Bush's swing states hinge on a fickle economy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OWOSSO, Mich. - Ed Guenther took it in stride when he was laid off by a General Motors factory two weeks ago. Such is life in central Michigan, where jobs are scarce and actually holding onto one has become a pleasant surprise.

Guenther, 51, had been spending his days stamping out parts for Pontiac Grand Ams. One night last week, he sat quietly at the county fair here, eating a plate of buttery fried dough as he contemplated how the nation has fallen into rough economic times so soon after the boom of the late 1990s.

Guenther said he's looking to President Bush to turn things around. And if Bush fails, he'll just vote for somebody else.

"After Bush got into office, he didn't seem that bad," said Guenther, who supported Democrat Al Gore in 2000. "But I don't think [Bush's] tax cuts have done that much for us. I'll have to see who else is running."

Guenther resides in the political trenches of the Midwest that will help decide whether Bush wins re-election next November. States like Michigan - along with others such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia - are expected to be crucial battlegrounds. Bush's political advisers have targeted them as must-wins.

These are places that were hammered by the recent recession, where many cities are bleeding traditional manufacturing jobs and have a shortage of low-wage work, and where voters are anxious about their economic well-being.

If frustration with the economy is going to threaten Bush's re-election hopes, it is in places like this where his troubles would likely take hold.

Two days of interviews in Owosso, a manufacturing city of 15,000 that lies 90 miles northwest of Detroit, seemed to reflect a general uneasiness about the economy. Yet few people said they worry that the bottom is dropping out. Indeed, many of those interviewed remain optimistic that the economic recovery that Bush promises is really on the way.

In general, his support in an area that backed the war in Iraq appears solid, but softening, with a majority saying they tentatively plan to vote for him. Many said they felt that the Sept. 11 attacks were more responsible for the sour economy than anything Bush did or failed to do.

But he is clearly vulnerable. Even strong supporters said they could easily see voting for a Democrat if the economy stays wobbly much longer.

In national polls, roughly 45 percent of Americans say they approve of the president's handling of the economy. In just six months, the economy has replaced the war on terrorism as the issue Americans want Bush to focus on most. In a Pew Research Center poll released Thursday, 57 percent said the economy should be Bush's top priority, compared with 27 percent who said the war should be his first concern.

Much could change in the 15 months before the election. The economy was staggering at this time in the first terms of both President Ronald Reagan and Bush's father, President George Bush.

Reagan went on to win a landslide re-election in 1984. By then, the economy was in a robust recovery. The elder Bush lost in 1992, the recession over, but not yet obviously so.

On Wednesday, the president will meet at his Texas ranch with his top economic advisers, part of an effort this summer to show voters that he is aware Americans are out of work and that he is responding.

"America's economy has challenges," the president said last week. "I will not be satisfied until every American looking for work can find a job."

His message seems intended for places like Owosso, a city whose economic health has long been tied to the auto industry. Many of the city's manufacturers provide GM plants with the component parts that go into cars, and demand is now way down. Some residents commute to the large plants in Lansing and Flint. This city also has a crop of other kinds of manufacturers, producing everything from garden furniture to pontoon boats.

The recession hit hard here. Owosso's unemployment rate jumped to 10.9 percent in June - well above the national average that month of 6.4 percent - up from 5.5 percent in June 2000.

Some manufacturers shut their doors as others struggled. Woodard Furniture, a proud staple of this community for more than a century, a business that proudly produced ornamental iron furniture that found its way to the Rose Garden of the White House, shed almost half its work force of 350 during the past three years.

Local leaders, despite budget cuts in the city and county, have launched an aggressive $1.25 million campaign to increase jobs and attract new kinds of businesses. The rescue effort, which has inspired a noticeable sense of pride and confidence among many residents, is seen as essential to preventing this community from falling fully into economic despair.

Needless to say, the economy is prominent on voters' minds.

Every vote here counts. Bush lost the city of Owosso to Gore in 2000 by a mere 337 votes. Gore won the state of Michigan, meanwhile, by four percentage points.

