Jewish World Review Oct. 25, 2004 / 10 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

Zev Chafets

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The next President of the United States may well be elected in Michigan | Forget Florida. And Ohio. And Pennsylvania. The next President of the United States may well be elected in Michigan.

In 2000, Al Gore carried the Wolverine State by more than 200,000 votes. This year's conventional wisdom has conceded it to John Kerry. Two weeks ago, Democratic operatives began telling reporters that Michigan was in the bag.

They were wrong. Last Thursday, a poll in the Detroit News put President Bush ahead in Michigan by 4 points. A Knight-Ridder survey showed the race is a virtual tie.

This came as a shock to the Kerry camp, which has concentrated its efforts on other Big Ten industrial states. Kerry could win both Ohio and Pennsylvania and still lose the election. If he loses Michigan.

There are signs that Democrats are belatedly figuring this out. Last Sunday, Al Sharpton was dispatched to Detroit on an urgent mission to the city's churches. Sharpton is popular in Detroit, but Kerry isn't. He reminds black voters of another cold, aloof Massachusetts presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis.

In 1988, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young correctly read his city's mood and didn't bother cranking up his machine for Dukakis. Without a heavy turnout in Motown, no Democrat will win Michigan, and Dukakis didn't. He lost the state 54%-46%, to George H.W. Bush.

The now-defunct Young organization rested largely on Detroit's powerful political preachers, and they remain the city's real Democratic precinct captains. The unions can provide buses to the polls, but they won't be full unless the ministers tell people to get on board.

And a lot of them won't. Michigan has a same-sex marriage ban on the ballot, and many of Detroit's influential black clergymen support it. Very few will urge their congregations to vote Republican. But more than a few have already communicated a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the Democratic candidate.

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Not much unites Detroit and its white neighbors, but this issue does. According to recent surveys, two-thirds of Michigan voters favor the ban on homosexual marriage. This includes the blue-collar ethnics of Macomb County, birthplace of the Reagan Democrat phenomenon.

Reagan Democrats are socially conservative, and many are Polish-American Catholics. Bush remembered them when he wrangled a meeting with the Pope. Kerry forgot them in the first presidential debate when he failed to mention Poland as a member of the coalition in Iraq.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasnieski publicly blasted this omission as an intentional and "immoral" slight, and Polish-Americans, probably Michigan's largest white ethnic group, heard him loud and clear. Dissing Poland is not smart politics in Michigan.

Kerry does have the official support of one group. The Arab-American Political Action Committee, located in Dearborn, has endorsed him. How much this will help the Democrats is an open question. Michigan's large Arab-American community runs the gamut from pro-Hezbollah radicals to conservative Christian Lebanese and includes many Chaldeans - Iraqi Christians - who are very grateful to Bush for bringing down Saddam Hussein.

Official Arab support may also hurt Kerry with one of the Democrats' most reliable constituencies. A lot of Jews in the Detroit suburbs are uncomfortable about sharing a candidate with vocal enemies of Israel.

Today, Kerry, who hasn't been to Michigan in weeks, will try to stop the bleeding with an appearance at Macomb County Community College. That's not far from the scene of Michael Dukakis' fateful ride in the turret of a tank, a mistake that helped cost him the 1988 election. Michigan today is what it was 16 years ago, a dangerous political battlefield for Massachusetts liberals - with or without helmets.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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