Arab-American electorate holds political sway in Mich.

Ali Dagher and Belal Abdallah came here as kids, brought by parents looking for the opportunities that abounded in the boom years of the 1970s.

Dagher and Abdallah, Muslims whose families are from Lebanon, became fast friends here in the city with the nation's largest concentration of Arab Americans.

They achieved success beyond their dreams, Dagher as a lawyer and Abdallah as a doctor of internal medicine. Now they are the only two among their immigrant friends left in Michigan.

"We came here for two reasons — economic opportunity and liberty — and now we have neither," says Dagher, 42. He talks about the poor economy and sees erosion of Arab Americans' civil liberties since 9/11. "Everybody else has left because there are more opportunities overseas."

Both men say they will vote for Democrat Barack Obama for president.

It's mostly the economy

Arab Americans overwhelmingly cite the economy and the continuing loss of jobs as reasons they want to see a change in Washington and Obama leading that change. In addition, a deep dismay with the policies of President Bush, particularly on the Middle East and the war in Iraq, is leading them to turn away from Republican John McCain and his support for the Iraq war.

In a national poll last month by the Arab American Institute, the economy and job security was the leading issue for Arab Americans, named by 63%. Fifty-two percent said Obama was best equipped to deal with the economy; 34% said McCain would do better. The war in Iraq was the top issue for 37%.

The poll of 500 Arab Americans gave Obama a 54%-33% lead over McCain. Throw in the Independent and Green Party candidates and Obama's lead slips to 46%-32%.

"There is more enthusiasm at the grass-roots level for him," says James Zogby, executive director of the institute.

Michigan is home to the second-largest population of Arab Americans in the nation, after California. In 2007, the Census estimated 1.5 million people of Arab ancestry in the country, 157,000 of them in Michigan. In Dearborn, 30% of residents are Arab American.

The state is usually a battleground where the size of the Arab-American vote could make the difference in a close race. Not this year. The economy here took a downturn long before it did across the rest of the nation. Unemployment, fed by automakers' downsizing and plant closings, is 8.9%, the highest rate in the nation. Obama's campaign theme of "change" is resonating.

Last week, McCain effectively conceded Michigan, ending TV advertising and redirecting staff to more competitive states.

Obama has held two town-hall-style meetings with Arab Americans. The campaign has held four conference calls with leaders and has sponsored Arab-American voter registration drives.

Abdallah voted for George W. Bush in 2000, convinced that he wasn't going to be overly influenced by the Israel lobby. Dearborn and Dearborn Heights gave Bush a 49%-45% victory.

"But I guess I didn't realize what a neoconservative he was," Abdallah, 42, says. "I didn't vote for him again."

In 2004, the two communities gave John Kerry a lopsided 58%-40% win over Bush.

When McCain was still competing here, he enlisted former U.S. senator Spencer Abraham and Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, both of whom are from Lebanese, Christian families, to connect with community leaders. McCain hosted a town-hall-style meeting in Toledo, Ohio, with Arab Americans who came from Ohio and just across the border in Michigan.

McCain met privately with Chaldean business owners — Christians from Iraq — during a visit to Michigan in August. Martin Manna, director of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce, told him that their top priority is abuse and violence suffered by Christians in Iraq. He doesn't feel he got much sympathy.

"So many in our community are so frustrated with Bush and Bush policies, and we want to know if those policies are going to be continued. The war is wiping out one of the oldest Christian communities in the world," he says. "There's been a lot of talk that the community votes Republican because of values issues, but we're just so fed up with the Bush administration."

'No illusions' on Mideast

Imad Hamad, Michigan director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, says neither candidate has done enough to connect with Arab Americans.

"People have no illusions that either of them will provide a better or genuine approach for a lasting peace in the Middle East," Hamad says. "And people are worried about their bread-and-butter issues and are wondering what comes next. I don't think people truly see that the two candidates are providing solutions or direction."

The Arab American Institute poll found that nearly 20% of the Arab-American voters identified themselves as independent, and Hamad says those voters may look to a third-party candidate.

McCain and Obama have both had missteps in Michigan. An Arab-American fundraiser was removed from his volunteer role on McCain's finance committee after a blogger claimed he had ties to terrorists, despite his denial and his history of support for Republican candidates.

Obama was criticized after two Muslim women were removed from their seats at a rally in Detroit because campaign volunteers didn't want the hijab-wearing women to be in the camera shot behind Obama. The Democratic candidate phoned the women to apologize.

The incidents, while frustrating, are understandable in a post-9/11 world, Dagher says.

"Most Muslims are educated enough to know that Islam in general is just misconstrued" and that candidates have to be careful about perceived connections, he says. "I don't see them as being racists or bigots."