Monday, August 7, 2006

A battle of a lifetime

By Susan J. Demas
Jackson Citizen Patriot

Church bells clanged in Battle Creek, trumpeting the turning point in America’s triumph over Hitler in World War II.

D-Day, June 6, 1944.

First grade teacher Roma Cook sat sobbing at her desk. That’s a sight one student never forgot as he stitched up soldiers in the lonely thrush of Vietnam and thwarted a communist coup in Indonesia in the 1960s.

“All the traffic stopped,” the now 68-year-old U.S. congressman recalled. “Miss Cook was crying her eyes out … she must have had hundreds of students serving in the war at the time.

“We still talk about it.”

He was 6 then. His name is Joe Schwarz.

Tim Walberg wasn’t even a glint in his steelworker father’s eye back then.

But 13 years later in 1957, the future Michigan lawmaker had an epiphany of his own, squirming in the pine pews of the First Baptist Church outside Chicago.

The Rev. Loren Anderson took to the pulpit, cracked the bible and unexpectedly opened his young parishioner’s eyes.

“He said, ‘There are no grandchildren in heaven’,” recalled Walberg, now 55 and living in Tipton. “Just because you’re from a Christian family, it’s not good enough.

“At that point I knew I couldn’t barter with God and had to take the chance of salvation that Christ gives.”

That day, his future as a passionate preacher, anti-abortion activist and evangelical fundraiser was sealed.

Walberg became a born-again Christian. He was 6.

The battleground

Flash forward to the heat-soaked days of August 2006.

Armed with his pedigree as a surgeon, state senator and CIA spy, the centrist Schwarz is wrapping up what is by most accounts a successful stint as a freshman congressman.

Walberg - a religious right icon with a reputation for never having met a tax cut he didn’t like as a legislator - is hurdling back into the political fray.

The two men, whose paths seemingly would never have crossed, are locked in a fiery clash for their political lives in the 7th Congressional District GOP primary Tuesday.

But it’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than Michigan.

Short of Sen. Joe Lieberman’s fight in the Connecticut Democratic primary, analysts are calling the $3 million race the most critical in the country.

Even President Bush is watching this one, having given his blessing to Schwarz.

“It’s a battle for the heart and soul of what a Republican looks like in this district and in the nation,” said Jeff Williams, vice president of Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants.

Right now Schwarz is public enemy No. 1 for one band of right-wingers. Pat Toomey, president of the free-market lobby Club for Growth, said they’re hunting the rookie lawmaker this election season because he’s a RINO – Republican in Name Only.

The Washington-based group, which the Federal Election Commission is suing, has pumped more than $1 million into Walberg’s mission by bundling cash and airing ads lambasting Schwarz as “outrageously liberal.”

In turn, Schwarz has brandished the big guns of the GOP, hyping his endorsements by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Michigan Gov. John Engler and House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

It’s all made the race too close to call.

In the seven-county district of about 650,000 people, rural Branch, Hillsdale and Lenawee are likely to fall for Walberg. Eaton, Calhoun and Washtenaw are considered Schwarz strongholds.

That leaves Jackson County, which cast one-quarter of the ballots in the 2004 primary. The party leadership remains split.

“Jackson is the heart of the matter,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of “Inside Michigan Politics.”

Quiet confidence

Walberg looks every inch a preacher, from his rod-straight hair glowing with gray to his polished loafers and immaculate navy suits.

But behind the pastoral exterior lies a motorcycle fiend who tools around on his 2002 Harley-Davidson Road King, professing to be like “Elmer Gantry. I like exciting things.”

Walberg pauses, stressing he’s not lusty or corrupt like the fictional reverend – just a fierce competitor.

He’s been waiting for this race. Praying for it. Starting on Aug. 3, 2004, when Schwarz beat Walberg and four other conservative contenders in the primary to replace U.S. Rep. Nick Smith, R-Addison.

Proud of his nickname of “Mr. Congeniality” in a16-year run in the statehouse, Walberg was the only candidate who refused to endorse Schwarz last time. He said it was a matter of conscience; he couldn’t boost an abortion rights nominee who stood against a federal amendment banning gay marriage.

“It’s about the issues,” Walberg said. “And Joe Schwarz is a liberal.”

That’s won over voters like Sue Hudson, 53, who said gay marriage and abortion are the lynchpin of the campaign.

“Some issues are non-negotiable with me,” said Hudson, a school paraprofessional from Coldwater. “You could always count on the Republican Party to stand strong, but Schwarz sold us out.”

