Mother Barbara pitches for the Michigan swing

Macomb County usually gets it right - which explains why it's swamped by candidates, journalists and the inevitable focus groups
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The Independent US

Being the most famous swing county in the ultimate swing state in a presidential election year has its drawbacks. There is the saturation bombing of TV adverts, consultants, pollsters and journalists everywhere. And there are the almost daily motorcades of the candidates holding up traffic on the packed freeways around Detroit.

Being the most famous swing county in the ultimate swing state in a presidential election year has its drawbacks. There is the saturation bombing of TV adverts, consultants, pollsters and journalists everywhere. And there are the almost daily motorcades of the candidates holding up traffic on the packed freeways around Detroit.

But in Macomb County they've grown used to these things. Twenty years ago, this swath of surburbs a dozen miles north-east of the Motor City was the pored-over stronghold of the Reagan Democrats: industrial workers who switched their old allegiances and helped put the Republicans back in the White House.

These days many Reagan Democrats have retired and moved south to Florida. The county is now richer, its economy more diversified than then, when it rose and fell with the car industry. But Macomb's hold on the political imagination is intact, its role as mirror of the state unchanged. It is where old unionised Michigan and the hi-tech future meet.

On a golden autumn Thursday this week, it was the turn of George W Bush, back in Michigan for the ninth time since the convention, to disrupt the morning commute in Macomb. He had come to visit a family-owned engineering design company called Visioneer, and he was in search of the old Reagan magic. At stake are Michigan's 18 electoral college votes, and neither side can afford to lose them, this being the tightest presidential race in two generations.

The closeness of the contest was clear from yesterday's survey by Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus of marginal districts in the state legislature. Like almost every other presidential poll in the state these days, this one was in effect a dead heat: 44 per cent for Al Gore, 43 per cent for Mr Bush.

Michigan has a long history of ticket-splitting, but it invariably gets it right. Apart from backing local son Gerald Ford in 1976, it has voted for the winner of every White House election since 1960 when John Kennedy pipped Richard Nixon here by 51 per cent to 49 per cent. "Literally, Michigan could decide who the next President is," says Haley Barbour, the former Republican national chairman.

So it is no surprise that the interstate snarl-ups are coming thicker and faster than ever. Mr Gore was at nearby Flint on Wednesday, Jesse Jackson was rallying the Democratic black vote in downtown Detroit 24 hours later, while ex-President George Bush senior will be in Michigan on Monday.

The Republicans have enlisted Lee Iacocca, the former chairman and saviour of Chrysler, to scare blue-collar workers with warnings that Mr Gore's environmental designs could ruin the car industry, which is still the area's largest employer. But in an effort to cut the Gore lead in the women's vote, the Bush campaign is fielding what is perhaps its most potent weapon of all: mother Barbara.

In a "W Stands for Women" bus tour of Michigan this week, the former first lady was her eternal self. Dressed in a blue two-piece and four-strand pearl necklace, she combined a kindly smile with a waspish tongue. "Dumb?" she hissed when asked about suggestions that her son lacked intellectual wattage "He's dumb like a fox."

Indeed, at Visioneer, the sort of place that even a decade ago would have been clear Democrat territory, George W came across not as dumb but as warm and friendly, if fuzzy on the details.

"'Bout time she started campaigning for her boy," he said of his mother. He pushed the main theme that Republicans reckon may hand them victory, branding Mr Gore an interventionist, a creature of Washington and big government, out of touch with the real world.

He extolled free enterprise and pushed his plan to let people invest part of their social security contributions, the US equivalent of National Insurance, in the stock market. Once these arguments would have raised heckles here; now people are receptive.

"Bush is getting quite popular here, Gore embellishes things," said Bill Eisenhardt, who is in his thirties and works at a machine shop near Visioneer. He is sceptical on the tax and social security issue. "Everyone knows that social security isn't going to be around for us when we get old."

It throws little new new light on the battle for Macomb County, Michigan and the White House. The only certainty is that the motorcades will get more frequent as the race enters the home straight.

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