A Focus on Jobs in Michigan

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Scott Olson / Getty

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney addresses guests at the Compatico manufacturing facility January 15, 2008, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Heading out from a town hall in Howell, Michigan, John McCain supporter Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) explains why the state's voters have steered candidates away from the issues that were the touchstones of earlier races — the war, border security, health care — and brought out rhetoric focused almost exclusively on the economy and jobs.

"We have the highest rate of mortgage foreclosures in the country — even more than Louisiana," he says. "We —" He spins around in his seat on the Straight Talk Express: "Just look out there." He jabs his finger at the window pane toward the drizzly scene rolling by: "There's a closed shopping center. There's a store with nothing in it. There's an empty parking lot." He shakes his head. "The people of this state want solutions."

Not that they believe they're coming. According to one unaligned Republican pollster who does focus groups for corporate clients in Michigan, in a major survey of 1,200 residents, "I think only Chechnya has a worse right track/wrong track. [The state] polled 84 percent wrong track."

Michigan's primary today has attracted relatively little national media attention, but its results should prove revealing. Voters in the rest of the country may soon be grappling with the same severe economic downturn as Michigan already is, and the outcome of the Republican primary could go a long way toward determining John McCain or Mitt Romney's chances at winning the nomination.

What the final numbers will not say much about is what exactly Republican voters want those solutions to their economic woes to be. The two candidates vying for the top spot here — the most recent polls have shown McCain and Romney in a virtual dead heat — have immensely different campaign styles, and they have framed their message on Michigan's future in starkly contrasting ways, but what they are offering voters is not radically different.

Romney has come to his second home state reminding voters that he is a native son; he grew up here, his father was a three-term governor a generation ago and, before that, the president of American Motors. In speeches, he makes it sound like the state's sour economy insulted his mother: "I will not rest until Michigan is back!" As he says in his most recent ad, "It's personal to me."

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