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.