LANSING, Mich. Gov. Jennifer Granholm was once a darling of the Democratic Party _ a Canadian-born rising star who was mentioned along with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as a possible presidential candidate if the Constitution were changed to allow foreign-born citizens to run for the White House.
But then the state's economy faltered because of the struggling auto industry, leading Republicans to target Michigan as the most likely place to defeat a Democratic incumbent.
"I think the governor of Illinois, the governor of Wisconsin, the governor of Pennsylvania are all Democratic incumbents that face challenges this year,"Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said. But Granholm's record"is harder to defend than any governor of either party that I can think of."
Granholm, 47, is up against a well-financed campaign by multimillionaire challenger Dick DeVos, who is getting free political help from Matthew Dowd, one of President Bush's senior campaign advisers.
Granholm has tried to pin some of the blame on Bush, claiming the president has turned his back on the auto industry and failed to enforce trade agreements that she says would give domestic automakers a level playing field abroad.
Bush supporters insist the president is responsible for the economic resurgence in the rest of the country; they blame Granholm for the"single-state recession"plaguing Michigan.
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Michigan remains the only state besides hurricane-ravaged Louisiana to lose jobs between May 2005 and May 2006. Its unemployment rate has hovered two percentage pointsabove the national average, and many economists expect that rate to climb until 2008.
Those same economists often agree that the weak economy is not Granholm's fault. But they know it's an opening for her opponents.
"It gives an opportunity to the DeVos campaign to say,'Lousy employment picture, it's all the governor's fault,'"said Charles Ballard, an economics professor at Michigan State University. But if DeVos had been elected in 2002,"the economy would not be dramatically different from what we see now."
DeVos, 50, draws much of his wealth from Amway Corp., the direct-marketing company founded by his father, Richard DeVos, who owns the Orlando Magic basketball team. The younger DeVos was president of the company from 1993 to 2002 and remains a major shareholder. He and his wife, former state GOP Chairwoman Elisabeth DeVos, own a 16,000-square-foot home in Ada, where Amway _ now part of a company called Alticor Inc. _ has its headquarters.
Dick DeVos will not say how much of his own money he has poured into the race. But his campaign has run television campaign ads since mid-February at a cost of more than $7 million, and DeVos already had given $750,000 to his campaign by the end of last year.
The Michigan Democratic Party began running TV ads promoting Granholm's jobs plan four weeks ago, but Granholm so far has run no ads of her own.
The attacks on Granholm have also included a full-page newspaper ad featuring a swastika and photos of the governor and Adolf Hitler. The ad in the Michigan Chronicle, the largest black newspaper in Detroit, drew criticism from both Granholm and her challenger after it was placed by Voice the Vote, an independent political action committee.
Granholm responds to critics by pointing to her record of creating jobs in biotechnology and advanced manufacturing, and the passage of a tax break that will give manufacturers $600 million in tax cuts over four years.
When the state is competing with countries such as China and India,"you can offer zero taxes and you can't compete with $1.57 an hour"wages, she said."We have to invest in order to grow. We cannot slash our way to the bottom."
Still, many voters have begun to doubt her performance. Last month, a poll of 600 likely voters showed that 58 percent gave the Democratic governor a negative rating. That same survey by the political polling firm EPIC-MRA had DeVos getting 46 percent of the vote to Granholm's 44 percent, with 10 percent undecided. Last November, Granholm led DeVos 58 percent to 35 percent. Both polls had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
Granholm remains undaunted."I'm excited about the campaign,"she said."I look forward to the battle."
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