ROSEVILLE, Mich. -- The Democratic presidential candidates are bringing one message to Michigan in advance of its caucuses on Saturday: They will restore good jobs in a state reeling with a 7.2 percent unemployment rate and stop the hemorrhaging in the manufacturing workforce.
Michigan's contest will be the first in a big, industrialized Midwestern state, where dissatisfaction with President Bush's economic policies runs high, anger over trade policies is palpable, and the prospect of a recovery in manufacturing remains uncertain.
An illustration of that failure, well known in Michigan, occurred Jan. 16, when the Bush administration unveiled a manufacturing strategy. The same day, Electrolux AB announced it would close its 127-year-old refrigerator plant in Greenville, Mich., next year, moving about half of 2,700 jobs to Mexico, half to South Carolina.
In December, Michigan shed 31,000 jobs, and its unemployment rate rose while job losses nationally fell. For the seventh consecutive month, the state's unemployment rate topped 7 percent, and the state labor department estimated that 365,000 people were looking for work. Since 2000, 20 percent of Michigan's manufacturing jobs have disappeared.
"I am very pragmatic," Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm said Saturday. "This presidential campaign is about jobs. We've lost 170,000 manufacturing jobs since President Bush took office. That's 170,000 human stories in Michigan, and that is unacceptable."
Granholm, in her first term, said she endorsed Senator John F. Kerry because "he understands what the people of Michigan know: that the country must focus on keeping and creating jobs."
The latest poll of likely Michigan voters, conducted after the Iowa caucuses by EPIC/ MRA in Lansing, indicated support for Kerry was at 37 percent, followed by Howard Dean and John Edwards at 14 percent, and Wesley K. Clark at 10 percent. It represented an erosion of support for Dean, who had invested heavily and early in Michigan, a state that he says is now a key to getting his campaign back on track.
Yesterday, Dean held a town meeting at a recreation center in Roseville, a blue-collar suburb of Detroit, and drew cheers from a large crowd when he pledged to bring jobs back to Michigan and change trade agreements that he said put American workers at a disadvantage and send manufacturing plants overseas.
"There will be no more free-trade agreements until we fix the ones we have," Dean said. He promised to insist on imposing environmental standards on manufacturers operating overseas and give unions the right to organize workers at offshore plants.
"This president has lost 3 million jobs since he became president," Dean said, "and 225,000 of them came out of Michigan. If you make me president next Saturday, we are going to get those jobs back here."
Ken Hermonat, a software developer who lives in Ferndale, a Detroit suburb, said it is not only the loss of factory jobs that is creating economic insecurity in Michigan. "When I call a help desk with a hardware question, I reach somebody in India," said Hermonat, who attended Dean's town hall meeting. "I know I'm in a position where my job could be exported overseas."
All the presidential candidates have promised to level the trade playing field so that American companies can better compete with foreign rivals, and each has put forward detailed proposals for revising the economy's manufacturing sector, which has shed almost 3 million jobs since 2000 and not rebounded. Dennis J. Kucinich has said he would work for the repeal of NAFTA and withdrawing the United States from the World Trade Organization.
Kerry, speaking to reporters in Michigan by telephone from Oklahoma on Saturday, said he would not sign labor agreements that did not contain labor and environmental standards, and he said he would restore funding for federal programs to stimulate job creation in manufacturing. Kerry also repeated his pledge to change laws that give incentives to "any Benedict Arnold company or CEO that take American jobs overseas and sticks American people with the bill."
David Bonior, a former Democratic congressman from here in suburban Macomb County and who supported the candidacy of Richard A. Gephardt before he dropped out of the presidential race last month, said all the candidates "now are pretty much singing the same tune" on trade and job creation, even if their voting records do not reflect that stance. "People are angry; they don't feel like politicians in Washington are fighting for them," Bonior said.
Dean won the support of the the Service Employees International Union; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and the painters' union, representing about 100,000 members in Michigan. On Friday, Kerry got the endorsement of the 157,000-member Michigan Education Association and the Communication Workers of America, plus the grocery workers' and firefighters' union.
The United Auto Workers, with 423,000 active and retired members in Michigan, has not endorsed a candidate.
Mark Brewer, executive chairman of the state Democratic Party, said the race for the 128 delegates is "pretty fluid and volatile," and the outcome will depend on "who comes in and best addresses the paramount issue of lost jobs and economic insecurity."
There are other factors, including which candidate has the most visibility and convinces voters of his interest in Michigan and its economy. Kerry has not been in the state since October and has not run television ads. His wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, was in the Detroit area yesterday visiting churches, accompanied by former governor James Blanchard. He is helping run Kerry's campign in the state along with Dan Mulhern, husband of the current governor.
Dean held a well-attended rally at Michigan State University recently, and former vice president Al Gore campaigned for Dean at black churches in Detroit.
Dean has done no advertising in the state, and decisions on how money will be spent in Michigan have not been made, according to Daren Berringer, Dean's state director. Only Kerry and Dean seem to be preparing to put up much more than a nominal fight here.
Caucus turnout is expected to be as high as 400,000 people, a figure that has been enhanced by the ability of Michiganders to vote by Internet, Brewer said.