You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Improbable Cause

McCain’s 2000 campaign tries to beat Bush's "Michigan firewall."


John McCain’s campaign headquarters is in an abandoned jewelry store in the western end of the Lower Peninsula, far from the large population centers, in the most pro-Bush region of the state. The reason? "I live here," explains Joel Hondorp, McCain's Michigan campaign coordinator. It's a sensible enough explanation, given that, when the office opened last December, McCain's Michigan campaign staff consisted entirely of Hondorp—a ruddy-faced, retainer wearing 27-year old who had previously held a series of low-level jobs in state politics.

Now that the Wolverine State is shaping up as a crucial battleground, McCain's Michigan staff has expanded. In fact, it has doubled—to two. A communications staffer flew in from California four days ago, and he and Hondorp sit in a shabby, windowless office trying to explain a new Detroit Free Press poll that, astonishingly, shows their man running even with George W. Bush. The carpet is a faded rose color, the walls barren save for a few campaign posters and newspaper clippings. The shelves contain almost nothing except a half-filled water bottle and an empty Nestea can. In the middle of our interview, Hondorp's colleague takes a phone call by picking up the receiver on a fax machine, which was pressed into service because a working phone couldn't be found on such short notice. The line apparently dies in mid-conversation, and he examines the receiver quizzically before placing it back on the machine.

The McCain team doesn't look any more fearsome when seen through the eyes of its adversaries. When I ask Michigan's governor, John Engler—the man masterminding W.'s campaign in the state—about Hondorp, he seems only vaguely aware of his presence. "He's a nice young man," says Engler. "I don't know him very well." When I mention Hondorp to Dave Doyle, a Lansing lobbyist, Engler confidant, and Bush supporter, he laughs. "He worked for me," recounts Doyle. "We called him 'the Dorp.'"

The Bush campaign is counting on the Dorp factor to win George W. the nomination. Their argument goes like this: Sure, McCain can win early states like New Hampshire and South Carolina, where he has concentrated his resources and campaigned for months. But, in the rapid-fire primaries that follow, where McCain will not have the luxury of face-to-face politicking. Bush's establishment strength will prove decisive. This proposition will find its first true test in the Michigan primary, held just three days after South Carolina's. Michigan will require a new style of campaign—contested by local party functionaries, bolstered by advertising and by quick candidate fly-throughs aimed less at reaching voters directly than at milking the local news. And every primary after Michigan's will be the same way. If McCain loses here, it is unlikely he will recover. If he wins here, he can probably win anywhere, and the strategic calculation that undergirds the Bush campaign will collapse.

The man behind Bush's Michigan strategy is also the man in front of it: John Engler. Last June, Engler moved the Republican primary from March 21 to February 22, to halt any insurgent candidacy the early states might throw up. It is extremely important to the Michigan governor that he deliver his state for Bush. For one thing, his friendship with George W. dates to 1988, and four years ago the Texas governor tabbed Engler "a great choice" for vice president under Bob Dole. For another, if Engler saves W.'s bacon, the Texan might actually be able to make that "great choice" himself. And, if not chosen as veep, Engler would at least have a shot at being secretary of education. Last year—in what, for Engler, passes as Churchillian rhetoric—the governor called his state a "solid asbestos" firewall.

Building a firewall is the kind of thing at which Engler is very, very good. The quality for which he is best-known—besides his girth, which may have been what kept him off Dole's ticket—is his tenacity. Engler's father, a cattleman in rural central Michigan, ran for the state House in 1968 and failed to oust the Republican incumbent. Two years later.

Engler himself, at the age of 21, ran for the seat and won. "He outworked him," recalls Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics.

Engler's dogged march to power parallels that of another portly partisan: Newt Gingrich. In the Michigan legislature, conservatives like Engler were a weak minority ignored by a corporate establishment and a popular liberal Republican governor, William Milliken, that had long reconciled themselves to labor unionism. After Milliken retired in 1982, the Engler-led GOP took over the state Senate by recalling, midterm, two Democrats who had voted for an unpopular tax hike. Engler used his perch to campaign for governor, wining in 1990.

An uncharismatic man, Engler derives his power not from any widespread affection—even many of his fellow Republicans dislike him—but from his dogged mastery of the procedural mechanisms of politics. In 1988, after insurgent religious conservatives loyal to Pat Robertson took control of the presidential nominating caucus, Engler maneuvered a rule change through the legislature to pack the caucus for then-Vice President George Bush. As governor, he seized upon the midterm retirement of three Democratic legislators—which created a temporary GOP majority in the lower chamber—to pass a measure banning unions from spending member dues on politics. More recently, he opposed a school-choice referendum favored by conservatives because he feared it would spark a labor countermobilization, thus endangering the reelection of his longtime ally Senator Spencer Abraham (see "Strange Choice," by Mike Catanzaro, January 24).

