Cover Story

Middle men

The Midwest battleground: As the 2000 presidential campaign enters its final weeks, Al Gore and George W. Bush are tailoring their messages and their travel schedules to play to the industrial Midwest. The reason: A handful of Rust Belt states likely will determine who wins the first national election of the new millennium

Issue: "Midwest's middle men," Oct. 21, 2000

Hey, George W. Bush, you just 'won' the second presidential debate. What are you going to do now?"

"I'm going to Michigan!"

Sorry, Disney World. After a perfect high jump or record-breaking swim, Olympic athletes may head to the Magic Kingdom, but after a crucial debate, presidential candidates head to the Midwest.

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Back to the Midwest. For the umpteenth time. After essentially battling to a draw in the Winston-Salem debate, both George W. Bush and Al Gore wasted no time in getting back to the region they've come to know best. Mr. Bush went to Michigan, while Mr. Gore campaigned in Milwaukee. It was hardly the first time: Since Labor Day, Mr. Bush alone has made 15 appearances in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri-and that's not counting stops by his running mate and various relatives.

A foreigner observing his first American election might think the two parties were vying for king of the Rust Belt. What's going on here?

It's more than just geography: Mr. Bush has visited Wisconsin five times more often than neighboring Minnesota, while Mr. Gore has never bothered to set foot in Indiana. Those states, like about 35 others, are considered a "lock" for one candidate or the other, so neither party wants to squander precious resources there. With the race going down to the wire, neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Gore has the 270 votes needed to win the Electoral College. That means that just a couple of million undecided voters in nine battleground states will make all the difference on Nov. 7. And that, in turn, means those nine states will get almost all the candidates' attention between now and then.

Two of the states, Pennsylvania and Florida, are eastern. Two others, Washington and Oregon, are in the Pacific Northwest. But the single largest cache of undecided electoral votes is clustered in the industrial Midwest. More than any other region, the Rust Belt is driving both the style and the substance of election 2000.

Take Mr. Bush's energy policy, which he formulated only recently. When Mr. Gore went to vote-rich Pennsylvania and called on his boss to tap the nation's strategic petroleum reserve in an effort to keep down the cost of home heating oil, the Bush campaign scrambled for a suitable response. Cold winters, after all, are one unifying characteristic of the Great Lakes region, and Republicans could hardly afford to let voters there be bought off with the promise of cheap heat this winter.

So, on Sept. 29, the Bush entourage rolled into Saginaw, Mich., for what handlers billed as a "major policy speech." Some 150 blue plastic chairs sprouted in front of the assembly line at Wright-K Technologies, a manufacturer of specialty machines for the automotive industry. While dozens of invited guests shivered outside on a chilly fall morning, TV crews got in early to set up on carefully positioned risers. The coffee vending machine on the factory floor dispensed free caffeine to bleary-eyed journalists. Workers in company logo-wear were liberally sprinkled throughout the factory, wherever the cameras might turn.

When Mr. Bush finally took the dais to deliver his energy speech, the importance of the setting became obvious. While Mr. Gore had framed his oil policy in terms of low-income consumers who couldn't afford high heating bills, Mr. Bush was more narrowly focused. Calling the Clinton-Gore energy policy "nothing but excuses and bad ideas," he explicitly linked his own policy to the lifeblood of Michigan's economy: the auto industry.

Each of the last three recessions was tied to an oil crisis, he noted. Without a steady and secure oil supply, Americans would have no use for the shiny new models rolling off Detroit's assembly lines. And, he hinted, that might be just fine with his opponent, who declared his antipathy to the internal combustion engine in his environmental tract, Earth in the Balance.

Appealing to the auto industry is a given in Michigan politics, but tying an entire energy policy to that appeal was a stroke of genius for the Bush campaign. The most controversial part of the speech-a call for new drilling in the Alaskan wilderness-elicited an uncharacteristically muted response from the tree-hugging vice president. With Michigan's 18 electoral votes looming large in his calculus, Mr. Gore simply could not afford to alienate voters there by seeming to defend the Alaskan wilderness at the expense of autoworkers.

"Family values" provides another good example of how Midwestern politics is driving the message for the entire country. During the primary season, Republican candidates, in particular, spoke largely in the terminology of the Bible Belt, stressing issues such as the right to life, gay marriage, and prayer in schools.

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