August 3, 2010 at 11:02 am

Gubernatorial candidates look to undecided voters

Virg Bernero, the Lansing mayor and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, shakes hands with Mero Gonzalez during a campaign stop at Coco's Coney Island in Mount Clemens. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

Lansing -- It was a mad scramble Monday across Michigan for the seven candidates vying to be the next governor as they tried to sway undecided voters and get them out to the polls today.

After months of debates, hundreds of attack ads, too many campaign stops to count and dozens of issue papers, it's up to the voters to decide which candidates will face each other in November's general election.

While recent polls have indicated Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero is opening a lead over opponent Andy Dillon, the Democratic race -- and the Republican contest -- are far from over, especially with the large number of undecided voters on either side.

For the first time in recent memory, the Democratic and Republican contests are up for grabs with no clear favorite.

One undecided voter, Gary Hawks, tracked down Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder at a Lansing diner to ask questions.

Hawks, a retired state superintendent from East Lansing, liked Snyder's business background and his promise to change the way state government runs. But he hadn't quite made up his mind Monday if Snyder should get his vote.

"I just like to get the facts in their own words," Hawks, 76, said as he considered his options.

The Republican race is especially close, with three of the five candidates bunched tightly at the top: Ann Arbor venture capitalist Snyder, state Attorney General Mike Cox and U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Holland. Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard also is within striking distance, some say. State Sen. Tom George of Kalamazoo has been mired in fifth place throughout the campaign.

On the Democratic side, Dillon of Redford Township had the lead for much of the campaign and has been surpassed in recent polls by Bernero, who has a single-digit lead.

"Since the Democrats became a major party in Michigan after World War II, we've never had anything like this, with questionable races on both sides," said Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.

Some point to 1982, when then-U.S. Rep. James Blanchard emerged from a field of seven candidates and Farmington Hills businessman Richard Headlee came out of a race against three opponents. But Ballenger said while the GOP primary was a barnburner, Blanchard was the clear frontrunner in the Democratic race and won easily.

This is the first gubernatorial election since that year that has not featured an incumbent governor or lieutenant governor.

No obvious Granholm heir

John Klemanski, political science professor at Oakland University, said when Lt. Gov. John Cherry dropped out in January, the dynamics of the race dramatically changed.

"A lot of times, there's an heir apparent or an anointed one. That's not the case this time," Klemanski said. "It's pretty unusual."

Cherry has been lieutenant governor all eight years Gov. Jennifer Granholm has been in office. She's term limited and can't run again.

Adding to the uncertainty is the large number of undecided voters: nearly a third of Democrats and 15 percent of Republicans. Most of the candidates continued to flood the airwaves with ads in the last days of the campaign.

Michigan's economic morass has been an important backdrop to the gubernatorial campaign. Each of the seven candidates is focusing on job creation as the No. 1 priority, but they have different approaches. Taxes also have been a big issue with some candidates vowing not to raise taxes and all wanting to reduce levies on business to varying degrees.

Republicans are hoping to reclaim the governor's office, buoyed by voter dissatisfaction with the direction of the state under Granholm and the country under President Barack Obama, as borne out by polls. The conventional wisdom is that this will be a banner year for the GOP.

But Democrats are banking on the Republicans nominating a staunch conservative who is out of step with the mainstream in a traditionally blue state.

State political map at stake

Capturing the office -- as well as the state House and Senate -- is critical to both parties as the newly elected officials will be responsible for redrawing the political map following this year's U.S. Census. The redistricting will have an impact on elections in the state for the next decade.

Should Michigan move from a blue state to a red state, that could have repercussions on its relationship with a Democratic president, who has worked well with Granholm and sent millions for recovery programs, advanced battery credits, transportation and other projects to the state. Having a Republican as governor also could hurt Obama's chances to win re-election, because the state's political leader would be able to use the bully pulpit of the office to back his challenger in 2012. Obama needs to keep Michigan, a pivotal state, in his column to win another term.

