Mackinac Island, MI – Mackinac Island was full of Republican Party loyalists over the weekend for a G-O-P strategy conference. Much of the discussion focused on the state's economic woes. Those who attended events at the Grand Hotel mingled with presidential hopefuls and movers-and-shakers in the party. And all eyes were on the five gubernatorial candidates for the Republican nomination, who participated in their first debate and straw poll. There was another group of people that drew a lot of attention as well.
Horn's bar in the downtown strip on Mackinac Island is flooded with college students. A live band plays, beer bottles clink, a few people pour into the street - it could easily be mistaken for a scene from spring break.
Jeff Timington is a student at Calvin College. He estimates about thirty students from Calvin went to Mackinac for the weekend. "I mean, it's a free trip - so obviously a lot of younger college kids are going to come," Timington says. "Yeah we had to drive up here on our own, but they provided us with a hotel room, free food, a ferry ride to the island - we're out at St. Ignace, I think it is."
Timington and his schoolmates joined hundreds of college students on the Island - most of them wearing neon green t-shirts that say "Rick For Michigan." They came to the island as volunteers for gubernatorial candidate, and former Gateway Computers CEO, Rick Snyder, who paid for their accommodations. But Timington says that's not why he's here.
"Rick Snyder is a good businessman; he's done a lot with the Gateway company. And the fact that Michigan doesn't have a lot of jobs right now, we need somebody who obviously knows that area. Yeah, and he's just a cool guy," Snyder says.
The students didn't just come to the island to pass out flyers for Snyder - they came to vote for him in a straw poll held after the gubernatorial debate. The Snyder campaign also paid the registration fees that allowed the students to vote. Talk of an easy victory in the straw poll for Snyder spread before the polling doors opened.
Congressman Pete Hoekstra and the other candidates say they're not too concerned about the results of one non-scientific survey.
"There were two statewide polls that came out this week that went to likely voters. And those are the real measurement of what the strength of a candidate is today," Hoekstra says.
Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, also running for the gubernatorial nomination, says he wouldn't try to pad the straw poll.
"Well everyone makes decisions on strategic expenditures or resources. I'm not so sure a very very large outlay of money to bring kids to the island is an effective use of money," Bouchard says.
Businessman Rick Snyder says, "Getting young people involved - how could it be controversial? I take it as awesome. I mean this is the goal of what the future of politics should be. The best solution is to ignite people in a positive way. And to see these young people fired up - because I'm the person bringing the vision that includes having a place where our young people can have not only a job but a career is exciting."
Snyder and the other candidates agree the state needs to focus more energy and money on higher education. And Snyder says the Legislature is making a big mistake in threatening to cut the Michigan Promise college scholarship to help balance the state budget.
"That's one of the most ironic things you could say - something called the "Michigan Promise" that they're going to take away when kids are already in school," Snyder says. "That's not right."
But Snyder won't say how he would pay for the scholarship - other than he would not raise taxes. The state's Legislative leaders have made it clear new revenue will be needed to continue funding of the scholarship. Snyder says he would have found a different way to keep the Promise grant if he were in charge. "I would have never had this disaster happen in the first place," Snyder says. "I mean that's the real issue on the table."
Jeff Timington and his friends aren't quite sure what the Promise grant is, but they know they would be affected by the loss of 500 dollars a semester," Timington says. "That's a lot of money. I mean if you think about it, it's like a semester worth of books. Well yeah my books were 700 bucks, but..."
Snyder won the straw poll, beating Hoekstra, Bouchard, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox and state Senator Tom George by about as many votes as there were students in neon green. And when the voting was over, the students headed downtown to Horn's to celebrate.