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Gary Peters is describing himself as a moderate politician as he campaigns for a Michigan U.S. Senate seat that plays a pivotal role in this fall's battle for control of Congress.

Centrist voters remain the key demographic as the Bloomfield Township Democrat faces former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land in a race that cost $32.3 million through the end of September and continues to climb, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Finishing his third term as a U.S. representative, Peters touts a record in which he has sided with his party leaders on big issues such as President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act while occasionally breaking ranks to vote for such fiscal measures as a 2010, mostly Republican plan to freeze non-defense spending.

The 55-year-old called himself "an independent voice about practical problem-solving" in a meet-the-candidates forum last Friday at a Port Huron senior citizen center.

"I'm sure all of you are as frustrated as I am with what's happening in Washington, where it is more about partisan bickering and more about ideology," Peters added in his speech.

That's perhaps a tagline for the battle between him and Land for a U.S. Senate seat Detroit Democrat Carl Levin has owned for almost 36 years.

The GOP, which hasn't won one of Michigan's Senate seats since 1994, sees a golden opportunity in Levin's impending retirement and has attacked Peters as being part of a dysfunctional Congress.

Michigan GOP Chairman Bobby Schostak charges "Gary Peters' 'do as I say, not as I do' mentality is what's wrong with Washington. Michigan does not need another career politician that will represent special interest groups and Washington Democrats."

The Senate race has featured many ads from outside groups, some attacking Peters for his support of the controversial federal health care law and opposition to the Keystone oil pipeline, among other issues.

But Peters seems to be swimming effectively against a tide pundits say favors a Republican takeover of the Senate's majority in this midterm election during Democrat Obama's second term.

His small lead in polls throughout the summer expanded to 9 percentage points among likely voters in a recent survey for The Detroit News-WDIV/Local 4.

The National Republican Senate Committee responded by canceling $810,000 worth of late-October advertising in support of Land, while the Ending Spending Action Fund pledged more than $1 million to fill the void.

Out among the grassroots

Talkative and a rapt listener, Peters has been using Congress' recess to appear at events such as the one in Port Huron, where he also toured a waterfront convention center under construction near the Blue Water Bridge to Ontario.

"The other side's been spending millions against me," he said. "(But) I've been out (among the) grassroots. I go to events like this. I believe in retail politics. I'm very different from my opponent. ... I answer questions."

Land has bankrolled billboards and ads calling him a "hypocrite" because he owns stock in a petroleum firm that produces petroleum coke — a coal-like byproduct of oil refining — even though he railed for a year against pet coke piles along the Detroit River whose dust plagued homes and businesses.

Peters says there's no connection between investments for his family's financial security and his political views.

His supporters have countered that Peters' opposition to the pet coke piles owned by the billionaire Koch brothers fueled attack ads from Koch-backed groups such as Americans for Prosperity.

Key elements of Peters' pitch: He supported the federal loans that saved General Motors and Chrysler from insolvency when running for Congress, will never vote to deprive seniors of Social Security or Medicare and will fight for tax cuts to small businesses and middle-class Michiganians.

Peters wasn't in Congress in 2008 when the House approved $14 billion in aid for automakers that never received a Senate vote.

In a state that tilts Democratic, he isn't shy about backing the Affordable Care Act or a 2009 cap-and-trade bill, which would have set a limit on carbon dioxide emissions and allowed companies to buy and sell permits for the emissions.

Backs Affordable Care Act

Here he is on the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which polls continue to show as unpopular but accepted by a growing number:

"It was important to pass it to move forward and to put in the reforms. ... It allows seniors to have access to wellness visits, basic screenings without any co-pays, which is important. (It) allows folks to keep their children (insured) till age 26 and allows people to buy into insurance exchanges, which will be a much more competitive marketplace to keep insurance rates lower."

But Peters added that no law is perfect and this one needs improvements.

He has introduced a bill to provide tax credits "to help small employers to be able to afford insurance for their families (and) their employees," he said.

His supporters include the League of Conservation Voters and billionaire hedge fund manager and environmentalist Tom Steyer of California, who have run attack ads against Land.

St. Clair County Commissioner Howard Heidemann said the congressman "seems to have a pretty good grasp and shares my views about where we need to go as a country."

Heidemann, the seven-member county commission's only Democrat, said government requires adequate funding but "I don't think you can continue to shuffle that burden to the middle class and even to the lower class. I think Gary understands that."

Heidemann also credited the Affordable Care Act with helping save his county $869,000 on benefits for its 250 retired employees — a savings projected to grow to $1.6 million.

Called 'liberal populist'

The nonpartisan website Ballotpedia and the On the Issues tracking system rate Peters a "liberal populist" based on their review of his votes.

He voted for Obama's DREAM Act providing conditional permanent residency to certain undocumented immigrants and a 2014 compromise making permanent Bush administration tax cuts while raising taxes for high-income earners.

He opposed proposals such as a 2013 House bill to ban abortions more than 20 weeks after inception and a 2013 bill to halt a 0.5-percent federal employee pay raise.

But Battle Creek Republican Joe Schwarz, a former congressman who also served in Michigan's Senate with Peters in the 1990s, sees him as politically closer to the center.

"He's a bright guy ... with a good grasp of issues, a guy you could work with" despite political differences, Schwarz said. "I always saw Gary as quite moderate, as were many members of the Senate in the 1990s."

In campaign talks, Peters stresses his business background, frugality and the fact that he's the son of a World War II veteran who taught for decades in public schools and a mom who worked as a nurse's aide. He also notes he served a dozen years as an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve.

Peters worked 22 years as a financial consultant and executive with major stock-trading firms — or, as he puts it, "helping families plan for their retirement, plan for their children's education."

Peters served eight years in the Michigan Senate and knocked off Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg in 2008 for his first term in Congress serving Michigan's 9th District. He survived a 2010 challenge from former state lawmaker Andrew "Rocky" Raczkowski.

In 2012, Peters beat Congressman Hansen Clarke, D-Detroit, in the primary for the state's rejiggered 14th House District after reapportionment eliminated a Michigan congressional seat and merged much of the 9th District into territory represented by Levin's long-serving brother, Sander.

Touting middle-class roots

Peters now is rolling out a series of image-building ads leading up to Nov. 4. The ads talk about middle-class roots, his Naval Reserve service and tight-fistedness.

In one, his wife Colleen says the household washing machine "is older than the kids" — to which Peters answers, with a shrug, "But it still works."

Such positive TV spots that focus on what he offers voters contrast with the Land campaign's continuing attacks on him through the air waves.

But it doesn't mean his supporters are easing up.

At a staged event this week in Hamtramck, United Auto Workers members protested the use of a photo of them in Land advertising that aims to blunt Peters' charges that she opposed the GM-Chrysler bailout — a claim she rejects.

Peters blames April's U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down aggregate limits on campaign contributions for the often-nasty tone of this year's campaign.

"It's a horrible situation we have," he said in Port Huron. "We have to have campaign finance reform. We can't let out-of-state billionaires ..."

The audience drowned out the rest of the sentence. It turned out to be his best applause line of the day.

gheinlein@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

Gary Peters

Age: 55

Hometown: Bloomfield Township

Family: Married to Colleen; three children

Education: Bachelor's degree, Alma College; master's in business administration, University of Detroit Mercy; law degree, Wayne State University; master's degree in philosophy, Michigan State University

Experience: Three terms in Congress; state lottery commissioner, 2003-07; state senator, 1995-2002; Rochester Hills city council member, 1991-93; 22 years as investment adviser, including as assistant vice president at Merrill Lynch (1980-89) and vice president at Paine Webber

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