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Grand Rapids —  Republicans competing to be Michigan’s next governor took their primary battle to the stage Wednesday night, talking about issues such as marijuana legalization, the Flint water crisis, auto insurance reforms and gun regulations in a spirited televised debate.

Attorney General Bill Schuette of Midland, leading early polls of the GOP primary field, repeatedly touted his endorsement by Republican President Donald Trump and referred to his campaign mantra that he’ll be a “jobs governor” for Michigan.

“Trump endorsed me for governor because he knows I’ll cut taxes in Michigan just like he cut taxes across the country,” Schuette said.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, running second in most polls, repeatedly criticized Schuette and touted Michigan's “extraordinary comeback” and “historic economic gains” under term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder, who has endorsed the Portland Republican as his chosen successor.

State Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton Township positioned himself as an unapologetic conservative focused on out-of-the-box solutions. “I’m an aerospace engineer,” said Colbeck, 52. “I like to fix things.”

Saginaw obstetrician Jim Hines stressed his outsider credentials while labeling all three of his opponents career politicians. “Michigan has problems,” Hines said. “The simple question I have for you, gentlemen, is: What have you been doing the last 8, 12 and 34 years?”

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Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, R-Portland, discusses some of the heated exchanges he had with Attorney General Bill Schuette during Wednesday’s Republican Gubernatorial Primary Debate in Grand Rapids.

Calley and Schuette renewed attacks on each other regarding the handling of charges in the Flint water crisis, exchanging barbs about the alleged politicization of the criminal charges filed by Schuette against 15 former and current Flint and state officials, including State Medical Executive Eden Wells and state Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon.

“The Flint water crisis has been politicized,” said Calley, a former state lawmaker. “The attorney general has used it as though it is some kind of launching pad for a campaign for governor.”

Schuette contended that the prosecution in Flint is about justice and accountability as Michigan's chief elected law enforcement official.

“You’re desperate because you’re behind,” Schuette said to Calley.

Colbeck said, with immediate concerns about Flint addressed, the state must look at water quality in 72 other communities where lead concentrations may be higher.

Too much money has been spent on prosecution in Flint, while lead water lines remain in the ground, said Hines, who is trailing far behind in the polls.

“We’re focused so much on the prosecution and defense, we have forgotten the people of Flint,” said Hines, 62.

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Attorney Geberal Bill Schuette reflects on the first Michigan Republican gubernatorial debate of 2018

Experts said the debate is unlikely to change the trajectory of the GOP primary, with Schuette surviving attacks to maintain his front-runner status.

“Calley had a big task to come in and really go on the offensive, but I think ultimately that was unsuccessful,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan. “He seemed a little hesitant and wasn’t willing to commit the whole way.”

Calley and Schuette were both "a little more nervous than I expected them to be,” said GOP strategist Greg McNeilly. “But overall I felt that Schuette did better.”

By attacking Schuette on Flint, Calley appeared to be tailoring his message to a general election audience, McNeilly said, while Schuette was “using a lot more GOP primary language."

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon knocked the Republican candidates in a statement released shortly after the debate.

“If Michigan voters want a politician who will bow down to Donald Trump and be a third term of Rick Snyder’s failures -- tonight’s Republican debate was the place to look,” Dillon said.

Candidates on Trump

During the one-hour debate moderated by political reporter Rick Albin of WOOD-TV, candidates boasted about their support of Trump. But Colbeck said the president received some “bad information” when he made his endorsement of Schuette. The term-limited state senator has emphasized his conservative “principled solutions” approach to government.

Schuette said Trump’s tax cuts and judicial appointments have proved the value of his presidency. The 64-year-old attorney general criticized Calley for “deserting” Trump in 2016, referring to when Calley pulled his endorsement in October 2016 after Trump's comments about grabbing women by the genitals were publicized. “The president knows who was with him and who was not,” he said.

Calley, 40, said he looks forward to working with Trump to address opioid addiction, tax cuts and fixes at the Soo Locks. He said he voted for Trump in 2016, but acknowledged there was some division in the Republican Party at that time.

“Still, we all got there when it counted the most,” Calley said.

Hines said he’s been a longtime supporter of Trump and championed his ideas to build a wall and make further cuts to taxes. He encouraged viewers to pray for Trump.

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GOP gubernatorial candidates Jim Hines reflects on his first debate

“Trump is our president and I believe placed there by God,” he said.

All four Republican gubernatorial candidates said they opposed recreational marijuana legalization but would respect the will of the voters if they approve a potential ballot proposal this fall.

Calley made clear he supports medical marijuana but said Schuette “led the charge” against the law approved by voters in 2008 and fought the legal drug as attorney general, “keeping patients from the medicine they need.”

Colbeck and Hines are far behind in the polls and did not do enough to make a major mark, McNeilly said. Without any standout moment that might go “viral,” the debate is unlikely to have a major impact in the GOP primary, he said.

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State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton Twp., discusses his reason for joining the governor’s race.

Schuette has not participated in other forums with Calley, Colbeck and Hines, so the televised debate was his first chance to prove his mettle against other candidates.

“He was very polished,” Kall said. “When you’re the frontrunner and have a positive debate performance like that, I think it will only help him build momentum going into the primary and the next debate.”

