SAGINAW, Mich. - In the state where the automobile is king, auto industry workers may well hold the key to the close battle between Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Vice President Al Gore for Michigan's 18 electoral votes.
It was particularly notable, then, that Bush, in a major energy-policy speech here yesterday asserted that Gore "calls auto workers his friends" but "in his book, he declares the engines they make an enemy."
The reference was to Gore's comment in his 1992 book, "Earth in the Balance," that the combustion engine was "a mortal threat to the security of every nation" in its reliance on gasoline fuel. In the book, Gore raised the possibility of reaching "the strategic goal of completely eliminating the internal combustion engine over, say, a 25-year period."
Bush did not quote from the book but made his reference at the urging of Gov. John Engler of Michigan, who says Gore's 1992 statement might represent an Achilles' heel for him in this state, where the strong labor movement, including the United Auto Workers, is mobilizing for the Democrat.
In a reissue of the book this year, Gore called the criticism at the time "never more than smoke and fumes."
He said he was "calling not for the end of the auto industry but for new types of cars" and said they would create jobs.
Mark Gaffney, head of the Michigan AFL-CIO, brushed aside Bush's charge as scare tactics.
"Eventually, we will need to replace the combustion engine with electric or something else," Gaffney said. "Then, we will tell our members that President Gore will want the new engines made in this country by UAW members."
Gaffney noted the government-industry partnership that he said was created by Gore in 1993 to explore such prospects. "This is old technology and has to be replaced by new technology," and everybody in the auto business knows it, he said.
Engler, in an interview, said, "Al Gore has a set of policies, ideas and political goals that I think would have a downright devastating effect" in Michigan.
They would "do to auto workers what Firestone did to Ford," Engler said - a reference to the current investigation into deaths linked to Firestone tires on the Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle.
Bush's pitch to auto workers is a recognition of their critical role on Nov. 7 and of the closeness of the race here.
The most recent CBS News poll had Gore leading, 45 percent to 41 percent, in Michigan, and a Chicago Tribune survey last weekend had him ahead by only 42-40, within the statistical margin of error.
Gaffney acknowledges that Gore's support of the North American Free Trade Agreement and of permanent normal trade relations with China did not sit well with his union membership. Gore's position accounted, he says, for the delay in the UAW's and Teamsters' eventual endorsements of the vice president.
But with Bush also supporting both deals, he says, Gore's insistence on the inclusion of labor and environmental standards in NAFTA served to minimize the political damage.
Labor's muscle for the Democratic Party in Michigan has been legendary. But it was softened in the 1980s by the appeal of Ronald Reagan, a Republican who cut deeply into the union vote, particularly among blue-collar Democrats who came to be known as Reagan Democrats.
President George Bush, having succeeded Reagan in 1988, kept the support of many of the Reagan Democrats in their belief that he would continue Reagan's policies. But Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 brought the bulk of them back into the Democratic fold.
And Gaffney says the robust economy should ensure their loyalty to Gore.
The old Reagan Democrats are situated mostly in the blue-collar suburbs of Detroit. But Engler contends that many such voters, particularly union retirees, have moved to Republican suburbs and have switched their allegiance to the Republicans.
Some of these same voters flocked to the support of Sen. John McCain in this year's Michigan primary, in which he upset Bush. State Sen. Joe Schwarz, who led the McCain primary campaign, says the intraparty split here has been smoothed over, after resentment last summer among McCain's leaders in the state that only a handful of them were chosen as delegates to the Republican convention.
But Schwarz wonders whether the Democrats and independents who voted for McCain in the state's open primary will show the same enthusiastic turnout for Bush in November as they did for McCain in the primary.
He notes that the Republican primary turnout was twice that in the previous statewide primary, and about 20 percent were first-time voters, most of them between ages 18 and 25 - what Schwarz calls "the nonvoting generation."
These voters are identifiable and should be the focus of Bush's efforts between now and the election, he says.
"This state is ticket-splitters' heaven," says Schwarz, who says he "can't remember ever voting a straight ticket" himself.
Though Gore and Bush have been arguing over which one has the superior plan for education, prescription drug benefits for the elderly, a more secure Social Security system and other issues, Schwarz says he believes that, in the end, undecided Michigan voters will choose a candidate most of all on the basis of personal qualities.
With no foreign threat and the economy in good shape, he says, "this election will be more about who people are than what people are for."
Bob Teeter, the veteran Michigan-based Republican pollster, agrees.
"I've yet to see a poll that says any issue makes a difference with voters," he says. "This is a total candidate election."
It will all come down, Teeter says, to "I just like this guy better than the other guy."
And of all the battleground states, Teeter predicts, Michigan will be the last one to tilt toward one candidate or the other - assuring that it will see a lot more of both of them between now and Election Day.