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East Lansing — Democrat presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders brought his own brand of “March Madness” to Michigan State University on Wednesday, energizing fans with a speech on the floor of the Breslin Center basketball arena.

The Vermont U.S. senator, who won four of 11 state primaries on Tuesday and faces increasingly long odds in his quest to win the Democratic nomination, spoke with The Detroit News ahead of his speech and said he expects to do well in Michigan on March 8.

“State after state we have closed the gap, including here in Michigan,” Sanders said in an exclusive interview. “… We think that short term and longer term, a lot of states out there are in play and we can win. ... I’m not going to tell you it’s necessarily an easy path, but it is a path.”

Sanders said he will seek to differentiate himself from Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton in Michigan by pointing out their “very different views” on trade policies often derided by unions. He noted he opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement that Clinton’s husband signed into law.

“Our disastrous trade policies — NAFTA, CAFTA and permanent normal trade relations with China — have decimated the state of Michigan,” he argued. “Tens of thousands of good-paying jobs have been lost.”

Sanders, in his 55-minute speech to a raucous crowd comprised primarily of students, acknowledged that trade policy is “not a sexy topic” but linked the issue to lost automotive and other manufacturing jobs in Michigan and Detroit.

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He vowed to ensure that “corporate America” will invest in Michigan, not just China or Mexico, and reiterated his call for a minimum “living wage” of $15 an hour. Michigan’s rate is $8.50; the national rate is $7.25.

A self-avowed Democratic socialist, Sanders also highlighted his proposals for a single-payer “Medicare-for-all” health care system, tuition-free college and a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure over five years, which he has claimed would put 13 million Americans to work.

Critics argue those plans are costly and unaffordable, but Sanders has said he would pay from them through an income-based tax on health care premiums that would still save families money, a new tax on “Wall Street speculators” and the closure of offshore tax loopholes.

Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ronna Romney said ahead of Sander’s speech that “the ‘free’ stuff from his plans” would be costly for Michigan families and residents.

“His unrealistic policy proposals would rapidly increase our national debt, kill jobs and fail to protect us from real national security threats,” she said. “Michiganders deserve better from presidential candidates than the typical, tax-and-spend liberal policies the senator is proposing.”

Clinton has not yet confirmed any Michigan events this week ahead of the Sunday night debate in Flint. She visited Flint earlier this month and addressed the city’s water contamination crisis. Sanders spoke with Flint residents before Feb. 15 campaign events in Ypsilanti and Dearborn.

Sander’s reiterated his call for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to resign over his handling of the Flint water crisis, drawing loud cheers from the partisan crowd, arguing that a resignation would help the city advance.

“When I met with residents of Flint, what I heard was so horrific. It was so painful hearing from parents about seeing their children being poisoned and seeing the intellectual development being impacted,” Sanders told The News before his speech.

“It was hard, honest to God, to believe that I was hearing from people who were living in the United States of American in 2016. It was like some Third World or Fourth World country.”

If the city does not have the resources to solve the crisis, and the state “does not have the willingness,” Sanders said the federal government has a responsibility to provide assistance. The state has sent roughly $70 million to Flint since October, while the Obama administration’s disaster declaration authorized $5 million in funding.

Taylor Simmons, 25, drove from her Grand Rapids-area home to line up outside of the Breslin Center at 8 a.m. to see Sanders for the second time.

“I just love everything he stands for,” she said. “I love that he preaches love and note hate. I love that he’s trying to help out everyone — middle class, black, Hispanics, the LGBT community — he treats everyone equally.”

Simmons, a student at Lansing Community College, said she would probably vote for Clinton if she won the nomination, “but in that case, it would be more of a vote against a Republican.”

Jared Davis, a 20-year-old business major at Michigan State, said he already cast an absentee ballot for Sanders because “he’s starting a political revolution” and he’s “literally going to change our country.”

Davis does not have a problem with Clinton, personally, but he said he fears millennials “don’t trust her” and could be more inclined to vote for Republican businessman Donald Trump in a general election.

Alex Clark, a 25-year-old student at Northern Michigan University who was in town for spring break, said he was drawn to Sanders because of his promise for radical change.

“I mean, we’ve been trying to get universal health care in this country for the past, what, 50 years? So it’s really cool to just see someone who comes out and says I want a single-payer system.”

While Sanders is the oldest candidate left in the presidential race, 26-year-old Katelin DaCruz said his policies appeal to people who grew up during the Great Recession.

“I think his draw with young people has a lot to do with his understanding issues of education and tuition,” said DaCruz, a graduate student studying school psychology, “but I also think our generation has dealt with a much tougher economy, and so I think issues of income inequality at the forefront.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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