DETROIT - As voters head to caucuses today in this first large industrial state to weigh in on the Democratic presidential race, one might think that all eyes would be on Michigan.
But with Sen. John Kerry riding a wave of momentum from victories in seven other states, and his rivals abandoning this Midwestern manufacturing base to campaign elsewhere, Michigan - a prime example of the nation's economic woes - now looks more like a pit stop on the road to the nomination.
Kerry blazed through Michigan yesterday, picking up the endorsement of a one-time rival, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. Long a favorite of organized labor - a key Democratic constituency - Gephardt said he hoped his union backers would now side with the Massachusetts senator.
"This campaign is not about me, it's not about any of the candidates, it's about us," said Gephardt, who quit the race after a weak finish in Iowa dashed his hopes for the nomination.
At a rally with firefighters and veterans at the DeCarlo Banquet Hall and Convention Center in Warren, Gephardt said of Kerry: "We need this man to be the next president."
Later, Gephardt, who had the backing of most of the major industrial and manufacturing unions, told reporters he had been lobbying labor leaders to throw their support to Kerry.
"They're moving in that direction," Gephardt said. Word spread yesterday that the Alliance for Justice, the industrial unions' umbrella group, would likely endorse Kerry next week.
With Kerry positioned for a commanding victory in Michigan today, Howard Dean abruptly left the state Thursday to hunker down for what he is calling his last stand, the Wisconsin primary on Feb. 17.
In an interview yesterday with a Milwaukee radio station, Dean resisted - but did not rule out - the notion that he would settle for the vice presidential nod on the Democratic ticket.
Asked if he would accept the No. 2 slot, the former Vermont governor, who has accused rivals such as Kerry of being Washington insiders, replied:
"I would, to the extent, do anything I could to get rid of President Bush. I'll do whatever is best for the party. Obviously, I'm running for president, but whatever's best is what I'll do. Anything."
In downtown Detroit, after a prayer breakfast at the Second Ebenezer Church, Kerry sprinkled his stump speech with scriptural quotes and tried to enliven his sometimes windy style with colorful preaching.
"I don't see a whole lot of loving your neighbor like yourself" in the Bush White House, Kerry told the black religious leaders and local officials assembled in the church's sanctuary. By his side were the state's leading Democrats - including the popular Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm and Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow - all of whom have warmly backed Kerry.
"I need you to get your folks out to vote," Kerry said. "These caucuses are critical - no one should take it for granted."
Still, polls show Kerry as unbeatable in Michigan. An EPIC/MRA poll of 409 probable caucus-goers conducted Wednesday and Thursday showed Kerry at 62 percent to Dean's 13, with Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina at 11 percent.
The rush of momentum behind Kerry has sapped most of the drama from Michigan and Washington state, which also holds caucuses today.
Melvin "Butch" Hollowell, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, projected turnout at somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 - far fewer than the 400,000 originally forecast. Still, party leaders hope that the state's first use of Internet voting, along with mail-in ballots, will boost overall participation. Kerry's momentum and the tight Democratic primary calendar, Hollowell suggested, conspired to weaken the state's influence in the process.
That has left some Michigan voters feeling shortchanged - ignored by the Kerry campaign as endorsements have fallen at his feet, and bypassed by other candidates as they struggle to stay competitive by focusing on other states.
Hundreds who turned out to see the top Democratic candidates Thursday night at the Northwest Activity Center in Detroit's West Side, a predominantly black area, found themselves gazing at a stage bearing just one: the Rev. Al Sharpton.
"The headline in today's paper was Kerry virtually owns Michigan - well, he's not looking after his property very well," said George Giffon, a business consultant who supports Dean.
Democratic leaders once hoped that the front-loaded calendar of contests would yield a quick consensus on a candidate who could unite the party and focus on beating Bush. But now, with the candidates turning to other states - such as Tennessee and Virginia, which vote on Tuesday, and Wisconsin, a week later - it's clear that neither Michigan nor Washington will do much to narrow the field.
Mildred Worthy, who came to the community center decked out in the trademark purple-and-yellow shirt and jacket of her union, the Service Employees International, said she felt the candidates, including Dean, whom her union is backing, were "taking Michigan for granted."
Worthy, 55, a nurse's aide, said she had always assumed she would vote for Dean but now is wondering whether she should go to the caucuses at all. "If they don't care about our issues, maybe they don't need my vote."
Nevertheless, Michigan, with a jobless rate nearly 30 percent higher than the national rate, and a devastated manufacturing sector, remains a battleground for the fall election, when Bush's economic record will be on trial. It is a state that has borne a heavy toll from trade deals and has seen many of its jobs moved overseas.
Gephardt's endorsement was striking because the Missouri congressman has been an ardent opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Kerry voted for. Gephardt had pushed to include labor and environmental rules in the pact and opposed it when those standards were omitted.
Kerry told supporters in Warren that as president, he would work for "fair" trade agreements that force U.S. partners to comply with the same labor and environmental standards that apply in the United States.
"We deserve a president who understands [that] you give the American people a fair playing field to compete on, and there's no one in the world the American people can't compete with," the senator said.
Once considered a weakness for Kerry, his record on trade appeared to fade yesterday in the minds of some voters who said the candidate who was good enough for Gephardt, the labor champion, was good enough for them.
"Kerry's got my vote - 100 percent," said Kevin Sullivan, vice president of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters' Warren local. "Gephardt made my decision when he threw his support behind him."