Targeting Spence

Forget that the election is still 14 months away; forget that there’s yet been no primary. Forget that yawn at the back of your throat.

Michigan’s year 2000 Senate contest is already gaining attention from pundits, contributors, special interests and political parties. The Washington Post and National Public Radio each declared last week the showdown between Republican incumbent Spencer Abraham and U.S. Rep. Debbie Stabenow – each of whom is expected to handily win their respective primaries – will be prime-time political fodder from now until November 2000.

OK, allow yourself one yawn. But pay attention, because both major parties have targeted this as a crucial election. There are a few incumbent senators with the word "vulnerable" stamped on their foreheads – and Spence Abraham is one of them.

Polls show you may recognize his name, but that’s about it. Which is why Abraham spent his summer vacation driving across Michigan in a big green bus, saying howdy to the folks and trying hard to get them to remember who he is.

"It’s as if he’s coming out of a bunker, blinking like a groundhog on Groundhog’s Day," says political analyst Bill Ballenger, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics. "I don’t think he did a particularly good job during his first four years trying to stay in touch with the people of Michigan." With his promise to spend at least $9 million on this campaign, you are going to be seeing a lot of Abraham between now and November 2000.

If you’ve just yawned again, we understand. Mr. Abraham has that effect on people.

"Abraham is not a natural politician," observes Ballenger. "He’s an introvert. ... He hasn’t defined himself as a person people feel comfortable with and know."

The former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party and ex-deputy chief of staff for Vice President Dan Quayle, Abraham had a number of forces in his favor during his ’94 Senate run. Seeking elected office for the first time, the Harvard Law School grad enjoyed running alongside a popular sitting governor while Republicans nationwide were swept into office on the high tide of Newt Gingrich’s "Contract With America."

"It’s almost like he snuck into office," says Ballenger.

The big question this time out is whether he can succeed without all that help.

The 49-year-old Stabenow, in contrast, is a seasoned pol. First elected to the Ingham County Board of Commissioners in 1974, she worked her way up the political ladder: 12 years in the state House, four years in the state Senate, a failed bid to be her party’s gubernatorial candidate in ’94 and part of the Dem’s losing ticket as lieutenant governor that same year, then a successful run for Congress against a tough GOP opponent in ’96.

The Stabenow camp is feeling pretty good about the Senate race. Polls show her in a virtual dead heat with Abraham.

Although those numbers could change drastically between now and Election Day, Stabenow campaign director Carol Butler says they are now equivalent "to a red warning light flashing on Spence Abraham’s dashboard."

And all the early talk of Abraham’s vulnerability only adds momentum to her campaign fundraising, which is already in high gear. Political handicappers are predicting Stabenow, who had collected about $1.1 million so far, will raise about $4.5 million. Will that be enough to fend off the inevitable Abraham advertising blitz?

Outside help can be expected. Craig Eastman, communications director for the Michigan Republican Party, noted the Sierra Club has already aired a commercial slamming Abraham for a recent vote portrayed as anti-environmental.

On the other side, Americans for Tax Reform has been running ads depicting tax-cutter Abraham as a GOP leader in the current budget battle with Clinton. It has the unmistakable feel of an Abraham campaign commercial.

More such issue ads can be expected from both sides.

"These kind of early back-and-forth ads show exactly how competitive this race will be," observes Eastman, who says ads of this type usually don’t start showing up until the spring or summer of an election year.

At this stage, much of the talk centers on personalities.

"A lot of people will be contrasting styles," says political analyst Craig Ruff, president of Public Sector Consultants in Lansing. "I suppose that is understandable, given the fact that the two are so different.

"I think it’s fair to say Debbie Stabenow is a highly extroverted, charismatic, hand-pumping politician. Spencer Abraham seems to be at his best at policy-making endeavors. He’d rather be a policy wonk in Washington than campaigning in Michigan."

Fortunately, this isn’t a race that has to be decided on style points alone; it features candidates with distinct ideological differences. Ruff predicts both will try to moderate their records in an attempt to win over the fence-sitters likely to decide the close race.

A look at a few of the special interest groups that rate incumbents based on particular votes shows how far apart Abraham and Stabenow are.

The pro-choice National Abortion Reproductive Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood each gave Abraham a zero score for his votes in 1998, while the anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee reported he voted their position a perfect 100 percent. Stabenow’s record was almost exactly opposite, with 100s from NARAL and Planned Parenthood and a 5 from the NRLC. Likewise, the Christian Coalition scored Abraham at 91 while giving Stabenow a 7.

The Business-Industry Political Action Committee gave Abraham a 95 for 1997-98; Stabenow earned a 7 from the pro-business group.

On the other hand, Stabenow’s scores from five different civil liberties groups ranged from 69 to 100; Abraham’s marks from the same groups went from a high of 20 down to zero.

"This is going to be a race about where candidates stand on issues," predicts Sage Eastman, communications director for the Michigan Republican Party. "There is a substantive difference between the candidates."

Eastman insists that the GOP has not been unnerved by the early pronouncements of Abraham’s perceived vulnerability.

"We know this race will be a tough one," he says. "We could expect to see this as one of the top three, if not the top Senate race in the nation next year."

Although analysts such as Ballenger say the Republican call for using some of the budget surplus to provide a major tax cut is finding surprisingly little resonance among Michigan’s voters, Eastman predicts the strategy will eventually win out.

We’ll know if he’s right in about 14 months.

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