The race for governor has dominated the campaign, rendering all but invisible important races for Congress and the state Legislature. All 15 congressional districts, 38 state Senate seats and 110 state House seats are in play this year.

The only other contest vying at all with the gubernatorial race for attention is the 13th Congressional District in Detroit, where incumbent U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick is facing a stiff challenge from state Sen. Hansen Clarke in a field of six.

There will be at least three new members of Congress this year because Hoekstra is running for governor and U.S. Reps. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, and Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, are retiring. There are spirited GOP primaries in all three districts. Hoekstra is hoping large turnouts in the two western Michigan districts will carry him to victory.

Cox is funneling most of his resources into voter-rich Metro Detroit late in the campaign and he's running automated calls against Snyder, the narrow leader in the latest polls. Snyder is wooing independents and cross-over Democrats and counting on Cox, Hoekstra and Bouchard to split the conservative vote.

Last-minute campaigning

Bouchard saved most of his money until the final couple of weeks in the campaign for a late TV ad splurge. He's the favorite of many of the tea party groups around the state.

Bernero is leaning heavily on his support from big labor and abortion rights activists to mobilize voters. He hasn't spent a penny on TV ads, but labor and other groups, through the Genesee County Democrats, have funneled nearly $2 million into television spots. Dillon is courting moderate voters and touting his business and legislative experience.

On the final full day of campaigning:

  • Bouchard stopped at diners and coffee shops around Oakland County, and had an evening rally at Brother Rice High School, his alma mater.

  • Hoekstra held a rally at his Holland headquarters after tele-town halls with evangelical author and radio talk show host Dr. James Dobson and U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, a tea party backer.

  • Bernero had rallies in Mount Clemens and labor rallies in Flint, Midland and Lansing.

  • Dillon had a union rally at Hart Plaza and a chat with voters at Campus Martius before a "Women for Dillon" event at a Detroit restaurant.

  • Snyder's bus tour stopped in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Grand Blanc and Clarkston. He closed the day with rallies in Macomb County and Ann Arbor.

  • Cox had a rally at his Livonia headquarters and did meet-and-greets in West Bloomfield and Royal Oak.

  • George made stops in Kentwood, Grand Rapids, Grand Blanc, Waterford, Bloomfield Hills and Farmington Hills."> (313) 222-2470 The Associated Press contributed.(David Coates / The Detroit News)

  • U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick faces five opponents in the 13th District congressional primary and could feel the effect of voter dissatisfaction with her son, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is serving time in prison for a parole violation connected to a text-messaging scandal and facing federal charges as well. The primary winner is expected to win in November in the district that includes part of Detroit and a few suburbs.
  • In the strongly Republican area of west Michigan, GOP primaries for the 2nd and 3rd congressional seats could give the nod to the likely November winner. The 1st District also has a full GOP primary, with six candidates in the race.
  • In the Legislature, term limits will bump 29 of the state's 38 senators from their current offices. Thirty-four members of the 110-seat House are term-limited, and several more are giving up fairly certain re-election to run for the Senate or other offices. More than 650 legislative candidates are on the ballot.

  • Also on ballots

  • In Macomb County and communities in Oakland and Wayne counties that pay for SMART, voters will decide the fate of a 10-year tax renewal for that public bus service.
  • Oakland County voters will be asked to consider millage renewals for county parks and Oakland Community College, two entities that rely heavily on property taxes to operate.
  • Romulus and Huron and Sumpter townships are asking residents to pay more taxes to maintain levels of police and fire services.
  • Eastpointe, Mount Clemens and Fitzgerald Public Schools are asking voters millage questions, and Warren is seeking a millage to avoid shutting down libraries.
  • Road improvements are proposed in Hartland and Iosco townships, while a first-time parks and recreation tax would develop facilities and expand the Lakelands Trail network in Unadilla Township. Tyrone Township is seeking a police and fire special assessment.
    Sources: Michigan Department of State, AP and Detroit News research.