Aug. 5 2010 12:00 AM

'One Tough Nerd' v. 'One Angry Mayor'

This story has been updated to fix errors.

By 10 p.m. Tuesday, it was clear Michigan's voters had selected "One Tough Nerd" and "One Angry Mayor" to be its two major party gubernatorial candidates heading into the Nov. 2 General Election.

Ann Arbor venture capitalist Rick Snyder pulled away from a competitive Republican field after hanging around second and third place in polling for much of the campaign, and Virg Bernero needed $2 million in big-labor paid television ads to whip House Speaker Andy Dillon by 18 percentage points.

Snyder and Bernero. The two populist candidates rode a public wave of dissatisfaction with the state government establishment to get to the top of the ticket for their respective parties. But their similarities end right about there.

How they got here, what they represent and the direction they’re heading from here on out couldn’t be any more different.

First off, consider this: By the time Rick Snyder cut his memorable first television ad during the Super Bowl last February, Bernero wasn't even an official gubernatorial candidate yet. He didn't have a campaign manager. That didn't come until much later. He was taking money out of the mayoral inaugural account just to get his fledgling statewide campaign off the ground.

When Snyder announced he was running for governor, Bernero wasn't even sure he would be the mayor of Lansing in 2010. He was locked in a competitive re-election campaign against City Council nemesis Carol Wood.

Both spun a common man theme, but each used a different avenue to get there. Snyder via the brain. Bernero via somewhere between the stomach and the heart. Snyder made voters realize that whatever is going on in state government right now isn't working and someone who has had some success at doing anything should probably be given a swing at the plate.

Bernero rekindled the disgust with watching our beloved domestic auto industry become the nation's punching bag in early 2009 while "Fat Cats" on Wall Street laughed all the way to the bank. They turned their federal bailout money into bonuses. The regular autoworker was simply lucky to have a job after the dust settled.

Both played the "outsider" role, but to different ends. Snyder's unconventional campaign had him skip publicly aired television debates for large town hall meetings in areas far way from the debate location. He refused to fill out questions or take political action committee money, the lifeblood of any campaign.

Flush with a hefty staff and long string of consultants, Snyder's campaign resembled a chess match, where every move — even whether he was wearing a tie or not — was carefully thought out.

Bernero's "outsider" message was held in contrast to the fact his opponent was the leader of the Michigan House of Representatives for four years. He needed to nuance the level of dis-involvement with state government, seeing he's basically made a career off it for the better part of his adult life.

Bernero had trouble getting together a professional fund-raising team, let alone raising money to get on statewide television. Snyder, a multi-millionaire, could cut a check at a moment's notice if need-be.

Snyder's late surge in the polls was a carefully planned out strategy to peak at the right time and avoid the slings and arrows of Mike Cox and Pete Hoekstra. If it weren't for the AFL-CIO, women's rights groups, the environmental community and other liberal interest groups picking Bernero up and carrying him to the finish line, Andy Dillon would be the Democrats' gubernatorial nominee.

Snyder has the wind to his back as he prepares for the General Election. His name ID is high. His corny "Nerd" shtick is insulating him from the attacks to come about corporate decisions made while he served in leadership at Gateway computers.

Unlike Dick DeVos of 2006, he's not some stiff uppity up speaking to his minions from on high. He seems like the cute dork from high school who made a pretty good life for himself. ("And how dare you pick on him, too!")

Bernero spent this morning on the radio stations already on the attack. He's good at it, but at this point he has no choice. Snyder was the candidate Democrats most DID NOT want to see. He's politically moderate (comparatively). He's not hung up on social issues. And he's got a lot of money.

Bernero risks being dropped by traditional liberal donors, who may see their money being better spent making sure the Michigan House doesn't go Republican or that Republican-nominated Justice Robert Young is defeated in his re-election bid, which would give the D's a legitimate majority on the bench when legislative and congressional redistricting lawsuits start flying in 2011.

In Lansing, we know Virg as a fighter. In this case, he's picked the biggest fight of his political career.

(Kyle Melinn is the editor of the MIRS Newsletter. He's at melinn@lansingcitypulse.)