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Mich. governor's race focuses on rising star


DETROIT - Jennifer M. Granholm, the Democratic nominee for Michigan governor, is the "it" candidate of 2002.

Her front-running campaign is attracting national attention. News accounts spotlight her alluring mix of brains (she's a Harvard Law School graduate), movie-star looks (she spent several years in Los Angeles as an aspiring actress) and Clintonesque people skills.

"Everybody falls in love with her," laments a top adviser to Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus, her Republican opponent, who trails in the polls by double digits.

At a boisterous rally here Friday night, former President Bill Clinton praised her as articulate, charismatic, competent and strong, and he compared her favorably to another "attractive, blond-haired" woman - his wife, Hillary, a U.S. senator from New York.

For months, analysts have been promoting this as the "year of the woman" in gubernatorial contests. But prospects for a major breakthrough appear to be fading.

Serious female contenders have fizzled in large states such as Illinois and Florida, where former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno apparently lost last week's primary to a neophyte. National Democratic strategists are privately worried about the performance of Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, whose run for governor has drawn international media coverage but only a middling response from voters.

Predictions that a record-setting number of women would be nominated for governor this year have not been borne out. The number of female governors - five - might well increase after the November elections but probably will not double, as some had forecast.

The shifting fortunes of other candidates have served to highlight the sudden rise of Granholm, 43, who, if elected, would make Michigan the largest state with a sitting female governor.

Although she's running in just her second race for public office (she was elected attorney general four years ago), she has shown that she can win support from women, baby boomers and younger voters, in particular. She has also done unusually well for a Democrat in the more conservative western and northern portions of Michigan.

She set fund-raising records in dispatching two heavyweight rivals - a former governor and the former No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. House - by a surprisingly large margin in last month's primary.

If Granholm wins this fall, she would seem to offer Democrats something both parties have been desperately searching for: a woman who could add luster to a national ticket.

A political moderate and abortion-rights Catholic from a large swing state, Granholm could automatically find her name on the short list of future vice presidential possibilities. She might even have presidential appeal for moderate and conservative Democrats eager to find a female alternative to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Except for this: her "constitutional impediment," as Granholm puts it. Her Canadian parents moved the family to California from British Columbia when she was 4, and she became a naturalized citizen at 18. Only a native-born American can become president.

"It's kind of a relief" that the road to the White House isn't open to her, Granholm said in an interview. "I'm running for governor to be the best darn governor Michigan ever had, and that's my ambition."

Longtime watchers of state politics describe her as the hottest political property to emerge in Michigan in decades. Craig Ruff, who once served as an aide to a Republican governor of Michigan, says that like Bill Clinton, she is an electrifying personality with "aerobic listening skills" who causes those who come in contact with her to "melt away."

"You're just captivated," said Ruff, an independent analyst. "It isn't just the body language and the empathy and the good looks and the well-dressed appearance. It's also her ability to distill complicated policy topics to things that ring true."

Granholm supporter Kirsten Fisk, 40, of Lansing describes her as "a dynamic, charismatic, captivating person. The first time I heard her speak I was completely drawn in. She was just so smart and so knowledgeable."

Michigan Republicans call Granholm light on substance and are attempting to turn her blue-eyed glamour against her. State GOP Chairman Rusty Hills recently remarked that, unlike the Democrats, Republicans aren't presenting a "Spice Girls" ticket.

Granholm has countered by posting 58 pages of position papers on her campaign Web site. "I just wonder if I were a man, whether that would even be said, it's so insulting. It's so wrong, as a factual matter. But you say it enough, people begin to believe it," she said.

Her Web site also contains her campaign biography, which lists her honors degrees from the University of California-Berkeley and Harvard Law. It does not mention that she also received a certificate from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Hollywood during the three years she spent trying to make it as an actress after high school.

Granholm says she hated the experience, which included an appearance on the Dating Game. But the throaty whisper she uses on the stump gives her speeches an unusually theatrical touch.

Posthumus, the Republican nominee, contrasts his 20-year career in state government and his Michigan roots with the Democrat's West Coast upbringing and 1987 move to the state with her husband, a Michigan native she met in law school.

The governor's race isn't about "charisma, style and glitz," Posthumus, 52, told the Michigan Municipal League the other day. "It's about who's been here in this state when times were bad as well as good. ... My values are your values."

But the Republican's biggest problem isn't the personality gap with Granholm (which even Democrats concede he has begun to narrow). It's the sour mood in Michigan, which is projecting a budget deficit of more than $1 billion next year.

Granholm, a relative newcomer, appears better positioned, say politicians here, to capitalize on the public's desire for new leadership. After 12 years in office, Republican Gov. John Engler, one of the most successful and innovative governors in the nation during the 1990s, is leaving at a low point of popularity.

His lieutenant governor, Posthumus, has been scrambling to separate himself from the governor. But the two go all the way back to college together, and the distancing effort might not convince many voters.

"It's time for a change," Granholm tells audiences, winning applause with a pledge to reverse Michigan's "brain drain" and draw residents to the state, which grew at barely half the national average during the past decade.

How she'll accomplish that is unclear. She promises to hold the line on taxes and slash state spending by as much as 5 percent. She points out that she returned money to the state treasury as attorney general, a position she used to attack gasoline price-gouging and other consumer issues. But until the economy rebounds, the next governor will have difficulty funding major initiatives.

Perhaps influenced by her husband, a consultant who advises clients on becoming good business and civic leaders, Granholm likes to use social-science catch phrases. Addressing the state Democratic convention last month, she referred without elaboration to "Maslow's hierarchy of needs," an allusion to 1960s self-actualization psychology that could only have mystified listeners.

"I am a progressive, collaborative person," she said in the interview. "I don't want to operate in the old 20th-century paradigm [of] business vs. labor, the environment vs. business, Democrat vs. Republican. [Most politicians] get so mired in a zero-sum political game that they cannot see what the common goal is out there."

A former federal prosecutor, she has followed the New Democratic model established by Bill Clinton on sensitive issues such as crime. As attorney general, she supported a successful move by the gun lobby making it easier to carry concealed weapons in Michigan.

Granholm says she hopes her election will send a message to the rest of the country that one of the old Rust Belt states is upgrading its image. Although she would be the state's first female governor, Michigan has signaled a willingness to put women in power, sending Democrat Debbie Stabenow to the U.S. Senate in 2000.

Some Michigan Democrats worry that star quality alone won't win the election. Granholm's lead in the polls could disappear, they warn, unless she energizes African-Americans, who backed her rivals in the primary, and sharpens her campaign message by giving voters a clearer idea of what she would do if elected.

Republicans say their task is to shift the focus of the governor's contest. "If we talk about issues, we'll win," Republican Chairman Hills has said. "If it's about rock stars, we won't."

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