November 01, 1982 12:00 PM

In the waning days of World War II, a young U.S. Army platoon leader named Robert Michel was ordered to capture a German emplacement along the banks of the Ruhr. The Nazis were in ragged retreat, and Michel, thinking the machine-gun nest would be empty, clambered up a hill and across an open meadow. But three rounds of small arms fire tore through Michel’s right hand and leg before his men took out the remaining gunner with mortar fire. To this day, Bob Michel can’t understand how he got himself into that situation. “My normal inclination is to hug the tree line and not take any chances,” he muses. “But there I was, right out in the open, with that gun firing at me.”

The lesson of that brush with death was not lost on him. Twenty-six years ago, Michel entered the U.S. Congress as a Republican Representative from Peoria, Ill. Since then, he has hugged the tree line of public life. “I’m not confrontational,” the 59-year-old Michel says, and that phrase could have served as a slogan for his career—until now. Last year, Michel became Republican Leader in the House and the self-described “point man for President Reagan” in the struggle over Administration economic policy. Now, his loyal efforts to make Reaganomics a reality have embroiled him in the fight of his political life. A 31-year-old Democratic lawyer, G. Douglas Stephens, has arisen from political anonymity and, using the state of the economy as his major issue, given Michel the most serious challenge he has ever known. Says the 13-term incumbent ruefully: “None of this would have happened if I weren’t the leader.”

Peoria has long served as a symbol of small-town America, but lately it has become a microcosm of America’s economic travail as well. At the huge Caterpillar Tractor Co. factory in East Peoria, scores of unsold machines line the lots; workers, out on strike, warm their hands against the autumn chill over wood fires built in oil drums. Even before the strike began, Caterpillar announced that President Reagan’s ban on selling heavy equipment for use on the Soviet pipeline would put 800 men out of work for a year; a Fiat-Allis assembly plant in the district is closing because of the embargo. South of the city in the rich farmlands of Menard County, laborers are clearing ground to stack corn from this year’s bumper crop since the bulging elevators are filled with excess grain. “There are record bankruptcies in this district, and record unemployment,” says Stephens. “I don’t think people are impressed by Mr. Michel’s claim that he can do more for this district.”

More than any other congressional race, the Michel-Stephens contest has become a referendum on Reaganomics. Ted Kennedy, Alan Cranston, John Glenn and Walter Mondale have traveled to Peoria to stump for Stephens. Last week, President Reagan, Charlton Heston, Pat Boone and, improbably, Dr. Henry Heimlich of Maneuver fame were scheduled to headline a Michel gala. Now Michel is given the edge in the campaign, in which he has raised close to half a million dollars as opposed to a reported $120,000 for Stephens. President Reagan gave Michel an additional boost this month by authorizing a huge sale of surplus grain to the Soviet Union.

The need to defend so traditionally safe a seat has plainly irritated Michel. Although he has earned his reputation as one of the most affable and even-tempered members of Congress, he grows testy at the end of a 14-hour day. Indeed, the campaign sometimes highlights the awkward position of a man who must be both a down-home good ole boy and a leader of the free world. On one typical campaign swing, Michel pressed the flesh along a sleepy street in Greenville, zipped into Tripp Bros. Hardware to pick up a knife sharpener, wandered into the General Store to see if they had any solid color size-40 boxer shorts (they didn’t), and meandered down to Reiser’s grain elevator to chat with the locals. Then he excused himself, ducked into a back room and phoned National Security Affairs Adviser William P. Clark about the Soviet pipeline situation. “I’m the Republican Leader of the House and I’m running like a freshman Congressman,” Michel sighs between stints at grain elevators.

The portly, courtly Michel is the epitome of a Midwestern politician. He met his wife, Corinne, while both were undergraduate members of the Bradley University choir in Peoria; Michel still breaks into song almost without warning and strolls down the street whistling Jesus Christ Superstar. The Michels moved to Washington after they graduated; Michel’s first job was as an assistant to Peoria Congressman Harold Velde, whom he succeeded in 1956. Still, Michel insisted on sending his four children to Peoria schools—and his attitudes have remained in tune with his district’s. He speaks of the Communist threat with a fervor like that of his mentor Velde, who in 1953-54 was chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Even though Michel’s father was a French-Swiss immigrant toolmaker and his mother a domestic, he is suspicious of organized labor; he talks of “union goons” destroying his placards and blames the Caterpillar workers for asking too much. This attitude predictably angers many members of the striking UAW—but not all of them. “Bob Michel has a bad taste in his mouth about unions,” shrugs one picketing Caterpillar machine operator. “But I guess I’ll vote for him.”

In the end, Michel’s old-shoe familiarity may save him from the stiff challenge to his seat. He is a known quantity, and re-electing him has become a habit in his district. And his power—the very thing that made him a tempting Democratic target—may save him in the end. Says Menard County Commissioner Dan Austin: “We appreciate the fact that we are getting an opportunity to vote for President Reagan’s right-hand man.”

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