In Michigan Looks Aren't Everything

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Earlier this year, when democrats were making a list of Republican Senators who would be easy to beat in November, Michigan's Spencer Abraham looked like the Big Easy. A former staff member for Vice President Dan Quayle, he was elected in 1994 as part of the Newt Gingrich insurgency. The state's first G.O.P. Senator in more than 20 years, Abraham went to Washington, then went nowhere. As a Senator he focused on topics like immigrant visas for highly skilled workers — important to business, but not the hottest of hot buttons for voters — while telephone calls from constituents went unanswered and party donors could not so much as get a ticket from his office for a White House tour. Going into 2000 with unspectacular poll ratings, he was targeted by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents.

So why is Abraham now the front runner, with a double-digit lead in most polls over two-term Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Stabenow? He got there, first of all, by getting out far ahead in the money game. Compared with Stabenow's campaign fund of $6 million, Abraham expects to raise $14 million all told, though he spent just $4.4 million to get elected six years ago. Then he poured the money into TV spots that clobbered Stabenow on an issue she thought was hers: the high cost of prescription drugs for the elderly.

Stabenow, 50, positively glows charisma. Abraham, by comparison, can look a bit bug-eyed and pudgy. He often appears uncomfortable on the campaign trail. His strategist, Mike Murphy, the man who guided John McCain's presidential campaign, calls Abraham, 48, "made for radio." Murphy doesn't show the candidate's face much in TV ads.

The face he prefers to show is Stabenow's, in TV spots that define her as a spendthrift, turn-back-the-clock liberal. One offered her smiling at the center of a clock. As the hands turned backward, a list of her liberal "achievements" scrolled across the screen. All the same, Stabenow stayed close in the polls until August, when Abraham went after her attempt to identify herself as the champion of elderly voters unhappy with prescription-drug costs. Stabenow — who has twice bused seniors across the border to Canada, where they could buy cheaper medicines — has been promoting the Democratic plan's Medicare drug benefit, which would pay 50% of costs for the first $2,000 with only a $25 monthly premium. Abraham has a plan with no premium but a $1,200 cap for low-income seniors. It also requires the involvement of private insurers. But Abraham neutralized Stabenow's advantage on the issue with an ad using figures from the Congressional Budget Office arguing that her plan would actually cost the elderly $600 a year in premiums, far beyond the reach of the most needy. In late August, Stabenow finally aired her first TV ad, calling Abraham a captive of the insurance companies. But the damage was done. "I was supposed to be invisible," Abraham boasts. "Now she is."

"This is a classic case of being outspent," says Wayne County executive Ed McNamara, a Democrat. "If you get the spin doctors going, you can elect Dracula to heaven." Stabenow is looking for rescue from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is pouring in money to put her advertising outlays in line with Abraham's. "Here's all we know," says Jim Jordan, the Democratic Senate-campaign political director. "After millions of dollars, Abraham still hasn't reached 50% in the polls. The voters of Michigan are looking for an alternative." Maybe so. But whether Stabenow is the alternative they are looking for is another question.