MACKINAC ISLAND — As the Michigan Republican Leadership Conference began this weekend, the platforms among the first half of the five GOP presidential candidates slated to speak varied, but the narrative stuck to similar themes.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush kicked off the conference’s keynote speakers, delivering remarks Friday evening. He was followed Saturday afternoon by Ohio Gov. John Kasich and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas).

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was scheduled to speak Saturday morning until his flight to the island was cancelled due to inclement weather.

All three cited the need to change culture — through positivity, bipartisan cooperation and a return to Constitutional values — whether on the campaign trail, in Washington D.C. or in both.

In introducing Bush, GOP activist Peter Secchia said the party’s focus should be on looking forward.

“I know there are some people that say Jeb’s got a problem,” he said. “And we don’t have a candidate who doesn’t have a problem. But you know what? I don’t want to worry about our internal problems. I want to beat a Clinton.”

Speaking before Cruz on Saturday, State Sen. Phil Pavlov (R–St. Clair Township) highlighted Cruz’s background as someone who would challenge the status quo in Washington.

“This is not a time for politics as usual,” he said. “Enough is enough of politics as usual.”

Bush told the gathered crowd Friday evening that above all, he wants to run a campaign that’s different — echoing his oft-repeated focus of changing the culture by running with optimism.

That kind of approach, he said, could expand the electoral map for Republicans.

“The way I try to describe it is we run a campaign with our arms open, with a hopeful, optimistic message,” he said. “We don’t run a campaign looking down at people and saying how bad things are, with an angry voice.”

Though Republicans currently control the governor’s office and legislature in Michigan, the state has not voted for the party in a presidential election since 1988.

But Bush said he thought if the right person was nominated, the state — and other states that tend to lean blue — would vote red in 2016.

“My personal belief is that everybody’s a conservative,” he said. “They just don’t know it yet. We have to go out there and make that case in all sorts of places where they haven’t heard a conservative message in a long while.”

Saturday afternoon, Kasich urged a similar kind of culture change in Washington through a return to civility and bipartisan cooperation, saying that Republicans and Democrats in Congress have forgotten that they’re in office to serve the United States and not their party.

“You’ve got to show respect,” he said of being president. “You’ve got to use the office to try to bring people together. You’re in a moment of time that will quickly be forgotten. Do not let it happen.”

Citing his experience as chairman of the House Budget Committee in the ’90s, when Republicans were in the majority, he said those years were “magic.”

“We worked together,” he said. “We didn’t always agree with the Democrats, (but) we accomplished things.” 

Cruz touched on ideals of both policy change and rhetoric in discussing the campaign and Washington’s culture, telling attendees that they should look forward to 2017.

“We’re here today because our nation is in crisis,” he said, citing the national debt, the infringement of constitutional rights and the country’s standing in the world.

“And yet I’m here with a word of hope and encouragement and exhortation. All across the state of Michigan, all across this country, people are waking up. We are seeing an awakening sweeping this country and let me tell you right now, help is on the way.”

The differences were in the policies that the three wanted to bring to Washington.

Kasich heavily touted his time on the House Budget Committee, emphasizing the importance of creating a balanced budget — something several other candidates in the race support as well.

“The premise behind a balanced budget is this: we do not have the right to pass debt on to our children,” he said.

He also pushed for a return to state control, as opposed to federal, in several areas including education and welfare programs.

“If you call down to Washington this week, they’ll ask you what timezone you’re in,” he said. “And yet they’re determining welfare programs in Michigan, in Ohio.”

Bush spent his Friday evening remarks extolling his agenda to reform the tax code and support oil and gas, among other issues.

“More rules, more taxes, more spending — will doom as us a nation,” Bush said. “We should be doing the exact opposite. Offering hope for people that if we shift power back to the communities and into our states, create a better regulatory system, and then dramatically change our tax code, this country will take off. We’ll out-compete anybody, anytime, anywhere. That should be our objective.”

Cruz also touched on tax code reform in a different sense, calling economic growth his top priority.

“We will pass a simple flat tax,” he said. “So that every American can fill out his or her taxes on a postcard. And when we do that, we should abolish the IRS. There are about 90,000 employees at the IRS. We need to padlock that building.”

Cruz also highlighted a slate of other plans for his first day in office, including opening an investigation into Planned Parenthood and terminating the Obama administration’s deal with Iran.

Michigan Republicans had a variety of responses to Friday and Saturday’s events.

Friday evening, Beverly Hills resident Barb Mandell said she was impressed by Bush, but was also interested in hearing the perspective of the other four candidates speaking as well.

“We would all be happy to have a rational system of tax collection, and a rational system of government expenditures,” she said. “I appreciate his willingness to look out for those who are not well-equipped financially, or struggling and I feel that government has a role there. But … let’s just say I’m looking forward to hearing from the other candidates as well.”

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