Walberg harkens back to his college days at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, a traditional island in a sea of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. The violent protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention made him cringe since he championed the Vietnam War, though he obtained a student deferment in 1970 and never served.

“There was chaos everywhere,” Walberg recalled.

That all changed in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, the man Walberg modeled his political career after. He’s fond of quoting the former president, who was actually quoting Winston Churchill:

“Some men change principle for party. And some men change party for principle.”

While red-meat social issues fire up the base, Walberg said smaller government is his “No. 1 priority.” He wants to make Bush’s tax cuts permanent, repeal the prescription drug benefit Medicare Part D and replace income taxes with a national sales levy of 23 percent.

Walberg has raised about $650,000 - impressive for a challenger, but still less than half of Schwarz’s war chest.

Still, the pastor says he’s “very confident” he’ll avenge his defeat two years ago. What he won’t say is whether he’ll back Schwarz if he falls short again.

Bristled Walberg: “The key question here is, ‘Will Joe Schwarz support me in the general election’?”

Venerable veteran

Schwarz was soaring in Blackhawk helicopter over Fallujah in April, face-to-face with the man whose life he tried to save five decades earlier.

That was back when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was a prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, and Schwarz was a young CIA spy sent to bust him out. The mission failed, but the two veterans struck up a deep friendship years later.

After checking in with U.S. troops fighting in Hilla and Ramadi, the pair dined with King Abdullah in Jordan to plot long-term Middle East policy.

Schwarz saw his national profile rocket after maneuvering McCain’s stunning upset over Bush in the 2000 Michigan presidential primary.

“We didn’t do too bad,” Schwarz said, grinning.

That helped spur the native Michigander’s own maverick run for Congress in 2004. Then and now, Schwarz has won a big boost from McCain hitting the stump for him.

The $1.5 million clogging his campaign coffers- mostly from political action committees – also has helped his cause.

With his professorial bifocals and plainspoken pitch, Schwarz is a man as comfortable quoting Rudyard Kipling as he is rooting in the bleachers for his beloved University of Michigan football team.

“Go Blue,” he’s known to chortle to kids on the campaign trail donning a U-M shirt.

Like McCain, the doc says exactly what’s on his mind. The health care system? “Broken.” North Korea dictator Kim Jong-Il? “A whack job.” Abortion? “Not an issue.”

Calling himself a “classic conservative,” Schwarz supports the president’s tax cuts, tougher immigration measures and wiping out the estate tax.

Yet Schwarz contends Walberg has turned the race into a sideshow of “God, guns and gays.” The congressman points out he is a Roman Catholic personally opposed to abortion, has the National Rifle Association’s endorsement and voted as a state senator to ban gay marriage.

He hammers at campaign themes of creating jobs, bolstering national security and cutting health care costs. That’s struck a chord with voters like Roger Warren, 66.

“Joe knows about national security and border security, having served himself,” said the Vandercook Lake retiree. “He doesn’t put all his eggs in one basket like Walberg.”

Ballenger and other pundits say the incumbent should have scored easy political points by veering right on social issues. But Schwarz said that’s not his style. This is:

“Make up your mind, listen to your conscience, use your experience and never pander.”

Day of reckoning

What will the GOP look like Wednesday? Will it hit the note of “one big tent” as in the 1990s? Or will it swerve further rightward?

That’s the bigger question for voters than simply punching the ballot for either Schwarz or Walberg.

That’s not good news for Saul Anuzis, state Republican chairman, who doesn’t want to see his party deeply divided before red-hot governor and U.S. Senate races this fall.

“It’s not a good use of our resources and efforts to go against another good Republican,” said Anuzis, who endorsed Schwarz despite ideological differences.

Schwarz takes the broad view that the GOP will persevere – and so will he. He notes the party survived severe growing pains post-Civil War and in the 1960s.

Not surprising for a man who still talks of D-Day, whose prize possession is a signed set of Samuel E. Morison’s 15-volume “History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.”

“I am a gentleman of a certain age. Age is all about perspective,” Schwarz said. “It’s the difference of practical experience over ideology. Which is what this campaign is about in many ways, isn’t it?”

For Walberg, the race is a crusade for what the GOP stands for. He’s as sure of this as he was when he took Christ into his heart at a Chicago church almost a half-century ago.

In the final days, he whispers to himself the words that guide his campaign, Acts 20:24:

“But these things don't count; nor do I hold my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to fully testify to the Good News of the grace of God.”

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