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Michigan Governor's Race Draws Highly Distinct US Political Lines

Incumbent conservative challenged by union-backed liberal

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.

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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.

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Then, in a headlong tax-cut move, Engler and the legislature last year abolished property taxes as the source of school finance without first securing a guaranteed alternative source of revenue. On May 1, the state began financing its schools through sales and other state taxes.

``Engler is perhaps the most conservative Republican governor in a half-century,`` says Mr. Ballenger.

Challenger Wolpe has criticized Engler's education-finance reform for tying schools to erratic forms of tax revenues. He also says Engler has nurtured elitism by enabling organizations to establish private charter schools funded in part by state dollars. Wolpe, a white liberal, has made his name by trying to reconcile groups divided by class or race.

A US Congressman from 1979 until 1992, Wolpe would try to enact universal health care coverage in Michigan if Clinton fails to carry it through nationwide. He supports ``holistic strategies'' in crime prevention, which conservatives largely consider to be pork-barrel initiatives.

A professor of African history at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Wolpe would also launch an environmental program along the lines of the Pollution Prevention Act. A bill he authored in Congress seeks to eliminate pollution before it leaves factory smokestacks and pipes. He has been hailed by environmentalists for this and other Washington initiatives.

When criticized by Engler for repeatedly approving tax increases, Wolpe notes that he consistently promoted bureaucratic efficiency. He authored the Taxpayer Right to Know Law, requiring the government to reveal how it spends tax revenues.

Wolpe carries the endorsement of the AFL-CIO and he is strongly supported by black voters in Detroit for promoting sanctions against South Africa.

While illustrating the polarization between the two parties, the race for governor additionally shows how political rivals today tend to paint one another as radicals far beyond the middle ground favored by the electorate, say the analysts.

``In politics these days there is a tension between where candidates really stand and where their opponents want to characterize them as standing,'' says David Rohde, a professor of political science at Michigan State University.

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