Michigan's Early Shot Backfires

IONIA, MICH.--The brick storefronts that line Main Street here in the heart of GOP country are decked in their holiday finery of greens and red ribbon, yet something is missing: With the state's January 15 presidential primary just weeks away, there are no political posters and no candidates--Republican or Democrat--anywhere to be found.

"I would like to think we matter," says Ronald Schafer, the Ionia County prosecutor and chairman of the county Republicans, over lunch at the Lamplight Grill. "But we haven't seen the candidates."

This is not how it was supposed to be. It was electoral clout that the state's political leaders were after when they defied party orders and scheduled their contest before February 5, the earliest primary date allowed under Democratic and Republican rules for all but a handful of states. It put Michigan's primary hard on the heels of traditional early voters Iowa and New Hampshire. But instead of clout, the state got chaos.

Angry national bosses slashed the number of delegates Michigan can send to party nominating conventions, a punishment also handed out to Florida and others that jumped ahead of the February start date. Democrats bickered over whether to hold a caucus or a primary, and the party's top candidates, with the exception of Sen. Hillary Clinton, have boycotted the primary. (Democrats who are not competing have been urging supporters to go to the polls and mark their ballots "uncommitted.") The only candidate to have run local radio and television ads has been Republican Mitt Romney, and he hasn't run many. "I think we've really outsmarted ourselves," a top state union official lamented.

Lake effect. But events now appear to be conspiring to make Michigan matter. Though there's no question the race for an early voice backfired for Democrats here, the wide-open GOP contest may give the state's Republican primary--all of the candidates are on the ballot--some longed-for influence. Says Schafer, a Rudy Giuliani supporter: "Michigan will matter if no consensus leader comes out of the first two states." Front-runner Romney has held his lead in New Hampshire but now trails Mike Huckabee in Iowa, and Giuliani is not focusing on the early contests, so that scenario is looking more likely by the day.

That could bode well for Sen. John McCain, who won here in 2000 and is banking on a strong showing in New Hampshire on January 8 to keep his campaign alive. "Michigan certainly matters in our path to victory," says McCain spokesperson Jill Hazelbaker. "A win would allow Senator McCain to have momentum going into South Carolina." Though in state presidential preference polls McCain lags well behind Giuliani and Romney, the son of a former Michigan governor, a recent survey commissioned by the Detroit Free Press found that Michiganders consider him the strongest Republican in the field. "There's clearly a new breath of life for McCain," says state GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis. "But the Huckabee folks are also excited, and Romney and Giuliani continue to play here." Perhaps surprisingly, Romney can't bank on the family name; he gets "no favorite son status," the survey found. And it is McCain, whose campaign has resurged since a midsummer meltdown, who does best among the state's independent voters, who are allowed to participate in the primary.

"We're loyal people and we stuck with John McCain strong," says supporter Chuck Yob, 70, one of the state's two GOP national committee members. "We've still got a good grass-roots organization." Yob's son is a McCain strategist.

So as the primary season approaches and Michigan gets another look, leaders of both national parties are already planning for the 2012 presidential contest and hashing over ways to avoid the chaos. The early, accelerated schedule has turned this season on its head; one remedy being seriously considered is a series of regional primaries. "The nation has never seen a primary calenar like the one we face in 2008," says Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson of the National Association of Secretaries of States' presidential primary subcommittee.

It's too early to tell, he said, what effect Iowa and New Hampshire will have on the process going forward and whether states like Michigan will be able to realize their dream of wresting influence from them. But here in Ionia, snug in the heart of the conservative Third Congressional District, voters like Schafer, who answers an emphatic "yes" when asked if he has Iowa envy, are longing for a bigger voice--on January 15 and beyond.

By Liz Halloran