BY GEORGE WEEKS, Syndicated columnist
---- — President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney are already exchanging barbs as if the post-primary general election campaign has started.
Obama, unusual for an incumbent in the primary season, has in his remarks and those of Vice President Joe Biden, or through his campaign statements, website and commercials, jabbed at Romney on personal and policy issues.
Not so between 1st District freshman U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, and ex-state Rep. Gary McDowell, D-Rudyard, who is heading toward a highly watched rematch with Benishek. Benishek was an easy winner over McDowell in 2010 for the open seat of Congressman Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, who did not seek re-election.
McDowell, who has strong support from the Democratic establishment and is all the more likely to be the nominee now that Derek Bailey of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians has quit the primary, has been relentlessly attacking Benishek's voting record.
Benishek, a surgeon who practiced 20 years in Iron Mountain, has on occasion responded to McDowell's attacks but has not launched media attacks against him.
Instead, says Benishek campaign spokesman Raffi Williams, the current emphasis is on "getting people to really get to know Dr. Dan" — especially in Lower Peninsula parts of the remapped district.
In that pursuit, Benishek on May 1 in Iron Mountain kicked off his ambitious "100 in 100" tour aimed at visiting 100 small businesses in northern Michigan in 100 days. By Saturday — when he officially opened his district campaign headquarters in Traverse City with the help of about 60 supporters — his tour had made 28 stops.
Benishek said the gig with job providers "gives me a chance to learn how to get big government off the backs of small business. I owned my own medical practice, so I know how government can interfere with daily business" and hamper ability to hire more workers.
Benishek's first stop below "Der Bridge" (as the late, great author John Voelker called the Mighty Mac in anguish over its opening up of his cherished U.P.) was in Petoskey on Friday.
As Benishek launched his tour, McDowell, in the words of his campaign, "criticized Benishek's record of job-killing votes in Congress and questioned why Congressman Benishek supports giving tax breaks to corporations that ship jobs overseas."
McDowell said: "I am a lifelong farmer and small business owner here in the Eastern U.P. so I know just how hard it's become to make a living up here. The last thing business owners need is someone like Congressman Dan Benishek opposing small-business tax cuts. That money comes right out of Michigan businesses' bottom line."
The McDowell campaign said: "Benishek opposed giving tax breaks to working Americans and small businesses. Congressman Benishek even said that he was 'not in favor' of the portion of a jobs proposal that would cut payroll taxes in half for every working American and small business by asking Americans making over $1 million per year to pay the same tax rate as the middle class.
"Instead, Congressman Benishek has voted to give tax breaks to Washington special interests like Big Oil and to corporations that ship jobs overseas."
While on a February "Save our Retirement" listening tour launched in Manistee, McDowell said: "Folks said folks are worried that Congress is gambling with the middle class and trying to end Medicare, and that's just not right." McDowell said Benishek "promised during his campaign to protect Medicare. But one of his first votes was to end Medicare in order to give more tax breaks to the wealthy."
Comments about such votes to end Medicare were branded "The lie of 2011 by Politico," Benishek asserted in a Saturday interview at the Grand Traverse County GOP headquarters — where his campaign manager, political director and communications director have offices. He said of McDowell: "I don't even know what he's talking about" on some charges about issues still being negotiated.
"I want the (Medicare) system to be viable," he said of the plan of not impacting those over 55 and providing cash to those under. "What is your idea, Mr. McDowell, to keep a viable trust fund in perpetuity?"
He said, "Every hospital in the district is at razor-thin profitability."
It makes sense for Benishek to have his campaign run out of Traverse City, with an office in Marquette, considering that it's the largest city in the remapped district that includes the Grand Traverse region and Lake Michigan counties as far south as Manistee and Mason.
Worthy of note is that among those elected officials and others at Benishek's campaign headquarters opening was Grand Traverse County Commission Chairman Larry Inman. He dropped out of a primary challenge of Benishek and is now "County Captain" for Benishek.
Capitol Hill giant
U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, who filed last week for a record 30th term in the House, could be Exhibit A for the case against term limits.
Dingell, 85, the longest-serving member of the House, has been one of the most powerful lawmakers there as past chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee when Democrats controlled the House and still is a strong voice for the auto industry and other Michigan interests, even under GOP rule.
If re-elected, Dingell, who filled his late father's seat in 1955, would become the longest-serving member of Congress in June 2013.
He would have out-served ex-Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
Quoted in the Detroit News, he said: "It's not how long you serve, it's how well you serve." Dingell has served well for Michigan and the nation.