DETROIT -- Mike Huckabee left South Carolina early Friday morning to pitch his message of economic populism in Michigan. Past hollowed buildings and windswept lots, his caravan rolled through the grim streets of this once great, now crumbling city of locomotive dreams.
First stop: a speech at the Detroit Economic Club. Held in a musty Bing Crosby-era ballroom with marble steps and rounded lights, the place - haunting in its antiquity – was another reminder of decline: dulled marble, furniture free rooms, yellowing tiles, a unisex bathroom with half-broken locks.
Against the dated backdrop Huckabee recalled the "manufacturing genius of Michigan" that helped turn out "our tanks, our planes, our bullets, and our bombs" during World War II. He said, "I think it is fair to say that there was a time in America's history when Michigan saved America. And now it may be time for America to help save Michigan." The audience applauded.
Winning Michigan is a near impossibility for Huckabee: Romney is investing all of his time and energy in a state that McCain won in 2000. Huckabee's most hopeful end goal here is to bump off the more well financed of the two by chewing off some of Romney's support among evangelicals and blue collar workers.
Often times labeled an "economic populist," Huckabee prefers the term "economic conservative." In addition to evangelicals, Huckabee appeals largely to blue collar workers, as evidenced in the Iowa caucus where Huckabee beat Romney by 16 points among people earning less than $50,000 a year and only 4 points for those earning more than $100,000 a year. Huckabee was also the first Republican to ever receive the endorsement of the Machinist's Union and received the endorsement of the 17,000 member International Painter's Union yesterday.
The speech he delivered yesterday, which had been advertised as an economic policy address, didn't offer anything new or specific on how to help Michigan out of its crisis. Instead, the speech was a populist pitch that consolidated Huckabee's major talking points about energy independence, education, healthcare, and the "Fair Tax." Later, at the media availability that followed, reporters asked Huckabee to list the concrete solutions he has proposed that would revive Michigan.
"Change the tax system so the people of Michigan can be competitive again, try to make sure there are job training programs because that's one of the keys to making sure the education system catches up with the needs of the marketplace. I still believe education is largely and primarily a state function, so I don't want to say the federal government – here's what it's going to prescribe for Michigan. I think what it would do, it would say, Michigan is in trouble. We owe it to Michigan to help it."
Huckabee rejected the idea of a "federal program" that would somehow solve Michigan's economic woes and, in addition to promoting the idea of shared responsibility, said the government would have to "target its resources and its capabilities" to fixing the tax system. He said it would be important to make sure labor re-training programs were fully funded by the Department of Labor, healthcare costs, importance of "open and available markets" for American goods and enforcing trade agreements.
Later, as the press bus traversed across the Route 96 from Lansing to Grand Rapids, I asked Huckabee to explain what had happened to Detroit.
"You have a lot of transition with a lot of people moving out and people not moving in to replace them. There's high unemployment. There's high despair. And despair is probably the greatest enemy of all," said Huckabee.
"When people give up hope, I can't stress enough, that no matter what the situation in life – whether it's the hopelessness of their job, the hopelessness of their owning a home, the hopelessness of them getting well. Take hope from somebody and you've just about killed them." Huckabee explained.
To understand economic decline as a partial function of despair is probably to be expected from a former pastor. At an enthusiastic rally held in Birch Run, many audience members I spoke to heard about Huckabee through the vibrant local religious community here.
Someone had handed out flyers - printed by a group called "Prayer Committee for Mike Huckabee" - at the rally organizing Mike Huckabee prayer meetings. On it, a suggested a "Huckabee prayer."
"May the voters vote for your will and only Your will," the flyer read.
"Change the heart of those who are committed to another candidate, cause those wh are undecided to vote for Mike Huckabee, and Lord place on the hearts of those who usually don't vote to vote this time for Mike Huckabee."