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Pssst -- Wanna New Drug Plan?

In Michigan's Senate race, the Gore-style prescription plan is losing

Sep 18, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 01 • By MATTHEW REES
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DEBBIE STABENOW, a Democratic congresswoman who's running to unseat senator Spencer Abraham, stood in a South-field, Michigan, pharmacy a year ago August and previewed the issue that would become the centerpiece of her campaign. "It is absolutely, fundamentally wrong," she charged, "that senior citizens in the United States are paying so much for prescription drugs." The solution, she said, is simple: Have the government pick up the tab.

In a Gingrich-free, economically prosperous election year, calling for Washington to pick up seniors' prescription drug costs seems tactically smart, especially in Michigan, where polls show health care is far and away the voters' top concern. Indeed, with Stabenow and Abraham in a dead heat from the moment she entered the race 18 months ago until very recently, she had every reason to believe the prescription drug issue could catapult her into the Senate.

To this end, Stabenow has put nearly all her eggs in the prescription-drug basket. She's aired television ads on the subject, she's twice chartered an "Rx Express" bus to take seniors to buy cheaper drugs in neighboring Canada, and she even took dogs to a press conference, claiming their arthritis medication cost one-third what humans pay for theirs.

But Stabenow's crusade has yet to energize Michigan's voters. Why? Because rather than cowering in fear -- the standard tactic for Republicans in recent years when the subject is health care -- Abraham has gone on the offensive. In July, he introduced a less expensive proposal to enhance prescription-drug coverage, awarding discounts only for the needy (under Stabenow's plan, as Abraham points out, even Ross Perot and Donald Trump would be eligible for subsidies).

More important, he's aggressively publicized the flaws in Stabenow's proposal, which mirrors the proposal advanced by Richard Gephardt, the House Democratic leader. Using figures from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Abraham's ads note that the Democratic plan would result in annual premiums of $ 600, drug costs that could reach $ 7,000 a year, and no choice of coverage.

"A prescription for disaster," according to one of Abraham's television ads. To underscore the point, his campaign frequently charges that "Debbie Stabenow and Hillary Clinton want to import Canadian health care to America" -- a lethal charge in a state that serves many Canadians who come to the United States for health care.

The result? Since his first prescription-drug ad began airing, on August 14, Abraham's lead has reached unprecedented levels. A Detroit News poll released August 29 showed him ahead of Stabenow by 9 points, and a Rasmussen poll released a week later had him up 12 points. The best news of all for Abraham, contained in the Detroit News poll, was that among those aged 60-69, he led by 9 points, and even among those 70 and over he enjoyed a 2-point lead.

Abraham's lead will shrink, of course, once Stabenow ups her spending on television advertising. In 1994, she sought the Democratic party's gubernatorial nomination, emphasizing her 16 years in the state legislature and her status as a single mother of two. When her campaign stalled, as this one has, she aired a series of vicious and misleading ads against one of her opponents, Howard Wolpe. He narrowly defeated her, but not before asking, "Is there nothing she would not do to gain election?"

So while Abraham can expect a pounding, his prospects for victory remain strong. Not only has he turned the centerpiece of her campaign into a liability, he has twice as much money on hand as she does and has retained the services of Mike Murphy, a skilled adman familiar with the state.

A Detroit native, Murphy was the media consultant for Abraham's campaign six years ago, helped elect John Engler governor three times, and was the chief strategist behind John McCain's upset victory in Michigan's presidential primary.

Murphy won't have much trouble slicing and dicing Stabenow, who's undergone an ideological makeover that would do Dick Morris proud. To win a seat in Congress in 1996, she downplayed her liberal background, defeating a Republican incumbent in a swing district and emerging as a darling of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. She kept up the pretense of being a moderate during her first term in the House, but since announcing for the Senate, she's forsaken the label.

Nowhere does her campaign literature link her to the DLC, and when I asked her campaign whether she was running as a moderate or a liberal, a spokeswoman would say only, "She's running on the side of Michigan families." (Abraham's campaign has launched a website to highlight Stabenow's record,