Good luck getting into Detroit’s GOP debate

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Republican Party received more than 21,000 ticket requests for Thursday’s presidential debate in Detroit but will only be giving out about 50 tickets to the public.

The Republican National Committee allocated 400 tickets to the state party, which is expected to give roughly 350 to elected officials, state committee members and grassroots activists, said Michigan GOP spokeswoman Sarah Anderson.

This leaves 50 tickets for the public. The tickets will be randomly awarded to some of the 21,000 people who filled out an online form on the state party website.

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“If we have people that are turning them down among our elected officials, then we’ll add that number,” Anderson said. “We want to give out as many as we can. We know that people are excited and want to be there.”

Thursday morning, the GOP said a "couple hundred" more tickets became available and would be distributed to the public.

The debate is scheduled to feature GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Ohio Gov. John Kasich as well as Detroit native and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

The Fox News Channel debate will take place in downtown Detroit at the historic Fox Theatre, which can typically seat 5,000 people. It’s expected to fit far fewer for the debate, however, because of television sets and room needed for media and staff.

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In addition to the state party allocation, tickets are being offered to Michigan members of the Republican National Committee, including state party Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel.

The presidential candidates are also expected to receive an equal number of tickets. An RNC official did not respond to a request for details about ticket allotments, which have proven controversial at past debates because Trump has attributed audience boos to establishment donors.

For the Feb. 13 South Carolina debate, the five candidates split 600 tickets for their invited guests from the about 1,600 seats at the Peace Center in Greenville, the RNC told Breitbart News.

Democrats have not yet announced ticketing details for their Sunday presidential debate in Flint.

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Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson told The Detroit News he will be among the elected officials at the Fox Theatre on Thursday night.

“Yes, I’m going to the debate, and I’m taking my plastic tarp because I feel like I’m going to see Gallagher,” he said, referencing the comedian famous for smashing fruit such as watermelons and other things on stage.

Patterson originally endorsed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who dropped out last month, but has said he could live with Cruz.

Fox News hosts Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace will moderate the debate, which takes place five days before Michigan’s March 8 primary. Trump skipped the late January debate in Des Moines hosted by Fox News before the Iowa caucuses because he said he felt Kelly was unfair in a prior debate, but he has made no such complaints this time around.

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The state party received nearly 10,000 online ticket requests in the first week after the RNC and Fox News announced the debate on Feb. 4, according to Anderson, and the requests have continued. Notifications were expected to begin going out to ticket winners on Tuesday evening.

While tickets are limited, the Michigan GOP is hosting debate watch parties around the state. Events are currently scheduled in Grand Rapids, Lansing, Livonia, Utica, Traverse City and Detroit at Wayne State University.

“We wish we could engage everyone in the process,” Anderson said. “Our voters are excited and they want to take part in this.”

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Dan Wunderlich, a 19-year-old Troy native preparing to participate in his first presidential election, is one of the excited voters. The Saginaw Valley State University student requested tickets online but was still waiting Tuesday afternoon to hear back on the request.

“I’m happy it’s finally down to five (candidates),” said Wunderlich, who hasn’t decided for whom he’s voting in the primary. “When it was those huge debates, it was kind of chaotic, and I think that has to do with my indecision. … Now that it’s down to a smaller group, you can actually pay attention to the details.”

The Troy native, who plays football and is pursuing a double major in communications and political science, said he also plans to attend a Kasich campaign event next week to learn more about him. He said Trump has been good for the race.

“He’s not afraid to say anything,” Wunderlich said, “and that’s forced all candidates to take positions, and to do it pretty quickly.”