One year from today, Americans will go to the polls to decide whether President Bush gets a second term. If the election is close, as both sides expect, the reason may be people like Steven Freers.
The burly 54-year-old attorney is a Republican who has long seen Democrats as "the party of government giveaways." But right now, he is lukewarm toward Bush and open to voting for one of his Democratic rivals -- even though they are largely a mystery to him at this point.
Freers worries about the situation in Iraq. He also frets about the economy -- never mind the robust numbers now coming out of Washington -- as bills pile up from his delinquent clients.
"I'd like to see a more focused program on improving the economy, improving foreign relations," Freers says before heading into a supermarket on a recent chilly afternoon. "When we spend all this money overseas, we should get more for it than we do."
The absence of either peace or widely felt prosperity could make Bush vulnerable to the same fate as his father, who soared to record heights in popularity polls, only to sink under the weight of economic anxieties. Surveys show the younger Bush's support generally now hovering around the 50% level in national polls -- not awful, but not great either.
The problem for his Democratic rivals is that most of them are little-known outside Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that kick off the presidential primary season in January. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who sit atop most surveys of Democrats, are pulling support in the 20% range -- scarcely a national following.
"They may feel as if they've been running around the track quite a bit," Peter Hart, a longtime Democratic strategist, said of the party's nine White House contestants. "But they're just getting out of the starting gate."
Hart recently convened a politically mixed panel of 12 voters in Pennsylvania, one of a few states -- including Michigan -- that will probably prove decisive in the 2004 election. Shown portraits of the Democratic hopefuls, people studied them quizzically. They figured Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina must be a country singer or sports agent. They guessed that Sen. John. F. Kerry of Massachusetts might be a TV talk show host. While most of them could identify Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democrats' 2000 vice presidential nominee, and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the former House minority leader, only about half of them recognized Dean or Clark.
"What they know about [the candidates] is sort of a one-line sketch relief," said Hart, who has conducted hundreds of polls and focus groups over more than two decades. "Nobody's anywhere."
The political dynamic gives both sides reason for optimism during the next 12 months.
Although Bush is clearly at risk, no Democrat has yet emerged as a strong threat. That makes the sentiments of people like Freers, an undecided voter in the swing suburbs of a swing state, all the more important.
Michigan can be a tough place for Republicans, particularly when the economy is hurting, said campaign consultant Mike Murphy, one of the GOP's leading experts on the state. "But you've got to win the tough swing states ... if you're going to be president."
Indeed, Michigan and Pennsylvania are two places the White House has targeted in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the cliff-hanging 2000 election. Bush lost them both by small margins. Since taking office, he has visited Pennsylvania 22 times -- more than any other state -- and traveled to Michigan on 11 occasions.
Still, there is work to be done. In a recent poll in Michigan, just 37% said Bush deserved reelection. Roughly 60% gave the president poor marks for his handling of the economy, as they did for the situation in Iraq. Overall, Bush had a 52% negative job rating. By contrast, 60% gave high marks to the state's new Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, even as she wrestles with a $900-million deficit after having slashed $2 billion in programs over the summer.
"The bottom line is the economy," said Ed Sarpolus, an independent researcher who conducted the October survey. "People don't see the president putting enough focus on the economy."
Michigan, which tends to follow the nation's economic cycles in the extreme, has been especially hard-hit by the downturn in the country's manufacturing industries.
The 1990s were a heady time here, with state unemployment dipping as low as 3%. This September, it stood at 7.4%, a 10-year high and a full percentage point above the national rate.
Since 2000, Michigan has lost 300,000 jobs, including 168,000 in manufacturing, or one of every five factory positions. The auto industry, still Michigan's main economic engine, continues to lose ground to foreign competition. By 2002, Detroit's combined share of the U.S. car and truck market had fallen to 61.5% -- down from 72.1% a decade earlier.
All those statistics mean worrisome times for some, and an opportunity for the Democrats seeking to replace Bush. Michigan will hold its Democratic presidential caucuses on Feb. 7, and no clear front-runner has emerged.
One who is worried is John Banach, a designer in the drive-train division of General Motors. His wife works for American Airlines. Pocketing cash from an automated teller machine at an upscale mall in Sterling Heights, a suburb of Detroit, Banach bitterly recounts how American executives helped themselves to generous bonuses at the same time that salaried workers faced pay cuts. He blames Bush for letting big business throw so much weight around.
"It just seems they're going a little bit overboard," says Banach, who was a big fan of Ronald Reagan and voted for both Bushes for president.
But the weak economy and the mire in Iraq have soured Banach on the president so much that he is now considering a vote for Kerry. He likes the senator's stance on the war because it matches his own: support for the invasion but concern about the way events have unfolded since. Brushing aside charges that Kerry has flip-flopped, Banach says: "He was for it for a good reason. Now he's against it for a good reason."
Still, for all those like Banach with doubts about the economy and growing worries about Iraq, Bush continues to enjoy considerable goodwill here for avoiding the sort of personal scandals that tainted President Clinton.
Doug Reedy, 43, an auto industry engineer, says tough times have forced him to cut back on personal spending and skip vacations the last two years. Even so, he keeps a Bush sticker on the back of his bright-red minivan. "I feel he has a lot of integrity," Reed says. "Plus, I like the fact he's God-fearing."
Eleanor Lechman agrees, saying Bush has brought honor back to the Oval Office. "You want your children to respect the president of the United States," the 76-year-old retiree says between errands at one of the strip malls that pave Detroit's suburbs. "That was kind of hard when Clinton was president."
For a time, the city of Warren and others in Macomb County, Mich., constituted one of the nation's most closely watched political laboratories. Books were written about the area's transformation from a Democratic bastion that gave John F. Kennedy the most support of any suburb in the country into a redoubt of the disaffected who shed party loyalties to vote for Reagan.
"They were the guys who got drafted in the Vietnam War and who came back without saying a word," Michael K. Deaver, a longtime Reagan advisor, once said. "They packed their lunches in Igloo coolers and opened their heating bills with trepidation."
After considerable effort -- and a break with Democratic orthodoxy on issues such as welfare and the death penalty -- Clinton made Macomb competitive again for Democrats: He won here in 1996 and Vice President Al Gore carried it in 2000. Lately, however, Macomb has become more reliably Republican as the Igloo coolers give way to Frappuccinos and the utility bills go to heat a growing number of fancy homes.
At the same time, neighboring Oakland County, long a GOP stronghold, has grown more Democratic as the emergent high-tech industries along I-696 -- Automation Alley, as it is known -- lure younger, more progressive residents to the suburbs stretching north of Detroit's Eight Mile Road. "The sons and daughters of the Reagan Democrats have all moved to Oakland and gotten college degrees," said polltaker Sarpolus. "And they've brought their liberal social views with them."
Together, the two counties could be the place where Michigan is won or lost in 2004, which makes them an important barometer for the rest of the country. And no issue -- not even the occupation of Iraq -- appears more important now than the economy and the question of whether statistical growth will translate into a tangible sense that people are better off.
"You tell me the unemployment rate next summer, tell me what per capita income is and what the change in personal income has been since 2000, and I'll give you a pretty good guess of how the November election will go," said Craig Ruff, a nonpartisan analyst who has spent decades in Lansing studying public policy.
"People in Michigan are used to going through this pendulum swing. But confidence has to rebound if Bush is going to do better in 2004 than he did in 2000."
Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this report.