Livonia, Michigan--John Hillman, 63, is a veteran car salesman for a Ford dealership here in suburban Detroit. And it's just not just any dealership. It's one that claims to have the most Ford sales of any in the nation. But lately business hasn't been so good. Hillman figures it's about half, maybe two-thirds of what it was at its peak, many years ago. And, he knows, those good times may not be returning anytime soon, now that the economy is widely believed to be slowing down.
If the auto industry is going to make a comeback, Hillman figures, it's going to need the right kind of leadership in Washington. And that is why he is here today, attending the American Dream Summit--a day-long conference sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, the conservative foundation and advocacy group based in Washington. John McCain and Mitt Romney, the two men vying for first place in the Michigan Republican primary, will both be speaking. And Hillman needs to make up his mind about which one will get his vote.
Romney speaks first, focusing his talk on the "one-state recession" Michigan has been experiencing for years--and how he plans to end it. Hillman is impressed, he tells me later, as much with Romney's sensibility as his specific ideas: "He's a businessman," Hillman says. "We need somebody who knows how to talk about business."
McCain strikes a different tone. He isn't full of confidence and hope the way Romney was. Instead, McCain offers some of his signature "straight talk": "Change is hard, and while most of us gain, some industries, companies, and workers are forced to struggle with very difficult choices." Translation: Those vanishing automobile jobs aren't coming back, because the auto industry isn't coming back--at least not in its present form. But while "globalization is here to stay," McCain suggests, "That is not something to fear. It is an opportunity to be seized." The line isn't one of McCain's most popular--perhaps because many in the audience feel, as Hillman does, that the Big Three are victims of unfair trade practices by the Japanese.
Unlike Romney, McCain takes questions after his speech--and he calls first on Hillman, who's sitting near the front. He treats Hillman with the same respect he always affords critics, nodding along patiently as Hillman works through the lengthy question. When Hillman is finished, the question has gotten a bit into the weeds of trade politics--further, apparently, than McCain wants to go right now. But rather than turn the question into an opportunity to toss out a talking point--which is what most politicians do in these situations--McCain tells Hillman that he'll dispatch one of his staff to him momentarily. "I will take your cell phone number and I'll give you a call on this leg or the next leg of my trip today."
Looking around the room, it's clear a lot of folks in the audience are impressed. And when I catch Hillman after the event, he says he's impressed, too--with McCain's candor and integrity. But, he adds, he's still leaning towards Romney, because he still thinks a businessman will do more for the economy.
Multiply that sentiment by a few hundred thousand, and you have a pretty good theory about the dynamics of the Michigan primary, which will take place Tuesday. As recently as last week, polls showed the state was ready to throw its support behind McCain, just as it did during the 2000 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. And while the 2000 win didn't prove to be decisive--it was to be McCain's last big victory of that campaign--a win in this year's contest would theoretically cement McCain's place as the GOP front-runner. Not only would it hand McCain his second consecutive win, building momentum for the upcoming South Carolina contest, but it would deal a devastating blow to Romney, who despite vastly outspending his rivals has yet to win a major contest--and for whom Michigan was supposed to be a safe political haven, given that he grew up here and that his father, the late George Romney, remains one of the state's most revered political figures.
But over the weekend, a new poll from the Detroit Free Press showed Romney back in front by five points, with the GOP's third leading contender--Mike Huckabee--back in third place. And while it would be beyond foolish to consider this an accurate prediction of the final tally, given the high number of undecided voters and inevitable last-minute volatility, Romney's rise and McCain's sudden stumble is consistent with the way the two are campaigning.
McCain is running on the same themes that have gotten him this far, not just in this presidential campaign but over his entire career: integrity, character, and leadership. And, when voters are less worried about their livelihoods than they are with the culture of Washington, those are terrific themes. But Michigan has the nation's highest unemployment rate and slowest growth. It's also losing residents faster than any other state. The folks here like straight talk, but, it seems, they like Romney's promises of new jobs even more. In the Free Press poll, Romney led McCain by nearly two-to-one among people who considered the economy their top concern.
Given Michigan's singularly awful economic condition, a win here might not seem all that significant. But while the Republican race will quickly move to states where McCain might seem stronger, a recent torrent of bad economic news nationwide suggests the rest of the country may soon join Michigan in recession (if it hasn't already). Romney likes to say that this state is the "canary in the coal mine" for the American economy. If he can pull out a win today, the same may be true for American politics.
In a sense, Romney's campaign here is bringing him full circle to where it began. Just a little over a year ago, Romney formally announced his candidacy at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn--making a case for himself as the pragmatic, business-oriented outsider. But while those themes never vanished from Romney's campaign, in the months after the announcement, they receded into the background as McCain's candidacy flagged and Romney appealed directly to the Republican base, burnishing his credentials as a strong hawk on foreign policy and a committed social conservative. And, as everybody now knows, the effort didn't succeed--in part because it was so transparently artificial.
