LANSING (AP) – Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard jumped back into the race for U.S. Senate yesterday, crowding the field of potential Republican challengers to Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow.

Bouchard, a former state senator and sheriff of Michigan’s second most populous county since 1999, joins ministers Keith Butler and Jerry Zandstra in the Republican field for the 2006 election.

Bouchard, 49, in February backed out from a possible Senate run, citing heart-related health issues. But he said earlier this month he had addressed the health issues and was again considering a Senate run.

The Republican primary is in August. The winner would take on Stabenow in the November 2006 general election.

“We need someone who won’t just talk about problems or point fingers, but will make things happen,” Bouchard said. “(Stabenow) is a nice person. But she isn’t what I’d call an impact player.”

Bouchard, who served with Stabenow is the state Senate, said he was asked by Republicans inside and outside of Michigan to run for the U.S. Senate. He said homeland security and economic issues are among the most important driving the race.

Butler, a former Detroit City Council member, is founder and senior pastor of the 21,000-member Word of Faith International Christian Center Church in Southfield. The Troy resident officially announced his campaign in April.

Zandstra, from Cutlerville, has been on leave from his jobs as a minister and as program director of a Grand Rapids-area think tank after announcing his candidacy in May.

Stabenow leads both Butler and Zandstra by at least 20 points in the latest head-to-head polls from Lansing-based EPIC/MRA. But Republicans think they have a chance to beat her, noting that her job approval rating is below 50 percent.

Butler said Monday that Bouchard was recruited by people who were “uncomfortable” with his candidacy, but that he is in the race to stay.

“Michael Bouchard has clearly responded to the lobbyists and powerbrokers in Washington who have recruited him with the promise of financial support,” Butler said in a statement. “These individuals are uncomfortable with my candidacy.

“I have not spent years hanging out with and being entertained by Lansing and Washington lobbyists. I am an independent, conservative Republican who, with Michigan grassroots party support, will go to Washington to fight the status quo,” he said.

Bill Ballenger, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, said Republicans could be put in an awkward position by Bouchard’s late entrance into the race. Butler, who is black, already has been endorsed by several of Michigan’s GOP leaders including Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema of Wyoming and Attorney General Mike Cox.

“If they desert Butler and flock to Bouchard, it looks like people are deserting a black candidate. And what kind of message is that?” Ballenger said.

Ballenger noted that Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman visited Flint in July to woo black voters and has courted blacks nationally by saying the GOP shares many of their values on issues such as expanding economic opportunities, improving education and opposing gay marriage. Butler attended the Flint event.

The Zandstra campaign continued to say it was building on the momentum it has gained in recent weeks. The campaign hired pollster Steve Mitchell of East Lansing-based Mitchell Research and Communications and has continued to receive endorsements.

“I welcome the sheriff back into what we promise will be a most spirited and highly contested primary campaign,” Zandstra said in a statement. “Bouchard better get healthy, lace up his gloves, climb into the ring and bring his ‘A’ game on where he stands on the important economic issues facing Michigan.”

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