Michigan Governor's Race Draws Highly Distinct US Political Lines Incumbent Conservative Challenged by Union-Backed Liberal

Article excerpt

MICHIGAN is known for fierce contests, but its race for governor makes even the Michigan/Michigan State football rivalry seem tame.

Republican Gov. John Engler and his challenger, former Rep. Howard Wolpe (D), stand as opposites across a full range of issues: abortion, welfare, crime, health care, and funding for public education, to name a few.

Governor Engler aims to reduce the size and role of government. Mr. Wolpe seeks to promote social justice through vigorous but efficient government. The gubernatorial race offers an especially clear choice along traditional ideological lines. Both candidates have staked their careers on political ideologies that represent opposites, although in the context of United States norms.

"The two candidates in Michigan are as emblematic of the divergent philosophies of their parties as any other political rivals in the country," says William Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a bimonthly newsletter published in Lansing.

Mr. Engler leads with the support of 53 percent of voters compared to a tally of 34 percent for Wolpe, according to a recent poll of 800 voters published by Mr. Ballenger last week.

The trend in this state toward US political opposites is clear in the affluent, predominantly Republican communities around Grand Traverse Bay in northwestern Michigan. Conservative strongholds like the bay have rallied behind tough initiatives like Mr. Engler's war on taxes.

Engler mobilized Republicans in March behind a statewide limit on increases in assessments on the value of property. The campaign reinforced a general trend toward conservatism primarily driven by a widespread aversion to the liberal tendencies of Clinton and his supporters in Michigan, particularly labor unions, say Republican leaders in the area.

"There has been a definite trend to the right," in recent years, says state Sen. George McManus (R) of northwest Michigan's 37th District. Most dramatically, Michigan voters in 1992 gave Republicans control of the state legislature for the first time since 1966.

Soon after taking office in 1991, Engler reduced the state's bloated budget by cutting a slew of social programs. Most controversially, he lopped off some $200 million in a $8-billion state budget by completely severing General Assistance welfare for 90,000 poor citizens. …