Stage set for Detroit debate, campaigns swing to Mich.

Chad Livengood Jim Lynch and Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Ben Carson effectively ended his Republican presidential campaign Wednesday ahead of Thursday night’s debate in Detroit as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich sought to position themselves as the GOP’s alternative to front-runner Donald Trump.

Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, said he won’t campaign anymore because he doesn’t “see a political path forward” after failing to gain traction in the first 15 contests for the GOP nomination. The announcement that he wouldn’t return to his hometown, where he launched an improbable White House bid 10 months ago, opened an opportunity for the four remaining candidates to grab votes.

Rubio said Wednesday his campaign to could gain voters attracted to Carson’s outsider appeal because he challenged the status quo when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2010. He added that he will gain steam in Michigan and beyond now that more conservative states have voted.

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during a campaign rally Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, in Minneapolis.

“We think our best days in this campaign lie ahead,” Rubio told The Detroit News after a rally in Shelby Township. “Super Tuesday was not supposed to be the best day of this campaign — we knew that. We wanted to do well enough to get to the states we’re in now. Now the map starts getting friendly for us.”

Kasich, who told a reporter he personally spoke Wednesday to Carson, praised the doctor’s candidacy and said he “held his head high and he’s a really nice man.”

Rubio won Minnesota among the 11 states in the Super Tuesday bonanza, while Trump carried seven states and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas notched victories in three states.

Rubio hits Trump as sounding �a lot like Clinton�

The Super Tuesday results added pressure Wednesday on Rubio and Kasich to upset Trump in Michigan’s primary Tuesday or finish a strong second. They are headed toward March 15 primaries in their home states that could make or break their candidacies.

Trump, Cruz, Rubio and Kasich will square off at 9 p.m. Thursday on the stage of Detroit’s historic Fox Theatre. It is the 11th debate of a grueling battle to be the GOP standard bearer in the November general election.

Following a week of raucous campaign rhetoric between Trump and Rubio, the Florida senator noted Wednesday that 65 percent of voters in Super Tuesday voted for someone other than the billionaire New York real estate tycoon.

“He is an unusual front-runner because most front-runners at this stage would have people begging everyone else to get out of the race and coalesce around the front-runner,” Rubio said in interview with The Detroit News Editorial Board. “In fact, the opposite is happening. Now they’re asking us to coalesce against the front-runner.”

Rubio and Kasich were the first Republican presidential candidates on the ground Wednesday in Michigan.

Kasich began a week-long campaign bus tour of the state at a Grand Blanc town hall meeting, where he told a crowd of 100 that he is not thinking of leaving the race.

“Michigan is important to us,” Kasich said at the Genesys Conference and Banquet Hall.

Jessica Nickel listens at left as Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks during a stop at an Addiction Policy Forum, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, in Hooksett, N.H.

When asked if he was feeling any pressure to drop out of the race, Kasich scoffed and said dismissively: “Pressure?”

Kasich told reporters afterward that he thinks Gov. Rick Snyder is “doing everything he can to get the job done” to fix Flint’s lead-contaminated water crisis. “He’s had many a sleepless nights, I guarantee you.”

“He’s going to the Legislature. I know he’s going to go to Washington,” Kasich said.

Kasich stresses importance of Mich. to campaign

‘Now or never for Kasich’

Political analysts view Michigan as vital to Kasich’s presidential fortunes.

“I think it’s now or never for Kasich — he’s got to win here,” said Paul Welday, a Republican political consultant in Oakland County. “He’s got to be the best of the others for him to have the momentum in Ohio to really become a national campaign after March 15.”

Kasich split Vermont’s 12 delegates with Trump on Tuesday after finishing a close second. But the Ohio governor has not won a state after 15 nominating contests.

His week-long campaigning in Michigan marks his 11th trip to the state — the most of any candidate in either political party.

But Kasich’s campaign has lowered expectations for winning Michigan if the field remains at four candidates.

“(Trump’s) going to win Michigan easily. Kasich has basically conceded it,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Welday said Rubio needs Michigan to be his “springboard” to slow Trump’s momentum in his home state, where the billionaire also has a home and several business ventures. Trump holds a double-digit polling lead in Florida, according to’s average of statewide polls.

In an interview with The News, Rubio portrayed Trump’s record as a successful businessman as a political liability.

“You look at his record, how he’s treated workers, and what he claims he’ll do as president, they don’t match up,” Rubio said. “He’s outsourced all of his jobs and manufacturing for his (clothing) lines. He’s imported workers from abroad for jobs that Americans are willing to do because they come under H2B visas. That means they can’t leave him; they can only work for him.”

Rubio added: “He therefore doesn’t have to compete with them on wages in the private market. So his record on jobs as a businessman does not match up with his rhetoric as a candidate.”

Five things to watch in Detroit GOP presidential debate

59 delegates up for grabs

Michigan has 59 delegates at stake in the hunt for the 1,237 delegates needed to win the GOP nomination. The delegates will be divided up proportionally to candidates who win at least 15 percent of the statewide vote.

Rubio won his first state contest in the Minnesota caucuses Tuesday, but failed to garner the 20 percent minimum support in some other states required to win a share of their delegates.

“For Rubio to walk away with only Minnesota really does beg the question why he’s staying in,” said Susan Demas, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, a Lansing publication. “It’s really not clear what his path to victory is. Maybe at this point he just wants to deny Trump the nomination outright.”

Adding national attention to Tuesday’s Great Lakes State primary is maneuvering by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Michigan native and the GOP’s 2012 nominee.

Romney plans to give a Thursday speech on this year’s presidential campaign at the University of Utah, but he reportedly will not endorse another candidate or announce his own campaign.

After Tuesday’s contests, Trump has won 319 delegates, followed by 226 delegates for Cruz, 110 for Rubio and 25 for Kasich. Trump has 23 percent of delegates needed to clinch the nomination and avoid a battle at the July 18-21 Republican National Convention.

“Only being a quarter of the way there, there’s a long way to go,” said David Dulio, chairman of the political science department at Oakland University. “Until somebody has 1,237 on the Republican side, the race isn’t over.”