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Detroit — Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidates called for tougher border security and immigration laws Thursday but distanced themselves from President Donald Trump’s abandoned policy to separate children from parents entering the country illegally.

“We need to secure the border, and we can even build a wall,” Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said in the second and final televised GOP debate ahead of the Aug. 7 primary. “But separating parents from their kids, that's just not who we are … When somebody comes as a refugee, we need to do everything we can to keep our kids together.”

While immigration is primarily a federal issue, support for Trump and his policies have become a flash point in Michigan, where voters had backed Democratic presidential candidates since 1988 until Trump scored a narrow victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. Candidates also debated, and largely defended, Trump tariffs proposed amid an escalating trade war with China and other countries. 

Attorney General Bill Schuette, endorsed by the Republican president, stopped short of criticizing family separations at the U.S. southern border but said he is “so glad” the president changed the short-lived border policy by executive order.

Schuette spoke out against sanctuary cities and criticized Democrats for resisting Republican immigration reform plans in Washington, D.C. “We need to have a hopeful and welcoming immigration policy,” said the Midland Republican.

State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton Township, defended Trump for “following the law” and criticized Schuette for not joining other GOP attorneys general who vouched for Trump’s controversial travel ban in court.

Saginaw obstetrician Jim Hines said it “breaks my heart” to see immigrant families separated and said Michigan should work to reunite children who were sent here.

Schuette, leading most public opinion polls in the GOP field, was a frequent target of his Republican opponents. Portland Republican Calley, a bitter rival, attacked Schuette in his opening statement, predicting he would avoid direct answers while repeatedly touting his endorsement by Trump.

 “Nobody ever gave me anything except a chance and I made the most of every opportunity I was given,” said Calley, a former banker and state legislator.

Schuette twice mentioned Trump's endorsement in his opening statement, calling it “huge” in the Republican primary.

Schuette used his time on stage to begin crafting a general election message focused on attacks against his Democratic primary rivals, including former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, a leading contender for her party’s gubernatorial nomination.

“The Democrats and Whitmer, they’ll stop school choice, they’ll stop charters, they’ll keep Common Core,” Schuette said. “That is not the way we need to have education in the future.”

Calley "started strong with a heightened sense of urgency," said University of Michigan debate director Aaron Kall. But Gov. Rick Snyder's chosen successor "faded to the finish line and likely did little to impact the trajectory of the race."

Schuette showed "a high degree of confidence" by attacking Democrats rather than Republican rivals, Kall said. And he "dominated the later stages of the debate" by explaining his work with other public officials and high-profile cases his office has prosecuted. 

Candidates didn’t sugarcoat the challenges facing businesses affected by pending tariffs pushed by the Trump administration, but they focused on the fairer market that may result from the policy.

“I want us to go forward and make sure we have more jobs and fairer trading relationships,” Schuette said.

Colbeck said the state can help businesses hit by the tariffs by finding ways to lower the cost of doing business in Michigan. “All of our policies are meant for the equal benefits of all of our citizens," Colbeck said.

Hines said he supports Trump’s stance on tariffs, though he acknowledged they would be difficult for farmers.

“I’m the only one here that can raise his hand and say I was a Trump supporter from the very beginning,” he added.

Calley said he hopes to work with the Trump administration to ensure fair access  to other markets while lessening the burden on local businesses.

“Our people can compete and win anywhere in the country and anywhere around the world,” Calley said.

Colbeck positioned himself as an outside-the-box thinker and staunch conservative.

“The folks who actually got President Trump into office … actually support me,” Colbeck said.

Hines criticized the other Republicans for claiming they could cut auto insurance rates despite years of inaction in Lansing.

Colbeck, Calley and Schuette have “been in office eight, sixteen and 34 years,” Hines said. “Why all of a sudden are you now coming up with a plan? This is incredible. I’m an outsider, the solution is pretty simple.”

Hines called for a crackdown on auto insurance fraud and a fee schedule for medical providers who treat motorists injured in auto accidents.

To improve K-12 education, Schuette said he’d create an A-F system to grade school performance, appoint a literacy director and create a Michigan Reading Foundation with summer reading coaches.

Colbeck accused Schuette of proposing” big government solutions” to education.

“We need to empower parents, teachers and students,” Colbeck said. “We need to stop micromanaging via testing.”

Schuette and Calley also traded barbs during an Aug. 9 debate at WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids and have sparred in television commercials and at public forums while splitting endorsements from powerful business groups. 

Calley is backed by term-limited Snyder and touts the state's ongoing economic recovery. Schuette boasts support as well from Vice President Mike Pence and has repeatedly vowed to cut Michigan personal income tax rates.

Colbeck won election to the state Senate eight years ago as a tea party favorite and continues to court grassroots conservatives. Hines is running as an outsider and using his own money in an attempt to boost his name identification. 

Fast-food, health care, janitorial and other "low-wage" workers protested outside the Republican debate Thursday to highlight highlight GOP policies they argue have hurt Michigan workers, unions and health care access.

The winner of the Republican primary will face one of three Democrats in the general election: Whitmer of East Lansing, former Detroit health department director Abdul El-Sayed of Shelby Township and Ann Arbor enterpreneur Shri Thanedar.

Democrats debated in Grand Rapids on June 20 and are scheduled to compete in a second televised debate in Detroit on July 19.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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