Gizzi on Politics: Oct.1-8

Grand Weekend for Republicans

Mackinac Island, Mich.: Getting to the Mackinac Republican Conference last week involved a two-hour drive from Traverse City, Mich., a 20-minute ferry ride to Mackinac Island and a trip by horse-drawn carriage to the storied Grand Hotel, site of several Esther Williams classic water films and Somewhere in Time, starring the late Christopher Reeve. Put another way, it takes a while to get there, but the Mackinac beat is not heavy lifting.

Mackinac (as Michigan Republicans refer to the annual conference sponsored by their state party) is a staple of the Water Wonderland GOP. Almost all of the Republican presidential candidates were there and their operatives busily worked the crowd of more than 2,000 — the largest-ever Mackinac Conference since its launching back in 1955, according to State GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis.

The “straw vote” for Republican presidential favorites was the biggest national news story. To no one’s surprise, Michigan-born-and-raised former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney topped the field with 39%, followed by Sen. John McCain with 27%, which gave a boost to the Arizonan’s campaign that has faltered dramatically in most national polls. Rep. Ron Paul (R.-Tex.) came in third with 10.8%, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani pulled 10.6% and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson was fifth with 7%.

Thompson’s weak performance was a major story. Thompson arrived on Mackinac Island with tremendous fanfare, and it took him 15 minutes to get across the lobby of the Grand Hotel through the mob of autograph-seekers. He easily had the biggest scrum of newsmen around him when he met with reporters on the porch of the hotel. In his dinner address, the former television actor gave a rambling summation of his life, drawing his biggest applause when he spoke with pride about helping to confirm John Roberts as chief justice and noted that, even though he was a part-time actor, “I never lived in Hollywood.” He insisted that he’s “not someone who has hungered all these years to be President.” He then discussed his belief in tax cuts, quoting Adam Smith about not confusing the wealth of individuals with the wealth of nations.

“Underwhelming,” is how Bill Ballenger, editor of the influential Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, characterized Thompson’s address.

Businessman Tom England of Gladstone, Mich., who had described himself as “leaning to Fred” at the dinner the evening before, told me after Thompson’s remarks: “I’m a fan of Fred, but he needs to give me more. He was too laid back — he didn’t address a lot of issues. And I’m a country boy myself, but Fred needs to get off my grand-daddy’s porch.”

But do the results of the Mackinac straw vote reflect the leanings of those likely to vote in the presidential primary January 15 in a state with no party registration in which participants request a ballot for the primary they want to vote in? Probably very little. Two statewide polls released on the opening day of Mackinac reflected a different attitude among likely primary voters. According to an MRG poll, Giuliani led with 27%, with Romney and Thompson tied at 13%, McCain 7%, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (who was unable to make the trip to Mackinac because of his address to the National Rifle Association in Washington) at 6%. Another just-completed survey by veteran Lansing pollster Steve Mitchell showed Romney with 21%, Giuliani 19%, Thompson 18%, McCain 10% and Huckabee 3%.

Does George Romney Help Mitt?

Meeting with reporters during the conference, Romney indicated a nearby cottage and noted: “I grew up there. [Wife] Anne and I rode bicycles there.” He was referring to the governor’s vacation home on Mackinac Island where he spent much time while his late father, George Romney, was governor of Michigan (1962-68).

Mitt Romney referred to George frequently, believing that his father and late mother Lenore (who was the Republican nominee for the Senate in 1970) inspire warm memories and that Michigan primary voters might conclude that “even though I don’t know this Romney fella well, … I remember George and Lenore Romney … and if this kid is anything like they were, he’ll be a great President.”

But do Romney’s parents really help him in a Republican primary? Lansing “super lawyer” Richard McLellan, who has been coming to Mackinac Conferences since 1963, thinks not. As he told me, “George Romney was a popular governor, but that was almost 40 years ago. And I put George Romney in the same liberal Republican category as [then-New York Gov.] Nelson Rockefeller and [then-Pennsylvania Gov.] William Scranton—and this is a Republican Party that has definitely grown more conservative.”

Known for expanding the size of state government and his commitment to civil rights in the 1960s, the elder Romney, who ran his own short-lived presidential candidacy in 1968, especially irked conservatives by refusing to support Barry Goldwater after the Arizonan became the Republican nominee for President in 1964. Of Romney’s refusal to back him, Goldwater said: “I cannot forgive him.” This is all still remembered by many Michigan Republicans.

Dems Target Walberg

Although presidential politics dominated the conference at the Grand Hotel, there were other significant political stories.

Following what is increasingly becoming a pattern nationwide, Michigan Democrats are going to recruit a top-tier candidate in a district they heretofore conceded to Republicans — the Battle Creek-area 7th District now held by freshman GOP Rep. Tim Walberg. Two years ago, former state legislator and conservative stalwart Walberg made headlines statewide by unseating incumbent Republican Rep. Joe Schwarz for renomination in the 7th. Social issues dominated the debate, with Walberg taking a strong pro-life line and physician Schwarz pro-abortion. Walberg also benefited from strong media salvos against Schwarz’s spending votes that were aired by the Club for Growth. In the fall, running against a Democrat and a Libertarian, Walberg won with an uncomfortably slim 49.9% of the vote in what has long been considered one of the safest Michigan districts for Republicans.

Walberg has never backed away from his strong conservatism, and two heavyweight Democrats are vying for a crack at him in ’08: former Adrian Mayor Jim Berryman and State Senate Democratic Leader Mark Schauer, who is “termed out” of the legislature. The race is complicated by the fact that former Rep. Schwarz has hinted he may run as a Democrat or as an Independent, Walberg told me.

Honoring A Trailblazer

Someone that George Romney, former State Party Chairman Elly Peterson and other moderates used to shudder about when he came to a Mackinac Conference was honored at this year’s conclave by being placed on the party’s “Wall of Honor.” Grosse Pointe attorney Richard Durant, a conservative before it was fashionable, was hailed by Mackinac participants for his decades of getting people involved in the state party. The 89-year-old Durant was unable to attend, but lawyer-son Clark Durant, who headed the Legal Services Corp. under Reagan (“Remember when I used to come to Human Events and talk about how to defund the place?”), was there to proudly accept the honor for his father.

The elder Durant was the Republican nominee for Congress in 1950 and ’52 against Democratic Rep. (1934-46, 1948-61) Louis Rabaut. In 1961, Durant attended one of the Human Events conferences that were forerunners of the Conservative Political Action Conference that has become the movement’s premier annual event.

Noting how what was considered a moderate state Republican Party a generation ago has become one in which statewide nominees have been solid conservatives for years, Clark Durant told me: “Folks like Dad who took the heat when it wasn’t cool to be conservative made the Republican Party here today happen. I’m proud to be his son.”