Presidential hopefuls look to make mark at ‘stacked’ Michigan GOP island gathering

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“With Donald Trump being as all encompassing as he is, candidates look for any moment they can to get exposure, so the smart candidate up there is going to take advantage,” said Stu Sandler, a Michigan GOP consultant and co-founder of Grand River Strategies.

 

From MLive.com:

 

LANSING, MI — Six presidential candidates not named Donald Trump will woo Michigan Republicans and national reporters this weekend on Mackinac Island, and each of them has something to prove.

The absence of Trump, whose personal airplane and bombastic rhetoric may have been too large for the quaint island, will provide other candidates with a chance to separate themselves from the field during the biennial Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference.

“With Donald Trump being as all encompassing as he is, candidates look for any moment they can to get exposure, so the smart candidate up there is going to take advantage,” said Stu Sandler, a Michigan GOP consultant and co-founder of Grand River Strategies.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina will campaign on the island this weekend.

It is, quite possibly, “the most stacked” lineup ever at the biennial retreat, said Inside Michigan Politics co-founder Bill Ballenger, a former GOP state lawmaker.

As of Wednesday, more than 2,200 people had registered to attend the conference, which was already a record, according to Michigan Republican Party chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, and officials expect more registrations on site.

“To have six keynotes who right now are running for president, to talk about their leadership and their plans and what they’ve done in their past, I think is a wonderful opportunity not only for us to see them, but for them to see our state,” Romney McDaniel said.

SOMETHING TO PROVE

Bush may have the most riding on the Mackinac visit, according to Ballenger. The son and brother of former presidents, Bush entered the race with instant name recognition and quickly tapped top contributors to build a formidable war chest, but his polling numbers haven’t matched early expectations.

Here in Michigan, Bush has raised large sums from big-name donors, has the backing of Attorney General Bill Schuette — the most significant in-state endorsement yet this cycle — and is the lone candidate scheduled to speak on the opening night of the conference, providing him with a chance to make his mark right from the start.

“From the beginning, it was thought (Bush) had the inside track on getting most of the establishment support, and yet he obviously is underperforming as a candidate so far, nationally and in Michigan,” Ballenger said. “…I think he has the chance to maybe break out of the pack a little bit this weekend and demonstrate that he’s really got a following here in Michigan.”

Walker and Kasich, two midwest governors, are also vying for some of the same voters as Bush. Walker nearly backed out of the event due to a scheduling conflict but instead rescheduled to speak during a Saturday morning breakfast session.

Kasich is slowly gaining steam, stressing a positive message of unity while Bush has been forced to fight back against attacks from Trump. He’s already campaigned in Michigan four times, and his 527 political fund picked up a major $500,000 donation from former Compuware CEO Peter Karmanos.

“I think any Midwestern candidate needs to step up (on Mackinac), because this should be their territory,” said Tom Shields, president of the Lansing-based Marketing Resource Group. “Obviously there’s going to be national news coverage up there, but somebody with Midwestern roots needs to show some support.”

Cruz and Paul, meanwhile, are competing for conservative, tea party and libertarian voters. Neither has found much traction just yet, as Trump and fellow “political outsider” candidate Ben Carson continue to dominate polls, including a recent survey of Michigan voters.

Paul has made Detroit something of a focal point in his campaign. He’s talked urban issues in and around the city, and he turned heads by wearing a “Detroit Republican” T-shirt in a recent campaign video.

Fiorina, meanwhile, enters the weekend with arguably the most momentum of any candidate. After wiping the floor in a second-tier debate last month, she graduated to the main stage for Wednesday night’s CNN debate, turning in another strong performance.

“Everybody’s saying she probably won the debate,” Ballenger said of Fiorina. “She may get a lot of publicity out of the weekend.”

WHY MICHIGAN MATTERS

Michigan has emerged as a key target state for several GOP candidates. After traditional early states and “Super Tuesday,” Michigan’s March 8 primary and relatively large delegate haul could be a big prize for anyone fighting to stand out or simply stay in the race.

The Michigan GOP regularly attracts presidential contenders to the biennial Mackinac conference, but with the primary just six months away, the 2015 event is expected to be especially important for candidates trying to generate statewide and national attention.

“On stage in the last debate you had candidates doing everything but dive-bombing the moderator to get a word in,” said Sandler. “Now they’re going to get a lot of exposure in a state that is going to be important in the primary.”

As Romney McDaniel noted, the conference will also give Michigan Republicans a chance to tell their story to a wider audience. Gov. Rick Snyder will open the conference on Friday and speak on Saturday.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Schuette, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, state Senate majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and House Speaker Kevin Cotter will also participate in a “leading the nation” panel. Another panel will feature Congressional Republicans, including retiring U.S. Reps. Candice Miller and Dan Benishek, whose District includes Mackinac Island.

Schuette, Calley, Miller and Meekhof are potential 2018 gubernatorial candidates. But Schuette, who is chairing Bush’s Michigan campaign operation, said he’ll be focused on 2016 during his time on the island.

“I’m riding for the brand,” Schuette said Thursday during a conference call in which he announced more than 200 endorsements for Bush from party leaders and grassroots activists. “I’m a Republican, and our job is to build our party, defeat Hillary Clinton and put a Republican in the White House.”

Having presidential candidates visit Michigan in primary season is good for the state, according to Romney McDaniel, but she also wants the eventual nominee to come back during the general election.

“We can’t predict where those resources are going to go, and which states are going to be battleground states, but I think every candidate on our side and the Democratic side should take Michigan seriously,” she said. “So far, Republicans are doing that. We’ve had 10 candidates in six months, while Hillary Clinton did a stop by for a $500,000 fundraiser, and we haven’t seen her since.”

Jonathan Oosting is a Capitol reporter for MLive Media Group. Email him, find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.