman who at that time died so she could send off this picture," said Casey, who found the gesture flip. "The incompetence of the war annoys me, the fact that there is no strategy, there is the inability of the president and Congress to articulate what that strategy is."
Miller had told reporters the spider hole made her ponder the fate of Saddam.
"The Butcher of Baghdad, who made Iraqis tremble in fear, had been reduced to living in a dirt hole in a Godforsaken area of Iraq." She added that she thought the president did a great job before the American audience last week laying out his plans for the future of that country.
Miller’s supporters say her assistance in maintaining and funding the Selfridge Air National Guard Base (search) in Mt. Clemens as well as her work on environmental issues have solidified her popularity in the district.
"Candice is just like her constituents — straightforward, smart and diligent," said Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, her Republican counterpart in the 11th District.
"She brings a constant upbeat and energetic presence to Congress," said Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, who serves on both the Government Reform and Armed Services Committees with Miller. "[She’s] kept her focus on the people of Michigan's 10th District."
Republican officials, referring to Miller's 63-36 percent win over Democrat Carl Marlinga in 2002, said her upcoming re-election should be a "cakewalk."
Casey said he knows it’s a long shot, "but I hope to take her job away while she’s off helping George Bush keep his job."