Trump presence felt despite absence at Mich. GOP confab

Chad Livengood, and Melissa Nann Burke

Six Republican presidential candidates coming to Mackinac Island this weekend will get a breather from competing directly with GOP front-runner Donald Trump, since the celebrity billionaire won’t be gracing the Grand Hotel.

But Trump’s larger-than-life presence in the race promises to influence the conversation at the Michigan Republican Party’s biennial leadership conference as other White House hopefuls vie for attention from nearly 2,200 party leaders, donors and activists.

“Initially, in a primary contest, celebrity can make a difference,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said in an interview with The Detroit News. “But I don’t think, in the end, people will vote just on celebrity. They’ll ultimately look for substance.

“I’ve walked the walk, talked the talk and continued to fight for limited government. I think, ultimately, people will look at the substance and people will judge who is a real conservative and who is a fake conservative.”

Trump has taken the Republican presidential primary contest by storm this summer, rocketing to the top of national polls and surveys of likely GOP voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, which host the first nominating contests.

But every time a GOP rival has engaged Trump, the billionaire real estate tycoon has almost always returned fire with insults about their character or qualifications to be president.

It’s a strategy most Republican strategists argue wouldn’t work with the crowd of 2,200 rank-and-file GOP activists who will occupy Mackinac Island’s inns and bars this weekend.

“He seems to insult another group every week,” said Tom Shields, a Lansing-based Republican consultant. “The only thing that’s left for him is strong support from white males. Everyone thinks at some point in time that he’ll self-destruct.”

Trump did not return Michigan GOP chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel’s personal invitation to speak at the conference. She met with Trump on Aug. 11 before he spoke to a raucous crowd of nearly 2,400 people in Birch Run, north of Flint.

Trump’s campaign did not respond to a message from The News seeking comment on where he plans to be this weekend, instead of Michigan.

Like most Republican Party officials, McDaniel is careful not to read too much into Trump’s absence, while acknowledging the fluid dynamics at play in the GOP presidential field.

“Whoever is on top today in two months may be at the bottom (of the polls),” McDaniel told The News. “But I want every candidate to come to Michigan often. If they can’t come to this conference, we certainly want them in Michigan many, many times.”

Trump will be targeted

Even without Trump physically on Mackinac Island this weekend, Republicans expect his presence to be felt as more established GOP politicians make their case about why Trump’s star will eventually fall.

Rand Paul, whose campaign is polling in the single digits, has the final speaking slot Saturday night at the conference and has started to go after Trump’s past support of Democrats and liberal social views.

“I think, ultimately, people will come around and say, ‘Yeah, I like the way he’s angry and calls out the establishment, but I didn’t realize he wasn’t really a conservative,’ ” Paul told The News. “When that light bulb goes off, I think you’ll see this massive defection and massive realignment of the vote. Some of that happens as we get closer and people are thinking about it.”

The damage Trump’s ascent to frontrunner status is doing to the campaigns of others candidates is apparently why Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker made a late change to his arrival time for the Mackinac conference so he can stay in South Carolina Friday night and campaign.

Walker’s polling numbers in South Carolina and Iowa have plummeted in recent weeks as those of Trump and neurosurgeon Ben Carson have ascended in the early popularity contests.

Instead of sharing a prime-time speaking slot Friday night with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Walker will be addressing Michigan Republicans Saturday morning at a breakfast event.

Poll reversal predicted

Walker’s top supporter in Michigan predicts Trump and Carson — a Detroit native who also is skipping the Mackinac confab — will suffer a reverse in their recent polling fortunes.

“When I look at, say, Trump or Carson or others who having these stratospheric poll numbers, that’s pretty tough to maintain,” said Sharon Wise, a former state GOP co-chair from Traverse City who is helping spearhead the Walker campaign in Michigan.

Supporters of former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s long-shot bid for the GOP nomination hope she is the beneficiary of Trump’s absence.

Fiorina is planning a full Mackinac Island experience Saturday, complete with a ferry ride to the Lake Huron island and a trip to Horn’s Gaslight Bar to attend a reception honoring retiring U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township.

She also plans to hobnob with Republican voters on the Grand Hotel’s famous front porch Saturday evening before her keynote speech, according to the Fiorina campaign.

Also speaking Saturday will be Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

“I think it’s a mistake for anybody not to be anywhere where there’s 2,000 Republican activists,” said William Runco, a health care consultant from Dearborn and former Wayne County district judge. “From now until the Michigan primary, you won’t have this opportunity. If I were running for office this year, I certainly wouldn’t miss this event.”

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