MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Rick Snyder — the understated, self-described "nerd" and former CEO — is making one thing clear as he prepares for a challenging re-election race next year: He intends to be part of the national conversation underway about the Republican Party's future.
The first-term governor used his role as host of a biennial state GOP conference that drew more than 1,000 state and national figures — including three potential presidential candidates — to cast himself as a problem solver with a governing philosophy that can fix the nation's ills.
Snyder insisted he was focused intently on governing a state still smarting from the economic recession, with an unemployment rate that remains above the national average and whose largest city — Detroit — has filed for bankruptcy.
But he also wasn't shy about his intention to raise his profile nationally, stopping short of expressing interest in joining the field of 2016 presidential prospects.
"Hopefully, I'm a reasonable model for people to look at across the country," Snyder said in an Associated Press interview. But when asked, he called consideration of a presidential candidacy "a distraction from focusing on doing the best thing for Michigan right now."
Instead, he stood apart from those Republicans outwardly weighing presidential campaigns who attended the biennial Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — most noticeably by refraining from the sharp criticisms they hurled at President Barack Obama during speeches to the group.
Snyder, in sticking with his task-oriented mantra, says such sniping is contributing to the national government's failure to solve its biggest problems.
Instead, he ticked through a series of measures he has enacted and attributed to an improving economic picture in the state that led the nation in unemployment — at a whopping 15 percent — in 2009.
He cut business taxes, reined in unions, signed budgets earlier than previously, socked money into savings and eliminated red tape for businesses.
Four years later, the unemployment rate in Michigan is 9 percent, still above the national average but below nearby Illinois and Nevada, the nation's jobless leader.
And there is evidence people in Michigan are beginning to feel it.
A clear majority of Michigan residents now see the economy as having hit its bottom and now improving, according to a survey taken by EPIC-MRA this month.
"If re-elected, he could be a top tier candidate" for president, said Charlie Black, a veteran adviser to recent GOP presidential candidates. "He has a good fundraising base in Michigan and a good story to tell, especially if Detroit is changing for the better in two years."
Snyder will get a taste Monday when he's scheduled to attend a New York City fundraiser for the Republican National Committee, along with potential presidential candidates Jindal, Paul, Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.
But he must first win over Michiganders, who aren't quite as rosy, many of them still reeling from the recession that threatened the survival of the state's longtime economic engine, the auto industry.
Just under half of Michigan voters have a favorable opinion of Snyder, according to the poll.
Part of that is style. He's upbeat, but nondescript and speaks in a higher-pitched, nasally tone. The only things that draw attention when he enters a room are the pack of security around him and his shock of combed silver hair. Some Michigan Republicans say Snyder lacks the panache he would need to break through nationally.
Nonsense, says state GOP Chairman Bobby Schostak.
"He's the nonpolitician politician," Schostak said. "He's what Americas looking for."
Snyder's tepid polling is also because he has deeply angered voters on his left and right, by taking action he says that simply made the most economic sense.
In December, Snyder signed legislation ending Michigan's longstanding requirement that unionized workers pay union fees as a condition of their employment. Snyder angered unions by taking the action, after saying it wasn't on his agenda, and after voters rejected a referendum to enshrine the union requirement in the state's constitution.
More recently, he has angered conservatives by agreeing to expand Medicaid as part of the 2010 federal health care law. Walker, Jindal and other Republican governors have refused. Snyder argued the federal payout for Michigan made sense.
Snyder had already upset conservatives by opposing a constitutional amendment to make it harder to raise taxes and vetoing an abortion measure that opponents now hope to circumvent with a ballot measure.
Snyder's signing of Medicaid expansion this month was the last straw for Kevin Heine, a Michigan tea-party activist with a group trying to recruit candidates for a longshot primary challenge against Snyder.
"His record does not show him as a true Republican," Heine said. "He's done some good things. But he's trying to use the good to balance out the stupid."
That's not how Snyder sees it. "I don't keep track of trying to equally anger people," and doesn't care whether he has everyone with him, he said. Instead, he says he makes decisions based primarily on data. "I don't make them as a politician," he said.
Not so, top Democrats say.
"I think the voters of Michigan see right through that," Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson said, calling Snyder's corporate tax cuts and signing the union bill "right out of the Republican playbook."
So far, Democrats have coalesced around former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer as their candidate to challenge Snyder. Snyder has led Schauer in recent polls, although the incumbent has support from less than 50 percent of voters.
Should Snyder win and take steps toward 2016, he would join a field that could include other governors with a get-it-done mantra, such as Walker, Jindal and Christie, who have all taken their first steps onto that stage.
"Governors Christie, Snyder and Walker have all been propelled to national prominence in part because they took on the unions in blue states, won, and now their states are in much stronger fiscal shape. This stands in stark contrast to Washington, D.C.," said Greg Strimple, a national Republican pollster and strategist.