McCain has tried to turn the governor's fearsome reputation against him. "The Engler machine is after us," he told a suburban Detroit crowd during a one-day stop. 'We're all hoping [it] is as efficient and overwhelming as the Gregg machine in New Hampshire"—a reference to the failed efforts of New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg on Bush's behalf.

But the parallel is not precise. Neither New Hampshire nor South Carolina has a Republican governor. In South Carolina, McCain has enjoyed the backing of two popular congressmen and roughly one-third of the state legislature. In New Hampshire, more state representatives endorsed him than endorsed Bush. In Michigan, by contrast, the party apparatus stands foursquare against him. Bush has collected more money from Michigan, per capita, than from any other state besides Texas. He has received endorsements from Michigan's lieutenant governor, its secretary of state, 21 of its 23 GOP state senators, 51 of its 58 state legislators, and the entire Republican congressional delegation.

By contrast, McCain seems not to have solicited endorsements in Michigan at all. "They didn't make a perfunctory phone call to anybody," says Dan DeGrow, the state Senate majority leader and a Bush supporter. "Nothing." The Arizona senator's first endorsement came from Joe Shwarz, a retiring state senator who read McCain's book and spontaneously switched his allegiance from Bush to McCain. Speaking in Michigan, McCain introduced Shwarz as "the bravest man in the state of Michigan. He has to hire someone to start his car in the morning." To make matters worse, Engler has appointed roughly 2,000 people to state positions over the years, and many of them have, conveniently, decided to take time off from their jobs to canvass the state for Bush. One such volunteer is Doyle, who, in addition to being a lobbyist, is one of Engler's eight appointees to the board of Oakland University and plans to work the phones to get out the vote. Another is Geralyn Lasher, who has taken vacation time from her position at the Department of Community Health to serve as Bush's Michigan spokeswoman. If the primary turnout stays low, as it has in years past, Michiganders whose careers are connected to Engler, and their friends, family, and neighbors, will account for a significant chunk of the electorate.

At Bush’s Michigan campaign headquarters, located in a brick-and-glass strip mall outside Lansing, 16 campaign workers, mostly in business attire, sit before laptop computers and banks of telephones. A row of printers sits on a table in the corner, and the walls are adorned with a series of color-coded state maps dotted with pushpins. And the office is not even operating at full strength: ten or so staffers are out traveling with former President Bush, who is spending the day campaigning in the state for his son. A few days ago, Elizabeth Dole swung through.

If the McCain camp has a strategy to combat all this firepower—other than riding the momentum from early victories—they're not divulging it. McCain's staffers speak vaguely of Macomb County, a collection of Detroit suburbs known as the home of Reagan Democrats. McCain's Michigan communications director, the newly arrived Californian, thinks this area particularly important for McCain's chances, but he pronounces it "MAY-comb," as in Macomb County, Georgia, rather than "muh-COMB," the way Michiganders say it. During a speech in Saginaw, an industrial city two hours north of Detroit, McCain recounted how he won the support of the thousands of young voters who registered the day of the New Hampshire primary. For a moment, it appeared the Arizona senator was going to predict a similar occurrence in Michigan, but then he stopped and wondered aloud, "I don't know if you have [same-day registration] in Michigan or not." They do not.

But maybe the McCain camp doesn't need a strategy in Michigan. Without a strategy, without endorsements, and without much money, they're doing amazingly well. In November, Bush led McCain 72 to seven in the state, and in mid-January he led 51 to 16. Even after New Hampshire, George W.'s Michigan chairman predicted that Bush would not only win the state but carry every congressional district.

The first poll showing McCain and Bush running neck and neck stunned Bush's supporters. A subsequent survey reported that McCain was up by nine. Engler has started playing down talk of asbestos. He speaks instead about Bush carrying the Republican vote and expresses alarm about Democrats in Detroit crossing over to vote for McCain. In fact, there is little evidence of any organized Democratic effort for McCain. Engler's repeated warnings about a pro-McCain Detroit vote are probably intended to spark a Iabor countermobilization by suburban and rural Republicans, who have long had a hostile relationship with the city. But this is mainly spin designed to rationalize a Bush defeat as the work of meddlesome interlopers. It is a telling decay of expectations: Engler is delegitimizing the primary he created.

And no wonder. If Bush loses here, it would suggest something ominous—that, as a primary grows nearer and voters pay closer attention, the power of party machinery fades. If it happened in New Hampshire, it could happen in Michigan and then everywhere. Engler has not been able to keep this subversive thought from crossing the minds of even his staunchest lieutenants. "If Bush loses South Carolina and then were to lose Michigan," muses DeGrow, who, after all, filmed a pro-Bush commercial, "he has a severe problem at that point." DeGrow says "he," not "we," and in his voice there is no dread, only bemusement.

This article originally ran in the February 28, 2000 issue of the magazine.