Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm fought once more to defend her record last night in the second televised debate with Republican challenger Dick DeVos, who sought to blame her for Michigan’s struggling economy.

Steven Neff
Dick DeVos
Steven Neff
Jennifer Granholm

While the first debate left some disappointed with what they saw as a lack of focus on substantial policy questions, these issues consumed much of the discussion last night.

Recent polls show Granholm holding a small lead with just under a month remaining before the Nov. 7 election.

DeVos repeatedly attacked Granholm for her handling of the economy.

“The facts are that Michigan has the worst unemployment in the country,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have to fire the governor and head in a new direction.”

Granholm looked to parry those jabs by saying that she wasn’t the one at fault – the root of the problem, she said, lies in Washington.

“We need a tiger on behalf of our manufacturing industry at the World Trade Organization, and instead the Bush administration has been nothing but a pussycat,” she said, referring to what she calls a failure by the federal government to enforce trade agreements, thereby hurting Michigan’s manufacturing-based economy.

Communications and political science Prof. Michael Traugott said this was part of a Granholm effort to tie DeVos to President Bush, who is unpopular in Michigan.

“She has picked up her references to the Bush administration,” he said. “She’s playing to general dissatisfaction with presidential performance.”

The two candidates revealed more policy differences when asked to list specific ways they would fix the state’s economy.

Both said they would eliminate the Single Business Tax. Most of DeVos’s ideas had to do with either cutting red tape for businesses or working to increase trade and tourism, while Granholm focused on education and job training to diversify the economy.

Granholm also reiterated her plan to speed up public works projects slated for the next ten years – a proposal she has compared to New Deal programs through which the federal government employed laid-off workers during the Great Depression.

At times, DeVos seemed to be channeling President Ronald Reagan, who defeated incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980 in part by pointing to the nation’s economic malaise during Carter’s term.

DeVos twice used a famous Reagan soundbite from that race.

“Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” he asked viewers.

But Granholm quickly turned that argument around, saying that while Michigan struggled, DeVos prospered at the state’s expense as head of Alticor Corp., the parent company of Amway.

“Is he better off than he was four years ago?” she said in her closing statement. “My guess is he is, because he is somebody that supported the unfair trade agreements that got Michigan into this mess in the first place.”

Jamie Ruth, chair of the University’s chapter of the College Democrats, said this response was effective.

“I’m no fan of Reagan, but he is no Reagan,” he said. “I think that Granholm did a really good job of deflecting that tactic.”

Traugott said Granholm displayed a stronger command of policy than DeVos – something that he said should be expected from someone who has been in office for four years.

“She speaks with an urgency that I associate with having a lot to say and understanding that there’s a limited time to say it,” he said.

Unlike last week’s debate, in which the candidates had virtual free reign to answer questions and respond to charges from one another, last night they had time limits for their responses and were only allowed 30 seconds to rebut charges made by their opponent.

University College Republicans Chair Rob Scott said both candidates fine-tuned their performances in last night’s debate, but added that DeVos still had room for improvement.

“I think that Granholm came across as more confident and DeVos came across different than last time,” he said. “He was more confrontational and more challenging of the governor. I just wish he’d nailed her a little harder on certain issues.”

Bri Fritz, chair of the University’s chapter of Students for Granholm as well as the statewide organization, agreed.

“They both seemed a little more confident, a little more surefooted,” she said. “It was more questions about the actual issues.”

But Fritz said she thought Granholm was the clear winner.

“I thought it went really well for the governor,” she said. “The governor is coming out strong and she’s answering our questions, and I think that’s really important.”

Last night’s debate, broadcast on NBC affiliates across the state from WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, likely drew a much smaller audience than the first debate because it had to compete with the first game of the Detroit Tigers’ American League Championship Series against the Oakland Athletics.

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