MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — It was Michigan Democrats who sought to end the stranglehold Iowa and New Hampshire have had on the presidential nominating process by angling for years to move up their primary.
Yet despite the best efforts of Sen. Carl Levin and company, it’s the Republican contest here that may have been given added relevance with the new Jan. 15 date.
The fact that Michigan could be the largest GOP domino to fall in rapid succession no matter how the early state calendar ends up being constructed — there are 61 delegates to be had here and over a million people could take part in the GOP primary, compared with the roughly 100,000 Iowans expected to caucus there — doesn’t seem to have penetrated the political consciousness.
Until this weekend, at least.
Each of the top GOP presidential candidates trekked to the upper reaches of Michigan to address Republican activists here at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference. It’s a biennial affair on the resort island, and one that has drawn its share of big-name political talent over the years.
But never has there been a get-together like this, where all of the party’s contenders make their case before about 1,000 Republicans who will be the foot soldiers in what could be a decisive primary in less than four months.
Unlike in Florida, where Democratic presidential hopefuls have pledged to not campaign out of deference to the DNC and the traditional early states, Michigan is expected to see GOP contenders early and often. Right now, the race here mirrors the contours of the broader GOP primary:
Mitt Romney has the best organization, Rudy Giuliani is late putting his team together but appears strong in the polls, Fred Thompson is as much x-factor as he is a threat and John McCain is in a precarious position.
Although other recent polls show Romney enjoying a lead, Giuliani appears strong despite having little organization in the state.
Aside from picking up the early backing of Miller, Giuliani has done little in Michigan. On Friday, he announced his first hire here.
It’s McCain who dominated the conversation at Mackinac’s famed Grand Hotel this weekend.
“McCain doesn’t have the kind of support from the party’s grass-roots leaders that he thought he would,” observes Bill Ballenger, a veteran Michigan political observer and editor of Inside Michigan Politics.
McCain, who ran away with the Michigan primary in 2000, was expected to go toe-to-toe with Romney — whose dad was Michigan’s governor in the ’60s — this time around.
But his dire financial situation forced him to thin out his staff in the state this summer and focus his resources on Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Still, he was left with key players such as Attorney General Mike Cox chairing his campaign and veteran operative John Yob running the day-to-day side.
But, unhappy with the new staff directing McCain’s campaign, Cox resigned his post this week and is no longer backing the Arizonan. And, sources tell Politico, Yob has been moved from Michigan to McCain’s national headquarters outside Washington, D.C., to take over as deputy political director.
Asked about the changes, McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan would only say, “This campaign is all about looking forward.”
But many Michiganders think McCain’s hopes are dim. “Right now, there are a lot of [Republicans] that are hoping he does the right thing so they can move on without it being said they deserted him,” said one longtime Michigan politico who is backing Giuliani. McCain’s backers are “ripe ground for the other candidates,” he said.
Of course, it’s only natural that Giuliani backers would suggest that McCain is finished — they are hoping to win with many of the same voters that fueled his 2000 win.
“He&rquo;s doing very well with independents and women,” said Rep. Candice S. Miller, a Macomb County Republican and former secretary of state who has endorsed Giuliani. “McCain did very well with that demographic, too.”
If Democrats continue to avoid campaigning in Michigan, many independents (and some Democrats) could choose to cast their ballot in the GOP contest. Any registered voter can participate, under Michigan’s rules.
Miller pointed to a new poll by the Marketing Research Group, a Lansing-based firm, showing Giuliani leading with 27 percent of the vote, compared with13 percent for Romney, 13 percent for Thompson and 6 percent for McCain.
“We do need to have some paid staff on the ground, and we’re putting that in place,” said Miller, noting that more operatives would be brought in very shortly.
Giuliani’s camp has high hopes for metropolitan Detroit -- home to about half of the state’s population -- and, in particular, Miller’s Macomb (original home of the ethnic, blue-collar “Reagan Democrats”) and some of the moderate suburbanites in Oakland County (home to Romney’s upscale former home of Bloomfield Hills).
