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Fishing in Michigan

Six GOPers Vying for Rep. Nick Smith’s Seat

While most of the Republican candidates in Michigan’s open 7th district race try to position themselves as the most conservative of the lot, they all have their eyes trained on a moderate contender.

Almost all of the five candidates playing to the conservative base in the Aug. 3 primary agree that their stiffest competition is former state Sen. Joe Schwarz, who is backed by the Republican Main Street Partnership — a group that supports moderate Republicans.

At one point, Democrats, who do not have a strong contender for the seat, had hoped Schwarz would switch parties.

“Schwarz is a very formidable challenger,” says former state Rep. Paul DeWeese, who, like Schwarz, is a medical doctor running to succeed retiring Rep. Nick Smith (R).

“Joe Schwarz is the person to beat right now,” state Rep. Gene DeRossett, another GOP contender, said.

Even attorney Brad Smith, the son of Nick Smith who tied for first place with Schwarz in the most recent poll, agreed that Schwarz is the early favorite.

“I think Joe Schwarz is going to be the main battleground here,” Smith said. “It’s going to be Joe Schwarz versus a conservative candidate and I am certainly hoping it’s going to be me.”

To that end, Smith, DeRossett, DeWeese, and state Reps. Clark Bisbee and Tim Walberg are courting key Republican groups, such as Right to Life of Michigan and the National Rifle Association as well as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Farm Bureau.

But as the candidates move around the mostly rural southern Michigan district, the 800-pound gorilla in this race is the lingering questions over allegations Nick Smith made last November after the House voted late in the night to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

Smith bucked the Republican leadership and voted against the bill. Then he said a colleague tried to buy his vote by promising financial help for his son’s candidacy if he played ball and retribution against Brad Smith if he did not.

Smith later modified the allegation but the original charge is the subject of a pending House ethics committee investigation into the matter.

“It’s clearly an issue,” DeWeese said. “Wherever I go, someone brings it up. It’s not a positive factor for Brad Smith’s campaign.”

DeWeese said Nick Smith should come forward and name names, while DeRossett said he should at least clear the air.

“Either Nick Smith was bribed on the House floor by the Republican leadership and someone committed a felony or he was pressured heavily and made some comments that he regretted making later — either he was bribed or he saw that as an opportunity to raise money for Bradley and to help Bradley,” DeRossett said.

Brad Smith scoffed at that notion and said the matter is under investigation.

“That is preposterous,” he said. “I certainly never would take something as weighty as this and twist it — distort the facts in any way — to win the election,” Smith said. “We wouldn’t do it and we didn’t do it.”

Walberg said Nick Smith could have handled the situation better, perhaps by going to House leaders or even law enforcement officials, but he does not believe he acted improperly or even unfairly.

“If I were Nick Smith and my son was running for my seat … I would do everything legally possible to help him win,” Walberg said. “I can’t fault Nick Smith for helping to get his son’s name identification up, and that’s what he did.”

Brad Smith agrees it helped introduce him to voters but said that was never the intent.

“I think I got some name recognition out of it, but I honestly don’t think the results in the poll … had anything to do with the Medicare thing,” he said.

Bisbee said he is not paying much mind to the matter.

“Most people just shake their heads and say, ‘What the heck happened?’” he said.

While the candidates try to sort out the Medicare mess, the immediate goal for most of them is winning the Michigan Right to Life endorsement, which could help with fundraising and grassroots troops.

As candidates tabulate their first-quarter takes, a look at cash-on-hand totals for the end of 2003 showed DeRossett as the leader with almost $276,000 in the bank and Smith with $189,000. Schwarz did not enter the race until this year.

Right to Life has said it will endorse before the May 11 filing deadline to encourage those who do not get the designation to drop out and coalesce behind one candidate who opposes abortion to take on the more lenient Schwarz.

For his part, Schwarz says he does not necessarily support abortion rights but says that the group has never supported him.

“They always target me,” Schwarz said. “They seem to favor candidates who are submissive to their philosophy; I understand that and that’s politics, but I am not submissive and am perfectly able to think for myself.”

Schwarz, who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2002, said he supports making exceptions in the case of rape, incest and if the mother’s health is in jeopardy. And he said his medical background precludes him from seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“I understand what a horrific situation we were in with back-alley abortions and … to think women would stop having abortions if Roe v. Wade was overturned is foolish,” he said. “Abortions should be safe, legal and very rare.”

The notion that his five competitors are conservatives and he is not irks Schwarz.

“I consider myself a traditional Republican in the party of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt as we knew traditional conservatism … up until about 25 years ago,” he said.

That philosophy, along with his military service, endeared him to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose 2000 presidential campaign he spearheaded in Michigan.

McCain recently mailed a letter to all of his supporters on behalf of Schwarz seeking donations for his candidacy.

But Schwarz’s foes question the wisdom of trotting McCain out on the campaign trail — an opportunity Schwarz did not seize when McCain was in Detroit recently. But Schwarz said he would stump with McCain in the future if and when the Senator’s schedule allows.

“I think the worst thing he could do is to bring McCain to Michigan to raise money,” DeRossett said.

McCain damaged President Bush in Michigan, ultimately winning the primary, which helped hand the state to former Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 general election, DeRossett charged.

A lot of Michigan Republicans feel the same way and do not look favorably upon McCain, he said.

While Schwarz can draw clear distinctions between his positions and the other five candidates’, the pending Right to Life endorsement could help separate one candidate from the pack.

So far, Smith and Schwarz are tied at 16 percent support from GOP voters, according to the poll conducted March 15-17 by EPIC/MRA of Lansing.

DeRossett got 11 percent, while Bisbee, DeWeese and Walberg each garnered 10 percent. Twenty-seven percent were undecided.

Most of the candidates said they would re-examine their chances if they did not win the anti-abortion group’s backing.

“I would seriously consider getting out” without the endorsement, Walberg said.

“I’m not just getting in to be a spoiler,” he added, stressing that “there are scenarios where I’d stay in” without the endorsement as well.

DeRossett and Smith both said they will soldier on regardless.

“I didn’t get into this race a year ago … to say, ‘Well, OK, if someone doesn’t support me, I’ll drop out,’” DeRossett said. “I’m in this race to win.”

Smith said he thinks he has a good chance of winning the Right to Life endorsement as well as nods from the conservative Club for Growth, the Farm Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce.

“I’m right in there with all of these groups,” he said, but “I’m prepared to not get any of these endorsements and I will not bow out if I get none of them.”

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