Schuette’s repeated references to his Trump endorsement is a “smart” strategy in the GOP primary, Kall said. “But it really did borderline on overkill, and he almost sounded like a broken record in places.”

School security

Schuette, Calley and Hines each stressed the need for school security improvements and mental health treatment in the wake of a rash of school shootings across the nation. But Colbeck warned against “top-down controls” and said he’s focused on protecting Second Amendment rights.

“What we’re at risk of doing right now is going off to sacrifice some basic liberties for a false sense of security,” Colbeck said.

Schuette said “trained security officers — not every teacher — ought to be able to protect our children in their school.”

Calley warned that blaming mental health for school shootings can be stigmatizing for patients, and he argued against pre-emptive attempts to take away guns without due process.

“The answer is not to take way guns from a person, it’s to take the person out of society for treatment if they’re a threat,” Calley said.

In addressing the opioid epidemic, Colbeck said officials should not micromanage the relationship between doctor and patient, but target useful data at the pharmacy level. Both Calley and Schuette emphasized incarceration is not the answer to the opioid epidemic.

“We have to make sure were not just throwing people in jail,” Calley said.

Hines said the state had to give doctors the instruments to help patients quit prescription opioids safely, lest they turn to heroin and fentanyl instead. “We have to be prepared for that because those drugs are deadly,” Hines said.

In their closing statements, candidates reiterated their commitment to jobs and economy. Schuette promised he would be the “jobs governor.”

“We can’t go backwards,” Schuette said. “We can’t afford Whitmer and the Democrats.”

Calley said voters have the choice of continuing the state’s comeback or returning to the “career politicians” of the past.

“I’m running for governor to continue the comeback,” Calley said.

Colbeck said he was the only candidate who could promise bold action and an energetic base. “We need to reject politics as usual,” he said.

Hines questioned why the three candidates hadn’t already acted on the promises they made during Tuesday’s debate. He said he offered new perspective on lingering issues. “I’m an outsider,” Hines said. “I believe I can get a lot done.”

Undecided voters weigh in

Even after watching the debate, likely GOP primary voter Stephanie Wood said she remains undecided between Calley and Schuette.

“I still like both of them, and I think the Republican Party would be wise to have either one of them as a nominee,” the 46-year-old Westland woman said.

Wood said she’s leaning toward Schuette, but shared Calley’s concerns about the Flint investigation, “not knowing where the investigation ends and the political games begin.”

Connie Cook, another undecided GOP primary voter, said she has more questions about the candidates’ histories and stances on the issues that were discussed. But two candidates did stand out.

“I liked a lot of Colbeck’s answers, and I was pleasantly surprised by the doctor,” the 51-year-old Marshall resident said.

Cook hoped to research further the candidates’ stances on legalizing ​recreational marijuana and the controversy surrounding the oil and natural gas pipeline known as Line 5 running under the Straits of Mackinac. Cook said she felt some frustration when candidates who have long-served in elected positions discussed solutions to the state’s high auto insurance rates.

“How come they didn’t do it already?” she said.

Pre-debate blows traded

Before the debate even started, allies of Schuette and Calley were trading blows.

A super political action committee supporting Calley on Wednesday afternoon released a new “film” depicting Schuette as a career politician who has been trying to become governor since he was a young child growing up in a wealthy family.

The attack ad, which claims Schuette “never had a real job,” will begin airing online this week and on television next week, said a spokesman for Calley Continues the Comeback.

When Schuette “first ran for office, Sparky Anderson was managing the Detroit Tigers,” said Jordan Gehrke.

A separate Better Jobs Stronger Families super PAC supporting Schuette for governor welcomed Calley to the WOOD-TV studios in Grand Rapids with help from special guests: The “Hillary Clintons.”

A small band of Schuette supporters wore Clinton masks and held signs “thanking” Calley for withdrawing his endorsement of Trump in October 2016 after old tapes surfaced of the New York businessman bragging about using his celebrity to grope and grab women by the genitals.

Calley “almost stopped the tax cuts. He almost stopped Neil Gorsuch,” said Scott Hagerstrom, state director for the 2016 Trump campaign who now works as grassroots director for the pro-Schuette super PAC. “When push came to shove, at the most critical time of the campaign, (Calley) jumped ship.”

Schuette also criticized Trump’s comments at the time, calling them “unacceptable,” but he continued to back Trump, who won Michigan and has endorsed Schuette’s campaign for governor.

Calley’s campaign on Wednesday also unveiled a positive new television ad titled “running on a record” that highlights Michigan’s economic gains under the Snyder administration.

The Grand Rapids debate is one of two Michigan GOP gubernatorial debates this cycle. The second is scheduled for June 28 at WDIV in Detroit. Calley had pushed for additional debates and organized a series of town hall forums with Colbeck and Hines that Schuette did not attend.

All four Republican hopefuls are also expected to participate Thursday in a Michigan Press Association forum, along with Democratic gubernatorial candidates Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing, Shri Thanedar of Ann Arbor and Abdul El-Sayed of Shelby Township.

The three leading candidates from each party are also scheduled to participate in a bipartisan debate May 31 during the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual Mackinac Policy Conference.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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