When I visited this battleground area in the suburbs of Detroit early this week, it was to check the public reaction to the first debate of 2008.
The Michigan polls I had seen just before John McCain and Barack Obama met at the University of Mississippi drew a confusing picture. One had Obama ahead by 4 points; another by 7, a third by 10 and the last by 13.
The Michigan politicians of both parties I spoke to before boarding the plane agreed that Obama should be considered the favorite, but none could credit him with a double-digit lead. Several cautioned that he might face a problem in the suburbs, where race has been an issue since the busing controversies of the 1960s and a succession of black mayors in Detroit have drawn fire.
Oakland County, where I chose to interview voters, is a classic bellwether area. In 2000, when Al Gore carried Michigan by 5.1 percent, he won Oakland by 1.2 percent. In 2004, both were even closer. John Kerry won Michigan by 3.4 percent and Oakland by one-half percent.
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I interviewed voters outside a Sam's Club in one shopping center, outside a Target in a second, and on a downtown Birmingham corner with three fast-food restaurants.
What I heard convinced me that Obama is indeed the favorite in Michigan. But I also learned that the continuing drama of the stock market-banking collapses and the fitful Washington efforts to shore up the financial system have made conventional presidential politics – including debates – of marginal importance.
Most of those I encountered had watched at least part of last Friday night's debate, but no one said or implied that it had been a mind-changer. The very first person I met, Bill Walker of Clarkston, told me he had voted twice for President Bush but now was leaning strongly to Obama.
Why? “The country is going downhill,” he said. “The economy is terrible. My wife is a schoolteacher and I'm a school building engineer, so we haven't been laid off. But when people can't find work, they can't pay their taxes, and that will affect us.”
Despite his preference, Walker said he found Obama “hesitating in his answers,” while McCain gave “strong answers and did quite well.”
But he, like others, was bothered by the fact that “McCain did not want to look at the man (Obama). You have to talk to people or you'll never make up your differences,” he said.
Paul Gillin of Birmingham, a self-employed former Chrysler worker, is more typical of the Michigan voters I met, because he immediately switched the conversation to the economic news, telling me that the situation reminded him of what he had read about the crash of 1929 that brought on the Great Depression. Gillin said he has been leaning toward McCain, “but I'm not too happy with these interviews Sarah Palin has been doing.” Far from criticizing McCain for his effort to intervene in the bailout talks, Gillin said, “it was important for him to do what he did.”
In some ways, the most interesting interviews were with undecided voters. Charles James, a meat-cutter who has watched the shrinkage of his 401(k) account with dismay, leans to Obama but fears that the Democrats will raise taxes.
Marilyn Alberkorn of Pontiac, a disillusioned Bush voter and part-time school employee, watched the debate and thought “both candidates really avoided the questions.”
And Beth Graves, a retiree who splits her time between Michigan and Florida, was “pleasantly surprised” that McCain “spoke as well as he did in the debate. Obama always speaks eloquently, so I like both of them.”
Graves worries that Palin seems “so young,” but she saves her scorn for Nancy Pelosi, “who is so partisan.” That's a reminder to even the most secure members of Congress that the voters are judging them as well as the presidential candidates.