Still, the Giuliani camp is lagging badly behind Romney in terms of grass roots. The former mayor’s campaign hasn’t focused much on Michigan, instead choosing to put its efforts toward the states holding their primaries Feb. 5.
Giuliani hoped Michigan would hold its primary the same day. But senior aides to Giuliani argue that Michigan Republican chairman Saul Anuzis gladly acceded to the Democrats’ effort to move the primary up in order to help Romney. It’s a charge Anuzis sharply denies.
“That’s just not true,” Anuzis says. The Giuliani, Romney and McCain campaigns all signed off on “going early.”
As for Giuliani in particular, Anuzis says, “They very much, more than anything, wanted to have a primary.”
“If I were doing this on behalf of Romney, I would’ve done a state convention. And, given the current makeup [of GOP activist leanings], Romney would’ve beaten McCain 60-40, and Rudy wouldn’t even be close.”
Indeed, Romney’s ground game is formidable. He has support from four of the state’s Republican congressman, 55 legislators in the state House and Senate, many top donors and county chairs in 82 out of 83 counties. What’s more, he has already begun organizing precincts and coalitions.
He has 130 “community captains” and more than 156 coalition chairs, according to his campaign.
Still, in a state with seven media markets over two time zones, grass roots only counts for so much.
“You’ve got to have a media plan,” Anuzis says.
Though Romney has yet to go up on television as he has in each of the other states holding January contests, he has something of a built-in advantage that he doesn’t have in other states: As the son of a popular two-term governor, he’s not the total unknown in Michigan that he is in South Carolina or Florida.
“Anybody who is 55 or older still remembers his father as governor,” Anuzis notes. “I’m 48, but even I can still remember meeting him at the state capitol as a Cub Scout.”
Supporters of other campaigns, however, note that Romney hasn’t lived in the state since he left for college. And, since his dad, George Romney, left Lansing in 1969, the family hasn’t fared so well in Michigan politics, they point out.
Since 1970, Romneys have lost four contests in the state (two Senate races, a Senate nomination and an attorney general nomination).
“It’s not really the best of all records,” Miller notes.
As for Thompson, he has former U.S. Sen. Spence Abraham (whose wife is co-chair of the state party) in his corner, but made his first trip to the state this weekend. Lie Giuliani’s focus on Feb. 5, Thompson is pinning his nomination hopes on winning South Carolina and Florida.
In a brief interview, Abraham said polls show Thompson is "already competitive" here.
Abraham said that Thompson would fare well in the state for two reasons. "First, he was a senator of a state, Tennessee, that has domestic auto production, Saturn, and he understands those issues which are so central to Michigan's success and he can speak effectively to that.
"Second, demographically, he’s the guy in this race that comes from a small town, rural background of modest means and that seperates him from the other candidates, I think.
Meeting with reporters here Saturday afternoon, Thompson said the state would "be important in our primary" and pledged to vigorously compete here.
"Oh, absolutely, absolutely," Thompson quickly replied when asked if he would play hard in Michigan. "I notice where I’m doing pretty good and this is my first trip in," he said, alluding to recent polls showing him not far behind Giuliani and Romney in the state. "So hopefully, with more trips, I’ll do better."
Neither Thompson or any of the other top-tier candidates want to give Romney a free pass in a state as big as Michigan, especially given his strong numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire.
After all, they know what impact momentum from earlier wins can have in Michigan.
“As late as January 10th, McCain wasn’t supposed to have a snowball's chance in hell of winning Michigan,” Ballenger recalls of the 2000 primary. But, despite the efforts of former Gov. John Engler and most of the state party establishment, McCain walked away with a 51 to 43 victory (fueled by Democrats and independents), thanks to the surge he got from blowing out then-Gov. George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary.
Said McCain this weekend: "Well, we won in 2000 without the money and finances to do so. We had kind of a grass-roots campaign here, so I’m confident that we can do well here."