SUTTONS BAY, Mich. — Barely a month before the election, Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow is keeping Republican opponent Pete Hoekstra at arm's length while focusing on issues such as farming and manufacturing that appeal to voters across the Michigan political spectrum.
The two-term incumbent released new television ads this week highlighting her role as chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and its approval of legislation that included disaster relief for Michigan farmers whose crops were devastated by the spring freeze. Stabenow's previous commercials focused on her opposition to Chinese trading practices she says hurt the state's manufacturers.
None of the ads have mentioned Hoekstra, the former nine-term House member whose campaign is posting Internet spots labeling her the "worst senator," accusing her of supporting higher taxes and blaming her for Michigan job losses. Whether the candidates will confront each other directly remains to be seen; with time running short, they have not agreed on a debate schedule.
Stabenow, who has enjoyed a steady lead in the polls and has been endorsed by the GOP-leaning Michigan Farm Bureau, introduced her new ads this week from a Leelanau County cherry and apple farm. The ads show Stabenow chatting with farmers against pastoral backdrops with tractors, cattle and fields.
As leader of the Senate's agriculture panel, "she wasn't about Republicans or Democrats, but jobs for Michigan and the Michigan economy," dairy farmer Ken Nobis of St. Johns tells viewers. "She is very accessible to all of us," adds Julia Rothwell, whose family runs a fruit storage company in Belding.
The Agriculture Committee crafted a nearly $500 billion food and farm policy bill that cleared the Senate in June. While cutting overall spending by $23 billion, it would make certain "specialty" produce — including cherries, an important Michigan crop — eligible for federally subsidized insurance.
But the five-year bill is hung up in the GOP-controlled House, where leaders wouldn't allow a vote before adjourning until after the Nov. 6 election. The previous farm law expired Sept. 30 although many of its programs, including food stamps, continue. Stabenow rejected a Republican-backed House proposal to extend the law another year, saying to do so would cancel her bill's cost savings and cause uncertainty for farmers.
"I really don't comprehend how people could walk away and not make some form of a decision," said farmer Jeff Send, 58, who hosted Stabenow's news conference this week and praised her efforts. "People don't realize that family farms could be gone and lost because of this." Send said he was raised Republican but now considers each race separately.
In an interview last week, Hoekstra faulted Stabenow for the delay, contrasting it with his leadership in winning enactment of intelligence reform as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
"You have to work in a collaborative way within the Senate and also with the House so you don't have this gridlock when the time comes and the deadline passes," Hoekstra spokesman Greg VanWoerkom said Wednesday.
Stabenow brushes aside such criticism, telling The Associated Press this week that she "worked extremely hard to move a bill through the Senate on a strong bipartisan basis, which everybody said could not get done." She added that she would have welcomed lobbying by Hoekstra or other Republicans to remove roadblocks in the House.
VanWoerkom said Stabenow never requested Hoekstra's help.
Stabenow said she had a history of reaching across party lines to promote farming and manufacturing, and that would remain her campaign's focus. She and Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, co-chairs of the Senate Manufacturing Caucus, introduced legislation in July to prevent the government from buying Chinese products until China stops discriminating against U.S. goods.
"I'm really talking about what I've accomplished and who I'm fighting for," she said.
VanWoerkom said Stabenow's claim of bipartisanship is contradicted by her record of siding with fellow Democrats and President Barack Obama on more than 90 percent of her votes.
Stabenow and Hoekstra also can't agree on debates. While both candidates say they're eager for the discussions, they remain at odds about the number and venues.
Stabenow wants two debates at the Detroit Economic Club and Grand Valley State University that would be carried on public television — the arrangement for all Michigan's Senate races since 1996.
"To continue that tradition seems very reasonable," spokesman Cullen Schwarz said Thursday.
Hoekstra wants at least three debates that would air on major commercial networks, which VanWoerkom said would reach broader audiences.
Stabenow is "proposing the way in which the least amount of people would see the candidates and hear their solution," he said.
Debates could provide a forum for a discussion of foreign policy, which has been overshadowed in the campaign. Hoekstra contends his experience on the intelligence panel gives him an edge. After a trip to Israel last week, he accused Stabenow of supporting the Obama administration in failing to take a hard line against Islamic extremism.
Stabenow said Wednesday that the administration is a firm supporter of Israel and is imposing tough sanctions on Iran to blunt its nuclear ambitions. She again called for bipartisanship.
"I find it very unfortunate that (Hoekstra) has chosen to make these issues political," she said. "We have had loss of life in Libya, we have men and women putting their lives on the line every day, we have very difficult negotiations going on. I think politics should stop at the edge of our country and when it comes to what's happening around the world, we should be speaking as Americans."
VanWoerkom said Hoekstra "will not stand silent like Debbie Stabenow as he sees the Middle East deteriorate, our allies become isolated, U.S. standing in the world diminish and American economic policy become more uncertain because of a failed foreign policy."