The struggle in Michigan for the allegiance of the 'Reagan Democrats'

AUBURN HILLS, MICH. — AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - When Sen Bob Dole came here yesterday in an anti-climactic bid for Michigan's 57 national convention delegates, the celebratory mood was a far cry from what had been been expected less than four weeks ago. Then, after his defeat in New Hampshire by Pat Buchanan, Tuesday's Michigan primary loomed as an acid test for both men.

The state's history in presidential politics includes Alabama Gov. George Wallace's 1972 victory in the Democratic presidential primary, when he made the same case against the Washington establishment and for blue-collar workers that is integral this year to the Buchanan pitch.


Michigan is also where the phenomenon of the "Reagan Democrats" emerged in 1980, when blue-collar workers forsook

their old party and ignored their union leaders to vote for Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter. They did so again in 1984 for Mr. Reagan over Walter Mondale, and even in 1988 and 1992 in more modest support of George Bush.


Four years ago Macomb County, the heavily white Democratic enclave just outside Detroit, was expected to revert to form behind Bill Clinton. But Mr. Bush beat him in the county, in spite of the efforts of the Michigan AFL-CIO to bring blue-collar Reagan Democrats home.

So Mr. Buchanan had reason to look upon Michigan as a choice political hunting ground. His fervent opposition to NAFTA and GATT, both vehemently opposed by organized labor here, seemed certain to play well among Democratic union members, who can vote in the open Republican primary.

But all the Dole victories since his New Hampshire setback have put the Michigan primary in an entirely different perspective. Although Buchanan state campaign manager Berl Adkins insists that his grass-roots troops are well organized and Mr. Buchanan "is going to win here," the polls suggest the opposite.

Bob Teeter, the Detroit pollster who ran the Bush campaign in 1992, says he doubts Mr. Buchanan will win even the 26 percent he got against Mr. Bush here then. Much of the Buchanan vote was anti-Bush, he says, and there is no comparable anti-Dole sentiment. Also, four years ago the economy of Michigan was weak, and it has since been strong.

Populist focus

Had Mr. Buchanan been able to come into Michigan in a more competitive situation, his populist, workingman's focus might have played well. General Motors, the auto-manufacturing giant based here, is in the throes of a major strike at two brake plants in Dayton, Ohio, that has shut down 22 of 29 GM assembly plants in Michigan, Ohio and beyond.

Leaders of organized labor, and especially the United Auto Workers, still dominant in Michigan Democratic affairs, have brushed aside their agreement with Mr. Buchanan on NAFTA and GATT and warned their union members against him. Mr. Adkins says, however, that "the Reagan Democrats think they've been sold out on NAFTA and GATT." The union leaders, he says, don't speak for their members.

Senator Dole's visit to Auburn Hills was in the nature of a coronation, and began his effort to win Michigan in November. The state went for Mr. Clinton in 1992 despite the resistance of some Reagan Democrats. "Our mission now is to close ranks behind the nominee of the Republican Party," Mr. Dole said. As he spoke, Gov. John Engler, neutral until then, announced his endorsement in Washington.


Failure by Senator Dole to trounce Mr. Buchanan in Michigan as he has in all primaries over the last two weeks could signal potential trouble in the fall for both Mr. Dole and President Clinton. It would raise questions about the senator's ability to win the state from Mr. Clinton. And any sizable Buchanan vote would indicate that the Reagan Democrats here are still rebellious, which could be worrisome news for the incumbent president.

But organized labor in Michigan, despite its continuing strong opposition to the trade pacts defended by President Clinton, will be working again to bring the Reagan Democrats home for him, hopeful they don't see Bob Dole as the next Reagan.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/15/96