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No wonder the Democratic establishment was so worried about Gretchen Whitmer standing as the party’s anointed candidate for governor.

A poll released late last week by the Detroit Regional Chamber, the first independent survey since the filing deadline for the race, has Whitmer struggling against a challenger few had heard of a year ago.

The unconventional Shri Thanedar finds himself ahead of Whitmer, 29.6 percent to 26.3 percent.

The survey by the Glengariff Group, which is also the pollster for The Detroit News, was used by the chamber to shape the field for the gubernatorial debate during its Mackinac Policy Conference next month. (I’ll be asking the questions, along with my MiWeek colleagues Christy McDonald and Stephen Henderson.)

Richard Czuba, who heads Glengariff, says the Thanedar edge is all about the money — the author and entrepreneur has spent a fortune early on TV ads — but cautions Whitmer, who’d love to conserve money for the general election, about waiting any longer to respond.

“What she’s having difficulty with right now is name ID among black voters,” Czuba says. “She really needs to focus on this essential element of winning a Democratic primary. She needs to get into Wayne County, campaign hard there and be on the air.”

Democrats were warned from both inside and outside the party that endorsing an all-white slate of candidates at their state gathering earlier this month would sit poorly with the party’s African-American base.

While Whitmer represents the party establishment that made that poor choice, Thanedar has been busy courting black voters, targeting most of his spending on the Detroit market.

Despite his strong early showing, Thanedar is getting the Bernie Sanders treatment from the Democratic Party. He was forced out of the Progressive caucus at the state convention and not allowed to speak, even though he boasts of being the most liberal candidate in the race.

Czuba doesn’t read disaster in Whitmer’s weak polling. She’s got plenty of money and once she starts spending it her name ID should climb — if she spends it in the right way.

Democrats who said they get most of their news from television overwhelmingly support Thanedar, while those who say they get their information from social media and online sources back Whitmer. To reach black votes, she’ll have to mount a traditional campaign in the city.

Czuba says Thanedar has “made himself a legitimate candidate by spending lots of money.” But most of the money is his own, and he admits it’s not limitless. To stay competitive, he’ll have to start raising funds.

But I’m not wholly convinced the sole difference here is just dollars.

Look at the Republican contest, where Attorney General Bill Schuette has a sizable lead over Lt. Gov. Brian Calley (36-23), even though Calley has been up with a barrage of ads introducing himself to voters.

Whitmer has been in the race as long as Schuette, and has picked up nearly every major Democratic endorsement as well as most of the media coverage. And yet, for now, she’s running second to an out-of-nowhere challenger.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s instincts may have been right when he staged his failed recruiting drive to find a more appealing Democratic standard bearer.

nfinley@detroitnews.com

Catch The Nolan Finley Show weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.

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