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Trump looks to counter slide in polls with Mich. rally

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hopes to counter his recent slide in the polls by rallying supporters late Friday afternoon at a 6,000-seat mid-Michigan sports complex as his campaign refocuses on building a populist movement with big events.

Trump’s 5 p.m. rally in the Lansing bedroom community of Dimondale marks his second campaign trip to Michigan in as many weeks. It signals to political observers in both parties that the race for the Great Lakes State’s 16 electoral votes remains in play after Democrat Hillary Clinton last week visited blue-collar Warren in the Trump territory of Macomb County.

Trump’s return to Michigan comes two days after he installed the chairman of the crusading conservative website Breitbart News in a move that’s causing more discomfort among GOP leaders about their outspoken nominee.

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“I think he’s giving great ulcers in the Republican establishment about what he’s going to do,” said Matt Marsden, a GOP consultant at the Pontiac-based RevSix Data Systems.

Trump supporter Dan Woods, who works in the automotive supply industry, said he has been attracted to the billionaire’s “America first” campaign that has centered on criticizing international trade agreements.

“I think abandoning the populist message would be a bad idea,” said Woods, 30, who lives in Delta Township. “I think if he focuses on the contrast between his policies and Hillary Clinton’s policies, I think it’s his election.”

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Friday’s rally will land the New York businessman in Eaton County, which was once a Republican stronghold but has become a highly competitive area because of changing demographics from Lansing’s suburban sprawl.

The Trump campaign has not indicated why it chose the Lansing suburb for the event.

President Barack Obama defeated Michigan native and GOP nominee Mitt Romney by 2 percentage points in Eaton County in 2012.

In 2008, Obama beat Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain by 8 percentage points in the county — a nearly identical margin by which Republican George W. Bush won in 2004 over Massachusetts U.S. Sen. John Kerry.

“Eaton County is not as heavily Republican as it was 30 years ago,” said former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz, who represented Eaton County for 16 years in the state Senate and two years in Congress.

In 2004, Schwarz introduced then-Vice President Dick Cheney for a rally at the Summit Sports and Ice Complex, the same facility where Trump will rally his supporters.

But Schwarz won’t be there. The former congressman from Battle Creek now considers himself a political independent after years of battling the conservative wing of the GOP.

“I cannot support Donald Trump for president,” Schwarz told The Detroit News. “I have no personal animosity toward the man, but he’s not qualified to be president of the United States. And God knows Hillary has pitfalls as well. My plan right now is to passively support Hillary Clinton.”

Incumbents keep distance

As Trump stumps in Dimondale, Republicans are trying to defend two incumbents who some fear could lose their seats if Trump turns out to be an electoral disaster in November.

The 71st state House District encompassing most of Eaton County has changed hands in the past two election cycles and is now held by freshman Republican Rep. Tom Barrett.

Barrett is in a rematch with former Rep. Theresa Abed, a Grand Ledge Democrat. The Eaton County seat is one of nine Democrats need to flip to win back control of the Michigan House.

“I just hope people consider me on my own merits and not necessarily according to their partisan affiliation,” said Barrett, an Army National Guard pilot from Potterville who won’t be attending Trump’s rally because he has training in Grayling.

Eaton County also remains a big factor in the 7th Congressional District, where incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg of Tipton faces a tough re-election battle against state Rep. Gretchen Driskell, D-Saline.

Walberg has been mum about whether he fully endorses Trump, and Barrett sidesteps the question many Republican officeholders have faced this summer of whether they support the bombastic billionaire.

“I don’t think people are up at night focusing on who I endorsed or not,” Barrett said. “It’s not going to matter for Donald Trump if I go out and do a public endorsement of him.”

Walberg, who ousted Schwarz in a 2006 Republican primary, was swept out of office in Obama’s 2008 wave. But he won the seat back against Democrat Mark Schauer in the 2010 election that planted Republicans in firm control of state government and the majority of Michigan’s congressional seats.

Location puzzles experts

The Trump campaign’s decision to go to Eaton County when he has polling-proven problems with Republican voters in Oakland and Kent counties has confounded GOP political strategists.

“I think they’re just looking at it from a 3,000-foot view and saying ‘Hey, this is a sport arena we can fill; there’s blue-collar voters; let’s go to Eaton County,’ ” Marsden said.

Trump trailed Clinton by 9 percentage points in a Detroit News/WDIV poll conducted July 30-Aug. 1 of 600 likely general election voters across the state.

Christine McGoron, 55, was among the 14 percent of voters surveyed for the poll who said they remain undecided.

McGoron, a farmer from Perry, said she normally votes for Republican candidates and has already ruled out voting for Clinton. But McGoron has reservations about Trump, citing the businessman’s litany of controversial statements.

“I don’t want to vote for Donald Trump at this point, so I don’t know who I’m going to vote for,” she said. “I’m not comfortable with him. I think he shoots off his mouth too much without thinking”

Lansing resident John Waugh, 38, said he has voted for Republican candidates in every election since he turned 18. But this year he is considering Clinton because he doesn’t think Trump is qualified to be president.

“It’s not a nice thing to say, but the only way I can describe it is he’s an idiot,” Waugh said. “He doesn’t seem to have any political experience. He’s made a lot of money, but he’s also lost a lot of money.”

McGoron said she’s taking a wait-and-see approach to the fall election.

“You never know what might happen,” she said.

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood