Postcard from the Michigan Trail
Things get tacky -- and testy -- as the contest nears its close.


As the primary campaign in the Great Lakes State comes down to the wire, things are noticeably different from the candidates’ last visits here.

Back in August at a Republican-party gathering on Mackinac Island, and again at the October debates, the campaigns were shining paragons of tidy and gracious order: Organizers with clipboards and walkie-talkies directed their legions of supporters in spiffy matching outfits — electric-blue polo shirts for Romney’s crew, gleaming white t-shirts for McCain’s brigade — to crowded hotel lobbies with groaning boards of free food and ranks of celebrity endorsers (which, alas, did not include Chuck Norris).

In their place now is a guy in a dolphin suit wearing a t-shirt that reads “Flip Romney”; a guy in a snowman suit protesting global warming; and two papier-mâché heads of President Bush. The dolphin (“Flipper”) acknowledges that this is his first job in four years: Back then, he was teasing John Kerry for being a flip-flopper, and every conservative wanted a picture with him. But today he’s keeping company with the anti-GOP protesters — their merry band has been traveling the primary circuit together.

Gone too is the charming camaraderie between the candidates, who just a few months ago were polished, eager, and friendly — like the sons in a Fifties sitcom. Their rump campaigns are now marked by skeletal staffs, one bus apiece (the Mitt Mobile and the one-car McCain Train), and a certain testiness in making sure that their last-ditch efforts achieve the maximum possible effect.

At a campaign stop in Livonia in southeast Michigan — at the “Defending the American Dream” summit sponsored by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation — Team McCain requested at least an hour’s separation between his and Romney’s remarks, presumably to prevent a West Side Story–like rumble in the parking lot. Romney showed late, and McCain insisted that two other speakers — Grover Norquist and John Stossel — must take the platform before he would do so. McCain’s crew stayed on their bus until the Mitt Mobile had pulled out of sight. Poor Duncan Hunter was sitting around all afternoon waiting to go on.

For his part, Mike Huckabee avoided the competition, choosing to send only his bus (containing boxes upon boxes of “Fair Tax” tchotchkes) to Livonia — where his campaign seemed to show as little concern with breaking parking regulations as the candidate has shown in raising Arkansas taxes. Huckabee himself concentrated his efforts in the heavily Evangelical, western part of the state. This Livonia drive-by was only his campaign’s second stop in greater Detroit, where automotive-industry layoffs have hit the hardest.

McCain and Romney are duking it out at the top of Michigan polls of Republican voters, routinely within a point of one another. But it’s hard to give those polls much credence: Declaring party affiliation is not a prerequisite for voting in a Michigan primary, and Wolverine Democrats and Republicans frequently organize and cross over into the other party’s primary to affect the results. In the 2000 presidential primary, Democrats cast the key votes that gave the state to John McCain. This year, if Democrats are bored with (or hostile to) the lone viable candidate who remains on their primary ballot — Hillary Clinton — and decide against voting “none of the above,” they may wind up voting in the Republican primary. They may try to throw the election to either Mitt Romney — the weakest candidate, in their view — or Mike Huckabee, the Michigan Republican establishment’s least-loved candidate — in order to make life difficult for the current favorite, John McCain.