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Last Updated: Monday, 13 September, 2004, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
America's economic battleground
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News Online in Detroit, Michigan

"It's the economy, stupid" has claimed its place in US political history as the strategy that Bill Clinton used in 1992 to dislodge the Republicans from their 12-year command of the White House.

Denise Livingston
I don't know what Kerry would do, but I want to get Bush out
Denise Livingston, unemployed
That is no accident: The economy tops the list of US voter concerns in any normal election, and even now, amid concerns about Iraq and terrorism, it is solidly in the top two.

Opponents of President George W Bush blame him for the roughly 2.2 million jobs they say have been lost since he took office, saying he will be the first president to post a net loss of jobs since the early days of the Great Depression.

Bush supporters say the economy has been growing steadily for over a year and that new jobs are now being created.

Tell Karen Kosniewski that the economy is recovering and she laughs.

"Maybe, but not in Michigan," she says.

She runs Operation Able, a retraining centre for older workers who have lost their jobs - and its annual spring jobs fair attracted 2,000 job seekers this year, the highest number yet.

Poverty rate: 35.9 million people, or 12.5%
Unemployment rate, July: US, 5.5%. Michigan, 6.8%
New jobs created in August: 144,000
Sources: US Department of Labor; US Census Bureau
"Michigan has had a steady decline in manufacturing jobs which have not been replaced by equally well-paying jobs," she says.

The home of America's Big Three car manufacturers - General Motors, Ford and Chrysler - Michigan had a 6.8% unemployment rate in July, well above the national average of 5.5% that month.

That is the highest unemployment rate of any big state, and the laid-off workers at Operative Able blame President Bush.

Frank Ostrowski says jobs are the most important issue for him in this election.

He spent 22 years working as a supervisor in a manufacturing plant, but has been unemployed for 14 months and has used up the funds he had been saving for retirement.

"I have to decide if I'm going to pay for my health insurance so I can get my diabetes medicine or pay the mortgage on my house," he says.

Unemployed worker Sherman Drake at Operation Able
We need a change... I'm going to vote with my heart
Sherman Drake, unemployed
He is not impressed by surveys suggesting that the unemployment rate is falling and that new jobs are being created.

"I don't think the economy is getting any better. When they give us those percentages as to how the job market is, I think those numbers are really fudged," he says, pointing out that the long-term unemployed often do not appear in the statistics.

And although he is very sceptical of claims by politicians on both sides, he is planning to vote for Democratic candidate John Kerry.

So is Denise Livingston. She lost her job in an electronics-assembly plant more than two years ago when her company moved its operations to Mexico.

"I don't know what Kerry would do, but I want to get this guy out," she says of Mr Bush.

"We need a change," agreed Sherman Drake, 55, an unemployed worker. "I'm a voter. I'm going to vote with my heart."

"I wish I lived in the vacuum the Bushes live in if they can see progress in the economy. It's not happening here - I don't see it."

Building business

That sort of talk would be very upsetting to Julie Ann Van Ameyde.

She started her own business from scratch nearly two years ago, and she is delighted with President Bush's performance.

Our best customers are middle-income... If there is less money in their paychecks, they're not going to come in
Julie Ann Van Ameyde
Spa owner
She has several pictures of the president posted in a back room at the spa, and refers to him as "George".

She praises his handling of the economy, especially the tax cuts he has pushed through.

"It gets more money into people's pockets. They're spending money on themselves," she says, including at her spa, which provides services such as massages and manicures.

That spending has boosted the economy, she says.

She fears that if John Kerry were elected president, he would raise taxes.

"Our best customers are middle-income - firemen, cops, guys who work on the assembly line. If there is less money in their paychecks, they're not going to come in," she says.

Mr Kerry has proposed rolling back tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans, who earn more than $200,000 a year.

Kevin Anderson and Richard Greene
Kevin Anderson and Richard Greene are travelling across the US to get to the heart of the issues in this year's election. They are sending back regular in-depth reports telling us what they find

He says he would use the funds to make health care available to more people and to reduce the federal budget deficit, which is expected to be anywhere from $400bn to $521bn in 2004.

Analysts say Mr Kerry could pay for his health care programme with the revenues from his proposed increased taxes on higher earners, but not reduce the deficit at the same time.

Ms Van Ameyde thinks individuals should make their own health care arrangements through work or private insurance, and dismisses talk of budget deficits as "smoke" in an election year.

John Rakolta Jnr, the head of Detroit-based construction firm Walbridge Aldinger, also supports Mr Bush - but he admits to being uncomfortable about the deficit and unmoved by the tax cuts.

John Rakolta Jnr
Mr Rakolta has concerns about the deficit but has not heard Democrats offer a compelling plan
"If you raise my personal taxes, it isn't going to change anything about my life. Would I like to pay less taxes? Yes, but this is a great country and if people like me don't pay taxes, it won't be," he says.

"In general both parties are responsible for the budget deficit and they blame each other."

But he says the Republicans are closer to his heart when it comes to balanced budgets.

"I am fiscally very conservative and I think truly deep down inside the Republicans are too."

And he says Mr Kerry has not offered a better alternative: "I don't hear anything from the opposition that would change anything."

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