TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — On his Facebook page, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra has posted a photo from a recent "town hall debate" between himself and — an empty stool.
It's a dig at Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow, whose representatives had pulled out of negotiations with the Hoekstra camp over arrangements for debates. The two sides blame each other for the impasse. But there's little doubt that Hoekstra, who trails in polls and fund-raising, had more to gain from televised face-offs.
Stabenow has been an elusive target all along for Hoekstra, a former nine-term U.S. representative who left Congress to wage an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2010, then turned his sights on the Senate. Like a heavyweight boxer, he's thrown a lot of punches. Yet they don't appear to have drawn much blood.
Unless things change drastically in the campaign's final week, the two-term incumbent will remain the favorite, said Lansing pollster Bernie Porn, whose EPIC-MRA surveys have consistently shown Stabenow comfortably ahead.
"She didn't have favorability or job (performance) ratings as high as she'd have liked early on," Porn said. "But she bankrolled a lot of money for her campaign advertising and she has used it wisely."
The numbers might tighten before election day, but "I'd be surprised if it gets anywhere close enough to endanger her," he added.
Hoekstra remains optimistic, predicting he will benefit from a late surge in support for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in Michigan. "All our indications are that ... this is a very close race, this is very winnable," he told reporters last week.
While Hoekstra battled charter schools founder Clark Durant for the GOP nomination this year, Stabenow had no Democratic opposition, freeing her to stockpile cash and reach out to independents. She had raised more than $13 million through September to about $4.9 million for Hoekstra.
Stabenow has used TV and radio ads and public appearances to highlight her positions on popular causes — sponsoring legislation to crack down on Chinese discrimination against U.S. products; pushing to establish small-town health care clinics for veterans; using her position as chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee to seek federal crop insurance for cherry farmers.
"My focus is on what I've done for Michigan — standing up for the people who make things and grow things, letting them know I'm fighting for them," she said.
Hoekstra has tried to cast doubt on her effectiveness. When Stabenow aired a commercial about her accomplishments on the Agriculture Committee, Hoekstra noted that a five-year farm bill she guided through the Senate had bogged down in the GOP-controlled House. A good leader would have worked across the aisle to remove the obstacles, he said.
But Stabenow produced a list of comments praising her efforts from colleagues in both parties, and she was endorsed by the Republican-leaning Michigan Farm Bureau.
Hoekstra also released a series of Web ads that labeled Stabenow the "worst senator," featuring people arguing around a dinner table and in a tavern about which of her supposed offenses were worst. Yet another television spot linked her with Obama, blaming the pair for the nation's economic woes.
"America's in serious trouble," Hoekstra says in the ad. "Obama-Stabenow policies have given us expensive gas, fewer jobs, a huge national debt, government health care and less take-home pay."
An independent organization threw in a commercial blasting Stabenow for running late with property tax payments on her Washington, D.C., home for several years. Her campaign said it was a mistake and she had paid the penalties.
Stabenow shrugged off the attacks. "I work hard to earn people's support and I'll let them give the grade," she said.
Government spending and Medicare have inspired some of the campaign's sharpest exchanges.
When the automotive battery company A123 Sytems Inc. filed for bankruptcy protection in October after getting a $249 million federal grant to build plants in Michigan, Hoekstra said it was an example of wasteful government spending championed by his opponent. Stabenow's campaign said Hoekstra had joined the Michigan congressional delegation in seeking stimulus money for electric vehicle projects, including A123.
Both campaigns accuse each other of supporting policies that would undermine Medicare, the government health program for seniors. Hoekstra, echoing other critics of Obama's health care plan that Stabenow supported, contends it would reduce Medicare spending by $716 billion, which supporters deny.
Meanwhile, Stabenow began running an ad last week saying Hoekstra supported a budget plan written by GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan that would cut Medicare and end guaranteed benefits. Not so, he said.
"This shows that the race is tightening and she is becoming desperate," Hoekstra said.
Stabenow campaign spokesman Cullen Schwarz said she was confident. "Hoekstra has been pushing an agenda that would provide more taxpayer giveaways to special interests and millionaires, while Debbie believes we need to focus on middle class families to turn the economy around," he said. "That's why every independent poll shows Debbie with a growing lead."