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NRCC May Draw First Blood in Great Lake State

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been eyeing Michigan since Nov. 8, when party leaders saw how poorly some long-term GOP incumbents performed despite being pitted against unknown and underfunded challengers.

The DCCC still sees the Great Lakes State as a “land of opportunity,” according to a spokesman. But National Republican Congressional Committee officials think they have landed the first blow.

“It appears the DCCC strategy of throwing darts at a Congressional map and calling them targets certainly has not improved their recruiting efforts in Michigan,” said Ken Spain, an NRCC spokesman.

No one from either party has committed to taking on any Michigan incumbent yet, but the NRCC has a live prospect on the line in state Rep. Tom Casperson (R), who is seriously contemplating challenging eight-term Rep. Bart Stupak (D).

“I realize the odds are really against me because of Bart’s incumbency … but I am walking toward [the decision] as if I’m running,” Casperson said.

The term-limited lawmaker said he will meet with GOP officials in Washington, D.C., next month.

In the meantime, he said he has spoken frequently with state party Chairman Saul Anuzis, NRCC officials, Rep. Candice Miller (R) and other members of the Michigan delegation.

Casperson said he feels as if he and Stupak have been destined to square off eventually.

Casperson beat Stupak’s wife, Laurie, for his state House seat in 2002.

“Ever since that victory people keep pointing and saying, ‘the next step is to run for Congress,’” Casperson said.

Spain said Casperson could be formidable, despite Stupak’s record of comfortable victories.

“He is a proven voter-getter in the Democratic stronghold of the [Upper Peninsula],” Spain said. “He’s already beaten one Stupak, and we believe he can take down another.”

But a Democratic strategist who did not want to be named said Republicans are celebrating prematurely.

National Republicans are doing somersaults over someone who has yet to even file. Walberg or Knollenberg are much more vulnerable at this stage of the game than Bart Stupak, who has won his previous three campaigns with an average of nearly 70 percent of the vote.

DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer said Stupak is secure in the 1st district, which includes a good chunk of counties below the Mackinac Bridge as well as the entire Upper Peninsula, better know as “the UP.”

“Congressman Stupak knows the people of Northern Michigan and is a longtime advocate for workers and families,” Rudominer said. “Mr. Stupak is battle-tested and immensely popular with people of all political stripes.”

Stupak began April with a little more than $130,000 in the bank. His past few races have cost him between $700,000 and $800,000, and he won with huge margins.

But the swing district leans Republican in White House elections, fueling the NRCC’s optimism.

The DCCC said Republicans would be wise to pay more attention to some of their Members in Michigan, including Reps. Joe Knollenberg, Thaddeus McCotter, Vernon Ehlers, Mike Rogers and freshman Tim Walberg.

Walberg won the 7th district with just 51 percent of the vote after knocking off then-Rep. Joe Schwarz (R) in a bloody primary.

Knollenberg shelled out $2.4 million to win 52 percent of the vote in his suburban Detroit district.

Democrat Nancy Skinner spent less than $300,000.

Privately Republicans concede that Knollenberg’s 9th district has drifted to the left since he was first elected in 1992.

The NRCC and Knollenberg say he learned his lesson and is gearing up for a highly competitive race next year.

“Those candidates who prepare early tend to perform well on Election Day,” Spain said. “Knollenberg has proven he is taking his race seriously and is prepared to do what it takes to win.”

Michigan Lottery Commissioner Gary Peters (D) is taking a close look at the race and would be considered a top-tier challenger.

Rudominer would not say whom the DCCC is recruiting to run against Knollenberg or anyone else but insisted that numerous, good potential candidates are in discussions with them.

Democrats think several of the metro Detroit districts have moved in their direction, and in a presidential election year, Rogers, McCotter and others could be in real trouble in a state that usually casts its lot with Democratic presidential candidates.

“We definitely view Michigan as a land of opportunity in 2008,” Rudominer said. “Michigan Republicans with their far-right views and close ties to President Bush are skating on thin ice; we couldn’t be more bullish about our chances.”

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