But in Michigan, at least, Romney has mostly campaigned like the candidate he promised to be back in Dearborn. You can see it in the advertisement he's been running most heavily on Detroit television, in which he vows to "invest in the future, with new technology and innovation." In contrast to some of the attack spots for which his campaign has become notorious, this one contains only positive boasts, set against images of factories churning out cars, autoworkers standing together, and--naturally--a family photo of Romney with his later father.
The change is also apparent in the stump speech Romney has used for the last week. He emphasizes his economic ideas, and while they may not add up to more than the usual supply side shibboleths--making tax cuts permanent, eliminating the capital gains tax, reforming lawsuits--he does at least offer the Bain Capital/Winter Olympics/passing-health-care-in-Massachusetts resume that's relevant to the discussion.
The contrast with the image McCain has promoted lately couldn't be more striking. McCain has been on the air in Detroit with his own television spots for the last two weeks--seemingly as much as Romney, which is no small feat given the latter's personal fortune and apparent willingness to spend it. But the TV ad that I've seen the most simply features McCain speaking directly to the camera about his character and record. He boasts about taking on special interests, questioning Rumsfeld's strategy in Iraq, and fighting pork barrel spending. "I've made a lot of people in Washington angry," he says. He's right about that, for sure, but there's nothing in the ad that speaks directly to the concerns of, say, the 200 workers laid off from a local parts plant a few days ago.
McCain's latest stump speech does speak to economics more directly. But, as I discover at the American Dream Summit, the devotion is more in word than in spirit. McCain runs through these sections of his talk with an obvious lack of passion, sounding and looking like a high-schooler grudgingly giving a speech to his English class. The content of what he's proposing isn't much different than Romney's familiar mix of conservative ideas--more tax breaks, fewer regulations, and a little money for worker retraining. But if it's the same basic policies Romney is endorsing, McCain delivers it a lot less convincingly--and without much reason to think why he, as opposed to a brilliant management consultant, is best positioned to enact them.
Ironically, some of the arguments that have traditionally served McCain best seem to be making his task harder here. McCain is a famous critic of earmarks--the targeted spending items that members of Congress quietly attach to bills, in order to finance projects back home. And in his speech at the summit, he boasts that he's never once sponsored such a measure himself. It's a noble stand. But earmarks also represent money flowing from Washington to the rest of the country--which, frankly, is precisely what should be happening in a recession. They often mean jobs, too, no small thing to the people who don't have them--plenty of whom live in Michigan. Among the recent earmarks, for example, was a $4 million contract for a defense contractor here and another half-million for a group of hospitals.
Twenty-four hours later, I see McCain again--this time in Howell, a small city tucked into one of the state's most conservative pockets. This time McCain is appearing at a town hall meeting, the format in which he seems most comfortable. And it appears he, too, has decided he needs to engage economic issues more forcefully--and convincingly--than he has so far. Although McCain only speaks for a few minutes before answering questions, he stresses his belief that "Michigan's best days are ahead of us" and then pivots to a theme he touched on the day before: The potential to build a new manufacturing economy here based on green technology.
As my colleague Brad Plumer has pointed out, McCain's ideas along these lines don't live up to his rhetoric. Still, it shows no small measure of courage to talk up environmentalism among Republicans, particularly Republicans in Michigan. And this crowd of McCain partisans certainly seems to appreciate it, granting him enthusiastic applause throughout.
After the town hall, however, McCain holds a press availability to further discuss his thinking on the economy--and it becomes clear, again, just how little of substance he has to offer. When asked for his thoughts on a potential stimulus package that would quickly boost the economy, McCain falls back on his preference for permanent tax cuts, reduced regulation, an end to earmarks, and green investment--none of which would make a difference in the short-term.
Is that enough to convince people focused on the economy--both in Michigan and beyond--that McCain is the candidate who will help them the most? To help answer that question, I get back in touch with John Hillman, the car salesman who asked that complicated trade question. Did McCain really call him from the bus? He did, Hillman tells me. They spoke for about five to seven minutes, as McCain was pulling into his next campaign stop. They discussed not only trade but also climate change--in particular, Hillman's worry that more stringent mileage standards for cars were unrealistic.
McCain didn't change his mind, Hillman said, but it was a respectful back-and-forth. I asked Hillman whether he was impressed that McCain followed through on his promise. "I very much appreciated his calling. ... I believe him to be an honest man." And would Hillman be voting for McCain on Tuesday? Probably not, he said. He's still leaning towards Romney.
Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor for The New Republic.