In restaurants such as Jumbo's Burger Bar, where one can find the mayor's wife waiting tables, or at the county fair, in the Wal-Mart parking lot, along Main Street or at local bars, it was rare to encounter people who had not been touched by layoffs, whether fired themselves or close to somebody who was.

Some were quick to direct their frustrations at Bush, saying the tax cuts he spearheaded to spur an economic recovery don't seem to be doing much. That was the message from Ginger Good, the 27-year-old bartender at the Korner Pub, a blue-collar hangout in west Owosso where the beer taps are shaped like race cars, a nod to the many NASCAR fans who imbibe here.

The president, said Good, a Democrat, should be spending less money rebuilding Iraq and more on creating jobs - like one for her 23-year-old boyfriend, who expects this week to be laid off from a pontoon factory. In cash-strapped times, Good explained, people aren't keen to buy pontoons.

"Our economy was so much better before Bush took office," Good said. "Bush should pull out our troops in Iraq because we're forking over all this money there. And our country is suffering. This should be his focus, not worrying about Iraq, and their freedoms and their rights."

Others said they did not blame the president - like Jamie Holmes, a 42-year-old mother of four who lost her job in June. The Owosso public school system had to trim its budget, and Holmes' after-school program was eliminated.

Holmes, who supported Bush in 2000, said the president came to office with the country on the way to recession. He has done a "fine job" with the economy, she said, and his tax cuts will have a "snowball effect," eventually giving consumers more money to spend.

"Democrats have jumped on this bandwagon and started blaming him," said Holmes, standing outside Wal-Mart. "The most powerful thing I can say about Bush is his honesty - I can trust him."

Still, Holmes added that if tax cuts fail to ignite the economy, and if a Democrat presents a "proof-positive" plan she prefers, she could see abandoning Bush. "I'll have to wait and see."

Political analysts say a bad economy is the president's biggest obstacle to re-election, barring another major terrorist attack or unforeseen events in Iraq or elsewhere.

The economy is slowly growing again, and productivity is on the rise, leading some economists to predict a full recovery from the recession. But they are making these predictions cautiously because the nation is still losing jobs, and unemployment rates - while not soaring - remain stubbornly at levels unseen in nearly a decade.

"If the economy does pick up, and the story becomes that we have a recovering economy, Bush will be OK," said Allan Lichtman, a political scientist at American University. "But no incumbent president or party has ever been re-elected in a sour economy."

Administration officials urge patience, saying the president's last tax cut was approved only months ago. Soon, they say, consumers will be spending more, boosting demand and persuading businesses to invest and expand.

Democrats have been attacking Bush, telling voters the country has lost 2 million jobs on Bush's watch and surpluses have become deficits.

Michigan voters are hard to predict. State laws allow them to switch parties easily, even on Election Day. Many here say they have voted, about equally, for Republican and Democratic presidential candidates.

At Woodard Furniture, the plant manager, Louie Zelenka, said the company is finally emerging from painful times. He hopes to hire 30 to 50 people soon, after laying off 175 workers since the Sept. 11 attacks.

A lifelong Democrat, Zelenka said he likes Bush and plans to vote for him, adding that the economy seems close to getting "on the right track." He said that Bush could not have predicted the Sept. 11 attacks, which, he said, severely damaged the economy. But Zelenka said he is also frustrated that Bush's tax cuts have increased federal deficits. He added that if the economy does not improve, he will vote a different way.

"The programs a president puts in place should have an effect," he said. "If we're in a downturn, I'll hold him responsible."

Along Main Street, 28-year-old Kristie Kress, a former waitress who opened a clothing store last year, said her customers are buying less these days. "You can feel the crunch," said Kress, who voted for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000 and said Bush's tax cuts are not helping the economy. "He just wants the rich to get richer," she said.

Of course Kress, like many in Michigan, prides herself on leaving her vote up for grabs. If the economy is booming again by next year, could she see voting for Bush? "Definitely."

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