This article has been updated with additional interviews.
DETROIT — Michigan isn’t quite a stranger to attention in the presidential race, despite a late primary — over the past few elections, several debates have been held here, and candidate visits tend be fairly frequent. But the emphasis on the state this cycle, with Michigan cities playing host to both a Republican and Democrat debate before Tuesday’s primary — and a overall heightened presence in the news in the aftermath of the Flint water crisis — stands out as unique.
However, for the Republicans in Detroit Thursday, the first of the two local debates, the focus seemed to remain largely on national issues and not the state.
State issues largely emerged in the latter half of the two-hour debate for about only 10 minutes in total, with three individual questions on the Flint water crisis, Detroit Public School’s debt and manufacturing jobs posed to the majority of candidates.
Speaking to Flint, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called the water crisis a failure of government, also charging that Democrats had unfairly politicized the issue.
“All of us are outraged by what happened,” he said. “And we should work together to solve it. And there is a proper role for the government to play at the federal level, in helping local communities to respond to a catastrophe of this kind.”
Ohio Governor John Kasich (R), asked about debt in DPS, said his plan to fix schools is to disseminate resources currently in federal programs to the states, as well as encourage vocational educational and school choice with voucher and charter programs.
Both those issues received a different, more sustained kind of attention earlier in the evening, when roughly 100 protestors gathered outside the Fox Theatre to call for action in Flint and Detroit, as well as for a raise in the state’s minimum wage.
Keith Harris, a Southfield resident, carried a sign equating GOP frontrunner Donald Trump and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s (R) policies as racist during the protest.
“I hope they take away the fact that we really, really want to be treated fair,” he said of the GOP candidates. “We want schools, we want fresh water in Flint, we want the police to stop murdering us.”
Moderators also asked U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) about creating manufacturing jobs in the city, an issue cited by several protesters. In response, the senator pivoted to a criticism of Detroit’s leadership, saying that left-wing Democrats “pursued destructive tax policies, weak crime policies, and have driven the citizens out,” of the city.
His tax plan and push to repeal regulations like Obamacare, he added, would bring jobs back.
In an interview before the debate, Donald Grimes, economist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research for Labor, Employment and the Economy, said he hoped Michigan’s later primary and the attention the state is receiving this cycle, would translate into a bigger focus on economic issues. That focus, especially when it comes to Michigan’s unique ties to the auto industry, could be the state’s contribution to the national conversation, he added.
“It turns out that’s fortuitous timing for Michigan, to be all by myself (in the primary calendar),” Grimes said. “Hopefully this will help bring the questioning back to the domestic economy, the auto industry, and the whole issue of too big to fail.”
Standing outside the debate an hour before it started, Kelsey Bright, a Berklee resident and Kasich supporter, said she hoped candidates took away an understanding of top issues in Michigan, such as jobs, and how they played into the country as a whole.
“A lot of the other issues that you’re even hearing about tonight, if we had people back to work, they probably wouldn’t even be issues,” she said.
Beyond the state issues, the national topics that comprised most of Thursday’s debate ranged from the state of the campaign to new nuances of policy that has been controversial throughout it, such as immigration reform.
As the nomination convention gets closer, electability in particular proved a contentious topic. Two days before the debate, Trump won seven states in this year’s Super Tuesday, a day in when 11 states go to the polls, continuing to cement his lead in the race. He is currently projected to take Michigan by over 15 percent next week. Of the remaining states, Cruz won three, and Rubio won one.
Kasich and Ben Carson, who was not at Thursday’s debate after signaling he may drop out of the race Thursday morning, both won none.
Those results prompted a discussion throughout the night about what paths to the nomination Rubio, Cruz and Kasich saw, drawing a range of ongoing criticisms about Trump.
Early on in the debate, Rubio charged that Trump would ultimately be unsuccessful because he didn’t represent the GOP electorate.
“Two-thirds of the people who have cast a vote in a Republican primary or caucus have voted against you,” Rubio said. “And the reason why is because we are not going to turn over the conservative movement, or the party of Lincoln or Reagan, for example, to someone whose positions are not conservative.”
Cruz took a similar angle later on, pointing to Trump as part of the D.C. establishment, which Trump disputed.
“I understand the folks who are supporting Donald right now,” Cruz said. “You’re angry. You’re angry at Washington, and he uses angry rhetoric. But for 40 years, Donald has been part of the corruption in Washington that you’re angry about.
Trump cited multiple polls showing him ahead in the race in response.
In remarks to press after the debate about their path forward, the Cruz, Kasich and Rubio campaigns expressed varied plans for Michigan. Kasich said he wasn’t planning on winning the state, and was instead focusing on winning his home state of Ohio. Proponents for Rubio and Cruz were more optimistic about strong finishes in the state — though not necessarily victories.
Immigration was another large topic, with both candidates and moderators pushing Trump about releasing recordings of a off the record interview with the New York Times that reports have suggested include him saying he is flexible about his immigration plan to deport millions.
Off the record refers to an agreement between a journalist and a interview subject to not quote or use information acquired during a conversation. The New York Times has said they will release the recordings if Trump agrees to it.
However, Trump said Thursday night he wouldn’t agree to release the recordings because he had “too much respect” for off the record agreements. Though stressing that flexibility in policy was important, he noted that immigration was not an issue he planned to shift much on.
“(I’m) not very flexible,” he said. “I give the example — I’m going to build a wall. I’m the one that wants the wall. I’m the one that can build the wall. It’s going to get built…but — and I used an example. And this isn’t necessarily what was said, but whatever was said, the wall’s 50 feet high. Is it going to be 45 feet or 40 feet? That could very well be.”
Higher education also received brief attention in a Rubio attack on Trump over Trump University, a for-profit education institution founded by the candidate. It is currently the subject of several lawsuits over whether Trump defrauded individuals who bought the courses.
After the debate, Aaron Kall, director of the University of Michigan’s debate program and an expert on election politics, said he thought the balance between national and state issues in particular was noticeably surprising and disappointing.
“At least the moderators (gave up on the state),” Kall said. “I mean, that’s kind of the logical extension. The frontrunner wasn’t even asked a direct question. They probably saw the Detroit Free Press poll and said, (Trump’s) got about a ten point lead, and so maybe it’s over….but yeah, very disappointing. We can only hope, that the Democratic side on Sunday, things will be different.”
Looking forward, whether the attention paid to Michigan's big issues, like Flint and DPS and beyond, will be a contrast in the state's second turn in the national spotlight before Tuesday's primary — when the Democrats face off in Flint Sunday — remains to be seen, as well as the potential presence of those issues further on in the race.
Unlike the GOP, both Democratic candidates have brought Michigan up in prior debates, largely to criticize Snyder’s response to Flint's water crisis.
However, in an interview Thursday at the GOP debate, Brandon Dillon, Michigan Democratic Party chair, noted that he expected some noticeable differences in content and tenor Sunday night regardless of topic.
“I think it’s very simple — the contrast you’ve seen in every debate,” Dillon said. “You have one side that’s all insults and attacks all the time, and on the Democratic side you actually have a rigorous debate about policy and ideas about how to move the country forward.”