If there is one message President Gary Russi would like to shout out this week to the residents of Rochester and Rochester Hills, and to Michigan in general, it is this:
It's all about the economy.
"We were chosen as the debate site because Michigan is at the epicenter for job loss," said Russi, who has been leader of the university for 15 years. "These topics — job loss, the economy — are things we've all lived through."
Russi will be in the audience at the university's O'Rena on Wednesday night when eight candidates face off for The event is sponsored by CNBC and the Michigan Republican Party.
For Russi, the debate is a chance for the university to shine: He'll have a few minutes on stage before the event to speak to the audience about OU.
"For our students and for our community, this is a really special opportunity," he said.
'A sense of urgency'
Indeed, Michigan is an apt spot for Republican presidential hopefuls to debate economic issues.
That topic is Priority One for area residents, and Michigan voters have a key election role next year, area politics specialists say.
"Michiganders want to hear a realistic plan for creating jobs, jump-starting the economy and aiding lower-income and middle-class workers," says political scientist Terri Towner of Rochester, an assistant professor at OU.
Robert Schostak, chairman of the Michigan GOP, called the state "Ground Zero" for the effects of the country's downward economic spiral.
"People feel a sense of urgency about the economy," said Schostak.
They all know the direction of the country is wrong; the economy is floundering."
Michigan's historic role as a pivotal state in presidential campaigns could be stronger if no Republican is dominant early next year, suggests says Steve Mitchell of West Boomfield, chairman of a national polling and consulting firm with his name.
"Michigan has moved its primary up to Feb. 28," he notes. "However, the key to the nomination is in the three earliest states -- Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina."
Towner sees Michigan as a must-win for each party next fall, a familiar role.
"If Republicans intend to take back the White House in 2012, then the state of Michigan must be in play -- along with other swing states such as Ohio, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The presidential candidates from both parties must seriously campaign in Michigan."
Replay of 2008 unlikely
George H.W. Bush, who won this state's electoral votes in 1988, was the last Republican presidential candidate to carry Michigan. This time, the state is up for grabs, according to predicts Mitchell, a respected election analyst and media commentator.
"The election will not be a repeat of Obama’s 16-percent win in 2008," he predicts. "Instead, it will be more like 2004 when John Kerry beat President George W. Bush by just 3.5 percent."
A September survey of 600 likely 2012 state voters by Mitchell Research & Communications showed them evenly divided on the president's job performance. Fifty percent disapproved, while 47 percent approved.
That same statewide polling showed Mitt Romney leading Rick Perry, his closest opponent then, by a margin of more than two to one. "Romney is from Michigan," explains Mitchell. "Romney won Michigan in the 2008 presidential primary. He has very strong support here.
Each of the two political specialists puts joblessness atop the list of pressing economic issues.
"With unemployment still high here," Mitchell says, "Michigan voters are going to be looking for the best candidate to turn around the economy and create jobs."
What scares voters
At the university, Professor Towner agrees. "Michigan’s unemployment rate still tops other states at 11 percent," she said after news last Friday of a slight dip in the national rate to 9 percent during October.
"Oakland County voters are also worried about soaring home foreclosures, failing small and medium-sized businesses," adds the assistant professor, who came to OU in 2007 after earning a doctorate from Purdue University in her home state of Indiana.
"Michiganders want to hear a realistic plan for creating jobs, jump-starting the economy and aiding lower-income and middle-class workers."
Russi said several special classes on campus have been focusing on jobs and the economy and that he expects the candidates to use the debate to unveil the centerpieces of their economic plans.
For Jeff Cuthbertson, mayor of Rochester, hosting the debate has been a point of pride for the city.
"There is a perception of southeast Michigan as an economic wasteland, but Rochester has fared well through the storm," said Cuthbertson, who will be in the audience at the debate.
He said he hopes the national audience takes away a picture of Rochester as a great place to raise a family and run a business.
"We are a thriving community in Michigan, and I hope that story gets told," he said.
"Your Money, Your Vote," will be televised live on CNBC and streamed at CNBC.com. The Michigan Republican Party invites proposed questions "about jobs, housing, the economy, taxes or your money" via an online form or by tweeting @migop with the hashtag #CNBCdebate.