DETROIT To the surprise of no one, Michigan is up for grabs in the presidential race. And so are enough other big states to make the outcome of the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore tantalizingly uncertain.
Despite all the blather about their supposed shortcomings, both Gore and Bush have passed their preliminary tests with flying colors. They mobilized leaders of their parties to turn back well-qualified challengers for the nominations. Both found competent, attractive running mates. Both rose to the occasion and delivered effective acceptance speeches.
So when the Michigan Republicans held their convention here last weekend, none of the leaders disputed the findings of the most recent public polls, which show Gore and Bush virtually deadlocked in the battle for the state's 18 electoral votes.
Much the same may be said of the other mega-states except New York and California, which seem almost safe for Gore, and Texas, which is locked up for Bush. The battlegrounds include enough additional small and medium-sized states to make up about one-third of all 538 electoral votes, so the outcome is very much in doubt.
The playing field tilts somewhat in Bush's direction. His core of "safe" states in the South, the Plains and the Rockies is at least 50 electoral votes larger than Gore's base in the Northeast and California.
But the fascination in this election is that each of the battlegrounds has its own set of issues to test the skill of the presidential candidates.
Consider just a few of the nuances that Michigan presents. Bush lost the state to John McCain in the primary and scuffles between the sides resumed at some of the convention caucuses Friday night. But Gore won only a reluctant endorsement from the state's biggest union, the United Auto Workers, and the Teamsters are still neutral in the race. Both Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader hope to attract those unions' members on trade issues.
Education is a vital concern here, as elsewhere, but Michigan is one of two states (California is the other) where a sweeping voucher initiative will be on the ballot. Secretary of State Candice Miller told me she thinks the voucher battle may draw as many additional people to the polls as Ross Perot did in 1992, when turnout topped 4 million for the only time, but added, "I can't tell which party it will help."
Conservative Republicans, led by Richard and Betsy DeVos of Amway wealth, are backing the initiative. But the Michigan Education Assn. has formed an even broader opposition coalition, and Gov. John Engler, the leader of the GOP, is discouraging Republicans from supporting it just as Gore is telling Democrats to vote no.
"It's a wedge issue that divides our party and unites the opposition," one top state Republican official told me.
Miller, a Republican who is aiming for the governorship in 2002, said the suburban women she considers the swing voters in the presidential race will mainly oppose vouchers "because they believe in public schools." Her advice to Bush, who endorses vouchers for parents in persistently failing schools, is "to talk about his Texas record on improving public schools" and stay quiet on the voucher initiative.
If Bush has problems here on his signature issue of school reform, Gore faces special challenges on economic issues. Michigan is booming, with unemployment even in Detroit barely over 5 percent and much of the rest of the state facing labor shortages. Detroit's Democratic Mayor Dennis Archer, Gore's key ally here, says the federal aid Gore has obtained for the city has been vital to the revival of its economy.
But at the Republican convention here, speaker after speaker quoted the passage from Gore's book, "Earth in the Balance," calling for the elimination of the internal combustion engine as "a mortal threat ... more deadly than that of any military enemy that we are ever again likely to confront." Republican State Sen. Mike Goschka, himself a union member, said any autoworker who votes for Gore is "voting to put himself on the unemployment line," and found significance in the fact alleged by conservative publications but unconfirmed by the FBI that "the Unabomber had a copy of 'Earth in the Balance' in his possession when he was arrested."
Archer insists that "the auto industry has benefited substantially from the trade negotiations of the Clinton-Gore administration," but conceded, when we talked during the Democratic National Convention, that he thought Gore's allies in the Environmental Protection Agency "have pushed the envelope" so hard on some proposed regulations that he, Archer, mobilized the U.S. Conference of Mayors to lobby against them.
These are just a few of the currents swirling around this election. And this is just one of the battleground states. It should be a great campaign.
-David Broder is a columnist with Washington Post Writers Group.