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Steel Tariffs Crucial to Bush Re-Election

October 28, 2003

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Steelworker Andy Miklos is so happy with President Bush’s tariffs on foreign-made steel that the card-carrying Democrat is considering casting his first vote for a Republican next year.

In Michigan, meanwhile, auto parts manufacturer Dennis Keat is threatening to defect from the GOP if the White House doesn’t drop the sanctions immediately.

Both voters are emblematic of their industries 18 months after Bush slapped steep tariffs on imported steel to shield domestic producers from foreign competition. The president’s next step in the process _ keep the tariffs until they expire in March 2005 or eliminate them _ could be crucial to Bush’s re-election prospects in 2004.

The steel tariffs are pitting the Midwest states against the Rust Belt _ two regions where the margin between the Republican candidate and Democrat Al Gore was a hair’s breadth in 2000, and where Bush is determined to prevail in 2004.

The sanctions endeared the GOP president to traditionally Democratic steelworkers in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. But coming on the heels of a slumping economy, the tariffs have since angered owners and employees of small manufacturing companies that make up part of his GOP base in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Those states rank high on the list for Bush and collectively account for almost one-third of the 270 electoral votes he needs to win re-election. Both sides in the tariffs debate also claim turf in Indiana and Illinois.

Bush and his political advisers are ``going to make people angrier now then they would have 18 months ago _ no matter what they do,″ said Ken Mayer, a University of Wisconsin political scientist and expert on presidential politics. ``And it raises the risk because the election is closer.″

The 53-year-old Miklos not only works for U.S. Steel, the nation’s largest domestic steel producer, he is president of his United Steelworkers of America local. Although the union has endorsed Democrat Dick Gephardt for president, Miklos said he would break with his union brethren and back Bush if the tariffs stay in place.

``If this president demonstrates that he stands for the workers, and the Republican Party is going to stand to help us as a work force, would I vote for him? Yes,″ Miklos said.

But fellow Republicans who feel betrayed by Bush’s steel policy warn the president could lose his conservative base if he does not return to his free-trade roots.

Already, steel consumers, who claim the tariffs have contributed to the loss of 200,000 industry jobs by increasing the costs of goods made with steel, are threatening to stay home on Election Day if the sanctions remain in place. The European Union, meanwhile, is considering $2 billion in retaliatory sanctions against U.S. exports.

``I don’t think the administration expected the consequences of their decision,″ said Republican Rep. Joe Knollenberg of Michigan, who opposes the tariffs and represents 15,000 steel consumers in his suburban Detroit district. ``When you irritate your own base, which I believe he did, at the expense of helping somebody who might be a bedfellow for a short period of time like the steel unions, I think that suggests to the president there’s better things to do.

``If he doesn’t do anything about the tariffs, it will hurt him. Will it hurt him enough to lose Michigan? It could _ it certainly could,″ Knollenberg said.

Keat, the 52-year-old owner of the Su-Dan Company in Rochester Hills, Mich., has furloughed 10 percent of his work force _ about 25 employees _ in the last three years in part because of rising costs of steel, which his company uses to make car door handles and other parts.

``If Bush does not do away with the tariffs, I’m going to have to think very, very strongly about not voting for him,″ said Keat, a staunch Republican.

Commerce Secretary Don Evans, who championed the tariffs, said last week the sanctions achieved exactly what they set out to do, but he refused to say whether they should remain in place in the face of 2.7 million manufacturing jobs that have been lost since July 2000.

The nine Democrats vying for the nomination have largely been quiet on the issue, in part because none of the states involved holds an early primary. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Gephardt have expressed support for the tariffs.

But recent polling, circulating in the White House, indicates voters want the tariffs to stay. A survey by Republican-leaning Public Opinion Strategies, released Monday, found that 69 percent of registered voters in Michigan support the tariffs.

That shows ``overwhelming support for the president’s decision,″ U.S. Steel chief executive officer Thomas J. Usher told the Detroit Economic Club on Monday in outlining the case to keep the tariffs.

``I don’t doubt that many of those who have made complaints are truly hurting,″ Usher said. ``The fact is that all manufacturers are hurting. ... When we fight among ourselves, it sends the message that it’s easier to do nothing _ that looking for policy answers is more trouble than it’s worth.″

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