President Barack Obama had little trouble winning Michigan in 2008, with his dominance in Wayne County and Detroit ensuring a double-digit drubbing of Sen. John McCain, who bailed out of the state a month before the election.
But this year? Republicans have no intention of giving Obama a pass through the Great Lakes State.
Four years ago, as the Democratic candidate, Obama had every advantage, including fund-raising and a corps of highly visible surrogates, who offered camera-ready appearances on his behalf and money and volunteers from their political machines.
Think Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano and a new, if temporary, mayor of Detroit, Ken Cockrel Jr.
But this year, fund-raising is beginning to show parity with conservative super political action committees leveling the playing field for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Michigan native who intends to contest the state all the way to Nov. 6. The PACs have spent more than $5 million on anti-Obama ads in Michigan since Romney won the state's Feb. 28 GOP primary, while the PAC with ties to the Obama campaign has done only a small cable television buy.
And the prospective surrogates for Obama this time around? Granholm's gone, Ficano's politically toxic and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing is neck-deep in the city's financial crisis.
Granholm is now a teacher and political talk show host in California. Ficano is so enmeshed in a corruption scandal surrounding his administration that neither he nor his substantial campaign coffers will be anywhere near Obama before the election. And Bing, who has little if any political organization, has more immediate issues than the presidential election.
All three have had close ties with the Obama campaign machine. Consider a recent Washington Post database of visitors to the White House. Granholm was there a dozen times in the last three years, Ficano visited twice and Bing has been there seven times since Obama took office on Jan. 21, 2009. But neither Granholm nor Ficano have been back in more than a year while Bing was there with the U.S. Conference of Mayors in March. When Obama visited Michigan the last three times, none were invited to the main events.
Bing and Ficano, who declined to comment for this report, did get to greet Obama at Metro Airport in Romulus when he came for Labor Day last year, but both were kept away from his main labor-sponsored speech to appease unions.
"Traditionally, the Detroit and Wayne County political operations have provided enough people to allow the presidential campaigns to not have to worry about Wayne County and Detroit," said political consultant Eric Foster. "It's going to be a very challenging situation for them this year."
The vote in Detroit and Wayne County is too essential to ignore. In 2008, Detroit voters gave Obama a 97%-3% victory, while Wayne County overall supported Obama 74%-25%.
This year, the race between Obama and Romney is close on a national level, with Obama leading by an average of just more than 2 percentage points in the last five national polls. But Michigan is a different story. The latest poll of 500 Michigan voters done by Public Policy Polling last weekend showed Obama with a commanding 53%-39% lead.
Lacking a visible leader at the top, the Obama campaign has reactivated much of its 2008 campaign infrastructure, including political veteran Lavora Barnes as Michigan campaign director, senior adviser Amy Chapman and the legions of volunteers who got out the Obama vote four years ago.
The campaign points out that the 2008 effort in Michigan didn't really get up and running until after Obama had sewn up the Democratic nomination in June.
"But we've been here since then and have never really left. Our infrastructure is much deeper and broader than in 2008," said Matt McGrath, Michigan campaign spokesman.
"The Democrats are going all in for organization" while Republicans focus on raising money, said Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which tracks campaign spending.
"It's two entirely different philosophies of campaigning," he said. "And that will be the question of this election: Which philosophy works?"
The Obama campaign also is recruiting different surrogates this time around, like the tight-knit community of Detroit ministers, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon and state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing.
"Certainly, the landscape has changed since 2008, but it doesn't change the fact that there is a lot of support for the president in Michigan," said Whitmer. "We've got (Sen. Carl) Levin, the congressional delegation and a lot of Michigan Democrats who will be hitting the stump."
Napoleon said his decades of experience with the political machines in metro Detroit have prepared him. He already has set up two meetings with the national campaign, organized labor and the city's ministers.
"I have a lot of capital in this community, and the campaign recognizes that. We can put together a coalition of significant Democratic players," he said.
Political consultant Ed Sarpolus added that even though Michigan's influential labor community is largely concentrating on its own ballot initiative, which will protect collective bargaining rights, just their presence in this election cycle will help Obama.
"What Obama needs is what labor needs in November: votes," Sarpolus said. "So they'll help each other."
But Foster warned that Republicans, especially the super PACs, will have a field day trying to tie Obama to the troubles of Democrats in Detroit and Wayne County.
"Picture the ads. It will have Coleman (Young), Kwame (Kilpatrick), (Ed) McNamara, Ficano and Obama," he said. "Then they'll have a question mark and ask, 'Is this what Democrats do when they are in charge?' "
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